Never Mind the Baltics… have a ‘Kiek in the Kok’

Is it a lazy English sense of humour or does Tallinn know exactly what it is doing naming their sights ‘Kiek in de Kok’ and ‘Fat Margaret’? Superficial photos of a tall tower topped by a rounded roof from stag dos will have prompted despairing eye rolls from brides to be everywhere. ‘Kiek in de Kok’ actually means peep into the kitchen.

Tallinn still seems to be a city prone to invasion. With return flights costing around £120 from most major UK airports my wife Carolyn and I flew from Stansted to try to bring peace between the nations of Essex and Estonia. It is a great high class, low cost destination (Estonia not Essex). Tallinn as a city has had a history of occupation for over 2000 years from Finns, Danes, Germans and most recently the Russians. Estonians adopted the ‘Destiny’s Child’ philosophy of surviving. It has recovered from many a stag do, but the lads are making the city unhappy and I think it deserves visitors who will show more love!

Tallinn Town Hall  - a beacon to locate the main square
Tallinn Town Hall – a beacon to locate the main square

I am in love with Europe. If Europe wanted my last Rolo, I would give it up so quickly she would not even realise I don’t like Rolos. As a tourist, Tallinn offers such an unusual experience you are never quite sure which part is real. Is it modern or medieval? Cute cobbled streets link everywhere in the old town, prompting you to check for cameras in case you are in an ill-fated BBC attempt to copy the ‘Game of Thrones’ fantasy. Marauding cruise ship passengers seem to be literally deposited, willingly fleeced and then disappear back on board ship. The effect of this tourist injection is to leave the city culturally richer due to their absence. Locals who work in tourism dress in medieval clothes and by the end of the evening the old town feels like some kind of drunken Disneyland. Real treasures however lay in the small details of Estonia, which Tallinn does so well.

A great place to stay is Merchant’s House, a boutique hotel in a medieval building on Dunkri street which has the most central location, just off the main square Raekoja Plats, within walking distance of the sights.

The Estonian History Museum poses the awkward question, ‘Have Estonians ever been happy in their own land?’ Surveys across Europe suggest that they are one of the least happy nations. If you want the statistics, those for the Baltic States make grim reading. Estonia and Latvia rank 117th and 118th out of 152 countries; they are virtually the lowest European countries on the list, with a HPI (Happy Planet Index) score of 34.9, with their less fashionable brother Lithuania tagging along in 120th place, with a score of 34.6. (Russia is lower, however this country sets its own rules and is largely in Asia so for these reasons I will not let it taint my argument!) The UK is quite happy, but typically would rather not mention it, coming in at 41st place on 47.9 points. Costa Rica tops the Happy Planet Index with a beaming 64 points; in fairness, who doesn’t like good coffee and great parrots? (Source: gfmag.com) You could wonder why the long faces, when Tallinn is such a wonderful destination? The truth is Estonians have every reason to be frustrated; outside of Tallinn there is still widespread poverty. Estonia scores highly on the HPI for Education and Environment, but sadly it is the measure of Income, Jobs and Health, which ultimately lead to a low level of life satisfaction.

Modern Gothic trimmings at the DM Bar, Tallinn
Modern Gothic trimmings at the DM Bar

Somewhat appropriately, Depeche Mode (an Essex boy band who got a little moody) have their own tribute bar in Tallinn: DMBar. Definitely inspired from a gothic sense of ‘enjoying the silence’ a superfan set this bar up in 1999 only to have the actual band visit it after one of their concerts in 2001. Again seeming to add to the unreality of Tallinn, the place only plays Depeche Mode and serves band inspired cocktails; we tried the ‘Violator’ (which lived up to its name).

Fortunately, Tallinn does have amazing restaurants. You can stumble across the most stylish and beautiful food. On our first night we enjoyed a lovely meal at ‘Ribe’. We went there because it was just off the main square Raekoja Plats, we were tired and it looked incredible. There must be some kind of exchange programme going on between Estonia’s chefs and artists as food consistently seemed to be sculpted, etched and finessed onto your plate with such flair that you felt guilty disturbing it. We felt no such qualms disturbing our food the following night, which could best be described as a cheese-fuelled Salvador Dali nightmare.

Wholly disappointing cheese, Tallinn
Wholly disappointing cheese

Cheese: Stereotypically the epitome of Europe. ‘St Michael’s Juusturetorane’, (Cheese restaurant) which held such high hopes for us turned out to be the dark side of cheese. Literally the stuff of nightmares, with crayfish seductively posed on cheese, man-sized novelty mousetraps and an approach dedicated to novelty over taste, simply not gouda-nuff (sorry!). With a Geography teacher’s sense of direction, Carolyn sniffed out this hard to find place; it has no website and is ranked 358 out of 455 places to eat in Tallinn on Trip Advisor. Its cheese-shaped sign is just down from the Baltic Imperial hotel. In contrast to our experience at Ribe, this time, we were incredible and it was the food that looked tired. If this is Tallinn’s food maybe the low happiness levels are understandable – after all how can you ruin cheese?

We found the finest food at Tchaikovsky which performs its symphony of tastes in a beautiful location in the Telegraaf hotel, just 70 metres from the main square. If you are planning on going to Tchaikovsky, go in to book the day before, or make your reservation online as it will be busy. As a vegetarian, I smiled through gritted teeth as the most perfect meat and fish ‘amuse bouches’ (tiny parcels of food you have not ordered but are pleased to be given) caused great amusement to Carolyn’s bouche (mouth) and I was left seriously reconsidering my lifelong commitment to vegetarianism. Fittingly, my wife has no sympathy for my self-inflicted diet and was happy to tell me how fantastic the food was. Beauty is only skin-deep, but the beauty of this food ran deeper than a freediver reading Dostoyevsky. Pretentious though it was, I loved the way a waiter served aromatic smoke as an accompaniment to the food. I could enjoy this course, guilt free. If you really want to go all out, the tasting menu at 72 Euro per person offers 6 dishes including Caviar, Lobster and Beef, just try not to think about what the equivalent would get you in a restaurant in England. If you offered £60 for food of this calibre back at home you may have a different translation of ‘Kiek in the Kok’.

Tourist trap
Tourist trap

For a modern Estonian flavour, and to prevent a high-level diva strop from certain hungry vegetarians, visit ‘Aed’ (which translates as garden) for the healthiest, herbiest food.

Centrally located in the old town (of course) and a great pit stop after visiting the Estonian History Museum (5 Euro entrance).

Do not be concerned if you are with a vegetarian and you think ‘Aed’ will force you to turn; there were meat and fish dishes here as well much to Carolyn’s delight. There is no shortage of food here. Bears are still found in Estonia and even in Tallinn. Vegetarians may want to look away now as the only place to find bear in Tallinn is hibernating within a leather-bound menu. Carolyn’s sense of travel adventure extends to embracing all cuisines although even she could not bear (sorry again!) this one. Winnie the Pooh was last seen heading to the DM Baar saying he did not sign up for this.

One unusual consolation of having been so desirable and consequently so frequently invaded, is that Tallin has managed to retain many of its medieval fixtures and fittings, as the ‘visitors’ must obviously have liked what they found. Estonia is one of the most secular countries in Europe, but visitors would not want to miss the spectacular churches within Tallinn. The ‘St. Aleksander Nevsky Catherdral’, with its very Russian onion domes, is just for starters. The less glamorously named ‘Short Leg Gate’ tower claims to be the most haunted building in Tallinn. The reported apparitions of crucified monks and black dogs may owe their sightings down to the local liquor of ‘Black Balzam’. My theory was that it could be the grumpy architect who wanted a cooler name for his tower (or at least one that had innuendo). As this is a perfectly safe city, the supernatural may encourage you to keep on your toes, walking around will stop you from becoming ‘Fat Margaret’. (Fat Margaret is a perfectly rounded tower holding the maritime museum for those still sniggering at the back)

St Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral - a taste of Russia
St Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral – a taste of Russia

If you would like to challenge your skeleton to a spin in a washing machine you can of course hire a Segway and shake yourself silly over the cobbles. Seriously, just walk or book a chiropractor. You can make a day of strolling around the city, taking in the sights and some excellent coffee; we did not have a bad cup. Our favourite was the Park Café which offered excellent Viennese pastry. For a fiercely proud people (many of whom consider themselves more Nordic than Baltic) the frustration of other cultures grabbing the best reviews must leave them cold. Sorry, Tallinn.

Tallinn’s museums serve up 11,000 years of history in small bites by displaying domestic artefacts including a Stalin and Lenin vase and Lenin’s spoon – which fits with the culinary influence. Looking into the dark past of Tallinn is a humbling experience at the Museum of Occupation. Here you can put yourself in a decision making role-play video, appropriately ending in a no-win situation where you will end up dead or a traitor or possibly both. Ashamedly, my HPI took a hit as I was both and received a virtual certificate of shame to remind me of this.

Throughout history, the people of Estonia have had to be hardened to survive. Relics of the past are being used to create the future; underground tunnels used to escape persecution, are a great way to explore the city if you are still a little concerned about the bears. The city museums are brilliant and you can get a 12 Euro card which will give you reduced price entry, check out the Tallinn Card website before you go. Do this if you love museums. If you are only going to go to one museum be honest with yourself and savour that one, as with the food it is quality not quantity, or if you are really tight there are numerous free museums!

St Michael's cheese feast, Tallinn
Disney star ‘Sebastian’ spotted at the St Michael’s cheese feast

To try to keep balanced between culture and excess, we became regulars at the brilliant ‘Wine Library’ on the main square. The owner seemed prepared to give us library cards as long as we did not talk too loudly while reading the labels. This seemed like fair reward for embracing the varied and educational museums on offer throughout the day. The ‘Wine Library’ is Estonian-owned but has wine from seemingly everywhere; sadly apart from Estonia. The waiter who recognised our dedication to wine studies proceeded to give us an interesting insight into Estonia’s relationship with the low scoring HPI Baltic states. In 1989, in a great show of friendship, people from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius held hands to make an unbroken human chain (called ‘Stebukla’ – the miracle) which stretched to the Latvian capital Riga all the way to the cobbles of Tallinn in a show of unified solidarity against the Soviet Union.

This was a major step towards independence of these three states. Everyone in this line for 430 miles risked their lives. Our waiter literally would not have held the hand of a Latvian at the next table, he was a little ‘emo’. We found nothing but warmth from everyone we spoke to and I was shocked that their HPI was so low. As a cultural challenge, Carolyn and I tried to work our way through an alphabet of wines by country in our four night stay. Not even the wine library could source Zimbabwean wine though.

The people of Estonia are not frosty, neither however is their ‘Ice’ bar at Merchant’s House Hotel , a lovely bar but mixing average cocktails and no sign of ice in the cocktails or the bar. All the museums, bars and restaurants I have named are within walking distance of this hotel. We found Tallinn to be a slacker’s paradise when it came to investigating the city’s main sights, as everything is so close. A recommended music bar would be ‘Clazz’ – this sophisticated bar, with great drinks and excellent music, cannot help itself but to undermine the cool status it would have earned anywhere else by merging class and jazz. Not clazzee! In many ways Estonia wants to be an 80s tribute country, but if you can peep beneath the virtual mullet you will find that Tallinn has everything you need to boost your HPI.

There is a lot more to Tallinn than food, drink and history, it trail blazes new technology; they were the first country to legislate for internet access as a human right in 2000. Under the cobbles and medieval garb, Tallinn watches its visitors and hopefully the Tallinn on Youtube or Facebook will reflect the beauty of Tallinn, not the invading tourists exhibiting 21st Century Medieval behaviour. To experience Tallinn, get to the tallest tower and the lowest tunnel, you will see a true mix of countries and cultures. Tallinn is not the ‘emo’ teenager its past could have created. If there could be an Estonian parrot, it would be the colour of the flag: black for sophistication, white for style and blue for being 76 places lower than the UK on the HPI.