The next step in our be-bopping about the Baltics was catching a ferry from Helsinki to the capital of Estonia. Old Town Tallinn is intoxicating and I was instantly charmed by the medieval atmosphere, which comes alive as you walk narrow cobblestone streets past colorful colonial buildings. I was thankful for an unusual history which led to the creation and preservation of this monument to the past.
The town owes its rise to the Hanseatic League, an international commerce association of Danish, German and Swedish merchants. This capitalist group established Reval, the “Lower Town” of Tallinn way back in the thirteenth century to serve as a port for moving goods. I find it remarkable this enterprise began as an association spanning multiple kingdoms and existed as an autonomous city-state for centuries. The “Upper Town” of Toompea was populated by native Estonians who provided labor for the League’s business enterprises, as well as domestic services for well-heeled merchants living in the town down below.
Insuring safety for goods in transit was part of the business plan, so Tallinn was heavily fortified. There are walls
surrounding both villages, studded with sixty-six turrets for defense. Many of these towers still stand, a testament to the preservation which has earned Tallinn UNESCO World Heritage status.
We entered Old Town at the Fat Margaret (Paks Margareeta) entrance, a tower nicknamed for its thick walls and squat, rotund structure. This immediately transports visitors back to the Middle Ages, an impression which deepens the longer you amble about. I was content to simply wander and relish the architecture, but this is a tourist destination and there were plenty of enticements to pay admission for deeper investigations.
My passion for views sucked us into the first non-free spectacle. St. Olav’s Church boasts a towering steeple which easily surpasses anything else in town. The majestic spire is visible for miles around and just to reinforce its amazing ascent, the Russians deployed jamming equipment here to prevent locals from receiving Finnish TV signals in USSR days. There is no fee to walk through the chapel and only a minimal charge to scale the tower. The splendid views afforded by this jaunt are strongly recommended as an introduction to Tallinn. Talk about going to heaven!
There were many towers to climb in Tallinn, a wealth I found quite “inspiring”. Of the numerous churches here, I was most entranced by one which
offered no upstairs access. The Nevsky Cathedral is an Orthodox Christian church, replete with onion domes which whetted our appetite for the approaching journey to St. Petersburgh.
I don’t mean to take you to church, however. There are a multitude of opportunities in this splendid village and it would take a serious effort to exhaust all of its delights. One of our favorites was the Neitsitorn Museum. Offering an exploration of a section of the town’s wall and two towers, this is an odd combination of eateries and museums. While it seems you are free to ramble about a fair portion without having to pay (including spaces occupied by the many restaurants within), the highlights require purchasing admission. Chief among these highlights are climbing up Maiden Tower and Kiek in de Kök. Kiek in de Kök translates as “peek in the kitchen”, an apt term since this was a watchtower and afforded guards an opportunity to see what was going on within and without the city. Beyond views from either tower, there are random historical exhibits which were well done and informative. A satisfying time to wander about and stumble upon intermittent surprises.
Perhaps I will supplement this entry by penning a few restaurant reviews at some point, because we enjoyed amazing meals in Tallinn. But to wrap things up, I’d like to share how wonderful we found the inhabitants. Guide books inform tipping is not expected, but you may do so if service is exceptional. The caution is to leave cash because adding it to a credit card payment rarely circulates back to your server. We enjoyed a splendid meal and fantastic service at Vaenama Juures, so I left some euros.
After we got up Laura told me she wanted to visit the rest room and I waited for her in the entrance. During this brief interlude our waitress began clearing the table and rushed up, clasping both my hands and expressing “thank you so very much”. Living in the USA you feel obliged to tip, even when service is lackluster and there is never any acknowledgement or thanks. This was refreshing and I was genuinely touched by the gratitude, the sincerity honestly revealed by the mirth in her eyes. I wanted to go back to our table and leave more!
With a little help from my friends, running around the planet was revealing more and more stunning treasures.