Tallinn (28 – 29 June 2013)
I have finally reached the final part of my time at the Baltic States. North of Tallinn is the sea and beyond that is Finland.
I arrived at the bus station in Tallinn at about 9 pm. It was weird that the sky was still really bright at that hour. But thank god for that since I almost could not find my way to the hotel. The problem with relying on the maps on my iPhone was that I was not able to make markings on them. I forgot the name of the street the bus station was on initially and so was not able to compare where I was with the map. But fortunately I managed to recall the name and then find my way eventually. My hotel, the Hotel St Babara, was located on the edge of the old town.
Tallinn was very interesting. Its old town was so well preserved that it was quite drastically different from the newer part of the city.
Like Tartu, Tallinn has a hill, called Toompea, and that this hill is still the Estonian centre of power today. The Upper Town on Toompea was administratively a separate town until the 19th century and where the nobility of the country, both secular and religious, could lord over everyone else better from a physically higher place. They do get a good view of the old town and beyond from high above.
The Orthodox cathedral is a pretty church with a gorgeous interior. It was built in the final years of the 19th century during the period of Russification of the country as a symbol of czarist rule and Russian dominance. The Estonians saw it as a symbol of oppression and there were plans in 1924 to demolish it. Fortunately the plans were not carried out because they lacked funds. The church was left to rot during atheist Soviet rule but Estonia restored it upon independence.
The Lower Town was the Hanseatic town and a centre of trade during the days of the Hanseatic League. Trade still happens here every day at the Raekoja plats or Town Hall Square. The square is ringed by bars and restaurants and on both mornings I was in town there was a market.
The market would miraculously disappear in the evening.
The Lower Town in old Tallinn is a town of spires and that of the Town Hall is just one. One other spire belongs to St Olaf’s Church. This church was the tallest building in the world from the mid 16th to the first quarter of the 17th century. The building had been destroyed a few times by fire but today still stands tall in the Lower Town.
Another is that of St Nicholas’ Church. There is a museum of ecclesiastical art in the church but I did not visit it.
A third belongs to the Church of the Holy Ghost. This is a small, adorable and interesting church worth a visit.
I also want to make mention of St John’s Church just outside the old town. Its spire was the first visible structure as I was getting near the old town. This was a nice place to have a quiet sit away from the noise of touristy old Tallinn. That is until the concert started playing outside on the Freedom Square.
In comparison, the Catholic cathedral in Tallinn looks extremely plain. The Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul was hardly even visible from the street.
Being a well preserved historic town, much of old Tallinn’s defensive structures still exist.
On 23 August 1989, about 2 million people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (all still Soviet republics then) joined hands and formed a human chain for about fifteen minutes from Gediminas’ Tower in Vilnius to the tower Pikk Hermann in Tallinn. The Baltic Way, as this peaceful pro-independence protest was called, covered a distance of 675.5 kilometres through the three countries. The day was the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The pact divided territories into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence”. All three Baltic States eventually fell prey to Soviet occupation.
The very idea of so many people of different nationalities standing together with hands joined to peacefully make a common just demand was just mind blowing and very moving. As we now know, things eventually turned out rather well for the three Baltic States. With that in mind, I visited the third museum dedicated to the occupation of the Baltic States.
The Museum of Occupations was an intimate affair just outside the old town. There is a section dedicated to the Forest Brothers, partisans who fought a guerrilla war of resistance against Soviet rule. These people were masters of hiding and managed to remain undetected in the forests and a thorn in the Soviet flesh for many years. Eventually however, the stress of living in often harsh conditions, and Soviet surveillance and ruthlessness, proved fatal for the movement. Many died. It did not look like the efforts of the Forest Brothers led to the independence of the Baltic States. Independence would eventually be won via more peaceful means.
If there is sufficient time, the museum also shows intense documentaries dealing with different topics related to the occupation and the road to independence. The usual paraphernalia related to the period are also exhibited.
About three kilometres away from the old town lies the Kadriorg Palace. The original structure was a Dutch-style manor house that Peter the Great had bought for his wife Catherine. The manor was after a few years rebuilt into a palace. In the 19th century, the palace was drastically renovated by Nicholas I. The palace now houses the Kadriorg Art Museum.
As with so many Baroque palaces, Kadriorg Palace of course has its accompanying park. This one is now a public park.
There was to my surprise a Thai restaurant in Tallinn. I could not resist the temptation and so I had dinner there on my last night in town. The Krua Thai Restaurant’s head chef was apparently Thai and so the food was very authentic. I wanted a chicken panang but the waitress mistakenly recorded prawn curry for my order. But that was alight, as long as I got my spicy food. I also had a tom yam soup and green mango salad. Having been deprived of fresh chilli for so long, I got quite excited when I saw a tiny slice of fresh red chilli in the garnish dish. I asked the waitress for more and she was bewildered by my request. She asked me how “many” more I wanted. I cannot remember what passed between us but she came back with two more slices. I had to tell her to fill up half of the small garnish dish. Serves me right for assuming that a non Southeast Asian would understand me when it came to chilli.
Tallinn marked the end of my time in the Baltic States. The last two weeks had been incredible and I felt very accomplished. Although the three Baltic States are always mentioned together in one breath, I realised that despite some common experiences each one remained quite unique. I am glad I chose to go there over other places.