Exploring Old Town during days and nights when the sun never appears to set
18.06.2011 - 18.06.2011 20 °C
In a new city, we set out early to explore Tallinn’s Old Town.
As we wonder along Tallinn’s ‘Lower Town’ cobblestone streets we pass the gingerbread houses of medieval merchants now converted into hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings. Much the same as Venice in the south, the merchants of ‘Lower Town’ traditionally managed all trade between the eastern empires and western Europe. An array of boats transported goods to Tallinn that were then sold at markets in the city, transported to destinations throughout Europe or stored in vast warehouses. By the mid 14th-century Tallinn was a major Hanseatic town, enormously rich from the trade that passed through its port.
Close to our hotel in the northern section of Old Town lies St. Olaf’s Church.
The tower of this church is an important Tallinn landmark. Under UNESCO rules in order for the city to retain its World Heritage status the skyline of the city cannot be affected and as such no building can rise above the height of the church’s 360ft tower (reduced from an initial 450ft after various lightening strikes and subsequent fires). Three hundred, narrow, medieval stone steps lead to the top of the Tower from where we have an excellent panorama not only of the Old Town but the New as well. To the north the ferry port holds a variety of passenger and car ferries inbound from the short 50 mile trip to Helsinki or further afield Stockholm. Fortunately, we climbed the Tower early in the morning for as we depart the number of tourists ascending the Tower and needing to be ‘squeezed’ passed on the narrow stone steps is rising.
With an intention of visiting the ‘Kiek in de Kök’ or ‘Peep into the Kitchen’ museum (where legend holds that medieval voyeurs could see into Old Town kitchens) we climb the hill to Upper Town and the Toompea district of the city. With Estonia ruled by a variety of German traders and knights from 1285 through to the 16th-century the upper Town, on Toompea Hill, became the traditional residence for these rulers, knights and bishops. A mild animosity between the merchants and artisans of the Lower Town and their rulers in Upper Town so the building of a wall to separate the two areas, the gates of which were securely closed at 9pm every night – much of which remains today.
We began our tour of Toompea Hill outside the almost unrecognizable as such, Toompea Castle. With various additions throughout the centuries, by conquerors and Estonians alike the main public façade of this ‘castle’ is now a pink baroque style building which serves as the Estonian parliament. The 19th – century Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral lies directly across from the Parliament building. Built by Tsar Alexander III it was sited their strategically as part of their policy of Russification.
Wondering past large tour groups the Dome Church is Estonia’s oldest. Inside, lie the remains of a lecherous old Knight. Ancient legend states that any adoring couple who stand on his grave, and wish for it, will receive everlasting love…although another version of the tale relates that this legend is purely so the lady loving Knight can continue to look up ladies dresses, even in death! At the lookout close to the Church we can see much of the northern section of Old Town – with recently conquered St Olav’s tower being particularly prominent.
Detouring to the suburban Marks and Spencer’s (to replenish essentially English food supplies!) a navigational error sees us take a much longer than expected walk through the remote suburbs, industrial areas and cemeteries of Tallinn. However, after the excess of pancake the previous night the unplanned exercise is somewhat welcome.
At night we restrict ourselves to investigating further the bars and restaurants of Old Town. However, with the ‘White Nights’ approaching their climax we never see darkness. The continued blue skies throughout the late evening do not encourage sleep and once again we find ourselves enjoying the delights of Old Town late into the evening, with still yet more to explore tomorrow.