here's an article I had published recently in the Sun-Herald travel magazine.
A tramspotter's playground
I’m standing on a street corner in Tallinn, Estonia waiting for the Number 2 tram to take me into the medieval old town perched on a hill overlooking the Baltic Sea. Beside me in the queue is an old woman, wearing a scarf and wheeling her shopping trolley like a threat. She holds a bouquet of flowers wrapped in black cellophane ‑ a celebration or a funeral?
The fire-engine red tram clangs down the street and I’m transported back to suburban Brisbane in the sixties, beside my mother, the smell of jacaranda and mango heavy in the air. Mum would hold my hand as we clambered aboard a dreadnought tram to the city. I prefered the old dreadnoughts to the sleek silver bullets and drop-centre carriages. What child doesn’t want to ride on a dreadnought?
Gallantly, I offer the Estonian woman my hand to board. She ignores me and trundles to the one remaining seat. I stand on the wooden floorboards, gripping tightly to the overhead strap and once again feel the sway and rattle of a child’s toy made large. I lean forward to see if the driver is wearing a peaked cap. I’m tempted to reach across and open the window, like my mother would on the Brisbane tram, to feel the exhilarating breeze of childhood. But it’s a cold April, with the wind whipping off the Baltic and people are dressed in overcoats and scarves.
Tallinn’s trams began as horse-drawn vehicles in 1888. Today, much of the rolling stock is new and sterile, but some relics remain from Soviet times, a tramspotter’s playground.
The old town can be easily walked in a morning, the three-metre thick citadel walls enclose a jumble of medieval buildings and cobblestone lanes. Locals sit at outdoor cafes, sipping kefir (a fermented milk drink) and hope the wavering sunlight will improve. In the park beside the domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a young woman offers me a bow and arrow. For small change, I can attempt to pierce the circular target five metres away. After failing dismally at my three attempts, I buy a packet of cinnamon-roasted almonds in consolation and watch teenage Robin Hoods hit the target with nonchalant precision.
My favourite building is St Olaf’s church, erected in the 12th century with the distinctive steeple added three centuries later making it, briefly, the tallest building in the world before it was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. Since that initial disaster, it has been completely rebuilt twice more and suffered repeated lightning strikes. The tower’s viewing platform offers panoramic views… or so I’m told.
Back to the trams. My wife and I take the Number 4 line to Pirita Beach and stroll along the deserted sand, watching the ferries departing for Helsinki and Stockholm. The Council has erected work-out equipment among the trees behind the beach where rotund men wheeze and drip Vodka sweat. We share apple cake and excellent coffee in a café beside the ruins of St Bridget’s church, ransacked by Ivan the Terrible in 1575, before hopping on the red rattler tram back to the city. My journey is complete when the driver announces the stop before our Bed & Breakfast – ‘kuus-klaa’ - that’s certainly not how it’s spelt, but the romance is in the extended whisper of the first syllable.
A more serious tramspotter town is Riga, Latvia. The network opened in 1882 and now extends to eleven routes with one hundred and twenty-three kilometres of track. When we arrive on a dark night threatening sleet, I tell my wife I plan to ride them all. She shudders. I imagine it’s because of the cold.
In the suburbs of Riga is Mezaparks, touted as Europe’s first garden city when conceived in the early twentieth century, now home to diplomats, bankers and our welcoming Bed and Breakfast. Extravagant villas slumber in the forest, guarded by alsatians and high fences. Our genial host offers guided walks throughout the area, touching briefly on the dark past of a German concentration camp. ‘In this forest, hidden away,’ she mutters. After the war, the Russians seized the villas and many families were forced to live together in each house. Maybe it was such cohabitation that helped the Popular Front, who used this suburb as a base in their struggle for Latvian independence in the eighties.
Mezaparks is also the starting point of the Number 11 tram, the prince of tram routes. The two-tone blue carriage begins its journey on a wide boulevard boarded with flower gardens, outdoor restaurants and children riding bicycles along forest paths. After a few kilometres it trundles beside the Bralu kapi (Brothers cemetery), resting place of the Latvian Riflemen, national heroes of the Great War, and the adjoining Meza kapi (Forest cemetery), where defiant Latvians laid flowers during Soviet occupation at the grave of their first President, Janis Cakste.
After the serenity of these well-tended shrines, comes the austere apartment blocks of suburban Riga where the architectural horrors of Soviet times is slowly crumbling. Washing hangs from windows, rusted pipes protrude and the advertisements on our tram selling sleek BMW’s seem to thumb their nose at yesterday’s poverty.
Before the tram crosses the River Daugava, we alight and wander the art nouveau extravagance of the area bordered by Alberta and Elizabetes streets. The Art Nouveau museum is entered through a dizzying confection of a staircase, worth the price of admission alone. The prominent nouveau architect, Konstantins Peksens, lived here until 1907, designing over two hundred of the surrounding buildings. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of the art nouveau bedpan in the child’s room.
Afterwards, we walk beside the Number Eleven tram for the rest of its route into the old town. At the Riflemen monument we debate, like much of Riga, whether the memorial glorifies the Latvian soldiers or reminds the citizens of recent Russian domination. The noble faces of the statue remain mute. They stare defiantly westward.
We stop for a lunch of borscht and potato pancakes, washed down with Hungarian wine, in a restaurant opposite the curiously named House of the Blackheads. In the afternoon, we wander cobbled streets across town to the neo-classical Central Markets, constructed by reusing the roofs of German zeppelin hangers in the 1920’s. Each building has stalls offering a smorgazboard of hard cheeses, sauerkraut and dried or fresh fish. I seek out a stall hawking black bread and buy a loaf. My wife raises an eyebrow. Before we board the Number 11 tram back to Mezaparks, I explain my mother occasionally bought a heavy loaf at the grocer near our tram stop. The name of the bread in faraway childhood Brisbane was… Riga black loaf.
Home at last.
Tallinn: Tram tickets can be bought from kiosks for .96 Euro ($1.30)
Riga: 24-hour tickets available from kiosks for 1.50 Lats ($2.80)
Finnair (in conjunction with Qantas) fly to Tallinn and Riga, via Singapore and Helsinki. (from $2700 return)
An overnight car ferry operates between Stockholm and Tallinn ($290 double, one way inc car)
Tallinn: Tihase B&B, Tihase St 6A, Tallinn - self-contained cottage available, $80 per night. Rooms $50 double.
Riga: Homestay Riga, Stockholmas St 1, Mezaparks. Double $100.