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?



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.


The Headland, Hartlepool, North-East England.

Hartlepool’s Headland is located on a peninsula to the north-east of the town centre and has a number of attractions and interesting features to keep people occupied whether they visit for an hour or half a day.

Landmark buildings are many. At the centre of the Headland is St. Hilda’s Church with its formidable buttresses. The church was built in the 12th century and stands on the site of a 7th century monastery. St. Hilda’s has a visitors’ centre which provides insights into the history of the church and the development of the Headland itself.

During the first world war the Headland suffered heavy bombardment by three German battle cruisers. The Heugh Gun Battery defended the town and, today, visitors can learn about the history of the battery by engaging with the exhibits in the Heugh Gun Battery Museum.

A recent development is the new Town Square. This feature opposite the Borough Hall and Buildings is a peaceful space and garden which comes to life when used as a backdrop for events such as the annual Headland Heritage Festival.

The best way to explore and understand the Headland is by following the Headland Story Trail. The trail is marked by eighteen information boards which, collectively, provide an insight into the area’s history. The trail can be picked up from any point and followed either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The trail takes you past some of the many elegant houses which survive on the peninsula.

On the trail, look out for recently installed examples of public art. You will come across sculptures such as The Big Catch, Force Ten and Andy Capp, the latter a cartoon character loved by many UK males of an advanced age.


Targu Mures, Romania.

The best way to introduce Targu Mures in Romania is to share with you the information we sent to a guidebook following our visit a few years ago.

Hotel Continental offered double rooms with en suite facilities but no breakfast (breakfast was 5 euros extra per person) for 36 euros a night. Because the hotel is so centrally located, this was a good price. We opted against breakfast to visit a wonderful cafe and bakery on Str. Calarasilor where coffee and cakes for two came to only 3 euros.

Kebab, Str. Bolyai 40, is exactly as you describe it in the “Eating” section, a very good, no-fuss restaurant where you can select food from the different trays displayed attractively in the sunken part of the premises. At lunch there are menus for about 3 euros. Emma Vendegco, which you also mention, does an all day 2.5 euros menu (the food here is Hungarian). Emma Vendegco closes earlier than Kebab, at about 8.00pm. Because the food is so cheap at Emma Vendegco’s, we ordered a bottle of red wine for 7 euros, a good price for a restaurant in Romania.

As far as we can tell, Targu Mures’ best restaurant is Laci Csarda on Str. Morii where Romanian beers cost about 1.25 euros, soups cost 1.50 to 2 euros, cold starters with cheese and meat (sufficient for two people to share) cost 4 to 6 euros and mains cost 3 to 6 euros. Excellent desserts (e.g. vargabeles) cost 1.50 to 3 euros. Eat outside, on a veranda or indoors. There is a great atmosphere and people drop in at all hours. Laci Csarda is especially popular with local Hungarians and Hungarians who have crossed the border from neighbouring Hungary.

If looking for a quiet, up-market place for coffee, beer or cocktails some way from the madding crowd and known at present only to local people, try Caffe Artemis, Piata Marasesti 19, a few blocks north-west of the Citadel. Romanian beers cost about 1.50 euros and cocktails about 3.50 euros. Sit in the garden or the delightful rooms decorated with attractive paintings and ornaments.

You are correct: the Culture Palace is one of the most remarkable buildings anywhere. The entrance fee is under 2 euros and you can take photos to your heart’s content, even with a flash. An increasing number of rooms are opening as restoration continues apace, so, when your next guide is published, we are confident visitors will be able to see even more of this extraordinary building and its stunning decoration than at present. Allow a half day to fully appreciate what is currently accessible. By 2011 visitors will probably need a whole day. This is one of Europe’s most astounding buildings in the jugenstil/secessionist/art nouveau style. It is worth investing in the well-illustrated guide. The current price for the guide? 4 euros.

We are glad you comment on the spectacular synagogue. However, why not add to the description that the Jewish Cemetery is hidden away in an interesting residential district. The cemetery’s entrance is up a flight of concrete steps beside house number 10 on Str. Verii (Str. Verii begins two or three blocks east of the Citadel). A gate confronts you at the foot of the steps, but it is unlocked during the day. Restoration is currently taking place in the cemetery, but the builders and the stonemasons welcome visitors. It is a very beautiful cemetery. As well as many elaborate tombs from the early 20th century, some stonework has dates of burial to the present day.

On the theme of Jewish Targu Mures, it is worth noting that a holocaust memorial stands in the small triangle of park between strs. Morii and Caralasilor.

If paying a visit to the Jewish Cemetery, walk along Str. Gabor Aron to enter the back of the equally attractive Roman Catholic Cemetery which drops down the hill toward the Citadel. The Orthodox Cemetery lies next to the Roman Catholic Cemetery and also provides delightful views.

Just off the city’s main square, some excellent cafes and shops sell very good ice cream for 0.25 euros a scoop. Prices in Sighisoara’s main square rise in some instances to 2 euros a scoop, so fill up on ice cream in Targu Mures instead. The ice cream in Targu Mures is exactly the same make and quality as the ice cream in Sighisoara.

A few trains go daily from Targu Mures to Brasov, but they take eight hours to complete the journey. This means that most people use the maxi-taxis instead, which now leave from a bus depot on Str. Bega south-west of the main bus station. The reckless Formula One drivers of the maxi-taxis get you to Brasov in under three hours for 6 euros. It is not a journey for the faint-hearted.

Targu Mures provides an excellent contrast with touristy Sighisoara and equally touristy Brasov. Most visitors to Targu Mures are Romanian or Hungarian nationals. The side streets leading from Piata Trandafirilor contain lots of interesting buildings, but many currently look neglected and require some urgent tender loving care. In common with Timisoara, Targu Mures is a place where you can live inexpensively without compromising on quality. The railway station is fun as well, although some station employees may make half-hearted attempts to stop you taking photos with the somewhat dubious suggestion that permits are required. Oh yes: there are a few Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city. It would seem that the faith is slowly growing in strength, not least among the Roma who have known little but discrimination and/or ostracism from the more mainstream churches.

Not much information exists about the Jewish community of Targu Mures in either books or on the internet. However, I did find some information on two websites after typing into my search engine “The Jewish community in Targu Mures”. I have combined the most pertinent information into a single paragraph below:

Jewish families had settled along the River Mures by the beginning of the 18th century and, by the late 19th century, the Jewish community in Targu Mures had become the largest such community in Transylvania after the community in Alba Iulia. In Targu Mures today, the community comprises of about two hundred well-respected people. Previously, there were many more Jewish people. By 1940, almost six thousand people identified themselves as Jewish, but by early 1944 the community had shrunk to just over two thousand. Between May and June 1944, almost eight thousand Jews were deported to Auschwitz from Targu Mures and the surrounding area, and almost six thousand of them never returned home. After the war many of the survivors migrated to Israel. In the 2006 census, only 219 people in Targu Mures were identified as Jewish.


Budapest, Hungary.

I know: in the strictest sense Budapest is no longer an unusual destination (even though it is, for reasons I cannot understand, a far less popular East European destination than, say, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Krakow or Prague). But, as with all great cities (and Budapest IS a great city. In fact, it is one of Europe’s most attractive, seductive, interesting and compelling cities, despite its sometimes tragic history), Budapest has lots of places where foreign visitors rarely venture. Below are some photos of the city a little less ordinary which I hope will inspire at least some of you to track down a few of the hidden gems when you next visit Hungary’s most thrilling destination. Sorry I could not resist one or two images conceived in the style of Hungary’s greatest living (but retired, sadly) film-maker, Bela Tarr, but who can resist such imitation when even the capital of his homeland has environments he might wish to include in his frequently bleak but perfectly executed masterpieces?

Note that two of the photos allude to the tragic history of Budapest’s once-large Jewish community, and one alludes to past warfare. You might even argue that two other photos, those of cemeteries, allude to the most obvious consequence of warfare, human casualties. Budapest’s troubled history is inescapable, especially a little off the tracks most often beaten by foreign visitors.


Hartlepool, North-East England.

Hartlepool is a town on the North Sea coast of North-East England, located about 7 miles north of Middlesbrough and 17 miles south of Sunderland. Historically a part of County Durham and later Cleveland, the town is now its own unitary authority, the Borough of Hartlepool, which embraces the outlying suburban villages of Seaton Carew, Greatham and Elwick. Ceremonially the town remains a part of County Durham. However, it has strong cultural and economic links with Teesside and the Tees Valley area, with which it shares a number of provisions including the TS postcode, Cleveland Fire Brigade and Cleveland Police.

The town was founded in the 7th century CE around the Northumbrian monastery of Hartlepool Abbey. The village grew during the middle ages and developed a harbour which served as the official port of the County Palatine of Durham. A railway from the north led from the South Durham coalfields to the town. An additional railway from the south, in 1835, together with a new port, resulted in further expansion, and the establishment of the new town of West Hartlepool. Heavy industry, which included shipbuilding (shipbuilding dated from the late 19th century), caused Hartlepool to be a target for the German navy at the beginning of the first world war. A bombardment of 1,150 shells on 16th December 1914 resulted in the death of 117 people. A severe decline in heavy industry, shipbuilding included, followed the second world war and caused periods of high unemployment until the 1990s, when major investment projects and the redevelopment of the docks’ area into a marina have seen an improvement in the town’s prospects.

The monkey-hanging legend is the most famous story associated with Hartlepool.

During the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was badly damaged off the Hartlepool coast. At the time the damaged ship was spotted there was fear of a French invasion of Britain and much public concern was expressed about the possibility of French infiltrators and spies.

Fearing an invasion, the fishermen of Hartlepool kept a close watch on the French ship as it struggled against the storm, but, when the vessel was severely battered and sank, they turned their attention to the wreckage washed ashore. Among the wreckage lay one wet and sorrowful survivor, the ship’s pet monkey dressed to amuse in a military-style uniform.

We are led to believe that the fishermen questioned the monkey and put it on trial on the beach. Unfamiliar with what a Frenchman looked like, they came to the conclusion that the monkey was a French spy and should be sentenced to death. The unfortunate monkey died by hanging, with the mast of a fishing boat (a coble) providing a convenient gallows.

Hodgson’s the Fishmongers is perhaps the best surviving fishmongers in the North-East. The pub at the railway station is a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) award-winning pub. The old town (on and south of Church Street), the Headland, the streets north and south of Park Road to West Park, and the Osborne Road and Murray Street areas are also interesting.  Note Kiwi Trading on Osborne Road, an antique and bric-a-brac shop in an old garage. Also note the restaurant in Hartlepool FE College called The Flagship. Very good three-course meals cost about £14. Bottles of wine are sold at a reasonable price (by UK restaurant standards, at least).

Elwick Road leads to the pretty village of Elwick where a 12th century church, some attractive houses and two pubs make the detour worthwhile. Dalton Percy is also quite interesting, but Greatham much more so.


Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.

We stayed at Super 8 Motel close to where Skelly Drive meets Peoria Avenue. The room cost $49 a night before tax (because we stayed for two nights the whole bill came to $107). The cost included free parking, a small breakfast and use of a small swimming pool. The hotel was managed by a Hindu family that had come to the USA from Kenya via the UK. We found to our surprise that Tulsa has two mandirs. Amazing.

Tulsa was one of the trip’s surprises for all the right reasons. Downtown there are some excellent early 20th century buildings which have benefited from the region’s past oil wealth. Once you have identified an interesting building (e.g. Atlas Building, South Boston, near where about half a dozen equally interesting buildings exist), enter the lobby, explain to people on reception that you are interested in architecture, and enjoy the interiors and their elaborate decoration. Lavish use will have been made of marble, bronze, stained glass, mosaic tiles and paint, the latter probably to immortalise an important historic event associated with the region.

Also visit Brady Street where there are more notable buildings.

For lunch, try New Atlas Grill in the lobby of Atlas Building (mains from $7), and, for drinks and snacks with a difference, try Kokoa Kabana, 507 South Boston. Kokoa Kabana specialises in all things chocolate. The ice cream is amazing, as are the sweets.

The suburb of Mapleridge, south of downtown and surrounding the Philbrook Museum of Art, is a very attractive area in which to drive or walk around, and the blocks along South Peoria Avenue close to 41st Street have some interesting shops, cafes and restaurants all easily accessed from nearby free car parks. This district is called Brookside, and among the places worth trying for food and drink is Charleston’s Restaurant, 3726 South Peoria Avenue. Because steaks, seafood, pasta, burgers and sandwiches are available, there is something for almost everyone. Burgers and sandwiches cost from $8, ribs and steaks cost from $17 and specials (which include fish) cost from $12. Starters, soups and sides are all good value. The atmosphere inside is lively and, if you sit at the excellent bar, you will soon be chatting with local people.

If looking for a more conventional diner, try Goldie’s Patio Grill (which has eight branches across town. We ate at 4401 South Yale Avenue). Starters cost from $5, burgers cost from $6, platters cost from $9 and sandwiches cost from $7. Goldie’s serves beer and is excellent value for food or drink.

Another district worth visiting, not least for food a little out of the ordinary, is along East 15th Street (especially in the area known as Cherry Street), which is not far from downtown. Although not quite as appealing as Brookside, there are, nonetheless, two or three good cafes for tea, coffee and light snacks; and Kilkenny’s Irish Pub, 1413 East 15th Street, serves Irish and English beers and sixty menu items at prices between those at Goldie’s and Charleston’s. One last location for interesting food is Brady Street just west of downtown. This area is emerging as an area with art galleries, cafes, restaurants and specialist shops, all of which are located in old buildings with an industrial or a commercial character.

We know that one of Tulsa’s nicknames is “the buckle of the Bible Belt”, but we found the town a wonderful place to visit, and not just because of the cost effective accommodation or the excellent eating and drinking options. Downtown has some stunning buildings and, along the Arkansas River, a pretty park is popular with people who like to walk, run or, if so inclined, pick up a free bike to cycle along the extensive cycle paths. Oh yes. If you have a car cross the Arkansas River, preferably on Interstate 44. The views are excellent.