Reindeer and Bear Off the Menu!

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Estonia 0 v 3 England (06.06.2007)

Despite not having tickets for the game, our trip to Estonia was one that we had been eagerly awaiting since the draw for the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign was announced back in 2006. It provided the first of our many visits to former Soviet Union occupied states, with Estonia only gaining its independence as recently as 1991.

Our journey to Tallinn would be made via a stopover in Helsinki, Finland. Although not an obvious route into Estonia, Helsinki is located across the Baltic Sea and is a 2-3 hour ferry ride away. The Helsinki-Tallinn sea line is one of the busiest international passenger routes in the world, and is also popular amongst the Finns as they nip over to stock up on cheaper goods such as alcohol and cigarettes.

EST2Arriving in Helsinki the day before the match, Ian had arranged for a contact of his (who happened to be a local Radio DJ), to meet up with us and introduce us to the city. It happened to be a beautiful sunny afternoon, and our host took us straight to one of the city parks – apparently popular with alfresco drinkers. Expecting a bit of a ‘tramp special’ we were surprised to see the place packed with young people enjoying the afternoon sun. This was a Tuesday afternoon – the city students were out in full force!

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EST3After enjoying a few beers in the park, our host was keen to introduce us to the local delicacy of reindeer. We drove to a restaurant that was supposedly ‘renowned’ for their reindeer steaks – but our luck was out – reindeer was off the menu. As much as it would have been nice to expand my culinary mind, I can’t say I was too disappointed by the news. The rest of our evening was spent sampling some of the local watering holes in Helsinki city centre. As the evening progressed we noticed that every time we left a bar it didnt seem to be getting any darker! It was after midnight and there was still a blue tint to the sky! (see photo right: 11.15pm and the sky is still blue).

Next morning we were up fairly sharpish to catch the international ferry across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn. The ferry port is located fairly close to the Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral – one of the main sights in Helsinki which we’d missed the previous day. The ferry was a large hydrofoil-esque craft that picked up a fair rate of knots as it sped across the sea. The approach into Tallinn was really picturesque and you could clearly see the old town city walls and the spire of St Olav’s church and tower dominating the skyline:

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EST6After a quick turnaround at the hotel we ventured straight out into Tallinn’s jewel in the crown – the medieval old town. Passing through the ‘Viru Gate’ one of the main entries into the old town, you then snake up cobblestones lanes, lined with cafes and bars towards the ‘Raekoja Plats’ (or town hall square). From there you can spin off in different directions where there are hidden courtyards and impressive churches – including the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (pictured left).

Tallinn is a stunningly beautiful city, full of charm and character and loads of intriguing sights. It was clean, bright, pedestrian-ised, and hardly epitomised the stag-do destination I’d had in mind.

EST10After completing our self guided tour of the old town, we returned to the ‘Raekoja Plats’ for a few afternoon ‘looseners’. The square was full of bars and cafes, and some England fans were introducing a game of cricket to the locals, providing decent entertainment to the rest of us sat around the outfield. Whilst sat in a particular cafe bar in that square we noticed that ‘bear’ was on the menu. Intrigued to find out how this speciality would be served we took the plunge and ordered three bears! Unfortunately though, for the 2nd time in two days, we were informed the local delicacy was unavailable today! Either bear’s a popular dish out here or maybe it was the wrong part of the season for it!

All three of us had just missed out on getting tickets via the FA’s official ticket ballot. Estonia’s ‘Le Coq Arena’ is a small stadium with a capacity of 11,000, so to make it into the top 70% (which guaranteed you a ticket) you would have to be in the top 750 of all Englandfans members. We were just outside of this, but had decided to travel anyway as we’d booked up the trip long before the result of the ticket ballot was confirmed.

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Armed with a wad of local currency we thought we would have a good chance of picking up tickets, so we set off to the ‘Le Coq Arena’ a few hours before kickoff to survey the scene. As we exited the old town through the main gates, we got chatting to a middle aged Russian guy who kindly offered us a lift out to the stadium. This would save us a 30 minute walk, and after a few beers this sounded quite appealing. With our guards down, we jumped into his motor. As we set off the Russian guy then explained that he had to pop by his house to pick something up. As he pulled up outside his house, we didn’t have a clue where we were, and it suddenly became a bit of a sobering moment. What had my mum said to me growing up…”dont get in strangers cars”. Mark who was sat in the front, turned round to me and Ian who were in the back, and said, “if he comes back out with a gun I’m running for it”. That was ‘golden advice’ coming right out the bottom of his vodka glass. The Russian guy did return, luckily minus a visible weapon, and kindly dropped us off at the entrance to the stadium.

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The touts wanted big money!!

Relieved to be there, but still questioning quite why we had jumped in a stranger’s car at the drop of hat, we pressed on with the initial aim of picking up tickets. There were a few people about looking to sell tickets, but at ridiculously high prices of £120 + per ticket. Considering the value of the pound was much stronger than the Estonian Kroon that would have fed a large family in Tallinn for about a month! With a small capacity I think the Estonians were sharp enough to know having England fans in town would bring a pay day. If we had bothered to wait until closer to kick off I’m sure the price would have dropped, but as we were miles out of town, we decided to ‘save’ money and find a decent bar back in the old town to watch the game. Putting our ‘ticket fund’ money together created a respectably sized whip that would more than last us for the rest of the evening. We managed to get a table in a ‘bier-keller’ in front of a large screen and that was us sorted.

The game proved a comfortable one for England, with Joe Cole (37’), Crouch (54’) and Owen (62’) securing a three-nil win. After game seven of the qualifying group England were lying in fourth place in the table with a lot of work still to do.

This was a quality trip – Tallinn is a superb city and one that I would highly recommend a visit to. Even if it’s not with a group of lads on a stag do – it would still fit the bill as a romantic weekend away with your other half. Sneak in some domestic football (Tallinn has four teams: Flora, Levadia, Tallinna Kalev and TVMK) and there’s something for everyone!

Att: 11,000

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