TALLINN'S MEDIEVAL HEART
My son and I are seated at a big, rough-hewn wooden table in Olde Hansa, feeling like we are experiencing some sort of time travel, plucked from the 21st Century and transported back into the Dark Ages. The only light in the old tavern comes from hundreds of candles which, while atmospherically appealing, also make it difficult to fully determine what is on our plate. What we are eating is elk steaks, rabbit, bear and boar sausages, cabbage soup and lentils and I'm washing mine down with a goblet of honey beer. It is excellent, if mysterious. Minstrels entertain us, while our serving wench, attired in period garb, tells me that the owners consulted historical experts to see what authentic fare should be put on the menu.
The restaurant might seem unique in many places but not here in Tallinn, the diminutive capital of Estonia. Tallinn's Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. The charming area, dating back to the 13th Century, is an addictive warren of maze-like alleyways, grand squares, narrow buildings and cobbled streets. Most of the ancient hamlet's merchant quarters and cellars are home now to candle-lit coffee houses and restaurants such as ours, as Tallinn boasts a café culture to rival Vienna.
A stroll through Tallinn, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a walk into the past. Over the centuries, the Estonian capital, with its coveted position on the Baltic Sea just 60 km across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, has fallen under German, Swedish, Danish, Czarist Russian and Soviet rule, and is more a hybrid creation than many Estonians would care to admit. Don't miss the Tallinn City Museum with its entertaining historic displays, or the wonderful artwork in St. Nicholas's Church.
Market Town Square
The Old Town is divided into two sections, the Upper Town on Toompea Hill, which was once home to the local gentry, and the Lower Town, which surrounds Town Hall Square. From the Upper Town one can enjoy the sweeping views of the Lower Town and its heart, the Raekoja Plats or main square, a broad, sloping market square ringed by pastel-coloured medieval buildings, where knights once showed off in chivalrous tournaments, and criminals were chained to pillories for public humiliation. Stone bastions, including 26 watchtowers, still front parts of the medieval village and the old moat is now a beltway of green parks that surrounds the town.
Remnants of Old City Wall
The viewpoint also looks down upon Lutheran spires topped with rooster weathercocks, the cupolas of Orthodox churches, a beautiful gothic Town Hall, baroque spires, narrow streets lit up for the dinner trade and the tiled, red-roofed buildings of a medieval village amazingly intact despite centuries of occupation. In fact, Tallinn's Old Town managed to maintain its character throughout the Soviet period, unlike so many other parts of the empire where the crudeness of Soviet power purposefully obliterated relics of other times.
View of Old Town
Since 1991 Estonia has been independent and the country's progress has been astounding. Estonia boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the European Nation, which it joined in 2004, and Finnish and other European companies have invested a great deal in their smaller neighbour. Tallinn is slowly being discovered as the true gem that she is.
Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky
While tourists see a peaceful scene today, Estonians still see reminders of dark times. During a bus tour of the city Juhan, our guide, jokes that the Hotel Viru, a blocky white skyscraper, was built from a new Soviet wonder material called "micro-concrete" (60 percent concrete, 40 percent microphones). St. Olav's Church is notable for what was once the tallest spire in Scandinavia. It's also a reminder that the KGB used the church's tower to block Finnish TV signals.
Between 1987 and 1991 mass peaceful night-singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival grounds just outside of the city helped Estonia regain her sovereignty in 1991. More than 300,000 people, a third of the country, gathered to sing. Locals put on folk costumes knitted by their grandmothers and travelled here to sing in defiance of Soviet rule. This became known as the Singing Revolution. Now, the Song Festival Grounds hosts a huge national festival in celebration every five years, with 25,000 singers and 100,000 spectators.
Tallinn Song Festival grounds
''We Estonians have never been fighters, we are singers,'' explains Juhan. ''We've survived because we always surrendered at the right time, but have never given up hope.''
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay: A five-minute walk from the Old Town walls, the 24-story Radisson-SAS, Ravala Puiestee 3, (372) 6690050, fax (372) 669-0051, www.radissonsas.com. Try to reserve an upper floor facing Old Town.
PHOTOS by Jamie Ross
1. Olde Hansa
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