Whilst holidaying in Finland, a mid-winter day trip to Estonia was put on the agenda, so we got up early to catch a ferry from Helsinki into Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet state. Seeing as Finland is mega-expensive, in terms of booze, I mean, many Finns take the 2-hour trip over the Baltic Sea for a day’s drinking session, and we weren’t about to be the exception.
Admittedly the ride across was quite smooth and the boat itself huge and rather well organised. I scouted out the duty free shop to see what I’d be grabbing on the return trip. A can of bear meat caught my eye, though the 15 Euros for a rather small quantity was a little excessive, I thought. I was informed by Juha that there was bare bear meat on offer in Estonian restaurants. ‘Bear with me,’ he said. ‘I hope we do find some,’ I replied. ‘I couldn’t bear missing out on it.’
Enough of that. The port of Tallinn wasn’t as Soviet as I’d been expecting, rather there was an array of new hotels and high rise buildings that quickly met the eye. People were more brown-haired than in Scandinavia, and the women a little tubbier too. Walking along the streets I came across the first thing that looked from beyond the curtain, in the form of an extremely antique tram system rattling down the wide avenues. Free for Estonians apparently.
My friend needed jeans (everything is cheaper in Estonia than Finland) so we ended up in a shopping centre, which much to my delight had some kind of live dancing show going on to commemorate Estonian independence. My limited knowledge of eastern European culture means I can’t say what type of dancing it was. What wasn’t in doubt was that the dancers were really enjoying themselves, and most of the crowd sang and jigged along too.
Soon after we ended up at a Russian restaurant, the name of which escapes me. The red décor inside was palace-like in a traditional sort of way and we had to descend to the basement to get to the eating area. A huge bearskin hugging the wall greeted us, just another nudge to influence my choice of food.
I got into tourist mode and decided that I must try things I’d never had before and thus opted for a starter of caviar pancakes followed by bear dumplings as a main, accompanied by an Estonian lager. The idea that caviar is reserved for the affluent didn’t quite ring true, at least as far as the pricing was concerned. I’d never really thought about what fish eggs entailed, but the salmon ones I got came in the form of perfectly rounded pink bubbles. Unsurprisingly, they tasted like little bursts of salmon and the way they popped when you squeezed them between tongue and tooth was quite pleasant.
Next up were the bear dumplings, which were served in a vegetable broth. I won’t deny that I imagined a big grizzly growling as I bit into the first one, more tender and juicy than I’d expected. The taste was akin to beef but with something a little extra that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Keen to see what the meat looked like, I opened up the dumpling and inspected it, though again, it could easily have passed for any other animal.
The novelty of the food was certainly the attraction, and the presentation can’t be criticised, though I must admit that Russian food was certainly lacking in flavour and seasoning, and all in all I’d classify it as being bland and a bit colourless.
As in most cultures, food was followed by drink, so off we went on a tour of Estonian pubs. They were certainly cheaper than in Finland and arguably had a greater range of beers. Most places looked rather Gothic from the outside and quite modern on the inside and I could easily imagine them turning into rave nests in the early hours. Still in the habit of trying new things, I had a go at a pint of alcoholic grapefruit juice called Long Drink, and rather felt the effects.
Amongst the establishments we frequented was a gentleman’s cigar club, rather like one that James Bond might go to. In spite of being ticked off for entering the cigar room without permission, we went over to the very sophisticated lounge, where Juha chomped on a Cuban and I enjoyed a Martini, the first time I’d done so since getting them for free on a floating casino in Argentina. Only for gentlemanly occasions is Martini.
Tallinn is certainly a picturesque city and towards the historical centre the lanes that curve up and down around Gothic architecture have their charm. Many buildings seemed built into rocks and had caves, so I could imagine a historic tour of the city to be interesting. Lo and behold I didn’t have time for that, but I’d perhaps consider a more cultural experience if I were to come again.
Live revolves around the sauna in the Baltic, and we’d hoped to find a particular one near the port on our way out, but we weren’t successful despite a taxi driver insisting he knew one which turned out to be a gym. Never ask a taxi driver for directions I say. A life skill.
And then on the boat back to Helsinki we got. I turned down the offer of beers on board as the rockiness of the ride wasn’t being too kind to my insides, though I did find time to raid duty free for chocolate and moose products, as I figured I’d already checked bear off my bucket-list.
Regarding Estonian culture and people, such was the whistle-stop nature of my visit that I couldn’t really gauge much. Certainly reserved, though more open than the Finns. In the capital at least, I didn’t get much of a sense of Mother Russia except in the restaurant, but instead a Gothic, medieval feel. First contact with Eastern Europe for me, and I’d like to see more and maybe try interacting with the locals more to find out a bit more about the idiosyncrasies of the Estonians.
30 before you’re 30, they say. I’m currently on 20.