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Tallinn: Making It New

For all its patriotic fervor, Estonia has always been a geographical—and, therefore, a cultural—crossroads. A quarter of Tallinn's residents are Russians, and the country still struggles with the question of whether or not to preserve its Russian past. Many Estonians refuse to admit they know Russian at all, preferring to speak English. For years Estonians gained access to Western culture through Finnish TV, widely pirated during the Soviet era. Their relationship to Finland, however, can best be described as one of sibling rivalry.

Tallinn is often referred to, by Estonians and Finns alike, as a suburb of Helsinki, just a 90-minute ferry ride away. Beer and liquor are much cheaper here than in Finland, and Finns come often, on what are known as "hedonistic tours," to spend their nights wandering the streets, serenading the city with folk songs. They alone account for two-thirds of the annual visitors to Estonia. And they create the usual resentment in a town that publicly welcomes tourist dollars and privately wishes it didn't need to, or at least not those tourist dollars.

But the Finnish influence is felt in other ways, too. In 1913, Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen won the competition for the design of greater Tallinn. He was then asked to build the town hall as well. World War I broke out, and neither project was ever realized. Yet even under Soviet occupation, Scandinavian design, with its emphasis on integrating the natural and the man-made, was seen as a welcome antidote to Socialist monumentalism. In the sixties the Scandinavian influence began to be seen in buildings by Estonian architects such as Valve Pormeister, whose low-slung Floral Pavilion, on a hillside by the sea, managed to preserve much of the existing vegetation. And, more recently, in the wood-and-glass De La Gardie department store in the Old Town, numerous private houses, and what is perhaps the world's most beautiful gym.

Built of pale blond wood, of course, Tallinn's state-of-the-art Status Club is set on the lip of grasslands leading to the sea. Its indoor pool is flanked on one side by a wall of windows, and as you swim the water slips over the edges, so that swimming in it is like swimming in the ocean. The yoga and weight rooms open to nothing but horizon. Given the preference for Scandinavian design, it's not surprising that when it came to selecting an architect for the new Art Museum of Estonia, it was a Finn, Pekka Vappavuori, who won the competition.

But as the Tali twins are quick to point out, the common assumption that Estonian culture is equal parts Russian and Scandinavian is inaccurate. "Estonians were here ten thousand years ago," Kadri says. She is proud of her heritage, she tells me, not simply because Estonia is, as she puts it, "an ancient place," but also because there are so few Estonians that she can't afford not to be.

The pull of tradition on the one hand and Estonia's recent convergence with the West on the other have produced a hybrid culture that is as likely to celebrate Estonian runic chants, which date from the first millennium b.c., as it is the bass pulse of Moby. One of Estonia's best early music groups, Rondellus, just recorded a tribute to the seventies heavy metal band Black Sabbath. It's hard to imagine that happening anywhere else.


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