Layers of history and change
Old Tallinn is carefully protected nowadays, but any building work that does take place tends to reveal something of interest for the archeologists.
Hello Estonia, where the capital Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval city centers in the world. Freed from Soviet occupation in 1991 after the “Singing Revolution”, the country has thrown off its past and embraced a national identity founded on a rich culture, natural beauty and fine food.
Outside the Olde Hansa restaurant in Tallinn a duo of medieval “wenches” are encouraging passers-by to sample their wares. In their bonnets and cloaks the women would probably look rather out of place in most of Europe’s capitals but in the well-preserved heart of Estonia’s capital their clothing seems more appropriate. One holds out a long wooden spoon. “Sweet almonds?’ she asks. I take her up on the offer. It is rather good. “We make them with 16 different spices,” she says. “And if you eat five they’ll prevent drunkenness.”
Inside, Olde Hansa is heavily themed, with flickering candles, dark-wooden beams, long tables and musicians strumming lutes or playing recorders. More wenches pass by bearing foaming flagons of ale and the menu proudly displays dishes such as pork in beer sauce, filet of elk and marinated bear. The place might seem a bit excessive, but it is enduringly popular with visitors and celebrates a time when Estonia had a level of importance in Europe that belied its size.
Stroll the streets nearby and it is easy to see that Tallinn has one of the most complete medieval city centers in Europe, albeit one that has had quite a few nips and tucks over the years to help fend off the ravages of time.
The restaurant itself takes its name from the Hanseatic League – a group of German merchants who were a dominant trading presence in the Baltic states and far beyond between the 13th and 17th centuries. What is today Estonia was one of its more northerly outposts but its trading empire stretched as far as India, Spain and Turkey and it has been called a forerunner to the free-trade EU of which Estonia is now an enthusiastic member.
As I wander across the cobbled Town Hall Square in the early morning, when the revelers have finally called it a night and the tour guides and their charges are yet to emerge, it is easy to convince myself the Hansa merchants never left. On all sides there are steep-roofed medieval buildings in mellow tones of yellow, russet and grey and it only takes a peal of bells to complete the illusion of the Middle Ages.
AIvar Leimus, a researcher at the Estonian History Museum, based within the gothic, 15th- century Great Guild Hall, tells me more: “The Hansa’s member cities were trading outposts. Its merchants used the river system to access the interior of Europe, where few foreigners ever ventured, and they’d buy and sell goods there. The port cities like Tallinn were the cosmopolitan centers of the empire; their confidence and profitability visible in grand buildings and sturdy defenses.
They traded copper, iron, fabrics and salt
“The buildings of the old city show how important Tallinn was in those days. For the Hansa merchants, this was the gateway to the vast expanses of Russia and it was also somewhere that provided ready access to Scandinavia and Western Europe. The area now called the Baltic States had three major trading centers – Tallinn, Tartu and Riga – all were thriving cities where they’d have traded copper, iron, fabrics and salt from Western Europe and furs from Russia. They’d also have made money from selling local produce such as grain, linen and wood – vital at the time for building ships and houses.”
Old Tallinn is carefully protected nowadays, but any building work that does take place tends to reveal something of interest for the archeologists. “There are new archeological finds being discovered all the time,” says Leimus. “It is especially interesting when we uncover items that we never knew would have been imported to Estonia from either East or West. A couple of years ago a 13th-century merchant’s chest was recovered from Tallinn Bay. It contained more than 140 coins from Livonia [as the Baltic States were known] and Sweden, a set of brass weighing scales, tin weights and items such as leather knife sheaths that would have originated in England.”
From the upper stories of the Guild Hall I look out over the orange-tiled roofs of the city towards the sea that provided such opportunities for the medieval merchants. In the other direction the buildings gradually merge into distant fields and dusky woods. Around 40 per cent of Estonia is now covered by forest but 100 years it was ten per cent. A gradual move to the cities has seen nature reclaiming rural areas.
Some of the products of that countryside can be seen in slightly unexpected form nearby at the Old City’s Raeapteek pharmacy that is said to have first opened its doors in 1422. One room takes me back to those 15th-century days with displays not only about the creation of traditional herbal medicines but also of lethal- sounding remedies such as wolf intestines, dried toads and scorched hedgehog. Dangling from the ceiling, a stuffed alligator looks down with glassy eyes on visitors as they mull over the possible side effects of ingesting ground mummy or eye of newt.
Tallinn’s lower town was the place for trade and commerce
For those wanting to get further engrossed in the medieval side of Tallinn by actually staying in a building of the era, there is the Three Sisters Hotel. Created, as its name implies, from three yellow- and buff-hued former merchants’ houses of the 14th century, it has been carefully renovated with 23 individually themed rooms. Open fires, uplighters that mimic candlelight, exposed wood and a color palette of old city tones from white, to yellow, to pink all add to the ambience of the place.
As the Three Sisters’ original owners no doubt realized, Tallinn’s lower town was the place for trade and commerce, but Tallinn also had an upper town, known as Toompea that was (and is) the center of government and monarchy. Topped by its dramatically turreted castles and lofty churches, it is reached by two ancient- looking cobbled streets: Pikk Jalg (Long Leg) link and Luhike Jalg (Short Leg). In the days of the Hansa the former would have been for horses and carts. The latter, a mixture of cobbled lane and staircase, would have been the preserve of those on foot. It still is, though these days it is flanked by shops offering items such as amber jewelry, wooden toys, woolen hats and hand-made ceramics designed to appeal to passing tourists.
Reminders of foreign influence are perhaps more obvious at this higher level. Toompea was where German Hansa merchants lived once they had made their money, its castle was refurbished by a Danish king and its onion-domed Alexander Nevski cathedral, built from 1894-1900, speaks of rather heavy- handed Russian authority. An ornate combination of stucco and brick outside, inside it is a revelation, a sensory overload of gilded icons and brightly coloured mosaic work designed to make a point to the largely Lutheran, and therefore ecclesiastically monochrome, Estonians.
I see almost no sign of Cyrillic script
Legend has it that workers digging the foundations for the cathedral came across an iron plate inscribed with the words: “Cursed be those who disturb my rest.” This, so the story goes, was the last resting place of Kalev, the mythical founder of Tallinn. He is said to have had his revenge by making the cathedral unsound, creating subsidence and cracks wherever he could. Scaffolding, so the story goes, is a regular (or permanent – depending who you speak to) fixture of this grand, domed edifice.
The cathedral provides a reminder that less than 30 years ago Estonia was a – generally unenthusiastic – member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). On the surface those times can seem in the dim and distant past, but one reminder may be found in a glaring omission throughout Tallinn. I see almost no sign of Cyrillic script – despite the fact that around 15 per cent of Estonia’s population speaks Russian as a first language – because of its association with the Soviets and a time that many Estonians would rather leave in the past.
Another Soviet legacy that is hard to avoid is the Television Tower, ever-present on the city skyline despite being 6km from the city center in the suburb of Pirita. This was built at the time of the 1980 Olympic Games – hosted by the USSR. The sailing events were held in Tallinn and the tower was deemed a suitable way to remind the watching world of the advanced state of Soviet technology. In 1991 it was also the site of a standoff between Estonians and Russian troops and the tower is now a symbol of the fight for independence. At ground level, a curving stained glass artwork depicts aspects of Soviet life in vibrant reds, golds and greens.
To find out more about those times, I head to the Museum of Occupations, the first permanent visitor attraction to be created in Tallinn following Estonian independence in 1992. Here, curator Dr Jean-Loup Rousselot explains the thinking behind the place’s layout and displays. “The museum tells the tale of Estonia between 1939 and 1991,” he says. “For these 52 years the country was continuously occupied, as were our neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, successively by Soviet Russia, by Nazi Germany and again by the Soviets. What we wanted to do here is let witnesses tell their stories. Visitors can hear people speak about their experiences, their memories and their thoughts about the events of that time.”
Their letters home can also still be seen
After all that medieval architecture, the Occupations Museum is dramatically modern, both in appearance and the way it shares its message. As Rousselot points out, much of the story is told chronologically through video interviews with those who witnessed the events first hand. Their free speaking contrasts with the limitations on personal freedom that were imposed by Estonia’s one-time masters and their testimony fills the museum with first-hand human memories that span more than half a century. There are also numerous objects such as identity cards, photographs, soldiers’ helmets and a sinister-looking World War II era German motorcycle and sidecar that would once have patrolled the streets of Tallinn.
An even more dramatic back story surrounds a fishing boat that was used by one group of Estonians in a desperate bid to flee to Sweden before the Soviet army arrived in 1945. Elsewhere, dozens of old suitcases provide a reminder of some of those who stayed behind and were then deported to Siberia. Their letters home can also still be seen, written on bark stripped from birch trees because the prisoners had no access to paper.
“Our aim is to avoid nationalism,” Rousselot says. “Dictatorial regimes are condemned as the source of our compatriots’ suffering, but we don’t accuse either Russians or Germans for being responsible for the past. In fact, we often organize tours for groups of people from both those nations.”
The curator leads the way to a collection of Soviet-era statues that provide a reminder of the once inescapable presence of Lenin and Marx in Estonia’s squares and streets. “Even for today’s audience these are still both impressive and oppressive,” he says. “Estonians are still deeply affected by their recent past. There are many, many people still alive who witnessed the Soviet occupation. This piece of history is just too close for them. They would rather get on with enjoying life now than think about what things were like back then.
“They’re happy to be part of Europe and of Nato – it gives them a sense of security. People who lived under the former Soviet Union are terrified when they hear about President Vladimir Putin annexing the Crimean peninsula, for example. They ask themselves, are the Baltic countries next on his list? All the Baltic States have sizeable Russian minorities. Would Moscow like to “liberate’ them too?”
A celebration of Estonian song and dance
It is a sobering question, but at least there is somewhere nearby that can perhaps help to push it into the background. I visit Kadriorg – just to the east of the city – where the Song Festival Grounds are a wide expanse of grass overlooked by a large stage that is topped by a curving, concrete dome. In recent years it has hosted the likes of Lady Gaga, Sir Elton John and Green Day, but it is more famous as the venue every five years for a celebration of Estonian song and dance that helps to define the existence of the whole nation.
A rehearsal is taking place on stage, with a choir of perhaps 30 women in a red and white version of Estonian national dress going through a repertoire of songs. I stop to watch and strike up a conversation with a fellow visitor, Indrek Ryman, a 39-year-old engineer from Tartu.
“During the festival there might be as many as 40,000 people on the stage and 200,000 in the crowd,” he says. “They can also turn things around so that the crowd is on the stage and the performers are on the grass.”
But this place has an even greater significance in Estonian history, he adds. “You know the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia? Well, in Estonia we had a Singing Revolution. It may sound a bit crazy now, but that’s what happened. In 1988 people sang through the night to express their feelings about the Soviet Union. At least 250,000 people came to sing here. It was the beginning of Estonia securing its freedom.”
To follow one more thread of Estonian identity I return to the cobblestones and cafés of the Old Town. Here I have arranged to meet Alvar Hanson, a culinary enthusiast who organizes an annual competition entitled Flavours of Estonia that every year selects the country’s 50 best restaurants.
Estonian cuisine is still extraordinary
“Estonia is such a tiny country, we don’t really have our own special ingredients,” he says. “But Estonian cuisine is still extraordinary, because it can trace its roots back to medieval times, when Tallinn used to be on the Hansa’s trade routes. In more recent years the country’s cuisine has been influenced by Germany, Russia and Scandinavia. It is a unique combination and it means we have a lot of familiar dishes that taste different.
“Tallinn has become something of a foodie capital in recent years. There is lots of variety: Tchaikovsky is an excellent Russian-French restaurant, Neh and Leib take a modern view on Estonian cuisine and we even have a modern Chinese restaurant (Chedi, established in cooperation with Wagamama founder Alan Yau). The city is a true hidden gem for food lovers,” says Hanson. “And it’s not only the capital that will impress. In recent years some good restaurants have been moving out of the cities to be closer to their ingredients.”
For all the variety available, though, there is a simple classic that has a special place in the culinary traditions of the country. “One dish that every Estonian misses if they are away from home for a long time is spiced Baltic sprats on rye bread,” says Hanson. “It’s just a simple sandwich, but it is emblematic of Estonia. The sprats are flavored with a minimum of ten different spices, a reminder of Tallinn’s place in the medieval spice trade, and the butter must be farm- or homemade. Ideally, the dark bread and the spiced sprats should also be homemade too if you want the best flavor, although tinned spiced Baltic sprats are widely available in the shops. For Estonians this dish is really special.”
I cast my mind back to the Olde Worlde cosiness of Olde Hansa. For all its traditions I did not spot a spiced sprat, but the spirit of both the restaurant and the simple dish can still be traced to the same maritime and trading tradition that have endured over the centuries. In the process, the tiny nation of Estonia has perhaps shown an enduring ability to take elements from other cultures without being totally overwhelmed by them. And that is still visible today, from medieval architecture, to singing festivals, to sweet almonds.
Old Tallinn is carefully protected nowadays, but any building work that does take place tends to reveal something of interest for the archeologists.
In the old center of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, I have arranged to meet Alvar Hanson, a culinary enthusiast who organizes an annual competition entitled Flavours of Estonia that every year selects the country’s 50 best restaurants.
Outside the Olde Hansa restaurant in Tallinn a duo of medieval "wenches" are encouraging passers-by to sample their wares. One holds out a long wooden spoon. “Sweet almonds?’ she asks.
Starting photographers often make the mistake of telling an urban story where buildings are the stars, leaving out the inhabitants and consequently creating a set of images that lack soul.
Tallinn’s Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral sits atop Toompea Hill, dominating the city skyline. A picturesque landmark to visitors, it means a lot more than that to Estonians.
The Museum of Occupations, the first permanent visitor attraction to be created in Tallinn following Estonian independence in 1992, is the place to learn more about the Soviet occupation of Estonia.