Travelogue Baltic 4: Tallinn

19 June 2016

Having elected to forego the tour and transfer options for Tallinn (based on our rudimentary research indicating that the town was less than a kilometre from the pier), it was reassuring that we could see the Old Town skyline from the ship as we disembarked at 9am. It was drizzling, but we were prepared this time so wouldn’t be buying any more umbrellas!

Our cruise ship was docked in the Old Harbour with a pleasant thoroughfare through a curio store and a coffee shop, where we picked up a free tourist map. Not that we needed one; exiting the shops, it was impossible to miss the city gate atop the hill directly ahead.

We entered the Old Town through the aptly named Great Coastal Gate, protected by “Fat Margaret” – a 25m high grey stone tower with little red tile kepi roof and walls up to 5 metres thick – who has been standing guard over the entrance since the early 1500s.

The town was still fast asleep, probably because it was still relatively early and also it was a Sunday (although one might assume that a town with such a condensation of churches might call Sunday their busy time!), so we did a spot of window-shopping as we made our way up the cobbled streets to the town square, passing the St Olav’s Church, which benchmarks building height in Tallinn and is the reason there are only 6 skyscrapers in the (new) town.

Tallinn’s Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and its town square, Raekoja Plats, built in the beginning of the 1400s, is arguably Northern Europe’s best preserved medieval town hall square, so even walking past the quaint “unnotable” buildings was picturesque. The old town is divided into lower and upper; the lower being the hanseatic traders and the upper (Toompea) was inhabited by nobility.

There was some activity on the square, with people setting up their market stalls as well as what seemed to be some sort of festival stage and benches. It was still drizzling though so we kept moving to get a head start on the tourist sites before the inevitable hoardes descended.

We managed to get ahead to the “Kiek in de Kok” tower; the entrance to the historical underground bastion tunnels, which were supposed to serve as bomb shelters for the Communist elite in case of war in Soviet times. The name means “look into the kitchen” (we had a far less mature guess) referring to its view into the surrounding homes and because that’s exactly what the soldiers spent most of their time doing while they were supposed to be on the lookout for intruders.

They would have had a grand old time if they were to be posted there now; there is a pub and cafe on top of the wall so they’d be able to warm their cockles with some of Estonia’s finest rum, Vana Tallinn, while keeping an eye on things.

The rain was putting a literal dampener on things – and ruining the view from these excellent vantage points we were visiting – so we decided to turn our efforts to the Guinness Index to wait out the weather.

A very pleasant hour in the Albion and a 4 Euro Guinness later, the rain had stopped and we were on our way again.

We retraced some of our footsteps to get a better view / pictures, but we had really already seen everything we wanted to see, so just had a bit of a wander up and down cobbled walkways, popping into the odd shop and perusing the odd menu (for nothing more than idle curiosity, mind).

The town square concert was now in full swing, with a spirited accordionist whipping up frenzy in a large group of fans in front of the stage that had organised themselves with interlocked arms into concentric rings that were twirling – at pace! – in opposite directions. The song’s tempo was getting faster and faster, as were the dancers in response, until suddenly with a few crescendic bars, the accordionist called the song to a close and everyone roared cheers, threw arms up with thunderous applause and there was laughing and hugging all round.

Since many were in traditional dress (the typical embroidered medieval derivatives), this excitement was obviously no coincidence and this concert must’ve been a big event to these local people. We were glad to have caught the tail-end of it.

We’d seen in a tourist map that there was a KGB museum in (new) town, at Viru Hotel so planned to take a turn past that on our way back to the ship. It was unfortunate that the hour-long tours were sold out for the afternoon because the exhibitions looked interesting, constructed from a old spy room that the KGB used to use back in the day to monitor the goings-on (by hidden cameras, holes in the wall and the like) in this notorious hotel.

The walk back to the ship was quite pleasant; leisurely, downhill, familiar and dry! We had plenty of time to go until curfew for boarding so got to explore the market on the harbour. We were tempted to try the Tallinn rum – based on the number of commemorative empty bottles “decorating” the pub on the old town wall, it must be quite special – but resisted seeing as we couldn’t take any aboard with us anyway (thanks to security at the embarkation points) even if we did like it.

First order of business when back on the Serenade of the Seas was lunch. Perfect timing for some mid-afternoon casual dining! Intending only to take a morsel (seeing as dinnertime was only 3 hours away), the buffet once again got the better of us with delicious pasta and con carne.

Fat and happy, it was essential that we kickback and flex our lounge for a couple of hours!

Dinnertime came all too soon. We’d had to book in the first sitting because we’d designed a series of activities for ourselves that required us to be ready by 7 or eating very late (which we don’t do).

The formal dining room is a la carte from a limited (about 10 options per course) but varied selection. The chef’s recommended 3 course combination is printed on the menu and the waiting staff – who get to know you (by name) since you always sit in the same section – give further advice based on your previous selections. Our waiter knew us a bit too well and surprised us with a bonus third dish when he served main course – a lasagne, adding to the tiger prawns and pork shoulder roast we’d ordered – which would certainly have gone to waste if everything hadn’t been so ridiculously tasty!

Our expanded dinner put some time pressure on us to get to our 7pm show – a comedy / magic show in the Theatre, but we were grateful for the leg-stretch to get the enormous feast settled.

The show was light and fun, with the host, Mel Mellis, maintaining a buoyant  monologue, heckling peppered with amusing anecdotes and punny one-liners, while performing some simple magic tricks. It was a laugh and we agreed we’d support Mel again if he had another show later in the cruise.

Next stop was a high-tail to the Schooner Bar for a music trivia quiz. Tonight was the night of Michael Jackson and the audience was tasked with identifying hit and obscure songs from snippets that the host teased. Old MJ is pretty prolific so we did rather well.

Better than the poor hopefuls participating in the game show in the Centrum. Being in the horizontal centre of the ship, the Centrum is an open 9-volume cylinder where all the decks look down onto a central floor and little stage.  There is a bar and collection of chaisses, cocktail and bucket chair tables ensconcing the performance area, but the majority of the audience settles in the protruding balconies and chairs alongside the glass dividers on the upper floors, with a perfect view of whatever spectacle is for offer below.

Tonight’s show was “Complete the Lyric”, where contestants were offered a section of lyric which then cut short and they were to continue the song.  Contestants buckled to the likes of Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson until finally ‘Chris from Tennessee’ was able to  annex the missing 26 “I Know” suffixes from Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”. It was quite a coup for him. And the whole show was quite entertaining for the rest of us.