The Estonians are only discovering their culture — so immersed in history [from KGB museums to wartime subs] – but certainly not disconnected from the rest of the modern world. This is, after all, where Skype was born TEXT AND PHOTOS: STUART FURSTE
DID YOU KNOW? You can take a ferry from neighbouring Helsinki in Finland or Stockholm in Sweden to Tallinn While Tallinn is the official capital, Tartu is the cultural capital, and Pamu is known as the summer capital.
It speaks volumes for Tallinn’s charm that the Estonian capital’s Old Town is an attractive place to stroll around even on a cool, drizzly evening. Dusk, with the yellow glow of street lamps reﬂecting on damp cobbles and the lanes largely empty of people, is as good a time as any to explore the well-preserved medieval centre.
Tallinn was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 16 years ago, but travellers are only slowly discovering the rich heritage of this city of 425,000 people. Centuries ago, the merchants of the Hanseatic League of trading cities invested their wealth in grand Gothic buildings that today stand as photogenic landmarks, such as the Town Hall and the Great Guild Hall, now the site of the Estonian History Museum. St Olav’s Church was the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625, but lightning struck and burned down its 159-metre high spire; the sleek replacement you’ll see reaching into the sky today is a mere 124 metres tall. These sites are within easy walking distance of each other and are still ringed by 1.9 km of city walls interspersed with defensive towers. Ten metres under those walls, you can take a guided tour along the bastion tunnels, part of the Kiek in de Kok museum (www.linnamuu- seum.ee, open from Tuesday to Sunday), to learn how the Swedes, Germans and Russians had each occupied Tallinn.
The Soviets built a civil defence shelter down in the tunnels with the capacity to be used by 1,000 people in the event of a nuclear emergency. The shelter still existed in 1991, when Estonian independence was restored. Since then, embracing freedom, Tallinn has modernised rapidly outside of the well-preserved Old Town. Locals are quick to point out how technologically advanced their young nation is and you may well hear proud boasts that Estonians developed the software behind Skype, the Internet-based telecommunications platform. The people give the impression that they are forward thinking and open to outside inﬂuences. For international visitors, this brings the advantage that English is widely spoken in Tallinn, meaning it’s relatively easy to get around, acquire information or order food and drink.
One of the best places to get an overview of the city and appreciate Tallinn’s skyline — the Old Town to one side and modern offices, shopping malls and hotels on the other — is from the walkway up on the 24th ﬂoor of the Sokos Hotel Viru, built in the 1970s to accommodate foreign tourists and keep watch over them. The hotel was once riddled with listening devices belonging to the Soviet secret service, the KGB. Jana Sampetova, a petite blonde, leads tours of its upper floor, now known as the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum (www.sokoshotels.ﬁ), recounting a series of anecdotes illustrating how life was under the former regime. Some of the tales are laced with dark humour. One guest, explains Sampetova, was brought toilet paper by a member of hotel staff — without ordering it — after bugs overheard muttered complaints that their bathroom had none. Perhaps the legacy of the Soviet inﬂuence is most telling in subtle manifestations.
Pointing over towards Toompea, the old fortress on high ground in the Old Town, a tour guide explains how “Tallinn is layered like a Russian doll” and that the castle area represents the smallest doll, at its centre. Estonians are beginning to explore their history and national identity. One of Tallinn’s major new attractions is the Seaplane Harbour Museum (www.lennusadan1.eu), which opened in May last year, occupying the site of an aircraft hangar built in 1916- 17. The story of Estonia’s naval history is told within the museum’s subtly lit hall, covered by the arches of a reinforced concrete roof that is 8 cm thick at its thinnest point. The star attraction is the Lembit submarine, which was built during the 1930s, in Barrow-in-Furness, in England, for the Estonian navy. The sub was on the water for 75 years before being moved into the hangar so that visitors can clamber through the hatch and explore below deck. lmpressively, it still has its original engine. The museum makes good use of technology and information about the exhibits is displayed on touch-controlled screens. You’re given a swipe card on entry and each time you see something of interest, you can choose to have it emailed to you, to read later. You can also get a feel for how the harbour’s defenders would have felt as they were attacked by enemy aircraft during wartime. A simulator, using computer game technology, allows you to man a full-size machinegun post and shoot at approaching planes. They are trickier to hit than you might think.
Maru, the smart cafe-restaurant overlooking the Seaplane Harb0ur’s main hall, serves delicious black rye bread with soup flavoured by mushrooms, fresh from the forests that cover almost half of the country’s surface area. Though it’s hard to believe, given the quality of the food at Maru, Estonians are only now beginning to explore and enjoy their cuisine, which was long regarded as stodgy and inferior to foreign foods. “Five years ago, there were not so many restaurants in Tallinn that served Estonian food. We had Italian and French cuisine, sushi places, but not so many places serving Estonian,” says Rene Uusmees, the executive chef at Mekk, a chic but casual restaurant (www.mekk.ee) in the Old Town. Uusmees works with locally-sourced ingredients such as smoked ﬁsh, fresh cloudberries and wild lingonberries. He uses traditional recipes but applies techniques that he learned in France. “The idea is to serve nice local food and to develop it, because we are a young country,” says Uusmees, who regards Estonian cuisine as part of the contemporary Nordic food movement that is currently impressing gourmets worldwide. Uusmees suggests visitors to Tallinn should also dine at the restaurants Leib (at Uus 31) and Neh (at Lootsi 4) to acquire a rounded overview of what the country can offer.
At the beginning of 2011, Estonia, a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, became the 17th nation to adopt the Euro as its currency. Thanks to reasonably priced accommodation and restaurants, those Euros go much further in Tallinn than many European capitals. This helps explain its growing popularity as a destination for short breaks, particularly for Finns, many of whom arrive on ferries from Helsinki, 82 km and three hours away, across the Gulf of Finland. The city centre is only 4km from Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport, where international travellers land. The long Baltic summer days are ideal for exploring Tallinn, which is compact enough to explore on foot and has much to offer visitors looking to experience a taste of its heritage.
Learn more about travel and tourism within Estonia via the http://www.visitestonia com website.
For more information about Tallinn, visit http://www.tourism.tallinn.ee
Courtesy by K.T.