Looking for a true getaway? With a trip to Estonia’s picturesque capital city, you can escape to a different place and time.
Cobblestone streets, the crisp sunny air, a smell of spicy almonds and the red-topped turrets of the Gates of Viru stretching above – I couldn’t be anywhere else except Tallinn. For the people of the Baltic state of Estonia, this is by far their largest city and a vibrant capital that has something to offer to all walks of life. To investors it is a thriving place for business: an important Baltic seaport and the hub for the remarkable digital infrastructure of the country. For Europe, it is this ambitious town that hopes to be its Culture Capital for 2011. And for any visitor, its historical ambience, rich cultural scene and youthful atmosphere, makes Tallinn an experience to remember.
For some tourists it may be a strange sight to walk out of the modern Viru Shopping Centre, surrounded by hotels, a multiplex, a state-of-the-art bus terminal, and the gothic spires of the Tallinn Old Town standing prominently before them. For the 400, 000 who live here, it is a sight taken for granted. For this Estonian, however, it is time to join ranks with the tourists and finally experience the wonders inside one of the most well preserved medieval cities in Europe. A fusion of old and new, the Old Town has something in store for the historian, the architect, the cultural junkie and, of course, anyone who appreciates a good beer.
Not being familiar with the Old Town, I decided the best way to find the most interesting spots was to get good and lost. I set off down Viru Street expecting a long trip ahead before I find the medieval experience I’m looking for, but luckily, within the walls of this fortress, that experience comes to find you.
My first stop is in front of a large stonewashed building, sporting the words ‘Olde Hansa’ above the door. In front of it stands a woman dressed from head-to-toe in medieval clothing (complete with pointy elf-like footwear and a coif) holding a large wooden ladle in her hands and yelling in the street: “All weary merchants, come rest your feet and work your stomach!” Around her are other similarly dressed youths giving out flyers printed on parchment, offering spiced almonds to tourists and greeting passersby in a medieval dialect. They all work for the most famous restaurant in Tallinn, known to locals and tourists alike as an atmospheric tavern offering a range of foods from the normal to the peculiar, all according to the medieval tradition. Olde Hansa House is not just a restaurant, it has become a part of the Old Town’s heritage, and its members are dedicated to take all its visitors on a journey back in time.
It is precisely this journey I am interested in as I continue my trek up Raekoja Street. On my left is Krambude, the shop to go to get one’s medieval memorabilia, and on my right a permanent exhibit of medieval torture instruments; straight ahead stretches the tower of the only Gothic style town hall left in Northern Europe – someone less in touch with reality may think they are actually in the fifteenth century. And they wouldn’t be getting any more of a reality check once they go round the bend and find themselves in the bottom corner of the Town Hall Square. This spot reveals an astonishing panoramic view of the whole square, lined with charming buildings of different heights and colours, all preserved in their original design – a delight for any aficionado of architecture. This place functioned as a site for celebrations and executions throughout the medieval period. Nowadays it’s a hub for outdoor cafes and the main site for many cultural activities such as open-air concerts, handicraft markets and the annual Old Town Days. If you are looking for a unique way to spend your family holiday, time it with this week in June to witness a spectacular medieval festival, including parades, parrot-shooting contests and a knights’ tournament – don’t worry, they’ve decided against bringing back the executions.
Next I took to the narrow lanes winding in all directions from the Town Square to reach my final destination. In every direction I could see the gabled towers of churches and cathedrals, both old and new, adorning the horizon. For history lovers, it will take a whole day to get through them all.
It can be very easy to get lost in the labyrinth of paths, so keep in mind that in the Tallinn Old Town, all roads lead back to the Town Hall. I continue in the opposite direction, down Apteegi and then Vene Street, looking for the famous Saint Catherine’s Passage that runs parallel to Viru Street, where I started my adventure. A narrow cavernous passage, St. Catherine’s holds the remnants of old residential buildings and St. Catherine’s church. Lining the street are the workshops of craftsmen and artists, ranging from painters to glass-blowers, where everyone is free to stroll about and admire the works of others in a medieval atmosphere. Today, like most days, the street is jam-packed with both locals and tourists looking for a medieval experience like me and with a selection of history, architecture, culture and art, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Back at the Gates of Viru, my medieval experience came to an end, but around me, other experiences were just taking off; during the day, the stone walls of the Old Town hold inside the history of Estonia’s capital, during the night, they provide support for the many stiletto-heeled partygoers. Even on a night out, there’s a choice of the old mixed with the new; according to your mood you might head back to Olde Hansa for a pitcher of home brew or some of Olde’s famous house wine, or set your course for Suur-Karja Street to grab a beer at The Pub With No Name. With two bars, a dance floor, a pool table and round-the-clock sports on the big-screens, this pub is always packed with both locals and visitors, but always with room for more. On the weekends, last call comes at dawn and it is after this bell that I file out with my friends – weary from dancing – out of this medieval fortress. The ground beneath me changes flawlessly from cobblestone to asphalt as I head for the bus stop and take stock of the day. This is one Estonian who now knows what to appreciate in the many sites the Old Town has to offer and for those not from here, a visit to this capital will give new meaning to the idea of a getaway; so do something different and take a trip back in time in medieval Tallinn.
Words and photography by Marii Stoltsen