While I was in Tallinn the advertising campaign for the national shipping company featured a disturbing clown dressed in a red fitted jump suit and a slogan that read Sirkusen Taikaa, which translates as “Circus Magic.”
I travelled from Tallinn to Helsinki on the MS Baltic Princess and a circus it most certainly seemed. Magical? Not so much.
The journey began happily enough; plenty of room to wander; food, drink and gifts massively overpriced but available; lovely views of Tallinn harbour and the city’s rooftops as we pulled away. But then everyone started drinking.
I had made a concerted effort in Riga and Tallinn to avoid the hoards of stags (bachelor parties) that congregated (and, some might say, ruined) the centre of both cities; dressed in matching shirts, belligerent and drunk. For me, it was even more pressing to distance myself from these people because they were my people: the British.
I had thought that only the British were guilty, but I made the crossing on a Monday morning and, judging by the PVC leggings, metal shirts and wild hairstyles sported by my fellow passengers, I was joined by the Finnish stragglers from a long, drunken weekend in Tallinn.
The mass export of alcohol was astounding. People were carrying crates and pushing carts full of it; beer mostly, but whisky, vodka and various fruity “long drinks” too. I understand that alcohol is a lot cheaper in Tallinn than in Helsinki but, gosh, is the price difference really substantial enough to warrant a production that rivals Prohibition-era bootlegging?
At first it was amusing watching everyone card their slabs of booze on board, but as containers were cracked and bottles and cans began to pile up on deck, I had an ominous feeling. Prescient, I realised after I walked into the ‘Entertainment Lounge’ and was groped by a drunk. Of course I shouted and kicked up a fuss, but then retreated to a couch in reception shared with a group of quiet elderly ladies. Besides a brief interaction with a man dressed as one of those hideous clowns, I was left alone to enjoy the rest of the trip.
It was the wrong time. Early September, beyond the strict parameters of what is accepted as “season” in the Baltic countries. I had already been made quite aware of this rigidity, strolling along an empty beach in Jūrmala, Latvia on September 1st. The sun was bright, perfect weather for sunbathing, indicative, maybe, of an Indian summer but, no, “season” was over and the beach was stark and the town’s tourist face had retired for the year. Shuttered beach bars and locked up candy striped beach huts a glimpse of what had been just one day before; when it was still “season.”
I arrived in Parnu, Estonia via bus a few days later. Signs pointed to the beach but the sky was dark and the rain relentless. It was understood, anyway, that the time for beaches was over. My hostel was empty, out of season, so the desk clerk, who non-patronisingly returned my Estonian greeting, gave me a private room. I spent the day walking aimlessly through the drenched and empty streets.
I was excited about my trip to Kihnu the next day. I had a guidebook that told me I could take a boat across for the day. There I could experience the tiny island’s rich cultural traditions, their handicrafts and brightly colored, decorative traditional clothing. A cultural heritage that was fiercely protected by the women of the island in the long stretches of time that the men were out to sea and the run of the island was left to them. I would visit the Kihnu Museeum and learn about Kihnu Jõnn, “a symbol of lost freedom for Estonians during the Soviet period when they were virtually banned from the sea.” I would see the British-built lighthouse, stroll the coastline and maybe even have a drink at the lone bar. All I had to do was to rent a bicycle from a shop just “150m from the port.”
The boat that took me across the Gulf of Riga was called Liisi and was big and empty. In two days I had barely seen anyone. The boat was also decorated with maps of Ruhnu, a different Estonian island, and the Norwegian Fjords, neither of which were our destination. I got to know the landscape of Ruhnu and the Norwegian Fjords quite well on the three hour boat journey because I had forgotten my book. There was an abandoned Sunday supplement from an Estonian newspaper lying on one of the tables. I tried to find words that I knew, words I could guess and words that I might even be able to say. The childrens’ colouring book lying next to it might have been more appropriate.
On arrival in Kihnu I watched as the few passengers from the boat were swallowed up by relatives, vehicles and finally the distance. I stood on the jetty alone again. I spotted the woman who had sold me my ticket working on turning the boat around for the return journey. I thought to ask her something, but I didn’t know what my question was.
I set out toward the bicycle shop. My book said 150m, so it must be easy to find, I thought. But what was the name? I reached into my bag for my forgotten book. I hadn’t thought to even write a name down. I wandered around, only a few buildings looked like they could be any kind of business but none were open. I strayed into people’s gardens, taking a parked bicycle as a sign that I had found the right place, and far, far outside a 150m radius. And still found nothing but silence.
And still I didn’t see a soul. I decided I would walk instead. I had five hours and the island was only 7km long, I could at least try to see something. I wandered up the coastline towards the main village. On the way I was stopped by an old man driving a tractor, at first he said something I didn’t understand then he asked in English if I needed help. His face was red, weather beaten, and he was in overalls, too old, I thought for this work; he was one of just around 600 people that live there.
We chatted for a while and I went back into the direction he gave me for the bicycle shop, “a few hundred metres from the port,” he said.
I wandered and wandered and I never found the bicycle shop or another person to ask. The wind was getting stronger and I was becoming freezing I walked quicker, up the other side of the coastline, though forest, and back in plenty of time for the boat back to Pärnu where I sat staring out at the sea and down at the incomprehensible newspaper supplement.
In Estonia I am eating the most chocolate since, I think, those few days in Bariloche, Argentina.
Velvet sofas, red silk tablecloths, thick coffee and rich, dark chocolate: Chocolaterie Pierre has been the best chocolate experience of my trip. It is hidden away down a side alley in the Old Town, but still is almost always busy, though never too busy. I preferred to take a seat in the cozy, dimly lit, bohemian-styled cafe, where but there is also summer seating in the courtyard.
The hot chocolate is a thick, gooey dream of cream, rum and melted chocolate. Hot chocolate will never taste the same after trying it here.
Pierre shares owners with Josephine café just down the street.