City Of Contrasts

13th May 2011

Usually, observes Chris Ambrose, to call somewhere a place of contrasts is pure cliché. Lazy journalism.

A brief visit to the Estonian capital of Tallin, though, suggests that such a description is highly appropriate here.

I left the plane at Tallinn’s small but architecturally stylish international airport almost reluctantly. The twenty degree drop in temperature was a rude awakening after my early flight, but, wrapped up in all my available cold weather gear, I did feel a buzz of exploration as we rumbled along the snow-swept streets of the European Capital of Culture for 2011, on the ten minute bus ride to the city centre.

We pulled up in the heart of the new town, beside a collection of towering glass structures that were reflecting the sun’s rays in all directions. High-end hotels leaked besuited business men and women from across the continent, stand cheek-to-cheek with smart shopping complexes that house all of Europe’s latest designer fashions – the first indications of how far this nation has come since its escape from Soviet clutches twenty years ago.

But it isn’t the modern aesthetic that draws the increasing numbers of visitors to this city. A short stroll around the corner and you’re greeted by cobbled Viru Street leading up to the medieval towers that guard the entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old Town: the cultural heart of Tallinn.

I had intended to track down my hotel, but after a few turns in the maze of narrow, winding streets I felt less inclined to divert my eyes towards a map, and far more eager to simply wander around and observe my surroundings, ignorant to direction and purpose. The fresh snow reflected the sunlight, emphasising the vibrancy of the colourfully painted walls that line the streets. The charm of this rehabilitated slice of the medieval city is unavoidable, and the immaculate appearance of the Old Town that was bombed so heavily during World War II pays homage to the efforts this nation has gone to in the past couple of decades to restore and cement itself on the European map.

Raekoja Plats marks the centre of the Old Town, with the Town Hall on one side of the square, and smart restaurants, with tables overflowing out onto the cobbles, occupy the other three. A short climb following a section of the historic walls brings you up to Toompea – the Upper Town, and the fantastically ornate late-19th century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. A quick stroll along an unassuming side street then leads you to a hidden courtyard that opens out onto a spectacular viewing point across Tallinn. From here you can look down over the red-roofed buildings of the lower Old Town, with its countless whitewashed towers and spires. Looking beyond and to the east is the modern, high-rise enclave, while directly north lies the busy ferry terminal, with the Gulf of Finland beyond. In the distance you can make out the dark, ominous structure of the 314 metre high Tallinn Television Tower, standing like an abandoned Soviet guard keeping a nostalgic watch over the rapidly developing city – albeit from a safe and seemingly ever-increasing distance.

As I meandered back down towards the lower town I passed a local art seller, who pointed out a painting of the historic skyline, prominently featuring St. Olaf’s church – once the tallest building in the world, and now a popular viewing platform during the high season. The fact that it took the lady a good few moments to track down the location of the church on my map bears testament to just how many cathedrals, churches and towers there are packed into the relatively small area of the Old Town.

For three Euros you can walk a section of the walls, offering a roof-level panorama of the city, while numerous cafés and shops selling amber can be found tucked away down the narrowest and most unassuming of streets, strongly suggesting that it might only be through accident or happy coincidence that you would ever stumble upon them again. It was this very technique that finally brought me to my base; a smart hotel facing onto a small cobbled intersection, next to a grand looking building that subtly masks a casino and club within. Once inside the spacious and comfortable surrounds of my room, I could finally study map and guidebooks, and get to grips with the layout of this city, as well as taking the opportunity to warm my hands before setting out again.

It is only if you can bear to drag yourself away from the elegance of the Old Town that you begin to see beyond the almost fairy-tale surroundings that exists in the reconstructed medieval centre. As I set off towards the port that operates from just beyond the walls, I slipped into St. Olaf’s church, where I caught the tail end of the regular Sunday service. Yet more evidence of the contrasting nature of this city was on display here, as those in the congregation who were seated behind one of the many enormous structural pillars of this 12th century church were provided with a live video feed of the proceedings, courtesy of a series of giant flat screen televisions.

The busy shipping port offers a range of regular ferry services to various Scandinavian destinations, but to the western side of this sea-faring hub there is an inconspicuous memorial to Tallinn’s not so distant past. A massive concrete slab forms the ugly exterior to the Linnahall – possibly the most notable Soviet hangover that still remains prominent in the city today. Built as a concert and sports complex in the late seventies, to coincide with the 1980 Moscow Olympics, this ugly monolith that even a heavy snow fall fails to soften is an all too clear reminder that twenty years is not such a long time in the history of a nation. The feeling of desolation that I got from standing alone in the icy wind on top of the giant concrete platform was inescapable, and the distant, hollow bark of a dog echoing around the deserted plinth only served to emphasise the dramatic contrast this characterless feature had over the Old Town, which stood just a few hundred metres away.

I was surprised at how little the city seemed to be promoting its status as current European Capital of Culture. In fact the only acknowledgment that I saw was a large advertisement plastered across the side of a bus, although a series of music and art events are being held across the more hospitable summer season. But perhaps the title is all that is needed, and it is in itself recognition of how far Tallinn has come since Soviet occupation. Joining the EU in 2004 was a big step, and the adoption of the Euro currency in January of this year was another significant landmark in the ‘Eurofication’ of this progressive Baltic state. Newly signed ‘Eurovelo’ bike lanes weave around historic landmarks throughout Tallinn – a city that is wreathed in wi-fi connectivity, and that can boast about being among the top ten ‘digital cities’ in the world.

As I left the Old Town to head back to the airport I caught sight of some graffiti on the wall of a newly renovated house. It read ‘retro-futurism’. However distasteful the bold green lettering may have been in this immaculately restored part of town, I couldn’t help feeling that this callous piece of ‘artwork’ actually summed up Tallinn surprisingly eloquently: a city honest about its past, but pushing firmly on into the future…

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