Story of the week: A cultural new year in Tallinn, Estonia

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* The first post of the new year takes me back to a snowy Tallinn at the start of its year as European City of Culture. Riga takes o the mantle from this weekend. 

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There’s a wind of change blowing in off the Baltic Sea this spring.

For the Estonian capital, Tallinn, which adopted the mantle of European Capital of Culture and the Euro as its official currency in January, it’s a welcome gust.

The city is keen to shake off an image of bawdy stag-night excess in favour of a more highbrow city-break experience.

Tallinn has roughly a thousand years of history as a city, much of it marked by occupation from waves of Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians respectively.

Estonia finally gained its independent in August 1991 and the indigenous culture has blossomed ever since.

The exhaustive programme of cultural events hopes to finally establish the city as a powerhouse cultural hub to rival St Petersburg or Copenhagen.

Historic streets

Luckily, Tallinn has an ace up its sleeve.

The medieval Old Town, a Unesco World-Heritage site since 1997, abounds with fairytale flourishes: ornate 15th-century doorways, cobbled courtyards with cosy gallery-cafés and a slew of skyline-defining churches rising with dignified calm above the ancient squares.

From my base at the Savoy Boutique Hotel, an intimate property in the heart of the Old Town, we embark on a walking tour that blends history, architecture with a spot of offbeat souvenir hunting.

The Gothic Town Hall, one of the few surviving examples in Europe we learn, dominates the central marketplace and has done since before its first documented mention in 1322.

It’s the satellite backstreets that provide the most compelling nooks and crannies, however.

Town Hall Pharmacy, the oldest in Europe, juxtaposes restored Baroque frescoes with dangling bunches of wild strawberry and mountain clover against a counter of modern-day medicines. Kalev, a historic marzipan shop with adjoining café, has a lost-in-time feel and colourful displays of hand-painted, almond-wafting delicacies.

We then climb snow-frosted sidestreets towards the Upper Town, looking across the spires and weather vanes to the Baltic Sea, for a sense of how Tallinn is changing.

The Estonian Maritime Museum will open in the renovated Seaplane Harbour this autumn. The city’s new Cultural Kilometre, running from the up-and-coming Kalamaja district to the city centre, unveils its first events this spring.

The refurbishment of the Eighties-built TV Tower to showcase Estonian innovation should be complete by the end of the year.

It’s only when we step into the hushed-reverence calm of the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a symbol of Tsarist power, the connections across the Baltic Sea to Western Europe feel more than a world away.

Given free time to explore alone post tour, I venture down Masters’ Courtyard, where a tiny cafe-cum-chocolate shop catches my eye.

The interior of Cafe Pierre feels like an Estonian grandmother’s front parlour, candle lit and knick-knack adorned.

Over a warming latte and a slice of plaadikook, a cake of cottage cheese and forest berries, I pour over the op-ed story from the latest edition of the English-language Baltic Times, which calls for a reborn Estonia, a nation culturally closer to Sweden than Mother Russia.

But back out on the street, just tucked inside the snow-drifted city ramparts, old Russian women in headscarves still hawk hand-knitted scarves, hats and booties on the street.

The prices are in Euros these days but the negotiation still resolutely in Russian, spliced with nods of harasho and spasiba.

Cold war

The next day we head out east of the Old Town to explore Kadriorg, the genteel, leafy suburb dominated by the summer palace built by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great for his wife Catherine.

The Baroque Palace, dating from 1718, was 40 years in construction and never actually seen complete by its paymaster.

The small but compelling permanent collection of Baroque art tells the tumultuous story of the Russian dynasty and its powerful influence on Tallinn.

Later, I branch out alone to catch a few early events from the cultural programme.

First stop the Hotel Viru & KGB Museum [pictured above], where I join the first ever tour in English to learn more about the hotel’s furtive role in the Soviet era – it housed a KGB surveillance centre on the secret 23rd floor.

The corridor opens into a stark, oblong room with a desk covered in old documents and a hawk-eyed view across the Old Town. The second room is a radio-relay centre, the intelligence link between Helsinki and Moscow.

Sensory overload

But most striking of the new exhibitions is Dark Matters at the Ahhaa Science Centre.

Based on an idea by the German artist Andreas Heinecke, the sensory-depriving installation has blind guides to lead sighted people through a pitch-black maze.

After exploring a mini-me Tallinn park and harbour with just a white cane and my guide’s voice to help me, I end up in a black-hole café, attempting to add milk and sugar to my cup of tea.

While the cacophony of Estonian Europop adds to my confusion, we discuss how to recognise the faces of our respective families without our sight.

As I think about my daughters’ faces, the sense of loss feels more overwhelming at that moment than the eternal blackness that engulfs me.

As I emerge, dazed and blinking into the artificial light of the museum, just as Estonia has emerged through the mists of post-independence reinvention, I feel something tangible has changed.

This story was first published in the Daily Telegraph in January 2011. Liked this? Try also Baltic Culture in Tallinn  

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