Europe | Estonia
March 8, 2008
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Tallinn - Weekend Report

Exploring the medieval streets of Estonia's Hanseatic capital

The walls of Tallinn's Old Town from Toompea Hill

On a corner of Town Hall Square, in the heart of Tallinn’s Old Town, an unobtrusive chemist’s shop plies its trade. It’s been on the same spot, quietly dispensing pills since 1421, ten years before the English burnt Joan of Arc at the stake. To the locals, that’s no big deal. With medieval merchant dwellings by the streetload, and the spires of antique churches sprinkled across the skyline, history lies deeper here than anywhere else in Northern Europe.

For information on organising your own weekend in Medieval Tallinn click here.

Time Capsule

Like many of the most fascinating destinations, Old Tallinn is a place where the clocks stopped ticking centuries ago: in its case, three - that’s when St. Petersburg, Tallinn’s Johnny-come-lately neighbour just up the coast, usurped its trade and plunged the old Hanseatic port into suspended animation. Later Tallinn, along with the rest of Estonia, slipped into virtual invisibility when the country was folded involuntarily into the not-so-tender bosom of the Soviet Union. Happily, despite a 1950s ‘near-miss’ when the central planners were uncharacteristically overruled in their scheme to level the historic centre and erect dozens of grim Stalinist office blocks in its place, little much else happened until the 1990s. By then the Estonians were back in charge, über-proud of their national heritage, and alert to the need to conserve their history. Tightly-controlled redevelopment has since restored most of the Old Town’s formerly run-down buildings to new life as museums, boutique hotels, restaurants and chic apartments.

Old Town panorama

My favourite view comes as reward for the steep, sweaty toil up the tower of St. Olav’s Church (at completion the tallest building in Medieval Europe). From the narrow catwalk at the base of the steeple the whole of the Old Town lies spread below you as an extraordinary assemblage of cobbled thoroughfares and gabled houses still surrounded by walls, battlements and over two dozen turreted towers. Directly beneath your feet Lai Street - for my money the handsomest in the city – stretches south to café-filled Raekoja Plats (aka Town Hall Square). The former marketplace, this is the largest open space in the Old Town and the best spot for people-watching. Back atop St. Olav’s a glance half-right and ahead reveals Toompea Hill, rising almost to eye level, encircled by steep escarpments and yet more walls. Toompea’s flat hilltop holds Tallinn’s Upper Town where, since the city’s foundation, the ruling elite have lived and been buried and since 1991, Estonia’s parliament has sat once again. Wandering its few narrow streets the museum-like hush that comes with power and privilege remains readily felt.

Dropping your gaze from Toompea’s craggy outcropping, the wide ambit of the main city walls can be traced from the foot of the hill as a line of red-tiled pepper-pot towers swinging round to left and right. Their circuit marks out the Lower Town. Around one kilometre from end to end, this was the beating heart of Medieval Tallinn’s money-making machine. If an Upper Town residence signified nobility, an address on one of the Lower Town’s prime streets meant filthy rich.

Hansa superstar

To see where the cash for the fancy houses came from, walk round the steeple catwalk 180°. Off to the north Tallinn’s port sprawls along the shores of the choppy Baltic. Today the wharves and piers are a good half mile away, but in the Middle Ages the waves washed right up against the Old Town’s walls. In its glory days Tallinn was one of the wealthiest members of the mercantile Hanseatic League. Perfectly positioned, it grew fat as an entrepôt channelling furs, wax and honey from the vast Russian interior to the growing cities of Germany, Holland and England. Logically enough, the leading merchants – all Germans in accordance with Hansa rules - built their grand homes along key streets such as Lai, Pikk and Pühavaimu that linked the port to the Raekoja Plats market. Built to a common design, the houses contained lower floor chambers for the storage of goods, with the families living above so that the merchants could keep an eye (and ear) on their wares at all times.

In from the cold

Several years ago, when I first discovered Tallinn’s Old Town, my trip still had a whiff of the frontier. Tallinn was off the travel radar and Estonia was just one more obscure ex-Soviet bloc country few could place on a map. Now, of course, it’s one of the hottest hotspots of Eastern Europe and travel is comfortable and thoroughly mainstream. Where once a smattering of hard-core backpackers chowed down at dreary Soviet-style canteens, today beautiful people sip their lattes beneath branded parasols, young couples cruise by in cycle rickshaws, and guidebooks run to editions in Japanese.

Tallinn’s surge in popularity is with good reason: the timeless beauty of its streetscapes is undiminished, while its characterful new hotels and smart modern restaurants make visiting both easy and comfortable. But regeneration has inevitably also brought a dilution of its specifically Estonian identity. The Old Town, in particular, has to some extent been internationalized and discerning a distinctively local resonance can be a challenge at times. Of course a true Estonian experience is still possible, even here. A recent highlight for me was dinner at Vanaeme Juures restaurant, buried in a medieval vaulted cellar. Not only were the dishes dyed-in-the-wool Estonian (blood, guts and gore), but, despite past patronage by international celebrities, service and ambience remained cosily retro-provincial (not to say homely) in the classic quiet, understated Estonian way.

Beyond the walls

Nevertheless, for a real flavour of the country you should venture beyond the city walls. The easiest and best excursion is the short tram ride to genteel Kadriorg and its glorious, leafy park. Fanning out from traffic-laden Narva mnt, Weizenbergi and a handful of other tree-lined boulevards showcase to great effect the confidence of Estonia’s first period of independence back in the early 20th century. Grand wooden villas with proud porticos and rooflines bristling with gable windows stand behind rows of neatly painted railings. Long forlorn, most have now been fully restored as the homes of Estonia’s newly rich entrepreneurs and senior business leaders. Venturing a little further you come to Kadriorg Park itself. Originally the pleasure grounds of Tsar Peter the Great’s pocket palace, its shaded paths have long since been turned over to baby-strolling, lovers’ trysts, and coffee and cakes in front of the fountains. Very European, very well cared for; this is Estonia at ease with itself. In the park’s far corner, the blade-sharp tower of the new KUMU modern art gallery couldn’t say it more clearly: "We’ve made it. We’re hip. We’re cool. We’re fully paid-up members of the West”.

Tale of two cities

And yet this is only half the story. Fifty per cent of Tallinners are ethnic Russians - grandsons and daughters of workers shipped in by Stalin. These are the losers in the new Estonia, barred by language and prejudice from good jobs or education. As they watch the salaries and aspirations of the native Estonians rise, tempers are beginning to fray - egged on by an increasingly meddlesome and resurgent Moscow.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener on my latest trip was a short walk I took starting at Raekoja Plats. In just 20 minutes I skipped through the glitzy malls and mirror-glass offices fringing the Old Town walls to reach a parallel universe of dreary Soviet-era apartment blocks daubed with Cyrillic graffiti. At their heart lay busy Keskturg market – and a world of sights and sounds that wouldn’t have been out of place east of the Urals. Under a ragged iron roof headscarf-swathed babushka market-traders gossiped vigorously in thickly-spoken Russian. Along with the expected fruit and veg (and ubiquitous buckets of home-made pickles) were mounds of old shoes and heaps of shoddy cast-off clothing being rifled by diminutive pensioners and toddler-toting mothers. Other stalls specialising in cannibalised washing-machine parts and packaging-free car radios - doubtless ‘liberated’ from their previous owners - were receiving equally rapt attention.

For the moment, both Estonias are hanging together, held out as the shining success amongst post-Soviet republics. But from a vantage point amongst the scrap piles of Keskturg this is obviously an unequal marriage. Admittedly it’s not for everyone, but if you are interested in Estonia’s more recent past (or that of Eastern Europe generally) I recommend making the effort to take a look under the tourist bonnet. Keskturg is great and handy, as is the seafront Soviet War Memorial - for a more melancholy experience. However, for a full-on confrontation with the region’s Cold War demons, a day-trip out to the former Soviet nuclear submarine base at Paldiski can’t be beaten. Make the trip soon as the authorities are working hard to erase all visible reminders of the town’s shocking past. But while it lasts, raw and immediate, the history is every bit as compelling as in the Old Town - if not quite as pretty.

For information on organising your own weekend in Medieval Tallinn click here.
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