Saved: December 29th 2012May 31st 2006
Viru Gates - Entrance to the Old Town
There’s something disconcerting about standing beside an empty baggage carrousel in a strange country without your luggage. Worse is the ominous sound of silence as the belt grinds to a halt. Welcome to Estonia!
Our adventure began at Manchester Airport. “I’m sorry, sir,” said the woman behind the ticket collection counter. “I’m afraid your flight has been cancelled. But don’t worry; you’ve been booked on another one. Finnair to Helsinki, then a connecting flight to Tallinn. You’ll actually arrive half and hour earlier than you would’ve done!” With the deal thus sweetened, we headed off to check our bags in. “You know what this means?” I said to Jodie as we waited in the queue. “We’ve been given a one way ticket to HELL…sinki!” And the bad jokes continued for quite some time afterwards.
Our first Morning in Tallinn was a beautifully sunny day. Our bags had eventually turned up the previous evening. Someone from the airport had dropped them off for us. No drama, and so after a good night’s sleep, we headed off to the Old Town. Beginning at the Viru Gates, the two picturesque towers are all that remain of the once extensive gate system of
St Catherine's Passage
the old city wall. Once past them, we were dismayed to see a McDonald’s restaurant. Bad enough to have one at all, but in the Old Town, somehow it didn’t seem right. Regardless, we carried on, suddenly finding ourselves walking along a medieval-looking cobbled street. Small studios selling handmade glassware, cloth, jewellery and leatherwear made up one side of the lane.
Known as St Catherine’s Passage, the lane is regarded as Tallinn’s most picturesque. It comprises of a row of fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth structures. Peering through the open doorway of one such establishment, we could see someone blowing down a tube to create a glass ornament. We stopped awhile to admire the work before moving on.
The picturesque Town Hall Square was literally teeming with people. As well as medieval markets, the square has served as a site for tournaments, festivals and executions for over 700 years. One notable beheading involved a priest called Panicke. “It says here,” I said to Jodie, referring to the guidebook. “That Panicke got really drunk and decided to order a pancake from an inn. After tasting it, he declared it horrible and told the serving girl to fetch him another. He
didn’t like that one either and started to lose his temper. When the third one was not to his liking, he became enraged. In a drunken fury, he grabbed an axe and slaughtered the poor girl.”
Jodie looked shocked. “I think I’ll give the pancakes a miss in Tallinn.”
“And,” I said. “Panicke got his head chopped off near the edge of the square. Let’s see if we can find the exact spot! Look for two long cobblestones on the ground making an L shape.” Neither of us could see any sign of them. And after a few minutes of fruitless scanning, we gave up altogether. Most probably, one of the many open-air cafes that had been set up along the edges of the square had covered the spot. We decided to try one out.
Sipping our beverages, we took in our surroundings. Café’s, festooned with beautiful girls in medieval costume, took up almost three sides of the square, with the remaining side being occupied up by the grand looking Town Hall. Records show that it was constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries. The next morning, Jodie and I would climb the tower, but for now,
we sipped our drinks and then headed towards the Holy Spirit Church.
Small in comparison to other churches in the Old town; the Holy Spirit Church nevertheless forms an important part of Tallinn’s history. The first Estonian services were held in the church, and in the 16th century, a pastor named Johann Koell, published what is believed to be the first Estonian book. The most striking part of the church, however, is the blue and gold clock. Added in the 17th century, it’s Tallinn’s oldest public timepiece.
Soon we came to a fork in the road. Cat’s Well stood in the middle. In medieval times, it was a major source of water for the townsfolk of Tallinn. But after a while, people started to believe a water spirit lived in the well. They thought that if they didn’t give it regular animal sacrifices - usually stray cats - then he’d become angry. Depending on which guide book you read, the spirit would either flood the town or make the well run dry. Thankfully, by the 19th century the well had fallen into disuse and was eventually covered up. Today, another outdoor café sat just across from it.
Kiek in de Kok
Climbing up a narrow street towards Toompea Hill, we passed Kiek in de Kök, a large, medieval cannon tower. Literally translating to ‘peek into the kitchen,’ soldiers posted on the tower could look down nearby chimneys and see into kitchens, hence the name. Today, Kiek in de Kök is a museum containing exhibits chronicling Tallinn’s history.
“Halloo, on teie a sigaret, palun?” I turned around to see a young man smiling at me.
I shrugged apologetically. “I’m sorry, I only speak English.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “Of course. I thought you local man. I only ask for a cigarette.” He looked mildly embarrassed. We told him we didn’t smoke. Jodie asked if he was Estonian. The man nodded. “Yes, but I have two brothers in St Petersburg! Tell me, what you think of Tallinn?” We told him we thought it was a friendly, beautiful city. A place to recommend to our friends back home. He seemed pleased and wished us a happy stay. With that, he was off, soon mingling into the ambling crowds. Five minutes later we arrived at Toompea Hill.
Toompea Castle, the largest structure on Toompea Hill, was actually built by the Danes
Orthodox Cathedral - Welcome to Moscow!
in the 13th century. King Valdemar II invaded from the north and was eventually victorious. In celebration, his men built a stone fortress. And there began seven hundred years of foreign rule in Estonia.
The onion-domed Orthodox Cathedral dominates Toompea’s landmarks. Designed by an architect from St Petersburg in 1900, it was meant to symbolise Russia’s power over its outer provinces, but nowadays, it’s simply a beautiful building for worship. Inside was equally astounding. Mosaics, religious art and extraordinary icons were everywhere. We wandered around, taking in the beauty on display.
Back in the lower town, along Pikk Street, we came to the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads. The brotherhood was a guild of young, unmarried merchants who held fair sway in medieval Tallinn. They’d organise celebrations and tournaments, as well as sorting out the city’s defences. Today, the building is notable because of its beautifully carved wooden door.
Further down Pikk, we came to the Three Sisters, a trio of splendidly restored 15th century terraced houses full of medieval charm. Each house is slightly smaller than the next, thus accounting for their name. Today, the Three Sisters operate as a luxury hotel, one out of
Toompeas Castle Walls
our price range, unfortunately. Just along from them is an impressive archway known as the Great Coast Gate. It’s one of only two remaining medieval gateways left in Tallinn, the other being Viru Gate at the other end of Town. Adjoining the gateway is the prominent Fat Margaret’s Tower, named so because at the time, it was Tallinn’s widest building. A large cannon tower with five metre thick wall, Fat Margaret provided awesome defence against bombardment.
“Isn’t it great?” I commented to Jodie. The sun was shining, the streets were clean, the buildings interesting. “Tallinn is beautiful.” Jodie smiled, still regarding the massive tower before us. Then she turned to me, kissing me on the nose. “Thank you for bringing me here. Its…amazing!”
St Olev’s Church, Tallinn’s largest medieval structure, was back along Pikk Street. Five hundred years previously, a massive spire was built on top of the church. At the time, it made St Olev’s the tallest building in the word. The spire made an impressive lightning rod. Three times the building burned to the ground until a smaller steeple was fitted. Even so, it was still tall enough for KGB to use it as an antenna
House of Blackheads Doorway
for radio communications.
"Listen to this,” I told Jodie. “According to legend, when construction of St Olev’s first begun, local merchants decided they wanted to build the tallest building in the world. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a strange man appeared. He said he’d build the church, but only for a hefty wad of cash. The merchants couldn’t afford this, but deal was eventually struck. The stranger would work for free but only if someone could correctly guess his name by the time the church was finished.”
According to the tale, the stranger started working immediately. Everyone tried to guess his name but no one got it right. As the church neared completion, the merchants got worried. They knew they didn’t have enough money to pay the strange man so they resorted to underhand tactics. They sent a spy to the man’s house. Standing outside the window, the scout heard a woman singing to her baby. ‘Sleep, my baby, sleep. Olev will be home soon with enough gold to buy the moon.’ With the man’s name now known, the merchants rushed to the church. He was up on the steeple attaching a cross. At hearing his name, Olev lost
St Olev's Church
his balance and fell. He died at the scene and the town didn’t have to pay up.”
“What happened to his wife?” asked Jodie.
“The townsfolk threw her down Cat’s Well. The baby too.”
Jodie turned white. “You’re joking!”
I laughed. “Yeah. Just made that last bit up. It doesn’t say what happened to her.”
During Soviet times the building at 59 Pikk Street was the most feared establishment in Tallinn. Thousands of people were interrogated and then either shot or sent to Siberia. As Jodie and I approached the old KGB Headquarters, we realised we’d actually walked past it twice already. So nondescript was the building, it was that easy to miss. One feature was particularly ominous though. Unlike every other building along the street, the KGB Headquarters had its cellar windows bricked up. It wasn’t hard to guess why.
According to our guide book, Olde Hansa offered medieval-style traditional Estonian cuisine, an experience not to be missed. We decided to give it a try. Inside was suitably dark, lit only by candles. Serving wenches carried jugs of ale and plates of meat. As we sat down, a waiter appeared, handing
us a wrapped napkin containing cutlery. “Here are your weapons!” he boomed. “Enjoy Olde Hansa!”
As a starter, I ordered dried elk meat. It came in a cloth bag tied with a piece of string. Unwrapping it, I stared at the contents “Do you want a bit of reindeer?” I said to Jodie, putting a strip of meat in my mouth. “You can have a red bit if you want. It must be the nostrils.”
“Don’t be disgusting. What’s it like?”
I chewed on the tough leathery piece of meat. It tasted vaguely of beef. “Salty,” I replied. “But okay.” My main meal was even stranger. Elk, boar and bear sausages with an unusual side accompaniment of what can only be described as things from a forest. The menu had made no mention of the side servings otherwise I might have chosen differently. Brandishing my pronged weapon, I prodded the things. Through deduction, we worked out there was sauerkraut, turnip, something unrecognisable with ginger in it, and to top it all, a mixture of red and black berries. It was a truly hideous concoction. Where was Panicke, the pissed-up priest when I needed him? Perhaps a public
View through Great Coast Road
execution might put a stop to this madness. I ate the sausages (which were actually really tasty) and the turnip, but left the rest. I washed it down with a bizarre tasting herbal beer, a meal of truly strange proportions. Nevertheless, I was still happy with my choice. It wasn’t everyday a person got to eat elk, boar and bear in the same meal. Hooray to Olde Hansa
The next morning was our last day in Estonia. On the 9th March 1944, with Nazi Germany still occupying Estonia, the Russian air force bombed Tallinn, killing more than 500 people. It left 20,000 homeless. The worst hit was Harju Street where an entire block of houses was reduced to rubble. As we approached the scene, Jodie and I could see the remains of the destroyed buildings in a grassy area. The sight was only rediscovered in 1988. We were the only tourists there.
After a few drinks in one of the market square’s open air cafes, we decided to climb the Town Hall Tower. At nearly 200 feet, getting to the top would mean a gruelling climb up a spiralling stone staircase. Worse would be the steps - they’d
Fat Margaret Cannon Tower
actually get bigger the further up we went. And then the actual staircase - the higher up the tower it spiralled, the narrower the walls got. Claustrophobia would be a distinct possibility. But neither of us knew any of this as we paid 50 Kroons to get in. A sign on the tower entrance said, Entrance Is At Your Own Peril! We climbed the first step.
At the half way stage, on a small platform, we stopped to catch our breaths. I actually felt quite light-headed and could tell Jodie was feeling the same. My thighs were burning. Just then a man in his late fifties appeared from below. He was red in the face and panting badly. “Bloody hell,” he blurted in English. “I ‘ope they’ve got an ambulance crew up the top.”
Soon we reached the summit. Five or six other people were already there. All looked knackered and on the verge of collapse. The view was amazing though. Our trip to Estonia was over. We went to the airport happy with our third mini-break of 2006. Tallinn: a hearty mixture of medieval Europe, imperialist Russia, all sprinkled with a hint of Scandinavian.
KGB Headquarters - note the bricked up cellar windows
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