Tallinn, the capital of Estonia is located about 1,000 kilometers north of Warsaw. Its name in Estonian means “Danish city”. Truly there is much Nordic climate both in architecture and atmosphere, although signs of the Soviet period are also visible.
It is best to visit Tallinn at the end of June, as it is possible then to see the city in an almost never ending sunlight. White nights are an additional attraction of this beautiful city.
Tallinn, an old Hanseatic port, was in the course of history, ruled by the Danish, The Order of the Knights, then the Swedish and finally Tsarist Russia. During the interwar period Estonia was an independent country, which lost its independence due to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
Regardless of who ruled, the city was always inhabited by merchants and city folk mainly of German origin, but there were also some members of different nations. Estonians started moving into Tallinn only in latter times.
Life in Tallinn is concentrated in Vanalinn that is Old Town. It is here that people work, meet with friends, and enjoy Friday and Saturday evenings. It is here that most companies and banks have their offices and most museums, theatres, cinemas, schools, and governmental offices are located. In addition there are many larger and smaller cafes, pubs, and taverns. Not far off are the port and the train station.
The Old Town is made up of two parts – Upper and Lower, surrounded by the longest, best-preserved city walls in Europe. The Upper part – Toompea, deriving its name from the hill where it is located, has a more symbolic meaning. It is here that the Parliament of independent Estonia has its seat. Right next-door on the Pikk Herman (Old Herman) tower the Estonian flag has been flaunting in the wind for the past 18 years. The Hiirve Park stretches at the foot of the hill. It was the site of patriotic manifestations at the beginning of the nineties. Quite near are the hills, collectively known as Harjumägi (Harju Hillock), where young people met during the 1980’s to exchange music records smuggled in from the West. The Tallinn Cathedral and the Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevski are also located on Toompea. There is also a building, in which during the Middle Ages, the first school in Tallinn was located. Now it is a theatrical school. The National Museum is also very near. In the old days Toompea was mainly inhabited by German noble families, but currently its renovated homes are the seats of embassies. Finally throughout Toompea there are several vantage points from which one can see the panorama of the port and sea coast all the way to Pirita, and closer still one can admire the rooftops of the Lower Town and the church towers above them.
The Lower Town is different in character – it is teeming with life and it’s easier to get to (a more or less simple although paid access by car). Many firms, banks, and organizations have their offices here. Next to these there are a number of shops with beautifully arranged interiors. All of this is dotted with pubs, cafes, and taverns where local bands play in the evening. In the old days the Lower Town was inhabited by the bourgeoisie and craftsmen and it still has retained a lot of that feeling. In the narrow, side alleys there are many workshops connected to little galleries – here you can, by yourself roll out a clay pot, make a stained glass window or buy the products of one of the artists and see how the artists themselves work. Here you can take care of everything – repair a watch or a pair of shoes.
Besides artists there are also small craftsmen, there are hairdresser and beautician shops and laundries. Children hurry off to school. Life runs its course among historical monuments – the Town Hall in the Town Square and further still churches of all denominations: Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, as well as private residences, granaries and gates which lead into the city enclosed by walls. On one side of the Lower Town is the harbor, on the other it runs all the way to Vabaduse Square (Vabaduse Väljak). Near the square on Harju Street we can see, fenced-in the recently uncovered ruins of buildings destroyed during Soviet bombings in 1944. Straight across is a café we there are pictures of these buildings prior to the bombings. Unfortunately the Lower Town is also being invaded by foreign companies. McDonalds rebuilt a whole tenement house leaving only the old façade.
The most important place in the Old Town is the Reakoja Plats (Town Hall Square). It is here that all the main streets meet. Throughout the ages the square has been the central point of the city. It is here that the Town Hall was located and the Courthouse (not rebuilt after the war). The square was surrounded by workshops of tailors, cobblers, and blacksmiths. It was a place of trade and holiday processions, festivals of which the best – known was the festival on the occasion of Christmas. The tsar, Peter the Great, took part in one of these festivals. The role of the square hasn’t changed since historic times. Artistic fairs still take place here. In the summer the Town Square is full of people, there are concerts of youth bands and folk choirs but the summer season begins with the Days of the Old Town which commence right here. In October a huge tent of the “Saku” brewery, which celebrates its birthday is put up. Residents of Tallinn often welcome in the New Year here as well.
The Town Hall itself is located on the side of the square in such a way that it creates a narrow alley between its southern wall and the houses surrounding the square. It has been standing in the same place since the XIV century and it is believed to be the oldest Middle Age structure of its type in Northern Europe. On one side, well above the roof a thin tower reaches to the sky. On its top, the Middle Age warrior Vana Thomas – Old Thomas guards the city. The Town Hall was the place where guild representatives decided about the life of the city. It is a symbol of its Hanseatic past. The residence of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads – a paramilitary organization which protected the city and its residents, its members standing watch on the towers and walls, is located on Pikk Street. It has been beautifully renovated by Polish heritage conservators.
On Toompea, the Alexander Nevski Orthodox Cathedral towers over all. It was built upon a place where a huge statue of Martin Luther was supposed to be put up. Today only few recall this fact, however many remember that the decision to built the cathedral was made during times of the most intense Russification at the turn of the XIX century. The Cathedral was ready in 1901, workers from all over Russia helping in its construction. Architecturally the cathedral does not at all fit in with the style of the Old Town and with its eastern splendor it overshadows the nearby Protestant cathedral – the Toomkirik.
An Olympic complex is located in Pirita near Tallinn, built for the Olympic Games of 1980. The Olympics took place in Moscow but Tallinn was designated to host the sailing events. It caused a wave of protests in Estonia which ended with a letter of protest sent to the International Olympic Committee. According to the Estonians the Olympic ideals didn’t allow for the organization of Olympic events in an occupied city, such as Tallinn was at the time. Today the somewhat ageing buildings are an often visited sports center with modern swimming pools, saunas, health clubs, and a yacht harbor. The beach in Pirita is still the most often visited beach in Tallinn. The imposing ruins of the Middle Age nunnery of the Bridgettine Order are also located in Pirita.
As far as available services, Tallinn is no different than any other city in Northern Europe – it has a well developed banking and communications system (mobile telephone network and internet network) which makes traveling and conducting business easier. An additional plus is common knowledge of foreign languages – English, German, Finnish, and Swedish – which greatly simplifies communication. In many parts of the city it is also possible to communicate in Russian – after all many of the city’s inhabitants are Russian-speaking – Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians who came here during Soviet times.
Translator: Szczepan Witaszek