April 23, 2012
Our Visit to the Historic Medieval Town of Tallinn, Estonia
Quick, what do you know about Tallinn, Estonia? Well, if you’re like me before we visited, not much. But it turns out to be a feisty little duchy with a wild past and a proud heritage.
First of all, Tallinn is the capital and largest city in Estonia. But over the years, Estonia fell to whomever had an invading fleet or army close by. The first fortress was built in Tallinn in 1050 but there’s evidence that the area was settled even as far back as 3000 BC. In any case, by 1219 it was under Danish rule. But the Danes sold it to the Teutonic Knights in 1346 who built up its defences as a strategic Baltic port and crossroads. The Germans soon exerted their influence over the little nation, converting it to Lutheranism in 1530. Next came the Swedes in 1561, but they lost it to the Russians in 1710 who made it a Duchy. And for a brief time in 1918 it became an independent Republic… until the Soviets took it over again in 1940. Then it was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944, and again by the USSR after the war. Finally, in 1991 Estonia said, “Enough is enough! This party is over!” and became one of the first Soviet nations to declare its independence. Go Estonia!
You can well imagine that all these comings and goings left behind a lot of history and mixed cultural influences. So much so, that in 1997 Tallinn’s Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. You’ve got to see it for yourself to believe it. That said, I’ll show you some of what we saw on our visit, and you can judge for yourself.
The renewed popularity of Tallinn was evidenced by the number of cruise ships in port the day we arrived. By day’s end, we counted six.
We walked from the ship the half mile into Old Town, rather than take an excursion. We prefer to do this whenever the sights we’re interested in seeing are within walking distance. By doing so, we got to enter the walled city through its eastern arch.
The view of the inner town from the wall’s archway entrance is really captivating. We were glad that we had decided to walk in.
The architecture in Old Town represents a variety of periods and styles, and restoring it is a work-in-progress. Reconstruction and renovations were going on everywhere. One of the things we observed is that many of these wonderful buildings are occupied by shops and boutiques selling crafts, crystal, woollens, linens, and fashions. And there are quite a few restaurants and pubs as well. At first I was appalled by what I saw as the desecration of these treasured heritage structures. Shows my naiveté, because when I thought about it, I realized that it’s probably the lease revenue from these businesses that allows something as rare and special as Old Town to continue to exist at all. Plus, they have done it well, and in very good taste. Works for me.
The hub of Old Town is Town Hall Square, an open, public space where one can well imagine a town crier announcing news or laws, maybe a minstrel singing songs of far-away places, or even the public punishment of a criminal. But such spaces were mostly used for gatherings, celebrations and markets. It was quite the festive place the day we were there.
Walking west from Town Hall Square, we climbed the meandering sloped cobblestone lanes and alleys to Medieval Toompea Castle that overlooks the city.
On our way to Toompea Castle, we came across a very distinctive structure. St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an Orthodox church built in 1900 when Tallinn was part of the tsarist Russian Empire. Its handsome curved spires and ornate filigree and intricate frescos make it a sight to behold and a magnet for photographers.
It started raining just as we got there, so we stepped inside to have a look around. That’s when it was pointed out to me that I was still wearing my hat, which I immediately removed. But I felt bad at having come across as perhaps rude or disrespectful. I try hard not to be the ugly Canadian when I travel. Once inside, I did refrain from taking photos out of respect. But the gilded stonework and statuary was all breathtakingly beautiful.
After several more detours and distractions, we finally arrived at Toompea Castle. This well-used fortress was built in 1228. Since then, it’s been used as an outpost or base for every foreign empire that ever ruled Estonia. Today it serves as home to Estonia’s Parliament. It is truly something right out of a Medieval tale with stone walls, dungeons, parapets, and a moat. On this particular day we were treated to a display of archery skills.
On our way back into town, we decided to poke our heads into some of the shops. We found one that sold Medieval swords, shields and armour (and one of the biggest battle swords I’ve ever seen), and a music shoppe with the widest variety of acoustic stringed instruments, drums, concertinas and woodwinds you can imagine – enough to make any folk musician’s mouth water or fingers itch.
There are so many great photos that I haven’t included here. You’ll just have to visit this wonderful historic town yourself. Eventually, it was time to head back to the ship. On the short return trip we once again crossed over the tracks of the city’s public transit system before re-entering the cruise terminal. At the terminal, stalls had been set up to offer low-cost keep-sakes and souvenirs for those who hadn’t found something in town.
This concludes our day in fascinating Tallinn, Estonia. From here, we continued eastward through the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg, Russia. This was only the second year that Holland America had been offering cruise sailings to St. Petersburg, and we were quite excited at the prospect of seeing it. We imagined all kinds of amazing sights and insights, but we had no idea just how amazing it was going to be. Those stories will follow in a few days. I have to take a break right now.