I have spoken a lot about the ‘Old Town’ of Tallinn in a few posts previously. For a golden-age-syndrome addict like me, walking within this 100 plus hectare space was probably what Owen Wilson’s character must have felt like in Midnight in Paris.
I had landed in Tallinn after an almost 6-hour journey from Berlin, and had five days to explore the place. But no sooner had I checked into my hostel and freshened up than I set out in the chilly Tallinn evening to get a taste of this part of the world. Tallinn had been on my bucket list for quite some years and I wasn’t going to let a bit of flight-weariness stop me from my first outing here.
The Old Town came into existence between the 13th and 16th centuries, when Estonia was part of the grand Hanseatic League: “a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe.” More detailed information here. The architectural elements seen in the Old Town are quite reminiscent of the town centres of other European countries which were part of the guild, such as Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and more.
The stone walls of this fortified old town still stand according to the original plans and in many areas you will come across guard towers. According to our guide, the original limestone walls snaking around the old town covered a distance of 4 km which housed eight gates and over 40 towers. To this day, more than half of that structure is intact. I didn’t keep a track on the number of towers – there are many. A quick glance at the map outside the Old Town gate got me excited. So here are some of my favourite spots from the Old Town aka Vana Tallinn.
Town Hall Square aka Raekoja Plats
As is the case with every old part of town in Northwestern Europe, this is that traditional square which houses the Town Hall. The tall spire of the Town Hall can quite easily be a North Star so to speak, a reference point in case you are lost. With the winding alleys of the Old Town, rest assured, you will get lost.
The Town Hall building was quite functional looking, having none of the intricate architectural detail one generally associates with these buildings. The best time to visit this place is late in the night or early in the morning, as the rest of the time it is thronging with people, thanks to the surrounding cafes and souvenir shops. I bumped into a few Indian restaurant managers, who were more than happy to see an Indian face in this part of Europe. Facing the Town Hall building are around five to six buildings in varying pastel shades which are attached to each other. Every one of them has a restaurant establishment on the ground floor.
Toompea Hill and its many viewing platforms
Back in the day, the Old Town of Tallinn was divided into the lower town (residents: regular folks) and the upper town (residents: royalty and nobility). But, the lower part of the town had houses made from stone whereas the upper part of the town used wood in its construction. As one would expect, that led to a lot of fires. So in terms of age of the buildings, the lower town has buildings from the 13th and 14th centuries, whereas the ones in the upper town due to reconstruction are relatively newer, dating back to 1700s.
Just beside the Toompea Hill is an imposing neoclassical structure, called the Stenbock House which houses the office of the Prime Minister of Estonia. This place does not have any z-level security that one would normally expect at such places. This was also the case with the Toompea Castle, which is this baroque structure painted in a peachy colour. This structure houses the Estonian Parliament, and I could only see two guards on its gate. This really piqued my interest and I asked my walking tour guide, Helena, about it and this what she had to say:
The true Estonian answer is: Nobody cares. It is the most uneventful country. Nothing happens here:) We have a lot of CCTV cameras here, but nothing really happens here to justify massive security. Even the Presidential Castle just has two guards, and those too are youngsters picked up from the mandatory army program.
Thanks to the height at which this upper part of town is located, it gives one sprawling panoramic views of Tallinn, not just of the light brown roof-topped buildings of the lower town, but also the Baltic Sea in the distance and of course the spires of the churches I shall discuss ahead.
The Kohtoutsa Viewing Platform was the first one I saw and was immediately taken in. The stony railing was glistening thanks to the mild morning showers. Thanks to the proximity to a water body, there are always seagulls around this spot. And they always stand by the railing as you are making photographs of the panoramic view of the city behind them, almost as though they are posing for you. You see five spires – one belonging to the Town Hall and the other four belonging to churches – from the viewing point. It can get a bit crowded during the late mornings and evenings thanks to the small area, but there is another viewing platform called Patkuli, which is at a slightly lower elevation, but a lot more spacious. I came here a couple of evenings, to watch the sun set and just take in a bit of the Vana Tallinn magic.
Kiek in de Kok
Literally translating to ‘Peep in the Kitchen’, this tower is located as you make your way from the erstwhile lower town to the upper town. It was meant to house artilleries and it reaches a height of around six floors when compared to modern buildings. Thanks to the height of this tower, it allowed anyone inside to literally peep into the kitchens of the houses in the lower town. A closer observation of this structure will reveal as many as nine cannon balls which are still stuck in various parts, remnants of a bombing attack back in the 15th century. It now houses a museum inside it.
This tower came up sometime in the 16th century and as the name implies, it has quite a few meters around its waist as compared to the other cylindrical towers. Thanks to its location close to the port, the Fat Margaret also served as a fortification and the first tower and gate for anyone coming from the Baltic Sea.
It houses a museum inside it as well. It was also used as a storehouse for artilleries, gunpowder and served as a prison at some point in time.
Cathedrals in a land where atheism rules
One of the surprising things I discovered on my walking tour here was that the majority of Estonians are atheist. Over 60 percent of the population does not follow any religion. So it’s surprising to see so many cathedrals in the Old Town and a few outside. You have the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St Olaf’s Church, St Nicholas’ Church, St Mary’s Cathedral and a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
One look at the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and you can immediately find similarities with the St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow. The onion-shaped domes of this Orthodox cathedral is a reminder of the Russian rule in this region. St Olaf’s Cathedral has a spire which rises like a sharp needle. It is indeed the highest spot in the Old Town, and at one point in history was the highest building in Europe. Having come up in the 12-14th century, this cathedral was from the era of Norway ruling Estonia. The reason behind having such a tall spire was to be able to see the Finn enemy across the Baltic Sea (you can cross the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to head to Helsinki, Finland). No, you couldn’t see Helsinki from the top of the spire then, and neither can you now. Legend has it that around seven men fell to their death during the construction of the spire as no one thought of adding a lightning conductor atop the spire till quite late. Thanks to its height, St Olaf’s spires were also used as a radio and surveillance tower till 1991 by the Russians.
The church which was quite different from the norm, however, was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It almost seems to be hidden in one of the many stone buildings in the Old Town. Unlike other churches, this one doesn’t have any distinguishing spires. But the simple paintings of the Virgin Mary surrounded by biblical scenes, painted out in a similar style, puts it in a stark contrast to the intricacies seen in a Catholic or Orthodox church. The reason behind ‘three-hands’ is that while the church was undergoing restoration when it burnt in the 1990s, a limestone replica of a hand was discovered. There’s also a letter box with this text, which puts things in context behind the three hands.
“Church to the Blessed Virgin with three hands. She is the protector of the innocent who have been wrongly convicted, deceived and sinned against. You can describe your problem and put a letter into the box. The priest will pray for the settlement your question”
A north European country with over 60 percent of the population being atheist, was another googly for me. As usual, the journalist in me questioned Helena about this and I learned that native Estonians were Pagans and never really followed any religion as such. They did believe in the notion that every living thing has a spirit, but that was about it. The over-600 year occupation of Estonia by the Germans (who brought Christianity), Swedes (who brought Lutheran Christianity), Russians (Orthodox Christianity) and so on were religions brought along by outsiders. The natives practiced their paganism underground and when Estonia finally got independence, takers for organised religion were under a third of the population. But Christmas is celebrated with great pomp, said Helena. “For those three December days, we are quite religious because we get a holiday. Same with Easter. No one would know the significance of it, but everyone embraces the holidays,” she said tongue firmly in cheek.
Danish King’s Garden
The Danish King’s garden is a wide open space in the surroundings of one of the wall and connects the Toompea Hill to the Lower Town. Legend says that this is the space where the Danish Flag came into existence. Back in 1219, this is where the then Danish King Valdemar II camped with his troops before conquering Estonia. It is said that during the battle with Estonians, the Danes got a sign in the form of a red flag with a white cross across it which eventually led them to victory and this flag, called Dannenbrog, became the flag of Denmark. Sounds quite convenient, doesn’t it.
The things that grab your attention in this spot in the 21st century though, are these faceless hooded sculptures, which almost look like stationary dementors from Potterverse. Called the three monks, these statues can creep you out around dusk as you make your way from the shortcut which leads from the Lower town to the entrance of the Danish King’s Garden.
This was one place I stumbled upon purely by accident. Well, it was a fragrance wafting from this courtyard which made me follow my nose. Sure enough, there was a chocolaterie inside (Pierre’s Cafe and Chocolaterie) this courtyard. It’s otherwise filled with workshops dealing with local arts and crafts. The uneven cobbled streets and the roundish structure of the courtyard made it look like not much had changed in the architecture for centuries. I parked myself in a grandfather chair in the Chocolaterie to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate while watching the people outside.
There are tonnes of other places to see inside the Old Town, but these were the ones that left an impact on me and ones I still recall fondly without having to hunt for the photos.
The best plan when going around the Old Town is to have no plan at all (of course, this is after you have got your bearings). Taking the free guided walk is a good idea to get the lay of the land. Then, you just explore the side alleys at your own leisure.
Sometimes follow senses other than sight, and you shall be duly rewarded.
More from the Tallinn trip
Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon