Tails of a Travelling Cat
The Finland-Baltic Edition
Greetings, humans! We’ve reached the halfway point of this trip! The day began early again as we had to walk to the other harbour (yes, Helsinki, scarily enough is so surrounded by water it has two harbours) to catch our ferry to Tallinn. Wait, what? We’re going by boat to Estonia? Oh, sweet doughnuts! I did not agree to this.
The West Harbour was as ice-encrusted as the East which we departed for Suomelinna from yesterday and after some confusion as to where the check in area was, we found the rather swanky Terminal 2 from where our Eckerö Line ferry would depart. After check-in, we climbed on a very long escalator which took us up the equivalent of many floors to the departure lounge which horrifyingly was glass-fronted and looked out on what was, besides the odd dotted island, a vast expanse of empty Baltic Sea from here to… well… the Baltics. At 8:30, we were allowed on board the ship, we descended like ravenous wolves (considering my general feelings on canines, I don’t know why that’s the simile that came to mind) onto Deck 6 of 9. The cars got to sleep in the lower decks, the upper decks contained passenger cabins and entertainment facilities which seemed to consist entirely of food, alcohol and arcade games. We had a two berth cabin all to ourselves which we headed straight for in the expectation of having a ‘good’ view of the sea. On entering the cabin, we discovered although we had our own bathroom and two beds, the ceiling was mirrored and they had neglected to put in a single window. Even I felt claustrophobic at the thought of spending two hours (two hours, is it really that long?) enclosed in a reflective artificially lit box, so we left in search of daylight. I realise this probably makes us seem like highly inexperienced sea travellers, but the longest I’ve spent on a ferry was the forty minute train ferry which took us from Denmark to Germany way back in the Europe Edition and the longest either of us have spent on a boat of any description was probably the Danube River Cruise in the not-so-distant past of the Eastern Europe Edition. Either way, the ferry should perhaps more accurately be termed a ship, maybe even a cruise ship, except cars don’t normally come on cruises do they?
Anyway, we took a trip around the seventh and eighth decks, I had unfortunate reminiscences of the Titanic and then we headed up to nine, the sun deck. After deciding it really wasn’t sun deck weather, we headed back down to eight where we found the pub, located at the very front of the boat/ferry/ship. Between the seventh and eighth decks, the front of the boat sloped forward quite sharply creating an extra wedge of Deck 7 which we descended to, where there was a live band warming up (oh good, free entertainment) and many chairs and tables, the tables of which were bolted to the ground in case of water turbulence (I assume there’s a proper word for that besides choppiness), but the chairs weren’t so in case of emergency, sit on a chair and hold onto the nearest table.
Charlie naturally chose a table as close as possible to the large glass window at the front of the ship and I resigned myself to hiding in my bag. Charlie was reading the Viking book when we departed and didn’t even realise the ship had taken off. Left to fend for myself, I summoned my inner Viking, in reference to a certain placard we found in Reykjavík – see the Iceland Edition (I seem to be plugging my previous Tails a lot today, I would apologise, but I’m shameless so instead I invite you to check them out) and steeled myself for a watery journey to previously unexplored lands (Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia with a population of 440,000).
My distracted human finally noticed the ship was moving, but was I offered comfort? No, Charlie returned almost immediately to reading once we had passed those island dots and moved into the open sea.
Around this point, the band started to play. They were very good, but as they sung in Estonian, Finnish or maybe another language entirely, we don’t know who they were or what their songs were about. In a way, it was nice to be in another country and hear the native language, not English, being spoken. Anyway, several couples were up and dancing on the dance floor, doing proper dancing, not the strange rhythm-less chaos people at clubs and weddings in the UK do. I could have had quite a nice time listening to the band and watching the dancing if life would just let me, but just as Estonia was sighted (about an hour into the trip), things started to get a little choppy, the boat stated to rock gently with the motion. Did this fill Charlie with the same dread as I felt? No, instead the motion lulled my strange human in to sleep. Now, I was truly alone.
Fortunately for both of us, Charlie woke up just as the views of Tallinn started to look good and there was some hope of capturing them in pictures. To the East was the modern skyscrapers, which as we discover later, are very tall indeed. To the West was the Old Town, here the skyline was broken by church spires and the towers of the city wall. We looked hopefully for Paterei Prison (Estonia’s answer to Alcatraz), but alas, we couldn’t spot it.
Not a moment too soon, we were docked and finally allowed to disembark. Our first stop was the AirBnb to dump the unimportant stuff, which resulted in us getting quite lost. After wandering several times round the Estonia Puiestee bus station, back tracking and then deciding to simply follow the compass southeast, we found our landmark, the Olümpia Hotel/ Casino towering high in the sky and were back on track. We walked through a few residential streets – we would realise later we were only a street or two away from the Skyscraper District – and finally made it to our AirBnb for the night. The apartment is a study in concrete, metal and exposed pipes, which has a strangely charming aesthetic to it. Mine and Charlie’s particular highlights are the bed on a balcony (I believe they call it a mezzanine) and a cushion shaped like a ball of yarn. The city map left for us was also a great help. We found and marked all the places we wanted to go, found a few more and headed back into the city proper.
Our first stop was Paterei Prison, on the opposite side of town, passed the Old Town. This time we travelled through the land of the skyscrapers, which towered over us, the tallest either of us had ever seen. This journey allowed us to appreciate the difference between the amalgamation of peeling-paint, concrete Soviet buildings and modern glass skyscrapers. In some cases these newer buildings simply grew out of their predecessors. We made it back to the Old Town, but after this got a little confused in trying to find Paterei Prison. After carefully consulting the map and walking in the opposite direction to where we had been going, we were back on track and soon we could see something which could only be an abandoned Soviet prison. Although we couldn’t enter the prison buildings, we could wander the grounds which, enclosed in concrete, barbed wire and razor wire walls on the edge of the land were creepy enough in themselves. The windows were all covered in bars, once to prevent escape, now presumably to stop intruders, but some of the dirt encrusted panes were broken, allowing us to peer at the gloom within. Not being able to see much, we continued walking around the building wondering what the people interned here must have experienced (as we find out later, it wasn’t the worst of the horrors instigated by the KGB).
Having thoroughly explored the outside of the prison, we set off to explore another abandoned building, the Linnenhall (City Hall) which we had passed twice on our way to the prison, the first time unaware of what it was. This concrete monster was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (when all the Baltic States were part of the USSR) to show the capitalist west what communist concrete could achieve. Well, only thirty-nine years later, the building is decayed and permanently closed, part of the wall is collapsing outwards, several staircases were fenced off, but we were still free to walk on the roof. This seems safe… the roof can be accessed from the north and south ends by a very long set of steps, but the views of the city, Paterei Prison to the northwest and the Old Town and Skyscraper Land to the southeast are stunning. It was a great spot for some photos and we were surprised by a group of tourists who found us lying on our bellies on the wall trying to capture the perfect selfie with the Old Town as a back drop.
Selfie captured, it was time to explore the Old Town. We breached the city walls at Fat Margaret’s Tower, named because of its large, squat shape, I presume, at the northern most tip. From here we walked down the wonderfully named street Pikk to St Olav’s church, a 14th century green-spired building with a 124m high tower, this was one of the steeples which so dominates the city’s skyline. From April to October, the steeple is open to visitors to experience the skyline. Having preceded April by a few weeks, we admired the tower from the outside and continued along Pikk. We then came upon the KGB prison cells museum on Pagari which we had both forgotten was on our list of places to visit. These cells had once been a residential property and although the upper floors had now been returned to their original function, the basement level had been maintained in its former state.
The cells were simply rooms in the house, leading off a singular long corridor, the windows bricked up and barred from the inside. Here we read about the conditions of the prison and individual stories. Prisoners were interned without trail and subject to brutal torture during interrogation, even though this was illegal. We know this because there was a document, written by the KGB in the event of interrogation. Citizens knew they were being spied on and could expect interrogation from their bosses as well as the KGB. Citizens could refuse to be interrogated, as they were only witnesses not criminals, and as interrogators didn’t write down an accurate account of their witness’ remarks, citizens could withhold their signature, edit the transcripts or even answer the KGB’s questions in their own writing. ‘Dissidents’, as the document referred to those being questioned, were advised not to give in to tactics such as being told someone else had already given information and that they shouldn’t be subjected to violence. Interesting. What makes this even stranger is this document was dated 1977, only three years before the Moscow Olympics. As the prison wasn’t closed until 1989, torture and internment were being carried out here when the games were being held not too far away.
So what else happened to the prisoners here? On their first night and other nights, they were locked in a cupboard barely a foot deep, sleep and food deprived and sometimes sent to Paterei Prison, which we visited earlier. Despite the grim exterior of Paterei, prisoners returned from there to Pagari claiming it was much better, earning it the nickname ‘the health spa’.
Having been inundated with modern history we decided it was time to return to the true Old Tallinn. We continued along Pikk, passing some more churches, crossed the Town Square which had some wonderfully coloured, ornate buildings and onto St Catherine’s Passage. This series of arches houses basement shops selling traditional crafts. We then ascended out of the city wall, through the Long Leg Gate (Pikk Jaig) to the city viewing platforms. The Bishop’s Garden platform looked out to the other side of Tallinn and the second area of skyscrapers. I read somewhere that from here on a clear day one can see Finland. It’s a shame I can’t remember where I read this to determine its legitimacy and we were unable to test its validity as the weather took a turn for the worse at this point, drizzling steadily.
We then crossed to the other side of Toompea (the land of Medieval nobles) to look out at the Old Town from the Kohtuotsa viewing platform to judge our lesser mortals far below (and enjoy the panorama of course). We then headed over to the third and final viewing platform, the Danish King’s Garden. What the Danish King was doing in Estonia in 1219, I’m not entirely sure, but it seems they were conquering Estonia in a crusade for Christianity. We left Toompea (unconquered) via the Short Leg (Lühikela Jaig) Gate and headed for the city wall. The rain was coming down quite heavily now so once this was explored we headed for Vegan Inspiratsioon, the café we’d planned on eating dinner at for a nice relaxing coffee to warm Charlie up. I was just happy to be out of the rain.
Feeling warmed, we headed back into the Old Town where it had (mostly) stopped raining for a quick bit of souvenir shopping before returning to the calming atmosphere of Vegan Inspiratsioon for dinner. With a vast array of options in front of us – burgers, wraps, lasagne, pizza, nacho starters and soups, Charlie once again opted for a burger. To be fair it did live up to its name, ‘I’m really quite special’ burger. The burger was bean and beetroot, the filling included tofu ‘egg’ salad, gherkins, cheese and sauce, served in a black bun, with a side of coleslaw, sweet potato fries and hummus. Charlie says it was all amazing. We then ordered pudding, three taster slices of cake, but the slices were each as large as a small slice of cake, which we reckon equated to somewhere between one and a half to two average cake slices, something Charlie was very happy with. Our first taster was the Estonian speciality ‘Spotted Dog’, which had a tiffin like consistency, but with more chocolate and less fruit. The second slice was marzipan, another Estonian speciality, cheesecake with a wonderful biscuit base. The third was a peanut butter cheesecake with a chocolate top and a peanut and biscuit base. They were all amazing and Charlie was very happy and thoroughly stuffed.