Things are not always what they seem… in Tallinn
Tallin was always going to be great. Top of Baltic pops. Top of our Baltic journey. And an obvious end of a chapter on this strange journey to Moominworld. Our guidebook had pumped Tallin up so we pedalled hard to try and get there early to have a couple of days to soak up the atmosphere before the ferry to Finland. But the atmosphere on our approach was already soaking, with heavy showers hampering progress and a broken pedal on the triplet which meant Hannah was powering on an ever diminishing stub of a pedal which had to be tie-wrapped back together every ten kilometres or so. It was all very typical of our Baltic experience.
But at least there was a cycle path
But, unlike Riga, at least there was a well signposted cycle path to Tallin. At least until the road had to be dug up for roadworks. While the rush hour traffic followed well signposted diversions into the city, squashing thousands of tiny toads fooled into thinking rain meant it was a good time to cross the road, we were taken through muddy puddles, led down tracks to deep trenches, then left to fend for ourselves on a busy dual carriageway. Still, with 1100 Baltic kilometres under our belt we were experienced Baltic riders now, determined to make Tallin; and between downpours forged a route towards the TV tower made famous in Estonia’s most recent struggle for independence.
All just too much..
But the rain, the pedal, and the distance were just too much, and so wet and tired after a 70km day we decided to check into the first place we could find on the outskirts of town. We’d looked up the price of central Tallin hotels the night before and knew most were quoting 250 euros plus for a family room, so hoped out of town might be kinder to our budget, which was more like a quarter of that for a whole day’s expenses.
The Hostel Privat was a shining star in the middle of more road-works and a typically Baltic surprise. Kirstie went in to suss it out and came out hardly able to conceal her joy at the Baltic pricing.
“They can do a family room for 30 euros,” she announced.
Cameron and Hannah came running out excitedly behind, “And we’ve got a Jacuzzi bath.”
“And a sauna to dry our waterproofs in.”
We had a beer in the bar then fired up the sauna. As we filled the Jacuzzi, the kids fought about who would go first and then, as the bath filled the room with the sulphurous smell of rotting eggs, fought about whether they had to get in it at all.
Not always shiny in the Baltics
Shiny things in the Baltics are not always what they seem. They are, almost without exception, extremely good value, particularly to visitors from Western Europe, but often come with little Baltic quirks. Like the beautiful log cabin that turned out to be a flies nest. The hotel that was really a hospital. The beautiful beach where the kids fished poo out of the sea. And of course the toilets that wobble precariously when you sit on them. The showers that turn like catherine wheels soaking everything in the bathroom except you. And the taps that spin happily in the basins without ever dispensing water. In the Baltics you don’t always get what you expect, but what at first seemed frustrating, over time became endearing and was always so affordable that it was forgiveable.
Sweet and sour Baltics
And while biking through Lithuania, Lativa and Lithuania has undoubtedly been a challenge, it is one that’s been sweetly rewarded with delights and surprises along the way. Like riding the pine scented Curonian Spit. Crashing into the Baltic Beach Party. Screaming down the Tornado water slide in Jurmala. Bobsleighing and toboganning in Sigulda. Watching the changing of the guard at the freedom monument in Riga. Visiting the Karosta prison near Liepaja. Touring the Russian nuclear bunker in Ligatne. Canoeing down the Guaja river. Gatecrashing the Estonian Triathlon in Otepaa. Learning about life under communist rule, the Soviet legacy and the struggle and joy of independence.
But the biggest joy of all has to be being able to afford to let everyone have whatever they want to eat and drink, plus sweets and ice-creams without ever having to worry about breaking the budget. No wonder the kids have enjoyed it too.
Tallinn is the epitomy of Baltic Madness
Our introduction to Tallin was the epitomy of Baltic madness. We were happily bumping our way along a narrow cobbled street, dodging tourists and street cafes when we encountered our first Tallin City party bike. A pedalling octopus of screaming stags and hens, downing bottles of beer while pedalling furiously on a bicycle made for eight, careering manically through the town, heading for the next bar, club or strip joint, stags leering, hens screaming and everyone out of control. Crowds of tourists parted like the Red Sea, two tourists on Segways fell off and we just stood and stared, while everyone stared back at us; tandems, triplets and trailers in a medieval wonderland.
Things that don’t fit
And just as we don’t really fit in a medieval city, so Tallin doesn’t really seem to fit in the Baltics. The Old Town looks as much like it belongs in the Baltics as we felt when we got off the ferry in Klaipeda. It’s a chocolate box city, a transplant from mediaeval Germany. The Old Town Hall, Raeksplats, churches, spires, city gates and maze of merchants houses and cobbled streets all pieces of Baltic history that have managed to survive all the occupying powers and their efforts to make the place their own.
You can read Baltic history in a ride around this city; in the Hanseatic old town and simple spires of Christian churches; in the palaces and manicured gardens of Russian Tsars and the bulbous spires of Russian Orthodoxy; in the classic ornate wooden buildings of true Baltic craftsmanship and the art museums offering their own unique view of Estonian history. And in the missing markers of the most recent Soviet occupation whose monuments have been removed to make way for a new independent future.
Where old meets new and stag meets hen
And then there’s the eclectic influence of modern capitalism; the shiny new tower blocks beyond the city walls, shopping malls, McDonalds, and the cheap flights and cheap beer that have given the city a new more menacing aspect, as a Baltic stag and hen capital. As the afternoon turned to evening, as we cycled up and down the cobbled streets, this pre-marriage tradition, often involving fellow Brits who’d flown over with RyanAir for a few quid, was apparent in just about every part of the Old Town.
Tallinn’s party people
A group of shapely women dressed as French maids sat on the knees of strangers outside Old Hansa, one of the oldest restaurants in town, teasing male chins with feather dusters, while another group of girls in white ballet tutu’s accompanied a Barbie Pink bride to the Museum of Medieval Torture. Outside, men in blood-red hoods with cut-out eyes pushed leaflets into the hands of tourists, offering a chance to see how Estonians got their kicks in times gone by. I wasn’t sure who was the most menacing; the torture specialist in red or the chick in pink and didn’t have time to find out.
Up in the high town on Toompea, we watched the sun set over the city. A stag party of twenty English blokes stood outside the Russian Orthodox Cathedral telling their guide that the ancient churches were all very nice, but that they’d actually come for a McDonalds, some cheap beer and a nightclub. When one of them said he didn’t care for McDonalds, a small fight broke out on the square until another stag group went past on Segways forcing everyone out of the way. In the distance we could hear the party bike coming with a fresh party of revellers, no doubt drunker then the last.
And so to bed
We cycled away and along the sea front, past the broken line of steel that commemorates the 1994 Estonian Ferry Disaster, when eight hundred and fifty people perished in the chill of the Baltic Sea off Tallin. Outside one of the seaside bars stood three young men dressed in Estonian drag, playing tuba, trumpet and cornet, busking the theme to Titanic, looking for a few spare kroons.
Time surely to retire to the campsite.
One last surprise
In the brochure, Tallin City Camping sounded really nice. Set on the sea front, a few kilometres out of town, on the cycle path, in the grounds of the Estonian singing festival arena, a focal point of the singing revolution and the venue for annual gatherings of tens of thousands of Baltic songsters. It sounded an interesting place to stay and we thought it would be a break from the heat and crowds of the city. It was also an affordable alternative in a city where any cheap hotel deals had already been snapped up by stags and hens.
But right to the end when we scratched the surface, some of the sheen disappeared. Tallin City Camping was actually a car park on an industrial estate, with a young dictator in charge, some small patches of scrubby grass for tents and a luxurious bed of concrete and plug in points for dozens of European campervans. We had tucked our tent out of the way, behind a factory at the back of the car park, but just as we were about to get in, tired and hot after our long day in the city, a fellow camper came over to greet us.
This place is really buzzing
“Is this your tent?” he asked, beckoning me to come over but indicating that the kids should stay behind. “You should not do this,” he continued pointing towards the gloom of our pitch. By now I was convinced I was in trouble for contravening at least three camp rules, pitching in the wrong place, moving a bench and locking a trailer to a table.
“There is problem,” he pointed to his arms and made a buzzing noise waving a hand around.
“I set tent here earlier and have problem with…”
More buzzing and arm waving.
“Many sting. Evening in hospital. Maybe you should move.”
And so the prospect of a comfortable night on the scrub turned into a honey coated game of Russian roulette. A classic Baltic end to three weeks of enchanting Baltic madness.