Our bus ride to Tallinn, Estonia was largely uneventful, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed at the expedience and lack of difficulty of the Russian-E.U. border patrol. At the Narva, Estonia crossing, the guard simply glanced at me, stamped my passport and I was on my way. In January, I was able to tick off a bunch of visa-free countries in the Balkans. Now I was excited to do the same thing in the Baltics. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have always been virtually indistinguishable from one another, so I was excited to learn more about what separates these three countries.
It was before noon when we pulled into the Tallinn bus station, a half-hour walk from the Old Town. It was a cool day, perhaps a degree or two below freezing, so we hurried through the strip malls to our hostel to put down our bags. Our hostel provided lockers next to our beds, so we stuffed our backpacks then went wandering through the walls and medieval buildings of the city.
The city is small, so we had circled the historic district once before we began to feel hungry and ready for dinner. Being back in the EU, I knew things would be a bit more expensive and, it being early in the trip, I didn’t wish to start splurging now for fear that I would keep living it up if I did not keep myself in check. I searched “best cheap eats Tallinn” and found Lido, a Latvia-based chain of cafeteria-style restaurants that specialize in Baltic foods. This was exactly what I was looking for, as it was something different than our usual fare. Generally, when I travel I either eat at the cheapest possible places, or else the places with a certain renowned dish that I have to eat in a given country. For instance, in Paris I happily shelled out over 30 Euro for a foie gras and duck confit dinner because I was in Paris. In Eastern Europe, however, the local food usually is the cheap food. Meat pies and pastries, potatoes, Russian salads are everywhere and you can usually get a cheap lunch on the go for under 5 bucks.
At Lido, we were able to try some of the mid-range cuisine of the Baltics in small quantities and great variety. We ate beef liver (my favorite), a herring-beet casserole, and chicken in a local mushroom-cream sauce, among other things. The restaurant was situated on the second floor of a busy mall (something I haven’t seen in awhile), and took up nearly a quarter of the floor. We left satisfied that, though what we had eaten was technically Latvian, what we ate was a solid representation of normal Estonian food. We fell asleep early, in front of the hostel’s common room TV.
The following morning, we met at the city’s tourist information center for the daily free walking tour of the city. Our guide was an affable woman in her twenties with dyed pinkish-red hair, and she happily cracked jokes about Estonian culture and history. We visited the city’s independence monument, parliament, fortifications, and churches and got a greater appreciation of the country’s unique and thriving culture despite their repeated invasions. After the tour, we went to a restaurant in the basement of the town hall called III Draakon (The Third Dragon) which claimed to sell authentic medieval food in an authentic medieval environment. The basement had no lights and was instead illuminated by candles. They sold elk soup, beer, and meat pies, and had a large barrel of pickles that customers could spear with a stick (no forks in medieval Estonia) and eat to their hearts’ content. The woman in medieval dress behind the counter was doing a bit where she’d be gruff with each customer which, I was sad to see, did not come across as a bit for many of the non-English or non-Estonian-speaking guests. I found it funny, but also a little sad, when a family of Japanese tourists began shaking nervously at the Estonian barwench’s curtness.
Bellies full of liquefied elk meat, we walked to the hostel to rest before our bus to Latvia. It was the middle of the day and the lady at the front desk happily chatted away with us as there was nobody checking in or out. She was a local, and she lit up when we told her we were from ‘near New York,’ (which I am starting to think is as valid an identity as being a New Yorker). Apparently she had lived in New York for a short three-month visa stay, and eagerly wished to come back. “There’s nothing to do in Tallinn,” she explained “New York has everything.” As a near-New Yorker, I had to agree that there was a lot more going on in New York compared to Tallinn, but I realized I had begun to grow tired of the city that never sleeps in recent years. Everything worth seeing, in an ever-changing city like New York, does not stay in the same place. Clubs and restaurants go out of business and are replaced by newer, more expensive clubs and restaurants. The waves of immigrants move, first to the outer boroughs, then the suburbs. Neighborhoods never stay put, and they are never well-documented, to the point where we can safely say there will never be another ‘Chinatown’ (though there are allegedly nine). In Tallinn, and European cities like it, things stay put. Walls from the 13th century keep tradition alive in ways that would not be possible in New York or in most of the New World.
We say goodbye to the receptionist, as our bus leaves in 45 minutes. We make our way through the walls of the Old Town, and into the shopping mall district that snakes its way to the bus station, passing a limousine with a large pumpkin-shaped passenger compartment. Ralph Fiennes’ character in the film “In Bruges” perhaps said it best, though about Bruges, Belgium:
“It's a fairytale town, isn't it? How's a fairytale town not somebody's fucking thing?”
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.