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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Uzupis, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Although Vilnius is an increasingly popular destination for touristic purposes, the district of Uzupis is often ignored. Get to Uzupis as soon as possible. Why? Read on!

The most interesting parts of Uzupis are enclosed on three sides by the relatively narrow and shallow Vilnia River. Consequently, the district lies just to the south of St. Anne’s Church and the Church of St. Francis and St. Bernardino, and just to the east of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God. Five or six road and foot bridges lead into the district, which is bisected from west to east by gently meandering Uzupio Gatve. All the bridges have padlocks attached to them, those leading to Uzupio, Paupio and Malunu gatves having perhaps the most. And the significance of the padlocks? They imply that, on crossing the bridges, you enter the Independent Republic of Uzupis where freedom rules the roost, okay?

Uzupis is famous for being an unofficial breakaway republic of artists, squatters and drunks who have declared themselves a separate state from Lithuania. There is a constitution comprising of forty-one statements found on metal plates attached to a wall near where Paupio and Uzupio gatves join. The statements have been written in different languages including Lithuanian, Russian, Polish and English. They combine the serious with the frivolous: everyone has the right to be happy, everyone has the right to be unhappy, everyone has the right to love and to take care of the cat. In the middle of the small square where Uzupio, Paupio and Malunu gatves join, local people have erected the Angel of Uzupis on the top of a tall stone column.

The district of Uzupis extends east to Olandu Gatve, but the most interesting parts end where Uzupio Gatve divides into Polocko and Kriviu gatves. Because about a third of the most interesting part of Uzupis is now in ruins, small derelict plots await redevelopment (but the ruins and the derelict plots are remarkably picturesque, especially in rain or under grey overcast skies). Another third of Uzupis is lived in by artists, squatters and drunks who occupy the somewhat rundown buildings that still have roofs on them, and the last third has benefited from gentrification (Uzupis may have degenerated into a slum some years ago, but many old houses survived, albeit in a very neglected state. It was only a matter of time before the area’s potential became apparent to young middle class Vilnians, not least because of its close proximity to the old and the new towns). Gentrification means that the area’s role as a haven for artists, hippies, squatters, new age travellers and drunks is slowly being undermined. Alternative lifestyles are being marginalised, not only by improvements made to the area’s housing stock, but also by the influx of more trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and art galleries. There is even a busy pizzeria which serves food all day long, and a branch of Iki, the popular supermarket chain (the local drunks appreciate the supermarket because it sells cans of beer for less than 2 litus each, which significantly undercuts costs in even the most rundown local bar).

If I had been one of the area’s alternative lifestyle pioneers, I would be upset to see how this once wacky and innovative community is being undermined by the influx of money and middle class beneficiaries of economic liberalism. However, what I saw is an area in transition with a bright future ahead. Uzupis has the potential to be one of Vilnius’s most attractive inner city suburbs because of the wonderful mixture of buildings dating from the 16th century to the present day, the low hill on which it is situated, and the absence of major roads that might bring excessive congestion and pollution. The river and the little pockets of greenery combine with a network of footpaths and narrow roads to create an area that has intimacy and variety rarely encountered in contemporary townscapes. I was drawn back on many occasions to examine the tumbledown ruins, the derelict plots, the gentrified courtyards, St. Bartholemew’s Church (unusually small by Vilnius’s standards), the unsealed car parks behind houses and small apartment blocks, the terraces of single- storey wooden sheds and brick stores, and the gardens and grassy banks tumbling down the hillsides.

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