From ancient to modern, Estonia's capital welcomes the world
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The 14th century painted ceiling in my hotel suite and the 15th pharmacy in the Old Town square hinted at the longevity of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, one of northern Europe’s oldest towns. This city of spires and medieval tiled buildings has over centuries been occupied by Swedes, Danes, Germans and Russians, and is now finally enjoying its own identity after the latest occupation, fifty years of Soviet rule, finally ended when the last troops withdrew in 1991.
The suite, in the city’s gorgeous `Merchants House hotel’ , also had a freestanding bath in it, happily not quite as ancient as the medieval ceiling, but it enabled a short hop from bed to bath in just five paces. And this ancient building, literally created from two 14th C merchants houses, just a few steps from the heart of Tallinn Old Town, now offers a pleasant and contemporary space for breakfast in the barrel vaulted former wine cellars, while sumptuous leather chairs and a roaring fire in the bar areas were a welcome place to rest.
In just three days in this historic city, currently a European Capital of Culture, the weather varied from thick snow, turning the capital of Estonia into a scene from a Christmas card, to bright sunshine and blue skies, melting the snow and bathing the city in a wintry warm glow. Fairly typical for an early spring stay, and we were assured that the summers can be equally as unpredictable and last year the Tallinners enjoyed two months of warm summer sunshine.
The best view point over Tallinn is from Toompea Hill, the highest point in the upper `Old Town’, one of northern Europe’s oldest towns and first recorded by a cartographer in the 12th Century. These days Tallinn is ringed by a modern city of apartment blocks, offices and shops, some reflecting the austere concrete Soviet architecture, some up to the minute and girded with shining steel and gleaming glass. From this high point we could see over the red medieval rooftops, past the slender spire of the 12th C St. Olaf’s church to the Bay of Finland, with ferries and cruise ships in its harbour and the distant 1980’s TV tower beyond.
Tallinn is a city of superlatives and contrasts. The city church of St. Olaf’s was unbelievably once the highest building in the world when between 1549 and 1625 it rose to 159m above sea level. Tallinn’s Pirita Marina was the setting for the 1980 `Moscow’ Olympics when this small country was swallowed up by the Soviet Bloc and the lovely parks, gardens and majestic buildings created by Peter the Great in Tallinn’s Kadriorg district, are now joined by the super-modern Kumu art museum, the largest art centre in the Baltics.
We’d expected to find Soviet austerity, we were surprised at the vibrancy of this city, now rising like a phoenix on the world’s tourism map, some twenty years after re-independence.
One of the most intriguing remnants of Soviet times and newly opened for 2011 is the Viru Hotel KGB `museum’. Those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s could not fail to feel a chill at the thought of the state watching our every move, controlling our lives, or the prospect of being whisked off to Siberia for a careless word against the State. So finding out that two rooms on the legendary 22nd floor of the Soviet built Viru Hotel were used to listen guests’ conversations, while Estonian grannies were paid to sit by the hotel elevators and note down guests’ movements, seemed completely incongruous in this modern and welcoming city.
But it’s medieval Tallinn, rather than Soviet Tallinn, that really dominates the Old Town. The middle ages represent Estonia’s hay day, when the country was part of the prestigious Hanseatic League and was a prosperous trading post on the Baltics, fraternised by wealthy merchants. The medieval heritage is evidenced in the cobbled streets, the painted medieval buildings, the Old Town Hall on the wide Old Town Square, and staff in medieval dress from the fabulous `Olde Hansa’ medieval restaurant and banqueting house to the remaining medieval city walls, with their 26 remaining steepled watch towers.
Take time to visit the Keik in the Kok, one of the old watch towers, where a model of the original town ringed by 2.35km of defensive stone walls and the original 46 towers are re-created in a model of the town, and where a brief history of Tallinn is presented on several levels of this circular stone defence tower. Sitting incongrulously alongside in front of the pink parliament building is the red bricked onion domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky cathedral, built in the last 19th C in the upper Old Town during Russian rule.
This is just one of many examples of contrast and contradiction in this lively and historic city, where you could literally wander for hours along the cobbled streets, sit sipping a coffee or a herb tea in one of many ancient bars and cafes, or enjoy up to the minute modern Estonian cuisine in top class restaurants. The culinary highlight of our stay was a salmon and caviar starter, served in the Telegraaf hotel’s Tchaikovsky restorant, `Heston Blumenthal style’, with smoke coiling from beneath a glass dome and delicate beads of amber caviar.
For those who like a short hop from plane to hotel, the great thing about Tallinn is that you only need allow ten minutes to get to the international airport. For some reason, you rarely hear or see a plane, yet it’s such a short transfer that you can really make the most of your time actually in the city, rather than travelling to it.
From ancient to modern, Tallinn enthralls to this day and is well worth a visit.
39 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.