Absolutely Enjoying Tallinn Estonia
I am now in the Old Town of Tallinn Estonia. It is beautiful fairytale city because of its well preserved medieval buildings and colourful, gabled façades. The cobblestoned streets add to the ambiance of this city that is enclosed by a great old wall. This wall was protection against greater powers like the Danish, Swedish, Polish, Germans and Soviets. After centuries of invasions and destruction, Tallinn, today, exudes a certain charm and beauty, that somehow makes this the most special of the three Baltics.
My hotel, the Rixwell Old Town, is the only hotel in Tallinn that is built into the original medieval city wall. My room, although small, is very comfortable and has the most amazing view of the steeple of the St. Olaf’s Church, which is almost at our doorstep.
Besides, it makes me feel like I’m living in the dark ages.
St Olaf’s Church is the city’s biggest medieval structure named after the sainted Norwegian king Olav II Haraldsson. The church was first mentioned in 1267 when it became one of the main churches in the Lower Town and formed its own congregation, which at first mostly comprised Scandinavian merchants and craftsmen and a few Estonians. By1523, the evangelical preaching’s of the then chaplain of the church, Zacharias Hasse, led to the start of the Reformation. Apparently, lighting is known to have struck the church tower around ten times, three of which led to extensive fires – in 1625, 1820 and 1931.
Once long, long ago, this town was enclosed by the medieval-era Great Coastal Gate (Suur Rannavärav) and Fat Margaret Tower (Paks Margareeta) which were built not only to defend the city from the seaward side of town, but also to impress any visitors arriving via the harbour. Originating in the 1300s, the Great Coastal Gate, along with the Viru Gates, are the last of six gates that controlled access to the town in medieval times.
During reconstruction in the early 16th century the Fat Margaret cannon tower was added with a diameter of 25 metres, a height of about 20 metres, and walls up to five metres thick. Although its name remains a mystery, some people insist that it was named for one of the larger cannons, while others hint at a cook called Margaret who once worked here.
Today it houses a museum which is under renovation and expected to open in the Fall of 2019.
Another great fat medieval fortification tower is Kiek in de Kök (Germ. “peek in the kitchen”) that got its name from a legend about some soldiers in the tower who liked to peek from the top of the tower into the windows of Lower Town kitchens. The Swedes, who ruled Estonia then, originally built these tunnels in the 17th and 18th centuries to move ammunition, supplies and troops in case the Russians attacked. It was abandoned for many years until it became a tourist attraction.
Perched on a limestone cliff and towering over the rest of the city, the Toompea Castle is a must-see site in this town. Ever since the German Knights of the Sword first built a stone fortress here in 1227-29, every foreign empire that ruled Estonia used the castle as its base. Today, appropriately, it’s home to Estonia’s Parliament.
The castle has been revamped countless times through the centuries, but still retains the basic shape it was given in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its Baroque façade dates back to the time of Catherine the Great. The tower, known as Pikk Hermann or Tall Hermann, is a vital national symbol: tradition dictates that whichever nation flies its flag over the tower also rules Estonia. As of now, each day at sunrise the Estonian flag is raised above the tower to the tune of the national anthem.
The large and richly decorated Russian Orthodox church was completed on Toompea Hill in 1900, when Estonia was part of the Czarist Empire. This is one of the most monumental examples of Orthodox sacral architecture in Tallinn, and comprises 11 bells, including Tallinn’s largest bell, which weighs 15 tonnes.
Built during the Czarist rule, the cathedral was originally intended as a symbol of the empire’s dominance – both religious and political – over this increasingly unruly Baltic territory.
The cathedral was dedicated to the Prince of Novgorod, Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky, who led the famous Battle of the Ice at Lake Peipsi in 1242, which halted the German crusaders’ eastward advance. It was deliberately placed in this prominent location right in front of Toompea Castle, on the same spot where a statue of Martin Luther had previously stood, to show the mainly Lutheran locals who was in charge.
I am now on my GPS and heading away from the Old Town towards the Freedom Square, Tallinn’s grandest public space. Over the years the square has been called by many names: the Straw Market, Peter’s Square and Victory Square etc., and in 1939, it was named Freedom Square. It’s cold today (12C) so there aren’t too many people around but I imagine it’s quite popular during the summer days. In the foreground is the monument to the War of Independence, which was unveiled on Victory day in 2009.
Whilst walking down a narrow cobblestoned street, I stumble across this inconspicuous Russian Orthodox church, the Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord. I am tempted to walk inside and find myself looking up at a rich interior with a complex history. There is also a beautiful service going on and soon I’m very much a part of the ritual, following the few worshippers carrying candles and offertory.
In 1629, the church rooms were used by Estonia’s first grade school (present day Gustav Adolf Gymnasium) and by Tallinn’s first printing house. Later they were turned into a Swedish garrison, which became a Russian garrison after the Great Northern War. That garrison was rebuilt, with the help of architect A. Melnikov, as the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in 1732.
St. Nicholas’ Church is another place of worship I came across. This church was dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron of the fishermen and sailors. Apparently, this was the only church in Tallinn which remained untouched by iconoclasm brought by the Protestant Reformation in 1523 (or 1524) because the head of the congregation poured molten lead into the locks of the church, so that the raging hordes could not get in. But subsequently, much of it was destroyed due to fires until restoration carried out under the guidance of conservator-restorer Villem Raam. In 1984 is was inaugurated as a museum and concert hall, where the collection of medieval art of the Art Museum of Estonia is displayed. Due to its excellent acoustics, the church is very popular concert hall.
This is the third and final Freedom Footprint from the three Baltic States. The Baltic Chain helped to publicize the Baltic cause around the world and symbolised solidarity among Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The positive image of the non-violent Singing Revolution spread among the Western media.
I have enjoyed visiting all three of these proud nations. It’s fascinating to think that despite so much occupation, destruction and defeat, these three nations have been rebuilt to maintain much of its old glory to stand tall and proud. The people of these nations are some of the friendliest I’ve met during my travels and have made me feel so welcomed.
I am now ready to head on to St. Petersburg, Russia.