It has long been a dream of mine to visit Greece at Easter, as that is the most important religious festival of the year, celebrated with ceremonies, parades, good food and drink, and a passion which is missing from most people’s lives here. So obviously, we spent Easter in the far North East of Europe, in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. It’s possibly 2,000 miles due North of Mount Athos, so there’s definitely a link.
As the plane flew over the Baltic, the snow and ice covered landscape below looked quite snowy and icy. All blues, browns and whites. We were met at the airport by a man holding an A4 sheet of paper with my name across it and a sleek black Mercedes waiting next to a deep pile of hard packed snow outside the airport. We got in and he took us on the short drive to the hotel, but he took us the long way round so as to show us the general lie of the land, sights to see and stuff like that. All good. We were staying at the St Petersbourg, which is just a few yards from the lovely Gothic Town Hall Square in the centre of the old city. Parquet flooring, triple glazing, a fur throw on the bed and fifty yards from three or four of the best restaurants in town; can a hotel room be more perfect?
After a quick unpacking exercise we decided to wander out to explore and find a snack. We had pumpkin samsas and coffee from a Russian stall by the sea gate, and decided that we were going to like Tallinn. We found the Niguliste church and went in for a look around, and weren’t disappointed. They have huge intricately carved and painted wooden memorial coats of arms on the walls, which I love to look at. It’s a thrill a minute with me, can you tell? The afternoon passed quite quickly as we took a preliminary stroll all around the medieval old town to get our bearings and we soon got hungry enough for the evening meal.
We started at the inn at the sign of the golden piglet with a small plate of the homemade herby cheese with bacon bread and a bowl of sauerkraut, barley and smoked pork soup. Then Anita had chicken breast stuffed with apple and plums in mushroom sauce with radish coleslaw and baked potatoes and I had a wild boar stew in juniper berry and cream sauce with honey dipped vegetables, and finished with pear cake and Kama mousse, which is a mix of ground barley, peas and grains in a sour cream and cream cheese mousse, sweetened with a spoonful of jam. We had Estonian beer, which was good.
The next day after the lovely buffet breakfast we again strolled around town, sitting at a cafe on the square with creamy steaming coffees basking in the sub-arctic sunshine. We walked up to Toompeea hill, visiting the Alexander Nevskij Cathedral and catching the views form the hilltop viewing platforms. A shabby looking elderly gent came up to us, and started telling us what we were looking at. When he got a handful of old Russian rouble coins out of his pocket and I showed a bit of interest, Anita sighed and walked off for a bit of solitary sightseeing and reproachful glaring. After a while, I was five euros lighter but I was the proud owner of three soviet era ten rouble pieces and I now knew the address of a bar where there were many nice friendly women, I only had to mention Dmitri and show the town map he’d given me with an indecipherable note written on it. You will be pleased to know that I didn’t make use of the information, but one of my grandsons will soon have a slightly more diverse foreign coin collection. We went back down to the town square and had a glass or two of the lovely hot spiced wine at the three dragons cave.
We had dinner at the Olde Hansa Waggehus that night. If ever you go to Tallinn, there are three or four places that you really should try to eat at. This is one of them. It’s a tourist oriented Medieval theme restaurant, and it’s done so well that it’s unmissable and brilliantly executed. We had a plate of Elk, boar and cured boar steaks. We had a plate with four elk, boar and bear sausages. There were piles of ginger scented swede, saffron spelt, and lashings of horseradish infused sour cream. There was a baked apple in pastry with almond sauce, and there was a dish of rosewater and mascarpone pudding. There were huge clay pots of cinnamon beer. We ate. We drank. We drank some more. We struggled back to the hotel. We slept, eventually.
The next day was Good Friday. To celebrate we went to the three dragons and had small pastries and hot spiced wine. We wandered through the lovely picturesque St Katharine’s passage. Then we went down to Viru and took a couple of bus rides out of town. One after the other. Not at the same time. The Estonians have a very healthy, semi pagan attitude to life and death, and we saw that in the huge woodland town cemetery, where small stones mark the graves in among the tall trees in the forests. Very peaceful, very beautiful in the snow. We went through the port and briefly entertained the idea of a day trip over to Helsinki, but decided to save that for another trip.
After returning on the bus, we decided to walk the mile or so out of town to the seaside, as from the bus it had looked suspiciously like the sea was frozen. As indeed, when we eventually found our way there through the huge port area, complete with two wrong turns, and knee deep in ice crusted snow covered parkland, it turned out to be. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been in the presence of a frozen sea before. Apart from being visually spectacular, the movement of the currents and waves beneath the slowly thawing ice makes it sing. It’s a slow, creaking, groaning and crackling song of cold and mystery. Well worth almost getting lost and chilled to the bone for.
So after all that, by the evening we were starving again. I was anyway. Anita kept asking how I could eat at this rate. I just told her, I order a meal, I open my mouth, the food does the rest. So, we thought we’d try Vanaema Juures, or Granny’s place, of which we had heard many good things, but there was not a table to be had. After a brief evening wander we returned to the golden piglet and we both had pea and ham soup to start. Then Anita had lamb chops and I had roast pork. I was just thinking that some music would be nice, when a chubby faced smiling man sat down with an accordion but ten paces from our table and started to play jolly Baltic shanties and haunting Russian folk tunes. I thought, this is nice. As long as he doesn’t start to yodel. Then I’d have to stab him in the face. He looked like he might start yodeling at any moment. We had red wine with our dinner and finished it with ice cream and sea buckthorn berry syrup. Which seems to be quite the thing in that part of the world. As the accordion player had not yodeled I gave him a five euro tip and a grateful smile as we left. Far preferable to a knife below the eye, I fancy. He smiled back, conspiratorially. He knew what the blade of a knife could do.
On Saturday we went for another walk around town, and found ourselves up on the walkway at the Hellemann’s Tower, with views across the snow crusted roofs. Anita wasn’t too keen as the planking below us reminded her of being on the pier.
“But there’s no water below us my love”, I chided, “what’s to fear?”
“Thin air. There’s thin air. I’m going down. You enjoy walking on planks.” So I did.
That afternoon, her mood hadn’t improved so I decided to take a solitary wander out to the park and palace at Kadriorg, a shortish way along the Narva Manatee, which is a long road out of town. I know, because I’ve walked it. Kadriorg’s a lovely place. The park was thick with snow and quite crowded with families enjoying the weekend. I realised that I should have taken a pee before I left town, and I couldn’t find a public convenience anywhere. No matter, I thought, I’ll find a toaletuvid, or whatever they’re calling it today, and failing that there are plenty of trees to hide behind, it’s a park after all, and anyway I’ll probably be able to hold out until I get back to town. But I hadn’t taken account of the effect that extreme cold can have on the full bladder of a middle aged man in a crowded park in a strange land. I wandered around, taking desultory photos and looking for a likely looking door in the many buildings dotted around the admittedly beautiful winter park. But WC found I none. Every time I saw a likely looking tree to take advantage of, in a manner of speaking, I noticed there always seemed to be too many people, or potential witnesses to an act of public indecency, as they could well be described, wandering about. I headed back to town.
I inspected, hopefully, every courtyard, every turning, every doorway, but they all seemed to be overlooked by windows and open spaces. The bladder was actually becoming painful by now. Eventually, I had to give in. Just ahead was the entry to a turn of the century apartment building. I turned into it, and blissfully released a couple of pints of furiously steaming yellow rain onto a handy snowdrift, the light ochreous stain spreading across its icy crust. Just as I tucked the old chap away and zipped up, a young mother and her two delightful children came around the corner. She smiled. “Hello! English?” And walked past, giggling. I might just have well pissed in the gutter for the world to see. My clothing couldn’t have betrayed my nationality, surely, as I was wearing my beautiful new Italian cut tweed winter jacket and a multi coloured silk scarf. I looked quite dashing, I thought, even while urinating in an innocent family’s doorway. These are the events which define my memories of my wanderings across the cities of the incontinent. I said nothing to Anita on my return. It would only have led to gloating.
That evening we tried our luck, a bit earlier this time, at Vanaema Juures. Grandmother took me by the arm around the small restaurant. Upon each vacant table was a small handwritten note upon which was written a time, using the 24 hour convention. It was 18.05. We came to a table with 20.00 on its bit of probably handmade Japanese watergrass paper. She turned to me, and sternly gazed at me above the lenses of her spectacles.
“You can eat a meal in one hour and fifty minutes?” She demanded of me.
“Yes. Oh yes. Just give me the chance?” I replied, desperate.
So, in one hour and thirty seven minutes, we ordered, ate and drank, a plate of meatballs with horseradish cream and a bowl of cheese and vegetable soup for starters along with a bottle of Rioja. Anita had roast wild boar and I had lamb in a blue cheese sauce. Only it wasn’t lamb. It was mutton. And all the better for it. The colour, the texture, the depth of flavour, are so much better. Why is it so hard to find mutton in England? Anita finished with apple cake and I had an Estonian Easter dish of oranges, dried fruit and flaked almonds in a rich cream cheese sauce. Red wine and coffee. One hour and thirty seven minutes and we didn’t have to rush it.
We went for an evening stroll up to Toompeea, taking in the view of the city below and the Russian cathedral above. All very picturesque and Eastern. I love it.
That night, I awoke in the early hours, disturbed by Anita walking at the far end of the room. I drifted back to sleep, wondering why she was doing something so out of character for her. It must have been the food. Or the red wine. The next morning she asked me why I’d been wandering around the room in the middle of the night. We discussed the matter, and decided that neither of us had been wandering around the room. But we’d both seen, or sensed, something. Then we found that the door handle, which we’d both checked as double locked the night before, was unlocked. The security bar, which you couldn’t open from the outside, was swinging loose. The digital safe was open, which I’d locked the night before. Nothing was missing, nothing was moved. One of the inner windows had come open while the outer one was still locked. How about all of that then?
The next day was Sunday, our last full day. We had hot spiced wine and a bowl of elk soup at the three dragons, then went out around the town buying souvenirs for all the family. It’s the sort of old town that you can spend days just strolling around, finding new corners to turn around, new alleys to explore and new courtyards to wander into. Except they’re not new. They’re all very old, and all very beautiful and full of character.
The day passed, as days do, and we walked around the outskirts of the old town, down to the frozen lake where ducks and swans looked pretty fed up at the lack of liquid water, and went to couple of churches. I said a private word for a friend who died a couple of weeks previously but whose funeral I’d missed because I was where I was now. She’d have liked it. We went to freedom square and watched the children on scooters and the women with their long hair and impractical heels on the cobbled streets.
We ate at the Peppersack. Again, a medieval themed masterpiece. We went down into the deep bowels of the building for a grill meal, rather than stay upstairs in the banqueting hall where they did the big, rich meals.
For our light repast, we started with the snack plate, which consists of dried elk meat, a selection of cured white fish, marinaded forest mushrooms, smoked cured pork fat shavings, pickles and salad. Then Anita had a steak and I had half a lamb. There was ratatouille, mustard mashed potatoes and lots of other stuff. Then we had raspberry ice cream cake. There was lots of the lovely Estonian beer too.
We came home on Monday afternoon. We finally thought we’d have something for dinner late on Tuesday. Tallinn. Go there. Especially if you like food.