For a winter trip in northern europe, while some headed north for the snow and others traveled south for sun, we chose a gentle destination: Estonia’s capital, Tallinn.
Published on Vietnam Traveller Magazine, The Festive Issue 2016. Click here to read the .pdf file (bilingual).
The Baltic Sea
December 21st: Leaving the bus operated by Tallink shipping company, we pulled our luggage onto the Port of Stockholm and climbed aboard the splendid Victoria cruise. The boat connecting Stockholm and Tallinn opened in 2004 and can accommodate up to 2,500 guests with over 700 cabins. It also boasts an event hall for more than 400 participants as well as many duty free shops and entertainments. Victoria’s godmother is Ilon Wikland – the Estonian illustrator for the famous Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren’s children’s books including Karlsson on the Roof and Mio, My Son.
We left our cabin for the holiday’s first dinner in the Buffet Tallink restaurant: spacious, luxurious and with bright Christmas colours. The waiters were fluent in three languages: English, Estonian and Swedish (possibly four: Russian). She led us to a romantic table behind a wooden glass screen. “They look really Eastern European, huh?” I cooed while watching the staff. Andy said: “Estonia merged with and then left Russia and the Soviet Union several times. Over 70 years ago, the Russians landed and settled in this country. Today, a quarter of Estonia’s population is Russian and Eastern European. Clear?”
The delicious cuisines showed up on the tablemat printed with a sky blue map of Estonia. A feng shui master said I had the Tian Chu (Heaven Treats) star in my destiny, meaning I was naturally attracted to good food. How could I forget this world of caviar, salmon, mussels and herring? Herring, the most popular dish, cannot be absent from any Christmas party or Midsummer festival in Sweden. Here, they were processed in a dozen styles. Looking at Andy earnestly praising this magnificent feast, I longed to someday taking him to Sen restaurant in Hanoi. Surely, he would faint, given a culinary world so rich that the stomach does not have enough space to try each dish.
The Victoria’s 17-hour voyage keeps people busy with four restaurants, bars, cafés, a disco, karaoke, a spa and two duty free shops. Leaving the cosmetics counters after trying so many fragrances that my nose seemed temporarily inactive, we strolled around the beverage shelves where I saw the customers’ glittering eyes as they were gliding through each rack. Expensive drinks were stored in locked glass cabinets, with staff standing by to invite guests for a taste. Andy, however, ended up with a gentle 5% Karl Friedrich beer barrel.
In the cosy wood-panelled cabin, my roommate poured the beer stylishly and explained: “Normally when dispensing beer we must ensure a certain amount of head and creamy foam without flowing over. The foam releasing in the air helps create the scent of beer. One should wait for it to be almost dissolved before drinking in order to not get tired or belch.” I chuckled while telling him about our beer culture in Vietnam where someone was considered a professional if she/he could pour beer without any head. After the beer and a few pages of our books, we went upstairs to the sixth floor to view the Baltic Sea. The deck was definitely the smokers’ favourite spot. I could not manage to stand there for more than a few minutes, partly because of the numbing cold and the gloomy dark ocean. The ship listed, making me stagger like a drunk as we entered Piano bar. The singer looked charming in her long sparkling dress and sang softly. The huge Victoria lurched away in my dream.
The next morning, after consuming too much heavy food during yesterday’s dinner, I calmed my stomach with yogurt and muesli (cereal with dried or fresh fruit) – the traditional breakfast in Northern Europe that I happened to be addicted to. Back in the cabin, packing up, Andy was struggling to put twenty cans of beer in a suitcase and backpack that had previously been full of books and magazines. He was perhaps my first and only companion travelling with heavier luggage than I did. The fact that Andy has visited Tallinn six times was not related to how much he knew about its famous sights. Since most of the attractions were closed from December 24 to 26, and closed three hours earlier than usual on December 23, we decided the spirit of this trip was to be relaxation and improvisation.
Eastern European beauty in northern Europe
If it was not for having two Estonian classmates I would still think that Estonia was an Eastern European country. Throughout its history, Estonia was constantly invaded by neighbouring nations including Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia and the Soviet Union. Only in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Estonia became an independent state, established diplomatic relations with the West, and henceforth rapidly developed. Estonia is now among the countries with the fastest broadband lines in the world and has admirable telecommunications and e-government industries.
Tallinn seemed like a charming, adorable toy. The Tallinn Card offered us free access to public transport, City Tours, Hop-on Hop-off, and most of the famous sights. There was a clear blue sky: cold sunshine. We took the first row on the red City Tour double-decker carrying only a mere four people (the driver included), feeling so satisfied with this brilliant choice during these festive days. Such quietness and calm allowed us to enjoy the scene and listen to the audio guide.
Departing from Viru Square, the bus climbed up Toompea Hill which is home to the 800 year old Toompea Castle (and presently Estonia’s parliament house) and Pikk Hermann tower with the blue-white-black flag. The splendid Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its black Russian spires and the medieval tower Kiek in de Kök are also highlights here. We ran from east to north, flipping through neighbourhoods with green moss covering the roofs, the modern apartment buildings superimposed on old limestone houses (without caring how ugly they might look), or the classy municipality building with its glass and mirrors. Though the country had changed many times under various rulers, Tallinn seemed to remain as serene as it used to be, manifested in the national library, opera house, Kumu Art Museum, and the route from the tranquil Kadriorg Palace to the busy harbour.
The tour stopped at its departure. Walking to Viru Gate with two red-spired towers, to my left were the brilliant fresh flower shops and their Russian-like bouquet styles. On the opposite side was Hesburger – a Finnish fast food chain with its overwhelming domestic market share making it comparable to McDonald’s. Behind the gate and not far from Hesburger was the American rival with surprisingly cheap-but-huge hamburgers and coffee. “People from Finland or neighbouring countries often travelled to Estonia on holidays to shop with half, or even one-third, prices,” Andy said.
Balti Jaama Turg (Russian market) was a good example of a low-cost market. Although the place was frequently visited by local people, one could not buy much – usually just vegetables and some basic foods or mechanical parts. The market was located next to the central station, holding a gloom as if it had emerged from three decades ago. All the military medals, alarm clocks printed with Lenin and Marx, military knives, coins and cash, dial-phones, smart phones, and dozens of clothing stalls looked makeshift and drab. I was unsure where these goods were made in, but everyone here knows there were big barons behind the curtain. I recalled a short conversation on an Aeroflot flight with a Vietnamese teacher who lived in Moscow. Hundreds of thousands of factories were mushrooming around the Russian capital where the bosses paid very measly salaries and workers suffered in poor conditions. Sometimes several workshops were swept away then managed to re-open, much as the gecko’s tail falls off then regrows.
From the central station, we caught tram no.1 to the district of Põhja-Tallinn to see the old and new buildings, also to satisfy Andy’s wish to “take the chance, or they will replace them with new trams next year.” This engineer really enjoyed the cute trams, saying he wanted to bring all these Lego toys home right away. Kungla Street was so quiet, as if there were only two of us in the whole of Tallinn. Somewhere there were deteriorated buildings of sloughing wooden walls, interspersing villas with monumental Gothic arches or some residences, which appeared to be office buildings. Leaving the Lego tram, we returned to Tallink City Hotel, rested and sought a dining spot. We selected Frank restaurant in Sauna Street after feeling dizzy reading hundreds of controversial comments on TripAdvisor.
The medieval city
I asked Andy why he visited Tallinn so many times, and his explanation was simple: “It’s calm.” Some say it’s even impossible to be rushed in Tallinn – you must live slowly. Indeed; especially when I compared this with my last Christmas trip to Berlin and Prague. Such a shimmering, leisurely look changed all my previous impressions of Christmas markets. All the brilliant crafts, glögi stalls (glögi is a Christmas drink like glühwein in Germany and Austria, or glögg in Nordic countries) with a warm sweet smell, a white blue electric vehicle with Santa Claus driving, and a glowing merry-go-round emanated a modest cheerfulness.
Tallinn was so small that we either accidentally or intentionally passed by the Old Town every day. Recognized as World Cultural Heritage site in 1997, Tallinn Old Town seemed like an open-air medieval museum. The cobbled streets here challenged all the high heel shoemakers. Walking along the lanes and slopes to view the town from a height, I was quite skeptical when ‘experienced’ Andy muttered, “Did I forget the way? Looks so strange.” Twisting around the alleys dense with amber and medieval pottery shops, at the peak moment of my belief that he was evidently lost, a broad viewing platform came into sight. Kohtuotsa viewing platform, located north of Toompea Hill, is the best picture postcard point of the Old Town. It is where the eyes can cover the complete beauty of red roofs and legendary churches with towering spires. Further away are the shining new neighbourhoods, Tallinn TV tower, the harbour and the Gulf of Finland.
The style of Estonia, including its architecture, was strongly influenced by German-speaking and Scandinavian areas together with the introduction of Christianity during the Northern Crusade in the 13th century. The walls and pinnacles of churches built by artisans from Gotland (the largest island of Sweden) exist to this day, appearing as solid as the forts. By the 15th century, when Christianity had rooted deep into the heart of Estonia, Gothic architecture flourished with a series of magnificent projects consisting of St. Mary’s Cathedral, St. Olaf’s Church, Toompea Castle and the City Hall. Although Estonia is now one of the world’s most atheist countries, the Gothic style laid groundwork for a civic architecture called ‘Tallinn Gothic’ with gabled fronts, a large front hall with a fireplace and a smaller living room to the rear.
Leaving the windy Kohtuotsa viewing point, we swooped in Restoran Korsaar in Dunkri Street, one of the most attractive restaurants in Tallinn. Korssar, from the inside out, seemed like a notorious pirate ship. Even the beautiful servers looked dangerous. This wide space can accommodate several hundred people on dozens of long thick glossy brown wooden tables and benches, masts, cordage, chains, swords and sea monsters. We ordered a Honey Medovar and a Pilsner Gold beer, chatting and unconsciously swaying to the music echoing a bustling medieval time.
While people were gradually flocking to the Old Town to celebrate Christmas Eve, we came back to our 9th floor room, sitting on the wooden balcony by the large glass windows to watch fireworks. Late at night, when people left the centre, we ambled along the silent alleys, heading to some hot soup in III Draakon – a medieval-style restaurant located in a hidden, puzzling corner of Raekoja square.
We found it just when our patience was nearly exhausted, and appetites grew closer to fast food. In the tight space like a cave of less than 10m2, the guests lined up and tried themselves to find seats among the meagre furniture and flickering candlelight. Holding the ceramic soup bowls looked pretty quaint, but Andy asked for spoons. The waitress answered, “No spoons. Welcome to the medieval time!” and then laughed when he replied, puzzled: “So do medieval people accept Euros?” I was not sure whether I had tasted such delicious soup. Everyone slurped to the bottom of the bowl, seeming to cherish each breadcrumb and slowly enjoying the aromatic sausages. It was amazingly cheap: less than 10 euros for two people.
Christmas Eve in the old plaza was a relaxing night. Souvenir shops were closed. The merry-go-round fell asleep. Some Santa Clauses were drinking beer and joking after spending the days playing Santa. The drizzle and cold brought me nostalgic memories of Giao thua (New Year’s Eve) in Hanoi.
We took the Romantika cruise from Tallinn to Stockholm on December 26. Sipping beer in the ‘proper’ way, I shook the snow globe enclosing a miniaturized Tallinn Town Hall – a gift for my Saudi friend Halah, enjoying the lurching feeling on the 8th floor. While I was recalling the typhoon during a summer boat trip in Malaysia seven years ago, Andy showed as much excitement as if we were sitting on a flying carpet. The captain said there would be a mild storm tonight.
I do not agree with people who say that writing travel articles requires a commercial line of thought. Unlike a graceful Paris or a vibrant Amsterdam, the capital of Estonia might not be included in your destination list if the budget for a Europe journey requires careful consideration. Nevertheless, whenever you are searching for a different experience from those must-see pleasures, remember there is a city called Tallinn.
Text by Quynh Huong
Photo by Quynh Huong & Andy