The All-Consuming Tourist Gaze

Stunning, small, and ancient enough for tourists to keep their fingers from clicking away non-stop. At least, that was the perspective of Tallinn that preoccupied my mind as I began the short, southern catamaran journey across the Gulf of Finland. And to a large extent, it was true – quite literally, it was the new existing in the old. Exquisitely perched at Estonia’s northern coast, minus the gunk and grime of medieval life, Vanalinn (Tallinn’s old town) retains enough grit to tantalise with its ultramodern, meticulously furnished cafés and restaurants that occupied the ground floors of restored medieval merchant houses.

Aerial View Tallinn

Upon arrival however, I had not realised several things: the degree to which the old town has suffered from the sandwich phenomenon – an overwhelming number of visitors pack this small area of a place around the clock (literally so, considering the summer sky does not fully darken), hailing mainly from Rostock, Stockholm and Helsinki, and the degree to which the residents of Tallinn enjoy a relatively richer status than the rest of the Estonians, as evidenced in the prices of lifestyle goods, and the gleaming convertibles they drive.

Hostels, hotels and guesthouses abound, a testament to the exponential growth of the tourist industry in the last couple of years.

Tallinn Skyline

In the heart of Vanalinn, the doors of the tourist information centre are worn from constant opening and closing, while each tiny nook and cranny offers bewildering permutations and combinations of camera angles.

A few major streets separate the Old Town from Tallinn downtown, and therein is the modern attraction of the Viru Keksus and the Kaubamanja, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., enthusiastically providing evidence of how deep mall culture has permeated Estonian lifestyle.

Yet an additional couple of days’ stay in Estonia’s capital offered the luxury of new perspectives beyond the travel handbook’s rave about the city’s poise, the widely hawked Juniper kitchen utensils, or the overly trodden cobblestones of the Old Town.

Conveniently had I wandered beyond the familiar circle of the Old Town into the sector that housed the magnificent but military looking National Estonian Library, noticing that the flags flew at half-mast that day. But I was also lost, despite being in the possession of a map, and resolutely walked into the library’s information counter, helped by a benevolent middle-aged woman who immediately pointed me to the street we were on.

Estonian Library 1

“Endla,” she resolutely circled the street’s name in red, “you are here.”

“Right…thank you…and…er…could you perhaps tell me why the flags are flying at half-mast?” I queried tentatively.

“Oh,” she seemed to think for a moment, “It’s a day of mourning.”

“Mourning?” I parroted, in hopefully what was an encouraging tone into getting her to tell more.

“Because…64 years ago,” she solemnly but somewhat vaguely informed me, “many Estonians were sent to Siberia by the Russians.”

“They were sent to Siberia?” I tried to politely clarify, well aware of the backlash this could produce.

“Yes, yes,” she reaffirmed impatiently, a slight waver of distress tingeing her voice.

It was clear that the conversation was over. I took the near-forgotten map that I had thrust at her at the beginning, and strolled out once more into the sunshine.

But this incident was sufficiently catalytic in exhibiting the way in which history and politics simmer unrepentantly beneath its quaint cobblestones, proving to me what I would have missed had I not dug a little deeper. My memory of a previous visit to Linnan Museum that chronicles the Tallinn’s hanseatic history and Estonia’s uneasy relationship with Russia had finally ceased to be a detached and informative history and intellectual tour.

The story as told by other Estonians to me (though the younger ones sheepishly admitted that Grieving Day was nothing more than a public holiday for them) later depicted the picture more clearly: Illegal Soviet occupation of Estonia took place in 1940, initiating a string of political and economic reforms that were not taken well. 14 June commemorates the day in 1941 where Soviet forces organised the first major mass deportation of Estonians in cattle cars to Siberia.

Having been dominated by foreign powers through much of its history, it is no surprise to find a developed sense of anti-conquest among the people. Estonians wear their history proudly, an unmistakable trait if one bothers to look beneath the architectural wonder of the Old Town, particularly because their sense of history is characterised by survival memories from invading Russian forces through the centuries.

I leave Tallinn with a reformed outlook – Estonia welcomes its visitors with open arms, the right arm offering tantalising fodder for the all-consuming tourist gaze, while the left holds out its own national consciousness, a darker, alluring provocation for the gem-digging traveller.

Alcohol, Lakes and Myths

I did not understand a word, but loosened my death grip on the ubiquitous Lonely Planet Scandinavian Europe guide. When the group of middle-aged Finnish women grew increasingly boisterous as we neared Savonlinna (Finland’s major town of the Southeastern Lake District) on a dawdling and rickety regional train that connected us from Parikkala to Savonlinna Kauppatori, I reckoned it must and would be a place where room for regret is not permitted.

The womens’ impromptu singing suddenly took a turn for the folksy (at least I think it was!), and then Olavinlinna Castle moved into view. Choric exclamations followed, and one woman in particular sang something that did appear to be a folk tune of Olavinlinna, about its history and its legends. Stuck in a country with an alien, tongue-rolling language stemming from Finno-Ugric roots, so far away from home, and having spent 5 hours in a train getting stared at by several Nordic blondes, it took little to believe that magic, lore and myth swirled comfortably within Olavinlinna’s rotund towers.

“English?” Asked the woman at the ticketing counter briskly.

“Er..yes…”

“Your tour starts at 12 p.m. Be there,” she pointed to vaguely to a small space where a few visitors milled about with an uncertainty on their faces that must have mirrored mine.

There was…a tour?

I was late for the one-hour tour, after deciding to poke around the walls a bit on my own in true traveller fashion for about the 10 next minutes, rushing in the end to join a group of people who appeared to be speaking English, only to hear the tail end of a legend narrated by a guide. Damn, I thought, as I attempted to glide into the group as naturally as I could only to find them disbanding as soon as I had joined. I promptly realised that I had joined the wrong tour and had in fact been listening to the ending commentary of a tour that had just finished. And so the struggle began again, to find the correct tour group within the castle’s winding walls.

I did of course, eventually, get to hear this story: A daughter of the then-Swedish (when Finland belonged to Sweden and was at loggerheads with Russia) landlord fell in love with a Russian officer and at the height of their forbidden trysts, she decided to open the main gate of the castle one night, only to find the entire Russian troops gleefully awaiting. The angry Swedish Lord, who was still unaware his daughter had opened the gates, ordered the culprit to be bricked into the castle wall alive. And so she was (in whatever manner best left to fertile imaginations) – with no concessions made.

It does seem indeed that the ill-fated Romeo-Juliet theme exists in all countries, in some form or another.

“It’s probably true,” an Australian tourist cut in my idle musings, commenting emphatically in a loud voice to his indifferent travelling companion. “Easy to believe.”

Not two steps away, another Australian tourist busied himself by taking snaps of every possible angle of the castle with his girlfriend posing as provocatively as possible in every shot, dressed in a dress that was suspiciously tailored to look as if she wore only the Finnish flag.

Olavinlinna is one of the reasons why people come to the Savonlinna region, and its medieval walls that date from 1475 do not disappoint. Depending on various wars and the corresponding treaties signed through the years, the political tussles had created the volatile, shifting international borders, which meant that Olavinlinna had indeed bounced between Russian and Swedish hands.

I wonder if each change brought in a fresh supply of women, soldiers, beer and a lot of wenching. The guide had after all mentioned that along with roasted game animals, each man got 5 litres of beer daily during weekdays, and seven litres during the weekends on top of strong spirits.

The alcoholic tradition of the Finns, Russians and Swedes, as I established mentally from then onwards, ran deep.

Today, Olavinlinna’s main courtyard houses the Savonlinna Opera Festival under a giant awning, and while I was there, preparations for the July Festival were well underway. I peeked into the stage area where the logistics crew were setting up the necessary structures and received a few scowls in return. The guide sheepishly admitted that the logistics crew did not like tourists milling around the stage area, immediately explaining that rehearsals were due to start in a couple of days. The acoustics, so they say, are excellent.

It is only during July that Savonlinna does adorn herself carefully with banners and flyers, and with her roads swelling with the fat of incoming festival-bound cars does she awaken from her yearlong hibernation. But her natural beauty is nonetheless obvious minus the unnecessary adornment and the bustle of the July crowd.

Bridge to Hostel copy

Savonlinna - Vierasvenesatama copy

Bridges and clumps of little islands dot what would otherwise be a continent of water, and most obviously, therein lies the main attraction. Becoming a total recluse is entirely possible in these regions where summer holiday cottages that face the lakes are out for rent.

Sulosaari copy

Wow-moments and gawking-at-nature periods are not uncommon for a person like me who’s from a country where fresh water is scarce. It seems as if the way of life in summer is to relax amidst the buzz of mosquitoes, in the strong summer sun, on any of the abundant rock outcroppings of the tiny saaris (“Islands” in Finnish) with a picnic mat and basket. Shirtless, if you prefer, to get a more even tan. But if you are a Finn (or Russian or Swede), it seems wiser to bring a bottle of alcohol along for good measure.

Most commonly, tourists take a cruise that wildly vary from 1-hour tours around Savonlinna to a few days stay, on board to the nearby town of Punkaharju. But before that, they customarily gather around the Kauppatori (the market square) where a bazaar takes place daily, with the usual hawking of breakfast pastries, tacky souvenirs and tourist t-shirts.

I bought my father one that read ‘Wrong Medicine’, and another for my sister that read ‘Brainwashed’. Don’t you just love the Finnish sensibility?

But some things don’t change, which might be either an annoyance or a comfort when you are far from home. Fast food restaurants have planted themselves unashamedly at the lakefront, but instead of McDonalds, there is instead Hesburger – the Finnish equivalent of it at least – with a menu that is naturally, English-unfriendly such that ordering food is reduced to wordless gestures and exhaustive smiles and nods of understanding when the man at the counter finally serves the correct order.

Yet in a place where wilderness abounds and nature is the big brother, the shops, restaurants, railway/bus stations, trigger-happy tourists and supermarkets do seem to mar the tranquil beauty. On the downside, other than having fish as the main diet, near-paralytic drunk males (and broken liquor bottles that freely litter the streets) are not that uncommon.

It was hard to say goodbye to a landscape that I could so easily get used to – before long, the 3 days in Savonlinna were up, and I found myself lugging the cumbersome backpack to a bus stop with no idea if a bus would indeed come. But it eventually did, and the winding route it took through the lakes, islands and resort could not have given a fonder farewell to Lakeland.