Tallinn, Estonia – A UNESCO World Heritage site
Tallinn, Estonia is probably one of the longest victims of bullying in world history. First it was the Danes and King Valdemar taking over in 1219. Next thing the Germans showed up and invaded, then it was back to being part of Sweden, then ceded to Russia and declared independent in the 19th century. But the Germans came back in World War II and the Russians came to save them from the Germans but – oopsie- refused to give them their independence back.
Tallinn’s popularity was due to having the only port in the northern Baltic Sea that didn’t freeze in the winter. Everyone wanted it for military and trade reasons. (It is also an adorable medieval town but in this case its looks weren’t what made it desirable.)
In 1989 as the U.S.S.R. began to crumble Estonians and their neighbors did something original and powerful. Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, formed a 600 kilometer chain of 2 million people holding hands and singing songs about peace and patriotism. It was their way of saying give us back our independence and do so without violence.
In 1991 the Estonians confirmed their independence (in a fake it till you make it kind of way). This attracted the Soviets who entered Tallin with a military show of strength. However, by that time the eyes of the West were on Estonia and, to cut to the conclusion of this story, in 1994 the Russians withdrew without any blood being shed. Estonia defeated their bullies by singing them into submission. (It occurred to us that our singing is so bad we could possibly use it to get people to leave us alone too.)
Churches of Tallin, Estonia
We were touring Tallinn as part of our Viking Homelands itinerary with Viking Ocean Cruises. We began in the upper part of the Old Town where the newest church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, is modeled on the Russian churches of the 17th century. It has the distinction of having the heaviest bell – at 15 tons – in the Nordic countries. More interesting to us were the intricate mosaics above the entrance. We confess to not going inside (there was a funeral going on and funeral crashing isn’t our thing) but there are said to be very impressive icons in the interior.
In the lower part of Old Town there are churches dating back to the 13th century including the Dome Church of St. Mary, the seat of the Estonian diocese.
Tallin, Estonia Old Town
Old Town, the lower part of Tallinn, was built of stone, allowing it to escape the fire hazards of so many medieval cities. It is recognized by UNESCO as being one of the most intact Medieval cities in Europe. Tallinn was bombed by Soviet forces in 1944 and 20% of the buildings burned down in the timber-built upper part of Old Town. It has since been carefully restored.
The city developed as a significant centre of the Hanseatic League of merchants and traders and it had two guilds. One was The Great Guild which consisted of wealthy, married businessmen of German descent. The other, the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, began around 1399 and was bachelor merchants.
Our guide told us the Great Guild was more prestigious and men sought to marry so they could join it. But the bachelor guild had parties that lasted for two weeks and a reputation for knowing how to have a good time. We were mystified as to why anyone would want to get married and join the other much more staid league.
Tallin, Estonia’s old town hall square
Things in the town hall square are astoundingly old. There is one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in the world; it’s been in business since 1422. In the early years it did what pharmacies of that time did; sold alcoholic drinks and sweet cakes and medicines such as powdered unicorn horn and amber oil. And you thought unicorns weren’t real!
A weather vane, known as Old Thomas, is something Tallinn takes great pride in. It’s on top of the ancient city hall and has been there since 1530. They do confess to it having been cleaned up and replaced twice, the last time by helicopter. Our guide said no one in town was told it was being replaced that day as otherwise there would have been a huge crowd in the town square. Apparently helicopters resetting weather vanes need their privacy.
There are lots of very cute small shops in the lower Old Town area and they have goods which are made locally. A favorite dining landmark (as well as shop) is Olde Hansa which is a restaurant offering medieval dishes such as marinated bear. (Don’t expect them to give you the recipe!) Our tour stopped in and we were all given packets of their roasted almonds. The staff are in costumes, speak English well and are happy to ask your questions. The window has a sign saying they offer a “decent bowl of elk soup” for those of you looking for a quick snack.
Our Soviet Flashback in Tallinn
We signed up for the optional Viking Ocean Cruise tour called “Soviet Flashback”. It included a bumpy ride in an old Soviet bus. That afforded us the opportunity to pour the vodka, or “Soviet coffee”, we didn’t drink down the gaping holes in the floorboards.
A young man plays the part of a comrade from the Soviet era. He pretended to be a KGB agent and assumed we were spies. Our comrade also talked about competing philosophies of governing and said that all governments engage in propaganda. (No!!)
He said many of the older residents of Tallinn miss the stability they had under Soviet rule. For a period of time everyone knew they would have housing, a job and basic necessities. When it ended those who had lived that way for their whole lives were thrown for a loop of epic proportions. This has been a theme with quite a few guides – mostly referencing their parents’ generation.
We really liked a monument to World War II soldiers that we drove to as part of the tour. We also stopped at the facilities where the Olympics were held for sailors and rowers in the “Moscow” Olympics which the U.S. boycotted.
We enjoyed our time in Tallinn, to the extent that we came back into town for a couple of hours after the tours ended. Tallinn is small enough to at least get a good taste of it in a day.
This clean, friendly seaside town left us wondering why everyone isn’t heading here in droves.
Don’t come in droves but do consider visiting Tallinn, Estonia.