The Baltics – part of Europe, yet different. The northernmost country Estonia, and its capitol Tallinn, may be the most visited by American tourists since it is easily accessible by cruise ship. At first sight, Tallinn appears almost Disney-like in its perfect presentation of a medieval city, towers, walls and all. Its narrow cobblestone streets link the upper Old Town, with the government buildings and fancy churches, to the lower Old Town, where the large market square adjoins the Town Hall, filled with outdoor cafes during the summer. Fat Margaret Tower, with its 13 foot thick walls, acted as a defender of the town from attackers from the sea. The other main entrance to the Old Town, the 14th century Viru Gate, welcomes visitors with a bank of flower stalls with roses arranged in geometric precision.
Recognizing the value of the tourist dollar (or Euro or yen or ruble), Tallinn has seized on its medieval history with costumed vendors, horse drawn carriages, and other tourist kitsch, but if you look beyond that, there is a fascinating story of survival. The current parliament building (known to locals as Barbie’s Dreamhouse because of its pink façade) stands where a wooden fortress was first established in the ninth century. In 1219, the Danes conquered the region, beginning 700 years of occupation by foreign powers, including Russia, Nazi Germany and most recently the Soviet Union. Tsar Peter the Great of Russia selected Tallinn for a summer palace, and that palace and the cottage he and his wife Catherine stayed in during construction are still there. Russian influence is also obvious in the pastel colored architecture around the Old Town and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built at the top of the Old Town at the order of Tsar Alexander III to remind the locals of who was really in charge. The darker history of the Soviet occupation with its deportation of all intelligentsia and other potential “threats” in 1941 and again in 1949 is only slightly under the surface and can be seen in detail at the Museum of Occupations and Freedom.
Estonians prefer to talk about the Singing Revolution where from 1987 to 1991 the Soviet oppression was countered by a show of unity through music. The highlight of the peaceful revolution was the Baltic Chain (aka Baltic Way) where on August 23, 1989 over two million people linked hands creating a living chain from Tallinn’s Old Town through Riga, Latvia, all the way to Vilnius, Lithuania. Over 420 miles (675 km) of silent, peaceful protest. Estonians are proud that they were able to accomplish change without violence. However, independence occurred only in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. All three countries are proudly free and independent now, finding comfort in being members of NATO and the European Union, and growing economies. Still, the Russian bear lurking on their borders is a constant reminder of their history of occupation.
Visitors need not worry about that, though. They can sample excellent gastropub food, local brews, and all variety of seafood, given the proximity to the Baltic Sea. Authentic history can be found in the Dominican Monastery, founded in 1246, now a venue for artistic performances, and the adjoining St. Catherine’s Passageway, lined with arts and crafts workshops and gravestones dating back to the 14th century. Language is not a problem for English speakers. Though English isn’t commonly heard when walking the streets, it appears to be the “default” language used for everything from signs to menus to free walking tours. Taxis are plentiful, and Uber is available for those venturing beyond the town walls. A visit to Kadriorg Park, featuring Peter the Great’s summer palace (now an art museum), and grounds including a swan lake, can be a nice respite from the crowds of the Old Town.
Tallinn is definitely worth a visit, whether for the fairy tale aspect of the city or its deeper historical stories.