Saturday, April 30, 2016

Estonia Spring Break 2016: Day Five (2 of 2), featuring a bus ride to the 'burbs and two Old Town pubs.

(As is my custom when posting trip summaries, I'm backdating them to the actual day of occurrence. Previously: Day Five, 1 of 2)

Pulling ourselves away from the weirdness of Linnahall, it was well before lunch and we'd done enough walking, so we hopped a tram to a bus stop and rode #42 toward the southern and western outskirts of Tallinn, through Nõmme (Estonian for "heath") and Mustamäe to the end of the line at Haabersti.

Perhaps because Nõmme is the ritziest borough in Tallinn, it boasts an excellent open air market with kiosks for year-round sales.

Nõmme also is known as the "forest town," sits at a high point of elevation, and thus overlooks the western districts of Tallinn. Many people live in these areas, residing in vast housing estates of variable quality erected during the Soviet period. In effect, neighborhoods like Mustamäe and Haabersti are the places for affordable housing in Tallinn. Google street views provide a glimpse.

I'm seldom in the habit of defending the development strategies of the Soviet bloc, but I will say this. As bleak as these blocks might appear to us, at least they were built to be serviced by public transportation, and equipped with retail and shopping options, often within walking distance of one's flat.

Granted, none of it was "free" market in orientation (although it is now), and the shops might have been empty in the bad old days. Still, it might help to take a balanced view.

At this point in our day, it still wasn't 2:00 p.m. We circled back to the center on another bus, and walked into the Old Town to find the Hell Hunt, which bills itself as "The First Estonian Pub," founded in 1993.

It's a first-rate watering hole, with house "label" beers of its own (I had pints of ale and dark lager), solid pub grub (fried Russian dumplings with sour cream), and an NBA playoff repeat (Charlotte and Miami) on the biggest screen.

With tiring feet inexorably guiding us in the direction of the southern gates, a familiar site came into view below the Toompea ridgeline.

The hanging barrel marks the location of Põrgu Brasserie, where we'd snacked and imbibed the previous evening. Back for some more? Of course.

The pork ribs are Diana's, and the delicate anchovy sandwiches are mine. My two Estonian-brewed ales were Saaremaa Koduolu, a farmhouse-style Saison from the Taako Pihtla brewery, and Sori "Winter Gorilla" Baltic Porter.

A nightcap at the hotel's subterranean Bavarian cellar was followed by an early bedtime. We had a boat to catch first thing Sunday morning.

Next: Sunday (Day Six), and a sea voyage to Helsinki for a big surprise. 

Estonia Spring Break 2016: Day Five (1 of 2) ... a fish market and the exceedingly bizarre Linnahall.

(As is my custom when posting trip summaries, I'm backdating them to the actual day of occurrence. Previously: Day Four)

Saturday, April 30 was such a sensory overload that I've split the narrative into two halves.

A beautiful spring day began with the olfactory enrichment of Tallinn's fish market, located astride a small harbor on the north side of the Old Town.

Around the corner is the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia. We were too early, and it wasn't yet open.

Next to the museum is the Linnahall, which for me quickly became the latest in a long series of "dilapidated buildings Roger quickly becomes obsessed with during a foreign trip."

It was made worse by having no ready source of information to answer the pertinent question: "What the hell is/was this thing?"

A dizzying YouTube video provides aerial views of the Linnahall and vicinity.

We clambered all over the massive cement pile, which has been likened to a quasi-Mayan monument rising from the Tallinn docklands and is being used only in tiny bits and pieces -- a disheveled nightclub and helipad on the Baltic side, and an automotive repair shop tucked into one corner.

First, the scattershot photos -- then an explanation, with links for further exploration.

Lonely Planet offers an overview.

Built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and originally christened the Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport, Linnahall contains a vast concert arena within its crumbling, much-graffitied concrete hulk. It’s fair to say that the city doesn’t know quite what to do with it. The temple-like structure has heritage protection but it has decayed considerably since closing its doors in 2009 and it acts as a colossal barricade, cutting off the Old Town from the harbour. Recently there's been talk of converting Linnahall into a conference centre. In the meantime, baffled tourists continue to wander its rooftop walkways and take endless photos to show their friends back home their brush with post-Soviet decay.

The previously mentioned yachting center in Pirita also was part of this construction program for the 1980 Olympiad, when Estonia still firmly was absorbed within the leaden Soviet orbit.

The massive, 5,000 seat amphitheater was commissioned by the Soviet Union to show the world their mastery over concrete-pouring. While the squat cement building certainly showed the world that such a feat was possible, Estonia could not fill the thousands of seats after the Olympic crowds returned home -- Atlas Obscura

The ongoing decay makes it hard to see that there actually was a sensible architectural rationale for the Linnahall.

Linnahall is a symetrical monumental slab concrete structure which looks like a pointer from the city to sea. It is designed in a way that the building top which has a very low elevation for an entertainment venue is accessible from the exterior through several staircases. The architect wanted to create a link between the city and the sea without obstructing the view on the silhouette of the medieval old town.

With no better idea how to proceed, the Linnahall has become a "failed architecture" seminar in itself.

Fading appreciation, changing values and demands, associations with troubled pasts, structural decay, rampant property development and other trends can lead to the abandonment, neglect and disappearance of architectural legacy, even that of an entire era. Such was the starting point of the 2012 Estonian contribution to the Venice Architectural Biennale, asking the question ‘How Long is the Life of a Building?’

But crazily, in spite of the exterior's neglect, this photo from the preceding article shows a pristine interior no longer accessible to the public.

Next: It's still Saturday (Day Five) and we're ready for a bus ride and some beers.

Old Albania, 1994: Beer in the Land of the Eagle (Part 3 of 3).

Part 3 of 3.

Back in the Brewing Business in Tirana.

In contrast to the brewery at Korça, the plant dating from 1952 in Albania's capital city of Tirana is a utilitarian, white-tiled facility resembling a dairy more than a brewery. It was built with Soviet assistance, and looks it.

Our ride from the port city of Durres to the brewery in Tirana took us past rustic villages, abandoned and dilapidated concrete irrigation channels, wandering herds of livestock, Albania's sparkling new Coca-Cola bottling plant, row after row of shabby socialist tenements, and finally a vast lot where the burned-out remains of the city's Communist-era bus fleet reposed in blackened, skeletal lines.

At the time of our visit, the Tirana brewery hadn't yet been privatized, but it was working again. Typically, upon arriving at the gate we encountered reluctance at letting us enter. Eventually a wiry, chain-smoking worker with an impressive five o'clock shadow and darting, nervous eyes took an interest in us and went off in search of the plant director, who couldn't be found -- but by that time we were in, our guide Genci having persuaded someone to make a decision and let the foreigners come inside out of the blazing, midday sun.

Minutes later, we met the "lost" director in the hall, and he hastily grunted retroactive permission to enter, no doubt thanking his lucky stars that he no longer lived in a nation where such negligence might be rewarded with a trip to the eastern Albanian ore mines or the dungeon-like prisons of the citadel in Gjirokastra with its handy rooftop garden once used by firing squads, but now serving as a convenient point from which to survey the ancient hilltop town and surrounding mountains.

We were met by a diminutive, white-coated brewmaster who happily led us around the spartan, functional plant and answered questions through our interpreter. Like the older brewery in Korça, Tirana's brewery had ceased to function for quite some time. According to the employees, it closed because the former brewery bureaucrat had been paid off by entrepreneurs who were engaged in importing Macedonian Skopsko Pivo, and who were intent on eliminating the local competition.

Only one beer, a Czech-style pilsner, was being brewed at the time of our visit. Hops are purchased from Germany and barley from Italy. Yeast bought in Italy is being cultured in a so-called laboratory; some was foaming merrily in a kitchen-sink sized steel receptacle.

After 5 to 7 days of primary fermentation, the beer is pumped into the secondary tanks in the basement for 21 days of lagering at near-freezing temperatures. As we enjoyed the contrast in temperature between the frigid lagering cellar and the sunbaked streets outside, the brewmaster's assistant tapped off some two-week old, unfiltered "Tirana's Best" and proudly offered glasses to each of us. It was surprisingly tasty, and it was better than most of the Italian imports on sale in Albania.

Later, we sampled the filtered, bottled, final 11-degree product and noticed the lack of labels -- they haven't quite gotten to that yet, but they hope to soon. Appropriately, the beer is priced to sell below the lowest-priced imports; this is a sound strategy in a country as poor as Albania. On both sampling occasions, first in the cellar and then at the bottling line, we were joined in our tasting by the wiry, chain-smoking employee from the guard shack, who had accompanied us the entire route through the brewery.

As we surveyed the women from the bottling line, who were taking a break as the line was repaired, I spotted our guide discretely posted behind a machine, taking a final, furious drag on his smoke as he removed the cap from an unguarded bottle and drained most of it in one swallow. In my view, it was his well-deserved reward for being responsive to the visitors, and I thanked him for it.

Plenty of Beer to Wash Down Your Qofte.

With only one brewery operational, and another fighting to revive, the thirst for beer in Albania must be met from elsewhere.

Albania's economy now is entirely open, and the entrepreneurial spirit seems to have taken root with a vengeance. Numerous small restaurants and bars are in operation, and street stalls and kiosks -- some no more than tables set up around the perimeters of dusty squares and thoroughfares -- vend all necessary consumer goods. Much of the import-export trade centers on cash-and-carry middlemen who have purchased used trucks from Germany and Italy, and who make buying trips abroad and purchase whatever is for sale and can in turn be resold in Albania.

In short, Albania still is in the transitional economic phase known as Big Lots Capitalism.

Although this wide-open business climate is bringing plenty of beer into Albania, the country is no Germany when it comes to beer. At least tolerable foreign brands are available, most commonly Amstel and Kronenbourg (both brewed under license in neighboring Greece) and a number of Italian brands, which attests to the status of Italy as prime investor in Albania at this time.

Some of the Italian brands aren't bad: Dreher, Splugen Oro and Moretti, all spritzy, mild lagers, do a fine job of taking the edge off the Albanian heat if served cool. All these imports are available at reasonable prices that range from 50 cents to a dollar, depending on the venue, but they are numbingly similar in terms of flavor.

It should be noted that the Albanians themselves don't seem to care, and we can only speculate as to the availability of beer during Communist times. Our guides said that beer from Tirana and Korça was generally available in the old days, and reminded us that the traditional beverages of choice in the country are wine and raki (brandy in various forms), as well as non-alcoholic beverages like coffee and tea -- legacies of the Turkish presence over five centuries.

However, surprises lurk in the chaotic, nebulous Albanian beer market. We found a small, modern street side bar in Tirana that boasted Hacker-Pschorr (Helles) on draft and Pschorr-brau Hefe-Weisse in cooled bottles.

Genci and Agim weren't as taken with the Bavarian wheat beers as we were. The future of this particular establishment is somewhat in doubt, as it has changed hands once or twice since being opened (I think it is currently owned by an Italian tour company).

A Clean, Well Lighted Place.

Pending the completion of an Austrian-built hotel complex adjacent to the former Hoxha mausoleum, one of the most modern, well-appointed bars in Tirana is the Piano Bar, owned by two brothers who amassed capital while working in Germany and who developed a taste for German beers while in the process. The bar serves little food other than sandwiches, and it is being expanded to include a stage for live presentations and an underground keller where the stone walls and wooden beams were being cleaned and readied on the day of our visit. Of all the privately owned bars that we visited, the Piano Bar was the best and probably the beer-friendliest.

The Piano Bar sells a Greek-brewed, Henninger-licensed export contrivance known as Golden Lager, which turned out to be a solid, Helles-like lager. The owners are eager to begin selling Pilsner Urquell on draft as soon as they can purchase the necessary tapping equipment and find a way to ensure an uninterrupted supply. Also available are a half dozen bottled beers, including (drum roll, please) Rolling Rock.

Why? Because both Rolling Rock and Italy's Moretti are subsidiaries of Labatt's, and Moretti can be found throughout Albania.

In any case, Latrobe, Pennsylvania met Tirana, Albania on the last day of our visit when we bought a round of Rolling Rocks at the Piano Bar for Agim, Genci and Nico, the latter our affable driver who pronounced it wonderful as the others looked on with a great deal of skepticism.

It was too mild for them, and also for me, yet it was fun to watch their reactions as we drank the only American beer to be found in Albania -- at least until Anheuser-Busch or Miller rewards the Korça consortium with vast profits for their reconstruction efforts and begins churning out Black Elk Mountain Light in aluminum cans.

It took nine years, but I was able to locate and taste Albanian beer. Now I need a new obsession.

Are there hamburgers in North Korea?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Estonia Spring Break 2016: Day Four ... the old and the new; the beach and the beer.

(As is my custom when posting trip summaries, I'm backdating them to the actual day of occurrence. Previously: Day Three)


We were reminded that Tallinn is situated well to the north. During our stay in late April, the sun was up at 4:00 a.m. and stayed in the sky until well past 9 p.m. Advance weather forecasts were wet, leading us to pack for the upper 40s F. as a daytime high, with plenty of rain.

But apart from Thursday, when it was overcast, all of our days in Tallinn were sunny, with temperatures twice approaching 60 F. The one time it rained was at night. It's nice to catch a (weather) break every now and then.

Following Thursday's 12-mile hike, it was decided to invest in a public transportation pass, good for five days of unlimited travel on trams and buses for 10 Euros per person (circa $11.50). At the R Kiosk, payment information was loaded onto a debit card, to be scanned when stepping onto the ride.

As a side note, residents of Tallinn ride for free. There also is nationwide WiFi.

Our first destination was the beach in the Pirita district, to the east of center. For the sake of sightseeing, we remained on bus 34A as it looped through this more sparsely populated area, where there are many single family dwellings and vacation houses. There also is a yachting complex built by the Soviets for the 1980 Olympics (more on this later), as well as a huge "forest cemetery" dating from the 1930s, with as many trees as grave markers.

When the bus headed back in the direction of the city, we debarked at Pirita Beach.

The Rotermann Quarter is tucked into a nook adjacent to Tallinn's Old Town, cruise ship docks and glass 'n' steel commercial district. It's an old factory building and salt storage warehouse that has been converted into a museum, apartments, offices and a small inner square, with the expected food, drink and shopping amenities. Think of it as a place where Tallinn's youthful "Euro Class" can go to escape the tourists, who seldom venture past the Old Town's walls.

It was time for lunch, to be introduced with an old Soviet Bloc anecdote.

In Warsaw after WWII, the Soviets fraternally "gifted" the Poles with a tremendously ugly Stalinist skyscraper called the Palace of Culture. In the years that followed, the local joke held that the best view of Warsaw was from the Palace of Culture, precisely because it was the only view of Warsaw that didn't include the Palace of Culture.

However, I honestly find Tallinn's modern buildings to be architecturally stimulating, and not at all unappealing. The overall vibe in downtown is one of movement, and whatever one's taste in decor, it's there somewhere.

The tall building in this Google street view is the Radisson Hotel, and at the very top of it is Lounge 24. We dined there, on the 24th floor.

The nibbles and drinks were both good and reasonably priced, and the view simply without compare in Tallinn.

Have I mentioned my latent fear of heights? I managed to keep it at bay.

Lunch was followed by a stroll through the older neighborhood just to the south of Hotell St. Barbara, with a serendipitous discovery of the American embassy and yet another thrift store. Early evening snacks and beers came at the excellent specialty beer cellar called Põrgu, in the Old Town in the shadow of Toompea.

Diana had pear cider and a plate of delicious pork ribs. I chose salted herring salad, including beets, potatoes and capers. accompanied by Õllenaut Suitsu (Smoked) Porter. A bit later, a bottle of Põhjala Pime Öö (Dark Night) functioned as dessert, and it was one of the better Imperial Stouts I've experienced lately.

A final note: When the elevator at your hotel offers direct access to a suitably appointed Bavarian-style eatery in the building's basement, nightcaps are obligatory. It may have been Estonia, and Estonia's craft beer scene may be ascendant, but with crisp, fresh Paulaner (Helles, Oktoberfest, Hefeweizen and Salvator) on tap, the Baieri Kelder makes it hard to say no. 

Next: Saturday (Day Five), featuring a panoply of old Soviet things and a glimpse of the NBA playoffs.