Tallinn and Riga: A Musical Journey through the Baltics
Words by Lawrence Lui
Last Spring, my travels took me to two off-beat cities on the shores of the Baltic Sea: Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. Picturesque and cosmopolitan, both places were wired to the gills, yet steeped in a sense of geopolitical history. Tech-savvy Estonians boast both Skype and avant-spiritual composer Arvo Part as their most famous exports. Riga was larger and grittier but no less dynamic and electric. I attended Tallinn Music Week, a bustling conference showcasing regional talent, and dived headlong into a whirlwind of music and food and general mucking about. Here are some of the highlights from the trip.
KGB Museum at Hotel Viru. Photo c/o visitestonia.com
A trip back in time, Tallinn Edition: Hotel Viru
One of the starkest reminders of Estonia’s difficult Soviet years can be found on the top floor of the Hotel Viru, where the KGB maintained a secret high security office from where they eavesdropped on state guests and planned their totalitarian activities during the 70s and 80s. State of the art for the time, the place has been preserved in a state of a hasty retreat as the cold war thawed and Estonia gained its independence. More info.
A trip back in time, Riga edition: Leningrad Bar
On a lighter note, this is your everyday Soviet kitsch bar, stocked with shelves of books and toys and knick knacks from a pre-Glasnost era that put my Latvian compatriots into paroxysms of nostalgia. Somehow it seemed wholly appropriate that we met a guy here who claimed to work for the US embassy and seemed to know everyone, but whom I was convinced was CIA. Yeah sure, economic development specialist. Nice cover story dude. More info.
Best LES dive in Riga: Aptieka
Ah, the comforts of home: it’s like they air-lifted a LES dive into the heart of old town, complete with a Velvet Underground stocked jukebox and slumming hipsters in dimly-lit corners. The owner also runs a bar in the states so it kind of makes sense. More info.
Best club night that doesn’t allow foreigners (unless you know somebody): Club Piens, Riga
This place was a bit of chameleon. We were there on a Monday evening to hear Austrian acoustic songsters Diver and the place was appropriately low key. We came back much later on a Wednesday and the place was hopping with glitterati, house DJ on the decks and face control at the door (thank goodness we knew people who knew people). All in all, a nightlife wonderland a bit off the beaten path, with outdoor and indoor areas, and just about the perfect size: cozy enough for hiding out but big enough to get lost in. More info.
Best afterparty place: I Love You Bar, Riga
We ambled here after a Zola Jesus show and dug the mellow vibe, with a convivial front bar and a back room with couches and tables suited for late night conversations with band folks and other nocturnal denizens. I ended up chatting with the editor of ‘the biggest gossip magazine in Estonia’ but alas, she was zipper-lipped about any juicy scoops. Adding to the friendly atmosphere, unassuming owners Bruno Roze and Dace Volfa also run the indie label I Love You Records, home of cool electro-popsters Zebra Island. More info.
Fazenda Bazars in Riga, Latvia. Photo c/o Europe Travel Challenge.
Best place to find shelter from the storm: Fazenda, Riga
The weather was weird when I was in Riga. Winter was taking its last stand as spring was just beginning to peek through the pavement cracks. So you could have a sunny day pivot into a blizzard in less time than it takes to think ‘maybe Chuck Taylors were not such a good idea’. Fazenda turned out to be an oasis in the eye of the storm. Quiet and cozy with a distressed elegance, it was a relaxing place to catch up on some email and conversation over a healthy bowl of pasta. More info.
Best elk soup served by period dress ‘wenches’: Ill Draakon, Tallinn
A hole-in-the-wall tavern nestled inside a Tallinn’s medieval town hall, Ill Draakon is good for an early evening pitstop to plot the night’s agenda. The vibe is kinda touristy due to the location, but the place was never too crowded and the food was so hearty and soul-warming, I came back for more the next day. The soups are great, but also try the meat and spinach pies for some pure comfort food, Estonian style. More info.
Best potato dumplings: Cafe EAT, Tallinn
No muss no fuss. Just great potato dumplings straight out of the pot served in a bright subterranean lunchroom. A backpacker favorite. More info.
Guiltiest Pleasure: Hesburger in Tallinn
Basically, this is the McDonald of the Baltics, but it’s open late and hits the spot after a long night of music. The burgers are fluffy over-sauced regret generators, but the fries are irresistibly greasy and addictive. More info.
Best cheap place to crash: Alur Hostel, Tallinn
Here’s the deal with hostels: get a private room. That way, you get best of both worlds: a lively atmosphere if you want it, and a door to shut when it’s time to get some shut eye. I lucked into this little gem in the heart of old town after a storm cancelled the ferry to Helsinki and I had to find accommodations for the night. Alur is clean and sleekly modern, and quieter than most hostels. If you squint hard and wear earplugs, it’s like staying in a boutique hotel for the price of a meal. More info.
Best Estonian electro-goth band: Several Symptoms
All distorted angst and floaty babydoll vocals, Several Symptoms’ music pressed a lot of the right buttons for me: early Wax Trax clangor (check), disaffected shoegazery (check) Suicide-like rhythmbox droning (check), bad-trip VHS visuals straight from the Ritz circa ‘87 (check) with a dash of hip witchhousery. Check them out on YouTube.
Best duo of death metal duos: Talbot & Neoanderthals
As a not-so-secret metal fan, I always try to nip away at these festivals to get my fix of doomy bottom end and screechy Chewbacca gutteralisms. Live, both Talbot and Neoanderthals deliver a righteous hair-throwing din with minimal means. Check out this short documentary on Neoanderthals and their endearing back-to-the-land lifestyle on YouTube.
Best band I didn’t see but I wish I did: Väljasõit rohelisse
After the conference, a fellow delegate turned me onto Väljasõit rohelisse, a mysterious and unpronounceable Estonian band whom I had somehow managed to miss between disco naps and sliding over cobblestones to the next gig. Their now sold-out vinyl EP is an incantory hash-take on the Gun Club refracted through the Sacred Bones catalogue. The track ‘Suitsuloor’ channels the Leather Nun cage-matching The Raveonettes with the reverb set to 11 and Nancy Sinatra running concessions.