an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

BJT: Tallinn’s Great Market

 

A good market is something like Heraclitus’ river – you can’t step in it twice. By the time you come back the next day, it has already changed and moved on. Balti Jaama Turg (the Baltic Train Station Market) is just such a market – it flows forever forward.

My favorite part of the market is outdoors – the covered stalls which sell fruits and vegetables. As you walk through the market from week to week – or even day to day – you can watch the seasons change. The first strawberries to appear will come from river-side fields in Greece or perhaps Spain. Somewhat later, the first Polish strawberries will show up – and you know that summer is moving ever closer. Then, you spot those first few strawberries from Lithuania or Latvia and you know that summer is at your doorstep.  Finally, at long last, Estonia’s own delicious strawberries make their grand appearance, proving that summer is finally here. Time is like a current – and you can watch it flow past you at Balti Jaama Turg.

But before we go on any further, let’s agree to call Balti Jaama Turg – which takes much too much time to say – BJT for short. Americans, after all, love their acronyms – especially when then can compress three words down to just three letters – LOL! WTF? OMG!!! TMI … SOB. R.I.P. You can already hear these abbreviations – and various other triples – being used on Tallinn’s streets, interspersed in otherwise normal Estonian conversations. So why don’t we just add one more: Bee-Jay-Tee? Are we A-OK? Good.

The good news is that BJT already has a loyal Tallinn following – and I’m not just talking about the old Tatra tram painted up in BJT’s livery which says: “take me to the market.” Wandering around Tallinn, I’ve encountered all kinds of people wearing white-on-black BJT t-shirts or carrying black-on-white BJT tote bags. The market gave away most of those canvas bags on opening day – a smart move as their banner is still being carried all over town more than a year later by happy human-sized billboards. And judging by this summer’s influx of Finnish tourists – and even tourist buses, BJT has already been featured in various guide books and printed maps. That should come as no surprise as BJT is truly a destination market well-worth visiting – it deserves that special trip.

As someone who lives only a few blocks away, I’m fortunate enough to visit BJT just about every day I’m in town. Instead of stocking up on groceries once a week as I used to do, I can now go grocery shopping every day as I’ve always wanted to do, buying whatever looks freshest or in season. As someone who loves to cook and eat good food, this is the ideal market set up – especially when Tallinn’s best market is right in your own Kalamaja neighborhood.

Since BJT re-opened for business in May 2017, I must have stepped into this one market-river over 300 times. While I did have a favorite market when I lived in London (and I would try to make the trek out Hackney’s Broadway at least once a month), my approach to London’s markets was very different than it is here. As an early fan of Southwark’s revitalized Borough Market, I decided I would set about to visit each one of London’s many markets as a kind of hobby not long after I moved back there. When I first started my London market quest, I thought that there might be 30 or maybe 40 of them to visit. Three years later, my market obsession had taken me to 324 different London markets. Even today, it still amazes me that London contains several hundred markets. After I left London last year, I’m sure that dozens of new markets have appeared in the same way that many of the markets I once visited have since disappeared – in fact, some of the early markets I went to were already gone by the time I left …. To quote Heraclitus again, “everything changes – nothing stands still.”

As a dedicated market observer, the amazing thing to see is that Heraclitus’ wisdom holds just as true for one Tallinn market (BJT) as it does for all of London’s markets put together. For that very reason, I never get tired of visiting BJT as I never know what I’ll find when I visit next. One day I might find a food truck visiting out back – like the good folk from VLND Burger. Then next day, I might get to listen to a fun brass band from Riga playing out front. One day a video crew might be filming a new TV ad on one side of the market. And then the next day, a Finnish magazine is doing a retro photo shoot inside the market. In other words, there is always something new happening and something else to see. Plus, the people watching at BJT just can’t be beat. From outsider pierced punks with mohawks to Roma women with their long-bustled skirts, from modern-day Brigittine nuns based at Pirita’s ancient convent to groups of animated Spanish tourists talking a mile a minute, everyone seems to love joining the Tallinn locals in a visit to the city’s best market.

While you should feel free to dive right into the market by going through its main entrance closest to the train station, you might be able to get a better picture of how the market was put together if you follow me around to its back side so that we can start from there. From this rear courtyard, away from most of the market’s hustle and bustle, you’ll be able to notice the four sets of railroad tracks going into BJT – preserved as part of the overall re-design. Look around and you will see that the new market was originally a set of three limestone railway storage sheds dating back to the late 1800s. But here’s where things start to get interesting.

While Heraclitus is my main market man, BJT’s Estonian architects and designers – Lembit-Kaur Stöör, Martin Tago, Maia Grimitliht, Raivo Kotov, Andrus Kõresaar, Kärt Loopalu, and Eleriin Tekko at KOKO – seem to be followers of another ancient Greek philosopher: Pythagoras. As a result, you will find that his beloved triangles are repeated everywhere – from the small tribute to I.M. Pei’s glass Louvre Pyramid which covers the entrance to the underground parking lot out back to the sweeping triangles of BJT’s soaring roofs and vaulted ceilings made of wood and metal. Once you notice these first triangles, then you will spot the same triangular theme repeated everywhere – in the cut of the benches, the steps, the ramps, the railings, the outdoor lighting, and even the modular stalls used by the outdoor vendors. Please pay particular attention to the two red I-beam tree trunks whose triangular branches hold up BJT’s overhanging roof out back.

Without a doubt, BJT is Tallinn’s Temple to the Triangle – an Estonian nod towards the Pyramids of Giza. But before you go inside this architectural wonder, take some time to check out the Old Town viewing platforms, decks, and even terraced gardens that you’ll find on the right side of the market facing the train station. This is monumental architecture at its most playful. Don’t be tempted to go into the second floor of the market quite yet – let’s save that for another day when I have some more time to take you on my inside tour. Instead, let’s head back down towards the rear courtyard where we can continue our outside visual tour.

From here, you’ll soon discover that the market’s oldest limestone shed – the one closest to the Old Town – is the most complete and intact. It houses a variety of businesses starting – or ending – with Reval Café which overflows into the back courtyard. The next limestone shed over on your left is the second best preserved. Between these two sheds you will find a glass, wood, and metal enclosed courtyard built over the limestone canyon which is home to the market’s indoor fruit and vegetable stalls. The second limestone shed starts – or ends – with the meat market which then transitions into the street food market with its dozen or so stalls (see Where to Eat in Kalamaja). The third limestone shed is mainly gone although one wall and some other pieces of it survive and have been carefully preserved. From the back side where we are now, you’ll see market’s working end (handling the full cycle from deliveries to waste disposal) off to your left – and then a reconstructed version of the third and mostly missing storage shed. It is also filled with a series of shops starting – or ending – with the separate and enclosed fish market which doesn’t even smell too badly of fish. Between the second surviving limestone building and the re-imagined third shed located closest to the sea, you’ll find another covered courtyard, which among other things, contains a small Estonian “village” consisting of fourteen little wooden buildings housing one or two different businesses.

If you’re still with me, then you should take this left-most path through the market. Go slowly as it will soon feel as if you’re walking through a strange village nestled in a forest of unusual trees with red I-beam trunks. Sometimes you will be able to see the sky above you and sometimes you won’t – it all depends on how thick or how low the I-beam branches above you grow. And, once you reach the end of this forest-village path, you’ll end up in a bit of clearing which marks the location of the open market where you’ll find vendors selling fruits and vegetables under a vast canopy of red I-beam branches and wooden roof slats. Depending on the season, you might find twenty or so vendors in varying configurations depending on how they’ve assembled the market’s triangular building block stalls. Exit through the market’s main entrance and you’ll arrive at the market’s front courtyard with its strange fountain which is not so much of a fountain as a mysterious, almost tropical mister. Look around and see if you can spot the half-hidden glass triangle – another small tribute to I.M. Pei – which doubles as the skylight for the gym below.

Whatever you do, be sure to stop and look out in front of you and you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view: the steeple of St. Olaf’s Church and various Old Town towers will be off on your left while the steeple of Toomkirik (Dome Church) and various buildings up on Toompea (Dome Hill) – including the Prime Minister’s Office at Stenbocki Maja (Stenbock House) – will be off on your right. Turn around now and look back at the market and you’ll see the proud black-on-white sign proclaiming: “Baltic Train Station MARKET – since 1993.” Don’t know about you, but I’m already looking forward to my next visit to BJT to see what new changes tomorrow will bring. As Hercalitus would have said: “All is flux.”

 

You will find BJT at Kopli 1. It’s an easy walk from Old Town to BJT through the train station or you can loop around Old Town on the no. 1 or no. 2 tram heading towards Kopli and get off at the stop called Balti Jaam (Baltic Train Station) and you’re there. Or better yet, get off at the Telliskivi stop to start your visit – as recommended – from the back courtyard.

Image: From my collection of canvas tote bags: my BJT or Balti Jaama Turg bag (designer unknown).

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