Whenever I need a break from my busy work schedule, I pick up my laptop and browse the world wide web to hunt for an offbeat destination. This time my location-hunting took me across to Estonia in Eastern Europe. Sitting on the southern coast of the Bay of Finland, the country occupies one end of a strategic land bridge from the Baltic Sea to Novograd in Russia. Estonia borders the Baltic Sea with the Finnish capital of Helsinki just 85 miles away.
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has had a rich history with its inhabitants being the oldest settlers of Europe who lived on the coast of the Baltic Sea since the time of the great pyramids. The country was, for the first time, marked on a map by an Arabian geographer in the 12th century. However, from the beginning of the 13th century, Estonia was invaded and occupied by Germans, Danes, Swedes, Poles and Russians until finally in 1991, it regained independence. Now the city has been asserting itself as a major bridge between East and West Europe. So I booked myself on the state - of - the - art brand new Airbus 330-300, Finnair flight from Delhi to Helsinki. To my surprise, the flight time is just six-and-a-half hours. From here, the next morning, I boarded a luxury liner for a short cruise of two-and-a-half hours to reach Tallinn. After checking into my hotel, I had a quick change as I wanted to explore the city. And the best way is to do it by road as my local guide informed me.
So we set off and were at the ruins of St Bridget's Convent. Once the largest convent in Old Livonia, it is a typical example of late Gothic churches in Tallinn. They were destroyed in the second half of the 16th century by the Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Today, only the western limestone gable, 35 m high, and the side walls remain standing. In the 17th century, a farmers' cemetery developed in front of the ruins.
The convent was unique in its time as it allowed male priests to live within its confines and organise everyday ceremonies and processions on religious holidays. There are tales of secret underground passageways between the convent and the city. At present, it is a pleasant spot for relaxation and sightseeing. In addition to the impressive ruins themselves and their surrounding greenery, the site is a venue for open air concerts and a convent day celebration where a traditional fair takes place on the grounds.
Our next stop was Kadriorg or Catherine's Palace. My guide told me that Peter the Great began building the palace in 1718 and it was called Ekaterinenthal, or Catherinenthal, in honour of his wife, Catherine I. The architect of the temporary summer residence palace and park was an Italian, Niccolo Michetti, who was later involved with the famous Peterhof Palace. It is said that the Tsar himself laid the foundation stone for the palace. In the 1930s, Kadriorg Palace became a residence for the head of state. On the same level as the palace, across the back flower garden, lies the President’s office building cum residence, built a few years before World War II.
At present, the baroque Kadriorg Palace houses the foreign art collection of the Estonian Art Museum, which organises concerts and theatre performances, lectures and receptions, in addition to art exhibitions. The park surrounding the palace is mainly a vast green meadow studded with wild flowers. One of the most popular places here is the symmetrical Swan Lake. Originally, the park included a dignified formal Italian-French garden on the other side.
Lining the promenade leading from the lake to the palace (Weizenbergi Street) are many of the palace’s auxiliary buildings. The restoration workshop of the Estonian Art Museum is, at present, located in the guesthouse and the park pavilion next door. Opposite the palace gates is a small guard house, followed by the palace kitchen building and the ice cellar.
The park, originally around 100 hectares in size, is not preserved in its entirety. Only a small part of it was designed as a formal retreat in its time. Most of it was intended to preserve the look of the natural landscape, with meadows and forest groves, traversed by paths.
Strolling around, I saw the cottage of Peter the Great. The pretty bungalow, set amid tall trees, is so simple that it is hard to imagine a Tsar once lived there even as his opulent palace was being constructed. The little, red-tiled, white-washed cottage is a museum now that still houses this belongings. It consists of a living room, dining room, bedroom, newly renovated rooms in the attic and basement and household articles.
From here, we drove to Kalamaja, a sub-district of the Pohja-Tallinn district in the north, the location of the oldest cemetery. “The exact origin of the cemetery is not completely clear but historians place its foundation to sometime between the 15th and 16th centuries. It was the principal burial ground of the ethnic Swedish and Estonians living in and around Tallinn. Until the mid to late 19th century, a majority of residents here were Baltic Germans who had their own separate graveyards within the city walls until 1774 and their own separate cemeteries outside the city after that. Until its destruction, the cemetery had thousands of graves of various historical figures from Estonia's history,” my guide told me.
Shortly after World War II and during the second occupation of Baltic states, the suburb of Kalamaja (due to its strategic position as a base for the Red Army on the Gulf of Finland) was turned into a restricted zone for the Soviet military and closed for public. In 1964, the cemetery was entirely flattened under the order of Soviet authorities. Gravestones were used to build walls along the ports and sidewalks in other parts of the city and no trace of the cemetery was left anywhere. The Soviet forces, in a coordinated effort to remove all traces of the past, also destroyed two 18th century cemeteries in the city in the suburbs of Kopli and Moigu, which belonged to the ethnic Estonian and Baltic German communities.
In contrast, the Russian Orthodox Cemetery, also established in the 18th century, south of the old town of Tallinn, was left standing. At present, this area is a public park, with no immediate visible indication of its previous status. However, a small plaque with a short description has been put on the side of a restored chapel. The only surviving evidence of those who were interred there consists of the parish registers of burials and some old detailed maps of the area in the Tallinn city archives.
My guide next took me to the Old Town. Its unique value lies first and foremost in the well-preserved completeness of its medieval milieu and structure that has been lost in most of the capitals of northern Europe. Since 1997, the Old Town of Tallinn has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Its powerful defensive structures have protected the city from being destroyed in wars and its lack of wooden buildings has protected it from being burnt down. But it is also important that Tallinn has not been massively rebuilt in the interest of dispensing with the old and modernising the town.
Tallinn is one of the best retained medieval European towns with its web of winding cobblestone streets and properties, from the 11th to 15th centuries, preserved nearly in their entirety. All important state and church buildings from the Middle Ages have been preserved in their original form, along with houses of citizens and merchants, their barns and warehouses. It’s as if life’s tiniest details have keepsake value here.
We proceeded next to the tallest structure, St Olav's Church. Built in 1525, this medieval structure with its 159 m high spire, was, until 1625, the tallest building in the world. But its steeple was also an excellent lightning conductor and was hit at least eight times. The church has burnt down three times thus far. Re-built with a resilient spirit, its current spire now stands at 124 m, still an impressive height, towering over the town square. The most unique among the lanes of the Old Town is St Catherine's Passage that connects the Vene and Müürivahe streets along the back of what was once St Catherine's Church. The passage is also the location of St Catherine's Guild, a group of open studios for various crafts where artists create and sell quilts, hats, ceramics and paintings.
As we had been wandering around Tallinn since morning, we were tired and hungry. So we took a break at Olde Hansa, Tallinn's most famous restaurant. It was established to honour the Hanseatic League (an alliance of trading cities and their guilds that established and maintained a trade monopoly) and was the house of a rich merchant. If you've wondered what a feast from the Middle Ages was like, then you won't get any closer than a meal at the Olde Hansa. The hotel brings Tallinn's golden age back to life.
Wooden benches are laid out with boarskin covers, flickering candles light up the dim interiors and a troop of musicians round off the ambience in style.
As for the food, the staff have researched recipes and ingredients meticulously to ensure that the dinner tastes the same as it did ages ago. It boasts of a mouth-watering cuisine that includes Rabbit Roast, Wild Boar and Elk and the Hon'ble Cooke Frederick's Game Sausages, Himalayan lamb with warming spices, German Merchants’ delicious pork marinated in beer and several vegetarian dishes too. After a leisurely meal, a light-hearted conversation and an hour of rest at restaurant Ribe, we were ready to move again.
We next stopped at the Town Hall Square, the most enchanting part in Tallinn. The square has been a marketplace for centuries though it was once used both for celebrations and executions.
Today, the Square remains a cultural focal point. In summer, it is filled with outdoor cafes and is home to countless open-air concerts, handicraft fairs and medieval markets. In winter, an annual Christmas market draws in the crowds as does the town’s Christmas tree (a tradition that dates back to 1441) which stays up for a month or more. The hub of the Old Town for the past 800 years, it is surrounded by elaborate merchant homes, structures that seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. A trip to Tallinn is incomplete if you miss out on the sauna facilities at Tallinn's Hotell Olumpia. On the 26th floor, there are two saunas with fantastic views from the plunge pool of the Old Town to the islands in the bay. Each sauna takes about 10 people for about two hours at a time. But you need to make a reservation and check on prices.
After walking through the day, nothing can be more relaxing. And it certainly will give you another reason to come back. Soon.