​​Estonia’s Capital Still Has
an Old-World Charm


A panoramic view, from Toompea, of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Toompea, derived from the German word Domberg, meanig the Cathedral Hill, is the seat of the government of Estonia. The cathedral in the name refers to the Aleksandr Nevski Cathedral, a landmark in Tallinn. The author is seen here with two local students who were visiting Toompea at the same time as he did.

July 29, 2009—Wednesday

I was on my way from Latvia to Estonia. With greenery all around and very few vehicles on the road, I could not have asked for a more enjoyable bus ride. When the bus reached the border between Latvia and Estonia, two lady officers belonging to the Estonian border police came on board. They checked the passports of all the passengers.

I was surprised to see them ask a young woman and an elderly man, sitting in the row in front of me, to get off the bus and follow them. They were taken to the police van parked nearby. I could see through the window of the van that they were being interrogated. After a few minutes, they all came back. The woman was still arguing with the police in Russian. She opened her pocketbook and took some money out and gave it to the police and got a receipt for it.

She explained to me later, in perfect English, what it was all about. She and her grandfather were citizens of Latvia. Her grandfather did not have his passport with him. For identification, he was carrying his driver’s license. He did not carry the passport because he was under the impression that, since Latvia became part of the European Union, a Latvian could travel to all EU countries, including Estonia, without a passport.

I told her that I was also under the same impression. “Maybe, because the Baltic States joined the EU only recently, not all EU regulations, especially the travel-related ones, have been implemented as yet,” I said. “It seems the border police are still following the old regulations.”

The young lady was visibly upset. “Had I known this, I wouldn’t have put my grandfather through all this trouble,” she said. “I finished college last year. This is my first vacation since I started working. I wanted to give my grandpa a good treat. And some treat, this one. They charged me a fifteen-lat fine.”

She was referring to the Latvian lat (LVL), the currency of the country. The fine would come to about 20 euros. “It’s not the amount of money that’s at issue here,” she added. “It’s the way they treated us. They treated us like criminals.”

Though the fine was imposed by the Estonian authorities, they had no problem collecting it in Latvian lat. They did not insist that it be paid in their currency, the Estonian kroon (EEK).

Baltic Integration in the EU

All three Baltic States had initiated the process of switching to euro soon after they joined the European Union. To get slightly ahead of our story, Estonia completed the process and joined the Eurozone on January 1, 2011. Latvia did it on January 1, 2014, and Lithuania on January 1, 2015.

The Baltic States were admitted to the European Union on May 1, 2004. A country would attain legal status as a member only when it ratifies the treaties that were the constitutional basis of the EU: the Treaty on the European Union (the Maastricht Treaty of 1991) and the Treaty Establishing the European Community (the Rome Treaty of 1957). By the time the Baltic States began their ratification processes, the two treaties had already been amended and replaced with the Treaty of Lisbon. Latvia ratified the Treaty of Lisbon on June 16, 2008; Lithuania on August 26, 2008; and Estonia on September 23, 2008. The Treaty of Lisbon came into force on December 1, 2009, with the last holdover country, the Czech Republic, ratifying it on November 3, 2009.

So, the Latvian lady’s anger was understandable. After all, the citizens of all member states of the EU had been told that a major advantage of being part of the union was the freedom they would be enjoying to travel among all member states as though they were one country. Even a year after her country completed all legal formalities to become a member of the EU, she was denied that freedom—that too at the border between her country and Estonia, both of which were parts of one country, the Soviet Union, until a few years earlier.

After that unpleasant interruption, the bus resumed its journey. The argument now was between the young woman and her grandfather. I couldn’t tell what it was about. I had started having my breakfast, which I had picked up at Riga before boarding the bus. I craned my neck towards the woman and said, “Let not that small incident ruin your trip.”

She just smiled but continued her argument. After a couple of minutes, I tapped her shoulder and said, “Please have some orange juice.” I offered the large cup of orange juice, half of which I had already drunk.

“No, I am fine,” she said. “Thank you, though.”

“I won’t be able to finish it anyway,” I told her. “I don’t want to waste it. After that heated exchange with the police, you need something to cool yourself.” She thanked me and took it.

Exploring Tallinn with a Russian

After two more hours, the bus reached Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. A young man who was getting off the bus with me smiled at me. “Have we met before?” I asked him.

He said he had overheard my conversation with the hostel owner’s wife the day before. He was staying at the same hostel. He was tall and handsome, and spoke enough English to make himself understood. He was a policeman, on desk duty, in a small Russian town bordering Finland. On a week’s vacation from work, he, like me, was on a tight schedule. And, like me, he would be returning to Riga in the evening. When I suggested that we explore Tallinn together, he happily agreed to it. He said he would be making a similar trip to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, the next day.

“I will join you if my energy level permits,” I told him. “I will let you know in the evening.”

His jovial mood and friendliness helped me overcome, in a matter of minutes, the language barrier between us. At the Tallinn bus station, we picked up some travel brochures and marked a few important places we thought we should visit in the few hours we had at our disposal. One of the brochures had this warning: “This is certainly not a place for a fleeting visit. With so much on offer, you'd be doing the town, and yourself, a disservice.” I thought the warning was especially meant for people like me.

We were in Tallinn Old Town, the area of the city that still had buildings of medieval architecture. The travel brochure was exaggerating only slightly when it described the place as “mystic, addictive, and mesmerizing.” The place does have an old-world charm. Some of the buildings date back to the 11th century. Often referred to as the “medieval pearl of Europe,” Tallinn Old Town was classified by the UNESCO, in 1997, as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

The name Tallinn has a Danish origin. The area of Estonia that became Tallinn was conquered by the Danish king Waldemar II in 1219. It happened during the Northern Crusades. Danes started settling in the new land conquered by their king, and the town they built around their settlement came to be called Taani linn—which, in Estonian, means Danish town. Tallinn is derived from Taani linn.

By 1227, all of Estonia had come under German control. When Tallinn joined the German-dominated Hanseatic League in 1285, it became a channel for trade between Novgorod, an important trade and cultural centre in Russia at the time, and the West. It flourished as a marketplace for traders until the mid-16th century. That until 1918, Tallinn was also referred to by its German name, Reval, is a testimony to the important role the German settlers played in its growth. The Germans were mostly artisans and merchants.

The story of Tallinn, and of most of Estonia, from the early 13th century to the early 20th century, is one of domination by Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Russia, in that order. With brief interruptions now and then, Russia was in control of Estonia for nearly two centuries. From 1945 to 1991, to repeat what we said in the previous chapter, it was also one of the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union.

Though Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, the impact Soviet rule had on the country is likely to last forever. It is the outcome of the Russification policy the Soviet Union followed in all its newly grabbed lands. Today, 25 percent of Estonia’s 1.3-million population is of Russian ethnicity. The Russian language is widely used in the country.

“Maharaja India Restoran”

My Russian acquaintance and I were in Town Hall Square—Raekoja plats, in the Estonian language. A signboard, with “Maharaja India Restoran” written on it in large letters, was staring at me from the other side of the square. “Let’s go and see what the inside looks like,” I told the Russian. “It’s too early for lunch. We’ll decide where to have lunch later.”

There were no customers inside. Two Estonian waitresses were setting up the place for lunch. I asked one of them whether the place was Indian-owned. “Yes, he is the owner,” she said, pointing to a smart-looking Sikh, in a white suit and red turban, sitting on a high stool in the bar section of the restaurant. He could be in his late forties or early fifties. He walked towards us, beaming, and introduced himself: “Ajit Singh.” Then he turned to his employees and said something.

“Do you speak Estonian?” I asked him.

“No, I spoke Russian just now,” he said. “I learned Russian after coming to Estonia. I learned it from my employees. I didn’t go to JNU to learn it, as most of my friends did.” He was referring to the famous Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi. The courses in Russian offered at JNU are very popular in India.

Ajit Singh opened his restaurant in 1991. He said that there were about 150 Indians living in Estonia. “We have an Indian consulate here in Tallinn, no embassy,” he added. “The consulate is attached to the Indian embassy in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Helsinki is only two hours by boat. Latvia and Lithuania also have only consulates—no embassies yet. Those consulates, in Riga and Vilnius, function under the jurisdiction of the Indian embassy in Sweden.”

Mr. Singh said that he was originally from Jalandhar, Punjab, but spent several years in New Delhi before coming to Estonia. Then he took a good look at me and said, with a smile, “I can tell you are from the South. Tamil Nadu or Kerala?”

“There is no mistaking of that. I am from Kerala.”

“Oh, I have many friends from Kerala. They work for Nokia, across the gulf.”

He was referring to the Gulf of Finland. Nokia Corporation, the leading mobile phone maker in the world, has its headquarters in Finland.

“Do you know that Nokia’s largest manufacturing facility is in India?” I asked him.

“Yes, I know that,” he replied.

Though there was not a single customer inside, the décor and furniture of the restaurant gave me the impression that it had seen some prosperous times. During their boom period (2000–2006), the Baltic States were nicknamed the Baltic Tigers—an allusion to the Asian Tigers. The rapid economic growth, which the Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea—experienced between the early 1960s and the 1990s, was the envy of the rest of the world at that time.

As the birthplace of Skype, Estonia had become a major beneficiary of the boom in information technology. But the global financial crisis of 2008 hit the Baltic States very hard. Estonia’s growth rate, which was over 11 percent in 2006, fell to 3.6 percent. The government in Latvia collapsed in the wake of the crisis. The new government, under Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, took over in March 2009. Did the crisis affect Mr. Singh’s restaurant business?

“Not as badly as other businesses,” he said. “Most of my customers are tourists. As you know, tourists are not as tight-fisted as the local people. But because the economic crunch has hurt tourism, my business also has slowed down. We’ll get over it.”

“I like that optimism,” I told him. “I wish you all the best.”

When my Russian acquaintance and I got up to leave, he stopped us and said, “No, you can’t leave like that. You must have something. Coffee, tea, or some juice?”

“I have heard a lot about Indian hospitality,” the Russian said. Mr. Singh and I brushed it off with a smile.

“It is very hot outside,” I said. “A glass of water will be ideal.”

Mr. Singh went behind the bar table and filled two glasses from a tap. “Yes, today is unusually hot,” he said, handing us the glasses.

“We have only a few hours left before we take our bus back to Riga,” I told him. “We want to go around and see as much of Tallinn as we can before we leave. Otherwise, we would have stayed for lunch.”

We shook hands with Mr. Singh, thanked him, and left.

Hare Krishna Followers of Tallinn

Town Hall Square is known as the “social heart” of Tallinn. Free music concerts are held here on most summer evenings. We were told that all the empty outdoor cafés we were seeing would be filled with customers by evening. In December, the square gets “transformed into a charming Christmas market,” according to one of the travel brochures.

The square is also famous for its summer fairs. We did pass by something that could pass for a fair: Estonians who had fallen on hard times were out there selling things, most of them made by themselves—children’s clothes and toys, paintings, photographs, picture frames, etc. We walked past all of them, but we couldn’t help stopping at a table with a variety of chocolates spread on it.

It was not the chocolates that made us stop, though. Nor was the beauty of the two girls selling them that did it. When they said that those chocolates were homemade and that they were selling them partly to pay for their college, I felt obligated to buy some. When I tried to take a picture of them, my Russian friend—by now we had become friends—grabbed my camera and insisted that I pose between the two girls. They happily obliged.

Standing between them, I said, “This is my souvenir from Estonia.”

“You are welcome, Sir,” one of the girls said.

We continued our walk. When I heard the sound of Indian music wafting in from a distance, it aroused my curiosity. I was not expecting Indian music in a small Baltic town where I had not seen a single Indian, except a restaurant owner. Pointing to an alley out of which the music came, I told my friend, “Let’s go and take a look.”

As we approached the alley, we saw a bunch of Hare Krishna followers emerging from it. All of them were men in their late twenties or early thirties. And all were clad in dhoti and kurta, some saffron-coloured and some white. A few of them banged cymbals, one played the tabla (the Indian percussion instrument), and another one the harmonium. All of them chanted:

Hare Rama, hare Rama, Rama Rama, hare hare;
Hare Krishna, hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, hare hare.

They came out of one alley, crossed the square, and went into another alley. We watched them until they disappeared from our sight.

“Do you have them in your town?” I asked the Russian.

“No,” he said. “I have heard about them. This is the first time I am seeing them in person.”

“They are there in all big cities of the world,” I said. “I didn’t expect them in Tallinn. This is America’s contribution to Hinduism.”

We continued our exploration of the Old Town area. We passed by several churches—most of them small, blending well with other buildings. St. Olaf’s Church, named after the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson, was an exception. It dwarfed all other buildings in the area.

The original structure, built by Danish settlers as a place for socializing and worshiping, needed renovating and rebuilding a few times. It was burned down three times, and its steeple was hit by lightning ten times. When the steeple was raised to a height of 159 metres, around the year 1500, it became the tallest structure in the world. Since then, needless to say, many other structures have come up around the world, surpassing it in height. It still dominates the Tallinn skyline. From 1945 to 1991, when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, the tower of St. Olaf’s Church came in handy for its security apparatus, the KGB. The KGB used it as a radio tower and installed surveillance equipment on its spire.

Another important landmark in Old Town Tallinn is St. Nicholas Church. It was built by German settlers around 1230. The interior of this sturdy structure—“designed to double as a fortress” before the Germans built a wall around their new settlements—was almost destroyed in World War II Soviet bombings. The restored structure is now used more as a museum and music hall than as a place of worship. It houses the Niguliste Art Museum of Estonia. The most popular piece of art in the museum is Danse Macabre [The Dance of Death], painted by Bernt Notke at the end of the 15th century. The music hall is much sought-after by concert organizers.

We had only a couple of hours left before heading back to Riga. So we decided to go up the hill, to the part of the town called Toompea.

Toompea is derived from the German word Domberg, meaning the Cathedral Hill. The cathedral from which the hill gets its name is the Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral. Famous for its golden-onion rooftops and luxurious interiors, this biggest Greek Orthodox church in Tallinn is another important landmark in the city. There was a time when it was mandatory for women to cover their hair while entering the cathedral. Not anymore.

Toompea is also the seat of the government of Estonia. The Toompea Castle, originally built, in 1227, by the German Knights of the Sword, now houses Estonia’s parliament. A few yards away is the Stenbock House. Named after Count Jakob Pontus Stenbock, a descendant of a Swedish noble family who completed most of its construction in 1787, it is now the office of the prime minister. It was originally meant to be a courthouse.

We had been strongly recommended not to leave Toompea before taking in the spectacular view of Tallinn from its top. The view of Old Town—with its medieval red rooftops juxtaposed with the modern city centre—was spectacular. The distant coastline added to the beauty.

Looking at my watch, I told the Russian, who had by now become a friend: “All good things come to an end abruptly.”

We had only a few minutes left to catch the 7:00 p.m. bus we were booked on. We climbed down the hill and walked fast. Destination: Tallinna Bussijaam.

​​​(Published on December 4, 2017. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 17 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at amazon.com and xlibris.com, and can be ordered through any Barnes and Noble store. The India edition of the book is available at amazon.in, Flipkart and Pothi.com)

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