Snippets from Tallinn, Estonia
Software engineer Lorna Real, together with husband Joey, shares how Estonia captivated them with its medieval restaurants, churches and must-see destinations
By Lorna Real
Joey and I have been putting off an ocean cruise vacation because we could not reconcile with the thought of being ‘at sea’ for 7 to 10 days. I was born and raised in Cebu City. My parents hailed from Batangas and hence visiting our grandparents every school vacation was part of our routine, growing up. In those years when the airfares were astronomically-priced, we always travelled by ship from Cebu to Manila (roughly 23 hours). As a child, I endured the long journey because there were plenty of things to do aboard. Now as an adult, in this fast-paced world where people rely on technology to accomplish tasks instantly, I’m not sure whether I will still be able to enjoy such an extended journey.
To see if we are worthy to take on a majestic ocean trip, we decided to try a mini-cruise first. It’s called ‘mini’ for 3 reasons: (1) it’s a short trip, generally 5 days, (2) lesser time spent at sea, (3) you have land-based accommodation as opposed to having the ship as your hotel. We ventured on a Scandinavian Cruise that visited the capitals of Scandinavian countries: Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Tallinn (Estonia).
When we got the itinerary, two days were allotted for Tallinn. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, a country located in the Baltic Sea, formerly part of the Soviet Union and with links to Sweden and Denmark. Tallinn is only 85 km from Helsinki.
We started off on a 3-hour walking tour along with other tourists, who like us, were also eager to get to know the city. Helen, our tour guide commented that by far this was the largest number of walking tour participants, counted at 160! So, we were split into two groups for better interaction.
Helen took us to key locations of Tallinn and shared with us a lot of things about Estonian history, short amusing stories about culture, religion, food, etc. We felt like we have now understood Tallinn and Estonians.
Here are our Top 4 things we learned from our walking tour:
- Estonia has a population of 1.5 million; 450 thousand live in Tallinn. The Estonian tri-coloured flag symbolizes the following:
- Blue stands for loyalty. It also represents the blue skies, seas and lakes.
- Black represents the past oppression and the rich soil of the country.
- White stands for Estonia’s long struggle for freedom and independence. It’s also a representation of the winter snow.
Helen said that small talks like ‘good morning’ and ‘hellos’ are unusual and uncommon in Estonia. Because of their history and the many countries that conquered them, they are not very warm and friendly to foreigners. Estonians are generally well-reserved, disciplined, and personal space is very important.
- Our tour guide said that in the past, practicing religion was prohibited. Hence, most of the churches were converted to museums. Estonia is one of the “least religious” countries in the world with only 14% of the population declaring religion an important part of their daily life. Though Estonia is not a very religious country, they respect freedom of religion and guarantees separation of church and state.
- Estonians love to sing.While with the Soviet Union, Estonians bought lyrics of western songs in black markets, read every line, and judged whether it was a nice song, without even hearing the tune how it was supposed to be sung. Like in the Philippines, you can also find many Karaoke bars in Estonia. Yes, they love to sing, they got their independence by singing! The so-called ‘Singing Revolution’lasted over four years (1987 to 1991) and led to the restoration of the independence of Estonia.
- Tallinn is the home of the first Christmas tree and Skype!
- In 1441, the world’s first Christmas tree was put up near the Tallinn town hall as part of a winter ritual where people danced around the tree and later set it on fire.
- In 2003, the Estonians created the Skype software and released the first public beta version.
Inspired by our walking tour, here is our Top 4 round up of the must-see sights in Tallinn:
- Medieval Times at the Old Town
Like a classic fairy tale movie, wander into colourful houses, cobblestoned alleyways, medieval buildings and watch towers. Despite Estonia’s centuries of successive German, Danish, Swedish and Russian rules, its capital city of Tallinn is famous for its well-preserved Hanseatic architecture and medieval structures. Hanseatic refers to the Hanseatic League, also called as Hansa or German Hanse, an association formed by north German towns and merchant communities abroad during the 13th to 15th century to protect and control trading activities. Tallinn’s intact 13th century Old Town has gain the recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Tallinn Town Wall
These ancient walls give the town a medieval atmosphere. Built as a fortification, the wall enclosed and protected the town from invaders. We have travelled to many places in Europe but I can’t remember seeing intact walls of a medieval city. In most places, only fragments of the walls are left. As per Tallinn Tourism Board, a full stretch of wall (1.9 km of its original city wall) and 20 observation towers are still standing. No wonder Tallinn has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Katariinakäik (St. Catherine’s Passage)
A walk in this alluring and winding passageway takes you back to the middle ages. This narrow alleyway is a charming fusion of crafts and religion. On one end, a wide array of craft shops is well-worth the visit. On the other end, the remnants of St. Catherine’s Church along with tombstones from the original sanctuary can be seen. The church is said to be the largest church in medieval Northern Europe. In the present days, ruins of the church have become a venue for concerts, plays and exhibits.
We had a medieval meal of an ox rib, elk soup and meat pie. Everything was very well laid together. With servers dressed in medieval costumes, the setting felt very authentic!
- Castles & Palaces
Kadriorg Palace (Presidential Palace)
Estonia has a Parliamentary form of government with their Prime Minister as the head. They also have a President for ceremonial events. We learned from our tour that the President’s Palace is not guarded, and it was true! We ended having photo shoot there.
Toompea is a limestone hill in the central part of the city of Tallinn. This is where a wooden fortress was built during the 9th century. In the course of history, Danish, Livonians (from Latvia), Swedish and Russians fortified the fortress and ruled the territories of Estonia from here. Today, Toompea is the seat of the Parliament of Estonia, the Riigikogu. The Estonian flag on top of the Tall Hermann tower symbolizes Estonia’s independence and own government in power.
Kiek in de Kök
This cannon tower gives an insight into Estonia’s past and the vast range of defences it used to protect itself. Inside this tower is a museum of the town’s armours, weapons and medieval-era life.This is also the starting point for touring the hidden tunnels that run underneath the Toompea hill. Kiek in de Kök literally means “Peek into the Kitchen.” Due to its 38-meter high structure, it was a well-recounted joke that medieval guards could see right down the chimneys and into the kitchens of the houses below.
- Viewing Platforms
We went to Kohtuotsa and Patkuli vantage points. They are just a short work from each other and two of Tallinn’s many viewing platforms at the Toompea Hill. We were there at the peak of the day and so it was difficult to get the perfect spot for a picture. But once the crowds settled, we had fine views of old and new Tallinn: the red roofs of the Old Town with its ancient walls & towers and the modern Tallinn harbour where you can see ferries travelling to and from Stockholm and Helsinki. We also saw the towers of St Olaf’s Church (which was said to be the tallest structure between the year 1549 to 1625) and Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin.
From the Patkuli viewing platform, we went down around 150 Patkuli steps connecting the Upper Old Town (dominated by Toompea Hill) to the Lower Old Town (with the Town Hall Square as its heart).
Joey and I are raised as Catholics. Every time we travel, our itinerary always includes a visit to at least one church and attend a Mass service. We always find it interesting participating in the Mass in another country’s language.
Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral
A modest yet beautiful church with a courtyard setting that serves Tallinn’s very small Catholic congregation. According to www.katoliku.ee, the Catholic population of Estonia is approximately 6,000 adherents.Our cruise ship arrived in Tallinn port on a Sunday. Being the only Catholic church in the Old Town, we stumbled into this church and attended the 6:00 pm Mass. The Mass was said in Russian but the priest also gave a homily in English following the homily in Russian after noticing us in the pews.
Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin (Dome Church’s) Tower
Originally established as a Roman Catholic cathedral by the Danish, this historic church located on Toompea Hillhas served as a burial place for noble families since the 13th century. It became Lutheran in 1561 and is now the seat of the Archbishop of Tallinn, the leader of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Church of the Holy Spirit
This is a lovely little Lutheran church located in the Old Town district. It is the only sacred building that preserved its original medieval form and is recognizable by the blue & gold clock on the wall above its entrance. The clock is said to be carved in the 1680’s and the oldest public clock in Tallinn. We paid a small fee to go inside, but it was well-worth to see the main altar, suspended pulpit, choir stalls, pews, and decorative stained glass.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This grand five black onion-domed Russian Orthodox church was completed on Toompea Hill in 1900, when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. It is just across the Toompea Castle (now the Estonian Parliament). It stands out on Toompea partly because of its massive and richly-coloured design as compared to the pastel-coloured medieval buildings surrounding it. It’s free entry; but since this is a working church, visitors are expected to dress appropriately.
Prior to this trip, we have not heard so much about Tallinn. Seldom does it appear in travel destinations. But knowing us, we could always turn this trip into something worth our while. And we did it! A visit to this medieval city was a pleasant surprise. It made us realize how truly magical and enchanting Tallinn is. Definitely, worth a return visit!