Saturday, 19 January 2013

The winding streets of Medieval Tallinn

After yet another extremely intense period at work, F and I were both ready for a short break over the Christmas period. We only had a few criteria: a short plane journey, relatively inexpensive, and cold. After the constant heat of most of our travels during 2012, we were ready for a change. Tallinn had been recommended to us before, it met all our criteria, so after a quick search for cheap flights, we were booked up and on our way!

We had five days in the Estonian capital, and with temperatures hovering around the -15 degree Celsius mark, it certainly was colder than we have been used to. Memories of Budapest a couple of years ago floated around in my mind - thick snow, below freezing days, and returning to a perfectly nice, but chilly and sparse hostel room each evening. We decided to treat ourselves. A quick search online, and I'd found exactly what I was looking for - a small apartment, just off the central square in Old Town, with a kitchen for making our own breakfasts, and a private sauna. Yes, our own sauna. No problems with defrosting after hours outside this time around. As is often the case, the price for renting an apartment was cheaper than most hotels, and travelling during the low season enabled us to get a fantastic deal.

We arrived to a bustling Christmas market, familiar songs pumping through large speakers, and the scents of hot wine and sausages wafting through the air. The Old Town is beautiful, a walled part of the city retaining original medieval buildings and features. Our apartment was located in one of the merchant's courtyards, tucked just back from the cobbled streets, the building thick with heavy (and, most likely, deadly) icicles hanging in rows above our heads.

Hugely popular with tourists, particularly during the summer months, the town plays on its historic origins, with pub and restaurant workers decked out in costume, and themed menus abounding. I certainly can't complain about any of it - the food was incredible, and at this time of the year, there were more locals partaking of the warming meals than fellow travellers. We spent our days wandering the streets and passageways, visiting the craft workshops and nipping inside the large variety of churches to warm through. The stone walls surrounding Old Town are magnificent, and for a small fee you can climb inside and walk along part of their length.

Although Old Town is both picturesque and charming, it was worth leaving the walls and spending some time in the newer parts of the city - the contrast between the trapped-in-time medieval section and the influence of a distinctly Soviet style of building elsewhere was stark.

The real highlight, however, was the food. Market stalls piled our plate high with sausage, sauerkraut and fried potatoes, washed down with numerous varieties of hot wine. We slurped elk stew in an underground pub, drank tangy cups of berry juice and sampled thick hot chocolate in a small cafe. Not able to resist the draw of Olde Hansa, the famous medieval feasting hall, we shared their Christmas feast - a banquet with 22 different dishes that we worked our way through over a number of hours, candlelight flickering around us. Every item seemed better than the last, with sweet rustic breads, juicy sausages, berry sauces, pork glazed with pear and salmon pie just a few items that arrived in terracotta bowls. We ate until we couldn't force another mouthful in, at which point we rolled back to the apartment, grateful for its central location. 

The thick snow added to the overall effect, although it was bitterly cold when the wind swept through the alleys and caught us high on viewpoints overlooking the city. You could see much of what Tallinn has to offer in a couple of days, although we found that our time there was the perfect length - we slowly explored different areas, allowing ourselves to really relax and soak up the atmosphere.


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