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Etxe (ech-ay) curates experiences that enlighten the soul and deepen human connection. This blog shares our adventures, focused on place, culture, community and creativity. 

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Sea Fortress Prison, Hipsterness and Freedom in Tallinn

Patarei - etxe There was a flyer left on the dining room table, where Mickey and Jättis would climb up on to push things aside and make room for their small warm bodies. They were rescued by a nearby shelter, a cat shelter, where my friend found them. I didn’t mind them on the table because I liked the company. And I kind of liked the scattered flyers they left behind. It made me feel more at home. Even though my home isn’t like that anymore.

most adorable kitty Tallinn

It was for a sea fortress, the flyer, named Patarei. In 1828 Nicholas I of Russia had the idea to build a structure that faced the sea. It was completed in 1840 and has had several different uses since then, including a prison run by the KGB from 1944-1991. It’s now called a 'cultural park' with a museum and a brochure.

I flipped through it while sipping my instant coffee, which for some reason always tastes better in Europe than in the US. It looked like a place I should check out. A place I might wander through. A place I could get lost in.

Patarei is built of concrete and brick. The building complex sits on the north coast of Estonia, on the edge of the so-called hipster zone of Tallinn.

It reminded me of Alcatraz, and is often referenced as an Alcatraz-like excursion as both used to be prisons and both sit at or on the sea. I’ve never been to Alcatraz, even though I lived in San Francisco for four years. I only wanted to go on the night tour, but I was always too scared so I just never went.

Patarei - place I could get lost

I came across Patarei on accident after walking through the Kalamaja neighborhood. I was nervous about being alone and talking pictures, so I just didn’t take any pictures of the gorgeous wooden houses with colors I’ve never seen before without the use of a filter or extra saturation. Those hues will only live in my memory.

I was scared because my friend told me yes, there was a neighborhood that’s not the greatest, and no, she doesn’t know what it is called, but it reminded her of how she felt when in Oakland. For some reason all those massive wooden houses with the people coming in and out and lingering and pushing strollers and idly chatting on their phones or parking their cars reminded me, kind of, of Oakland. So I assumed that was the neighborhood. (My friend later confirmed that was most definitely not the neighborhood. We probably have different ideas of how we feel when in Oakland).

Walking through Kalamaja, with my camera stuffed in my purse and the inaccurate assumption that it was not the greatest neighborhood, I became hyper aware. Why was I there? What was I doing walking through their neighborhood, peaking in their backyards, admiring the color of their wood? I started trying to imagine the interiors of all the buildings I walked past. Buildings that were homes. Homes that housed people that had lives. I thought they must create. They must create things and live slow lives. Then I realized that’s a stereotype. That’s probably not true. They probably just live normal fast lives and use the internet. It’s just another suburb in the world.

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Anyway, eventually I stumbled upon Patarei. There was some grass and a clearing and then this huge concrete structure that curved around in a U shape. There was an opening entrance and to the right some people walked in, then out, of what I assumed was a bicycle shop.

I walked through the opening entrance and a guy walked past me with a bicycle. I now don’t think it was a bicycle shop, but probably the entrance to the museum (where you are supposed to pay) which I just completely bypassed.

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Because I had already seen the photos of the inside of the old prison in the brochure, I wasn’t really anxious to walk through by myself, nor brush by the hanging station alone. Instead of looking for how to enter the interiors, I just went through the entrance that led to the center of the sea fortress, a wide area with overgrown grass. A place prisoners probably spent time in, or where they wished they were in when they were in their cells.

And then I walked. There was graffiti on some of the walls and wire strung about above. I imagined people would hang out their clothes there to dry. This was probably not the case, but who knows.

I was only inside for maybe a minute before I started panicking. The bicycle man had disappeared and I was completely alone. Even though it was a bright, sunny day, it felt erie. It felt like I was in the middle of an old prison.

I kept walking and finally got the courage to pull out my camera--there was no one around to rob me anyway. Immersed in the mechanical needs of picture-taking, I stopped being so paranoid. I casually followed the wide path until I saw a sign for a Kohvik, a cafe (in Estonian). I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, having just had long lazy lunch, but I figured I should follow the signs anyhow.

Patarei Kohvik Etxe

I turned around just to make sure I could return and realized just how alone I was. I was in the middle of a cultural destination in a country that most people could not locate on a map. Estonia isn’t exactly the kind of place you plan to go. But I had planned to go and there I was with no internet connect, a phone on airplane mode and the kind of anonymity celebrities probably dream about. That subtle combination of being alone, off-the-grid and open to anything is what I love most about travel. It’s a tiny bit dangerous, but as close to freedom as you can get.

And so I went around the corner and there was the Kohvik, the most adorable seaside bar-cafe I’ve ever seen. There’s this spot in Tomales bay where you can go shuck oysters. It’s always packed on nice days, but it’s cozy and cinematic and adventurous and classic and leisurely all at once. This Kohvik was like that, but better. It was like that part of a movie when the couple shows up and there’s this surprise party for them in a fantastic space. The kind of place I’d want to stage a destination wedding reception.

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Patarei Kohvik by the Sea

Patarei Tallinn view

There were only a few other people there. I hung around for a little bit and listened in on the conversation. One guy was telling another guy about his artwork. How he was working on a new piece, how it wasn’t for a show or anything but it was coming along. He hadn’t got a deadline, but he was gonna finish it anyway.

That conversation made me really happy. The knowledge that at any given point in time, someone somewhere is probably telling someone else about something they are creating. Without any real purpose, without any real deadline, but working at it nonetheless. And willing to maybe share it with the world, when it is ready.

And he wasn’t young. He was older. He wasn’t trying to brag or talk himself up, he was just telling his friend about his things in his life. And his friend didn’t put him on a pedestal or say how cool he was, he just listened and followed him off to the artist’s studio.

Patarei Kohvik Tallinn

Patarei Kohvik Tallinn cafe

Patarei Kohvik Tallinn cafe galerie

Patarei Kohvik Tallinn cafe

Eventually I left. I went to the Maritime museum.

On my walk back, I passed by Patarei. I walked by what I had thought was the bike shop. And there was that artist. He was sitting with a few of equally aged people who all had bikes.

I was too far away to eavesdrop, but it looked like they were having a good time.

It looked like they were living the slow life. Like they might be creating something. Like they were free.

Patarei Kohvik Tallinn Kalamaja

Kalamaja, Estonia