Sunday 4 September 2016
Today we are to meet our local guide at 9.00 so have a fairly leisurely start. Breakfast doesn’t open until 8,00 and by then there are a huge number of guests queued up waiting to go in and it is pandemonium once we get inside. But there is a good selection of different food and drink options.
As we discovered last night, we are an easy walk away from the Old Town. We have a walking tour through the fascinating and picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Old Town of Tallinn, which is an exceptionally complete and well-preserved medieval northern European trading city on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Tallinn was founded in 1248, but the earliest human settlements are over 5,000 years old, making it one of the oldest capital cities of Northern Europe. Due to its strategic location, the city developed as a significant trade hub of the Hanseatic League during the major period of activity of this great trading organization in the 13th-16th centuries.
Linguistically and economically, Estonia’s closest ties are to Finland, despite the best efforts of other nations who have invaded over the centuries. In 1561, as a coveted trading port, it was seized by the Swedes and held for 150 years until the Russians took over and industrialised much of the Medieval town. The colourful houses of the crooked streets reflect the German, Scandinavian and Russian periods of Tallinn’s history. Estonia became independent briefly in 1920 but after World War II started, it acceded to the Soviet Union in 1940, and was later occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. After the Nazi retreat in 1944, it was annexed by the USSR. It wasn’t until just 25 years ago in August 1991 that an independent democratic Estonian state was established again.
Tallinn is formed from a combination of an upper town on a limestone hill and a lower town at its foot. The upper town (Toompea) with the castle and the cathedral has always been the administrative centre of the country. The lower town has preserved to a remarkable extent the medieval urban fabric of narrow winding streets, many of which retain their medieval names, and fine public and burgher buildings, including town wall, Town Hall, pharmacy, churches, monasteries, merchants’ and craftsmen’ guilds, and the domestic architecture of the merchants’ houses.
Around every corner is another beautiful vista or another onion dome or steeple, or some spectacular decorative feature that we just don’t see on modern buildings. Coming from a relatively young country like New Zealand it is awe-inspiring to soak up the layers and layers of history, and see a town that hasn’t changed a whole lot since medieval times.
We start walking through the flower markets to the Viru Gate of the old city wall – apparently the giving of flowers is a very important part of the culture here. We also see our first glimpse of the beautiful knitwear that the area is famous for. First stop is town hall square, surrounded by a number of fascinating buildings including the 14th century gothic Town Hall, and one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe (continuously running since the early 15th century; the oldest commercial enterprise and also the oldest medical establishment in Tallinn).
There are so many different churches of all different denominations and being a Sunday all are being used. We get to peak inside a Swedish church, a Russian Orthodox Church and many more – all were extravagantly decorated with gilt and copious icons. It was fantastic to hear singing, organ music and the sound of church bells.
- St Nicholas’ Church was a fascinating conglomeration of different churches all built onto each other over the centuries. It is not to be confused with the Niguliste Church of St Nicholas that has a domed roof.
- The Lutheran Dome Church
- Church of the Holy Spirit has Tallinn’s oldest clock, created by a well-known wood carver in the late 17th century.
Then we climb up to the upper section of the town, Toompea, going past:
- The Eye of the Needle (through which criminals were said to be able to escape if they repented their sins).
- Freedom Square and the Freedom Monument commemorating Estonia’s 1918-1920 War of Independence
- Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the Kitchen) is an old nickname for the tower, from the ability of tower occupants to see into kitchens of nearby houses.
- Maiden’s Tower (once used as a prison for prostitutes)
- Short Leg Gate Tower: gate used to be kept locked at night to stop the townsfolk from bothering the nobility up in Toompea. The gate was also supposed to stop the ghosts coming up the hill from the Danish King’s Garden which was a popular duelling ground for aristocrats. This is apparently one of the most haunted areas of Tallinn (and you can go on ghost tours if you are so inclined).
- Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
- Pink Parliament Buildings
Then it is back through the Toompea wall and down to Toompark, strolling through the remains of a flower festival with a beautiful backdrop of the lower town walls, past Monastery Gate and then along Laboratooriumi Street: the medieval wall with towers goes along one side of the street and some residential houses are on the other. Between the houses is the most bizarre church of Tallinn: a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church dedicated to the Three-handed Mother of God.
We see the large round Horse Mill, dating from 1379, was originally used for milling flour when the city was under siege or when watermills could not be used due to lack of water. The mill mechanism was operated by eight horses that turned it inside the building. It is now a theatre and the building behind is an upmarket hotel.
We have the afternoon free to look around, but first fortify ourselves with lunch at Lido (a Latvian self-service restaurant). I have a delicious wild berry and mozzarella salad and a spring water with cranberry, mint and lime.
Then we find an open-air Opera Festival in the park outside the Concert Hall and while away an hour or so listening to excerpts from operas such as Marriage of Figaro and Aida. It is also a fabulous place to people-watch: people seem to be very dressed up but there also performers dressed in whole range of different costumes wandering around and it is sometimes difficult to tell which are which.
Gill and I head back to the hotel for a rest as we are still feeling the effects of jet-lag. Later I leave Gill to sleep and join ‘the girls’ for a walk through the park and dinner back at the Lido.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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