Tallinn Journal: Emerging Arts Scene, Old/New Images, Draw Visitors
By Ron Bernthal
One of the most intriguing countries in Europe is also one of its smallest. This country is celebrating 20 years of independence from the Soviet Union, and in 2011its largest city was named European Capital of Culture.
The country is Estonia, and with its well preserved, medieval Old Town district, its new art and gourmet restaurants, and a high tech industry that is exceptionally vibrant, Estonian developers did write the first codes for Skype, Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn has become one of the next “must see” destinations among the world’s trend setters.
A short walk from the harbor in Tallinn, where car and passenger ferries arrive every day from the Finnish capital of Helsinki, just a few hours away across the Baltic Sea, is a new arts district, where galleries and artist studios are taking over former Soviet factories and residential buildings. Even a former prison overlooking the sea is part of the city’s revitalization. Anders Harm is a 35 year old Estonian artist who curates exhibitions at a funky art museum, known as Eesti Kaasaegse Kunsti Muuseum or EKKM, which displays the works of young and creative Estonian and European artists.
“We started this place in 2006, a few years after the Russians left, and it was very difficult at first to become recognized as a real art museum. During the Soviet era art was not a priority in Estonia, and given the strict Communist control of culture at the time, artists were not free to paint what they wanted, especially if it contained a political theme, so we struggled without money to establish this venue, and now we are recognized and legal and open for business,” Mr. Harm said, as he watched as a group of foreign tourists arrived for a tour of the museum. “It is interesting that our location, within an easy walk of the port, was once off-limits to Estonians, as the Soviets tried to keep all residents away from the coastline, probably thinking people would try to escape across the sea to Finland,” Mr. Harm said. “It was prohibited to even be seen walking in this area. But now we are part of the Culture Trail that has been established in this district, a two-kilometer walking path that is still somewhat rural, but several cafes, art galleries, artist studios and design businesses have set up places here and are attracting both Estonians and visitors eager to see what is going on here.”
A ten-minute walk from the museum is the former Patarei Prison, built as a fortress in the 1800’s it began housing prisoners in 1919, and was used by the Nazi’s during the German occupation of Estonia, and then by the Russian KGB until the last Soviet soldiers left Estonia in 1994. The prison is now being converted into an artists’ enclave, part of the Culture Park that has been developing in the area. In a former cell, with its large barred window letting in the afternoon light, Steve Vanoni, a 55 year-old American painter, uses the space as an day-time art studio, and now calls Tallinn home.
“I’ve been coming here since 2008, after living in Sacramento for many years. But after travelling to Estonia with a music group that I was part of, and spending time here in Tallinn, I began to see how nice the city is, and how generous the local government can be for professional artists,” said Mr. Vanoni. “In the U.S., it is difficult for individual artists to receive assistance, but the Estonians want to support the new art movement in their country, and I have found the people to be friendly and Tallinn is a great place to live.”
The newer parts of Tallinn, with their wide, Soviet-era boulevards and spacious parks, contain modern office buildings, shops and a towering , blue glass hotel called the Radisson Blu, a busy place for business travelers, as well as leisure visitors who are often seen having dinner or drinks on the hotel’s 24th floor roof-top terrace, with its spectacular views of Old Town and the shimmering Baltic Sea on the horizon. It was there that i spoke with brian gleeson, the property’s general manager, who said that the rest of the world is finally catching up to estonia’s commercial and cultural benefits.
“I think the rest of the world is finally catching up to Estonia’s commercial and cultural benefits,” said Brian Gleeson, General Manager of the Radisson Blu property, as he said by a window on the hotel’s roof-top restaurant, his outstretched arm pointing to the church spires and stone buildings of the walled Old Town neighborhood below us. “We’ve really benefitted from the Culture Capital year of 2011, and Estonia’s growing high-tech industry is bringing in lots of business visitors. And we are seeing more Americans as well, who have heard about the city’s historic structures, and its commitment to arts and culture. We also have a large growth in cruise passengers, who come into the city for the day, do some shopping, perhaps have a lunch, and then the ship leaves in the evening. Estonia is now competing with Turkey, Spain, and other European destinations as an affordable and unique place to visit, for business or pleasure. ”
A few minutes’ walk from the lobby of the hotel, Old Town is truly a well-preserved, medieval center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where restaurants, shops and art galleries are built into the lower floors of 13th-century buildings. Although day-trippers swarm Old Town during the peak summer season, one restaurant remains an undiscovered gem, a small, hard-to-find, private home where Priit Kuusik and his former super-model/actress wife, Beatrice, run nAnO out of their living room, kitchen, and backyard patio.
Opened in 2009, nAnO serves lunch and dinner several days a week. A private outdoor patio seats six, three tables inside can accommodate 12. A tiny sign outside an unassuming doorway, on a nondescript corner of a narrow, out-of-the-way street means that you may want to scout out nAnO’s location before your reserved time (reservations are mandatory). When this reporter stepped through the doorway into the restaurant’s cozy confines I saw Beatrice at the kitchen table helping her young son with homework, while Priit was standing near the stove, making soup for the day’s lunch. Dozens of monthly covers from the Estonian magazine, Stiina, with Beatrice’s photo, lined a wall of the kitchen.
My lunch companion and I sat outside, trees and umbrellas provided shade. There is no menu, Priit describes the choices and the locally sourced food, sometimes a thick split pea soup or chicken broth, a beef Stroganoff with roasted potatoes and salad, or fresh caught pike-perch, is brought to the table. Dessert can be chocolate mousse or fruit or a Pavlova chiffon pie. Wine is available, coffee is delicious. The price is not inexpensive, but the quality of the food, the eclectic atmosphere, and the casual and friendly ambience, and the handsome and beautiful owners make nAnO a unique Estonian experience.
Just outside the 800 year-old stone wall of Old Town is a new restaurant called Mekk. The executive chef, Rene Uusmees specializes in modern Estonian cuisine, taking the fresh, local ingredients of hundred year-old recipes and blending them into creative 21st century dishes. “We still serve food the way it was prepared hundreds of years ago. We use the same ingredients as our grandmothers did, but with less fat, and we make sure that all our food is fresh, and produced locally, from our farms and rivers,” said Chef Uusmees as he inspected each dish before it was brought out to the waiting customers. “It is important to preserve the traditional Estonian way of cooking, slowly, slowly over a low heat, and make the presentation and service as professional as possible.”
Some of the items on Mekk’s current tasting menu include roasted pike perch with pork crunches, baked filet with goat cheese and potato cake, and desert of oven roasted apples, cardamom, hazelnuts and vanilla ice cream. The wine menu is extensive, with French and German labels, as well as a large assortment of Estonian wines.
It is the grand mixture of the old and new, the traditional Estonian cuisine and architecture juxtaposed with gleaming glass hotels, and a high tech industry that wired the city of Tallinn for free Wi-Fi. Outside of Tallinn the countryside beckons with Baltic Sea beaches in the summer, and idyllic, snow covered villages in the winter. Tallinn is only a few hours from Helsinki by car ferry or passenger hydrofoil, and non-stop flights from European cities are frequent.
Estonia Tourism Bureau
Tallinn City Tourist Office & Convention Bureau
Radisson Blu Hotel