There’s more than meets the eye to Tallinn

Andrew Kaye discovers there’s more to the Estonian capital than dreaming medieval spires and a fantastic food scene.

There is no better place to orientate oneself in Tallinn than in Toompea, cradled into the city’s limestone hills. Suspended above the din of the cobblestoned streets, we immediately headed to the Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral competes with the gothic Holy Spirit Church for the attention of day-tripping tourists’. But being simple folk, we hungrily weighed up where to eat our first lunch. We settled on Kohvik Moon, which specialises in modern Russian fare.

Culinary connoisseurs are in for a treat. I tucked into orange and honey-glazed salmon. My partner’s pike fishcake came in a vermouth sauce. Soon, though, we felt the need to walk off the many servings of rye-bread and properly acquaint ourselves with the city.

The Tsarist naval base close to abandoned Patarei prison provided a stark reminder that for all the city’s modern temptations, it has a rich, and often uncomfortable, history. The site is readying itself for development but the successful buyer must meet one condition: they have got to dedicate space to an International Museum for the Victims of Communism. For families, there are submarines to step into next door in the Lennusadam, a seaplane harbour.

But wherever we walked in the city, and it is highly walkable, we were confronted by Tallinn’s contradictions. The birthplace of Skype, it boasts new projects that rival the very best in East London. In fact, the Telliskivi Creative City’s Fotografiska space has already opened. The same venture, promising world-class photography, is planned to open later this year in Whitechapel.

Dazzled by the neon blues of Telliskivi’s street-art, Kalajama neighbourhood makes for a tranquil pitstop. The wooden houses built a hundred years ago, still stand here today – just. Some are the same colour as glazed apple pastries on display in nearby cafes.

For history buffs, Tallinn is the gift that keeps on giving. On our second day, we browsed Raejoka Plats, the main square. There are gabled 13th century-merchants’ houses, handsomely terraced just metres from the old KGB detention cells.

Just ten minutes away we went on a tour of the old KGB listening-post at the Hotel Viru – a must for anyone who recently watched Chernobyl, or simply loves a chilling story.

Magrit, our guide, remembered the stultifying days of Soviet rule. The Viru was targeted at tourists who came to stay in the 1970s and 80s. Some used to joke on their return to the West that the hotel was a miracle; it was “made of both concrete and microphones”. Magrit left none of us in any doubt that for nearly two decades, guests were being spied on.

Away from the city centre, there are marvellous walks in the Kadriorg park, which is where Peter the Great gifted his wife Catherine I with a baroque palace. Mon Repos made for a splendid place to rest, situated close by. For lunch, I indulged in a dish of Chanterelles and Caper Cream-Cheese Gnocchi. Next came the modern art museum, Kumu, said to be the best gallery in the Baltics.

However, the undoubted highlight of the whole trip was an organised visit to meet with Rabbi Kot of the Beit Bella synagogue. He warmly welcomed me into the wondrous building, opened in 2007, which followed six decades where not a single synagogue existed in the whole of Tallinn.

It is now at the heart of Estonian efforts to rebuild Jewish community life. The country is believed to have a population of just under two thousand Jews but projects are underway to help the community grow.

I asked him about the shul. There is a mikveh on site, and a Hebrew school too. For a city where all Jewish life was extinguished during the War, and in the Soviet era was prohibited, he added simply, with a mix of joy and hope in his throat, that now was the time for the community to cherish “freedom”.

For all of Tallinn’s inhabitants, and on the 30th anniversary since the country’s famed ‘Singing Revolution’ overcame Communism, freedom is prized, perhaps, above all else.

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