Doors of Tallinn

The Old Town of Tallinn has lots to offer — cobbled streets, limestone fortress walls, church steeples, old typography over some medieval looking inn, hand-drawn wooden carriages from which emanate fragrances of sweetened almonds and much more. It is the most well-preserved walled city which has earned the Old Town of Tallinn the tag of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I come from Mumbai, which also used to have fortifications. Not one bit of the erstwhile fort wall was left behind when the city authorities, then under British rule, decided to take the fortifications down between 1860-1874 for the city to grow. So I can only imagine that wall around the then H-shaped Bombay island.

Tallinn’s Old Town has a lot of its 13th century walled city plan, still in place. In a way, Tallinn’s Old Town is like a time capsule if you can unsee the touristy mores present all around you. Things can get overwhelming soon. It can then get tricky to focus on any one thing.

Keep your eyes peeled to check out these doors which are full of character in the Old Town of Tallinn

After many hours of walking spread out over three days, one thing started to emerge in the old city to me — the doors of houses and buildings which had retained the aesthetic of the eras gone by.

I forget what this establishment was, but the angled design on the door and the sculpture above it, made this one stand out

I was in Tallinn during the summer of 2017. Considering its geographical location, it’s safe to say that the cold climate dominates the city. The doors, therefore, were made out of wood — most of the ones that piqued my fancy at least.

Doors in Mumbai (back in the day) had a character to them, till everything became a sun mica polished affair with grilles on majority of them, to give an illusion of more space in this city. Doors in my native place and other rural parts of India that I have been to, still retain some character and you can see the wooden texture without much embellishments.

This was the door to a church, but the intricate woodwork deserved a place in this post

In Tallinn’s Old Town, doors to some buildings looked like they were just meant for one thing — arrest your attention. It made me wonder, how many feet must have passed through these doors, from the many centuries past. Oh the stories they could have told, if only they could speak. Most of the doors were closed, hinting at residential properties. Only the souvenir shops had open doors, thereby inviting you to closely observe them.  

This souvenir shop in the Old Town which had a basement shop made use of the door as a hanger on

There was nothing elaborate in terms of design when it came to most of the doors. It went with the philosophy of the more modern architecture I had observed during my week long stay there. While function trumped form for most of the doors, it was the little things that differentiated them from one another.

Doors of some of the residential buildings

An overuse of red with green demarcations on one door to the light brown pastels on the other. From a diamond shaped design on one, to the wooden portion in the top half replaced by glass in some. Floral flourishes on some to others which were intriguing enough to lead you down an underground cellar. Considering most of the structures are made of stone, inside the Old Town, painted in light pastel shades, the only dark colour profiles were seen on the doors of these buildings.

This was an entrance to an underground bar

There is one door in particular that is quite popular in the Old Town. It is the door that leads to the house of Brotherhood of Blackheads  — a brotherhood of unmarried, legally dependent, jobless German youth who could get acceptance to the Great Guild — a collective for artisans and merchants who were operating in Tallinn from the 14th century till around the 1920s.

The door stands out from all the others, and why not? The facade of the door was designed in the 16th century. The last members of the Blackhead brotherhood were around till the 1940s, before being sent away by the Russians. The distinguishing factor of the door on this house is the presence of intricate art work on the top portion of the door, with a wooden bust of their patron, St Maurice. The brotherhood exists in Hamburg, Germany, to this day.

The doors on buildings on the outskirts of the Old Town weren’t as well maintained

There were parts of the city where the doors didn’t seem like they had kept up with their contemporaries. Here, I realised, the crowds were also non-existent, so there was fairly little incentive to ensure the door looked its best. The doors here had the paint peeling off, the inner wooden texture visible and appearing brittle. Basically, a door screaming for a paint and polish job.

I would have loved to talk to the residents living behind those doors. But on my first day in Tallinn, my walking tour guide had informed me that Estonians are generally quite reserved by nature, and will not immediately strike a conversation with random strangers.

I tried my luck with some strangers on the street, but to walk up to a house to speak to the residents was a bridge too far, for an introvert like me.

More from the Tallinn trip

Vana Tallinn

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Taking random paths while travelling is one of my favourite pastimes. In Tallinn, the old city does tend to grow on you after a couple of days. For someone afflicted with the golden-age syndrome, the old city can be overwhelming. Lest you are determined to discover some portal that will take you back a few centuries, like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, I’d say it would be a good idea to get out of the fortified old town of Tallinn.

Estonia is a sparsely populated nation of just 1.3 million inhabitants. Tallinn, its capital city, is where a third of that population lives. And still, there were only pockets of places where I could find a crowd. I can’t put my finger on it, but wherever I went in Tallinn, there was this thought at the back of my mind always: “Tallinn is on the verge of becoming a hotspot, give it five years.” The possibilities for that happening were palpable, outside its main tourist draw.  

The skies were ominous as I decided to park myself by the shore

After exploring the Kalamaja neighbourhood, with its Soviet-era wooden houses, I was longing to check out the sea-facing portion of Tallinn. According to Google Maps, I wasn’t too far from the shore. I followed the Maps, in the direction of the light blue area close to a spot called Kalarand — the Baltic sea. Its first sight just filled me with immense happiness. All the exhaustion from the five hours of walking done before that, kind of evaporated. I always feel at home in any city, which has access to a water body in the form of a lake, river or a sea. It just gives me some much needed extra energy after I am weary from travel. Blame it on growing up in Mumbai, with its access to the sea. I’m at sea when I am in land-locked areas.

A quiet moment with friends. Also a great place to work

The beach or rather the sandy portion of the shore, looked like it hadn’t or wouldn’t in the near future, at least, see any major development. But sitting there on a warm by breezy July afternoon, was probably a good decision after hours of walking in the Old Town. There weren’t many people around. Two grannies, who could be tourists or locals, just sitting together but staring into the horizon. Not speaking a word to each other. Another youngster just parked his bike behind me, and took out his laptop. The calm sea with its waves lapping by the shore gave him the perfect lo-fi ambient sound to focus on his pending work. A father-son duo were sitting on the rocks ahead, with the son trying to play the stone surfing game.

When I parked myself there along with these people, the atmosphere looked dramatic in the sky. I wasn’t carrying any umbrella on me and was afraid that it would pour any moment. But it was a good idea to stay on, as the sun was out soon enough.

Somewhere on the right hand horizon, were a few boats and a cruiseliner

The promenades were not neatly demarcated and there were a lot of pods which had rusted iron bars exposed. The aqua blue of the water was wonderfully complementing the royal blue sky, which was impregnated with clouds. In the far distance, I could make out some boats and a cruiseliner.

As for me, I was reflecting on the time spent during my close to three month fellowship stint in Germany. I felt like writing something, but decided against it. At that moment, I just wanted to be present with nothing to do. In the now. There would be enough opportunities to put pen to paper later. After ages, I had taken a vacation where I had no agenda for the rest of the next couple of days as I had stretched what could easily be done in three days to almost five days.

The skies cleared after a while giving lovely blue hue

After around 30 minutes of just sitting there and doing nothing, other than watching the waves, I continued the onward journey along the shoreline on the left first, and then on to the right. I passed by the Seaplane museum, but I really did not have the mental agility to do a museum tour after that 30 minute break at a random run down beach. If I had a bike, I would have carried on further, but knowing the frequency of the buses here, I did not want to take any chance walking more than I had for the day.

While exploring around the shore, I came across a gate which had a tiny opening. I looked in and saw a glimpse of an abandoned place. It piqued my curiosity and I decided to check out the place later. I never did that, and while writing this blog post when I looked up the map, I realised that I had missed out on seeing an important slice of Estonian history — the Patarei Prison.

No, I don’t regret not seeing it. It was just meant to be a chill day after all.

The glimpse of the abandoned Patarei prison in Tallinn
Father-son duo making the most of the sunny day
On the way back to my hostel, I passed by this remnant of the Tallinn past
Doesn’t look like this shore is getting any love from the Estonian authorities any time soon

More from the Tallinn trip: Vana Tallinn

Vana Tallinn

There have rarely been any instances, where I have immediately been sold on a location – after watching a TV show.

Ever since I saw that episode of Travel with Rick Steves on Tallinn in 2014, this Estonian capital had already made its way to my travel bucket list. A city, touching the Baltic sea, with an old town surrounded by fortifications – majority of which was still standing – was all it took to have me convinced.

So when I had a couple of weeks free, after my German fellowship (three months in Germany, whaat?), it was really a no-brainer as to where I would be headed. This is the thing I love about Europe. Getting access to so many different cultures, without having the hassle of bothering with paperwork – God bless the Schengen Visa.

Old Tallinn Town Hall Square

As I made my way outside the airport, I was introduced to a slice of the tech savviness that is part of this country’s DNA. I purchased a travel card, Uhiskaart, for which you pay a 2 Euro deposit and load some balance for local travel. Having come from dot-on-time German public transport, I immediately realised that Tallinn’s sense of time was stretchable, after I waited ages for my bus to the city. That kind of reminded me of Mumbai, where time-wise things are fluid.

Tallinn streets were empty as my bus made its way outside the airport terminal. Only when I had made my way into the city centre, did I see more people around. Turns out the population of the whole of Estonia is a mere 1.3 million people, out of which around 450,000 live in Tallinn. That’s 1/20th the population of the city I come from. To put things into perspective there are more people living in Andheri than in the whole of Estonia.

Edgy contemporary design co-exists with centuries old aesthetics

When I told friends that I am going to Tallinn for a week, I got blank stares. ‘A week in Tallinn?,’ many questioned. ‘You can wrap it up in three days,’ said my German roommate. Ideally, if I were up to it, I could even wrap it up in two days. But I was not really looking at having a hectic tick-off-the-to-do-list vacation. I’d booked myself into this hostel – The Monk’s Bunk – for a good five days and all I was looking forward to, was travelling at a really slow pace.

The Monk’s Bunk hostel easily had the most chilled out staff who offered me a shot of Vana Tallinn on arrival!

The moment I checked into my hostel, I was treated to a shot of local cognac by the name Vana Tallin (which translates to Old Tallinn). The mere thought of that translucent dark brown concoction still makes me salivate. It was sweet with a hint of orange. There was a mild bite. A liquer I could easily have more than a couple of shots of. One thing I regret, is not picking up a bottle of it from Tallinn. That shot of Vana Tallinn immediately set in motion the friendly vibes I would continue to keep getting from this tiny European capital.

Most of my time in Tallinn was spent walking around the Old Town, the only reason for which I had decided to go there in the first place. After a point, I sort of became familiar with some roads, as I had exhausted the list of free things to see and do.

After unloading my luggage in my hostel, I quickly went out for walk in the chilly Tallinn evening

With Tallinn, walking led to a plethora of surprises. Discovering a rundown beach by the Baltic sea and taking a walk to one end of it, I stumbled on an abandoned prison which was not accessible, but only visible from a hole in door. I wasn’t expecting to see many Indian restaurants in Tallinn as it’s not really a must-do among the Indian tourists. I was proven wrong on my first evening. After a few walks around the main Town Hall Square, a couple of Indian waiters would flash a smile at me asking me my ‘haal chaal’. I relented and had dinner one evening at an Indian restaurant. Spoke at length with the Andhra owner of the place in Hindi (I was speaking with someone in that language in almost two months). Turned out there was a whole community of Indian traders in Tallinn’s old town. Were I in my journalist mode, I would have surely thought up a story idea.

On another day, I walked into an alcove from where I heard a lot of chatter. This led me to a courtyard which was surrounded by local handicrafts shops and a bakery which was adorned with old grandfather chairs. I just had to have a hot chocolate sitting in one of those cosy chairs.

The Estonian War Memorial has a cross, but Estonia isn’t a religious country

You’ll see symbols of religion all around you in the old town, but surprisingly, Estonians aren’t a religious bunch. With over 90 percent of the population not following any religion. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or surprised. But when you consider how technologically advanced this tiny nation is, that detachment from religion seems logical. Having just got independence from Soviet Russia in 1991, Estonia adopted technology early to avoid concentration of power. It’s the only country in the world which offers an e-Residency program. I can go on and on about how tech-forward Estonia is, but I’ll stick to travel.

A side-effect of the being ruled by Denmark, Sweden and finally Russia is that a lot of Estonians are quite reserved by nature. It’s a pretty young country.

That classical structure on top – Stenbock House – is where the Prime Minister of Estonia resides. Notice something missing? Z-level security!

Nicola, the effervescent walking tour guide who always had us walking tour participants in splits with her sardonic humour, recalled an amusing instance, to draw home the point of indifference shown by Estonians, to each other. Once when she was travelling in a bus, she noticed one of her neighbours in front of her with her shoe laces undone. But because Estonians generally keep to themselves and are awkward at the aspect of drawing any attention, she didn’t bother telling her neighbour about her laces. This – said Nicola – was considered normal behaviour.

“So don’t get demoralised if elderly Estonians don’t return your smile. It’s just how we are,” she said.

I had five days to figure out if this was indeed true.

There’s always a bird posing against the beautiful view on Toompea Hill
Tallinn Town Hall is located in the heart of the Old Town
A green oasis alongside the 2nd century wall in Old Tallinn

Book Review: Sun After Dark – Flights Into the Foreign

Where do I even begin with Pico Iyer?

I always used to read travel writing literature as a destination-specific story, informing me about a place or the adventures had along or during the journey. While that still holds fort for me, off late it’s the ‘Why we travel?’ question that I seek answers to. Iyer’s work always gives nuanced responses to that question and one of the reasons why my locker and Kindle always have his books up front.

His work stands out amidst the travel writers I have read (and I have read a lot of them) in the sense that his writings are as much about the inner journeys one undertakes during the external wanderings. He has touched upon it brilliantly in his TED Talk on the Art of Stillness.

One of the many covers of 'Sun After Dark'. Image Courtesy: Bloomsbury
One of the many covers of ‘Sun After Dark’.
Image Courtesy: Bloomsbury

Sun after Dark: Flights into the Foreign is yet another fine example of that oeuvre. He weaves it into beautiful prose and gives a resonance to the thoughts you may have had on some trip to some place, planned or otherwise.

Unlike his other books such as Video Night in Kathmandu or Falling Off the Map or even The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, where Iyer goes all in on the nuances of the places explored through the places and its people, in Sun After Dark, the place happens to be incidental whereas it’s the layered perspective he brings out that make the story. After a point, you forget that it is a travel book. In that sense, it is on the same wavelength as that philosophical treatise on travel by Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.

Sun After Dark is a collection of travel stories, philosophical essays and slice-of-life profiles of people encountered during the travels. And keeping in the vein of Falling off the map, Iyer ventures to some remote places on the planet. Easter Island, on a new year’s eve, anyone?

What’s more interesting though is the places or subjects he revisits: Japan (he has been living there), India, Tibet, personalities such as the Dalai Lama, Leonard Cohen. This revisiting gives interesting insights into a place and the personalities. The chapter on Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-song writer turned Buddhist monk’s right hand man, wonderfully explores the reasons behind the transformation of the person. The Dalai Lama, on whom Iyer has written a separate book altogether (The Open Road), straddles the world of monastic duties, keeping the exiled Tibetan flock together, addressing huge crowds, being in celebrities’ list of friends and more. Who’s the person behind the personality? The chapter “Making kindness stand to reason” explores just that.

Sunset on the Dal Lake, Srinagar

In the essay “Nightwalking”, one of my favourite in the book, Iyer explores that state of limbo that is somewhere between a jet-lag and re-adjusting to your home or foreign settings after a long-haul flight. The virtues of being on the same time setting of your home country to the absolute failure of trying to fight jet lag as you age, Iyer wonderfully explains that feeling of being in that weird frame of mind that follows a return from a long journey. I have experienced that always after a trip to and from the US, where no matter what strategies I try, I end up ruining my sleep cycle for a few days at least.

“A Far off Affair” showcases India in an interesting light, through the typos in the sentences on notice boards or language in daily parlance, and not just stopping there but trying to dig in to the etymological histories.

“Happy hour in the heart of Darkness” set in Cambodia, debates on the ethics of travel to places where you could be enriching an extremist government. This is something even a Jack Dorsey could relate to, after the furore caused online after he posted his post-Vipassana photographs from Myanmar.

Each essay is full of insights which needs to be read, reread and pondered over. It peels another layer of that question which has started to pique my interest – why I travel?

I would like to end with one (of the many many lines) that stuck with me after I was done with the book. Says Iyer,

The physical aspect of travel is, for me, the least interesting; what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know, and may never know.

We have all come across these shadows, at some point in our travels. 

Iyer does the hard work of putting them into words. 

Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018: Will anon artist Guess Who make an appearance again?

I ended my last blog post with a bit of a riddle. The street art I documented in the last post, most of it seemed like commissioned work. Visually brilliant that it was, it still missed that edginess one generally associates with street art. While walking the streets of Kochi, I also came across this artwork which was a bit quirky, political in its messaging and not too elaborate.

The tag read “Guess Who”.

GuessWho (6)

The striking aspect of this stencil art was the mashups of popular international figures with Indian everyman/everywoman. For instance, the smiling face of Colonel Sanders pasted on a daily wage labourer sitting on the ground in dhoti and chappals or Mona Lisa’s face on the body of a typical Indian village girl carrying a pot of water.

The artwork, which did not have these kind of mashups, was mostly accompanied by some witty prose.

GuessWho (1)

First I thought it may be some local artist, who is renowned for these cheeky artworks. But spotting Guess Who artwork isn’t that easy, like it wasn’t at the best of Kochi locations to sport artwork. It was mostly to be seen on walls in tiny lanes or plastered on the sidewalk which was filled with advertisement posters.

This made me wonder, if this was one of those genuine street artists who stamp the city with their artwork for no money, but to make a statement?

Sure enough, a Google search online revealed interesting aspects of Guess Who. The artists’ work apparently started showing up around the time of the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale, the first of its kind to be held in India. Guess Who’s artwork was a protest against what he/she thought to be an elite art festival. There even was a map of Fort Kochi dotted with Guess Who artwork.

GuessWho (3)

Some of Guess Who’s earlier works involved pasteups, which of course because of their very nature must have been taken down or painted over. I didn’t see a lot of the works which I later discovered online. Some of those that survived, seem to be on their last leg. The stencil work though did pop up with some cheeky messaging on the side. I would assume that was the more recent work.

GuessWho (4)

With the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018 all set to begin from 12 December and go all the way up to March 2019, will Guess Who strike again? Will it be that much more difficult to spot new Guess Who artworks, now that it is a well known fact that one of the motivations behind the artworks was to protest against the Biennale? Will the Biennale let him be, knowing that the artist started his/her documentation on the walls of Kochi, to send a message to the organisers of the Biennale?

We shall find out in the coming days.

GuessWho (5)
GuessWho (2)