an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

The Legend of the Kalamaja Flatfish


Sometimes I feel just like a flatfish must feel – hidden away in the sand at the bottom of the sea as I look out at the world from my Kalakorter (Fish Flat) in the quiet Tallinn neighborhood of Kalamaja (Fish House).

So maybe it’s just me, but Kalamaja looks exactly like a giant flatfish out of water. When I gaze out of my Kalakorter’s main window and see the top of St. Olaf’s steeple, it looks just like the tip of a tall fishing pole that once belonged to a giant named Suur Olev (Big Olev) who – according to another tale – built the church. Although Suur Olev managed to hook the Kalamaja Flatfish for his supper by using a ship’s anchor baited with a large loaf of black bread and then reeled it in towards Old Town, our brave flatfish fought back – twisting its head towards the open sea. But like so many authentic Estonian tales, this one does not have a happy ending: our Kalamaja Flatfish failed to escape its fate. Suur Olev clubbed it dead – and that is how our neighborhood of Kalamaja came to be.

If you don’t believe me, then why don’t you pull out a map – or, better yet, come and join me on an hour-and-a-half long walk so that we can trace the outlines of the Kalamaja Flatfish together. We should probably start our journey at the Linnahall Bus & Tram stop. First, because it is so easy to get to as all we have to do is step out of Tallinn’s Old Town through the Suur Rannavärav (the Great Coastal Gate) past Paks Margareeta (Fat Margaret Tower) and we’re there. And, second, because from the downtown side of the stop, we might just be able to make out the broken remains of Suur Olev’s monster club which he ironically named Linnahall (Town Hall). If we can’t see what’s left of his club, then let’s look for the giant tree trunk – the tall Korsten (Smoke Stack) of Kultuuri Katel (Culture Boiler) – that Suur Olev used to impale our fish’s head onto the shore to keep its death spasms from flopping our fish back into the water.  We’ll spot the giant stick behind a large yellow building. And so, let’s just walk to our right down Rannamägi (Coastal Hill) and then cross the busy street towards Linnahall and we’re in Kalamaja. Welcome to my neighborhood!

After we’ve had a good shiver at the terrible havoc wreaked by Linnahall, let’s make our escape westwards along the fish’s smashed head until we reach the crumbling remains of its mouth. Some of you may know the place as Kalasadam (Fish Harbor). From there, we should make our way out onto the fish’s uneven dorsal fin by walking along Kalarand (Fish Beach). We might even spot patches of sand among the rubble where Kalamaja’s human-sized fisherman once pulled in their boats. From the beach, we must pick our way past the badly healed wound known as Paterei (Battery) where the Kalamaja Flatfish was injured way back in the time of the Tsar when an old Russian fisherman went in search of another fish known as the Golden Fish. But that’s another tale.

The fish’s curved dorsal fin reaches its maximum extension at Lennusadam (Seaplane Harbor) – this particular wound seems to have been well healed. From there, we can then thread your way through the ongoing construction around Peetrisadam (Peter the Great’s Harbor), now re-branded with the 20th Century name of Port Noblessner (a mash-up of military shipbuilders Emmanuel Nobel and Gustav Lessner’s last names).  When we get to the point where we can’t go any further, we should see a fence in the distance protecting the Estonian Naval base at Miinisadam (Naval Mine Habor) which was built over the Kalamaja Flatfish’s tail – or caudal fin – and so is now off limits as a result. Sorry. But that might be just as well as Hundipea (Wolf’s Head Point) is still snapping at the carcass of our fish. I guess I forgot to mention that Suur Olev met his own unfortunate demise before he ever got a chance to grill his catch and so the remains of the Kalamaja Flatfish have been fused into the shore ever since.

Fortunately, the way back to the fish head will be a lot easier. Our walk to this point should have taken us something over half an hour depending on how fast we walked and how much we gawked. Our return journey, however, should take us less than half an hour. First, we will just go a little bit inland – let’s walk up Peetri (Peter’s Street) through the underpass and then up the stairs or ramp on the other side – and we will find ourselves on the well-maintained walking and biking trail which runs along Kalaranna (Fish Beach Street). We now have the chance to walk along the edge of the Kalamaja Flatfish’s body – or trace our fish’s “accessory dorsal branch of the lateral line” if we want to go all ichthyologist and switch to fish talk. Once we’ve made it back to the fish head – let’s enjoy the view from on high of the lovely Kalamaja Kalmistupark (Kalamaja Cemetery Park) along our way back – we should return to the Linnahall Bus & Tram stop. From there, I would suggest we take a bit of a break from walking and hop on a number one or two tram headed west towards Kopli (The Paddock).

On the tram – the ride should take us no more than seven or eight minutes, we will trace the other curve of the Kalamaja Flatfish. When we get to the Balti Jaam (Baltic Train Station) tram stop, we will have reached the end of the fish’s smashed head. And while Balti Jaam is outside the borders of our flatfish, there is a track running parallel to the main line which traces the outer border of our fish, encompassing Balti Jaama Turg (Baltic Train Station Market) and all the other buildings in the former storage depot that we’ll see on our left. From there, that same track defines the outline of the fish’s oversized pelvic fin known as Telliskivi Loomelinnak (The Brick Creative City) before another crossing track cuts the boundary line back towards the sea. But as we continue on our tram journey, we should see a row of buildings on our left that go up until the railway yard behind them (sometimes just visible over the fence) which make up the fish’s undersized anal fin. Let’s keep on the tram until we make our way to the end of the fin. We just need to make sure that we get off at the tram stop known as Kruuli (named for a former factory and its owner Franz Kruul) where we’ll find that we’ve been expelled into Karjamaa (The Pasture) along with the rest of the fish waste.

Fear not, the familiar body of the flatfish is not that far away – Kalamaja begins again as soon as we cross the curved railroad tracks arching northwards. So, let’s head back east from whence we came by walking along the sidewalk on the north end of Kopli Street and we’ll be able to trace the curved body of the fish all the way back to its head. Or, if we want to be a hardcore completists, we could rough it and go cross country along the curved railroad tracks headed northwards for about ten minutes to follow the fish’s caudal penducle (more fish talk) which connects its body to its tail. From there, it’s just a short walk to the Arsenal Center where we can catch a bus back downtown. The number 73 will take us along Kalaranna (or the proverbial “accessory dorsal branch of the lateral line”) while the number 3 will take us right across the middle of the flatfish by tracing its lateral line.

But if we happen to be more hungry than curious or just in a hurry at this point, then it’s only a nice fifteen-minute stroll back to Telliskivi or Balti Jaama Turg where we can go in search of the nearest good food – or catch a bus, tram, trolleybus, or train to wherever our final destination may be. Let’s just not forget to take in the great views of the towers and steeples running along the spine of the Toompea (Dome Head) Hedgehog which should be visible through the trees and buildings on our walk back towards town. But whatever we do, let’s be sure not to get hooked on the end of Suur Olev’s fishing pole or we may end up as another tale.


Thanks to Anatoli Ljutjuk for illustrating my tale! If you would like to own your own version of Anatoli’s Kalamaja Flatfish drawing, then you can buy one online from Labora or from their store on Vene 18. Just tell them that flatfish sent you.

And please don’t forget to check out the continuation of this tale at: The Legend of the Kalamaja Flatfish (Continued)

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