A Winter’s Fairytale: Tallinn
Published: December 12, 2012 (Issue # 1739)
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
Town Hall Square in Tallinn boasts the longest tradition in Europe of housing a public Christmas tree: The first decorated tree was put up in the square in 1441 by Tallinn’s Brotherhood of Blackheads guild.
The small yet diverse and vibrant Baltic country that is Estonia has plenty to offer in summer, when it is visited by tourists from all over the world, but the winter season in Tallinn is something special.
Fabulous views of Estonian islands and Tallinn’s Old Town open up to visitors even before the tiny, 33-seat SAAB340 airplane that flies between St. Petersburg and Tallinn touches the field of Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport.
Named after the second president of Estonia (and the first since Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991), the compact airport calls itself “the world’s coziest” and is indeed a notch above St. Petersburg’s shabby Pulkovo II. There are currently two flights a day between the cities, and the distance between them is covered in about one hour.
Tallinn’s medieval Old Town is at its fairytale best in winter, with its red rooftops covered in snow. A walk along the town’s chaotic narrow streets leads to the center of Christmas and New Year festivities: Town Hall Square, where a huge Christmas tree stands — a tradition stemming from 1441, when Tallinn’s Brotherhood of Blackheads guild put up a tree, making it the first public Christmas tree ever put on display in Europe.
Under the tree is a lively Christmas market, with plenty of stalls offering all kinds of things from a glass of hot spiced wine or non-alcoholic grog to Estonia’s famous woolen socks and mittens, various kinds of souvenirs and even Latvian lard. Children and adults alike crowd around the wooden enclosure containing a trio of reindeers munching hay.
Estonia is renowned for both respectfully preserving traditions and simultaneously introducing daring innovations. The country’s inventions and discoveries are celebrated at the newly reopened Tallinn Television Tower (58a Kloostrimetsa, tel: +372 680 4057, www.teletorn.ee), which during the Soviet era was famous for its café, from where, weather permitting, guests were said to have been able to look behind the Iron Curtain to see the lights of free Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland.
The 314-meter tower — Estonia’s tallest structure — was built in time for the 1980s Soviet Olympic Games, whose sailing regatta was held in Tallinn. The plans to show off Soviet achievements to the West failed when the Olympics were boycotted as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
The outdoor observation desk — located at a height of 170 meters — is closed for safety reasons during the wintertime, but dizzying views can be seen through the structure’s glass walls. A digital panel in the tower’s fast-moving lift (the ride takes 49 seconds from bottom to top) shows the height to which visitors are elevated.
The museum inside the tower features an old Soviet stationary television camera, enabling visitors to try their hand as television presenters and record their performance, while a large portion of the exposition is dedicated to innovations created by Estonians, including Skype technology, developed by Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn. The same team was previously responsible for Kazaa, the once popular but now defunct peer-to-peer file sharing application.
Less well known is the fact that the famous Paiste cymbals used by rock bands across the world were first produced in 1906 by Estonian musician Toomas Paiste in his instrument repair shop in St. Petersburg. Visitors can easily spend hours in the tower looking at the exhibits before having a meal at the tower’s café and restaurant located on the 22nd floor.
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
The newly reopened Tallinn TV Tower houses a museum of Estonian inventions.
The tower, which was closed in 2007 due to fire safety regulations, reopened to visitors in April after major renovation work. A memorial stone in front of the tower is dedicated to the people who risked their lives to defend the tower — unarmed — against Soviet tanks that besieged the building on August 20, 1991 in an attempt to gain control of Estonia’s broadcasting, which had by then gotten rid of the Kremlin’s censorship.
The stone honors four Estonian men who locked themselves in the tower to stop invading paratroopers attempting to gain control of the nation’s broadcasting.
The tower is located in Pirita, a district around the Pirita River, close to the marina built for the 1980 Olympic yachting events and the ruins of the 15th-century Pirita Convent.
The year of Tallinn as Europe’s Culture Capital 2011 may be over, but the city continues to launch impressive projects aimed to inspire interest from tourists and locals alike. One is the new, state-of the-art branch of the Estonian Maritime Museum, located in the Seaplane Harbor, a 20-minute walk from the Old Town (6 Vesilennuki, tel: +372 620 0550, www.lennusadam.eu).
Opened in May, the high-tech museum occupies three hangars, initially constructed in 1916-1917 as an addition to the historic naval fortress of Peter the Great. The world’s first reinforced concrete shell structure, the hangars are now home to a wealth of unusual items, including Estonia’s original Lembit submarine, the world’s only surviving mine-laying submarine of its series dating back to the 1930s. Visitors can climb into the submarine and explore its interior.
The old Maritime Museum, opened in 1935 in the Fat Margaret Tower on the edge of the Old Town, also still functions. Built in the early 16th century to protect the city from attacks by sea and to impress visitors arriving in Tallinn by ship, the tower is also worth visiting for the detailed insight it provides into Estonia’s past and present as a land of sailors and fishermen (70 Pikk, tel: +372 641 1408, www.meremuuseum.ee).
The Fat Margaret Tower’s rooftop viewing platform offers splendid views of the Old Town and the city’s coast. The platform can be accessed during the winter period, excluding windy and snowy days.
Next to Fat Margaret is a monument to the 852 passengers of the Estonia ferry who drowned when it sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The story of what was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century is also featured in the museum’s displays.
On a less somber note, Estonian traditions are well reflected in national cuisine. The famous Olde Hansa restaurant in the Old Town serves dishes made according to medieval recipes — including bear and elk meat — and eschews foodstuffs brought to the country in more recent times, such as potatoes.
Launched six months ago, the private food sightseeing tour “Flavors of Estonia” enables participants to enjoy some of the best local food combined with sights of the Old Town, as the group is escorted from one place to another on foot, ensuring they retain just enough appetite to have a bite here and there along the way (www.foodsightseeing.ee).
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
A marzipan doll dating back to 1935 at the Kalev Marzipan Museum Room.
Last week, the culinary excursion began with clear fish soup with a mixture of red and white fish served with fresh bread buns at the Fish Wine restaurant (1 Harju, tel: +372 662 3013, www.fw.ee).
Located in a Soviet-era building known as the House of Writers — Soviet Estonia’s Union of Writers was once based in its premises — the restaurant once bore the name Pegasus (its former name still can be seen on the wall) and was a popular hangout for Tallinn’s literary and art crowd.
Don’t overlook a tiny place called Vertigo Gourmet Deli Café, located right on Viru, the Old Town’s main street (17 Viru, tel: +372 507 2220, www.vertigogourmet.ee). The miniature cafe sells Estonian black bread in the shape of baguettes flavored with juniper berries or raisins and peanuts.
Estonia is famous for its bread, and any self-respecting restaurant offers its own individual kind.
Vertigo’s other specialty is its delectable tomato marmalade and onion jam, sold at about 30 stores across Estonia under the brand name Gourmet Club. To participants of the food tour, Vertigo owner and chef Imre Kose offers a glass of apple or blackcurrant wine at the café, which is also known for its vast range of desserts.
Tours also take in an unlikely open-air café called Luscher Matiesen, located on Toompea, a steep limestone hill where the government and parliament of Estonia are stationed, in the courtyard of the former Luscher Matiesen wine factory, right next to the Kohtuotsa viewing terrace that offers a marvelous view over the city (12 Kohtu, tel: +372 56912910, www.luschermatiesen.com).
The tour ended at Gloria, a restaurant located in the medieval city walls (2 Müürivahe, el: +372 640 6800, www.gloria.ee). Opened in 1937, it features a wine cellar and a guesthouse. Owned by Dimitri Demjanov, a celebrity chef in Estonia, Gloria is frequented by politicians and other public figures who come to Tallinn, and, recently, by the Dalai Lama.
For the dining tour’s participants, Gloria offered its award-winning Nordic pine-smoked salmon Ballotine. This mildly smoked salmon cooked at a low temperature for several hours is served at many official receptions held in Estonia, while Demjanov is known for honoring Estonian food traditions, describing Baltic sprats as the “gold of Estonia” and distinguishing between 21 sorts of Estonian potatoes in his recent book.
Tallinn is famous for its chocolates and candies produced by the Kalev candy factory, the biggest and oldest confectionery company in Estonia. Kalev Marzipan Museum Room in the Old Town is a branch of Kalev, which was called Georg Stude after its owner until the Soviet occupation in 1940.
Like other enterprises, the factory was confiscated from its owner, and so much as mentioning Stude’s name was forbidden when Estonia was under Soviet rule, according to Otto Kubo, who has documented the history of Kalev since 1955.
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
A trio of reindeers and a Christmas market add to the festive atmosphere on Town Hall Square in the heart of the Old Town.
The marzipan museum room, located in the Maiasmokk cafe building, gives a good overview of the history of marzipan, which was conceived as a medicine and was made at pharmacies during the Middle Ages.
One interesting exhibit is a marzipan doll that was commissioned as a present in 1935 and was brought to the museum uneaten by the recipient’s descendent.
“I say that she is 77-years-young, because she’s a little girl,” says Kubo.
Marzipan does not keep for more than four weeks, after which it becomes hard enough to break teeth, he added.
Visitors can try their hand at painting white marzipan figurines in a variety of shapes with special food paints, or buy handmade marzipan from the museum’s store (16 Pikk, tel: +372 646 4192, www.kalev.eu/en/the-world-of-sweets/kalev-marzipan-museum-room).
During the Soviet era, many Russians went to Estonia to buy Estonian clothes for both themselves and friends and family. Clothes were either in short supply or just depressingly tasteless in the rest of the Soviet Union.
It’s somewhat refreshing to discover that the Estonian fashion industry is alive and well, and offers quality clothes at cheaper prices than world-famous brands. Estonian clothing brands such as Baltman, Mosaic, Monton and Ivo Nikkolo can be found in the Baltika Quarter, a shopping area based on the modern concept of a Fashion Street
(24 Veerenni, tel: +372 521 5400,
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
Preserves and other delicacies made by Vertigo Gourmet Deli and Cafe on Viru.
The St. Petersburg Times was a guest of the Estonian Tourist Board, Enterprise Estonia (2 Lasnamäe, 11412 Tallinn, Estonia. Tel: +372 6279 770).
How To Get There
From St. Petersburg, Estonian Air (www.estonian-air.ee) flies to Tallinn twice a day. GoRail’s train service between St. Petersburg and Tallinn was reestablished in May 2012 with a train departing once a day (www.gorail.ee). Eurolines (www.luxexpress.eu) and Ecolines (www.ecolines.net) also operate daily bus services to Tallinn.
Where To Stay
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
Tallinn’s fairytale Old Town appears more magical than ever in the winter, when its picturesque streets are covered with snow.
3 Tornimäe, Tel: +372 624 0000.
A luxury five-star hotel in Tallinn’s tallest inhabited building, boasting impressive views of the old town and the Baltic Sea.
Where To Eat
17/19 Suur-Karja, Tel: +372 680 6688. www.mekk.ee
A restaurant offering modern dishes based on Estonian culinary traditions on the first floor of the Savoy Boutic Hotel in the Old Town. The name is both the Estonian word for “taste” and the Estonian acronym for “modern Estonian cuisine.”
9 Vene, Tel: +372 600 0610,
A posh restaurant located in the Telegraaf Hotel in the Old Town that presents a “symphony of Russian cuisine” (the restaurant’s motto) fusing it with French influences. It was named Estonia’s second best in the fine dining category in Flavors of Estonia’s annual 50 Best Restaurants in Estonia Award in 2011.