Sunday, 20 December 2009
Tallinn, Christmas Market
One of Micky’s important little jobs on our trips away is to get up early, go for a walk and bring back a full weather report and assessment for the day ahead but without him no one else was prepared to accept the responsibility so we had to rely instead on the view from the bedroom window and when I woke and looked out it was still dark and although there was no snow there was no mistaking the rawness of a below zero cold Baltic morning.
The hotel breakfast was a lavish affair with a choice of continental or full English, or both if we were hungry enough! Plenty of hot tea, sausage, egg and bacon, croissants, toast, cheese, ham and a variety of pickled fishes for those who were feeling adventurous. We all ate as much as we could and when we were full we left and assembled together ten minutes later for the short walk into town.
On account of the grey skies we wrapped up in an appropriate way to tackle the bleak weather and set off for the old town and we retraced our steps from the previous night and repeated our visits to the viewing platforms overlooking the Baltic and the islands. With one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, the seacoast capital of Tallinn is a rare jewel in the north of Europe and a precious city on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was once a medieval Hanseatic town and for long periods in history dominated by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians and even today contains lots of influence from those days but as we walked we could tell that there was a uniqueness to the place, a bit like Riga but at only roughly half the size certainly very different.
Tallinn is a city with a long and proud tradition dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the city, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. After joining the League Tallinn enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because its position as a port, a link between mainland Europe and Russia, enabled it to grow rapidly in size and wealth and many of the City's finest buildings were constructed during this period. This lasted until the sixteenth century when Sweden moved in and claimed the city and during this time of Swedish rule more fortifications were added and the architecture took on the baroque style of the times.
Just like the previous evening we were confused about how to find our way to the centre of the city not least because where we were was an elevated spot with limited access to the streets of the old town. We wandered about and corrected ourselves a couple of times before finally walking through a medieval entrance to the city and descending steps behind the city walls before finding ourselves finally at the Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square.
Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market. This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town's girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.
Today the market is included in the Times newspaper top twenty European Christmas markets and here in the square there were more than fifty wooden huts and stalls where visitors and locals were being tempted by (traditional? well maybe) artisan products from all over Estonia. Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, the vendors were selling a variety of original products including woolens, felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, homemade candles, wreaths and other decorations. Traditional Estonian holiday food was also on the menu such as sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries and other seasonal treats such as gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies and, best of all, hot mulled wine poured from copious wooden barrels.
We stopped for a drink and paid over the odds in a restaurant on the edge of the square and then left and walked through the market towards the south side of town. Here there were men and women dressed in medieval costume handing out lucky coins and trying to encourage us to dine in this or that particular restaurant. Some of us thought there must be a twist involved and fearing an obligation refused to accept the coins but Kim and I took a chance on a con and took ours and it was all completely innocent of course.
Actually it was approaching lunchtime and therefore, because of the nervousness of finding somewhere that Sue and Christine would approve of, a potential crisis time in a new country with unfamiliar cuisine. Without Micky the anxiety was all mine and weighed heavily because traditional Estonian Cuisine has developed over centuries with Germanic and Scandinavian influences and some of it is not for the faint hearted and certainly wouldn’t suit Sue’s delicate dining preferences. For a girl who turned her nose up at a plain fish salad in Portugal I was certain that she wouldn’t like sült, a sort of jellied meat dish made from pork bones, trotters and heads, or the marinated eel, Baltic sprats, sauerkraut stew or even the Christmas specialty of verivorst or blood sausage. There was no real need to worry however because although Estonians speak fondly of their traditional food they are no more likely to eat it on a regular basis than in England we are to order pease pudding, jellied eels or brawn and the according to the menu boards displayed outside the pubs and restaurants had a good selection of acceptable offerings.