Tallinn can easily get sidelined as a destination that is only known for its Old Town. Yes, the Old Town is the piece de la resistance of the Estonian capital. But there are other aspects to this city, which also deserve mentioning.
After exploring the Old Town to my heart’s content for two days, and just to get a break from all that old-world charm (yes, I am a golden-age syndrome addict), I decided to venture out into the nearby localities. The first stop: Kalamaja neighbourhood.
Kalamaja is an old part of Tallinn – although not as old as the fortified Old Town. A former Soviet Armed Forces base, the district is now renowned for its unique wooden houses. These structures date back to hundreds of years and one glance at these houses’ aged exteriors will tell you that they have seen many many monsoons.
Kalamaja translates to ‘fish harbour’ and considering its proximity to the Baltic Sea it is not hard to imagine how important a role fishing must have played in this locality. Around 1870s, the neighbourhood also started housing a lot of Soviet factories, thereby bringing with it a working class vibe to the place. Back then, Kalamaja was connected to St Petersburg, in Moscow, by a railroad.
As it is with places having this sort of historical background, Kalamaja was left to itself after the Soviets factories went kaputt and workers started leaving the place. The supposed ruin has now become desirable. Kalamaja today is the bohemian capital of Tallinn, attracting the creative types. I didn’t visit all the many art galleries and museums here, but spent most of my time just wandering through the quiet lanes. The idea wasn’t to tick off places to see here, but just to amble away time and get a feel of the place. Besides, the whole neighbourhood in itself is an art gallery: Wooden houses with interesting architecture paying homage to an era gone by; fresh coats of hues of red, green, yellow painted on some houses, depicting the pride the residents living inside must be feeling and some stone structures punctuating the row of wooden houses.
Thanks to its proximity to the Baltic Sea, the Kalamaja neighbourhood was always prone to attacks by invaders before the Soviets settled here. That’s the reason most of the houses here were made out of wood. In case the city anticipated an attack, the houses would be burnt down before people moved to the fortified Old Town. The current structures, therefore, aren’t older than a 100-150 years.
Most of the buildings I saw were two-three storey structures covered with wooden planks on all sides and having a defined structure with few variations.
During my flanerie, I didn’t see a single soul hanging by the window. It made me wonder, if anyone resided in these houses or of they were abandoned? Especially, because it was a warm July afternoon. It was quiet, except for the howling sound of the breeze. After a point, I even stopped photographing the buildings as I realised, I wasn’t doing any justice to the photographs, thanks to the constraints of space and the not-so-wide angle lens on my smartphone camera.
A little reading on the neighbourhood after a few days of leaving Tallinn, gave me the cliched answers. About how it’s now undergoing a revival as it has been discovered by artists. The restaurants in this neighbourhood are still relatively affordable than the ones at the Old Town square. But as a side-effect of not researching the place beforehand, I missed out on possibly exploring the abandoned Patarei Prison, which was right by the sea, and a glimpse of which I saw while hanging around at the shore.
Well, I guess one can’t always plan enough.
Thankfully, I didn’t spot any massive construction or renovation projects happening on my walk in this district. The spectre of gentrification wasn’t that explicit here. Having said that, the district has reinvented itself with concepts such as the Telliskivi Creative City that has revamped the abandoned warehouses in the area to house over 200 indie businesses. I did not visit these areas, as I was not really going by the map.
But I wonder, how long the status quo would remain.
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.
The Old Town of Tallinn has lots to offer — cobbled streets, limestone fortress walls, church steeples, old typography over some medieval looking inn, hand-drawn wooden carriages from which emanate fragrances of sweetened almonds and much more. It is the most well-preserved walled city which has earned the Old Town of Tallinn the tag of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I come from Mumbai, which also used to have fortifications. Not one bit of the erstwhile fort wall was left behind when the city authorities, then under British rule, decided to take the fortifications down between 1860-1874 for the city to grow. So I can only imagine that wall around the then H-shaped Bombay island.
Tallinn’s Old Town has a lot of its 13th century walled city plan, still in place. In a way, Tallinn’s Old Town is like a time capsule if you can unsee the touristy mores present all around you. Things can get overwhelming soon. It can then get tricky to focus on any one thing.
After many hours of walking spread out over three days, one thing started to emerge in the old city to me — the doors of houses and buildings which had retained the aesthetic of the eras gone by.
I was in Tallinn during the summer of 2017. Considering its geographical location, it’s safe to say that the cold climate dominates the city. The doors, therefore, were made out of wood — most of the ones that piqued my fancy at least.
Doors in Mumbai (back in the day) had a character to them, till everything became a sun mica polished affair with grilles on majority of them, to give an illusion of more space in this city. Doors in my native place and other rural parts of India that I have been to, still retain some character and you can see the wooden texture without much embellishments.
In Tallinn’s Old Town, doors to some buildings looked like they were just meant for one thing — arrest your attention. It made me wonder, how many feet must have passed through these doors, from the many centuries past. Oh the stories they could have told, if only they could speak. Most of the doors were closed, hinting at residential properties. Only the souvenir shops had open doors, thereby inviting you to closely observe them.
There was nothing elaborate in terms of design when it came to most of the doors. It went with the philosophy of the more modern architecture I had observed during my week long stay there. While function trumped form for most of the doors, it was the little things that differentiated them from one another.
An overuse of red with green demarcations on one door to the light brown pastels on the other. From a diamond shaped design on one, to the wooden portion in the top half replaced by glass in some. Floral flourishes on some to others which were intriguing enough to lead you down an underground cellar. Considering most of the structures are made of stone, inside the Old Town, painted in light pastel shades, the only dark colour profiles were seen on the doors of these buildings.
There is one door in particular that is quite popular in the Old Town. It is the door that leads to the house of Brotherhood of Blackheads — a brotherhood of unmarried, legally dependent, jobless German youth who could get acceptance to the Great Guild — a collective for artisans and merchants who were operating in Tallinn from the 14th century till around the 1920s.
The door stands out from all the others, and why not? The facade of the door was designed in the 16th century. The last members of the Blackhead brotherhood were around till the 1940s, before being sent away by the Russians. The distinguishing factor of the door on this house is the presence of intricate art work on the top portion of the door, with a wooden bust of their patron, St Maurice. The brotherhood exists in Hamburg, Germany, to this day.
There were parts of the city where the doors didn’t seem like they had kept up with their contemporaries. Here, I realised, the crowds were also non-existent, so there was fairly little incentive to ensure the door looked its best. The doors here had the paint peeling off, the inner wooden texture visible and appearing brittle. Basically, a door screaming for a paint and polish job.
I would have loved to talk to the residents living behind those doors. But on my first day in Tallinn, my walking tour guide had informed me that Estonians are generally quite reserved by nature, and will not immediately strike a conversation with random strangers.
I tried my luck with some strangers on the street, but to walk up to a house to speak to the residents was a bridge too far, for an introvert like me.
There have rarely been any instances, where I have immediately been sold on a location – after watching a TV show.
Ever since I saw that episode of Travel with Rick Steves on Tallinn in 2014, this Estonian capital had already made its way to my travel bucket list. A city, touching the Baltic sea, with an old town surrounded by fortifications – majority of which was still standing – was all it took to have me convinced.
So when I had a couple of weeks free, after my German fellowship (three months in Germany, whaat?), it was really a no-brainer as to where I would be headed. This is the thing I love about Europe. Getting access to so many different cultures, without having the hassle of bothering with paperwork – God bless the Schengen Visa.
As I made my way outside the airport, I was introduced to a slice of the tech savviness that is part of this country’s DNA. I purchased a travel card, Uhiskaart, for which you pay a 2 Euro deposit and load some balance for local travel. Having come from dot-on-time German public transport, I immediately realised that Tallinn’s sense of time was stretchable, after I waited ages for my bus to the city. That kind of reminded me of Mumbai, where time-wise things are fluid.
Tallinn streets were empty as my bus made its way outside the airport terminal. Only when I had made my way into the city centre, did I see more people around. Turns out the population of the whole of Estonia is a mere 1.3 million people, out of which around 450,000 live in Tallinn. That’s 1/20th the population of the city I come from. To put things into perspective there are more people living in Andheri than in the whole of Estonia.
When I told friends that I am going to Tallinn for a week, I got blank stares. ‘A week in Tallinn?,’ many questioned. ‘You can wrap it up in three days,’ said my German roommate. Ideally, if I were up to it, I could even wrap it up in two days. But I was not really looking at having a hectic tick-off-the-to-do-list vacation. I’d booked myself into this hostel – The Monk’s Bunk – for a good five days and all I was looking forward to, was travelling at a really slow pace.
The moment I checked into my hostel, I was treated to a shot of local cognac by the name Vana Tallin (which translates to Old Tallinn). The mere thought of that translucent dark brown concoction still makes me salivate. It was sweet with a hint of orange. There was a mild bite. A liquer I could easily have more than a couple of shots of. One thing I regret, is not picking up a bottle of it from Tallinn. That shot of Vana Tallinn immediately set in motion the friendly vibes I would continue to keep getting from this tiny European capital.
Most of my time in Tallinn was spent walking around the Old Town, the only reason for which I had decided to go there in the first place. After a point, I sort of became familiar with some roads, as I had exhausted the list of free things to see and do.
With Tallinn, walking led to a plethora of surprises. Discovering a rundown beach by the Baltic sea and taking a walk to one end of it, I stumbled on an abandoned prison which was not accessible, but only visible from a hole in door. I wasn’t expecting to see many Indian restaurants in Tallinn as it’s not really a must-do among the Indian tourists. I was proven wrong on my first evening. After a few walks around the main Town Hall Square, a couple of Indian waiters would flash a smile at me asking me my ‘haal chaal’. I relented and had dinner one evening at an Indian restaurant. Spoke at length with the Andhra owner of the place in Hindi (I was speaking with someone in that language in almost two months). Turned out there was a whole community of Indian traders in Tallinn’s old town. Were I in my journalist mode, I would have surely thought up a story idea.
On another day, I walked into an alcove from where I heard a lot of chatter. This led me to a courtyard which was surrounded by local handicrafts shops and a bakery which was adorned with old grandfather chairs. I just had to have a hot chocolate sitting in one of those cosy chairs.
You’ll see symbols of religion all around you in the old town, but surprisingly, Estonians aren’t a religious bunch. With over 90 percent of the population not following any religion. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or surprised. But when you consider how technologically advanced this tiny nation is, that detachment from religion seems logical. Having just got independence from Soviet Russia in 1991, Estonia adopted technology early to avoid concentration of power. It’s the only country in the world which offers an e-Residency program. I can go on and on about how tech-forward Estonia is, but I’ll stick to travel.
A side-effect of the being ruled by Denmark, Sweden and finally Russia is that a lot of Estonians are quite reserved by nature. It’s a pretty young country.
Nicola, the effervescent walking tour guide who always had us walking tour participants in splits with her sardonic humour, recalled an amusing instance, to draw home the point of indifference shown by Estonians, to each other. Once when she was travelling in a bus, she noticed one of her neighbours in front of her with her shoe laces undone. But because Estonians generally keep to themselves and are awkward at the aspect of drawing any attention, she didn’t bother telling her neighbour about her laces. This – said Nicola – was considered normal behaviour.
“So don’t get demoralised if elderly Estonians don’t return your smile. It’s just how we are,” she said.
I had five days to figure out if this was indeed true.