There were still ten minutes before the Tallinn double decker sightseeing bus was scheduled to depart. The top deck now full: in front a group of Russians and, last on, a small group of Brits smartly dressed and diffusing as much aftershave as the perfume counter in Debenhams.
During a stay in Tallinn 17 years earlier I met a traveler from Quebec at a backpacker hostel. Mike had been in the city for under a week and was ‘running out of things to do.’ His enthusiasm for the ‘pretty little place’ was as yet undiminished, but he was certainly aware of his fading enthusiasm, he concluded Tallinn to be a three day city. I remember thinking his appraisal to be something of an insult to any destination. However, with the passing of the years his words have turned out to be somewhat prophetic, as pretty little Tallinn has quite rapidly taken its place at the top table of Weekend Break destinations. Especially with the arrival of Easyjet in 2007, it is quite realistic to fly in from any corner of Europe on a Friday and fly out on a Monday morning. As anyone who has stayed longer can testify, with Monday morning comes a haunting calm over the old town. The backpackers where I’d met Mike just happened to be located beneath the town’s only Strip club. Both during the intervening years have undergone prolific multiplication. In the Tallinn of 2016, if you can’t find somewhere to sleep or a place to watch a girl dancing in her underwear, you’re probably best paying the optician a visit. This could also be said of somewhere to buy chocolate coated nuts purveyed by vendors adorned in medieval costume, and souvenir amber necklaces. Since the colourless days of the Soviet Union, the Estonian capital has come alive and is standing tall, fixed by an adoring, lustful gaze.
The sun burnt through the morning haze and left Tallinn with blue cloudless skies as we set off on my first Tallinn Open Top Tour, in a ‘Cabrio bus for warm weather’ as advertised.
‘Citysightseeing Tallinn’ offered three possible routes and commentary in nine different languages. My fellow tourists and I had chosen the red route, which appeared to be the most comprehensive, eighteen stops in all, including the city’s leading sights beyond the old town: the Song Festival Ground and the TV Tower. If you stayed on the bus for the duration of the tour, choosing not to hop off or hop on again, it would return you to the Russian Cultural Centre approximately one hour and a half later for a cost of 15 euros.
The bus swung out onto the road and past the Viru Hotel, Estonia’s first skyscraper. There was just enough time for my commentator, courtesy of complimentary earplugs (a voice from Leeds or somewhere close by… I’ll call her Brenda) to tell me that the top floor of the hotel was now dedicated to the KGB museum and that it was well worth a visit. The bus left the hotel behind in the distance before Brenda finished her spiel, soon enveloped by the austere Stalinist buildings of Narva Mount, a wide boulevard pulsing with traffic. We slowly climbed the hill whilst restored wooden buildings began to dominate. After an interlude of classical music Brenda returned to tell me of the growing value of wooden buildings in the city, now more popular than ever and given to restoration by locals and foreigners alike. The bus came to a halt in the carpark outside the Song Festival Ground, and Brenda told me I was at my first hop off stop.
All the passengers decided to hop off outside the iron gates of the Song Ground. The large concrete shell was just visible through the trees, now unplugged without Brenda’s able encouragement, I didn’t really know what to make of it. Nor the group of sweet smelling Brits, as they headed for a nearby café. Estonians are very proud of their 1950’s Song Festival Amphitheatre. Unlike many Soviet concrete monstrosities it is unique in not being particularly wasteful of materials and doesn’t dominate the surrounding area as so many do. So it’s still uncertain why it ever got built.
After a walk in Kadriorg Park I waited for the next bus at the Mermaid Memorial. The monument proved a popular embarkation point. I found one of the few remaining seats on the bus and got reacquainted with Brenda. But not for long, I soon hopped off again for a closer look at The Maajamae War Memorial, a largely forgotten commemoration of all those who died in the Second World War. Close by was the History Museum, behind which the Park of Soviet Monuments, the dumping ground for bruised old Soviet has-beens.
Heavy concrete statues, some still upright, some horizontal and some awkwardly leaning against others, all seemed to have been swept with a giant broom against the exterior of the building. The old favourites were present. A fully intact Lenin rested alongside a decapitated Lenin. A recumbent Stalin gazed up at the sky; a couple of unknown sailors gazed at nothing in particular. All, despite their differences, had clearly ticked all the right boxes: Estonian, Communist and (most importantly) dead. This heavyweight reminder of an era now past looked like a rabble just coming round after a heavy night’s drinking, one they might well have very little memory of.
Despite a few ugly housing estates and a handful of abhorrent concrete structures, Tallinn has largely escaped the physical legacies of the Soviet period; with its photogenic old town, it had gotten away pretty lightly. Perhaps forty odd years of occupation and Soviet repression could indeed be swept behind the pastel coloured woodwork of Estonia’s often fairytale traditional architecture. Perhaps only the constant parade of memory-hungry visitors like me was responsible for churning up the unwelcome past.