[...Tallinn, Estonia July 2011...]
According to Estonian folklore, Toompea Hill was created when Linda, bereaved wife of King Kalev, gathered and piled stones on top of her husband Kalev’s grave until it formed a mound. Grief-stricken as she sat on top of this, she cried tears that formed the Lake Ulemiste. Whether or not there’s scientific truth to this, I’m sure the history books won’t keep telling this story if it did not appeal to Estonian culture. There must be a more reasonable geological explanation as to how the limestone hill of Toompea was formed, but the old folklore that tells of the undying love between Linda and Kalev seems, to me, better suited as a story behind this romantic city. For what better words to associate the city of Tallinn with but by these three: folklore, fantasy, fairy tale.
The fairy tale scene comes to you when you look at the medieval old town from one of the viewing platforms of Toompea Hill, particularly the Patkuli and the Kohtuotsa viewing platforms. During sunset, where on most days while I was here it had been spectacular, the light over the old town makes it look like a land far, far away. For the handful of folks who were there in the terrace, including myself and a few starry-eyed couples, to witness a pink curtain of light drape over the city is truly a great way to end the day. The picture of old town dotted with towering church spires, gabled roofs and red turrets tucked nicely within the well-preserved stone walls and the gleaming waters of the Gulf of Finland looming behind – it all looks surreal.
Having said that, Tallinn is only one-part fairy tale. The other part is just like most other cities – normal and real. And with that observation, allow me to say that Tallinn is a city of great contrasts. Coming from the airport, I got off the bus outside the busy passenger ferry terminal. From there, Tallinn looked just like your average European city. Immediately you’d see chain hotels, shopping center and franchise restaurants that all make up your typical modern city of unexceptional architecture. But if you walk a few hundred meters more towards the old fortification, you know you’re about to step into a different world.
The first day I was in the city, there happened to be a medieval-themed summer fest going on in Raekoja Plats or Town Hall square. Costume-clad men and women, supposed to be “minstrels” danced around in circles as the crowd gathered around. There were merchants plying their own wares and handmade crafts, and town delicacies such as cheeses and canned game meat, as well as textiles and pottery filled their stalls.
If that wasn’t enough to take me to fantasy land, the popular touristy Olde Hansa restaurant would finish the job. This medieval-themed restaurant pretends and transports you back to Estonia’s golden age. As you sit on wooden benches with boar-skin covers, you are served a banquet of a variety of game meat or fish – whatever it is you fancy. There’s bear, elk and boar, as well as herring and salmon – all cooked, according to them, in the cooking method used in the Middle Ages. It was good food Estonian style, but the atmosphere at best, was Disneyland-ish.
There is no doubt that beautiful Tallinn is an enjoyable place but somehow I just couldn’t brush off the feeling of being taken in for a ride. One moment I would feel as if armored knights and damsels-in-distress were about to walk past me in the cobbled streets, the next minute I find that these knights and damsels-in-distress turn out to be, in real life, just adult participants of a stag or hen party. These sort of parties, also referred to as bachelor/bachelorette parties, seem popular here in Eastern Europe. The half-naked negligee-wearing women let their hair down and parade the bride-to-be down the streets while the men, usually already drunk by this time, practice the same form of embarrassment. Those are the moments that sort of spoil the fantasyland mood for me, but I guess in some ways it’s still surreal. Those are the moments that I think for some people, having a fast ferry nearby where one can just hop on and travel across the sea to a more realistic country can be fortuitous.
To be fair, Estonia in general has so much more to offer than just this small part of Tallinn. The country has an extensive coastline with many seaside resorts. They say that Estonians are great nature lovers and enjoy a trip to their natural parks or their unspoiled islands. I did not have the chance to visit the islands but only a part of the national park, and that is the great falls of Jagala Joa. I was surprised to find groups of families and friends in the off-the-beaten-path village, 30 kms east of Tallinn. On a hot day like it was, the cool spray of the water from the so-called “Niagara Falls of the Baltics” was a natural magnet. Not quite like Niagara which I’ve seen before but this one can be photogenic if you really look hard. Then again, that always depends on the photographer and the time of day. Still, it was a refreshing way to experience nature the Estonian way and to be treated to a lovely mist rainbow at the bottom of the falls was more than I could ask for.
Coming back again to the city, you have to be up for a festive mood because at night, Tallinn sizzles. There’s a lot on the plate in the city at night – romance, social gatherings and just an animated nightlife in general. Beautiful sweet-smelling ladies can be seen selling roses in their high heels wooing men to buy one for their partners, cafe tables slowly filling up with the late-nighters – wool blankets on their laps or shoulders for extra warmth, and the partygoers pouring in and out of the clubs. Old town square is a city on its own, one that’s brimming with life both day and night.
At the close of the day, legends and folklores and things learned from history and guide books simply dissipate into thin air. Between the Viru Gates and the rest of the old towers, it’s hard to believe that not far away in the dark alleys, up a gentle slope into a hill that’s about 400 by 250 meters wide, there used to be a grieving widow who, for the love of her dead husband, has built a place where someday in her distant future, others can witness and experience happiness.