Monthly Archives: February 2018

Baltic Winters in Tallinn

Sometimes you have to see a place when the weather may not be optimal. If there are plenty of things to see while you trudge over the frost in the mid-afternoon twilight, so much the better. Notably, Estonia’s towns and county have plenty of x-country skiing and snowshoeing locations, although this time round the inch of snow that stuck around wasn’t enough.

Tallinn is beautiful and has more than it’s fair share of medieval and renaissance architecture and castle walls, but in reality contains about half a day of walking aimlessly around and there then needs to be other things to do.


Tallinn: View from Toompea Hill

A circuit round the medieval city walls gives some great perspective about what it must have been like to be on the wrong end of a medieval siege.


Western Entrance

Make sure to see the high part of town – Toompea Hill – where the original castle walls were built and Estonia’s government buildings now stand, as well as the medieval-era Toomkirik church and the Tsarist-era Alexander Nevsky cathedral.





Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral

A good 3km walk east out of town is to the Kumu – Estonian Art Museum, which has a great collection reflecting the story of Estonian art to the current day, including during the Communist era. Plus it’s a very cool building.


Nearby is the park area containing the Kadriorg Museum, a  foreign art museum located in the former Kadriorg Palace, an 18th-century residence built by the Russians. You can also visit that exhibit or just absorb the Tsarist vibe in the grounds.


Kadriorg Museum

Another neat attraction just north of town is the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour maritime museum, which befits a Hanseatic League city, having it’s own steam-powered icebreaker (outside) and a 1930’s era submarine (inside). The submarine is the Lembit, bought from Britain and one of two that formed Estonia’s interwar submarine fleet. Sadly, neither got to be used against invaders, although the Lembit was later recovered from a river in Russia and brought home. The Tsarist-era WWI concrete seaplane hangar is an interesting venue, especially when bathed in purple light.


Lennusadam Seaplane Hangar

This year, the snow wasn’t enough for x-country skiing but if you happen to go when there is, the Nomme Snowpark to the southeast of town (reachable by the Nomme rail station) also has some downhill – but Estonia is a flat place, so don’t expect major slopes.

Estonia has a significant Russian minority that mainly originated from postwar Soviet immigration as central planners added industry and military bases in the post-war era. Many Estonian coastal towns became armed camps populated by the Russian military and closed off to casual visitors and the original inhabitants. One such town is Paldiski, which is a one-hour train ride from Tallinn’s rail station at Telliskivi.

Paldiski was originally developed in the 18th century as a Russian naval base, and has an Orthodox Church to mark the original center. In the postwar Communist era, this was a closed town with a submarine base and nuclear reactor support facilities; the naval base has since been converted into a commercial seaport.


There is a mix of traditional and commiebloc apartments.

If on return to Tallinn, you need further Soviet-era fixes, you can stroll over the behemoth concrete mass of the Linnahall, a brutalist concrete 5,000-seater concert hall opened for the 1980 olympics, when Tallinn hosted some of the events. Despite it’s tired and brutalist outside appearance, the interior is still functional and renovation and re-opening is planned for 2019.

A decomposing railway control station in Telliskivi starts to become art of a type.


Tallinn Logistics. Entering and leaving by the compact and efficient airport gives you a less than 10-minute drive into town. Uber works in Estonia. I stayed just outside the old town – Tallinn is very accessible and it isn’t critical to stay in the old town, where you get to hear drunken baying at 2am.  Both the Centennial and L’Ermitage hotels are well-appointed and very reasonable and modern. Breakfasts were excellent, with a combination of nordic touches to the food. The Centennial’s chef used to be the personal chef of Estonia’s first Prime Minister FWIW.

Tallinn has a great range of restaurants with a focus on nordic and Eastern European, not surprisingly. Interesting higher-end places include Leib Resto and Farm, both in the old town. There are a lot of good gastro-pubs, like F-Hoone and Porgu. The Telliskivi District, just west of the old town and railway station, has a lot of restaurants and nightlife.  If you enjoy craft beer, check out the Pohjala brewpub on Kopli 4 and Pudel in the courtyard at Telliskivi 60a. Another area getting some development is the Rottermann area, southwest of the old town and just south of the ferry terminal, which has a Brewdog outlet at Rottermanni 2.


Rottermann Neighborhood

Estonian microbrews are innovative and superb – see earlier comments here: You can pick up some to bring home at Uba Ja Jamal (Vorgu 3) and Sip (Telliskivi 2).

Air France: less lethal than Aeroflot

As a frequent traveler, you sometimes get asked, is flying on Chechen International Airways advisable? Not really.

Aeroflot, now much modernized and with reportedly good service levels, has historically been the poster child for a hearty “kick the tires, light the fires and away we go into the snowstorm” mentality. Their accident record (8,231 fatalities) bears this out, although such robust thinking does turn back Fascist hordes, so there’s that. Aeroflot has also been in continuous operation since 1923. Air safety in Russia has been under the spotlight of late:

After Aeroflot, Air France, surprisingly, has the second highest number of passenger fatalities, although they have been operating since 1933 and also have had plenty of time to get there. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, best known as the author of the best-selling and soporific children’s book The Little Prince flew transatlantic and Africa airmail services from France in the 1930s, and from what he says it was quite unsafe.

Across the channel, British flagwavery points out that British Airways has a zero fatality record, although ignores that they were relatively recently incorporated, in 1974. This airbrushes some hair-raising and fatal aviation events – such as the decompressing de Havilland Comet airliners in the 1950s – at the hands of the preceding British Overseas Airways Corporation, which I flew as a child and whose initials reportedly stood for “Better on a Camel”.

Long story short, take the train in Russia, or just don’t go there,  and otherwise you should be fine.

Daytwah: Postindustrial Wanderings in Detroit

Visit Detroit Year can be any year, starting now. Notable for experiencing one of the biggest US municipal bankruptcies brought on by the near-extinction of it’s industrial base and depopulation, Detroit is coming back. It’s worth a visit.

The downtown has a strong concentration of early 20th-century art-deco architecture, as well as a fair sample of late 19th century gilded age buildings. It doesn’t seem to have had the pressure of modern redevelopment given that it’s industrial decline set in from the 1960s onwards. Look out for the buildings by Albert Kahn, from Detroit and one of the best-known architects of his time.


Both the Penobscot Building (1928) was the tallest building in Michigan until the 1970s and the Book Tower (1917 and tower- 1926) are under restoration.

Wurlitzer was here. Also (still) Ford, GM, Chrysler, Quicken Loans and many others.


Detroit has a bunch of culture, if opera and symphonies are your thing, and good nightlife. Places to consider are the midtown area along Woodward and Cass Avenues, with rumbling hipsterfication giving some reuse of the empty neighborhoods going on. The art museums and Wayne State University are there as well.

The Greektown area, southeast of downtown, looks more for the convention and casino crowd (there are a few large casinos in Detroit with legalized gambling). In the past, Detroit suffered from segregation, middle-class suburban flight and resulting neglect of the central areas, so if re-urbanization trends occur here, then hopefully that will get some remedy. Good commentary on urban issues can always be found at Curbed –



The Detroit Institute of Arts is a world class art museum – in part because it has received collections donated by industrial-era wealthy families. It has an extensive and diverse collection. Make sure you see the massive Diego Rivera industrial mural, painted in 1933, in the central atrium.


I love the crowd observing from the back of the fresco, it could us I suppose.


Rivera’s industrial tapestry acknowledges the earth and civilizations behind the modern industrial world of 1933.


Edsel Ford makes an appearance at lower right with the museum director of the time.



There is a great African-American art selection and the walls run the gamut of collectible greats. Spot the Picasso, Monet and Brueghel.

There is a neat range of North American art, and the museum has a lot of supporting explanation, assuming, often correctly, that you know nothing.

You can go walkabout around the scattered remnants of the mid-20th century industrial age. Detroit’s population peaked at about 1.8m in the early 1950s and is now about 700,000. It’s a large, empty place, and a cold winter’s day is perfect to just walk around listening to your footsteps. The saying goes that the worse thing that happened to Detroit was the end of World War Two.


Fisher Body Plant 21, Piquette Avenue

The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant (1904) was the original Ford factory and worth a visit.

Those with an eye for real estate and who like south Michigan can pick up a solidly build Edwardian era brick and stone building.


Masonic Temple and 408 Temple Street, abandoned



Loyal Order of Moose Lodge, 2115 Cass Avenue

Other places worth checking out are the Museum of African American History, the Ford Museum (in adjacent Dearborn) and of course the Motown Museum. Most of the performers ultimately moved to Los Angeles, but the sound started here.

Detroit’s a good base to visit Michigan, and Toronto is about a 4-hour drive via the bridge into Windsor, Ontario, for a start. The airport is modern – if you’re a United customer with Gold level, the Lufthansa lounge is a nice perk even on a domestic flight.

Michigan has a strong craft beer tradition and you can find brewpubs by Founders, Batch Brewing, Motor City and Atwater within walking distance of downtown.


Founders Beer List – Extensive and Delicious

Hotels can be pricey depending on the season, given that business growth is solid – airbnb is a good option here.