Lovely Nõmme Turg (Heath Market) should remind you of a town within a town. While Nõmme itself is more of a garden suburb – or to be more accurate – a forest suburb of Tallinn, it still looks something like a village – especially if you walk the meandering road from its old wooden train station to its old wooden market. While Nõmme got its start as a forested summer cottage district in the late 1800s, it grew after the extension of the railroad to become a town of its own in 1926. With the threat of a shotgun wedding, the Soviets later married Nõmme off to Tallinn and made it into the city’s southernmost district. Still, most of Nõmme’s 40,000 or so residents continue to live in their own private homes and are therefore considered to be rather fortunate and well off.
While an early and rather chaotic outdoor market developed in the neighborhood early on, Nõmme Market formally opened its doors to the public in 1930 after the new town fathers set about to transform their town into a proper town. They even contracted with Robert Natus – sometimes known as Estonia’s first architect – to design the main market building. Sadly, Matus’ original wooden building burned down in 2010 after just having been renovated in 2009 – although the extensive renovation work did make it easier to rebuild a replica of Matus’ original. Even today, this wood copy will impress you with its simplicity. Perhaps I’m particularly fond of the building because I love anything made of wood – and also because the building uses the same Estonian color scheme as my Kalamaja home: a light fern (celadon) green with a darker green trim.
But the reason why Nõmme Market resembles a small town is that the rest of the market is made up of twenty or so smaller buildings. At the back end of the market, you’ll find a long brown and yellow building containing a row of small shops selling everything from Estonian handicrafts to black bread. The market’s left boundary consists of 64 open stalls covered by several permanent roofs. Its right boundary is made up of a series of small wooden buildings painted pastel green with a pastel yellow trim that look something like small houses. Filling the market’s roughly rectangular center, you’ll find a dozen or more small wooden buildings – half of them painted pastel red with a darker red trim and the other half painted pastel orange with a darker orange trim. Somehow, the colors all work.
All these various small wooden buildings are located on a pedestrianized grid of “streets” which have their own names like: Piima (Milk), Marmelaadi (Marmelade), Pagari (Bakery), Mugula (Tuber), Karikaku (Casserole), Merihärja (Sea Breeze), and Veestiku (Water Works). Obviously, the market’s urban planner had a sense of humor. And during the 2009 renovation, Nõmme also added an open central square to the complex, complete with flower beds, two water pumps, a fountain, and a replica clock to make the market look even more like a small town. And, if you should ever get tired of exploring this market town, you’ll find some benches where you can relax under the five tall pine trees which serve as reminders of Nõmme’s surrounding forest.
As you wander around this small town with its perfect little wooden houses, the street names will all start to make sense. Smaller businesses which are just getting started will end up in the main, shared market building while more established businesses get to rent a little market house of their own. Each little wooden house contains an individual business be it a butcher, a cheese monger, a baker, or a florist. Although the business doesn’t always match the street name, you will find happy coincidences such as the fishmonger on Sea Breeze Street. And if you stop for a moment to think about it, Nõmme Market almost serves as a kind of a prototype for the modern mall. And indeed, these days, several of its market houses have become home to regional chains from R-Kiosk to Reval Café and from Kalev Chocolate to Saaremaa Meat. Just imagine what the market must have been like in its pre-corporate heyday!
You can get a better sense of how things used to be if you wander the four rows of stalls that make up the outdoor market. Here you can see how the market got its start. Even today, with its stalls selling fresh produce from farms all across Estonia, Nõmme Market is the closest thing that Tallinn has to what Americans would call a real farmer’s market. Produce is fresh and seasonal. Everyone sells what they grow – including the farmer whose specialty is growing potatoes and nothing else. In summer and during the fall harvest season, all 64 stalls can be filled to overflowing – sometimes even spilling over into the rest of the market as temporary stalls go up to make the most of the short-lived bounty from Estonia’s farms. In the dead of winter, you will find a much grimmer – or trimmer – picture as the selection tends to be limited to tubers, pickled vegetables, and other preserves. In season, however, you will find that Nõmme Market has the best local produce of any market in Tallinn. And you will find a variety of offerings which you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Me, I’m just sad that Nõmme Market is not my local market as it is a little too far away for me to visit every day.
The other thing you may really enjoy about visiting Nõmme Market is that it feels like a market built for everyone. It even features a half dozen or so open stalls where day traders – often retired women who sell what they grow in their gardens or what they knit at home – can come and go. The market also tries to be family friendly and so you will often see moms (and sometimes dads as well) just hanging out with their kids in the market’s main square or wandering along the small streets eating ice cream and dreaming of milk and marmalade. And in the summer, the market even hosts an open-air concert series to help keep you entertained as you shop.
The one thing that Nõmme Market lacks – and perhaps it is a good thing – are multiple food stalls with pre-made food ready-to-eat. Yes, there are a few of them – including an Italian one and one that does Asian fusion. But if you’re hungry, that shouldn’t present a problem as you will find that Nõmme Market is the perfect place to go Old School and have yourself a picnic. You can buy your bread at one of the market bakeries such as Buxhöden Bakery. You can then go and buy yourself some cold cuts, smoked fish, local cheese, or whatever else you want to put between your slices of bread at a dozen different market stalls. And then, to top it all off, there are over sixty outdoor stalls where you can choose your farm fresh vegetables and fruit – some of it even foraged from nearby forests just for you – to round off your picnic feast. Now you can’t do much better than that, now can you?
Nõmme Turg (Turu plats 8) opens at 9 AM each day and closes at 6 PM – except on Sundays when it closes at 5 PM.
Image: A tropical fruit stall made by an unknown Colombian potter.