TALLINN, Estonia 

  Debra's Diary ~ June , 2008       Tallinn has to be the friendliest city we have visited in a long time - we were greeted at the airport by Mall, our Tourism official, with a small bouquet of cornflowers and white daisies, the colours of their national flag.  And that set the tone, really.  Estonia is so unashamedly basking in their identity, it makes you smile.  They are so enthusiastic about showing the visitor who they are and everything there is to see.  Everything is in dual language - English and Estonian, and then almost as an afterthought, Russian.  They are galloping at an enormous rate away from Russia; to place as much distance economically, culturally and nationality-wise as they can - and yet they are exhibiting the kind of canniness that invented Skype: don't bury Russia, exploit it.  So, there are tours around the city to show you the remnants of Russian rule; and a simple glass plaque outside the former KGB HQ, above the bricked-up basement windows where torture and execution were carried out, is chilling in its simplicity.  Your imagination (and all the anti-Russian literature you have ever read) does the rest - very clever.

There are other signs of cleverness too - the Baltic has been Estonia's fortune and misfortune, but a spectacularly new and shiny port complex caters to the country's biggest source of income, tourism and friendship - ferries from mostly Finland, but other Scandinavian countries too.  'Tipsy Finns' are a common sight in Tallinn, especially at the weekend, because the food is unbelievably good and like the booze, is plentiful and cheap.  Tourism is embraced warmly, and unfortunately encourages further laziness as everyone speaks English - well.  So well in fact, that young people in medieval dress are calling out to you to buy roasted almonds in an almost authentic medieval English accent! 

Mall had organised for us to have a city guide - Giina - and we explained the route we intended to walk through the city, and what we wanted to see, over coffee in a charming little cafe hidden in a courtyard surrounded by artisans' workshops.  Giina was an experienced guide, and provided us with a knowledgeable and fascinating interview, with insightful asides into life in Estonia before and after independence.  Tallinn has city walls too, with appealing little red-tiled turret towers dotted along them, housing museums like Kiek in de Kok and the Maritime Museum.  The old town is divided into the Upper and the Lower town, and you do have to pass through a gate to reach the upper town on the hill.  It has mostly government and embassy buildings and the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox church - which possesses the most impressive peal of bells that I have ever heard.  Nineteen bells pealed in a complex mathematical pattern that is truly amazing to hear.  The church is unmistakable - looking like a refugee from Moscow - with ornate exterior and onion domes, and serves the sizable Russian-speaking population.  It isn't very popular with Estonians, and is one of the youngest buildings in the old town.  Opposite it, perhaps rather unfortunately, is an 'infamous' toilet - a modern contraption bearing a passing resemblance to an old jukebox that cost the Estonian tax-payers 2 million Krune, and apparently, hardly ever works.  

The lower town seems more fun, and whilst we were there, were hosting Old Town Days and rather incongruously, a modern outdoor stage set up in the market square.  There were musical events with choirs and dancers, and other festival-type activities all week.  The whole city was alive with marquees in parks and participants in national dress from several countries.  We made a special trip to Katariina Gild because it seemed to embody the entrepreneurial spirit of this fast-growing nation.  The Gild is run by women, and Pille enthusiastically explained to us how she and her colleagues stripped out the old, hastily erected interior facades that the Russians had put up to discover fantastic medieval architecture beneath.  And this seems to be the trend in Tallinn - released from being just another outpost in the USSR, they are discovering their past as they slowly renovate and restore old buildings that had been neglected or misused under Communism.

You cannot escape this business of Russian rule; Estonia gained independence only 17 years ago, and the first few of those were nervous.  The small Museum of Occupation is a real eye-opener.  This had a different feel to Eastern Bloc satellite countries - this had actually been part of the Soviet Union.  Forced deportation of Estonians and forced importation of Russians left the country with 40% of its population Russian, and the stark evidence is exhibited in this museum.  Videos in Engish and Russian play at the visitor's instigation, showing Estonians talking about their experiences.  Empty suitcases ring the central hall as a sobering reminder of all those political arrests - echoing the poignancy of the bronze shoes scattered along the Danube in Budapest of the lost Jewish deportees.  To understand the Estonians' sense of release, you have to visit this museum.  Estonia was occupied by the Nazis for a couple of years during WW2, so Hitler gets a mention as well.  

Tallinn is a windy city and once out of the welcome sunshine, the air is cold, straight off the Baltic.  You are further north than you realise.  The trams are packed and rattle their way to Kadriorg and the beach, but there are plenty of them.  Buses will take you out of the city on a tour to the Open Air Museum or the Song Festival Grounds.  I found the idea of the Song Festivals intriguing; this is apparently a singing nation.  In fact, they call their independence the Singing Revolution - under Soviet rule they were not allowed to have a national anthem, and the festivals had a heavily Russian bias, but the Estonians slipped in here and there, their own folk songs which were kept alive by Finnish radio.  'My Fatherland' has a haunting melody that the Finns liked as well.  It was in the Festival grounds that 300,000 Estonians (this is not a huge populace) gathered in 1989 to sing 'My Fatherland' before their emissaries informed Moscow that they wished to be free.  Mall's by now legendary efficiency had arranged for us to meet and hear Bonzo, a national pop/folk star, who sang 'My Fatherland' at the grounds.  Knowing all the background, I found it very moving, and was surreptitiously wiping my eyes and sniffing hurriedly into my handkerchief as he sang; simply and unaccompanied.

If you have the time, and are slightly off-the-wall (like us), go and find the Maritime Museum's museum ships.  Not only is the walk past the enormous decaying Soviet era Festival Hall and the boarded-up (only recently vacated) prison, complete with watch-towers, by the sea fascinating, you pass some of the original old wooden houses that Tallinn was once famous for.  In the shadow of yet another enormous (they certainly believed in big) empty hangar-like boatshed that is a listed building (but they don't know what to do with it) are the museum ships.  Even if you aren't particularly nautical they are interesting, and it really is the one and only time anyone will ever get me in a submarine.

In the swanky new port there is an old restaurant ship, and we spent our last night having dinner on board, as we had ended our walking trail at the port.  It didn't really get dark until about 11pm, which rather extends your filming day a bit, despite attempts to track time to be able to clock-off.  Luckily hunger came to the rescue on that head, but it was weird walking back to the hotel still wearing sunglasses at 10pm.   And the only time it rained was on the morning of our flight back to the UK.

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