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Review: Tallinn

City/Town/Region/Island

Estonia

A beautiful city with so much history

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2191 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • May 2008
  • Husband

25 people found this review helpful

We spent a week in Estonia in 2008. We booked this through Regent Holidays as one of their city breaks. We had wanted to stop in the centre of the Old Town but the hotels were booked and Regent suggested we use l'Ermitage on Toompuistee, immediately below Toompea. In fact this turned out to be a brilliant location as it was close to the Old Town, convenient for city transport, modern and quite.  We loved Tallinn. It is a beautiful city and the weather was glorious for us. We had left Gatwick with grey skies and rain and arrived in Tallinn to brilliant blue skies and sunshine. Even though it was mid May, spring was only just arriving and the trees were just coming into leaf. By the end of the week it was like early summer. The trees were in full leaf and all the blossom was out.

Estonia has had a very checkered history and been controlled by several different foreign powers, all of whom have left an impression on the city. The Danes were the first, followed by the Swedes and finally the Russians in the 17thC. In the Middle Ages, the Lower Town was established as a major trading centre by German merchants and the Hanseatic League. After the first world war, Estonia became independent. It was invaded by the Germans in 1940 and finally ‘liberated’ by the Russians at the end of the war. They stayed and Estonia became part of the Soviet empire. All land was taken into collective ownership and it was a very repressive regime. Land owners or any one who complained was sent to Siberian labour camps. Few returned. Secret files were kept on everyone. Tour guides said if they had shown visitors around they were interrogated afterwards as to what questions the visitors asked and who they spoke to. A lot of Russian labour was imported. The Russians had bombed and destroyed a lot of the old town area in 1944 but to give them their due it has been rebuilt exactly as it was. Any new building took place outside the old town area. In 1991/2 Estonia gained independence. A law was passed that anyone in a position of authority had to speak fluent Estonian. The Russian ruling classes were unable to keep their jobs and moved back to Russia. A lot of the labourers stayed but as they didn’t speak Estonian they were only employed in the low paid menial jobs. Many did not want (or were unable) to learn Estonian and now form a lower under class who live in the 1960s concrete blocks and are very deprived. We saw old Russian women begging outside the Russian Orthodox cathedral or selling bunches of flowers they had picked. All of these grow wild – lily of the valley, cowslips and forget me nots. We were approached by 2 old gentlemen who tried to sell us a Russian coin – very valuable – with a picture of Lenin on it. Land ownership and houses are being returned – as long as you are able to prove your right to the property or land. In many cases there is a dispute which means the house gradually falls into disrepair as no-one wants to spend money on it unless they are absolutely sure it belongs to them.

There are large numbers of beautiful old houses throughout Tallinn which are still unclaimed or there are arguments over. Even if ownership is proved, some people cannot afford the cost of refurbishment and if the house is rented, they are unable to put up the rent until it is refurbished. A vicious circle. Apparently Swedish property developers have started to move in and buy up property which they refurbish and then sell on at ‘swedish’ prices. We visited before Estonia joined the European Union. There was a feeling of anticipation and excitement about this.

Tallinn old town is made up of two parts – Toompea which is at the top of the hill and was where the aristocracy lived and the lower town which is where the tradesmen lived. Both parts were surrounded by town walls and turrets. Originally the walls were protected by a moat but all that is left of that now is a small lake in open woodland and grassland below Toompea. Relationships between Toompea and the lower town were not always friendly. The only access between the two was through a strong fortified gateway which was locked at night. The original fortress with stone walls was built on Toompea. There are several excellent viewing platforms along the walls. The administrative buildings and parliament are in the centre of Toompea and several foreign embassies have buildings here. The Estonian flag is raised to the top of Tall Herman Tower at 7am and taken down sunset accompanied by the National Anthem.

The Russian Orthodox cathedral dominates Toompea and was built in the late 1890s as a symbol of Russian power. When Estonia became independent after the first world war there was talk of pulling the building down. Fortunately they didn’t. The mosaic decoration above the doorway gleams golden in the sunlight. Inside is even more elaborate, but unfortunately no pictures are allowed. There were icons and religious pictures everywhere. The first morning we went in, a service had just started. It was the first time we’d experienced an Orthodox service. The priest was out of sight behind the altar screen. You just heard his disembodied voice – a bit like the voice of god booming out. The ‘chantor’ stood in front of the screen and sang the service. It was quite hypnotic. There were no seats and people stood during the service. It was strange as there was a steady stream of people arriving and leaving throughout the service. Men must remove hats but women must cover their head with a scarf.

The lower town was developed by the German merchants and has a big central square with Town Hall. Buildings are either wood or stone. Living rooms were on the ground floor with storage above. Some of the houses still have the crane which was used to haul goods up. The buildings around the square are now mostly cafes and eating places. “Cafe culture” has arrived. There are lots of narrow cobbled streets radiating from Town Hall Square. The locals fly along cobble streets in high heels but the tourist guides recommend you take a pair of sturdy flat shoes. We enjoyed walking round the old town, looking at the buildings and visiting many of the museums.

The Tourist office sells a tourist card which is valid for 3 days and excellent value. This gives free admission to all the museums, free public transport and free travel on the three circular tourist bus routes which run every hour and have a commentary in various languages. At first we thought each bus ran its circle continuously but in fact each completes one circuit from and back to Viru Gate and then goes on a different route.

We climbed to the top of the tower of St Olav’s Church. When it was built around 1500 it was the tallest building in the world. It gives good views over the buildings in the old town and the walls with fairy tale turrets along them. The walkway along the back of the wall has been repaired in places so you can walk along it. There were gateways through the walls. There are no high rise buildings in the old town or on Toompea so the church towers dominate the views. Kadriorg is a suburb of Tallinn and Peter the Great bought the area to build his summer palace, although it was still unfinished when he died. He said the parkland around the palace should be open for the citizens of Tallinn to enjoy. The palace is surrounded by formal gardens and is a major art museum. It was worth going into just to look at the architecture and the splendid tiled stoves used to heat the rooms. He built splendid wooden houses for the palace workers. The kitchens were in a separate building to the palace and is another museum. The president of Estonia lives in a house behind the palace and the front door is guarded by 2 soldiers with rifles.

From Kadriorg we caught the bus to Pirita, a few miles outside Tallinn and the location for Olympic sailing events in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. We stopped to walk round the ruins of St Birgitta’s convent. A few miles beyond is the TV tower which was built as a symbol of Russian pride for the Olympics. It has beautiful stained glass windows. All the signs are in Russian. It is just over 1000’ tall. There is a lift to the round area at the top which has a restaurant and amazing views. On a clear day you can see Finland. Unfortunately the Estonians don’t hold it in such esteem and it is beginning to look a bit sad.

We did a day trip to Lahemaa National Park booked through the Tourist Office. This is about 60 miles northeast of Tallinn. It was created in 1971 but access was denied to Estonians and the very few foreign visitors because of Soviet concern about security along the coast. We went on one of the daily tours – just four of us in all, apparently eight is a large number for the trip, to see a little of the Estonian countryside. We had a stop at the remains of some Viking graves and a 15thC defence tower before visiting Palmse Manor a beautiful 1780s wooden building in it's own grounds. We had a picnic lunch at the small fishing village of Altja on the Baltic coast before visiting Sagadi Manor on the way back to Tallinn. This was a very good day. The guide was knowledgeable and prepared to talk openly about life in Soviet times and more recently.

The final two days we spent at the Open Air Museum at Rocca al Mare. The first day we walked around looking and taking photographs. There were no signs in English and staff in the buildings had little English. We bought the guide book as we left and read it back at the hotel. We went back the next day to look at all the things we had missed. There are about a hundred buildings reassembled around the site. Most of them are old farms with their outbuildings. Nearly all of them were made of wood and had thatch roofs. The main building was called the barn house. It was made up of 2 main rooms. The ‘kiln room’ had a huge stove in it and was the main living area for the winter months, doubling up as a drying room for the grain in the autumn. In some buildings it was the sauna as well. There was no chimney so smoke had to find it’s way out of the roof. Next to the kiln room was the huge threshing shed used to store machinery and the horses lived in there in the winter. There were a few smaller rooms (unheated) which were sleeping quarters and work areas for the family. In summer the kiln room was too hot to use, so the farm had a separate small building which was used as the summer kitchen. The earliest ones were very small and basic. There were separate sheds for the cows, pigs and sheep as well as granaries and storage barns. There were separate rooms for the grain, butter and dairy goods and also a clothes store, so clothing could be stored away from the smoke in the barn dwelling. Buildings like this were still in use in the countryside until about 50 years ago.

We loved Tallinn and had spent a full week there. It is a beautiful city and compact enough to be able to walk to see all the attractions. The Tourist Office produces a lot of excellent information in English. The website of our pictures which gives more information about our visit can be seen here.

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