Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One Day in Tallin

Tallin, Estonia - the Perfect Medieval City
Tallin is a wonderful place. In fact, if I have any complaint, it would be that it’s much too nice. It's so clean you could eat off its cobbled streets, the people are universally friendly, it has quaint buildings, everything  works and  the toilets are free. However, after the frenzy and chaos of Russia where it’s still OK to smoke in cafes and shops don’t close until late (they don’t open before 10 am either) and revelry continues far into the night, I was afraid that Estonia was going to be a bit like the way someone once described the difference between Canada and the US,” like spending a long wet weekend with your aunt.”

Though it was rather like being in someone's parlour and you felt you shouldn't light up or pass wind, there were smoking rooms in the little tobacconists and there was undoubtedly a lot more nightlife than immediately obvious to someone who had just stumbled off an all night bus. Perhaps they should scuff the place up a bit and hire a couple of heavies to toss  around a few beer cans and grunt abuse, so that visitors from other capitals feel more at home.

This is Viru, at the entrance to the Old Town

Tallin is the quintessential medieval city, without the smells, appalling sanitation, the rats and the plague. The town walls are thick and have lots of towers, many of them with interesting names. It needed them. Because of Estonia 's strategic location, everyone wanted a piece of the action. In the C13th it was the Germans and the Danes. The Swedes were next and they ceded it to the Russians in 1710. No sooner had Estonia declared its independence in 1918, than it was occupied by the Russians. The Germans occupied it in 1941 and then it was reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. Finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia became independent again and joined the European Union in 2004 (Most of this information comes from Janni and Wikipedia).

 Fat Margaret was supposed to protect the city from seaward invasion
Kiek in de Koek (it doesn't mean what you think!) on the Eastern wall has secret passageways leading down to the harbour
Tall Hermann on top of Toompea Castle was supposed to protect Estonia from landward invasion
 The Maidens' Tower where unwed mothers and prostitutes were incarcerated was presumably to protect Tallin from moral turpitude
It is also the site of the Sunday Music Markets
Within the city walls there is Europe’s first pharmacy (1422), a very ancient guild hall and the oldest working clock in Europe.  In the very old Lutheran church at the top, the early nobility is buried under the floor and their escutcheons hang on the wall. There is also the romantic old Danish King’s garden, the new (relatively) salmon pink Parliament House and a sumptuous Russian Orthodox Cathedral - every invader built their own place of worship -in which real gold was used in the decoration.

The pink parliament house
Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral

I know all this thanks to Janni, one of the friendly free tour guides, though they do welcome tips. How else would I have found out that the area near the Maiden's Tower is where the Sunday Music Market is held and that in the days of Soviet rule, when Western music was illegal, bootleg dealers - the same ones that sell there now,  sold music here under the guise of coin and stamp collecting. Or that the heated toilet near the Danish King's Garden was conceivably the most expensive toilet in the world and is very popular with the homeless. Tallin is very good at tourism. Four cruise ships were anchored in the harbour. As well as the free tours, it has a tourist  information office with multilingual brochures and almost everyone speaks excellent English.

This convenience cost almost three million EEK to build. Though admission is free, you may have to fight the homeless for it

I promised myself I wouldn't do another guided tour, but Janni's jokes and anecdotes and very personal knowledge of the place, made this one rather enjoyable.  Like my ninjas in Moscow, Janni says that she too learned her English by watching TV. I suspect that one of the reasons Estonians are so good at it is because their own language - related to Finnish, Mongolian and Hungarian but not Latvian, Lithuanian or any other Scandinavian language, has fourteen cases and English must be a shoo -in after that.  *By the way, students of English, you are not supposed to use the word nice to describe anything but food and even then only sparingly. I just felt like breaking a few rules today.

Janni the tour guide in the Danish King's Garden
We followed Janni through nooks and crannies
Ducking under arches and hobbling down narrow cobbled lanes revealed courtyard caf├ęs and tiny shops offering traditional handcrafts and loads of amber that gleamed like honey behind the window panes. There were stunning buildings at every turn and far too many tourists quaffing ales and gorging themselves at the many sidewalk cafes. Not being quite flush enough to do likewise, Georg Lohmann who is involved with the Zegg Centre for Experimental Social Design near Berlin and whom I met on the tour, introduced me to the ultra modern Solaris entertainment centre, just outside the Old Town. This not only had an excellent food court with cheap meals, but was an architectural wonder in its own right.
 We trailed past many beautiful buildings..
...which were almost impossible to photograph. That's the Town Hall on the right.

This is Tommi at the top of the Town Hall who watches over all and makes sure you are doing the right thing
In courtyards and sidewalk cafes, there was much quaffing of ale...
Some of the beautiful buildings around the market place

At last we came out near the market place. One of the  nice things about the crafts here was that they were a little different (I don't want to see another Matrushka doll!). The other was that they were superbly finished.  There were finely woven linens, handknits, ironwork and handmade books. The mortars and pestles for example, made from local limestone were wonderfully smooth  to the touch and so was the woodwork.
Handmade leather books
Smooth to the touch. Mortar and Pestles made from local limestone
It was also nice that so many young people were involved in the work of the town and what's more, looked happy about it. It gave the town a lively lived -in atmosphere, rather than being a museum. In the upper levels where once only the nobility could go – servants who escaped could stay free if they managed to stay in the lower town for one year without being caught – young men in medieval dress were minting coins in the traditional way. Young musicians and the women making the delicious spiced nuts were similarly attired, as were spruikers for various restaurants and events.

Medieval Costumes add to the appeal
The medieval theme continued with archery just outside the city walls
Beyond the walls there were many other fine solid buildings such the Opera House, a flour mill which was now a museum for Soviet memorabilia, several galleries and artfully made over designer shops. One of these, a former salt warehouse, had been turned into a shopping mall wonderfully named  Lootsi. Each of these places would have been famous if the Old Town hadn't stolen all the limelight.

Lootsi is a big shopping mall inside an old salt warehouse
Speaking of  names, while Estonian was mostly a complete mystery to me -it seems to me you couldn't go wrong if you just added a few extra vowels, there was no doubt about the meaning of this sign. 

 Although Estonian is largely incomprehensible to foreigners, even I could work this one out.
What a perfectly apt name for a bus depot!
Another small thing that rather tickled my fancy was that the local currency the Estonian Kroner, is written as EEK. I'm not sure what the second "E" stands for, but when you see it on menus and price tags, you feel that it should have an exclamation mark after it.

Spaghetti Bolognaise 120 EEK

I apologise for putting in so many of the towers. They turned out much better the photos of the other buildings 

Thank you Tallin for a delightful stopover!

My St. Petersburg

"Had one Vodka, then one more…” but maybe not as many as I would have liked

Friendly staff at the Soul Kitchen 
St. Petersburg has a lot of hostels as it’s only a short hop for most Europeans (I’m so jealous!), but there were Australians here too. It was good hearing a bit of news from home. Australia was having elections and we now had our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. I didn't realise that I missed it, but it was fun to have a casual group of people to go sightseeing with and with whom you could converse without having to struggle with the language. On the BBC news on TV – I found out that it was now 38oC and that there were four hundred fires burning in Russia. Putin was shown photogenically arriving in a helicopter and helping to douse the flames.
This hostel also had free internet and free international phone calls, if you could ever get near the phone. One young man asked me how long I’d been travelling. After I replied, “Probably since the 70’s,” he  thought for a moment and said, “That must have been hard. However did you manage without cell phones and the internet?” When I did get a chance, it was also the first time I had managed to speak to my family in quite a while.
Tourists - that's Johann in the middle. Each night he cooked Pelmini and I made salad

There was so much to see and do here that I opted for a tour that promised a glimpse of alternative
St. Petersburg, but it turned out to be pretty much the usual – a four hour forced march past cathedrals and palaces with very little of the promised action such as being able “to check out backyards and markets” or discovering “a huge metropolis living its own unique life.” Even worse, I had lured along another hosteller Johann, the professional nomad, who at least spent the time practising his Russian. I really wanted to stop and take photos and would much rather have wandered around aimlessly in my usual fashion, discovering those things which were not usually on the tourist register. 

 Loved the shoes!
Among unscheduled events were several weddings in the Summer Garden, the first of many I was to see in St. Petersburg. Wish them luck. Over fifty per cent will end in divorce. That's even worse than in Australia.

The Summer Garden nearby was a popular place for weddings

Another was was a huge procession by the Blue Berets, a sort of combined force of the Army, Navy and Airforce.

This was the beginning of a procession
They came on foot, by bus, by motorbike
... and by tank
In fact, every man and his dog was there. 
If it's one thing Russians do well, apart from amazing buildings, it is the mass spectacle. Police  cordoned off the roads and they came on foot, by jeep, by bus, by motorcycle and by tank. While we were waiting to cross the road, Johann introduced me to Chizhik Pyzhik, the little bird on the Fontanka River.

Chizhik Pizhik on the Fontanka Canal is so popular he has been nicked seven times 
Back in the C19th the students of a law school nearby used to wear green and yellow outfits just like the sizik bird and thus became known as Chizhik Pizhiks. Since they were in the habit of drinking at the local pub, this little song evolved:
Chizhik – Pizhik where have you been
On the Fontanka, had a few
Had one vodka, then one more
                                              Now my head feels really sore 

Now it is a place where Russians and tourists throw money in the hope of getting their wishes granted or toss vodka into the water in order to be cured of their addictions.

If you can land your coin on Chizhik - Pizhik or his pedestal, your wish will be granted
Over the next few days I found a lot more of what I was after – the secret life of the city. There was an interesting courtyard culture for instance and there were some pretty street scenes and bridges along the canals.

 Courtyard Culture - this is that other Lennon Street 

Outside the Free Arts Foundation
Although this was closed because students were on summer holidays, it did evoke a bit of nostalgia  

The Beatles have never been forgotten

All you need is love


Day at the Hermitage
The Special Tourist Price at most of the formal museums was horrendous (Russians and students get a better deal), but on the first Thursday of the month, admission to the Hermitage, formerly the Winter Palace, which has one the world’s greatest art collections, was free. The queues were long and it was exhausting to see even one floor so I chose Modern Art and a special exhibition of Picasso’s work. The latter included material held by the family which had never been shown before. Sometimes I could understand why, but it was a thrill to see many famous pictures in real life, also some of the photos where he is just at home with his family, and the surroundings were utterly spectacular.

 Queues on free day at the Hermitage, and they were just the people ahead of us
The interior of the building, formerly the Winter palace, was spectacular in itself, before we even got to the paintings 

Sumptious interiors


It was a bit hard to see Da Vinci's 'Mother and Child' because so many people were having their photo taken in front of it
Just looking at one floor took about four hours and that’s not counting the time spent trying to find the way out, but this was only a fraction of the Hermitage’s collection. In this building alone, there were 1057 rooms and 117 staircases. There are also four other buildings and at least twenty times more in its vaults (Lonely Planet, 2006: 244). Unfortunately, I was pretty well museumed - out after that, although St. Petersburg does have plenty of others.

Instead I went to visit some of the smaller, more unusual ones and also Pushkin’s Flat Museum. It was closed the first time I  came,  “Zaftra” meaning tomorrow, being almost as common an expression in Russia, as “Remont” (under repair/ renovation) or “Robotta,” meaning broken. Expensive though it was, the Pushkin Flat Museum set along the charming Moika Canal - a delight in itself, had English language audio casettes to explain what was going on. It seems that despite living on credit and being in debt, Pushkin lived quite well. After a while though, visiting the shrines to dead writers seemed a bit depressing, especially seeing the lock of Pushkin’s hair- a bit like touching relics, and his death mask, so I didn’t go on to visit any of the several places Dostoevsky* had lived in, expecting more of the same.

Sigmund's Museum of Dreams 
Instead, I visited the Sigmund Freud Museum of Dreams in the Psychological Institute.There’s another one like it in Sigmund’s home town Vienna, and another in London. It was also closed the first time I called. Though it was wonderfully relaxing with dark rooms containing memorabilia and illuminated images which are supposed to trigger your own dreams and fears and had pleasant dream-like music,  I am not sure that it entirely fulfilled my expectations. However, unlike most things in Russia, including the Museum of Erotica, admission was still free as shown in the guidebook. I had better not say that aloud.
I also took a look at the sprawling flea market with its acres of secondhand clothes, Lenin memorabilia, swords and samovars. After a while though, it all began to look much the same and I came away without spending anything. En route, I saw quite a lot of the St. Petersburg’s Metro. This was even grander than the one in Moscow, with themed stations – technology, sport, the revolution and of course – Pushkin. Deep underground was definitely the best place to be.

Flea Market
It's official. The escalators in  the St. Petersburg Metro, at 142 metres long, are the longest in the world!

Not the Opera House, just one of the many beautiful Metro stations
 Pushkin has his own Metro Station here too
Knowing that I only had a few days left on my Russian visa, I contacted Saddy, one of my train friends, because I felt I owed them a meal and a drink.  We ended up in a tiny Georgian restaurant. The food was delicious, but we had only managed a jug of wine and a couple of shared entrees before I had to borrow 2000r to cover the cost. I don’t know how my hostel buddies managed to go drinking every night.

We only got as far as the entrees
Later we were joined by Robert and the two of them took me on a quirky little tour of their own. Robert is Portuguese, lives in Italy and works in Russia, but we still didn’t have a language in common. It was terribly hot and sweaty and the skies were dark and thick with smoke as we raced through the Mariinsky theatre district past the curious horses by Pyotr- Klodt on the bridge over the Anichkov Canal - the genitalia of one is said to have been modelled after the sculptor’s wife’s lover or possibly Napoleon - and then, when I said I liked street art, to a little Park featuring the wizard of Oz. Still linguistically challenged, Saddy’s boyfriend Sergei arrived to translate and joined us for drink in one of many nightclubs under the Gostiny Dvor.

Saddy and the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz
Typical morning after in the hostel
I wasn't the only one feeling the heat

 As Dostoevsky wrote towards the end of The Idiot, “ …  the dust and heat of St. Petersburg pressed down on him like a weight.”
I  prayed for rain – and got it! After big thunderstorms hit St. Petersburg that night, the temperature was still 37oC but the humidity had risen to 50%. Suddenly, sightseeing and travelling didn’t feel like fun anymore.
As I was lying in the hostel nursing my foot and paralysed by the heat, a girl breezed in from Boston. “You know what,” she said, “You’d love Iceland.” She had just had a stopover there on the way to St. Petersburg and was going on about hot springs and glaciers.  I was sure I would. I’d always wanted to go there and would be unlikely to be this as close  again. A search on the internet showed that the fares were really cheap, provided you didn’t mind night flights and an all day stop over in Stockholm, and the next night I was off on the night bus to Tallin.

The showers didn't work in the hostel that morning, so I thought I would try one more typical Russian experience, I hadn't had yet - The Banya! The one near the hostel was very traditional in that it still used birchwood which gives off a lot of heat. Inside women were beating themselves about the body with bundles of birch branches. Perhaps it was part of the Russian obsession with misery and suffering? Perhaps it was more fun than it looked? I only survived about ten minutes. I think it is the sort of experience, like banging your head against the wall, that simply feels good when you stop. I did feel thoroughly clean afterwards and the heat outside didn't seem quite as oppressive.

You've heard of wood -fired pizza. Now I know how it feels
For my last few hours in St. Petersburg, I thought I would do a bit of a cafe crawl as some of the ones mentioned in my guidebook sounded really intriguing. First port of call was Russky Kitch with its over-the-top decor. I didn't dare ask how much the coffee was but I did have one at the next place. St. Lenin wasn't much bigger than a broom cupboard, but had such a nice atmosphere that I tried a snack as well. Lastly, I visited The Pregnant Spy's Suitcase. How could I resist a name like that? It was quite hard to find, being in a basement, but much bigger inside than it looked. There was at least room for a torture chamber bar and several other accroutrements such as  a car and even a few tables, though I have no idea what the food was like.  

Loved the over -the -top decor at Russky Kitch

.....and the interesting artwork.
Lenin guards the door and there were some jolly people inside at St. Lenin's

 Lenin is on the ceiling too

Heart stopping coffee and  deep - fried bread with mayonnaise
The Pregnant Spy's Suitcase  - How could I resist a name like that?

A glimpse of the Torture Chamber Bar


One of the things I really liked about St. Petersburg was its willingness to poke fun at itself and not take itself too seriously, despite the grandeur of its architecture. The other was the friendliness of its people, whether it was Saddy and friends whom I met on the train, the hostel managers or the lady who had the vegetable stand at the corner.  It made all the difference. 
My last memory of St. Petersburg is of this South American band playing to an appreciative crowd as I was crossing Sadovaya Square. That too was part of the St. Petersburg experience and its cosmopolitan atmosphere.

South American band in Sadovaya Square

Love and peace to all the people who made St. Petersburg such fun
*Spelling varies throughout this blog, depending on what I have been reading. Same goes for place names such Yekaterinenburg which I have probably spelled at least three different ways.