Tallinn preserves iconic dive bar

  • 2007-04-18
  • Joel Alas
TALLINN - It's Thursday night and the Valli Baar is throbbing with its infamous atmosphere. Smoke thickens the air, the bar is alive with talk and laughter. Old men perch on stools sipping vodka, two musicians howl out folk songs in the corner. There's nothing fancy or pretentious about the Valli Baar. It's a dive and proud of it. Little has been done to alter the look of the place since it opened circa 1969.

And if the Tallinn Cultural Heritage Department has its way, nothing will be done to change it. The city has placed the bar under a heritage protection order. According to the city, the working class bar is as important as the Old Town's church towers and cobbled streets.
Cultural Heritage Department head Boris Dubovik says the bar should be preserved because of its iconic style.
"This is the last bar in the Old City with 1960s design. All other bars from this period have been rebuilt in a modern style," he told The Baltic Times. "I am afraid that if there is money, they will rebuild this bar."
Without such a protection order, it would only be a matter of time before the bar was gentrified with a flash interior and fancy light fittings. After all, it occupies a prime piece of Old Town real estate, sharing an intersection with two high class hotels, a racy nightclub and a cinema.

There's no doubt about it, the Valli Baar is only suited to a certain type of drinker. I've brought dozens of visitors to the bar. Some have revelled in the rudimentary atmosphere, others have left without even finishing their drinks.
I've returned this Thursday to see what the locals think about their bar being protected.
"This bar has always been the same, it will always be the same," says one cheery regular. He's in his mid 30s, making him one of the youngest men at the bar.

He buys me and my friend a drink each - a millimallikas (jellyfish), the house speciality. It's a fiery shot of tequila, sambuca and Tabasco sauce. It's like an electric shock. We play a competition to see who can wait the longest before reaching for a sip of beer to cool our burning mouths.
The barman comes around with a tray of vodka glasses, handing them out complements of the house. We're not sure of the occasion, but we slug the drink back anyway.
Two men in the corner are pumping out a soundtrack. One's round and jolly, working the bellows of an accordion while his fingers walk up and down the keys. The guitar player is red-faced and straining, stretched with emotion as he sings. They're playing old Estonian and Russian sing-a-longs, and the bar is singing along.

They throw the occasional translated foreign song in the mix 's tonight it's a version of the old Salvation Army rally song 's "Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women," they sing in Estonian, "They'll drive you crazy, they'll drive you insane."
There's plenty of cigarettes and whiskey here, but the Valli Baar is missing one ingredient in the Salvation Army's triumvirate of vice. Aside from my friend Aljona, the bar is void of women.
It's not that sort of bar. The men don't come here to chase skirts 's they leave that to the teenagers at Club Hollywood across the road. No, they're here to reminisce, associate and commiserate with their fellow men.
"When we first got married my wife wouldn't let me come to this bar," one local tells me. "Now, she just looks at me when I come home. She says 'I know where you've been'."

No doubt there's changes ahead for the Valli Baar 's the pending smoking law changes will hit hard. But at least something has been done to ensure these kind of priceless pieces of culture are preserved.

Valli Baar is located at Muurivahe 14, across from the Soprus Cinema building.