Tag Archives: Christmas Market

European Capital of Culture 2011 – Tallinn

tallinn-unesco-08-08-2013

Before dining however we walked through to the opposite side of town and along the ‘wall of woolens’, so called because here there were more market stalls cut into the arches of the original city wall and then we were tempted to part with thirty Eeks each to climb to the top of the tower for a two hundred metre elevated walk looking down over the rooftops and the narrow medieval streets below.

Back at street level we wandered down the delightful St Catherine’s Passage in between fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings where artisans and craftsmen and women were preserving medieval crafts such as glass blowing, intricate iron work, jewellery and leather work.  At  the end of the passage was a basement restaurant where we stopped for a bowl of soup and a glass of beer and we successfully negotiated the potential crisis moment when Sue and Christine both found something on the menu that they could order with confidence and enjoy.

Tallinn Estonia Old Town

By mid afternoon when we left the subterranean restaurant it was already starting to get dark because thanks to the ‘polar night’ phenomenon, in the Winter, Tallinn, on the same line of latitude as the Shetland Isles, enjoys only a few short hours of daylight. It has late sunrises and early sunsets, which creates incredibly short days and endlessly long nights.  On an overcast day like today the effect was even worse and it is little wonder that Tallinners have been known to have a tendency toward seasonal depression as a result.

We needed some beers and a bottle of wine but we didn’t pass any shops so as it was still early Mike and I walked around the city ring road in search of a mini market.  The route we chose took us towards the railway station and this wasn’t any real surprise because is a railway man by profession and enthusiasm and after about a kilometre or so we were outside the ticket office and an impressive Soviet Steam Engine, the L2317, a 2-10-0 locomotive built in 1953 in Russia at a factory in the Moscow railway suburb city of Kolomna.

The Russian L-series locomotives were one of the more advanced steam locomotives built in the former Soviet Union.   It was a mighty black iron beast with red wheels of almost ninety tonnes that really deserved a name rather than just a number, which during its working life pulled mostly freight trains between Russia and Estonia and after it was decommissioned was rather ignominiously used as a static boiler to heat nearby houses.

It has been externally restored now and sits tall and proud outside the railway station, which was where we went next.

Tallinn Russian Railway Engine Soviet Steam Engine L2317

We were now in the working part of the city and a long way from the Christmas market and the students dressed in medieval costumes and the overpriced restaurants.

The station felt tired and past its best and next to it was a tram station that conjured up dreary images of the old days of the Soviet Empire and what was surprising was that the passengers on board looked grey and tired and firmly locked permanently into a 1960s Tallinn time warp.  The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of old wooden houses and out towards the proletarian flats of the city suburbs.

Next to the station in an ugly 1970s concrete shopping mall we came across a two-story traditional food market selling fish, meat, vegetables and everything for the working class weekly shop.  Everything that is apart from alcohol so we were about to give up when we came across a small kiosk with cans of Estonian beer in the fridge and a screw cap bottle of blossom hill red wine.  Not exactly traditional but without a corkscrew we were severely limited for choice.

Later we all met up in reception and wrapped up in hats, scarves and thermal gloves walked back into town making our way past the skating rink that we decided to leave until tomorrow, towards the Raekoja Plats where we were surprised to find the market closed.  It was only eight o’clock and I would have thought a Times listed top twenty Christmas market would still be open in the evening.

We dealt with the disappointment as best we could and then began the search for a suitable eating establishment.  We didn’t take too long over this and agreed upon one of the medieval banquet houses, the Peppersack, that was located in an old building not far from the Town Hall Square.  There was a good menu of hearty food and we enjoyed meat skewers and fillets and best of all plenty of Estonian beer and wine to wash it all down.

All we needed now was some snow but sadly there was none as we left the restaurant and walked back to the hotel with the objective of a final nightcap.  There was no hope of that at the Von Stackleberg because the bar was closed so we wandered across the road instead to a modern glitzy hotel that was still open, and our final drink and made our day one assessment of Tallinn, which we agreed we all liked, before calling it a day and agreeing to meet at nine o’clock in the morning for breakfast.

Tallinn Christmas

Tallinn Christmas Market

Tallinn Estonia Old Town

On account of the grey skies we wrapped up in an appropriate way to tackle the bleak weather and set off for the old town and we retraced our steps from the previous night and repeated our visits to the viewing platforms overlooking the Baltic and the islands.

With one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, the seacoast capital of Tallinn is a rare jewel in the north of Europe and a city fully worthy of being on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

It was once a medieval Hanseatic town and for long periods in history dominated by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians and even today contains lots of influence from those days but as we walked we could tell that there was a uniqueness to the place, a bit like Riga but at only roughly half the size certainly very different.

Coffee Shop in Tallinn

Tallinn is a city with a long and proud tradition dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the city, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285.

After joining the League Tallinn enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because its position as a port, a link between mainland Europe and Russia, enabled it to grow rapidly in size and wealth and many of the City’s finest buildings were constructed during this period.  This lasted until the sixteenth century when Sweden moved in and claimed the city and during this time of Swedish rule more fortifications were added and the architecture took on the baroque style of the times.

Just like the previous evening we were confused about how to find our way to the centre of the city not least because where we were was an elevated spot with limited access to the streets of the old town.  We wandered about and corrected ourselves a couple of times before finally walking through a medieval entrance to the city and descending steps behind the city walls before finding ourselves finally at the Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square.

tallinn-christmas-market

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.  This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.  This would be a bit like any town in England on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down in advance during the afternoon.

Today the market is included in the Times newspaper top twenty European Christmas markets and here in the square there were more than fifty wooden huts and stalls where visitors and locals were being tempted by (traditional? well maybe) artisan products from all over Estonia.

Tallinn Christmas Market

Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, the vendors were selling a variety of original products including woolens, felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, homemade candles, wreaths and other decorations.  Traditional Estonian holiday food was also on the menu such as sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries and other seasonal treats such as gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies and, best of all, hot mulled wine poured from copious wooden barrels.

Christmas Past

We stopped for a drink and paid over the odds in a restaurant on the edge of the square and then left and walked through the market towards the south side of town.  Here there were men and women dressed in medieval costume handing out lucky coins and trying to encourage us to dine in this or that particular restaurant.  Some of us thought there must be a twist involved and fearing an obligation refused to accept the coins but Kim and I took a chance on a con and took ours and it was all completely innocent of course.

Actually it was approaching lunchtime and therefore, because of the nervousness of finding somewhere that Sue and Christine would approve of, a potential crisis time in a new country with unfamiliar cuisine.  Without Micky the anxiety was all mine and weighed heavily because traditional Estonian Cuisine has developed over centuries with Germanic and Scandinavian influences and some of it is not for the faint hearted and certainly wouldn’t suit Sue’s delicate dining preferences.  For someone who turned her nose up at a plain fish salad in Portugal I was certain that she wouldn’t like sült, a sort of jellied meat dish made from pork bones, trotters and heads, or the marinated eel, Baltic sprats, sauerkraut stew or even the Christmas specialty of verivorst or blood sausage.

There was no real need to worry however because although Estonians speak fondly of their traditional food they are no more likely to eat it on a regular basis than in England we are to order pease pudding, jellied eels or brawn and the according to the menu boards displayed outside the pubs and restaurants had a good selection of acceptable offerings.

Christmas market

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Other Market stories:

La Rochelle

Pula, Croatia

Alghero, Sardinia

Palermo, Sicily

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Varvakios Agora, Athens

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Festival Days – St John Nepomuk

St John Nepomuk

March 20th is the festival day of St John Nepomuk.  I saw him once when visiting the village of Škofja Loka in Slovenia.

On the way to the village we crossed a six hundred year old stone bridge across the Selška Sora and in the middle is a statue of St John Nepomuk who is supposed to be the bringer of good luck.  Well the sort of luck that old St John brings I can happily do without.  The man, who built the bridge, a certain bishop Leopold, fell off it shortly after completion and he drowned in the river below.  Where was St John on that particular day I wondered?

Actually I found this statue a bit surprising because poor old John Nepomuk didn’t seem to have a great deal of luck himself in his lifetime as he was a Jesuit priest who was tortured and killed by King Wenceslas in 1393 and his body was thrown into the river Vltava in Prague.

Because of his aquatic final resting place he is regarded as a protector from floods but he must have been off duty in August 2003 when the city endured its worst deluge for two hundred years and forty thousand people were evacuated and the cost of repairing the damage ran into billions.  Where was St John on that particular day I wondered?

Read the Full Story…

Worth A Detour (Part One)

Kim The Navigator

Recently I was reminded about a story I have told previously about map reading.

Driving in Switzerland I allocated navigation duties to Kim and we made steady progress towards our destination – Liechtenstein.  After a couple of hours we stopped at a restaurant and this gave us time to examine the map again to find the most suitable route and Kim explained how she had carefully plotted a course to avoid places that the map helpfully pointed out as ‘worth a detour’.  Kim had interpreted this information as ‘worth avoiding’ when of course it actually meant ‘worth going out of your way to take a look’.  

This little memory nudge made me begin to think about some places that we have gone out of our way to visit and then found them to be desperately disappointing.  I offer here my top five places worth avoiding…

No. 5 – Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Vaduz Liechtenstien Concrete

“It occurred to me that there is no reason to go to Liechtenstein except to say that you have been there.  If it were simply part of Switzerland… nobody would dream of visiting it” – Bill Bryson,  ‘Neither here Nor there’

We passed into the World’s sixth smallest country and very soon arrived in Vaduz which although looking overwhelmingly dull we felt compelled to stop there and take a quick look.

I don’t really know what I was expecting, it just sounded as though it should be more interesting than it is, the very fact that it has been able to remain independent through two hundred turbulent years of European history should have given me a clue.  If none of its more powerful neighbours had taken a fancy to it or annexed it for themselves in all of that time that probably says a lot about its value or its interest.

It is a city completely lacking in interest or charisma, it appears to have rejected completely the enchanting picture postcard charm of neighbouring Switzerland and chosen instead to build a bleak city of tarmac and concrete worthy of the very best Soviet town planners with nothing to relieve the monotony of box buildings and Spartan austerity.

Perhaps this is deliberate, Liechtenstein is a country of tax dodgers and secret bank accounts and the men of finance don’t want too many tourists dropping by.

For an immensely rich place (the Prince of Liechtenstein is the world’s sixth wealthiest head of state) I was expecting something special but I have to say that I found it bone-crushingly dull, the sort of place you might send prison inmates for special punishment, worse even than solitary confinement.

No. 4 – Klagenfurt, Austria

Klagenfurt Austria

For a few years we were in the habit of visiting different European Christmas markets.  In 2007 we travelled to Ljubljana in Slovenia and an examination of the train timetables suggested that we could cross over into Austria and travel to the city of Klagenfurt to see a different market.

This was not a straightforward journey.  It was not a direct route and required some time and effort to get there.  The train stopped at the border and the Slovenian engine was replaced with an Austrian model and then a few miles later we had to change trains to make the journey to Klagenfurt, we didn’t mind, we were confident that we were going to see a magnificent traditional Austrian Christmas market.

How disappointed we were when we discovered that the market in Klagenfurt was even tackier than the one in Ljubljana – it was full of cheap trash and repetitive rubbish that none of us had a mind to purchase.  And there wasn’t a great deal of seasonal good cheer on offer either.

I am sure that the market would be more lively and vibrant at night but in the middle of a cold and overcast day it was just dull and lifeless and minding every stall was someone who looked as though they wished that they were somewhere else.

We hurried through the market towards the city centre but this was in turmoil of improvement works that closed off the main square and the Lindwurm fountain, which is about the only one thing worth seeing in Klagenfurt.  I am sure that it is a fine city because it is the sixth largest in Austria and the state capital of Carthinia but the grey clouds made it seem uninteresting and without charm.  I do not recommend a visit to Klangenfurt!

No. 3 – Poble Espanyol, Barcelona

Poble-Espanyol-2

On a Tourist Bus excursion in Barcelona we sat on the top deck to just about as far as it is possible to go to visit Poble Espanyol before it turns around and comes all the way back.

This is a showcase attraction built for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition and is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster with various bits of Spanish architecture and heritage stitched together in one open air museum.  Whilst this may work at Beamish in County Durham in the UK which restricts itself to the North East of England or St Fagans in South Wales where the exhibits come from a relatively small geographical area it is quite something else to try and bring together all of the differing cultural heritage of a country as diverse as Spain into one setting and succeed.

I found it to be a rather odd sort of place that aspires to celebrate the various regions of Spain but, for me anyway, failed to effectively capture the spirit of the country and it isn’t really a museum but rather a collection of shops and restaurants claiming to sell and serve regional specialities.  For anyone who has been to Disney World EPCOT World Showcase you will probably know what I mean.

An interesting thing about Poble Espanyol is that it claims to introduce the visitor to the heritage and culture of each of the Autonomous Communities of Spain and yet it only showcases fifteen of the seventeen and as we left I couldn’t help wondering why the Canary Islands and La Rioja didn’t rate a mention or at least a shop?

The Disney view of the World doesn’t include Spain in the World Showcase, which is an oversight if you ask me, but if it did then something like Poble Espanyol would be exactly what it would most likely look like.  It is a curious place, without heart or soul and if you ever take the Barcelona Bus Touristic I suggest that you stay on board when it pulls up here and continue to the Nou Camp stadium instead.

On a countdown of my places to avoid this is 5 through to 3, next time I will reveal my top 2.

Have you ever been somewhere and been terribly disappointed – do tell!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Blur

Tallinn Christmas Market

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.

This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.  This would be a bit like any town in England on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down in advance during the afternoon as a sensible anti-vandalism precaution.

Read the full story…

Cities of Eastern Europe – Tallinn

Tallinn Estonia Old Town

Back at street level we wandered down the delightful St Catherine’s Passage in between fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings where artisans and craftsmen and women were preserving medieval crafts such as glass blowing, intricate iron work, jewellery and leather work.

At  the end of the passage was a basement restaurant where we stopped for a bowl of soup and a glass of beer and we successfully negotiated the potential crisis moment when Sue and Christine both found something on the menu that they could order with confidence and enjoy.

Read the full story…

 

Tallinn, Christmas Market

Christmas market

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.  This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.

Read the full story…

Ljubljana, Train Journey to Klagenfurt

Ljubljana Train Journey to Klagenfurt Austria

The view from the bedroom window when we woke was  a dreary and disappointing misty morning that obscured the view of the city buildings but we were planning to take a trip to Klagenfurt in Austria today so we hoped that the weather might improve along the way.

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Ljubljana, Christmas Market

Škofja Loka Slovenia Ljubljana

The weather was still dry when we left Škofja Loka and returned to Ljubljana on the worn out old bus and back in the city we wandered down the left bank of the river and took in some of the sights that we had missed the night before.

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Ljubljana, Bus Ride to Škofja Loka

Škofja Loka Slovenia Ljubljana

Sadly there was little change in the weather overnight and the early morning check revealed grey clouds and steady light rain so it didn’t look too good.  Micky had been out for a walk already however and although we were beginning to lose confidence in his weather predictions was still promising improvement over breakfast.

Read the full story…