MUSIC, SHOPPING, CLUBS AND BEER THRIVE IN CAPITAL'S OLD TOWN
TALLINN - On the steps of Alexandr Nevsky cathedral, a half-dozen old women begged for money, their creased faces framed by flowered head scarves. They stood quietly, stooped shoulder to stooped shoulder, their eyes beseeching tourists to drop coins in their little brass cups.
A few blocks and a world away, a marching band blared out tunes in Tallinn's cobbled central square, Raekoja Plats, parading in front of its 600-year-old town hall. Scandinavian tourists lounged in outdoor cafes, knocking back beers or shopped in trendy boutiques to the thump of techno music.
Tallinn, the capital of the Baltic nation of Estonia, has one of the best-preserved medieval town centers in Northern Europe. Its Old Town is a historic enclave of cobbled streets, centuries-old steep-roofed buildings and slender steeples.
Yet Estonia is firmly planted in 21st-century Western Europe. Freed from 50 years of harsh Soviet rule after communism crumbled, Estonia became an independent country in 1991. Its economy has boomed, and it joined the European Union in May.
The Soviet past lingers, however. Dreary Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings pockmark Tallinn's outskirts. A third of Estonia's 1.5 million people are ethnic Russians, and there's festering resentment against them, with battles over language and citizenship rights.
For visitors, a trip to Tallinn is a chance to see a society in transition, from Soviet bloc to capitalist West, amid postcard-perfect medieval architecture. The port city of a half-million people is an easy side trip from Scandinavia and from the Finnish capital Helsinki, which is just a two-hour hydrofoil ride away.
I joined cheerful crowds strolling through Tallinn's Old Town on a July day. Swedes and Finns swarm here, especially in summer when the sun hardly sets, for the shopping, cutting-edge nightclubs and liquor that's far cheaper than in their heavily taxed homelands. Cruise ships on Northern European routes also regularly call at Tallinn, disgorging a polyglot of nationalities, including an increasing number of Americans.
I could have speed-walked across Tallinn's historic heart in a half-hour. Instead, I spent a day contentedly walking the narrow streets and people-watching at outdoor cafes.
Tallinn's Old Town has two sections, Upper Town and Lower Town, which are joined by steep streets and even steeper stone staircases.
Upper Town is where the aristocrats and bishops lived for centuries on Toompea hill, an outcropping several hundred feet tall. They looked down, figuratively and literally, on the tradesmen and commoners of Lower Town.
Nowadays, the genteel and peaceful Upper Town is home to Estonia's parliament (housed in Toompea Castle, bits of which date back 800 years) ; embassies ; apartments of the newly rich ; the main Lutheran church and the onion-domed and gilded Russian Orthodox cathedral, Alexandr Nevsky, where the old women begged, a discordant note amid the tidy wealth.
Peaceful cobbled streets wind among Upper Town's stately stone buildings. Many buildings have been restored in the surge of investment and energy that has swept through Estonia since independence. But some remain rundown and empty, forlorn testimony to ownership battles that followed the property grabs of the Soviet and German occupations, the most recent of the waves of conquerors who for centuries have plundered across the Baltics.
I followed a winding street until it dead-ended at a little grass-and-bench viewpoint on the hill's edge. Lower Town, a dense cluster of red-tiled roofs punctuated by slender steeples, spread out below.
A half-block-long stairway led down to Lower Town. A street musician sat on a stair, hunched over his guitar and quietly playing ``Stairway to Heaven,'' the Led Zeppelin rock song.
Lively Lower Town
Lower Town is as historic as Upper Town -- and a lot livelier.
Giggling teenage girls, with long blond braids and short plaid skirts, strolled in the shadow of the 600-year-old town hall on Raekoja Plats, the main town square, carrying trays of glistening, plump strawberries to sell to tourists.
The girls skittered out of the way of the marching band, almost 100 strong, that put on a noontime show, trumpets and trombones blaring.
Nearby Viru Street, where clothes, electronics and liquor shops fill the lower floors of steep-roofed, pastel-painted buildings, was packed with shoppers and strollers. A McDonald's across the street from an ancient town gate lured the local teens.
Can't face the golden arches for lunch ? Old Town's traditional restaurants are tucked into heavy-beamed, centuries-old buildings; in summer tables spill onto the sidewalks. They dish up typical Estonian fare -- pork and game, bread and beer -- as well as pizza and sandwiches.
A few restaurants have crossed the line into tourist kitsch, with waiters in medieval-style homespun robes prancing around with wood platters. Happy groups of Swedes hammed it up with the waiters and called for more Saku, a tasty local beer.
Tallinn isn't just beer, shopping and medieval scenery. Small museums dot the city, from art to Estonian history collections, and there's music everywhere.
In the 19th century, singing became the way for the much-oppressed Estonians to express their nationalistic yearnings. Music endures in Tallinn, from brass bands and street musicians to many choirs and a huge Song Festival every five years.
In the cloister of a medieval Dominican monastery in Old Town, I listened to Estonians sing. Two women and a man stood in a grassy courtyard, singing Shakespeare-era madrigals in clear, lilting voices.
In between songs they explained each piece's background, in English, German and French for a few tourists who had wandered in. Then, done with their small-scale concert, they changed out of their choir robes into jeans and mingled with the little crowd. Like their country, these singers shifted between many worlds.