Leaving St Petersburg
At 5.50 I leave the comfort of the hotel lobby and venture outside. It is absolutely freezing and snow is now falling. I am glad I have chosen a hotel so close to the Moskovsky Station; just 5 minutes after leaving my accommodation I am standing in the warm departure hall of the great terminus.
I glance up at the indicator and see that my train is on time.
I am catching the 6:25 to Tallinn, Estonia. It will be a journey of just over 7 hours and I am due to arrive there around 13:35. I will then spend 24 hours in the Estonian capital before heading back to London.
I have it on good authority that there will be no breakfast available on board, so I use my rudimentary Russian to get water, a sandwich and a chocolate bar from the “Daily Food” kiosk on the concourse.
I walk out on to the platform and see that the train, which has originated in Moscow, has already arrived. The first section, comprised of sleeper coaches destined to terminate here, has been detached and brought forward slightly by the electric locomotive that has hauled it in from Moscow.
I walk along the platform. The first part of the train is already silent, dark and empty. Eventually I reach the place where it has been split and I can see that beyond this there is activity. There are plenty of staff on the platform and a few passengers boarding. I find my sleeping car and I present my ticket to the attendant standing at door. He barely looks at it before waving me on board.
Inside I am alone in the corridor and, apart from a low-pitched electric hum, it is deadly quiet. I am surprised to see that, as this is one of RZD’s newest sleepers, the doors are fitted for contact-less card entry. I find my own compartment door and try to work out how to get in. I am about to go in search of help when the door slides open and there is a middle-aged woman looking out at me from inside the darkened cabin.
She speaks no English, but she nods when I say “Tallinn?”. She has already occupied the lower right bunk and I take my own place on the lower left. When, a few minutes later, the attendant comes to collect our passports I see that she is a Russian national. He returns our passports 5 minutes later and then, as he brings bedding for both of us, I conclude she is starting her journey in St Petersburg as well.
Even though the 7-hour trip is theoretically a day journey I have chosen to book a sleeper. It was only a little more expensive than the day seats and I thought it would be a bit more comfortable. Now, still feeling really tired, I am more than happy about the decision. The train pulls out at 6:25am on time and I am asleep almost immediately.
I dream of earthquakes. When I wake occasionally I put my dreams down to the constant vibration of the train. Occasionally I glance through the blind and see that the scenery outside is mostly woodland with a bit of ancient industrial architecture thrown in. There is still snow on the ground.
I am finally woken at 9:00 by the attendant. He announces that as we will soon be at the frontier the toilets must be sealed and locked. My cabin mate is already sitting up in bed filling in Sudoku puzzles. After a few more minutes the attendant brings her a hot cup of tea and a bag of mini-croissants. I take out my supplies and commence my own breakfast.
We slow down and after a while we come to a complete halt next to sidings full of oil tanker wagons. This is Ivangorad: the border. I can hear dogs barking in the distance and there is the sound of radio static as guards, armed with walkie talkies, climb onto the train and move down the corridor.
The passports are inspected first. We both get exit stamps but “Mrs Sudoku” gets a long friendly conversation too.
Next a man comes in with a torch and checks the luggage racks and under the seats. He is followed by another man with an Alsatian dog. The dog has a good sniff around but doesn’t seem overly interested in the contents of our luggage.
The customs official who follows just chats with her but then he asks me to open both my bags and then takes quite a while checking things before he is satisfied.
After 60 minutes we are finally done. The officials go back into the station and the train sets off slowly as it moves towards the border.
I love crossing frontiers on trains. I always try to work out exactly where the old country ends and the new one begins. Sometimes it is difficult. Have we crossed the border already? Does that car waiting at the level crossing have a Russian or an Estonian number plate?
Here it is easy. After a few minutes more there is suddenly a bridge over a river. The sides are steep and on the far bank the Estonian flag is clearly visible.
We quickly pull to a halt in Narva Station. The sidings next to us are full of container trains bearing the logos of Maersk and Hamburg Sud.
On the platform the EU flag flies next to the Estonian flag. This reminds me that this is not just another country border but the eastern frontier of the European Union.
The journey from Ivangorad has taken just 7 minutes but with the time difference it is now only 9:20. We have another 45 minutes of checks here before we are cleared to set off for our three and a half hour trip to Tallinn.
The officials on this side of the river are more interested in her than me. This time she gets the questions, in Russian, and a comprehensive baggage inspection. I get away with a cursory glance at my passport.
Outside they are changing locomotives. The red and grey machine that has brought us from St Petersburg is swapped for a blue and white diesel belonging to the Estonian “GO” company. Ironically both engines were built in USSR days. It is an indicator that the Estonian railway system, like the country itself, was part of the Soviet Union for over 40 years.
We leave the border behind and I go to explore the train. I walk through the seating coach, which seems very full, towards the front of the train. To my surprise I find there is a dining car. I am no longer hungry, which is just as well as they are already clearing up and closing for breakfast.
When I return to the compartment I find my cabin mate has dozed off again. I sleep too, off and on, and for the next few hours as we pass through pretty uninspiring scenery and make a few brief station stops.
Eventually, and right on time at 13:35, we pass Soviet-era blocs on the outskirts of Tallinn, slow as the “Mall of Tallinn” comes into view and then finally draw up at the Baalti Jaam (Baltic Station) terminus.
We are here.
The station is filled with local modern trains in the orange livery of the Elron company, but sitting outside is a large steam locomotive on display. I like the place already !
I have arranged a hotel right in front of the station and within a few minutes I have checked in, grabbed a coffee and emerged back out onto the pavement again.
Tallinn in a Day
In the limited time available I am not attempting to get anything more than the briefest of brief tastes of the Estonian capital.
Here are 13 experiences from my 24 hours in Tallinn :
1. A toe in the Baltic
As I am in a Baltic country it seems fair to start by locating the Baltic itself. The main centre of Tallinn is actually orientated away from the sea, so I head first in the opposite direction.
I pass through the gentrifying Kelmikula district and walk past traditional wooden houses and factories. There are many old buildings here but there is also a lot of new stuff too. Modern apartments are being constructed as the area transforms itself from derelict industrial space to trendy living quarter.
After 10 minutes brisk walk I am at the water’s edge. It is very cold and totally deserted. In the distance I can just make out the shape of a Baltic ferry in Tallinn port. These super ferries ply backwards and forwards between Helsinki (80km) and other ports in the area. A substantial number of Tallinn’s tourists actually arrive by sea. It is even classed as an easy day trip from the Finnish capital.
I walk along the edge of the sea, all alone, for quite some time. I make it as far as the Maritime Museum but decide to leave that for another day. I turn back and after skirting the Linnahalli area I turn inland.
On the way back to the centre I visit the Balti Jaama Turg Market near the station. It is impressive; there is an indoor section and a farmers market outside. I pick up a chicken Samsa – the local pie – and sit munching it whilst engaging in a bit of people watching.
It is difficult to tell for sure but this city feels quite affluent. It certainly doesn’t feel all that different from being in say Helsinki or Stockholm. I am also getting used to discerning between people speaking Estonian (68% majority) and Russian (26% minority). The signs are mainly in Estonian. The people are easy to interact with using English, but it is difficult to get into anything more than simple conversations.
Tallinn’s main attraction is its extensive medieval walled town. It sits elevated surrounded by the flatter land which is occupied by the suburbs and the port. This makes for an attractive town-planning set up. Most of the traffic, including the (free for locals) tramway skirts the main town centre leaving it largely as a pedestrianised zone.
3. On the Cobbles
I walk through one of the aincient gates and enter the old town. It is very attractive and it is easy to get lost in the winding cobbled streets. There are half-hidden lanes and courtyards to explore. There are also plenty of old merchant houses, now converted into shops and restaurants, to browse and enter.
It is really quite busy in some parts of the town but relatively quiet in other places. Tallinn seems to be well balanced between being a fairy-tale tourist destination and a real working town
I concentrate the first part of my walk on the lower part of the old town and I spend a couple of hours finding my way around.
4. Christmas Market
At the centre of everything is the Town Hall Square. The Christmas Market is in full swing and fills the square. There is a good atmosphere and people are walking around buying gifts and meeting friends.
Of course Christmas Markets are a feature of just about every European town these days, but this one certainly has more history than most; Tallinn has displayed a Christmas tree here since the 15th century.
There is plenty of Glog too. I buy a cup and find it is so alcohol-laden that the vapours make me cough all the way through drinking it.
5. Churches of all kinds
Estonia has a reputation of being quite an atheist country. Apparently less than 30% of the population claim to be religious. The majority of believers are Russian Orthodox with Lutherans in second place. Nevertheless Tallinn is home to some stunning churches.
I pay a small fee to visit the interior of the 13th century Holy Spirit Church. The wood-carved interior is pretty awe-inspiring.
I also wander in and out of several other churches of both the Orthodox and Lutheran variety. At the Nevsky Cathedral I stand for a while and listen to the mesmerising chanting of a Russian Orthodox service.
At St Olav’s I watch a rehearsal for a children’s carol concert.
6. A History Lesson
The “Spirit of Survival” exhibition at the Great Guild Hall tells the story of Estonia.
I only have time for one museum so this is my choice. I think it is a good one. The small museum, recently opened, uses modern innovative displays to cover 11,000 years of history.
It is easy to think of 1991 as the birth of independent Estonia and certainly the story of the “singing revolution” and the nation’s march to freedom is dealt with comprehensively here. However, as the museum points out, Estonia was an independent country from 1918 until 1940. The country actually celebrates two days of independence each year. In fact, along with Finland, it has its own centenary this year. The museum has several artifacts from the 1920s and 1930s including passports, advertisements and this tin of ham.
Estonia has been most influenced over its history by the Germans and Russians. The museum doesn’t hold back on offending either. “The Germans regarded the Estonians as nothing but servants and peasants” claims one of the displays. The rough history of the country under Soviet rule is also dealt with “The KGB had a file on almost every citizen” too.
I learn that the stereotype Estonian is of someone who is closed, slow and provincial but who is proud of their character and their sarcastic sense of humour.
7. Cool Streets,
As night falls some of the cobbled streets take on a slightly different atmosphere. They are decorated by lots of mini illuminated trees placed along the side of the buildings.
The effect is pretty magical and on some of the longer streets you can see the line of trees stretching far into the distance.
It is raining. The rain is freezing and the wind is bitter. Yet, there are plenty of places to seek respite from the weather.
I warm my hands on one of the open Yule log fires placed around the city.
I have a hot coffee at a little cafe. They have delicious chocolate covered cinnamon buns as well. The owner has decorated the place with little signs; one of which says “there is no WiFi here so you will have to talk to each other”
Later I visit a lovely old candlelit pub and get a cold “honey” beer served in a stone mug.
The Estonians certainly know how to do “cosy”!
9 Elk Eating
It is more difficult to find a table for dinner at a restaurant than I imagine. In the end I find a place near the town hall and dine on Baltic herring and roasted elk meat. It is all good wholesome comfort food. Tallinn seems to have a good reputation for eating and there is a wide variety of places including several restaurants serving up “New Nordic” cuisine.
10. A Hill with a View
I take a walk up Toompea Hill. This is the upper old town. It is the administrative quarter and is home to the Estonian Government building, the castle and several embassies. In comparison to the lively lower town it is much quieter up here.
The main draw of Toompea is the chance if offers to look over the city from one of the viewing platforms. There are two of them. I visit both. The Kohtuotsa platform looks over the lower town and, in my opinion, has the better views.
11. Just can’t get enough !
On the way back to the hotel I pop into the Depeche Mode bar. It was started by a local super fan some years back but it has grown into something of a local institution.
It is quite impressive and has several rooms all decorated with photographs of the band with plenty of video screens showing their concerts.
It is relatively quiet so I chat with the bar staff whilst sipping a local Saku beer. They tell me that the group themselves have visited on one or two occasions and that it will definitely get busier later. I am too tired to wait around. I wish them well and call it a night.
12. Black and Blue
The next morning when I am checking out of the hotel I am interested to see they have a clock based on the outline of Estonia in the lobby. I have already noticed that Estonians seem to make a big thing about the outline of their country. It appears quite a lot. This is not even the first clock I have seen.
This kind of easy nationalism among small recently-resurrected nations seems to be entirely a positive thing. It feels more natural somehow than similar sentiments in larger more established nations.
I mention this to the receptionist and ask if she is optimistic for the young country. To a point she is but she expresses some concern that, like all the Baltic countries, the population has been in decline recently. A young country needs young people. Will enough stay in Estonia when plenty of opportunities lie elsewhere too?
I must admit I like the Estonian flag. The colours symbolise sky, soil and purity and they are used extensively and imaginatively in a variety of ways.
The country’s parliament is floodlight in blue, there is a bit of white in there too and of course the sky is black!
What a cool way to wrap a loaf of local black bread !
There is also something especially pleasing about the use of blue and black together. It is not a combination that you see together often, yet it looks quite stylish.
13. Send us a postcard
As I prepare to depart, Estonia has one final pleasant surprise in store for me: Tallinn Airport. The innovation of the place really impresses me.
Each of the gates has a cooperate sponsor and they have all worked hard to make their areas impressive. It is raw capitalism of course, but it is interesting and very tastefully done.
A ferry company have transformed the floor around their gate into the Baltic sea. Electronic dots move under passengers feet to represent ships travelling from Helsinki to Stockholm and Tallinn.
A local beer company have a little stand selling their own products adjacent to their heavily-decorated gate.
The gate where my own flight will leave from is sponsored by a bank and is presented as a metro carriage. We sit on train-like seats and when the flight is ready for boarding the train doors will slide open to let us through.
Elsewhere there is table tennis and chess to play and a piano to practice on. There are plenty of excellent shopping choices too. It all feels a world away from the chain-filled identikit atmosphere of most airports.
What other 21st century airport has a fireplace with a vintage clock hanging on the wall above it ?
Towards the end of my stay, I spot a display of postcards falling towards a map of Europe. It is clear from reading them that they are all genuine cards that have been sent by passengers who have been as impressed by the terminal as I am. There is a little sign that suggests you should send them your own postcard.
Perhaps I will.