an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Riding Around on Tallinn’s Trams

 

There is something both relaxing and hypnotic about riding on a tram. Perhaps it’s the slight rocking motion which reminds you of being back in the womb before you had to face up to the realities of life. Perhaps it’s the gentle clackety-clack which sounds as if it could be the early percussive music of our ancestors. Perhaps it’s the slow passing of people and places which makes you believe that everything around you is in motion while you alone are sitting in place. Truth be told, I could ride Tallinn’s trams for hours without ever getting bored. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the very concept of riding a tram radiates a kind of Old World charm – especially if you can manage to avoid rush hour.

When I left Tallinn in 2008, I even bade farewell to Estonia from a tram – the so-called “Party Tram” which used to loop around all of city’s tram lines blaring music on its cracked speakers. I booked the tram not for its bar but for the fact that it would give me one last look at Tallinn while my friends could hop on and off at selected stops. Seems like the “Party Tram” went offline in 2014 as I haven’t seen it since. And maybe that’s a good thing ….

After all, taking the tram for me is about getting into a kind of meditative frame of mind more than anything else. And while I don’t enter any kind of “tram trance,” I do find that my thinking shifts from actively worrying about the problems of the day to letting my imagination take charge as I absorb everything passing around me.  Yes, there are the occasional interruptions such as loud and obnoxious drunks or even the occasional street preacher who explains in alternating bursts of Estonian and Russian how he found eternal salvation in Jesus Christ and how his fellow tram passengers might do the same. However, most of the interruptions I experience – especially when Tallinn’s weather gets too warm – are of the “olfactory” kind.

For some reason, my nose is overly sensitive to everything from an excess of perfume too liberally applied to the smells of those sadly unwashed, often heading to Balti Jaam (the Baltic Train Station) for another round of drinking with their buddies instead of to nearby Kalma Saun for a sauna and bath. When the smell gets too bad, I simply change seats – or get off the tram. On my last trip to Helsinki, I was pleased to see signs warning passengers not to share their personal odors with others around them. It seems, therefore, that I’m not the only one with a sensitive nose. Incidentally, I once spent an entire weekend riding all of Helsinki’s ten tram lines from one end to the other. And last year I was happy to see that Tallinn’s northern neighbor recently extended its tram tracks to include the new West Harbor ferry terminal.

While none of Tallinn’s four tram lines go to this city’s ferry terminal (plans for an extension are apparently being discussed), one of Tallinn’s tram lines now goes all the way to the airport. I was thrilled when I was finally able to go from plane to tram in just a short, easy walk. And, yes, I’ve also ridden all of Tallinn’s four tram lines from one end to the other – and more than just once.

One of the reasons I chose to live in Kalamaja is that I’m only minutes away from a nearby tram stop. Tallinn’s Tram No. 1 from Kopli will take me straight to Kadriorg where I once lived and where I still go to take the occasional walk in Kadriorg Park or to visit one of the wonderful museums there. KUMU Art Museum’s main building must be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world: it reminds you just how impressive good architecture can be. I’m also fond of little Peter the Great’s House Museum nearby.

However, I find that Tallinn’s Tram No. 2 from Kopli has many more everyday uses as it will take me to such different destinations as Stockman’s, the Central Bus Station, and the Central Market. Both Trams No. 1 and No. 2 – which follow the old track added back in World War I to bring workers out to the new military factories in Kopli and Kalamaja – will take me past the Ferry Terminal, Old Town, and Viru Center headed inbound or to Balti Jaam (the Baltic Train Station) and the Telliskivi Creative City headed outbound. From the central exchange of Hobujaama (Horse Station – Tallinn’s first trams set up 130 years ago in 1888 and were horse-drawn), I can catch the No. 3 tram which runs from Kadriorg to Tondi or the No. 4 tram which runs from Tondi to Tallinn Airport. Many of my friends celebrated the extension of the No. 4 tram line to the airport back in September 2017. Now if only the No. 2 line from Kopli would go directly to Tallinn Airport as well, I would be happy not having to change trams. Instead, the No. 2 goes to Suur-Pala – veering away from the track headed to Tallinn Airport at Peterburi tee (St. Petersburg Highway).

My favorite tram cars are Tallinn’s six new retro trams which are named after key figures in Estonia’s 100 year history and feature Old School hard wood benches. These six trams are named: Konstantin (in honor of Konstanti Päts, Estonia’s first President);  Jaan (Jaan Poska, Estonia’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs and a former Mayor of Tallinn); Julius (Julius Kuperjanov, an Estonian military hero from Estonia’s War of Independence); Johan (Johan Laidoner, Estonia’s first Commander-in-Chief and the Estonian General who led Estonia’s successful War of Independence); Jüri (Jüri Vilms, author of Estonia’s Declaration of Independence); and Ernst (Ernst Jaakson, Estonia’s longest serving diplomat and the first Estonian Ambassador to the U.S.). While these trams are not handicapped accessible and most Estonians find their face-to-face seating to be rather disconcerting, I enjoyed spotting each one for them for the first time. Of course, I hopped aboard each one of them the first chance I could – even if the tram was headed in the opposite direction that I wanted to go. Sadly, these retro trams mainly ply the No. 3 route from Tondi to Kadriorg and so are seldom seen where I live out on the Kopli line.

Tallinn’s 20 sleek new Spanish-made trams – named after generic Estonian women with the exception of the Koidula (Lydia Koidula is Estonia’s national poet) and the rolling Air Baltic ad – are fully accessible and even have the advantage of being air-conditioned when the weather gets hot. But I guess I must just be wired differently as I still prefer the old Czech-made Tatra trams which have been running on Tallinn’s tracks since the early 1970s. While these trams only have numbers instead of names, they can sometimes be distinguished from one another by the brightly painted ads which engulf them or by the accessible extension which has been added between their forward and rear sections.

And I really prefer riding these old workhorses in winter for two main reasons. First, because they are barely heated and so you can leave on your coat without worrying about overheating yourself. And secondly – and most importantly – because they are dimly lit and so you can still watch the world go by from their windows when it is dark outside. The new Spanish trams are so brightly lit in winter that all you can see in the window is your own reflection – which is not the type of reflection I want to engage in or with when I ride the trams.

While I probably end up riding the No. 2 Tram most often, every once in a while, I feel like I’ve won the lottery when I get to ride on Tallinn’s hidden fifth tram – the D route. The D route runs back to the Depoo (Depot) which is located in the direction of Tondi. In other words, a Kopli tram (No. 1 or No. 2) turns right instead of left at Viru Väljak (Viru Square) and so bypasses the central Hobujaama exchange before heading up Pärnu maantee (Pärnu Highway) which is normally the exclusive route of the No. 3 or No. 4 trams. Now this is a route No. 5 I often wish existed as it would take me to several of my favorite haunts including my old neighborhood of Tõnismägi, Kosmos Cinema, and Tallinn’s best Korean restaurant (Gotsu) without having to make a change. Instead, the elusive D route flits irregularly into and out of existence and is usually only visible in the evenings after rush hour …. Of course, the D route also runs from Kadriorg and Tallinn Airport to the Tram Depo but there is nothing very exciting about that abbreviated route.

While most Tallinners appear to be increasingly obsessed with their cars, I’m grateful that Tallinn’s Trams are still going strong. Sadly, most North American cities made the mistake of pulling out their tram tracks to make way for even more cars. For example, Washington, D.C., got rid of its wonderful tram network in the early 1960s only to bring back a faint echo of it known as the DC Tram in 2016.  The handful of North American cities who kept their tracks have since found that trams have made their cities even more popular as destinations – just think of San Francisco, Boston, and Toronto. My favorite North American trams, however, are the beautiful old streetcars in New Orleans. While Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire is long gone, several other trams are keeping New Orleans’ 180 year old streetcar tradition alive and well. And so, I hope that Tallinn’s tram network will continue to grow and evolve over the next 50 years.

 

As I’m not a proper Transport Geek, if you want to read a more detailed and technical description of Tallinn’s tram system (including gauge, power grid, tram models, and more), then you should check out the detailed article on Wikipedia about Trams in Tallinn. Sadly, the web page is void of any quirky Tallinn Tram Trivia such as the answer to the following question: Other than the terminal stops, what are the four Tallinn tram stops where trams only stop in one direction? Answer: Koidula (outbound on Trams No. 1 & 3); Poska (inbound on Trams No. 1 & 3); Kalev (inbound on Trams Nos. 3 & 4); and Pae (inbound on Tram No. 2).

N.B. This story was reprinted in TLT’s special August 2018 issue of Ühistransport in both Estonian and Russian to help celebrate the 130th anniversary of Tallinn’s trams.

Image: An enameled silver pilgrim traveler’s scallop shell from Santiago de Compostela in Spain (jeweler unknown).

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