Wednesday 20th August 2008, Tallinn, Estonia
We took the ferry yesterday afternoon for the two hour crossing from Helsinki to Tallinn. The ship, in common with other Scandinavian ferries, was huge compared to those crossing the English Channel. Loading though leaves something to be desired and is as chaotic as we found it down in Greece. It's really unnerving for Modestine having a burly Estonian seaman gesticulating and shouting at her when she really cannot work out at all where he wants her to go – backwards, forwards, this lane or that. She ended up squashed between a couple of Russian and Lithuanian freight lorries feeling like an ant between a couple of large elephants.
Roads are appreciably worse in Estonia, rough and bumpy with raised manhole covers. Ian is delighted about this though as many are old Soviet ones with Cyrillic letters on. (Expect to be bored with a picture before the end of this blog. The rest will eventually be on his special manhole miscellany blogsite.)
We found the campsite along beside the sea. It looks like a battered shunting yard wedged in between a couple of huge metal and concrete hangers and several blocks of flats. There are notices warning us not to leave anything outside at night and a few desultory tents pitched on the overgrown scruffy vegetation that passes for grass to one side of the tarmac. There are clean, indoor showers and loos however, and even a non-functioning sauna – though somewhere to wash dishes might have been more use. We'd collected the information from the internet before leaving England as we know accommodation will be difficult over here. It claimed to have wifi but doesn't.
Arriving in the city last night during rush hour we headed straight out of town, swept along with the flow. It meant we arrived with no Estonian money – Krons, and there is nowhere except the city centre to find a cash machine. Overhearing us discussing how we could get back into town, several kilometres away along an unpleasant road, when we had no money to buy a bus ticket, a young Dutch couple came over and gave us two of their tickets! Wasn't that just so friendly?
By chance, we arrived on the eve of the Day of the Restoration of Estonian Independence. As we ate supper last night we could hear the sound of massed voices singing patriotic sounding songs. It turned out that this campsite is situated very near to a massive open air auditorium known as the Song Bowl, built in the 1960s by the Soviets to accommodate choirs of 15,000 singers with room for another 30,000 performers on stage plus space for countless thousands on the surrounding grass banks. It is used as the venue for Estonian song festivals and in June 1988 it was packed to capacity as well over 100,000 people came to sing national songs together as a way of expressing their longing to be free of Soviet occupation.
Estonia has been an independent nation only since 1991, and even now something like 40% of the population are Russians who opted to stay on after independence. Since then the country has celebrated annually with a massive free concert in this auditorium broadcast live throughout the country. Having no money but hearing the word "free", and realising we'd get no sleep anyway, we joined the mass of Estonians heading along the road towards the stadium. We have to say it's probably the biggest event we've ever taken part in – excepting perhaps a government planned "spontaneous" solidarity parade in East Berlin back in the 1970s with 250,000 people. There was no obvious police presence here and absolutely no need for it. Thousands upon thousands of people poured happily through the gates and fanned out to find comfy patches on the surrounding grassy banks. Many carried blue, black and white Estonian flags, others had it painted on their faces, thousands had balloons in the national colours that were released to float ever upwards into the evening sky above the auditorium.
The concert began in earnest with some very long folk songs stridently and powerfully sung. It continued with heavy metal rock music Estonian style – they also use bagpipes - with several tattooed performers wearing beards, huge manes of blond hair and black tee-shirts. They strode around the stage, tossing their heads and holding their instruments like weapons while creating an incredibly discordant noise. Meanwhile, the surrounding massed choirs held open their music scores and attempted to sing along with it all! It was as well we'd not stayed on the campsite and tried to sleep! More traditional singing followed and we all stood for the national anthem. The crowds around us cheered, clapped and joined in with the singing of what were obviously songs that were part of their patriotic heritage. The overhead monitor showed what was going out on national TV and the singing was interspersed with seminal events in Estonia's history which unfortunately we could not understand at all. At one point everything was interrupted for a special announcement. Judging by the TV pictures and the frenzied wave of delight that swept through the auditorium, it seems Estonia had just won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
We left the auditorium after 11pm. It was still packed and the singing went on until 3am. There were nearly as many people in the surrounding park where stalls were selling everything from coffee and soft drinks to hot dogs, chips and plates of meat balls. Nowhere was there any sign of unruliness and everyone seemed really happy, children included.
As we walked home we had to press our way through the crowds of people still heading towards the stadium in their thousands. The streets were lined with cars for miles and special buses were running all night, arriving packed and leaving empty, even at midnight.
But we were so tired that although we lay in bed listening to the singing, clapping and cheering, we gradually drifted to sleep. When we woke this morning, the clapping sound we could hear was rain and thunder. At least it had stayed dry for such an important event in the lives of our current hosts.
Thursday 21st August 2008, Tallinn, Estonia
Back in the 14th century Tallinn, or Reval as it was called until 1918, was one of the cities of the Hanseatic league of trading towns, along with Lübeck, Rostock, Bergen, Riga and others. During its history it has been occupied not only by Denmark, but also by Germany, Sweden and Russia and this has influenced not only its architecture but its language, literature and even its food. Many people still have Russian as their first language and many signs are in both Estonian and Russian. While most younger people we have met are fluent in English, older people are more likely to use German when speaking to us.
Yesterday we took the bus into the city centre where, after eventually finding a cash machine so we had some money, we set about exploring our surroundings. Tallinn is a mix of two very different cities. There is the old walled town, dating from mediaeval times with its merchants' houses, churches with their onion-shaped domes and narrow cobbled streets. By contrast there is the rapidly expanding modern commercial and residential city with it glass tower blocks and subterranean shopping malls.
As it was a national holiday yesterday many of the shops and all the museums were closed. We spent most of the day within the walls of the old town which is an architectural gem, reminiscent of medieval German towns but with a definite sense of Eastern Europe about it. After the grandeur of Helsinki it was good to be back in a city where the architecture was almost familiar, with buildings of a size small enough to feel comfortable. The beautiful town square was flanked on one side by the gothic town hall with its arcades, while old merchants' buildings and restaurants filled the remaining sides. Here there was a free concert of lively classical music in full swing so we sat with a beer at one of the bars to watch and listen. The square is a regular venue for concerts and spontaneous gatherings to fete happy events in the recent history of Estonia. They are a nation devoted to singing and music. Indeed when, after gaining independence in 1991, Estonia later won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001 the Town Hall Square was packed to capacity to celebrate, leading the President to remark that the country had managed to sing its way out of the Soviet Union and into the European Union!
From the square, streets lead off to other parts of the old town, most of them crowded with tourists, restaurants and souvenir shops. The buildings though were quite fascinating, leading us on from one corner to the next, always expecting to reach the end yet always discovering a new corner to explore. Just when we thought we'd seen almost everything we discovered the steep street leading up to the Toompea, or castle precinct, with the Lutheran Cathedral of the Estonians and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral used by the remaining 40% of Tallinn residents. This latter was built during the days of the Tsars, not only as a place of worship, but to show the power and grandeur of Russia. It is hugely imposing, though inside is surprisingly restrained.
The Lutheran Cathedral has an attractive exterior but inside is lacking in religious adornment. Instead the walls are covered with the shields and coats of arms of the nobility. Many appear to have been German. Here we discovered the tomb of a Scotsman, Admiral Samuel Greig, who died in 1788. He commanded the Russian fleet in the Baltic and his splendid tomb here was a tribute to him from Catherine the Great.
Estonia has to thank Russia too for other beautiful buildings and monuments in Tallinn. The present Parliament building was originally ordered by Catherine the Great as a beautiful castle on the very top of the Toompea with views out towards the sea. Other buildings in this quarter too are of Russian origin.
Having spent the entire day yesterday within the city walls, today we decided to discover the palace and gardens of Kadriorg, not a stone's throw from where we are camping. The palace was built in the 1720s as a present from Tsar Peter the Great to his mistress – later wife – Catherine as a pretty seaside retreat from the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Peter the Great was enchanted with Reval, as it was then called, and spent much of his time here. He is quoted as saying that if Russia had ruled Estonia sooner, he would have built its capital here rather than at St. Petersburg.
The park is freely open to the public and is still gradually being restored to its former state after years of neglect under Soviet rule. The Palace has now regained its original appearance and acts as part of the Tallinn Art Museum with collections of 17th century Dutch paintings including works by Breugel the younger, as well as works by other European painters of note and a substantial collection of 18th and 19th century portraits of the Russian aristocracy. There are also excellent collections of 18th and 19th century porcelain from the factories at St. Petersburg, Sevres, Berlin and Meissen as well as impressive displays of huge Delft jars, platters, vases and tiles. It is the palace building though, that is all important, with its beautiful rooms, decorated ceilings and panel mouldings in soft pastel colours, overlooking the formal flower gardens.
In the park there are various smaller buildings, annexes of the palace, including the cottage purchased by Peter the Great prior to commissioning the palace. He lived here in a relatively simple style. It cost us all of 35 pence each to see around inside and we found it a very personal place. Practically all the furnishings were his own. There is the sensation of transcending time when you gaze into the mirror in his bedroom and know that although it's your own face looking back at you, there was once a time when the face framed in the mirror would have reflected this open-minded, forward looking Russian Tsar who was so instrumental in leading Russia from a feudal state and turning it towards the cultural and industrial influences of Europe. He even spent a period in England discovering boat-building while working at the Deptford shipyard!
Late in the afternoon we crossed the park to discover the massive new Museum of Modern Art. It is huge for such a small country and has presumably been built with money received from the European Community. We only glanced inside from curiosity so cannot speak for its collections, but later we discovered so much that remains to be done in the city after its years of Soviet neglect, to say nothing of the rest of the country, that we do wonder whether the money could have been better spent on much needed housing, social and road improvements. Perhaps EU strings attached to the funding prevented this.
Walking into the city we passed through entire areas of wooden houses in the Russian style dating from pre-Soviet times. They are still lived in today but many are in a very sorry state, with rusty tin roofs, broken gutters, rotting window frames and doors and cracked and damaged timber walls. Some have been restored and are quite beautiful. Others, beyond repair, are left to rot. Many, regrettably, are being pulled down piecemeal to make way for modern blocks of characterless flats incongruously standing amongst these decayed architectural gems.
We walked right through the modern development areas to the city centre, searching for a baker's shop and supermarket. We found neither! We have been in the capital city for two days and have not yet discovered a single shop to buy food! Outside the old town the pavements are broken, the potholed roads wide and there are bus lanes and tram tracks. It takes ages to get anywhere and crossing the road is a major undertaking with traffic lights, road junctions and the inevitable road works everywhere. When you finally do manage to cross you still seem to be a no-man's-land of building works and no real shops. In addition, it has been pouring with rain for much of the afternoon and the water is spewed out from the potholes right over soaked pedestrians waiting on the broken pavements for the lights to change.
We did eventually find a little coffee shop-cum-bakers where we bought a loaf and stopped for tea and a cake. It was extremely nice and very cheap. We decided to give up our search for the library or anywhere to access the internet and return to Modestine to dry out. We are fortunate as we have plenty of supplies so won't go hungry but we do wonder how some of the young back-packing campers on the site are coping with the rain and no food shops!
Friday 22nd August 2008, Tallinn, Estonia
We've not been back into central Tallinn today. Despite the undoubted attractions of the old town we felt we'd had as much as we wanted to face from the modern city which is so confusing and uninteresting to move around in. There are just too many wide empty spaces and streets leading to nowhere. Not that the surroundings out here are any better, as we have discovered. You need a car or bicycle to get anywhere as places are all so widely scattered. The nearest post office is two kilometres one way, the supermarket three in the opposite direction. There is a children's playground situated on the seashore a good two kilometres from anywhere, there is a Chinese restaurant and an underused marina built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and that's about it, except for large areas of grassland with a few crosses in them and a plaque commemorating those Germans and Estonians who died during the second World War. There is also a huge, ugly, Soviet monument to the sacrifices of the troops who "liberated" Estonia. A tall pointed obelisk stands on a plateau overlooking the bay where it is an obvious landmark for ships entering the port of Tallinn. The Soviets claim it commemorates them saving the people of Estonia from the forces of Nazi Germany and giving them back their freedom. The Estonians see it in a somewhat different light and nickname the monument Pinocchio's grave, (his nose became longer with every lie he told.)
This morning we visited the nearby Estonian History Museum, housed in the Maarjamäe Palace which is prominently sited overlooking the Bay of Tallinn. The building is a neo-gothic19th century mansion that had once belonged to an aide to the Tsar. Nowadays, though, it is all rather run-down.
The museum covers Estonia's 90 year struggle for independence, tracing its chequered and complex history from 1918 when it first declared independence from Bolshevist Russia. Since then it has been a pawn on the political chess board of Europe, subject to the powers of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Its brief period of independence was snatched away again in 1940 when it, along with the rest of the Baltic states, were handed over to the Soviets under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement to carve up Eastern Europe between Russia and Germany. The exhibition details the hardships suffered, the brutality of the imposition of communism, the deportation of dissidents to Siberia, the Estonian resistance movement against the Soviets and the final triumph when independence was restored in 1992 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Unfortunately national zeal to present the full picture resulted in overcrowded and complex displays that jumped about chronologically. As the captions were mainly in Estonian and Russian it wasn't the easiest of exhibitions to understand. The museum sold us a booklet in English which we took out into the grounds to read over a coffee before returning with at least a glimmering of understanding to guide us through.
All morning we were almost the only visitors. The cheerful girl at a kiosk in the grounds was delighted to have the chance to turn on her coffee machine for us. She passed the time between customers reading Harry Potter in English and was currently working through the final volume – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The Maarjamäe Palace was to have become a centre for Soviet-Estonian solidarity and in 1987 the main hall had been suitably decorated with frescoes showing Russia's achievements in, around and beyond the world. The project naturally terminated with the demise of the Soviet states a couple of years later. The hall was closed for restoration but, when we expressed an interest, the staff unlocked it and let us peep inside. The frescoes showed bright socialist banners, health sports men and women, contented collective farmers and astronauts floating around in spacesuits.
We went for a walk around the overgrown gardens where shaggy inkcap mushrooms pushed up through the long wet grass and shrubs met across the pathways. Around the back of the building amongst piles of builders' rubble, we discovered an amazing treasure! Once the Soviets had gone, so too did the statues, monuments and tombstones they had erected. Where had they gone? Toppled from their plinths they had been unceremoniously removed here and piled up in a jumbled heap where the grass had grown up around them. Not only were there several busts and heads of Lenin, but also a complete bronze statue of him standing beside a mangled heap of fallen Soviet heroes. The real find though was a huge, complete bronze of Stalin! Even before the break up of the Soviet Union Stalin had fallen into disfavour in Moscow. His policy was regarded even there as too brutal and Kruschev had ordered his statues to be removed and his body disinterred from the Kremlin. So to find a complete statue of him here, lying on its back against the wall of the building, partially buried beneath other broken statues and symbols of Communist rule, was quite a find! Ian had to scramble over various broken heroes, clamber up Stalin's leg and balance on the chest of his greatcoat in order to get a picture of his face!
The rest of the day was an anticlimax. After visiting Pinocchio's grave we walked through a very pleasant residential area of expensive properties set in green gardens with flowers and fruit trees, eventually reaching Pirita where we hoped to do some food shopping. As we failed to find a single shop in the "town" we contented ourselves with looking around the ruins of an ancient abbey where rehearsals were taking place for a concert this evening, before taking the bus back to the campsite.
We will be moving on tomorrow. We are unhappy leaving Modestine alone all day as despite staff on duty in the office, there is no real security here. Last night we saw three young men unconnected with the site eyeing our table and chairs which we'd left outside when the rain suddenly drove us inside. They went away when we made our presence known, but tonight we returned home to find the car of some Dutch campers near to us had been broken into and the area littered with broken glass.