Tales of Tallinn

By Kate Docking, University of Kent, Chase Student Committee Secretary and Kent Representative

Out of the three Baltic capitals – Vilnius in Lithuania, Tallinn in Estonia, and Riga in Latvia – it is Tallinn that captivated me the most. Don’t get me wrong, I love every Baltic city: I had a really special evening celebrating Latvian Independence Day in Riga in 2017, and a wonderful time spent enjoying snowy Vilnius in 2018. But Tallinn has a special place in my heart. The place looks like something straight out of a fairy tale, with its cobbled medieval streets, old city walls, and stunning architecture. It was quite unlike anywhere I’d been to before (and this is coming from someone who has lived in medieval Canterbury for almost five years of my life). In this post, I’ll talk a bit about what my sister and I got up to on our first day in this breathtakingly beautiful city.

Tallinn City Walls

We started by climbing the Town Hall Tower, which is the main tower in the Old Town. It only cost 3 euros to climb, and 115 steps later we were at the top, standing nervously on a somewhat precarious platform with room for approx. 2 people at once, with an amazing – if somewhat dizzying – view of the square and the streets of Old Town before us. Descending the hazardous, narrow steps on the way back down was an experience, but well worth it for the excellent panorama at the top. Next on our list was the free walking tour of the Old Town. I try to do one of these tours in every city I visit, as it’s a great way of getting acclimatised with the place. We learnt a lot about the history of Tallinn on this tour in a friendly, accessible way with many witty anecdotes provided by the extremely knowledgeable and hardworking guides.

When the tour finished, it was about lunchtime, so we made our way to Lido. This chain of canteen-style restaurants – there are some in Latvia, Riga, and more in Estonia – serves delicious and hearty traditional dishes for a cheap price. After lunch, we walked through the Old Town up to Tompea Hill. This viewing platform offers incredible views of Tallinn and its surroundings, that is, if you can manage to get a place amid the throngs of selfie-stick wielding tourists. We then decided it was time for a beer, so headed to Beer House, a beer hall-style place off the main square in the Old Town. In spite of its inflated prices (and the extremely rowdy stag do from Newcastle who were sitting on the table next to us), Beer House was a good place to sit and soak up the early evening sun. I was beginning to feel – dare I say it (as someone who pretty much never relaxes) – relaxed!

At the top of Tompea Hill

As the night fully descended upon us, more watering holes were frequented. We first went to Noku, an obscure bar where intellectuals met covertly during the socialist era, and the place retains a strong sense of secrecy. There’s no sign advertising the entrance, so you have to venture down Pikk 5, one of the streets off the Old Town, and look out for a nondescript blue and red door and people gathered outside. The place used to be a member’s only club, but there’s now a code to get in, which you can find quite easily by Googling (it changes regularly). This is one of the few places in Tallinn that we definitely didn’t feel like tourists in. You wouldn’t go here for an extensive drink selection, but you absolutely would go here for a buzzing, student-y atmosphere full of Tallinners.

The ‘secret’ Noku Bar

Anna and I then descended upon Ill Drakoon. This is a medieval themed tavern right off the main square, but ‘medieval themed’ taken to the maximum level: staff are all in character, notably the landlady, who plays a part of an angry innkeeper who is reluctant to feed thirsty and hungry travellers to Tallinn. This certainly led to some interesting interactions when ordering our drinks. Again, it wasn’t the cheapest place in Tallinn, but was (probably) worth it just for the atmosphere.

Enjoying ‘mead’ in Ill Drakoon (my nervous smile indicates that I’d just had a run in with the landlady who sternly reminded me not to take pictures with flash)

We then looked for a place for dinner, and settled on an Indian named Elevant, which was, from memory, delightful. One last stop of the night called before we retired to our accommodation (a lovely, and very cheap, Air B n B); we visited Labor, a bar that is entirely chemistry themed, with shots served in test tubes, drinks concocted according to meticulous chemical formulas (which I’m sure you’d especially appreciate if you knew anything about chemistry, which I don’t), and neon lights everywhere. As we walked back through the medieval streets and past the old city walls to our Air B n B, we both firmly decided that Tallinn was our favourite city in the Baltics.

Having a Hobby and Doing a PhD

by Matthew Jones, University of Sussex, CHASE Student Committee blog officer and Sussex representative  

A PhD can be an all-consuming thing. Indeed, relaxing while doing a PhD might be harder than doing the PhD itself. Often there is a nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that you probably should be reading that article about post-colonialism and the materiality of museum collections or writing that thing you promised to write for someone offhandedly in the faculty staffroom. The burden this can have on your mental and physical health can become great, however, this blog is not about doom and gloom. You can take time away from your PhD and build a healthy work/life balance in the process. Of course, there is not a one size fits all solution to this, but I have found that giving time to develop a hobby can be really great way to empty your mind of the anxieties of academia.

I do this by drawing. I have always been drawing since I was a kid conjuring up images of dragons and castles in school exercise books. I remember discovering out how perspective worked when I was in year 3 and becoming the talk of the playground as everyone wanted me to make their pictures look more realistic. This continued all the way through secondary and I took an A-Level in art at sixth form. I even thought about going to art school after my A-Levels but then I realised the life of a starving artist is not for me (so I did history because that makes you way more money).

My art developed through my undergraduate degree to where I focused on making portraits including in my final year where I made portraits of all my housemates and, rather narcissistically, we hung them in our kitchen, so we could stare out ourselves during predrinks. Unsurprisingly my passion for drawing did not abate when I moved to doing an MA in Art History. Now that I am doing a PhD I have come to see that as I have moved up the academic ladder I have become more and more passionate about my drawing. Maybe I use drawing as a way to hide from all my worries or as a genuine safe place where I can be myself, either way, it has become a daily thing that I do to take my mind off the ‘To Do List’ of PhD life that’s always lingering in my head.

Being at University has enabled me to do this. The Art Society at Sussex run a weekly life drawing session and Brighton is full of different galleries and art clubs running sessions on drawing as well as many other fun creative things. Taking a couple hours off on a Wednesday afternoon to go to a life drawing class is not going to harm your PhD. This applies to doing any hobby. Taking time to be yourself, indulge in what you like doing and to grow your sense of self is an actively good thing no matter what your hobby is.

Not to go all Gwyneth Paltrow but consciously uncoupling yourself from your research is not an act of academic self-sabotage. Many people feel like they must spend every waking moment doing activities related to their area of expertise but doing a hobby can actually make you better at working than hitting your head against wall all day because you are tired, and your morale is low. I feel like drawing has made me a better academic. It has taught me patience and the need to look more closely, and multiple times, at what I am drawing. It has taught me that making mistakes is ok as they can be erased and that if you keep working at it something beautiful can come of it.

Basically, as well as being a vehicle for self-promotion and showing off my drawings, I hope this blog has underlined the use and pleasure that can be gained from taking time off your PhD to do something else. It can be scary to do something that doesn’t seemingly contribute to your research, but it can be deeply rewarding, help you grow and can be just very relaxing!