Around the Academy of Science, Riga, Latvia.

We got off the bus among the large-scale but ugly glass and steel boxes which now enclose the main railway station to detrimental effect, then skirted the edge of the massive Central Market and the warehouses of up and coming Spikeri before arriving at the Hanza Hotel close to the Latvian Academy of Science (the academy is housed in a Stalinist wedding cake structure similar to other buildings imposed on East European nation states absorbed into the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc following world war two).

The Hanza appears to occupy what was once an apartment block pre-dating the second world war and, if so, the conversion has been highly successful. We were given a room overlooking a monumental Lutheran church. The area immediately enclosing the hotel is rundown in parts (there are some empty plots where buildings once stood and fenced off muddy courtyards full of debris awaiting disposal), but, in its own way, attractive and definitely on the way up. Some old brick and wood buildings look as if they may soon be demolished, but, if demolished, I for one will regret their loss. The five magnificent halls of Central Market are less than ten minutes’ walk away, as is the main railway station, the long distance bus station and tram stops with routes radiating across the city. Sources of food and drink are nearby, as is a very attractive Russian Orthodox church constructed overwhelmingly with wood. The next day or so, and our return to Riga at the end of the trip, confirmed that the Hanza stands at the edge of an area more Russian than Latvian, although, in the era running up to the second world war and the holocaust, it had been home to a large Jewish community.

For my first walk I looked more closely at the brick warehouses of Spikeri where bars, cafes, restaurants, art galleries, a small holocaust museum and some up-market shops, one of which sells very good wine, confirm that this is an area which should appeal to local people as well as to tourists, especially once all the premises are occupied. I went next to the largely unrestored warehouses of similar design to the south-east of Central Market, then walked through two of the five large halls which constitute the covered part of the market itself. Around the halls are many outdoor stalls selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, clothes, shoes and small household items. On display were some of the largest pomegranates I have ever seen. Not all the outdoor stalls were occupied, no doubt because, in late February, there are fewer customers than in summer and fewer local food products to sell, but, because prices in the market are so competitive, lots of people were shopping, probably because it was Thursday evening and the weekend lay ahead. Riga’s Central Market is one of the most remarkable markets I have ever seen, partly for its size and partly for the vast range of goods that it sells. There are hundreds of places to buy interesting ready-to-consume food and drink (fish, meat, pancakes, cheese, bread, cakes, pastries, coffee, tea, beer, spirits, etc.) at prices ridiculously low by UK standards, so much so that, if I return to Riga, I will spend the whole day at the market grazing as I do so.

I walked to Turgeneva and Pushkina ielas, the beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox church on the corner of Turgeneva and Gogola ielas (inside the church dozens of people venerated the icons, lit candles or bought religious items from the shop immediately inside the east door) and the wooden buildings which litter the area closest to the river. I crossed Krasta Iela to walk beside the river, which was frozen all the way to Zacusala, the long, slim island which lies a little closer to the west than to the east bank of the river. Seagulls stood in large numbers on the ice. It was not long before darkness would fall and a very cold wind blew off the river. To the north, the curved steel sections of a bridge carry the railway across the river in a westerly direction. In its length and shape, the bridge resembles those wonderful girder bridges you encounter where the railroads cross wide rivers in the United States. At night, Riga’s bridge is picked out in blue lights.

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The tram to Kopli, Tallinn, Estonia.

In my estimation, an urban destination is significantly enhanced if it has trams, and Tallinn is lucky because it has four lengthy tram routes which carry passengers to some very interesting parts of the city. For my last post about Tallinn, I want to reveal what you can see if you take the tram from Telliskivi in Kalamaja to the terminus in Kopli. But first, some notes which provide context for the photos.

We returned to the tram stop at the north end of Telliskivi and took the number 2 to the end of the line in Kopli. The tram went through areas where housing mixes with industry, harbour facilities and a ship repair yard. Most housing is contained within Soviet-era apartment blocks about four storeys high. Although houses dominate the streets of Kalamaja and some old wooden houses exist in Kopli, the further we got from Kalamaja the poorer most people seemed to be. When we arrived at the point where the trams turn through a half circle to return to the city centre, a massive stone building called the Estonian Maritime Academy blocks the view to the west. The academy is a vocational university.

We got off the tram in Kopli and walked to a small Russian Orthodox church built overwhelmingly with wood. Nearby, just across the railway leading into a harbour with restricted access, is a terrace of wooden houses overlooking the sea.

Kopli stands at the end of a peninsula overlooking the Gulf of Kopli to the south. To the north is a desolate sandy beach which, that day in late February, was bordered by frozen sea water.

We walked along the main road to the tram stop before the Kopli terminus, noting that a kiosk and a small shop meet the basic needs of the local people, a majority of whom now live in Soviet-era apartment blocks half hidden among trees to the south of the main road. A few old wooden houses also lurk among the trees and they looked interesting enough to justify a return visit. But I knew I would have to be careful with my camera because some of the local young and middle-aged males seemed to be unemployed and were not always engaged in lawful activities.

While Hilary rested at the hotel I caught a tram to Kopli, but got off at Sitsi where there are excellent views over the ship repair yard mentioned earlier. The area around Sitsi has an interesting mix of Soviet-era apartment blocks, wooden houses of different ages, breeze block and plaster houses of recent pedigree built by a few families that have benefited from capitalist economics, patches of mud and grass enclosed by the apartment blocks, fenced-off yards full of wood and metal items, rows of wooden huts and brick outhouses, and a few drab shops, bars and cafes. Stucco walls once brightly painted have been discoloured with damp, and large wheelie bins litter the open spaces behind the apartment blocks. Most inhabitants of the area are poor and some feel compelled to look for recyclable items in the wheelie bins. Small groups of men loiter near the tram stops hoping to sell drugs to passersby. In the distance is a vast industrial complex, most of which is built with brick. The industrial complex looks abandoned, but it is possible that some parts are used for storage purposes. Lots of muddy paths lead among the trees and the buildings, thereby providing people with the most direct routes from one place to the next, and many people use the paths to exercise their dogs (sadly, not all the pet owners pick up their dogs’ excrement).

I got onto the tram and broke the journey twice to briefly examine the immediate areas (I found environments similar to the one around the Sitsi tram stop, so the camera remained quite busy).

Keen to re-connect with Tallinn’s more gritty and edgy side, I caught a tram to Sitsi for another lengthy walk around the streets where, simply by turning a corner not previously noted, new but interesting views open up. Areas of this nature, with their wooden housing, their ill-kept communal areas, their washing hung on lines between rusting metal poles, their garages, huts and outhouses constructed with wood and brick, and their large but abandoned brick-built factories (the factory near Sitsi gleamed in the late afternoon sunshine. Shadow emphasized the detailing on the external walls), are fascinating places to visit. True, you have to be careful where you point the camera, and you run the risk of encounters with dogs’ poop, barking dogs behind wire or wooden fences and men suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, but how else can you connect with a city’s more marginal delights?

I walked Hilary back to the hotel but was out almost immediately, one last visit to Kopli my intention. I tried to get into the harbour behind the Maritime Academy, but only people with passes or goods for transportation could proceed beyond a barrier across the road. Instead, I looked at trams parked in a shed beside the Maritime Academy, then walked in a south-easterly direction through some trees and over very damp ground ineffectively drained by ditches and shallow pools of stagnant water. Some very large wooden houses stood among the trees, as did a few Soviet-era apartment blocks a little further away.

As I took a few photos of the wooden houses, a woman approached me with a wary look on her face. She was walking four of her dogs with her daughter aged about fifteen. Once the woman was reassured that I was not up to mischief, we had a chat about Kopli in the past. She said that Kopli had once been a small village detached from Tallinn a few kilometres to the east. Between the two world wars, the building which is now the Maritime Academy had been built as Tallinn University’s science faculty and, following its inauguration as a teaching and learning facility, academic staff built themselves wooden houses among the surrounding trees so that they would be close to their place of work (my informant insisted that some of Kopli’s surviving wooden houses once belonged to the academics, but most of the houses had been in much better condition in the past). The woman could remember that Kopli remained a village until “Krushchev built his houses in those blocks over there,” and she pointed through the trees toward some of the apartment blocks with their discoloured stucco peeling from the brick below.

“Krushchev’s houses. His houses ruined the village and brought in many Russians from far away to work in the harbour and the local factories. The growth in the number of people, and the changing nature of the population, led to a lot of heavy drinking, domestic violence and other crime. But, for the last two years in July, people in Kopli have organized events, a sort of festival, to celebrate the history of the area and to encourage people to take greater pride in their community. With a little effort, Kopli can be beautiful and peaceful again.”

I agreed with the woman about Kopli’s future prospects. In fact, Kopli is fascinating, which is why I had come back. I continued walking around for another half hour, on this occasion concentrating on the south side of Kopli overlooking the gulf with the same name.

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Kalamaja, Tallinn, Estonia.

Kalamaja is a trendy and increasingly desirable area of Tallinn which lies north and west of the Old Town, roughly from Linnahall in the east to Volta in the west, but also stretches as far south as the south end of Telliskivi. The notes below convey something of its seductive appeal.

We walked along Soo because Soo leads into the up and coming area of Kalamaja. We had in mind a bar for a drink, but the bar no longer seems to exist. Moreover, because Soo leads into an overwhelmingly residential part of Kalamaja, for a while we thought we would draw a complete blank. However, at a crossroads is a bar called Tops, which, that Saturday night, had attracted a lot of customers, most of whom were either young professionals or older middle class couples. We ordered two beers and found somewhere to sit. Being very much a bar for middle class people, prices were a little higher than we were used to in Riga, but they were on a par with many similar but less interesting places in the United Kingdom. The bar has the atmosphere of a cafe rather than that of a pub, and the decoration evokes that of a house rather than somewhere for public use. With its light and airy appearance, Tops is essentially Scandinavian in character. Most of the furniture derives from the 1970s and 1980s, which, as we found during the days ahead, is all the rage among the hip young things of Tallinn (unless the hip young things prefer furniture dating from the 1950s and 1960s, that is). The bar is a female-friendly venue, so much so that as many women as men were drinking and eating (tea was almost as popular as beer!). Our introduction to Tallinn in general, and Kalamaja more specifically, was most encouraging.

We walked the short distance to Balti Jaam (Tallinn’s main railway station), then continued south-west to Telliskivi, a street on the edge of Kalamaja which has some restaurants we were keen to try before returning to Riga. We found an interesting mixture of residential, commercial and industrial buildings with railway tracks leading to and from a large marshalling yard. We were reminded of small cities in the United States where landmark buildings often exist in areas with a little bit of edge. Some of the local shops occupy one-time industrial buildings and stock unusual clothes, furniture and other household items. Telliskivi seems to be a magnet for some of Tallinn’s most hip and artistic young professionals. And the restaurants looked very good.

We caught a tram as far as Volta, which seems to mark the western edge of Kalamaja. We walked along Volta and began a meandering stroll to the hotel via streets which became less industrial and more residential the closer we got to our destination. Between the Volta tram stop and the seaplane harbour to the north, Kalamaja has very few shops, bars, cafes or restaurants, but there is a fascinating mixture of housing. Some Soviet-era apartment blocks exist along or near Volta, as do shabby or abandoned factories, but houses, both old and new, and enviably designed modern apartment blocks, dominate the streets both sides of Soo. We were warming to Kalamaja with every encounter, no matter how brief the encounter was. Once an area in which a considerable number of poor or troubled people used to live, the latter with drug, alcohol or mental health problems, such people are now being edged out as land values increase; as people in other parts of Tallinn recognize the appeal of living so close to Toompea and the Old Town, but in an area very different in character and socio-economic structure (Kalamaja is the hip place to be in Tallinn, without question); and as the beneficiaries of capitalist economics are attracted by the restoration of old properties and the construction of new ones, the latter blending successfully with the old because of their similar scale and appearance. It is always sad when long-standing local people are edged out of neighbourhoods as cities slowly develop and transform, but such dislocation has been a harsh fact of life since people started to live together in large numbers. It would not surprise me if some of Kalamaja’s poorest people find their way into the less attractive housing located further west along the tram route to Kopli.

My thanks to Külli in Tallinn who not only told me about the delights of Kalamaja, but also revealed that some of the city’s best restaurants are in the same area. Külli: we followed your advice and had very good meals at F-hoone and Kolm Sibulat, but also enjoyed Klaus (which is near Moon) and Bistroo Kukeke. We also went to Diip, which you could not tell me about eight months ago because it has existed for only a few weeks (correct in March 2014). Diip is, we think, very special. Moreover, we ate there on the eve of Independence Day. We had a wonderful time, not least because Estonian fruit wines are irresistible.

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Linnahall, Tallinn, Estonia.

I walked north and then east from the hotel (Ilmarine Residence) as if bound for the harbour used by the cruise ships and the ferries from Stockholm and Helsinki. Access to the area is easiest by following a street called Kalasadama. I passed two restaurants; a few businesses associated with the sea; some old brick buildings, two of which have octagonal ground plans; a tall chimney; and, to my left, a small, partly frozen harbour with swans, ducks and two fishing boats. It was about 7.30am and only a dull, grey light pierced the overcast sky. But ahead lay my true destination, Linnahall, a vast concrete, stone and brick slab which initially looked ugly, derelict and deserted.

When I undertook my first look around Linnahall, a rotting and graffiti-smeared monster that would have thrilled Jonathan Meades had he seen it before recording his excellent two-part BBC4 series entitled “Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness”, I felt confronted with a place of utter urban desolation, which, if it appealed to anyone, it had to be the most marginalized, troubled and criminally-inclined of Tallinn’s citizens. That morning I thought I had been correct about its appeal to such people because my only “companions” were a few hooded young males who walked around on their own or in pairs. At least two of the males were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But, on a return visit early one evening, many people, family groups included, strolled around the ruin and enjoyed the views from its different, easily accessible levels. In fact, for people in the know with an affection for wildly eccentric architecture, Linnahall is an absolute must.

Linnahall was built, far too quickly by all accounts, for the 1980 Summer Olympics as a multi-purpose cultural and recreational centre. In its time it has had a concert hall with 4,200 seats, an ice rink and cafes. Parts of it were converted into a small ferry terminal and heliport. It has a sort of ziggurat ground plan and a number of different levels, all the latter accessible by flights of crumbling stone or concrete stairs, but the visitor is left with an impression of a vast, nearly flat structure hugging the ground as if worried it might be blown away by the winds which blow so frequently from Russia or the Baltic Sea. Oriented almost exactly north to south, the elongated north arm of the ziggurat extends into the sea. The south arm points toward the Old Town and has a wide flight of stone stairs which leads to what was obviously intended as an elevated space on which to promenade. But, once the 1980 Summer Olympics had concluded and initial curiosity with the structure began to wane, perhaps because it had been built to order by Estonia’s Russian colonial masters in Moscow, it proved difficult to utilize the facilities in the way originally intended. Moreover, shoddy construction work had a detrimental effect on Linnahall less than a decade after its completion.

On the internet I found the following information about Linnahall in more recent times:

“A few years ago Linnahall was given to American investors who formed a company called Tallinn Entertainment LLC. In return, Tallinn Entertainment LLC was expected to invest money in Linnahall to reconstruct it as a modern venue centre.

“In April 2009 Linnahall had its last public events and, since then, it has been closed to the public.

“Tallinn Entertainment LLC promised that Linnahall would be restored by 2011. So far nothing has happened. Investors have not even produced development plans and for a long time they have refused to meet with city officials. In Hungary and the United States, several people involved in the project have been arrested and accused of corruption, bribery and tax evasion.”

Although all internal spaces at Linnahall are currently closed to the public, people can walk wherever the flights of stairs provide access. The complex is fascinating to explore, so much so that many people, old and young, take photos of it and the views it provides (inevitably, some of the best views are toward the Old Town). Arches, fenced-off tunnels, walls reminiscent of naval fortifications, sunken spaces enclosed by moss-covered stone walls and rusty metal panels splattered with brightly painted graffiti, and a raised promenade with large slabs of concrete arranged with geometric precision down the centre, ensure there is always something bleak, brutal or compelling to examine. Of course, Linnahall is not pretty; such structures rarely are. But, given that so few similar structures have survived in the UK (some for good reason, I concede), I am pleased to report that this monster has been listed by Muinsuskaitseamet, Estonia’s national heritage board, as an important example of 1980s’ architecture. However, almost since its completion there have been legitimate concerns about its condition. I hope its listing as an important example of architecture will ensure that it is retained and not demolished. But should it be restored? I am not convinced that restoration should be undertaken because in many respects Linnahall looks superb as it is. A pristine Linnahall is unlikely to compel attention in the way it currently does. Why not just let it rot away with the passage of time?

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Toompea and the Old Town, Tallinn, Estonia.

Taken together, Toompea and the Old Town, in Estonia’s remarkable capital city of Tallinn, comprise one of the most beautiful urban environments I have ever encountered. Yes, they comprise one of the most beautiful urban environments I have ever encountered. Inevitably, therefore, Toompea and the Old Town are NOT particularly unusual destinations because people from all over the world undertake visits. This said, I justify the post for two reasons. Firstly, the post establishes a context for future posts about destinations in Tallinn that ARE unusual. Secondly, most of the photos below derive from or near Lai, Aida, Kooli and Laboratooriumi, streets in the Old Town which tourists rarely visit.

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