Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is a very beautiful European city with a mixture of both modern and medieval architecture, with a bit of Russian thrown in.
Estonia has a very similar modern history to Latvia, with both countries being repeatedly invaded and ruled under soviet oppression. You can read more about that period of history in my Riga post: http://www.takingthemike.com/blog-1/2018/4/30/riga
In this post I will talk more about the medieval history of Tallinn, which coincidentally, also involves Russia and invasions. But why are the Baltic countries subjected to repeated invasion attempts? It is mainly down to geography and geo-politics as they are positioned between Russia and the rich empires of Europe, which made them very geographically lucrative in terms of trade and military strategy. They are both a wall and a bridge between Europe and Russia. Tallinn in particular became an important trading outpost and grew rapidly as a result. Fortification soon followed with construction of the first city walls beginning around 1265. Tallinn reached its fortification prime in the 1600s when it boasted 2.4km of wall and 46 towers.
Today most of the old town and city wall is still standing along with 26 of the towers, the most famous being the Kiek in de Kök which translates literally as "Peek into the Kitchen". This 38m brick monstrosity, built in the 1470s was so tall that the guards within the tower could look out and see into the kitchen of the nearby houses, hence the name. During the Livonia War (1558–1583), Russia's Ivan the Terrible attempted to destroy the tower with heavy canon fire, but failed as the tower was too strong. During the repairs, the Estonians decided to cement the cannonballs fired by Ivan onto the exterior wall of the tower for all to see as a symbol of defiance and absolute mockery to Ivan the Terrible. The inside of the tower is now part of the Tallinn City Museum, here you can learn much more about Tallinn history and its medieval arse kickary.
The Old Town
After admiring the Kiek in de Kök (from the outside, the museum was closed that day) I went for a wonder around the Old Town. This is, as you might expect the medieval part of Tallinn and contains within it many old buildings, churches, courtyards, cobbled streets and long narrow alleyways, everything you'd want from a medieval relic. Our tour guide took us to one alleyway in particular as it had an interesting back story. This alleyway was particularly long and narrow, even by Tallinn standards, which became problematic when it was fashionable for women to wear extremely wide dresses. Here, two women wearing these dresses walking in opposite directions would not be able to pass each other and in this situation it was the social etiquette for the younger lady to gracefully yield to the older lady. However no lady wanted to "admit" that they were older so both would yield resulting in a social impasse. A situation straight out of a "after you", "no, after you" comedy sketch. The problem got so bad that an alleyway enforcer had to be employed to keep the flow of people moving and prevent queues of arguing women forming.
Speaking of clothing, many of the people working in the old town, from waiters to food vendors, wear medieval costumes. I guess it is the standard work attire whilst working in the old town. To me, it made them look like extras from a Robin Hood film, but not in a bad way. The medieval theme is important for tourism in Tallinn and seems to be working as the number of tourists visiting Estonia and Tallinn has been steadily rising in recent years.
Some of the beautiful people of Estonia.
Some of the awesome staff at my hostel.
St. Olaf’s Church
There are many fantastic viewing points overlooking the old town, particularly in the western side, but one of the best in the middle of the old town is at the top of the St Olaf's Church. Modest and minimalistic with its plain white walls and sparse interior, the church itself is easy to walk past. However the church does boast an insane 123m tall narrow spire which you might not even notice from street level. At the base of the spire is a viewing platform. Here you can enjoy some of the best views of the city which I highly recommend, if you are willing to lumber yourself up many flights of narrow steep staircases.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
There are some signs of Tallinn's Russian history in the old town, most noticeably the large Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was built, rather comically, right in front of Tallinn's Parliament building, as a constant reminder of who was in charge. Its oppressive nature made it unpopular with the locals and it was scheduled for demolition in 1924 during Estonia's first period of independence. However due to lack of funding, demolition never started. The building is huge and granite was heavily used, so any demolition project would be a serious undertaking. During the USSR occupation of Estonia the cathedral fell into disrepair and neglect, primarily because the USSR officially had no religion and therefore would not fund the upkeep of the cathedral. After Estonia gained independence again the cathedral was restored. However, strangely enough I have heard rumours that there is still some talk of potentially demolishing the Cathedral, in order to make room for car parking for government officials at the Parliament building, which I think would be a insane waste of historic architecture. If they don't want the cathedral, at least turn it into an events hall or put a few climbing walls inside, just my personal opinion.
The Baltic Way
So it is impossible to talk about Tallinn's history without mentioning some of the soviet occupation. Without overlapping with my Riga blog post I can talk about The Baltic Way which was a peaceful demonstration that happen in 1989 in the form of what was I believe at the time, the world's longest ever human chain. Starting in Tallinn, 2 million people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania linked hands to form an unbroken chain that spanned 400 miles connecting the three Baltic capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. It was a show of defiance with the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania uniting in their desire to be free countries, free from the morally corrupt USSR. And I guess it worked to some degree as the demonstration gained wide spread attention of the global media and highlighted the struggles of the Baltic nations that many people probably didn't know existed.
After breaking free from Russian oppression and joining the EU, Estonia started the process of rebuilding. One of the areas that needed an overhaul was their telecommunication network. Finland, who had recently upgraded their system, offered Estonia their old unused equipment. Estonia however turned down this offer, citing they wanted to build their new system from the ground up and in the process one of the things they created was Skype. A wonderful piece of modern technology a lot of us take for granted. I certainly do. Travelling and being away from my family for extended periods of time whilst I gallivant around the world can be difficult. But Skypeing with my family often helps relieve the symptoms of home sickness.
But there is so much more to Tallinn and Estonia that I didn't have time to see. I also went in the spring when it was quiet, compared to the summer when they hold their big song and dance festival, as well as a medieval festival. Both of which I will definitely be back for. At some point. But now, I have to return to Helsinki, my last stop before flying to Asia.