Tallinn, land of startups and Skype, is making an epic transformation

I walk through the medieval gates, treading on narrow cobblestone lanes and arrive at a surreal scene out of a picture book: red roofs fighting for space, ornate weather vanes, a maze of turrets and spires, and the haze of the distant harbour. I am in Tallinn, Estonia, now firmly on the tourist map with more than 3 million people visiting Estonia every year. Pint sized Estonia was under foreign rule for centuries, first the Danes, then the Swedes, Germans and finally the Soviets. Tallinn used to be a member of the Hanseatic League (an association of trading cities which maintained a monopoly) at the end of the 13th century and today the colourful guild and merchant houses lining its streets have been converted into lovingly restored museums, hotels and embassies.

Our hotel The Three Sisters is an amalgamation of three 600 year atmospheric merchant houses, with wooden beams, restored frescoes and plush furnishings, converted into a contemporary boutique hotel. I walk around the Old Town, with its gabled houses, half hidden courtyards and grandiose churches inside the protective girdle of ancient defensive walls. Young Estonians in medieval costumes sell sugared almonds from wooden carts and incongruously text on their mobile phones. I travel through time at the candle- lit Olde Hansa medieval restaurant where waitresses in medieval costumes serve wild elk and boar, and minstrels play the tambour. I pop into the Old Town pharmacy that has been dispensing cures since 1422- among the exhibits in its museum are sun dried dog faeces and deer penis. I chance upon a Mc Donald’s, raucous sports bars and countless cafes near the Viru city gates and it’s this eclectic mix of new and old that enchants me.

Tallinn has been long known for its epic party scene and casinos- a kind of Las Vegas of the Baltics...but today its seems determined to shake off that image with new museums and gentrified localities fitting into its image as the European Capital of Culture 2011. To counter the economic downturn, the resilient Estonians have endured harsh austerity measures and bounced back. Since joining the Euro zone in 2011, the economy is booming- it is the only Euro zone country with a budget surplus. One of the most interesting counterpoints to the medieval atmosphere that Tallinn is steeped in is its tech savvy culture and reputation as the ‘land of start ups’. It has been rated as ‘one of the seven most intelligent cities in the world’. They say that you can establish a company in 15 minutes over the internet, in Estonia!

We have dinner with Lindsay Roberts at the hip tapas bar ‘Alter Ego’ in the Rotterman Quarter, an upmarket shopping and restaurant complex with some avant garde architecture. The Rotterman quarter gave a fresh lease of life to disused industrial warehouses, between the Old Town and the passenger port. Lindsay moved from Australia to work for the most famous local start-up- Skype which after changing hands a couple of times, was recently acquired by Microsoft at a whopping $8.5 billion... I am intrigued as to why Lindsay made this dramatic change to Estonia and he says that it was the opportunity to work for a dynamic company like Skype as well as the adventure of the unknown. In the next few days, the omnipresent motif is technology ...I find that Tallinn is one of the most wired places that I have been up to. Locals pay for parking by sending a SMS, more than 80% of the population files taxes online, 98% of the country’s bank transactions are done online and anywhere I go in parks, restaurants and even buses there is unlimited free wifi financed by the state.

I am impressed by the amazing ability of this town to constantly re-invent itself: old buildings morph into new attractions: I visit the newly furbished TV tower in Pirita which has re-opened after a whopping 6.6 million euro overhaul... it is the tallest building in Estonia now at 314 metres. I start with a hands-on overview of the history of Tallinn TV Tower- from its building for the 1980 Olympic Regatta to its unveiling in 2012. A high speed lift takes me in just 49 seconds to the 22nd floor. Technology is again at play here; from the interactive multimedia that allows you to gain knowledge about different facets of Estonia to the mushroom- like monitors .I learn about Estonia’s achievements ranging from high research work on the Baltic to the spy camera that made James Bond a legend. I am impressed by their initiative called ‘Let’s do it. World Clean up Movement’ which is a litter clean up initiative started in Estonia. More than 80 countries participated in this initiative in 2012. I gain a completely new perspective on Tallinn and its surrounding areas with the view from the 360* viewing platform. The multimedia screens enable me to both magnify the wondrous panoramas as well as see what the different areas looked like in different periods of history. Built- in glass panels on the floor give me a view of the ground below as if I were suspended in space...

I walk on the new ‘Culture kilometre’, a disused railway-turned-path that is 2.2 kilometres in length filled with derelict warehouses and factories, that will be converted into new avatars. I visit the swish Seaplane Harbour, a new maritime museum built out of a 1916 concrete hangar, in the upcoming artsy locality of Kalamaja, with its old wooden houses. The futuristic museum built on three different levels showcases equipment above, below and under the water. I watch adventurous adults and kids getting down into the bowels of a British made submarine, climbing a steep humpback bridge for a up- close look at a stunning replica of a seaplane, riding a flight simulator above a panorama of Tallinn, and having their photographs taken in naval uniforms. What I love is technology at play again: if I need more information about the exhibits, I simply have to scan my entrance card and fill in my details. The museum would e- mail the necessary details to me! I have my picture in naval uniform taken, and sure enough, it is sent to my email account.

On my last day in Tallinn, I walk past tumescent towers to the old Town Square all lit up, casting mysterious shadows on the sprawl of open air bars. I sip on a mulled wine and I realise that fairy tales never get old: they are re-invented and told with a modern twist...Tallinn is just that - a fairy tale re-told.....

Published in First Post, 2012