Before we backpacked around Europe in 2000, I got my hands on a used copy of Rick Steves’ “Europe Through the Back Door.” (If you are inclined to do so, don’t hold it against me. I was young and impressionable; it was the only English language travel book available.)
Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, was described as having “a frosted cake feel.” Sure, the old town is small, cute, medieval and full of cobblestones, but Tallinn is more than just a pretty dessert.
But maybe I’m biased.
360-Degree Panorama: Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town (Vanalinn) at Night
For me, Tallinn was the place I retreated to on weekends during my Peace Corps service in Estonia (1998-2000). Back then, in comparison to my site-cum-hometown of 3,000 people, Tallinn felt like the big city. It was the sort of place where I could buy something other than iceberg lettuce. On my Peace Corps salary, I could even occasionally afford a meal of vegetarian Indian cuisine or ketchup-less pizza.
Typical of the post-Soviet hangover, restaurant service was surly, too. One of the games we Peace Corps volunteers always played: “Get the waitstaff to smile.”
If our charm failed, we had a secret weapon in my friend Amy. She made origami swans and sculpted various other creatures out of napkins. Even the surliest of matrons couldn’t help but break a smile when their table was swamped in paper animals.
Old Town Tallinn has seen its share of changes: an endless stream of brightly-hued paint and countless renovation projects since the country’s independence in the early 1990s — some more heavy-handed than others — have spruced things up from Soviet gray. Each time we’ve returned (in 2004 and 2008), the physical changes have been striking. So has the mood, ever more Scandinavian than anything else. Cafes and good coffee are no longer an anomaly, ketchup rarely seeps onto the pizza, and you’ll likely get a smile and some English spoken at restaurants.
Tallinn teeters on the edge of the frosted cake, but somehow maintains its spirit. So next time you find yourself there, surprise someone with “Tere! Kuidas laheb?” (Hello! How are you?) and a smile. This will help you peel away the veneer and experience some of the real Estonian spirit yourself.