“Old factories…let’s look closer!” says Rick….never mind that we are lost, and have been walking for an hour with a high-humidity temperature of 35degrees Celsius. After leaving the dock from our ferry crossing from Helsinki it seemed a simple matter to get to our hotel, except unknowingly Rick’s faithful compass changed its polarity, and north was south, and east was west. This serendipitous find of looming brick buildings with smoke stacks upon closer inspection were indeed Soviet era factories, for such things as salt and flour – now turned into restaurants, bars and shops – the complex named Rotermann Quarter, after the family who built and operated it. And it is a pleasant surprise when after searching street signs for our whereabouts – our hotel turned out to be a mere two blocks from this Quarter!
Our Estonia Photo Gallery
The next morning was our first of many meanderings around medieval Old Town which is on two levels. Toompea hill is where the gentry used to dwell, looking down their noses at the peasantry. Where we enter the Old Town’s lower level are remnants of the walls that once surrounded the city, as well as some guard towers.
In Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), the city’s heart for eight centuries, we feel the vibes of Middle-Ages in the midst of Gothic edifies, now turned into “tempt the tourist” shops and restaurants with outside seating under great umbrellas. Smiling young people in medieval dress wave menus to entice passers-by to partake in a morsel or drink in their establishment.
I suddenly feel my hand being clutched, and it is not Rick! A knight in shining armour (well,chainmail anyway) is falling before me on bended knee – not for undying love… but for a photo op and a few Euros.
We are in front of the Town Hall, which was on this spot since at least 1322, while the present building dates back to 1404. Vana Toomas (Old Thomas), symbolizing Tallinn, appears as a weather-vane atop the hall. Legend has it that as a peasant lad, Thomas won an archery contest reserved for the nobility, and instead of being punished he was invited to become a guard and became the city’s favourite soldier.
Inside under vaulted ceilings is Citizens Hall, the meeting room adorned with tapestries depicting scenes of King Solomon’s life, and a parlour for council members’ feasts. A climb up to the attic awards a view of red roofs from a window.
Adjacent to the Town Hall is the 13th century Holy Spirit Church, with gilded panels of icons behind the altar and heavy dark wood Baroque pews.
The Town Hall Pharmacy (Raeapteek) is said to be one of the oldest continually running pharmacies in Europe. No one knows the exact date it opened, but by 1422 it was on its third owner. Medieval remedies such as crushed dried bee wings have been replaced with what we consider usual pharmacy stuff, like Aspirin and cough syrup. Old time apothecary equipment is around the walls; a tincture and oil press, and a thingamajig that Rick believes is a heavy duty weight scale.
Olde Hansa is a shop stacked with goods for sale fashioned after those that gained popularity centuries ago: goblet drinking vessels, tar soap, onion jam, and some odd shoes with curled-up toes. Anna is on hand to clarify a shoe was not just a shoe back then, but a show of wealth. “These are commoner shoes with hardly any curl. The rich wore shoes with the curl almost reaching their knees, which they affixed with string to their mid-calves – the toe having a convenient metal ring in it for this purpose. The king’s curl was tied to his waist – so you can see why he was carried.”
Anna invites me and two other ladies for a complimentary snort of pepper snaps, brewed by the establishment’s owner. Taking the traditional stance – baby finger at the bottom and thumb on the rim of the short glass, other hand on the head (a sign of respect) and one leg crossed in front of the other at the knee – than a toast in unison – and down the hatch. On our way out we see one of Olde Hansa’s managers, or at least we figure so from the longer leather toes on her shoes.
I stop in one of the ubiquitous Baltic Amber shops. I am not familiar with the properties of amber, and after handling a few pendants I ask the 50-ish-year old shop owner if these are real amber or plastic. He huffs, “Amber!” Later at another shop I learn that amber is “lighter” than plastic, and the colour range is from dark translucent russet to pale creamy yellow, the latter being the oldest and the most valuable. Some pieces cost hundreds of Euros, but others even in this high end shop sell for around 30 Euros. I end up sheepishly going back to the first shop as he has the best price, and if he recognizes me he does not let on as I pay for two pendants.
Nearby is the oldest church in Tallinn – Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin (Dome Church). This Lutheran church once served Tallinn’s nobles and their coats of arms fill the interior walls.
Then there is the Toompea Castle, which for seven centuries served the nation’s foreign masters, and today houses the parliament of Estonia. Okay…. it was time for me get a time-line on Estonia’s history of occupation and domination. The German Teutonic Order took control in 1346, placing Estonia under rule by their nobility, despite Denmark and Sweden being involved at some levels. In the early 18th century Estonia became part of the Russian Empire, their domination was relinquished during WWI, then taken back in 1940, then between 1941-44 came the German Nazi occupation, then Russia dropped 300 bombs on Tallinn in 1944 and took control again, until in 1991 Estonia was finally an independent country.
Formidable Bastion and Underground Tunnels
Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the Kitchen) is the stone bastion on the hill. It was built in the late 15th century. The curious name stems from medieval soldiers joking about how from the top they could look down into the kitchens of the houses below. We decide an inside visit is in order, with the added bait of there being tunnels below the bastion and under what is now Freedom Square.
Climbing the spiral stone stairs of the bastion might have been taxing, except for the levels in between to check out the fortification’s defense system over its history. I appreciate the model of the walls/towers/bastions as they once were, giving an overall perspective. Torture devices and medieval weapons are displayed, as well as weaponry right up to WWII.
The Bastion Tunnels can only be viewed with a guide, so we sign up for the next English tour. After a short animated film on its history, we are offered a small blanket to wrap around our shoulders for the chill and then follow Anneli, our guide, down uneven stone steps to tread through 300m of the 500 currently staked out. Along our route the varied use of these tunnels unfolds.
Dating back to the 17th century for the storage of arms and supplies, the section we tread on fast-forwards us to more recent usage, which at some point a cement floor was added. Manikins are outfitted along the way to demonstrate the various uses. During the time of WWII the tunnels were used as air raid shelters by the Germans and later the Russians for a time. After being abandoned for decades, punkers moved in during the 80’s, the tunnels becoming their hideout from the militia, and their party central.
In the turmoil of Estonia finding its independence unemployment was high, and from 1991 to 2005 these tunnels became shelters for homeless people. These sections, slated to be on future tours, are presently undergoing renovations from the many fires for warmth and cooking that blackened the ceilings, and the refuse left which encouraged rats and such to move in. “Yet, another section is still off limits, it being the home of European Caves Spiders, some as large as 7cm!” says Anneli, “No one knows how long this has been their habitat, and not disrupting them is a consideration in future planning.”
Towards the end of our tour we are swept back to Catherine the Great’s time. A small cell is where she had a 71-year-old monk imprisoned for speaking out against her. In this damp, cold, lonely existence, and with the guards feeding him Russian-roulette- style, he lasted four years before his soul left for a better place.
Where our tour stops, comes a chilling thrill! We get to glimpse into a part of the tunnel that is as it was when it was first dug hundreds of years ago – its damp rough stone floor and walls, its stalactite ceiling had been under water until recently when pumps were used to clear it – a ghostly and ghastly aura wafts out on mildewed air. Most intriguing, but for us it’s time to back-track to the exit.
If I were to sum up Tallinn in two words – they would be “Gothic splendor”! More than the old structures it is the whole atmosphere, the costumes and conversing as in the days of old by shop/restaurant staff, people watching while sipping a coffee in the square, seeing the streets become crammed when a cruise ship unloads and watching the grin of the shop owners widen accordingly. The busker competition was fierce – at the top of the heap is violin beauty. Tallinn was great fun, and a historic journey of this – the smallest Baltic country.
Traditional Eats of Estonia
A small restaurant in Town Square is the place! Liisu Jurres (Liisu’s Place) is a family affair, and Grandma’s recipes are on the menu. Our appetizer was buttered/garlicy black bread wedges fried to a crunch with a bowl of chives and sour cream dip – ohhh, my! Next we sample the forest mushroom salad with potatoes and bacon – Yum! Need more Saku beer. Okay, now for the main course – Estonia locals claim a 100 different ways to serve pork and potatoes…and there are at least half a dozen on the menus. Kadri, our server (and the owner’s cousin) recommends one, “that is served for special occasions, like Easter and Christmas”. And we soon understand why as we lap up the juicy pork roast with boiled spuds and delicious tangy-yet-sweet sauerkraut.
We will next hop a Lux Express bus for a 4 ½ hour drive to Riga, Latvia.
I have been thinking of late that my Finance Minister Rick is smiling more broadly – and now I know why….Tallinn costs (for lodgings, food, entry fees, travel) came to $181 CDN a day, (which is considerably lower than our recent trails through Scandinavia).