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Elizabetes Iela #33, Riga

Before leaving for Estonia we had dinner at Vincents, one of Riga’s finest restaurants. The chef sources the finest of ingredients from all over the world, as a little note advises you at the start of this gustatory delight. The natural yeast for its bread, which is baked daily, comes from the Tishbi Vineyard in Israel and is 27 years old. The organic flour comes from Latvia and France and the butter comes from Normandy, and is made by Jean Yves Bordier from milk which is first aged for three days. I half-expected to find out the name of the cow it came from à la ‘Portlandia’ TV series. The presentation of each dish is like theater and I took notes of what I ate because I cannot bring myself to take photographs of food in a restaurant. Alas, I can’t tell you what we ate because I was typing on my phone and it is gobbledygook. It reads as follows; walk in the forest heather and grass in a terra cotta pot with four hand made bread sticks an orb of ice melted with a buts e stuck to revels a single tab keg with wasabi etc.  I have no idea what that all means now and ‘autocorrect’ has made my nonsense worse. The notes go on; black bowl with flat black stones and liquid nitrogen and tiny piece of smoked eel, ravioli and foie gras and chanterelle reduction of duck bones, langoustine with bisque apple sorbet frozen with liquid nitrogen into a lollipop, partridge with morels, chanterelles and cêpes, 3 sea scallops in their shells held together by clothes pegs. fries. Chocolate. I have no recollection of where one course ended and the other began and I am slightly alarmed because although I have always had a terrible memory and can only ever remember anything if I write it down, it most definitely is getting worse. The clothes peg is the last straw. I am going to learn another language immediately as this is supposed to stave off the dreaded ‘sénilité précoce’. Also, I may have to start taking photographs of food – gauche be damned. Vincents has hosted many celebrities since it opened in 1994 and I heartily recommend you join their ranks. If you speak only English, fear not because the lingua franca is English as most of the clientele is foreign or it was the night we were there and I heard mostly Americans, Germans and Scandinavians.  (Vincents is at Elizabetes Iela #19, discreetly located down a short flight of stairs, but as I don’t have a photograph of that building I used this one because the whole street is very grand!)

View towards the Gulf of Finland from Kiek-in-de-Kök tower

The following day we took the Lux Express bus to Tallinn. It got us there in 4 hours and we were the only people on the bus over 20 years old. It was a Saturday morning at 0800 which might explain why the bus was only half full. We had paid a wee bit extra to sit at the back in Business and we had the area to ourselves. A machine on the bus serves hot drinks and there is a loo. I highly recommend it. The drive is practically a straight line due north from Riga and although the road appears to run along the coast it doesn’t and the scenery is mostly flat, agricultural land interspersed with copses of trees. It didn’t help that it rained most of the way and the skies were either grey and bleak or dark grey and threatening. Tallinn, on the other hand, is a beautiful city and by far the most touristed of all the cities on our trip. We stayed at the Telegraaf Hotel which gets its name because it is a rehabilitated Post Office. It’s location in the center of the Old Town, the whole of which is a UNESCO heritage Site, can not be bettered for walking in Tallinn.

Tallinn towards the sea from the tower of Kiek-in-de-Kök

Tallinn, which was founded in the mid-12th century, belonged to Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Russia before finding itself the capital of independent Estonia in 1918. In 1285 Reval, as Tallinn was known in German, became a member of the Hanseatic League and although it marked the start of a trading boom for the city, the only beneficiaries were German merchants and landowners. German became the official language and, as in the rest of the Baltic Hansa area, Estonians were not allowed to own land or property and were reduced to serfs in their own country. In 1710, Tallinn fell to Tsarist Russia and at the end of the Great Northern War (1700-1721) Sweden was forced to cede Estonia to Russia. From 1918 when the three Baltic nations declared independence, Estonia’s history mirrors the other two; occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940, occupation by Nazi Germany from 1941 until 1945 when the Soviets re-occupied it until 1991 when all three countries regained independence.

Town Hall which dates back to 1404. J and I climbed 115 steps to the top  where a strong wind gusted and is was so bloody cold we hurried back down again. Good views but not for photographs because of the mesh wire which I think is there to prevent pigeons roosting. 

These days Estonia has more in common with Scandinavia, especially Finland, than either Latvia or Lithuania, not least because Estonian and Finnish share the same linguistic roots. Like Latvians the majority of the people are nominally Lutheran although Estonia is not a religious country and the biggest festival in the country is St. John’s Eve which takes place the day after Midsummer and is pagan in origin. (This despite the pope following us all the way round the Baltics, arriving in Tallinn the day we left.)

Old Town medieval architecture

It was pouring with rain and dashed chilly when J and I set out to explore the Old City. The medieval architecture here is of steeply pitched roofs that cover two stories of storage space for merchandise as can be seen from the wooden doors at the top that look on to the streets, above which is a winch or hoist that was used to unlade the goods. The small windows in medieval architecture are common in northern lands where except for a few brief months, cold weather is the norm!

Detail of St Maurice, patron saint of the Blackheads at the door of the House of Blackheads.  In some accounts he is described as a Moor, but in the museum at Kiek-in-de-Kök a standard of the guild clearly portrays him as a black African man. In German churches St. Maurice is always black, while in the rest of Europe he is white. The story is said to reference a Nubian Christian soldier during the Roman period who marched, as ordered, to Switzerland but once there, defied the emperor’s orders to kill local Christians who were in revolt. Everything about the story is extremely odd, not least because there is some dispute as to his existence at all.

House of Blackheads, not as ornate as that of Riga. The Blackheads in Tallinn had an obligation to defend the city when they were not living the life of leisured young squires, although they did form the first fire brigade in the whole of the Russian Empire in 1788. As of 1887, their soldiering came to an end and they became a purely social organization until they were disbanded in 1940  under the Soviet Occupation.  

We ended up by mistake really at Fat Margaret’s Tower and this is not a slur. Fat Margaret is a 16th century tower, so-called because it is the largest of the old city’s defenses. It was built to defend the harbor and is next to the Great Coast Gate which still sees the hordes, although now they are not unwelcome and come off the cruise ships berthed just down the street. Just inside the gate a plaque in the wall commemorates the officers and seamen of the British Royal Navy who ‘gave their lives in the cause of freedom in the Baltic during the Estonian War of Independence 1918-1920.’  When the Bolsheviks invaded, an Estonian army was quickly formed which, along with Finnish volunteers, rifles from Britain and assistance from the Royal Navy who held off the Russian fleet, liberated the country. A little known episode from history but one that explains why Queen Elizabeth II slept in the Three Sisters’ hotel. She was there to award the OBE to a local woman who maintained the graves of the British seamen during the Soviet Occupation.

There was another British link. That evening we had dinner at LeibA statue of Sean Connery and another of Robert Burns loomed as we walked up a flight of steps into a garden and along a faintly lit path to the restaurant. This is because Leib is where the Scottish Club used to meet and they still do in some rooms next door. I am not entirely sure why or how a Scottish Club formed in Tallinn but membership is by invitation only. I wonder what they do? Eat haggis? Drink whisky? I mean, there are worse ways to spend an evening for sure. There was no haggis on the menu at Leib – which means black bread in Estonian – but we did manage to graze our way through the following; Kohlrabi ravioli stuffed with pumpkin butter, salad with oil and lemon dressing. Sprats with cucumber, hemp seed oil and grated horseradish, quail with dried tomato, potato, spinach and chanterelles. Rib beef with potatoes, carrots and beets. Cheese plate. This time my notes are better, though not by much. It doesn’t sound nearly as delectable as the food actually was.

Fat Margaret, 16th century bastion, Tallinn

Three merchants’ houses now combined to form Three Sisters Hotel, just inside the Great Coastal Gate 

Great Coastal Gate, Tallinn