Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is 235 miles nearly due east of Stockholm. We will be biking through all three of the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, over the next two weeks, then we’ll be going to Russia for another week (Moscow, and St. Petersburg), followed by a couple days in Helsinki, Finland (on the map, below, just north of Tallinn), then overnight in Stockholm before returning home.
Our flight from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport barely had time to level off before it was time to descend. I took this photo of Tallinn as we were on final approach. In the foreground, you can see the Soviet-era apartment buildings of the suburbs with the more modern downtown in the distance. If you look closely, you might also be able to make out the old town with its castle and church steeples in the upper left. By the way, Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport (f/k/a Ulemiste Airport), which has only a single runway, is the most incredible and modern terminal we have ever been in.
We spent one day and two nights in Tallinn which, consequently, limited our sight-seeing to the old town, that is, the historical walled city and the castle above it on Toompea Hill. Tallinn is a popular cruiseship destination and four ships were in port, so we started out early and rushed to get ahead of the crowds by hiking straight up to the lookout points on Toompea Hill. I think we even startled the birds with our early arrival, although they weren’t too shaken.
It is known that there has been a town on Toompea Hill since the 1100s and Encyclopedia Brittanica reports that there has been a settlement here since the first millenium B.C. But the fortress atop the hill that we visited dates from the early 1200s when the place was recently conquered by the Danes. In 1285, the city joined the Hanseatic League, a trading union made up primarily of German cities on the Baltic, whose domain extended as far north as Bergen, Norway, which we recently visited.
I have been reading about the history of the Baltic countries on this trip (a 12-hour Great Courses series on Audible and the book, A History of the Baltic States, with too many dates and unpronouncable names to make it memorable), but, I will not bore you with the details of the history of Tallinn or Estonia, other than to give you this brief summary:
After the conquest of the Danes in the 1200s, the city came under the rule of the German Teutonic Knights (1346-1561), then the Swedes (1561-1710), and then the Russians (1710-1918), before becoming the capital of an independent Estonia, but only for a mere 22 years. Then, in 1940, Estonia was briefly occupied and annexed into the U.S.S.R – until the Germans invaded the following year. The Germans occupied the country until 1944 when the Soviets invaded and again annexed the country, imprisoning and deporting many ethnic Estonians to Siberia. So, to their dismay, the Estonians found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia until 1991 when the U.S.S.R. Collapsed.
To make a long story short: history has not been kind to the Estonians. This place has been the battleground of empires since the beginning of recorded history and it shows in the faces of its older inhabitants. But, Estonia is now, at last, coming into its own as an independent republic and proud member of both the European Union and NATO.
We found a secret passage down from the lookout and walked around the fortress wall until we found another way back inside the fortress. Here’s a photo looking back at the path we walked:
And here are the stairs we found to head back up.
Back on top of Toompea Hill, we rounded the corner on our way to Tallinn’s oldest church, the Cathedral of St. Mary, in Estonian, the “Toomkirik,” and simply refered to as the Dome Church. On the way, we came upon this girl playing the archlute, an instrument from the 1600s. If I counted correctly, this instrument is, essentially, a 12-string “guitar” +1, with 8 bass strings. It was beautiful.
By now, the cruiseship passengers had also reached the Dome Church, but they were all shepherded through the free main floor while we paid the admission to climb the stairs up the spire, from the top of which I took these photos:
That’s the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a domed orthodox christian church, on the left, above. There seems to be an Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in nearly every eastern european country (Wikipedia lists 19). We didn’t visit this one; we’re waiting to visit those in Moscow and St. Petersburg, instead. By the way, the building at the base of the castle tower is the Estonian parliament complex.
The Dome Church is famous for its collection of family crests (these crests are created solely as epitaphs):
From the Dome Church, we wound our way down to the lower town…
…to the “Danish King’s Garden.” The guide books tell stories about this place, but they’re probably all fictitious, so I’ll spare you. Today, it’s a mainly a somewhat Disneyesque, reconstructed tourist attraction, but we noticed there was a cafe up above that looked interesting…
…and it was lunch time, so we took the tour of the Kiek in de Kök tower (what a name) so that we could get a seat for lunch on the castle wall.
The horse heads were a little disconcerting.
After lunch, we followed the knight from the Danish King’s Garden and his entourage of school children to where the kids got to try on the chain mail.
About this point, I gave up trying to read the signs. Estonian is based on the Finno-Ugric language subfamily, shared with the Sami of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the Finns, some Russians (primarily Siberians) and, oddly, the Hungarians. They really like their double letters, primarily vowels.
We finished the day by walking across the Raekoja Plats, the town hall square, as rain clouds closed in.
But, fortunately, we made it back to our hotel before the rain started. And after the storm, we glimpsed a rainbow from our hotel window. A sign of things to come?