Tallinn – Wifi’d city

TallinnI spent a lovely Christmas in the Estonian city of Tallinn. Digitally it is most famous for being the birthplace of the Skype software. Possibly coincidently it was first city I’ve been to where free wifi is prevalent. All hotels, most bars and restaurants, and some public spaces had fast connections without any need to register/login.

With 3G in the UK, checking things on the move has become second nature. It has also made life easier and more enjoyable now that days out don’t have be researched and planned before setting off. In Tallinn at Christmas this was particularly useful to find out where was open.

A day trip to Helsinki took us back to the normal world where the few places with wifi wanted money. I appreciate it costs money to install and run a wifi network but in the ‘connected world’ easy access to wifi is going to be a big win for tourism. I thought Skype Wifi was going to be the answer but in Estonia it would have cost me €1.20 for 10min.

Like hotel internet, everyone is after the business dollar at the expense of the tourist pound. Wouldn’t it be nice if city tourist boards (which spend millions advertising cities) did something to give cheap and easy wifi to their valuable visitors?

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KGB Museum, Tallinn

Abdandoned radio equipementEstonia has had a painful history. Its location has made it a popular country to be invaded and ruled by others. Most recently it was the Russians who, until 1991, ruled it with its iron fist, sending 20,000 to the Gulag. Tallinn was flooded with Russians to diffuse its culture and people. The KGB watched over everything.

In the 1960s the Soviets needed more foreign currency so set about opening a hotel in Tallinn to attract the tourist pound. Naturally the tourists were spied on as they stayed in the specially constructed Hotel Viru. Several rooms were fitted with listening devices and guests in the bar could be targeted with microphones that were routed up to a secret room on the top floor.

That room has now been opened as part of a KGB Museum on the 22nd floor. There we learnt of a hotel with more staff than guests, but where staff were not allowed talk to guests. Stories of people commenting in their room they had run out of toilet paper, then hearing a knock at the door where a porter awaited with fresh supplies.

The most surprising thing was this was a modern concrete multi-storey hotel and these practices went on into the 90s. I had expected to be visiting an old brick hotel and hearing stories from the 60s.

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Occupation art and design

Radio standThe trip to KGB Museum left me thinking life in Estonia under the Soviets must have been horribly oppressive. And yes, horrible things did happen. Yet visits to both the Museum of Applied Art and Design, and the 1945-1991 floor of Kumu (Estonia’s national art gallery) showed that creativity continued.

Estonian product designers fitted in well with the industrial values of the Soviets and worked to create furniture and household items that could be factory produced. Much of what was displayed at the Art and Design museum would fit in any design museum.

At Kumu the art was split into those who followed the state-sanctioned style of socialist realism and those who produced work in secret. Again both stood out.

Estonia is compared to Iceland for its high concentration of artists and, having seen their work, it was no surprise Tallinn was European City of Culture in 2011.