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Tallinn - the Baltic Tiger

“How do you tell a communist? Well, it’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And
how do you tell an anti-communist? It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin”. (Ronald Reagan).

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Town Hall at Night - photo Hector Christie

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Medieval Marzipan maker - photo Hector Christie

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Across Tallinn Rooftops - photo Hector Christie

Quoting someone like Reagan at the start of an article might seem an inauspicious beginning. After all, this is the man of whom Jonathan Hunt once said,” In a disastrous fire in Ronald Reagan’s library, both books were destroyed. And the real tragedy is that he hadn’t finished colouring one”. Yet, when you visit Tallinn the subjects of communism and absurdity reflected here, are inescapable.

I visited for the first time in 2011, the year of it being jointly named the European Capital of Culture (along with the Finnish city of Turku).Whilst I can’t conceive of any more deserving recipient than Tallinn, the cultural event at the heart of this piece isn’t just about being the City of Culture, but about another hugely important event. It is hugely important both historically and for the cultural future of this resurgent city. Now referred to as the Singing Festival, in 1988 it played such an essential part in the independence of Estonia in 1991 that it was known as “The Singing Revolution”-the event where, “ Estonians sang the Soviets out of their land” (The Times 22/6/2011).

“Wow, an apothecary table! What period is it from?”
Uh, it’s from . . . yore.Like, the days of yore, you know”
(Phoebe Buffay & Rachel Green. - Friends)

This is a city that’s a dream for historians. In the aforementioned days of yore it was a city that knew many foreign invaders. Invasions started in 1219 when the then Danish king seized it as a base from whence to conquer the rest of Estonia. It was subsequently sold to the (German) Livonian Order of knights in 1345, then Sweden ruled from 1561, and Peter the Great of Russia in 1710 took over. After the collapse of the Russian Empire at the end of WW1, Estonia became an independent republic in 1918.In 1939 came the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and independence was crushed as Germany and Russia sliced up eastern Europe between them with Estonia falling within the Soviet half and being occupied by Soviet troops in 1940.After a brief (and initially welcomed) invasion by Germany, the Soviets had re-established control by
1945. Thousands of Estonians were deported to Siberia in 1949 in order to stifle any anti-Soviet occupation. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” had indeed fallen, and was to remain in place for decades, until incrementally lifted by events beginning with the Singing Revolution. This thumbnail history isn’t a fascination with” yore” so much as it’s a means to contextualise the sights, sounds, and above all feel of this great city.

“We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual” (Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russian Prime Minister)

Absurdity was promised and absurdity ye shall have. Nowhere is it better captured than in the KGB museum. Despite the fact that Estonia was, on paper, an equal republic in the USSR, the Soviet period has always been regarded by Estonians as an illegal occupation by an imperial power. That imperial power, had by 1972 recognised that tourism was a way to attract foreign capital, and were ready to open Tallinn’s first skyscraper, the Hotel Viru.Built for tourism, the hotel was also intended as a monument to Soviet ingenuity, and (literally) concrete evidence that the Soviet Union could produce the same level of comfort (and decadence) that had become the norm in the Western world. Any foreign visitors would be placed in the hotel so they could enjoy the finest amenities on offer - -the fact that the hotel contained a KGB listening post on the “secret” 23rd floor was a mere coincidence - - -With 60 rooms wired up to the bulky radio equipment in this listening post on the formerly sealed off floor the m is, at the same time, both a grim and an amusing reminder of the length that the KGB was prepared to go to to make sure no one stepped out of line. The museum’s display of past brochures and tourist tat from that era tells the story of a regime that was attempting to put its best face forward to the world whilst denying that there could be a problem with –well, anything.This material has an almost desperate tone which seems to say,” we can do it as well”, and shows how the USSR was defined by contradictions, as it simultaneously loathed the ideals of the West, yet tried so desperately to win its approval. The hotel’s tour guide is both informative and revealing through her examples of the absurd, and the hotel’s printed advertising blurb sets the scene, “Once upon a time the hotel called Viru was built. The year was 1972 and just a little less than 20 years of the Soviet period was left to endure. The museum represents a collection of the stories of two worlds. In one of them, mostly existing on paper, happy Soviet people enjoyed a life of plenty, and friendship, led by a single, wise political party. There were no accidents or catastrophes;-there wasn’t even sex.The other world-the real one-had rather more diversity and complexity” This floor has been preserved just as the KGB agents left it hurriedly in 1991,even down to the camp bed in the corner and the cigarette butts in the ashtray. In an adjoining room there is a large red telephone on an imposing bureau-the direct line to Moscow, with a portrait of Brezhnev hanging above it.

“What did you go to the museum for? It wasn’t raining”. (Old Mother Riley).

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Twin Symbols of Oppression - photo Hector Christie

Although the KGB museum is relatively small it does not lack in raw authenticity, and even if you’re normally a museum avoider by nature, don’t avoid this one. Museums are ubiquitous here, to say the least. The Museum of Occupations gives the best account of the phenomena of the Singing Revolution, as a series of linked TV screens bring the history of Estonia up to date. By 1988, a combination of the era of glasnost and perestroika and a Soviet Union economically weakened by the arms race led to emboldened former Soviet satellites making their demands to break away from the USSR.The commonly agreed focal point for this in Estonia, was their singing festival.

There is a tradition here of enormous choirs coming together to sing, dating back to Estonia’s “national awakening” in the 1860s.Most people don’t think about singing when they think about revolution. But song was the weapon of choice, when, between 1986-1991 hundreds of thousands gathered together in public to sing songs forbidden during the Soviet occupation.

In June 1988 the Old Town Festival followed up by participants moving spontaneously to the Song Festival Ground in the Kadriog district of the city, and starting to sing patriotic songs. In September a massive song festival, the “Song of Estonia” saw nearly 300,000 people come together. This represented more than a quarter of all Estonians. On that day political leaders were participating for the first time, calling for the restoration of independence, and in November the Estonia Sovereignty Declaration took place. The revolution lasted for four years, and, in 1991, as people used their bodies as human shields to protect their radio and TV stations from threatening Soviet tanks, independence was declared. The Times may be simplifying things when they state that KGB agents “slunk back eastwards with Estonian folksongs ringing in their ears”, but there is no doubt that the music as an expression of national identity, the feverish passion of a people longing to be free and the courageous defiance that was inspired by such events did play a huge part. On film in the museum, a former(and obviously wiser) KGB agent reminisces how he fed back to HQ his growing alarm as the crowd continued to build ,to the point where he reported, “Soviet power has gone down the toilet.” Others tell how,” Young people without any political party came together to gather and sing - - and to give this nation a new spirit”. Watching the massed choirs raising their voices in hope on the old black and white museum film can’t fail to move- -the wall of sound from thousands of throats is a wall of hope, pride and defiance - -and they won!

“Will the highways on the internet become more few?” (George W Bush)

This Baltic state has come a long way since then. It’s now not just a Unesco World Heritage site with a history ranging back to the Middle Ages, but a centre of technological innovation at the same time. By bestowing its citizens with the fundamental right to free internet access Estonia has become the most wired country in Eastern Europe. All schools are connected to the internet; more than 90% of bank transactions are conducted online, Skype has set up its research division here, and there are more mobile phones than residents. People pay for their parking tickets and bus passes by text from phones. Estonians can even obtain birth certificates via the internet, and since 2006 have been able to vote online at general elections. Information technology has become the driving force behind its growth. It has transformed the city into a magnet for young experts from all over Europe, and programmers educated here are among the most in demand worldwide. Unsurprisingly, then, Tallinn has attracted descriptions such as, “The Hong Kong of the Baltic” and “One of the seven most intelligent cities of the world”

When I visit, the designated Capital of Culture is in full swing. Although I’ve missed that years Singing Festival, there’s still plenty going on. FIBIT is in swing (Fashion is Back in Tallinn), with catwalks set up in shopping malls, and an emphasis on fashion much in evidence. I come across a photo shoot about 10 o’clock one night just off the Old Town square, and think that if the people here show the same dedication to fashion as they seem to have done with everything else, fashion houses from Paris to Milan will need to look to their laurels. Cool bars and chic lounges seem to have cropped up everywhere, as well as the few eerie remaining establishments left over from the communist days. Just how playfully Estonian tourism professionals deal with the Soviet heritage give me the impression of great self confidence. The lady serving in the Museum of the Occupations quite readily answers my questions about having lived through those times, telling me laughingly, that at school she was a Cadet of Lenin, whilst secretly listening to Elvis and the Beatles on Radio Luxembourg. Grandiose statues and portraits from those days have been removed from Tallinn’s public places and demoted to the basement of the museum. A separate tiny museum sells articles of everyday domestic familiarity except they’re made from mines left by the Soviets. T-shirts on sale in a dockside shopping mall mock the former regime –Joe Stalin looks earnestly out of one apologising, “Sorry-shit happens”.

And yet, something isn’t quite right. Questions,however delicately put about how Estonians relate to Russians who stayed behind after independence and now form 26% of the population are given bland answers or sidestepped. Although I don’t agree with comments in Der Spiegel that Tallinn is like a, “dollhouse that wants to shut itself off from everything evil out there, like a medieval marzipan miniature whose beauty makes it sufficient unto itself” I can understand where that impression comes from. It is not till I get home and read further into recent history that I realise that it’s perhaps easier to talk about old threats than discuss present ones.

Join the EU because there are Better Looking Men There. (Estonian poster campaign encouraging women to vote for EU membership)

At the beginning of 2011, Estonia completed the final stage of becoming an EU member and switched to the Euro. For a country with a booming economy and neglible national debt, this may seem a strange step to take, given the perilous state of the Eurozone.The Guardian gives me my first real clue when it interviews the president of Estonia, and mentions that he saw his country’s computers crash en masse in 2007 following a cyber-attack that many (including him), “allege is traceable to Vladimir Putin’s Russia”. The security of belonging to a larger entity, particularly with such a history of past invasions and with a foreboding neighbour sharing a border now seems an obvious strategy. It’s when I read further and particularly a report by the CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies) published as recently as August this year, that things fall into place.

“Computers can never replace human stupidity” (Anon)

The 26% of Estonia’s population that are Russian now swim more clearly into focus. This recent digital attack was purportedly sparked by the decision to relocate a 1947 memorial - the Bronze Soldier-to Soviet war dead, plus the exhumed bodies of thirteen Russian soldiers, from the centre of Tallinn, to a cemetery about a mile outside the city. The rage of Russians living in the city at this perceived slight, led first to the riots, petrol bombing and looting of “Bronze Night”. Three successive waves of cyber attacks, followed by energy embargoes of Russian coal, oil and natural gas, then took place, to the noted concern of NATO.Following those challenges to the bilateral relationship, both sides have attempted to contain the damage. A meeting between the Foreign Ministers of both countries this year, formally noted the,” positive movements” in the countries’ economic relations. The thawing continues with agreements about gas prices and increased bilateral trade and tourism. Anniversaries of Bronze Night, however, still provide tensions, and are reminiscent to a degree of Ireland’s marching season. The CSIS report, whilst noting Estonia’s bright future, noted that the country, 20 years after independence, continued to struggle emotionally and administratively with how to build this future with its Russian population, and not around it.

I was drawn time and again to the Town Hall Square, not just because of its beauty but because it’s the fulcrum around which all life in the Old Town revolves, playing host to throngs of office workers, shoppers, sightseers and plain old show-offs. Although I made it to the open air Museum of Architecture, saw the sights from Toompea Hill, went under the streets in the tunnels that emanate from Kiek in de Kok tower,(its apparently Low German for “peek in the kitchen”) I estimate that I missed highlights by the dozen and, more likely, by the score. I never set foot in the Kumu Museum of Modern Art (the building itself is an artwork), never visited the grounds where the Singing Festivals continue to be held, didn’t disentangle the significance of the various buildings along the historical Pikk Street, and just didn’t find time to visit the Museum of Photography. I never got round to tasting their” Worthy Elk Soup” either!

To achieve this and take in all the highlights, I’ll need to return, and maybe more than thrice.Hey, I could end up an “insider” - - -.

References.

The man who made E-stonia. The Guardian. 4/11/ 2011.
Tune into Tallinn, capital of culture. The Times 22/6/2011
Russian soft power in the 21st Century. Report of the Centre for Strategic and International studies. Heather A Conley and Theodore P.Gerber.August 2011

Travel and accommodation details

Hector travelled to Estonia via the Ryanair Edinburgh to Tallinn service.

He stayed at the Hotel G9 in the Gionsiri 9 district. The hotel is central to all main forms of transport, 3,2 km from Tallinn airport, and a 10 minute walk away from the Old Town. Located only on the third floor of a large building it offers 23 rooms. On entering the building two floors below, there is an unavoidable smell coming from the Azerbaijan “Shes-Besh” restaurant next door, but this does not reach the third floor where the rooms are clean and comfortable. It has an all night reception desk and the cost is 21 Euros p.p.p.n. Contact by e-mail at info@hotelg9.ee or phone +3726267130

Insiders view of Tallinn.
by Colin Hughes

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Segways - photo Hector Christie

Though I live in Denmark my association with Tallinn is long and frequent enough, to consider myself an insider. When I started coming here originally, I did what most tourists do, which is to read the books, visit the museums and get to grips with the place by using my feet and local services instead of taxis. Sure I quickly learned about the various occupations of Estonia and Tallinn in particular, the last of these being the Russian occupation, which limped towards its end when Estonia regained it’s independence in 1991.

When I’m here, nowadays, I love the shopping, the eating and the people watching, particularly in the Old Town, rather than dwelling over much on the cities past. Cheap flights may have opened up the city to new influences including the odd stag and hen party, but these thankfully, aren’t as conspicuous as in many other destinations made accessible by Ryanair, EasyJet and their ilk.Norwegian and Cimber Sterling don’t fly direct toTallinn so I flew with Estonian Air from Copenhagen. This cost around £70 which is reasonable. Estonia joined the Euro in January 2011, and.given current events with that troubled currency you might wonder why, especially as their economy is one where national debt is neglible, and signs of prosperity are highly visible. This is where the past can’t be excluded in any article-the truth is that the last Soviet tank rolled out of the country only 17 years ago, and any bulwark against the return of a re-emboldened Russia is seen as necessary. Membership of the European Union is viewed within that context as a sound investment.

The teenage daughter of my family of Estonian friends speaks volumes about modern Tallin. Her fluency in brand names, her earning power, and mild air of entitlement is par for the course with modern teenagers from Stockholm to Seattle. Her education, is probably superior, not so much in academe, but knowledge of everyday health and political matters (she proudly puns about her countrys’ progress by referring to its president Toomas Ilves as the technological savvy politician who “made E-stonia”)

Typical of the emergent Estonia, Tallinn wears its pride on its sleeve. Take its eating places, for example; - as this year’s European City of Culture Tallinn can boast with accuracy that its cuisine caters for the most diverse tastes. There is not just the usual half dozen “foreign” cuisines catered for here, but in addition to the usual American, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese outlets, there are Korean, Hungarian, German, African, Russian, Tex-Mex, Thai, and Ukrainian restaurants, whilst heavy cuisine from Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan became popular here during Soviet times and continues to leave its mark. Its continuing success is less surprising when you learn that after independence in 1991,a large Russian contingent elected to stay on, and now form just over a quarter of the cities’ population. In addition there are themed restaurants, (one, “Peppersack”stages swordfights after 8pm nightly) with medieval themes being the most ubiquitous, especially around Old Town Hall Square. Here, and in neighbouring streets, Estonian cooking is easily encountered, and worth the search. I’ll come back to that, but from the almost endless list of possibilities, want to nominate just a few names I can personally guarantee.

It may seem strange to select as my opening recommendation an Italian restaurant. The Vapiona, however, is a bit different from most eateries; don’t let any snobbish reflex against words like “self-service”, or “restaurant chain” put you off. Instead let words like “efficient”, “healthy” vibrant” and “unstuffy” be your guide. Here the food is prepared right in front of you. When you arrive you are greeted and given a plastic card, then you proceed to your area of choice (one for pasta, one for salad/anti-pasti, another for pizzas only, and a third for dessert/drinks),and place your order, and the items are charged to your card. Pasta is cooked in front of you and is dispatched quickly. With pizzas it takes a little longer, but you’re given a pager that vibrates and blinks when it’s piping hot (unwelcome noise pollution thus avoided).On leaving to relinquish your card, and pay the tarrif, and that’s it. Superb food at very reasonable prices made possible through a combination of Germanic efficiency, and Italian style.Vapianos have two places in Tallinn, and they are always busy, which speaks for itself. They tend to attract a predominantly young clientele, but have no feel of a fast food place, as parties tend to linger over wine and conversation. Try the one near the Rottermann Centre which I’ll come to.

That’s my number one recommendation, but if you are in company and inclined to push the boat out to could go for Olde Hansa for historically authentic fare.Olde Hansa is the Mecca of medievalism, and some would say you haven’t really visited Tallinn till you’ve eaten there. The possibilities are endless, but for anyone in search of something different, try St Michael Juussturestoran (St Michael Cheese restaurant) where waiters in monks garb deliver cheesy mains; Balthassar where the speciality is garlic and everything that can be made from it,(including garlic ice cream) and the menu items carry the numbers of bulbs in the way that some Indian restaurants do with chillies, to indicate strength; Admiral ,with its Balkan menu, and unusual setting of being built into an old steam ship, yet embodying a past time when a sea cruise was the height of class.

Cafes are equally numerous and varied, and its useful to know that Estonians are frugal spenders when it comes to weekday lunches, so most cafes and pubs offer what they call a paevapraad (daily special), which is often a meat and potatoes dish for about 3 Euros. Alternatively many cafés, such as Kompressor, offer enormous portions of pancakes. Pancakes aren’t just for breakfast in Estonia, but can be accessed easily throughout the day with different fillings from shrimp to smoked cheese which make them a good, if not over-sized meal. For breakfast I am drawn towards the modernistic café in the bookstore in the shopping complex at Viru Keskus.Not listed in any of the tourist guides I’ve seen (apart from a fleeting reference to the “10 cafés” within the Viru shopping centre), it was first recommended to me by a native who liked Estonian food but in a bright contemporary setting. On each visit it’s been interesting to note that, although a variety of breakfast possibilities are available, the traditional dishes such as mannapuder (semolina porridge with often a dollop of jam) remain solid favourites, as do rye bread with various toppings.

This shopping mall gives but one of many opportunities to divest yourself of cash. When it comes to fashion and luxury items, Tallinn may be cool, elegant and classy, but - - it ain’t cheap. Retail therapy can be divided into two main types-the tourist type where places like the Medieval Shoppe claims it’s extra “-pe” from its old world items. It avoids being just a gimmicky gift shop because its “stuff” such as pixie shoes with curled toes, have been expertly put together based on known designs from medieval times. Then there’s the more everyday, contemporary shopping experience. It’s in the shopping malls that you really lose any feel of hangover from the grey, rationing days of the Soviet era. Tallinn still has slabs of grey concrete buildings that summon up Cold War novels, but inside its many shopping complexes capitalism is having a field day. Right in the centre of Tallinn is a 2 square kilometre shopping district that includes 5 major shopping centres, 2 world class department stores, a number of cosier shopping centres, and loads of stand-alone boutiques and shops. Though famous for its old town, its best kept secret to date is that it’s also one of the best shopping places in Northern Europe Viru Keskus has been mentioned, but there is also the 5 storey Tallinn branch of the Finnish premiere department store Stockmann,a somewhat high end affair where you can buy just about anything you can imagine; Solaris which ,although also an all-in-one entertainment complex, also has a reasonable amount of shops, often higher end,and,my current favourite, the Rottermann Quarter. This is a beautiful shopping area between the port, the Old Town and Viru Square.Rottermann opened in 2007 and is an architecturally innovative entertainment in its own right arising out of an area where old warehouses can still be seen, but not incongruously. It houses mainly upscale international brands, but also is the site of Loovala, an open plan studio where you can watch graphic artists, jewellers, and textile artists at work. I bought a superb duffel coat for the approaching winter there (over 400 Euros reduced to 120), then was able to check out the organic food market on the pedestrian plaza outside, before crossing the street to eat at Vapianos. Bliss on a budget.

I’ve stressed the consumerist approach in this “insider”view, but in summary I’d say that when I think of Tallinn, the things that uplift me include the sheer beauty of the Old Town. I don’t need other entertainment than sitting at a street café people watching and revelling in the thrill of experiencing a different culture, which has triumphed after being under the heel until just a few years ago. That very recent nature of their oppression is hard to take in. Seventeen years ago since the last Soviet tank left. I can’t emphasise what a miraculous revolution has taken place, and the overall feel of prosperity that ignores the odd monolithic grey slab that stands as testimony to a less happy time.

Sure some sleaze has inevitably crept in on the coattails of the renaissance. Although night life is varied and you can party till dawn in many establishments there are places where you would have to be verging on the desperate or insane to enter, where the bouncers on the door are grim and the ladies on show only marginally prettier. It’s a grim necessity of modern life too that the toilet lighting in many such places is that brilliant fluorescent blue ,under which would be injectors find it impossible to find a vein.

I haven’t included a list of nightlife available, because fashion changes so rapidly. Instead its better when in Tallinn, is to get hold of the widely available, “Tallinn in your pocket”publication.It gives about a dozen pages purely devoted to nightlife. It’s descriptions include “Expat hangouts, Cigar lounges, Hookah Joints(there are many establishments around that offer a puff), Wine bars, Nightclubs, Underground Rock Clubs, and Theme Pubs(one called Scotland Yard is worth a look-halfway between a Victorian library and a cop shop in style, it boasts toilets done up like electric chairs). Staying with this jail vibe, the Alcatraz nightspot is open from midnight through to 7am every day and night. Whatever your taste, it’s likely to be catered for here, although occasionally you get the feeling that Tallinn club owners haven’t quite caught on to the whole ethos of club life-I passed one club where there was a liveried commissionaire more suited to a West End hotel, on the door, and another where the accordion music leaking through the door, evoked more a rural dance hall than a nightspot where pole dancing was on the menu. Whether intentional or not, this apparent gauche attitude plays its part in the overall charm of a place that continues to exert no shortage of charm over visitors-in 2010 their figures showed an upward surge of 53%

Location Guide-Restaurants

Vapiano 1. Foorum Centre, just 100 metres away from Viru Shopping Centre

Vapiano 2. Solaris centre, Estonia Boulevard.
There are branches in Helsinki, Stockholm, Vilnius, Amsterdam, Berlin, and one planned for London
www.vapiano.ee

Olde Hansa- Vana Turg 1 Old Town. Sausages from elk and boar, pork in beer.

Peppersack. Also in the heart of the Old Town,at Viru 2?Vana Turg 6-Medaeval dishes their speciality

Balthassar. Raekoja plats 11.Where garlic rules - -

St Michaels Cheese Restaurant.B-2, Nunne 14(also a cheese free menu for the lactose intolerant is available).

Shopping

Unlike many other major cities, Tallinn does not have a shopping street. Instead there are numerous shopping centres. Just a sample includes;

Stockmann.H-3 Liivalaia 53.The local branch of Finland’s premiere department store

Solaris. D/E-3/4, Estonia pst.9

Rottermanni Kaubamaja (to give Rottermanns its full name). B4,Rottermani 5/Roseni 10 apart from good shopping experience described, the newly renovated and developed area has some innovative futuristic architecture, which although seizure inducing to the likes of Prince Charles are both adventurous yet complement well, the surrounding former warehouse district.

Viru Keskus.C-4, Viru valjak 4/6. 30,000 sq metres shopping and dining complex (remember its bookstore restaurant for breakfast, as an option).

Nightlife.

Alcatraz. A-4 Sadama 6/8.Jail cages replace the traditional stripper pole, and the dancers wear jailbird costumes to wait on the tables (I’m told!).

Scotland Yard. B-4 Mere pst 6e. Huge place that nevertheless manages to fill the premises to overflowing at weekends when live rock bands are featured.

Kompressor. C-2 Rataskaevu 3. Could’ve mentioned this under eating places. Kompressor is a magnet to students, who love its unassuming bar with cheap drinks and oversized tables. It’s also renowned for its excellent pancakes. Kitchen closes at 10pm. A good one to end this “insider” look at Tallinn.