(With props to Marnen on Twitter for the title)
Prior to this trip, everything I knew abut Estonia I learned from reading Dilbert cartoons about the fictional land of Elbonia, which is generally described as being waist-deep in mud and overrun with weasels.
Elbonia is loosely modeled on Estonia, so that’s generally what I expected when we arrived: mud, weasels, and Eastern Bloc squalor. And maybe some funny hats. The Elbonians in Dilbert always wear funny hats.
I got none of those things. No mud, no weasels, and definitely ixnay on the ats-hay. Instead, what I found was one of the most interesting, beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, was the hilight of the cruise for me, even though we spent only one afternoon there.
To be fair, the visit started inauspiciously. The Port of Tallinn isn’t so much a “port” as it is “a desolate wasteland with sheep wandering around in it.” Actual, literal sheep.
Clumped together in the middle of this wasteland is a sprawling, ramshackle collection of little tents and huts, packed to the gills with people hawking all sorts of wares–kind of like a scene from a William Gibson novel or perhaps a low-budget, indie remake of Bladerunner. At the edge of all the stalls selling leather goods and little wooden boxes and sunglasses and small, inexpensive keepsakes of Eastern Europe, I spotted this place:
I was tempted, I must admit, but I battled with the temptations of the flesh, and…
Well, actually, I lied. I wasn’t tempted at all. Not even for a moment.
I kept going right past this shack and its really not very tempting offer, past the bored-looking guard at the gate to the port who was the closest thing we discovered to any sort of passport control, and out into the city itself. A few blocks from the port, we encountered the ancient stone wall guarding its center.
Tallinn is a city of contrast.
I know everyone who writes about traveling says that about some city or other at some point. A Google search for “city of contrast” gives you about 153,000 results. New York is a city of contrast. Scottsdale is a city of contrast. Anchorage is a city of contrast. Sacramento is a city of contrast. You know what? Those guys don’t know shit about contrast.
The heart of Tallinn is an ancient Medieval walled city full of narrow, winding roads. A modern glass and steel city has sprung up outside the wall, wrapping the Old Town in a busy hub of international commerce and high-tech development.
The streets of Tallinn are picturesque, like Stockholm is picturesque, but with at least 80% less essence “I loooooove my kidnapper” going on.
Commerce has long been the living, breathing heart of Tallinn. In the early middle ages, the city grew wealthy and powerful by trading textiles throughout the Baltic. A strong guild system developed here; at one time, each street in the town belonged to a different guild, and you had to be a member of the guild to work or live on that street. Guilds are a great idea when you have an illiterate population who can’t read instruction manuals or user guides.
The history of Tallinn is rich and turbulent, if by “rich and turbulent” one means “fucked up and weird.” If someone other than Michael Bay were to make a movie about Tallinn’s history, it would go something like this:
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Let us become wealthy and powerful trading furs and textiles to our neighbors.
(They become WEALTHY AND POWERFUL by trading FURS and TEXTILES to their NEIGHBORS)
Peter the Great: Ho there! Tallinn is wealthy and powerful. I shall conquer it!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Nuh-uh. You have a silly hat.
Peter the Great: Uh-huh! I have a huge naval armada!
(PETER THE GREAT conquers TALLINN with his HUGE NAVAL ARMADA)
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Um… Okay, we’ve been conquered. Now what?
Peter the Great: I will buy furs and textiles from you.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Uh, right.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Listen, you know you could have done that without conquering us, right?
Peter the Great: …
Peter the Great: What?
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Never mind. Look, we can work with this.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Let us become more wealthy and powerful trading furs and textiles to Peter the Great!
(They become MORE WEALTHY and MORE POWERFUL by trading FURS and TEXTILES to PETER THE GREAT)
Vladimir Lenin: I have deposed the Tsars and become Supreme Ruler of Russia!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Whatever. You want some furs and textiles?
Vladimir Lenin: I wish to destroy the bourgeois elite and the notion of private capital in favor of a centralized economy that will eliminate free enterprise and bankrupt all of Russia, and then set us down the path of a ruinous, decades-long conflict with the West that will result in to complete collapse of all of eastern Europe!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Wait, what?
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: You’re kidding, right? That’s your plan?
Vladimir Lenin: Ha ha ha! Yes, I am kidding.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Whew! Because we thought–
Vladimir Lenin: No, I’m serious. That’s what I’m going to do. I was kidding when I said “I am kidding.”
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: …
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Listen, we’re going to secede from Russia now, okay?
Vladimir Lenin: Okay.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: We cool?
Vladimir Lenin: We’re cool.
Joseph Stalin: Watch, as I invade Estonia and conquer Tallinn as part of my empire!
Adolf Hitler: You will not invade Estonia and conquer Tallinn as part of your empire. I will invade Estonia and conquer Tallinn as part of my empire!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: …
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Guys? Listen, about that–
(JOSEPH STALIN and ADOLF HITLER invade ESTONIA. They DROP BOMBS and BLOW STUFF UP and KILL LOTS OF PEOPLE)
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: OMG what is this I don’t even AAAAUGH!
Joseph Stalin: You are now part of my empire. Henceforth you will be known as Estonia SSR.
Joseph Stalin: I will destroy free enterprise and plunge you into poverty and set you on a ruinous, decades-long conflict with the West that will result in the complete collapse of Eastern Europe.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: What, that again? That’s a TERRIBLE plan!
Joseph Stalin: Wait, I’m not finished!
Joseph Stalin: I will also begin a disastrous experimentation in agriculture, based on pseudoscience and ideological orthodoxy, that will result in the deaths of tens of millions of my own citizens!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: …
Joseph Stalin: And then I will become paranoid and start murdering my most loyal supporters!
Joseph Stalin: Also, I will execute anyone who says that this is a terrible plan.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: *headdesk*
(JOSEPH STALIN executes the GUILDMASTERS OF TALLINN and DESTROYS ESTONIA’S ECONOMY and sets out on a ruinous decades-long conflict with the West that BANKRUPTS all of EASTERN EUROPE)
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Man, this sucks.
(The Soviet Union COLLAPSES)
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: You guys suck.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Hey, European Union, can we join you? Because these guys suck.
The European Union: Your proposition intrigues us. We will hear your proposal. What do you have to offer us?
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Um…we have…
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: We have conferred amongst ourselves, and, err… We have mud.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: And also small, inexpensively-made objects which can be sold to tourists.
The European Union: Your offer is insufficient. If you wish to join our club, you must have something uniquely yours to contribute. The Germans make motor cars and Hummels, which are small, incredibly expensive objects that can be sold to tourists. The Italians make outrageously overpriced suits from gray yarn. The French are known worldwide for their elaborate weapons systems that don’t work and also for their bad attitudes. The Swiss make cuckoo clocks and enormous particle accelerators which create black holes that will doom us all. The British have blood sausage and desperation.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: We can design microchips and software for cell phones. Do you like cell phones?
The European Union: Let us confer amongst ourselves.
(They CONFER amongst THEMSELVES)
The European Union: We have conferred amongst ourselves, and we have decided that we like cell phones very much. We accept your proposal.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Really? Cool!
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Let us become rich and powerful, but not as rich nor as powerful as we were, by designing microchips and software for cell phones, and also small, inexpensively-made objects which can be sold to tourists!
(They become SOMEWHAT LESS RICH and QUITE A LOT LESS POWERFUL making things for CELL PHONES and also small, inexpensively-made objects for TOURISTS)
The city of Tallinn is one of the oldest and best-preserved Medieval cities in the world, but it’s not a museum. It’s an actual, living city. The line between the old part of the city and the modern part of the city is jarring; in one area, you have skyscrapers, and in another, you have this.
On one of the narrow, winding streets snaking along the edge of the Medieval wall, we found a local dining establishment.
I think it’s part of a chain. We saw these places throughout Eastern Europe. I bet the food’s pretty good, since they’re so popular.
The center of Tallinn’s Medieval district is the old town hall, which has functioned as the hub of Tallinn’s civic life for…well, for longer than the country I live in has been a country, really. The town hall is gorgeous, and is right smack in the center of the town square. I never really knew what a “town square” was until this trip.
Here, many of the most essential functions of Medieval society took place. Rules of commerce were established, guild and social matters were adjudicated, heretics and unbelievers were strung up for torture, townspeople were married, and gossip was exchanged. Some of the relics of these bygone functions are still apparent on the stone pillars that line the hall.
I kinda want a pillar in my basement that looks like this. I promise I will only use it for good.
I found this sign in a small shop just off the town square. I think it lies.
I’ve had days without wine, and I’ve had days without sex, and I can state with authority that they are nothing alike. All I can think is that whoever wrote this sign, probably doesn’t have sex the way I do.
I love this old house.
It’s run-down and collapsing now, and for some reason that only makes it even more beautiful I have no idea what the story of this house is, but I bet it’s fascinating. Were I to have infinite resources (which I don’t), and were I to move to Tallinn (which I wouldn’t, though I do love the place), I would want to buy this house and fix it up. It is, to my eye, heartbreakingly beautiful.
Plus, it would be an awesome place to host BDSM play parties, yo.