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Estonia

August 17, 1994. Russian Mafia are easy to spot. They drive mostly Mercedes or occasionally a new Opel, usually with dark tinted windows. Their cars are always immaculate. They wear suits — sometimes flashy outfits with purple sportcoats, modern-day zoot-suits — with cellular phones dangling conspicuously from their belts. They are young, clean-cut and tough-looking. And they are everywhere.

They seem to hang out in the city center. They relax in expensive cafes and chat with one another, or perhaps with a sexy girlfriend. When the phone rings, they always get up and walk outside. I don’t know if this is because of bad reception or so that they can be seen using their cellular phone, their symbol of wealth.

Can’t Buy Me Love

This week, while trying to find a hotel near Pirita, a seaside area 6 km east of Tallinn, my friend Eerik (pronounced like “Eric”, but with a trilled “r”) and I accidentally wound up at a Mafia-run whorehouse. (Eerik, I should mention, I met at the Irish pub in Puhejarv where I left off in the last installment. I’ll tell you more about him and his girlfriend Kristiin in a moment.) In the office of this small, grimy orange motel — the Rumma Velodroomil — eight or ten large Russian men in suits sat around a coffee table. The desk clerk wore a very tight, short black dress and white fishnet stockings. Eerik spoke with her in Russian and she showed us a couple of rooms. He then thanked her and told her we would keep looking. As we left, he explained “It’s a brothel.” While I was oblivious to their conversation, she was telling him that they have women for 350 EEK per hour (about US$29). She assured him that if I didn’t need the room all night, I didn’t need to stay. Very creepy.

While we are in the neighborhood, I should tell you that the jammin’est disco in Tallinn is a place called Piraat (that’s Estonian for “pirate”) right next door to the Hotell Pirita. Piraat is large, loud and crowded. If it’s nightlife you crave, reserve a room at the Hotell Pirita and walk over to Piraat after 10:00pm. Another good discotheque is Lucky Luke’s Saloon at the Tallinn port. It is half the size of Piraat, but still quite fun.

Thank You For Being a Friend

Necessity is the mother of all battles, to coin a mixed metaphor. Traveling solo — being alone most of the time — creates a need to meet people, and the necessity itself seems to make it happen.

I never thought of myself as being good at meeting new people. I am finding, though, that I am meeting lots of people. There seem to be two reasons: first, I am more inclined to make an effort to connect with strangers and, second, others seem to be interested in me when they hear about my journey. In the last two weeks I have met a number of wonderful people, both Estonians and foreign expatriates.

The day after arriving in Puhejarv, I saw the pub’s owner, Liam, speaking with several people outside on the deck. Knowing that Liam spoke only English, I decided to join them. Liam introduced me to Eerik and Kristiin (pronounced like “Christine”, but with a trilled “r” and the accent on the first syllable) and two of their friends from Tartu. The six of us had dinner together, plus several beers and whiskeys, and then went for a jump into any icy-cold lake in our underwear. I think this is what’s known as a rollicking good time.

Eerik mentioned that he was taking his vacation the following weekend and going to Parnu and Saaremaa. Parnu is a beach resort in southwestern Estonia and Saaremaa is the largest of Estonia’s islands; several people have told me these are the most beautiful places in Estonia. Since I was planning to go to Parnu, I suggested we go together. We agreed to meet on Friday.

During the week, I met with the man who established Estonia’s satellite Internet connections to the West. He told me numerous stories about the politics of setting up digital links to Sweden and Finland during the fall of the Soviet Union. He chose a “Gordian knot” approach to the problem. Just do what needs to be done — to hell with the bureaucracy — and sort out the problems afterward. I will tell you about our conversation — and about the introduction of the Internet in the Baltics — in a future article.

On The Road Again

Friday, Eerik, Kristiin and I drove first to Haapsalu and then to Parnu. We arrived in Haapsalu during the “Days of the White Lady”. The White Lady was the lover of a man in the piiskopilinnus, the bishop’s castle. She was bricked into the castle walls for the crime of entering the male-only castle. During the August full-moon, her ghost is said to appear in the cathedral window. The Days of the White Lady is a big festival in Haapsalu, with plays and concerts staged on the castle grounds. Despite the festival, Haapsalu is still a small and sleepy village; after a picnic lunch and a play at the castle, we decided to push on to Parnu.

This week, Parnu hosts the Finn Cup Sailing Championship. The final race is Saturday. Since we planned to see the race, we looked a place to stay. We chose our hotel by its price: 60 EEK for a single, 120 for a double. That’s US$5 and US$10. My room was not much larger than a Chinese shoebox. No phones, no TV, no towels, no soap. Shared toilet and shower. Noisy at night and not terribly clean. Hot water only in the morning. This hotel is not in my guidebooks and, as far as I can tell, it has no name. If you would like to try this place, it’s at Roosi 4a, behind the kauplus (shop).

I should mention that, compared to most of Estonia, Parnu is very beautiful. Houses are well cared for, yards are tended, streets are clean. Parnu has lots of parks and a gorgeous beach. The beautifully remodeled Rannahotell is right on the beach, with rooms starting at a whopping US$80 a night. Despite the high room rates, their elegant restaurant is surprisingly inexpensive.

After a rest, we went in search of nightlife. Parnu has two discos: Hamilton and Miraz. Hamilton is small and uninteresting. Miraz (pronounced “Mirage”) is a mecca by comparison, but still pretty lame next to Piraat or Lucky Luke’s in Tallinn.

Sailing Away

For us, the sailing championship was a fiasco. The boat from which we watched the race broke down after the first leg. We did not see the remainder of the race, but just drifted for several hours until another boat came and towed us in. Our boat was good-sized, with perhaps two dozen other passengers. We had paid 50 EEK apiece for tickets but, naturally, our money was not refunded.

Island Life

During the Soviet occupation, Estonian citizens needed a visa to see to the island of Saaremaa. Saaremaa was the westernmost point in the Soviet Union, and the home of Russia’s early-warning radar installations. Today the radar bases are gone and Estonians can visit Saaremaa as easily as any other part of Estonia. For 40 EEK per car, a ferry takes you to the smaller island of Muhu which, in turn, is connected by bridge to Saaremaa.

Kuressaare is the largest city on Saaremaa and it is becoming an attractive spot for tourists, now that the island is open. There is an outdoor market in the center of town where local women sell handmade woolen sweaters and socks, amber necklaces, and knickknacks carved from dolomite.

Kuressaare grew up around an impressive and well-preserved castle, built in the mid 14th century. Today the castle houses a history museum and a nature museum. The history museum is filled with old weaponry, furniture, photographs, etc. Unfortunately, the descriptions are only in Estonian and Russian. The nature museum is a taxidermists heaven, with stuffed deer and moose, flamingos and seagulls, boars and porcupines; dozens, if not hundreds of animals, representing all of the local wildlife. This nature museum is apparently newer, because the descriptions here are also in English.

We ate dinner on the third floor of a restaurant built inside a large stone windmill. The local beers, Saaremaa Olu and Kuressaare Olu, are potent and tasty. Saaremaa also has its own local blackbread, Saaremaa leib, and cheese, Saaremaa juust. The bread is one of many subtle variations of the dense, hard ryebread that is found on nearly every restaurant table in Estonia. The cheese is remarkably like Monterey Jack. Once again, though, dinner was a plate of fries, a few vegetables, and a chunk of meat. Originality does not seem to be a virtue among Estonian chefs.

As in Parnu, we chose our hotel in Kuressaare by its price; 100 EEK per person (that’s US$8 to you and me). This place was spartan, but still a big step up from our hotel in Parnu. Clean rooms, comfortable beds, private bathrooms with plenty of hot water, and concrete walls for a quiet sleep. According to an instruction card on the desk, “If there are any disorders in your room announce it to the administrator, please.” We returned to Tallinn on Monday, and on Wednesday I left for Latvia.


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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt