It is hard to describe the Linnahall building in Tallinn, Estonia, but it is not the sort of place you go on holiday to see. It is not the sort of place they write about in guidebooks. There are, of course, plenty of touristy sites in this Baltic Sea city – there is an entire medieval old town where the looming churches, ancient guildhalls and old-world courtyards have been so perfectly preserved, the whole area has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. To wander through is to experience Europe at the dawn of its modern age.
But Linnahall is not like that. Linnahall was built in the Seventies, and is now abandoned to weeds and vandals. Linnahall – I am standing, looking up at it, dazed by it, trying to process what is before me – is perhaps the single most monstrous concrete carbuncle I have ever seen. Locals have a joke: they say you can see this thing from space, but why would you look?
Ostensibly, it was once a conference hall and arena, but it was supposed to be more than that. Back when Estonia was still (forcibly) part of Soviet Russia, Tallinn was chosen to host sailing events at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. This vast, windowless mothership was built on the harbour to astonish the world.
Well, today, I am astonished. Astonished that anything so hulkingly inhumane could be conceived and then constructed.
Others feel the same. After the country became independent in 1991, Linnahall hosted a handful of concerts and was then left, unloved, to crumble. The only thing that stopped successive governments knocking it down was the sheer cost to do so.
‘But now the talk is it should be saved,’ a local will tell us later. ‘There is nothing else like this in the world – its ugliness makes it unique.’
And perhaps she’s right. For as we walk around the corroded walls, cracked promenades and echoing walkways, and as I climb the vast concrete steps on to its vast concrete roof and look out to the shimmering Baltic in one direction and the spires and towers of the medieval old town in the other, one thought keeps coming into my head: this, somehow, is the most magnificent carbuncle I have ever seen.
Tallinn is our first stop on a three-city hop around the Baltic Sea’s great cities.
After this, we’ll be heading across the water to Helsinki in Finland and then it’s on to Stockholm – the rolling, regal capital of Sweden.
This patch of northern Europe is oft-ignored by tourists. Estonia, despite having a history stretching back a millennia, is still a country walking baby steps after independence; while the Nordic countries tend to be overlooked in favour of the continent’s sunnier south. Generally, if people venture here, it’s to the remote north where the Arctic Circle begins and the Midnight Sun can be seen and the days in summer last all night and the nights in winter last all day.
Yet, that may be changing. And, as we find out over a week, with very good reason. Here is some of Europe’s biggest history – from Viking ships to the scars of Soviet occupation – and coolest architecture. There’s shopping in Stockholm to rival London or Milan; nightlife in Helsinki that buzzes with alternative energy; and beaches stretching out from Tallinn that glisten invitingly throughout summer. that’s why we’re excited to be touring the trio.
In Tallinn, we’re staying at My City Hotel, and it’s a comfortable little place but the main sell is its phenomenal location right in the heart of that preserved old town.
That’s where we head our first day, getting lost amid its maze-like streets, alleyways and squares, occasionally stumbling on something important such as the Town Hall (northern Europe’s only surviving such Gothic building, fact fans) or Toompea Castle, the ancient city’s first line of defence and now home to the Estonian parliament. With restaurants, galleries and boutique shops bustling for space amid such ancient buildings, it is a day well spent. ‘This area is Tallinn’s headline act,’ says our guide Ulane laconically. It’s easy to see why.
Yet there is plenty to see outside the 14th-century city walls too. The next day we head to the Museum of Occupation, which offers some brutal context to 20th-century life here under Soviet rule. And while you can’t exactly enjoy a museum that deals with details of such human misery – 17 per cent of the Estonian population were forcibly deported or executed between 1945 and 1950 – you can’t fail to be effected by it either.
Along similar lines is the KGB Museum, which deals with the motivations and methods of Russia’s infamous intelligence service. It’s based on the top floor of the luxury Viru Hotel which may seem a strange place for it but there’s good reason for the location. When the Viru opened in the Seventies, it was the only accommodation for overseas visitors; and, as such, the KGB took over the entire 23rd floor. From here, while Western dignitaries, politicians and business people stayed in luxury, they had their every move monitored.
‘There were stories,’ says our museum guide, ‘of people in their rooms saying to themselves that they fancied a cup of tea, and it would arrive without them ever calling room service.’
It’s not all history, of course. Tallinn is a city fully embracing the modern world. This is the place Skype was invented, no less; while glass skyscrapers and shopping centres are being built at some rate. Out in Kalamaja, there’s a fully fledged hipster district where vintage stores, art studios and food trucks – not to mention goatee beards – are in evidence round every corner.
In fact, when we eat on our last evening at the old town’s truly amazing Von Krahli Aed restaurant – the Taste Of Estonia starter is ridiculously good – we decide there’s been just one problem with Tallinn: our two days here haven’t been long enough.
Still, one can’t complain when Helsinki – a half-hour flight over the Baltic – is up next.
Prosperous, laid back, and still basking in the glow of being the Unesco World Capital of Design in 2012, the Finnish capital is all sweeping avenues, art nouveau architecture and elegant coffee shops. It’s a compact little place yet the word ‘grand’ fits it perfectly.
It also appears to be half water. The writhing coastline on which it stands features so many inlets, bays, channels and islands that the overall impression is of a city emerging from the shimmering sea. This may be one of the few capitals in the world where you can take a guided tour by kayak.
If that’s one way to witness the sheer majesty of the place – from the quintet of domes bejewelling Helsinki Cathedral to the harbour front square where we will later devour amazing hot fish and potatoes – another somewhat different way is from atop of something called the Kingi Tower.
That’s where we find ourselves on our first afternoon and, from up here, the panorama is utterly magnificent. Down below, the city spreads out like a perfectly built toy town. There’s just one issue. At the top of Kingi, we get just a few seconds to admire the view. And then…
With a sudden, juddering rush, we are hurtling back to the ground at a stomach-churning, lunch-lurching 23 metres a second. For this, see, is a freefall tower at the city’s hilltop Linnanmäki Amusement Park.
Those who brave the Kingi are strapped into open-air seats, slowly raised 75 metres into the air and – just when one is admiring the crystal-clear skyline – dropped like the proverbial stone. It is probably an exaggeration to say this is what astronauts must feel like returning to earth but, suffice to say, it’s fast and ferocious; and, after each ride, there are more than a few white faces.
There are other thrills and spills here. Ferris wheels, dodgems, roller coasters, waltzes and pirate ships send the young and young-at-heart screaming into a spin. Perhaps best, though, is the Vuoristorata, an antique big dipper, made of wood and first run in 1951, yet no less thrilling and spilling for its advancing years. Taken all together, it’s a magical afternoon.
As is our visit to the island fortress of Suomenlinna the next day.
Another Unesco World Heritage Site, this former sea defence was built on six small harbour islands in 1748 to protect Helsinki from invasion but, since decommissioning in the Seventies, has been turned into a major visitor attraction.
We pack a picnic and take the 15-minute ferry ride there to spend a day rambling among the ruins, climbing along the cliff tops and sticking our feet in the shimmering, if somewhat chilly, sea. There are a couple of decent military themed museums here and we look in on those. But it’s when we sit down on a deserted sand bank – looking out to the mainland, lights starting to twinkle in the dusk, feeding on chicken and cheese and bread – that, after our day exploring, the beauty of this island really envelops us.
Some 900 people live here full time, we learned earlier. As we pack up and leave, it is hard not to be envious.
That said, our own accommodation is no slouch. We’re staying at the Hilton Helsinki Strand in John Stenbergin ranta, and it’s a wonderful venue with rooms offering floor-to-ceiling windows, looking out over one of Helsinki’s picturesque waterfronts. The breakfast, for what it’s worth, is champion. And so too, on a slightly different note, is the sauna. When in Finland, the receptionist tells us, you must take a sauna.
‘Most Finns have one at least twice a week,’ she notes. ‘Some people have them built into spare rooms at home.’
So we go for it. It’s hot and it’s steamy. But you leave glistening with well-being. It’s a hard job I have, isn’t it?
Onward to Sweden the next day. Onward to Stockholm. The first thing worth noting is this city doesn’t come cheap. That’s clear as soon as we arrive. The 45-minute flights from Helsinki can be picked up for bargain prices but, once here, the bus from airport to city centre immediately sets us back around Dh100 a person. Taxis are way more. A good meal, minus drinks, in a decent restaurant can easily come to Dh600.
‘Prices are high here, for sure,’ says our guide Marco apologetically the next day. ‘But it’s a beautiful city.’ He’s not wrong. Cinnamon and honey buildings – some dating back to the 15th century, some from right now, yet always complementary – cover this archipelago of 14 islands. On our first evening, we climb to the top of Katarinahissen, a hilltop walkway which overlooks some of the city’s most iconic buildings – including the 600-room Royal Palace, Parliament House and City Hall where the annual Noble Prize Banquet is held annually – and, as we admire this panorama, a strange thing happens. With the sun slowly setting, the very colours of the buildings seem to change, an assortment of deep yellows, pastel oranges, and drawn-out blues mixing and merging into each other and melting into their own reflections in the city’s waterways. The Dh100 bus journey suddenly seems worth it.
The next day we head to two museums that have been recommended. One is beyond brilliant. The other… um, less so.
The Vasa Museum, firstly, is unlike anything you will have ever been to; an entirely unique centre built around a 17th-century warship that sank just 10 minutes into its maiden voyage and which, after 333 years of being submerged in Stockholm Harbour, was rescued from the seabed where it had been entirely preserved by the brine of the water.
It’s condition was so close to perfect on rediscovery that the masts, ropes and tackle were all intact. The bodies of those who drowned were more or less as they had been. Their clothes and boots were still on their bodies. Furniture, chests, guns, money and even food remained as undamaged as the fateful day they had gone down.
Today, the Vasa is the oldest fully preserved ship in existence. Ninety-eight per cent of the ship remains from that which set sail in 1628. To see it – 210 tonnes, 70 metres, three stories high, and carved and decorated with hundreds of figures, symbols and icons – is to marvel. ‘It was a major embarrassment for Sweden when it sank,’ Marco tells us. ‘But if that hadn’t happened, it would have eventually been scrapped and we wouldn’t have the ship today.’
It is a silver lining that, 300 years on, surely overshadows the original cloud.
Less worth a visit, frankly, is the Abba Museum. Mama Mia – it’s rubbish!
This ode to Sweden’s most famous exports (apart, possibly, from Ikea meatballs) is a nice enough idea and comes stacked with the band’s gold discs, live outfits and video performances. But the promised interactive elements amount to no more than singing in a booth and dancing on a stage.
Worse for fans is the fact that the band’s eventual split – widely considered one of the most intriguing break-ups in pop history – is entirely ignored. At Dh130, there are better things to spend your money on… Such as a Royal Canal Tour. These two hour boat trips are certainly a bit tourist-tastic, but there’s no doubting that they offer a fascinating oversight of the city and its history from the water. Recommended.
As is a good hotel. The Sheraton, where we are staying, fits that bill for sure. Located between Stockholm’s buzzing downtown –where people shop by day and party by night – and the mediaeval Gamla Stan, and with a restaurant, Threesixty, that does amazing contemporary European dinners, this is a stay-over that’s a highlight in its own right.
But then, as we eat in the aforementioned Threesixty on our last night, we realise we’ve been saying that about pretty much everything we’ve seen on this trip. Including Estonian carbuncles.
Which perhaps makes the conclusion we came to rather simple: a tour around the Baltic Sea capitals is one of the most underestimated but enjoyable holidays to be had in all of Europe.