Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, amazes its visitors with its buildings from the Middle Ages.
As Toompea Hill sits on my way home from the city center, it happens quite often that I travel through the area. Eight hundred years have passed since Danish king, Valdemar II, stepped ashore and made this hill one of his strongholds. Nowadays it's not seldom when I run across our prime minister or parliament members while walking through old Tallinn as both institutions are up here.
Discovering the streets of Tallinn makes me admire the old-time ́s talented craftsman, who have committed themselves building this fabulous town, now included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The building process, by the way, should never end or else the old man from Ülemiste lake would flood the city. The story goes, that once a year the old man comes out of the lake asking if the town is completed yet. The city guard shall always answer, that many constructions are still going on. Hearing this, the old man returns to the Ülemiste lake to come back next year asking the same question.
One of the most significant building projects of old Tallinn is the town wall, once almost three km long. Even Peter the Great's army, they say so, was not able to conquer the town by force but by a plague. When grandma told me, that the secure walls of Tallinn were built on salt, I imagined as a child, how the white table salt is leaking out from the walls to the nearby sea making it salty. Later on, I learned, that salt was the main merchandise of Hanseatic Tallinn, thus the saying: “City built on salt.”
Entering the town walls through the Viru gate brings me to the most bustling walking streets of Tallinn. Melodies like "Knocking on the heavens door" mingled with Baroque masterpieces played by street musicians create a lively doorsill for blending into the old town’s diverse atmosphere. Glancing to the Müürivahe street market, I have to admit that Estonians don ́t leave anything for chance. It turns out that there is nothing odd about buying a woolen scarf or varicolored hat in the middle of the warm spring. Or as one of the sellers says: “winter will not stay in heaven, and it ́s better to be prepared in time."
Reaching the end of Viru street, the show starts. Raekoda has been the heart of Tallinn since its building in 1404. The Gothic Town Hall is still in use as ceremonial building for the city government and a museum. On the medieval marketplace in front of Raekoda, I feel like one of those citizens once gathering on the spot, eager to hear the latest news from a merchant who has just returned from his trip to Lübeck. Indeed, it's feasible to be embodied as one of the old days’ masters or servants during the Old Town Days. The festivities, celebrating the end of summer, fill squares, streets, and yards with all sorts of artistic performances. Meeting with knights and tasting food prepared according to old food recipes makes me a little bit envious of the past days. Dried elk meat with herbs? Or oven baked juniper cheese? These are only some curiosities of the Olde Hansa restaurant’s menu.
“Make way for rats! Make way for rats!” is a rather odd shout during the celebrations. Well, rats have been a horrid problem in any medieval town, but what about now? And there they come fancy dressed “office rats," who have taken time out for running through the heart of the old city for fun, friendship, and charity.
In front of Raekoda, there is a stone disc with a compass indicating the zero point of old Tallinn. It's not easy to find it amid coffee and market tables, but once I do, try to detect the four medieval churches visible from the round stone. The spires of Toomkirik, Püha Vaimu, and Niguliste churches are easy to sight, but Oleviste spire has hidden behind the red roof of the Raeapteek, one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe. Fortunately, the owner did not mind cutting a gap into the roof to make the spire visible from the disc.
Before continuing to Oleviste church, the best viewing point in old town, I can't reject the temptation of taking a sweet bite of a traditional gateau in Maiasmokk café. Entering the place, I admire the old counters with bronze ornaments and glass ceiling with paintings, which create an atmosphere characteristic to this once elite café. Marzipan products made here were appreciated even in the Russian royal court.
Filled with new energy I move down the Pikk street passing the medieval guilds’ houses and infamous KGB prison cells, now part of Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom. As standing in front of the towering church, I imagine crowds of people once gathered around the construction of this unprecedented skyscraper – according to some sources once the highest building of the world, reaching to 159 m. The building master of the tower, as the story goes, wished to remain unidentified, so some sort of magic is undoubtedly involved.
I think twice before climbing the 258 steps to the viewing platform and never regret the decision – seeing Tallinn on the palm of your hand is a remarkable experience. The lower and upper city of medieval Tallinn with its read roofs and lined up turrets are surrounded by a green belt of parks and avenues. Pikk Hermann tower of the Toompea castle stands like an unshaken ensign holding the Estonian national tricolor flag above the town walls.
Looking towards East, I recognize the arc of the Song Festival Grounds near Kadriorg park, which is home to the Song Celebration every five years. As the mild summer breeze caresses my cheeks, I start crooning a melody always part of the program – my fatherland is my love by Gustav Ernesaks. This verse is also used as the motto of the 150th-anniversary of the celebration this year. The streets around the old town, now filled with regular traffic, will bristle with joyful choir singers and dancers waiting for their turn to join the procession.