Many say Tallinn is the prettiest city in Europe and indeed, I kid you not when I tell you that the world heritage-listed city centre is as cute as a fairy tale and as sweet as maple syrup. Yet behind and beyond this lovely town, there are many faces, both historical and overwhelmingly contemporary, both pretty and nostalgically hostile. These various facets that coped with the extremely different influences, have made Tallinn not only a cute little pie to visit, but a city whose different identities will make you wonder whether this is actually a single city and not several emerged into one.
My personal expectations before arriving were basically non-existent; with only Helsinki being my point of reference and me having been told that the Finns use it as a party and shopping spree destination. When arriving, I was stunned by the tiny size of it as it took me barely 20 minutes to get from door to door, form plane to hotel room. And indeed, the city has a population of a mere 425,000 habitants, which it isn’t that big of a number if you consider that this is the oldest capital city of northern Europe...
Invasion after invasion after invasion after invasion
The capital of Estonia has gone through a thousand and one periods of siege and foreign invasions, external influences can therefore be seen and felt wherever one goes. First considering the name of the city, which it is thought to derive from Taani-linn or Danish-castle, as it was once taken over by the Danes. After the Kingdom of Denmark took over, the Germans followed, then the Swedish, the Soviets, then came the Germans again with Hitler as their Führer and today Tallinn is mostly overthrown by the zillion Finns that come visit the city whenever possible. It shouldn't be hard then to imagine the potpourri of influences in this place, from architecture, to food, to language... you name it.
From medieval, to Soviet, to Nazi to hip
Going from the medieval gems that you and every single tourist are likely to find, the Old Town has got some very interesting mixtures of 1300 architecture and a few souvenirs from the darkest periods of the USSR. Likewise, if you are able to avoid the beaten paths and try to explore less known streets, the creativity of local artists is palpable every now and then which makes one feel as if the city wanted to talk to you, as if there was a message meant to be received, a notion meant to be felt.
Since the size of the old town was remarkably small, I took off with my colleague Lubo who told me that deserted warehouses were the trendiest part of town nowadays and that on the way to them, there were wrecked wooden houses worth checking out and photographing. And so we went on exploring the not-so-fancy parts of town and ended up walking through streets that could as well be found in poor parts of Philadelphia or forgotten paths of Prague. These wooden houses were mostly in extremely bad shape and seemed as if no one had ever meant to care for them. As charming and photogenic as they were, they also emanated a sense of forgotten pain and suffering. Consequently, the feeling that took over me was such that it made me overpoweringly sad; it was Weltschmerz all over again.
Fortunately once we kept walking, we reached the mentioned warehouses that seemed somehow less detrimental than the areas we had walked through a few minutes earlier. These former soviet depots were horrendously grey from the outside, but when paying closer attention to the interiors, we were able to notice the birth of the cool and the evolution of the ‘hip’ inside. The industrial area was once, not so long ago, taken over by students and young entrepreneurs to start creative hubs, trendy bars and restaurants. It felt a bit Berlinesque to be honest, with young people hanging abouts with their books and laptops in immense rooms full with both soviet artefacts and modern props. I felt in my element, the industrial architecture, mixed with broken walls and old buy very comfy sofas served as the perfect combination for an afternoon break. Everything was so different than a few minutes before and again another few hours before that, I wondered if I hadn’t visited three or four different cities in one. This was and still is for me Tallinn’s charm, it’s multifaceted and multi-layered identity, one that plays with your sense of nostalgia, history and belonging.
If you are ever in Tallinn and fancy getting lost into oblivion with a bit of trendiness next to it, visit the Telliskivi industrial complex. Not far away from the centre and with nostalgic views on the way. The place you want to stop by for a bite or a drink is called F-Hoone, on Telliskivi street nr. 60.