TALLINN: A rich blend of off-beat and old world charm

Updated: Dec 07, 2012, 18:39 PM IST

Suvam Pal

It may not be a prominent place in a global traveller’s map but Estonia is certainly one of the youngest and most vibrant countries with its capital Tallinn being the centrepiece. With its mesmerizing blend of old world charm and modern day glitter and glitz, the Estonian capital comes as an elaborate and extensive platter for any travel connoisseur.

Old Town, eternal charm

A thousand year-old-settlement still standing tall even after numerous attacks, bombardments and having undergone several leadership changes with the Danes, Germans and the Russians taking over the fortified old town, the capital city is strategically positioned at the crossroads of trade between Western and Northern Europe and Russia. An UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town, fortified with city walls and 66 defence towers, is Tallinn’s biggest draw. Time stands still when you walk down the twisting cobblestone lanes, surrounded by Gothic spires and colourful, gabled medieval buildings, half-hidden courtyards, towering, grandiose churches and Brobdingnagian walls, dotted with stone guard towers. The mystical Old Town reminds you of the backdrop of a Grim Brother’s fairytale or a set from a Disney movie. Once you enter the historic town through its landmark ivy-covered Viru Gate, you may feel that you have just entered Peter Pan’s Neverland. The mesmeric charm of the medieval town is bound to leave you spellbound.

Once you start walking down the cobblestone lane (as motor vehicles are not allowed inside the Old Town) you will be greeted by the trendiest global luxury brand showrooms, ethnic Estonian artefacts and curio shops, multi-cuisine restaurants and some of the most hot and happening pubs and clubs of the city known for its seemingly never-ending nightlife (as most of the pubs and clubs are open till 7am or 8am in the morning). Just a hundred metre walk from the Viru Gate and you will reach the picturesque Raekoja Plats or the Town Hall square. Ringed with historic buildings, most of which have been turned into restaurants and shops, the massive open air space in the heart of the Old Town, is a venue for festivals and concerts, apart from being the most vibrant market place in the city. The imposing Gothic style Town Hall with its surmounting spire dominates the square. Built in 1371, this heavy stone structure with colourful meeting halls, vaulted ceilings and intricate wood carvings, houses some of the city`s most prized art treasures and more importantly the Old Thomas (Vana Toomas in Estonian), a weather vane on top of the spire of Town Hall and one of the symbols and guardian of the capital of Estonia. Opposite the Town Hall, one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe is located. Open since as far back as 1422, the curious little Town Hall Pharmacy was so famous in its heydays that the Russian tsar used to order medicines from here. Not just the Town Hall Square, every nook and corner of the Old Town is encapsulated and enriched with heritage and history. The magnificent Toompea Hill, as per the Estonian legend built on top of the grave of mythical Estonian King Kalev, and the compelling Danish castle that founded the city in 1219, on top of it— are testimonies of medieval Tallinn’s might and aristocracy during its heydays. The iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is located just a stone’s throw away from the Toompea Castle. The classic onion-domed 19th-century Russian Orthodox church is a grand symbol of the city.

Another masterpiece St. Olaf’s Church or St. Olav`s Church is situated at the other end of the Old Town. The majestic 12th century Church with its towering spire was once the tallest building in the world and more interestingly during the Soviet Union era the KGB had used its spire as a radio tower and surveillance point. One of the best bird’s eye views of the entire Tallinn can be captured from the top of the church. The KGB Headquarters of the Soviet days was located in a building next to it and you can see even today how the windows of the basement were crudely bricked up with concrete to hide the sound of gruesome interrogations. In fact, every bit of the Old Town underlines the grand legacy and heritage of the city of Tallinn with the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads, Three Sisters Hotel, The Holy Spirit Church, Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin and a slew of unique museums being some of the other prominent sightseeing spots inside it.

Valley of the Kings

If there’s one part of Tallinn outside Old Town that a tourist unquestionably has to see, it’s the Kadriorg which means ‘Catherine`s Valley’ in Estonian. The secluded, sylvan green patch, uncharacteristically close to the hustle and bustle of the city centre, is made up of large areas of forested park criss-crossed by paths and dotted with gigantic statues and ponds. This pristine, quiet area, an estate that Russian tsar Peter the Great established as a family retreat in the early 18th century, is also home to a number of intriguing 19th- and 20th-century villas, and the nation’s top art museums. The jewel in Kadriorg’s crown however is the Kadriorg Palace, a grand, Petrine Baroque structure surrounded by manicured, landscape gardens and fountains. The 18th century magnificent palace, commissioned by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine I, was built after the Great Northern War to Nicola Michetti`s designs by Gaetano Chiaveri and Mikhail Zemtsov and its still standing tall despite undergoing a series of renovation, refurbishment and restoration over the past couple of centuries. Next to it, just up the hill is the Estonian Presidential Palace and although it`s closed to visitors, but one can walk and wander as close to it as possible. A stone’s throw away from the grandiose palaces is the humble 17th century cottage where the greatest and mightiest among the Russian tsars, Peter the Great, spent his Tallinn days. The picturesque, tiny two storey cottage now houses a museum, furnished with some of the Tsar`s own personal belongings, spread across the living room, dining room and bedroom. Across the road is Estonia’s largest and most complete art museum cum gallery, the Kumu, a functionalist modern day copper and limestone masterpiece, which is built into the side of a limestone cliff.

The serene Kadriorg also houses a number of museums surrounded by lush green chestnut trees and at one of end of the park, by the shore, is the Russalka Memorial. Created by famed Estonian sculptor A.H. Adamson, the landmark sculpture of an angel is a memorial to the 177 men of the Russalka, a Russian military ship that sunk while en route to Helsinki in 1893. Another must-see spot in the area is the Tallinn Song Festivals Ground, the lush green meadow where the epic Singing Revolution of 1988, a massive, musical demonstration against Soviet rule that eventually paved the way for Estonia’s independence. The grounds feature an outdoor concert arena which can host a together up to a whopping 34 000 performers and 200000 spectators. On top of the natural lime stone slope of the concert arena is the huge bronze statue of Gustav Ernesaks, Estonian composer, choir conductor and ‘father’ of singing, in a thinker’s pose.

The city of Tallinn also offers a number tourist sightseeing spots like Pirita, with its bathing beaches, coastline, pine-forested parks, the botanical garden and the sky-kissing 170 metre high TV Tower, which gives visitors the opportunity to broadcast themselves to their friends and relatives with its interactive in-house studio.

In short, if you are really keen to go off the beaten track, and looking for a heady mix of historic ambience and avant-garde culture, you`ll find it in Tallinn.

Suvam Pal is an avid traveller. He has also penned two books: Sachin, 501 Things You Don’t know About the Master Blaster and The Ultimate Olympic Quiz Book

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