Estonia Spring Break 2016: Day Seven — odds, ends, kelders and kvass.


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

Everything we’d read about Estonia prior to arrival indicated that it has become one of the most pervasively “wired” countries in Europe. Estonians have an encrypted on-line passport; they vote and pay taxes on line, and the entire country is a WiFi hotspot.

Consequently, the Baylors being a cantankerous duo, we resolved to honor tradition and remain off the grid for the duration of our stay — no cell phones, laptops or e-mail checks. Photos would be taken the old-fashioned way, with a stand-alone camera. I left the hotel phone number with selected folks back home, and off we went.

Predictably, on Monday morning, this Luddite determination came back to spite us. Being so close to the airport, and with public transit passes still valid, it seemed to make perfect sense to check in there for Tuesday’s flight, physically and “in person” — except that even in Tallinn, which airBaltic (a Latvian carrier) classifies as a secondary hub, public terminals and available staff were of almost no help.

Finally we were told that in-person, physical Tallinn Airport check-in for airBaltic was theoretically possible, albeit it for a 30 Euro fee per person. Incredulous, we rode the bus back to the hotel and checked in quickly and easily via the hotel’s lobby laptop.

My consolation was this: While airBaltic might have been a bizarre experience, during Soviet times we’d have been dealing with Aeroflot, an experience likely to have pole-vaulted over merely weird, all the way to terrifying. Perspective matters.

The remainder of the day was spent in a sort of valedictory rambling, with periodic bouts of cafe hopping. The weather was perfect (again), and Tallinn’s core Old Town couldn’t be better for strolling. A highlight was the Estonian History Museum in the Great Guild Hall.

Monday had started in the Baieri Kelder, the Hotell St. Barbara’s Bavarian-style restaurant and taproom in the basement, which doubles as the (bountiful) buffet breakfast area. Both hotel and restaurant date from 1997, just after Estonian independence, and the Baieri Kelder is safely above average for a hotel restaurant and bar. Here are a few photos to illustrate the point.

The coffee machine is a commercial model very much like the “home” model we have in the kitchen.

As a final hotel note, one of the minor fascinations I’ve accrued from 30 years of European travel is the typical Central and Northern European window. It makes so much sense that I want to scream.

Basically, it’s an insulated window with a handle movable to three positions: Locked, opening outward (hinges on the side) and opening upward (hinges on the bottom). It’s entirely sensible, as well as potentially compatible with screens, although there were no screens in place at the St. Barbara.

Do we even have such options in America?

For our final meal in Tallinn, we opted for Kuldse Notsu Kõrts, or the Golden Piglet Inn. On the Old Town side of the underground pedestrian passage to Freedom Square, the skateboarders were coming together. Do architects realize what they’re building?

The Golden Piglet Inn is not the type of restaurant most amenable to those in the habit of counting calories.

Using recipes that have been passed down from our grandmothers and our grandmothers’ grandmothers, this authentic restaurant is popular with locals as well as tourists. All meals are prepared with fresh products from local farms, accompanied by a variety of Estonian drinks.

My bill of fare included sauerkraut soup, salted herring and two very regional drinks, mead (in this instance, a fermented combination of malt and honey) and kvass.

Kvass is a lightly fermented soft drink made from dark bread and yeast, with a myriad of other additional ingredients, as befits a product traditionally made at home. We think of kvass as Russian, though many Baltic and Eastern European countries have their own versions (in Estonian it’s called kali).

To create that tangy fermented flavor, kvas makers start with Russian brown bread. You soak it in water, and then add some yeast (other additions — raisins, honey, mint — vary from recipe to recipe). The whole mixture ferments for a few days, a process that creates a natural carbonation, as well as a distinctive sour flavor.

According to Russian writer Alexander Genis, that sourness is beloved in the region. “The sour is the taste of Russia — everything is supposed to be sour for Russian taste. Like sour cream, for example, or pickled cucumber. Cabbage, mushroom.”

Given that one of the glories of Estonia is its dense, moist black bread, kvass/kali is a natural. The commercial version available at Golden Piglet actually lacked the tang of what I remembered at a street stand in Moscow, circa 1999. It was sweeter, but no less delicious, and would be an apt thirst quencher in summertime.

With dusk making its long approach, there was a final glimpse of  Freedom Square.

Well, you simply don’t always see brick statuary like this.

At the Baieri Kelder, and an inevitable nightcap.

Mine was a straight and tasty golden lager from A. Le Coq — common, but still “the beer from here.”

The clock on the wall read: “Time for packing and some sleep before you fly home.”

Next: Tuesday (Day Eight), and the flight back to America.