Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tallinn, the start of a Baltic journey

In July 2013 I spent two weeks on the road, driving through the three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to explore the local food and beer culture as well as the long and interesting history of a region that has been under foreign rule for 700 years. This is the first post from the trip, and the focus is on Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where my journey started.

Defensive towers in Tallinn's city wall

Getting there
Many visitors to Tallinn arrive by plane, especially those coming from afar. Tallinn's Lennart Meri International Airport is located just 5 km from the city centre, depending on traffic a taxi ride from the airport to a downtown hotel can take as little as 10 minutes and cost less than 10 euro.

Another popular way of travel, if you depart from Sweden or Finland, is by sea. From Stockholm a Tallink ferry departs every afternoon, taking 17 hours to cross the Baltic Sea to Tallinn. I took the M/S Victoria I, a modern ferry with numerous restaurants, bars and a large sun deck in the rear from where I got the chance to see the beautiful Stockholm archipelago as we sailed out to sea. Traveling by ferry is such a slow and relaxing mode of travel, a great way to wind down at the start of a vacation. The ferry docked just a couple of kilometers from old town Tallinn, a nice walk or a short taxi ride from most of the hotels. From Helsinki, there are express ferries departing every few hours that take just two hours in crossing the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn.

Before getting to the gist of things, a little history can be useful.

View from the ferry sailing through Roslagen

700 years of history in 5 minutes
It should be common knowledge that chieftains and kings from Scandinavia frequently raided the British isles and continental Europe (as well as each other) from the 8th to 11th century. What is probably less known is that Estonian pirates raided the coasts of Scandinavia and the trade routes across the Baltic sea, between Novgorod and the kingdoms in Scandinavia. Danish King Valdemar II decided he had had enough of the Estonian raiders and attacked the town that until then had been known as Qlwn (or Lyndanisse in Danish). It was finally conquered in 1219 and renamed Reval, a name it would keep until 1917.

The Danish conquest was the start of a 700 year long foreign rule of the city, a rule that would transform ancient Reval into what Tallinn has become today. The name Tallinn, by the way, probably comes from "Taani-linn(a)" which is Estonian for "Danish castle/town", referring to the stone castle the Danes built on Toompea hill.

In the 13th century there was no other major ports along the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki wasn't founded until 1550 and St Petersburg as late as 1703, so Reval became the undisputed trading port. In 1285, the city joined the Hanseatic League, becoming the league's northernmost member city. As part of this German league of trading cities, Reval received an influx of merchants from the other cities. These merchants settled in old town and gave Reval a more German look and feel.

The Teutonic Knights, a German religious and military order, expanded north into the Baltic region during the 13th and 14th century, forcing Christianity on the native population. The order had had its eyes on Reval for some time, looking for a strong base in the north from which to launch attacks on Novgorod and Lithuania. In 1346 the Danes accepted an offer, selling their Baltic conquest to the Teutonic Knights. At this time, Reval had a population of 8,000 and was very well fortified with a city wall and 66 defensive towers.

For the next few centuries Reval remained under the control of the Teutonic Knights but with freedom to pursue commerce as part of the Hanseatic League. The German influence became even stronger when the Teutonic Knights disbanded in 1525, during the Protestant Reformation, the leaders of the order adopting the Lutheran faith and becoming secular rulers. The last Grandmaster became the Duke of Prussia. However, German rule was about to end. By the mid 16th century Sweden had taken over from Denmark as the major power in northern Europe. Swedish troops conquered much land along the Baltic sea, from Finland in the north to Pomerania in the south. Reval fell under Swedish control in 1561.

Reval thrived and grew under the very liberal and easy rule of the Protestant kings of Sweden, which lasted until the Great Northern War of 1700-21 shifted the power balance in the Baltic region. The young and dynamic Tsar Peter of Russia was tired of being locked out of the Baltic sea and the trade with Europe, he built up a large army and eventually managed to destroy the main Swedish army at the Battle of Poltava in 1707. After this victory, Russian forces had no problems evicting the last Swedish troops from both Reval and Riga in 1710. Tsar Peter, after his successful battles with Sweden, went on to be known as Peter the Great, an almost mythical ruler in Russian history.

The Stenbock House built during Imperial Russian rule

Despite being incorporated into Imperial Russia, the city of Reval and the area around it retained cultural and economical autonomy as the Duchy of Estonia. This period would see some of the old German influence replaced by Russian, in particular through the building of orthodox churches and government buildings on Toompea hill. But with both Helsinki and St Petersburg growing stronger and the Hanseatic League just a shade of its former self, Reval lost much of its importance as a trading port.

When the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 led to civil war in Russia, the Duchy of Estonia was quick to declare its independence (like the two other Baltic states) though it took two years of struggle, including a defensive war against the Red Army of the Soviet Union, to obtain it. But in February 1920, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin agreed to a treaty in which Estonia became an independent republic, with the former Reval - now renamed Tallinn - as its capital.

This hard-won independence only lasted twenty years, until 1939 when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the shocking Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This treaty contained a secret protocol in which the two countries agreed to divide the territories of Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries. While Germany got east Prussia, Soviet got the eastern parts of Poland and the northern half of the Baltic, including all of Estonia. Despite a strong resistance in the population, the leaders of Estonia gave in to the pressure from the Soviet leaders and allowed the country to be occupied by the Red Army without firing a single shot.

Over the next couple of years Estonia's political and intellectual leaders were arrested, many executed, and thousands of ordinary Estonians were sent to work camps in Russia, never to return to Estonia. The Soviet assimilation program stopped in 1941 when Nazi Germany attacked them, and soon Estonia was under German control again. But this time far from liberal, hunting Jews and forcing young Estonians to work and fight for the Nazi regime. In 1944 the Soviet Red Army returned, pushing out all Germans - military and civilian alike - and this time it came to stay for a long time.

People in the Baltic countries were not happy to come under Soviet rule, partisan movements grew up in all three countries after the war. Known as Forest Brothers, because they hid in the large forests, up to 50,000 men and women fought the Soviet authorities until the KGB, via infiltration, had managed to kill most of the partisan officers by the mid 1950s.

One thing that worried the natives was the russification program started by the Soviet authorities, resulting in the mass-importation of Russian industrial labor and that Russian became the official language. The Nazis had also planned mass-import of German labor, so in this respect they shared ideas with the Soviet leaders on how to subjugate and control the native population. In a fairly short time hundreds of thousand Russians settled in the Baltic region, which is why 25% of the Estonian population today are Russian.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in August 1991 gave the Baltic countries the chance to reclaim their independence. Estonia declared its independence on August 20th, and though events turned dramatic when Soviet troops attacked the TV tower outside Tallinn, in order to shut down the radio broadcasting, Estonia eventually won back its freedom.

In the last couple of decades Estonia has witnessed a remarkable economic growth, by far the strongest in the Baltic region. In 2004, the country joined the European Union and in 2011 it adapted the euro as its currency. Today, Estonia is the only country in the EU with a budget surplus. This has allowed the government to spend a good deal of money renovating the historical old town of Tallinn, which was entered on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1997 as an "exceptionally complete and well preserved example of a medieval northern European trading city".

In 2013, greater Tallinn has a population of 525,000 or 40% of Estonia's total population of 1.3 million.

The remains of the 14th century Viru Gate 

What to see
Because of its well conserved and fairly compact old town, Tallinn has became a very popular tourist attraction, so don't expect to be able to explore old town alone. There are many places worth visiting, both for their historical value and for beauty, here are some of my favorite historical spots in Tallinn.

  • Toompea hill: This hill is at the heart of old town Tallinn, it was here that the Danes built their fortress and you'll find many old buildings and some great views here. The Estonian government has renovated and moved into the classic Stenbock House from 1792, while the parliament resides in Toompea Palace from 1773. The old Toompea Fortress and its Pikk Hermann tower can be found here, but the most impressive building is the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, a Russian orthodox church from 1900 that has been beautifully restored, with gilded icon mosaics and a colorful facade.

  • Tallinn Town Hall: Located on Town Hall Square, or Raekoja Plats, in the heart of old town, this white brick building from 1404 was home to the local government or town council until 1970. It is the only remaining Gothic-style town hall in Northern Europe and it's still used for ceremonial and cultural purposes. It provides great photo opportunities with its classic gargoyles, arcades facing the square and the tall tower. But beware that the square is also where all tourist groups gather so it can get really crowded around the town hall.

  • Tallinn city walls: Today about 1.9 km remains of the old city wall as well as 20 defensive towers, some of them open for visitors. I visited the Hellemann tower on the east side of old town, where you can walk along a 200 meter long section of the wall, looking down at the narrow Müürivahe street. Along the top of the wall you can also admire an outdoor art exhibition (but I doubt the paintings will be there in the winter).

  • St. Olaf's Church: Located along Lai street, the origins of this church dates back to before the Danish conquest, when it was a centre for the Scandinavian community. The church is dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway (995-1030), who was canonized Saint Olaf in 1164. The church was extensively rebuilt during the 14th century, and from 1549 to 1625, with its 159-meter tall spire, it was the tallest building in the world! However, a lightning strike in 1625 caused the wooden spire to burn down. The current metal spire is only 123.7 meter tall, which is still pretty high so it was used by the KGB, during Soviet times, as a radio transmission tower.

  • Culture Boiler: Known as Kultuurikatel in Estonian, this culture centre is located on the grounds of an old thermal power plant just outside the city wall on the north side of old town. Visitors come for musical concerts, performances or to watch art exhibitions. If you're a film buff, you may be interested to learn that Andrei Tarkovsky filmed parts of his scifi masterpiece "Stalker" (1979) at this location.

  • Tallinn TV Tower: Unlike the sites listed above, this one does not lie in or near old town. Located some 10 km east of Tallinn, the best way of getting there is to buy a ticket for the hop-on tour buses that stops at the TV tower. Known as Tallinna Teletorn, this 314 meter tall tower was built from 1975-1980 to provide better telecommunication services for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics regatta event, held in Tallinn. But it also came with an observation deck on the 21st floor, 170 meter above ground, which quickly became very popular with the locals and more recently with the tourists. The tower was renovated 2007-2012 and now provides guests with breathtaking views of Tallinn and the Gulf of Finland.

In addition to these, Tallinn offers several nice parks both inside the city walls and outside, and there are many old alleys, such as St. Catherine's Passage, where you can spend hours walking along half a millennium old buildings. When you've had your fill of history, and the flocks of tourists, it's time to find a good pub to explore some Estonian beers.

Tallinn seen from the observation deck of the Teletorn

Estonian beer
Because of the long German influence, which didn't end until the Soviet occupation in 1944, most Estonian breweries make predominantly lager beers. Not necessarily pilsner only, but lagers in various forms - such as amber lager (Vienna-style), dunkel (München-style) and schwarzbier. However, the trade with Britain has also left traces in the form of pale ales and porters.

In 2013, a new class of beer was added to RateBeer - Sahti/Gotlandsdricke/Koduõlu. Despite being new on RateBeer, these are old and almost forgotten beer styles, the Sahti from Finland, Gotlandsdricke from the island of Gotland and koduõlu from Estonia. Kodu is Estonian for home while õlu means ale, so koduõlu basically means "home(brewed) ale", i.e. the traditional farm ales of Estonia. I had received lots of background information and tips from another beer traveler (thank you, Lars Marius) before going, so I was alert to any koduõlu whenever I visited a bar or a shop with Estonian beer.

The three major, industrial breweries of Estonia have all been swallowed up by international brewery groups after the independence, they are in no particular order:

  • Saku Õlletehas is located in the small borough of Saku, 16 km south of Tallinn. Owned by Carlsberg, Saku brews a number of fairly standard lager and pilsner beers, though I did try a few decent ones too; Saku Tume is a tasty dark beer while Saku Koduõlu is their take on a traditional Estonian beer. Because of its location, Saku is the most common brand in Tallinn.

  • A. Le Coq is located in the University city of Tartu, about 180 km south east of Tallinn. Owned by Finnish brewery group Olvi, A. Le Coq traces its roots London, England, where it was founded in 1807. The brewery relocated to Estonia in the early 20th century to be closer to the Imperial court in St Petersburg, Russia, for which A Le Coq became the main supplier of beer from 1912. I tried their regular Porter, which reminded me of a German dunkel, and the Imperial Ale, a decent English pale ale.

  • Viru Õlu is located in the borough of Haljala, about 90 km east of Tallinn along the main road to Narva. Like Saku, it is owned by a Danish company, in this case by Harboe. I encountered Viru in disguise as house beers at the Hell Hunt pub in Tallinn and know that they have brewed beers on contract for several others, so Viru Õlu must have a fairly large brewing capacity.

A bottle of Saku Koduõlu at Beerwood Pub 

As for smaller breweries, it's possible to find beer from Sillamãe Õlletehas, a microbrewery in the town of Sillamãe, not far from Narva, in the northeast of Estonia. This small brewery only has three beers listed by RateBeer, a light beer, a dark beer and a fairly decent Vienna lager called München Vaskne, the latter is available on draft at Hell Hunt.

Probably of more interest to beer tourists, there is actually a brewpub in Tallinn, but only one as far as I know (see warning below). It may look like a tourist trap, and it certainly is one, but the Bavarian beer hall inspired Beer House is also home to a very decent microbrewery. During my visit, the place had seven of their own beers on draft, some of them really well made, so I would certainly recommend a visit there. I'll return to this brewpub in the next section.

At this point I think it's important to post a warning, though it will be mentioned in the next section too. A place called Brewery Õlleklubi, in the heart of Tallinn, both sounds like a brewpub and seemingly acts like one. But even though they write about "Our brewery" in their beer menu, it has no such thing, their draft beers are brewed in Latvia!

Finally, before going on to the beer scene in Tallinn, I have to mention a beer that hails from an island off the west coast of Estonia: Saaremaa Taluõlu Pihtla. This 7.6% abv beer is a true koduõlu, made by the small Oü Taako brewery, owned and operated by Arvet Väli, in the village of Pihtla on Saaremaa. Taluõlu is Estonian for farm ale, so the brewery is most likely part of a farm. I will return to Arvet Väli in a later post, recounting my visit to Saaremaa, but now it's time to look at the bars and brewpubs of Tallinn.

The beer scene
Tallinn has a surprisingly varied and rich beer scene, though no pubs are older than 20 years. As of July 2013, RateBeer lists 35 beer places in Tallinn, so obviously I didn't have time to check them all the two nights I had at my disposal, but here is my pick of places, all of them located in old town and listed in descending order of preference:

Hell Hunt - the gentle wolf

Hell Hunt
Hell Hunt was established in 1993, in Pikk 39, and claims to be the first pub established in Estonia after the country gained its independence in 1991. Hell means gentle in Estonian and hunt means wolf, so "hell hunt" means "the gentle wolf", something that is brought out by the outdoor wall painting of a nude woman riding on the back of a wolf while hugging it.

Because of the heat I didn't spend much time inside but enjoyed my selection of beers in the shade of a tree in their beer garden, located just across the street. They had a dozen draft beers, including some of the bigger international brands such as Hoegaarden, Leffe, Belhaven and Guinness. Among the more interesting were:

- Hell Hunt Hele (4.6% pale lager)
- Hell Hunt Tume (5% dark lager)
- Sillamäe München Vaskne (6.3% Vienna lager)
- Thornbridge Jaipur (5.9% ipa)

Naturally, I tried their house beers, Tume and Hele. Both are brewed for them by Viru Õlu and turned out fairly decent, though it was the München Vaskne, an elegant Vienna-style lager from Sillamäe Õlletehas, that got my top prize. The pub also had a decent bottled beer menu, with about a dozen Estonian beers in addition to a large number of English and Belgian ales. Hell Hunt ended up being my favorite pub in Tallinn.

Entrance to Kodu Baar

Kodu Baar
Located in Vaimu 1, Kodu Baar is easy to miss. A small staircase leads down from the cobblestone alley, through a very low, red painted wooden gate and into a dark, dimly lit cellar. Once your eyes get adjusted to the light, you'll notice well worn sofas, chairs and tables, all non-matching, littered around several rooms, with a tiny bar along one wall. The other guests I encountered were young, typically early 20s, and dressed in a mixture of hip student to punkish goth outfits, bringing my thoughts to a student dormitory rather than a pub!

However, the selection of beer, though not as large as at Hell Hunt, was really top notch. Among the bottled beers in their fridge I spotted several great ones from Brouwerij de Molen, in addition to beers from Rooie Dop, Schlenkerla and Chimay. On draft they had some of the usual suspects, such as Leffe, Hoegaarden, Franziskaner, Budvar and Stella Artois, but more importantly they also offered Saaremaa Taluõlu Pihtla, the only place in Tallinn to do so.

So, despite a bit strange atmosphere and a service that faltered at times (I bought a bottle of Rooie Dop Chica Americana IPA that the bartender claimed was "just a few weeks old", it turned out to have been bottled 13 months earlier and was clearly expired) I really enjoyed my visit to this "home bar".

Bar and brewery tanks at the Beer House brewpub

Beer House
Located in Dunkri 5, Beer House is Bavarian-style beer hall that opened in 2002 with its own microbrewery. It's very popular with tour groups because of its size, good kitchen, large selection of own beer and the nice beer garden in the back. Inside, there are some special tables with beer towers at the end where guests can pour their own beer!

The microbrewery is operated by an Austrian woman gone native, Eve Toomela. She has been the brewmaster since the brewpub opened and has created all of their seven beer types:

- Pilsner Gold (4.4-4.6%)
- Helles Light (4.7-4.9%)
- Beer House Premium (6.0-6.2% pale lager)
- Märzen Speziel (4.3-4.5% märzen)
- Medovar Honey (4.3-4.5% made with honey)
- Vana Viini Lager (4.9-5.0% Vienna lager)
- Dunkles Extra (4.6-4.8% schwarzbier)

I had lunch at the Beer House, enjoying a very well made pig's knuckle with sauerkraut (my only complaint is that the portion was too big) while ordering their beer sampler: 7 x 20 cl glasses of all their seven beers for just 20 litas (about 6 euro). My favorites turned out to be BH Premium and the Vana Viini Lager, two well made and elegant beers.

The bar and beer fridges at Drink Baar

Drink Bar & Grill
Located in Väike Karja 8, Drink Bar & Grill  looks like a trendy, modern bar from the outside and keeps up this appearance when you walk in the front door at the corner. A shiny brass pipe on the bar sports 9 beer taps and on the wall behind the bar you'll see rows of bottles of liquors, whiskys and beer. There are also two beer fridges behind the bar, and the two girls working there were fast and efficient, but seemed more like general shop assistants than beer tenders.

I wasn't too impressed by the draft beer selection, though they had BrewDog Punk IPA, as I was looking for Estonian beers and only 3 of the 9 taps matched that criteria. Two of these were their own house beers, called Drink Light and Drink Dark, basically rebranded versions of Hele and Tume from Sillamäe Õlletehas. The last Estonian beer was Sillamäe München Vaskne, which I had just had at Hell Hunt. On bottle it wasn't much better, many of the bottles were from British breweries such as Shepherd Neame, Harviestoun, Meantime and Wychwood.

Drink Baar, as it's also called, may top the Tallinn pub list at RateBeer, but for me it was just ok - there are better places to go for beer in Tallinn.

Stonewar beer mugs and candle light at Olde Hansa

Olde Hansa
This is a serious tourist trap, not far from the Town Hall square, but the interior of Olde Hansa is artfully decorated according to medieval tastes, with solid wooden tables and benches, live candles as the source of light and stylish menus written in a medieval font and fashion. While soft medieval music is played over the loudspeakers, the guests are served food on stoneware plates and drinks in stoneware mugs. Kitsch? Perhaps. But really well done.

Though Olde Hansa is primarily a restaurant, serving a number of tasty medieval dishes - from wild boar to beer and elk, it also offers an interesting strong beer served in those stoneware mugs. I never found out what the beer was called or where it was brewed, the waitress didn't know, but it was certainly made with spices and honey and tasted nothing like the other beers I had in Tallinn. So, Olde Hansa is really worth a stop, for a medieval food and beer experience.

Does Brewery Õlleklubi look like a brewpub? Well, it ain't!

Brewery Õlleklubi
This one should probably not have been listed under my picks from Tallinn, but I feel the need to write a few words to warn future beer travelers. Located at the start of the "long street", at Pikk 1, Brewery Õlleklubi gives the impression of being a brewpub, first by talking about "Our brewery" in their English beer menu and secondly by having their logo stamped on their four draft beers:

- Hansa Zeldzaam (5.2% pilsner)
- Hansa Eerste (4.6% pale lager)
- Voor Sterke (6% dark beer)
- Hansa Vandaag (4.5% made with honey)

However, none of these are brewed locally. They're not even brewed in Estonia but in Latvia; Hansa Voore Sterke is a rebranding of Tumšais from Krāslavas Avots, Hansa Eerste a rebranding of Gaišais from Rezeknes Alus and Hansa Zeldzaam and Vandaag are brewed by Bruveris in Riga.

Adding to this insult, the three girls working in the bar showed little interest in the beer they sold and couldn't answer a single beer related question. Besides, service was incredibly slow even though it was just me in the room and three vacant bartenders. So, there are probably 34 better pubs to try in Tallinn!

The tiny bar at Kodu Baar with my glass of Pihtla

Don't expect to find beer nirvana when you arrive in Tallinn and you must be very tolerant with regards to lager beer. But there are several wonderful beer places and a pretty decent brewpub in old town, so you shouldn't have to go thirsty while exploring the historical sites of old Reval.

Photos from the visit to Tallinn can be found at Flickr: Tallinn scenery and beer photos.