Tallinn #1: Old Town and KGB Vangikongid

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February 4th 2019
Published: February 19th 2019
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I was going to take the tram from a stop that was apparently nearer to the hostel, but after speaking to the receptionist, I decided to head to the central station as there would be no ticket machine at the other stop. I trudge up to the station and when I tried to use the ticket machine I found out that it was card only, great! Then my card wouldn't work on the machine. Seriously, could anything else go wrong this morning. I headed into the station and found a convenience store that sold tickets, 2.90 euros, and then made my way back outside. I only had to wait couple of minutes for the tram and it was heaving when I got on. Monday morning rush hour in Helsinki. The journey to the ferry terminal took about 20 minutes and the tram stop was right in front of the ferry building. Perfect! When I booked my ticket, I had been sent an e-ticket, so I was able to scan that and head straight up to the departure area. It was already really busy.

There are several different ferry lines that operate between Helsinki and Tallinn. I had gone for the cheap option on Eckero Line, which left at the not too early time of 9 am and the ticket was only 10 euros. I was taking the MS Finlandia. The wait to board wasn't too long and we were soon called for boarding.Our tickets were scanned again before we were allowed to enter the ship. I had read online that there were like zero seats on the ferry and to grab one as soon as soon as you saw it. I saw that there were plenty of seats available in the bar, so nabbed one of those. I don't know if this was the main bar as it was rather small, but it seemed like a good place to sit for the journey. The window seats had all been take, but from my seat I could still see outside. The journey took two hours and fifteen minutes and was very uneventful, which is always a bonus. The ferry wasn't actually too busy. I passed most of the time by reading and looking out of the window. It was crazy to see the sheets of ice on top of the water and the boat sailing through them. The bar sold food and drink, so I got myself some breakfast. They do a breakfast set for 8.50 euros. The yogurt/smoothie was nice and the beef pastrami bagel was bloody lovely. I was sad that i would be using a different ferry company for the return as it meant I wouldn't be able to have another one. The coffee was pretty rank, but I drank it in the hope it would keep me awake.

Disembarking the ferry was smooth and painless. It definitely felt colder as I stepped out of the ferry terminal. There was also a light flurry of snow, which made me happy. I had some instructions on how to get to the hostel, but I still got a bit lost and the walk in the cold took longer than I wished it had. It was too early for me to check in to my room, but I was able to dump my stuff and have a coffee in the hostel kitchen to warm myself up. From there, I decided to head over to the Old town as it wasn't far from where I was staying. I pretty much fell in love with the Old Town as soon as I entered it. All the buildings were so colourful and pretty. I wandered along the street taking care as there was a bit of snow and ice around. I came to Raekoja plats, which is the Town Hall Square. It also marks the centre of the Old Town. I quickly realised that my hostel was in a pretty good location. The Town Hall Square is ringed with lots of pretty buildings, which all seemed to be restaurants and souvenir shops. I wandered around a few of the side streets attached to the square and found a restaurant that I wanted to eat at, at a later date. I wasn't feeling too hungry, so decided to save that place for later. Instead, I headed back to a place I had spotted earlier, Cafe Centrale. The restaurant was pretty quiet when I entered. This ended up being a bit of a theme on this trip, and I did enjoy how quiet everywhere was in Tallinn. I was going to go for the special that the restaurant had advertised, but I changed my mind and opted for the lasagne and a glass of Glühwein or glögi as it is known here. I thought the waitress was a bit rude as she asked if that was all. I felt like saying my imaginary friends were on a diet. The glögi was really nice and i enjoyed sipping on that and letting it warm my bones. I think that they had forgotten about the lasagne in oven as it came out looking rather blackened and carcinogenic. The large amount of grated Parmesan on the top couldn't hide how overcooked the top layer was, points for trying though. The lasagne wasn't too bad and had lots of gooey melty cheese inside, which kept me happy. Warm once more, I headed back to the main square.

At one side of the square, there was the Town Hall building. This building dates back to the 15th century. it is the only surviving Gothic Town Hall in Northern Europe. It was also the seat of the local government, but is now mainly only used for ceremonial purposes. Unfortunately, because it is out of season, it is only open by appointment, so I couldn't go in for a look around. I did a circuit of the square and took in the rather large Christmas tree in the centre. It looked pretty. From there, I headed down a small side street, in which I found a very cute red building. I think it was another souvenir shop, so I didn't bother to go inside. This small street lead onto a larger street, which was filled with more pretty pastel coloured buildings. I just loved how picturesque everything was. I wandered up and down the street rather aimlessly, but it didn't bother me. Some of the buildings had plaques in front of them that detailed the history of the buildings. One of the buildings I passed was the oldest coffee shop in the city. I came to the KGB Vangikongid, which the former KGB headquarters and prison cells in Tallinn at the corner of Pagari and Pikk Streets. I remembered briefly reading that the prison cells had been opened to the public as a museum and I headed down to the basement to take a look. Well, I didn't get very far as the cashier couldn't break a 50 euro note and I didn't want to pay by card due to the extra fees that I would get charged, so I had to give up on that idea for the time being. I took a walk down to the end of the street, where there was a very medieval looking gate to entrance/exit to the old town. There was also a path leading up to the park next to the gate, so I climbed up that carefully as it was covered with snow and ice. I got some good views of the surrounding area.

I was still feeling a bit annoyed about not being able to visit the museum so I headed back to the hostel earlier than I had anticipated to check into my room. The process was a bit of a pain at the hostel, too, as they had no change, so I ended up going to the convenience store that was a couple of minutes walk away to break a large note. At least, I got a peanut Lion bar out of it, so it wasn't all bad. I took a quick rest and charged my phone for a bit, before heading back out and to the KGB prison cells museum. I paid my entrance fee and headed through to the cells. The first thing that hit me was the smell. It was damp and decaying odor, with something else mixed in, too. Fear? Despair? That's what it felt/smelt like to me, or maybe the wine from earlier had gone to my head. The museum is pretty small, but still there is a lot of information to take in. The building was originally built to be a residential dwelling, but later hosted the first executive power of the Republic of Estonia and interim meetings of the government in March 1918, when independence was still pretty fragile. During the Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920), commands were sent from this dwelling and the War Ministry of the Republic of Estonia operated here until 1940. The building was later used by the police from March 1991, before and after the restoration of independence. The upper floors have now returned to the building's original purpose and are used for people to live in. However, during the time of the USSR the building was home to the headquarters of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the Estonian SSR or NKVD, which later became known as the KGB. Each cell was laid out a little differently and showed what went on in the building. There was also an information board in each cell to describe the horrors that occurred in the building. It must have been absolutely terrifying for the prisoners.

In October 1940, the house became the 'house of horrors' when the NKVD moved into the building. They didn't discriminate who they victimised as Estonian politicians, state officials, businessmen, intellectuals, military officers, War of Independence veterans and public figures were all imprisoned and interrogated. Anybody against the Communist regime would feel their wrath. The victims were beaten and tortured, and then either sentenced to a long term in a gulag prison camp or death. One of the cells was a mock up of an interrogation situation, with the low lights, a desk, two uncomfortable looking stools and a bright lamp on the desk. There was a video being projected on the wall and it was someone telling about what went on here. During the Nazi occupation of Estonia, the cells were not used. However, when the Russians regained control of the area, the building was used from 1944 to 1989 by the KGB and its predecessors. Those imprisoned at Paragi were not allowed to sleep and were given insufficient food. They were threatened with violence and this threat was extended to their families, too. Some of the cell doors were lined up outside the cells. They looked really small and I could imagine feeling really claustrophobic when the door shut. The upper floors of the building were used by the KGB to monitor Estonian society in order to halt any dissent. At the end of the corridor, there were some tiny cupboard like cells. These were used as a place of temporary isolation for the prisoners. There were many different types of cupboards; some had space for a small stool, while others would only allow the prisoner to crouch. At the other side of the building, there was a small exhibit entitled the Holodomor Victims Memorial. This exhibit detailed the man-made famine that ravaged the Ukraine in 1932-33. It is estimated that the famine killed between 7-10 million people. It was a truly eye-opening experience for me to read about this famine, that I had never heard of before.The KGB Prison Cells museum, while small, was very interesting and I definitely learnt a lot from my visit.

After the museum, I was done. I headed back to the hostel via the supermarket, which wasn't too hard to find. People must think that I'm a right weirdo when I visit a supermarket in Europe as I spend far too long fawning over the cheese, deli meats, and other things that are difficult to find or cost a fortune in Asia. I filled my basket with goodies. The prices were all pretty reasonable. Back at the hostel, I chilled for a bit before making myself a small dinner and having some wine. It had been a pretty long day and I was in need of an early night.

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