By Sarah Russell, Indiana University
Tallinn was easily my favorite city outside of Prague. It was also the coldest. It reminded me of a real-life Renaissance festival, complete with the costumes and food of Estonia’s medieval era. Most of the restaurants were lit by candlelight and the local shop owners wore traditional clothes and leather pointy elf-like shoes. The hot wine and food was fantastic – I ate boar, bear, and elk, as well as duck.
After our two hour ferry on what seemed like a cruise ship, we headed through a modern city to the Old Town, where we spent the day. We wandered curvy cobblestoned streets past the 15th century Guildhall, and along the original town wall, complete with towers that overlooked the city. We also walked through a couple knit markets and old alleyways. We made our way to Town Hall Square, the main square of Old Town.
Here the Tallinn Town Hall sits, dating back to 1322. Unfortunately tours are only available in the summer. It is the only gothic style town hall in Northern Europe. Next door, we stopped by one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, first mentioned in 1422. The pharmacy was simple and housed not only a working pharmacy but a museum with objects that would have been found in earlier days. These included sun-dried dog feces, stallion hooves, and a pickled toad.
We walked by the famous Olaviste Church, built in 1250. Once it was considered the tallest building in Europe. Supposedly, the builder of the church, Olaf, fell to his death from the tower and upon hitting the ground, a snake and a toad crawled out of his mouth. I’m not sure what this means, and I’m not sure anyone else does. We then decided to take a break and attend an organ concert at the 13th century St. Nicholas’ Church. The concert was wonderful and seemed to truly show off the different styles and music produced by the organ.
From there we walked up Toompea Hill where Toompea castle, the Estonian Royal Palace sits. The castle was relatively small but had great views of the city. The castle was built in 1219 on the location of a 10th century stronghold. Nowadays, the castle is home to the Estonian Parliament. Across from parliament is the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in 1900. This was my first experience with Russian architecture, and I was quite impressed. The outside was ornately decorated with white, gold, brown, and black, and the inside was covered in gold statues, alters, and paintings. A priest was blessing a group of people, which made the experience even more unique.
Before heading back to the Main Square for a quick dinner before the ferry, we walked down the hill next to the Old Town wall and past the cannon tower, Kiek in de Kok, or ‘peep into the kitchen’. Supposedly the tower was so tall that the solders on top could look into the women cooking food in the town below. We continued to the Square of Freedom. This square is just outside of old town, in a modern part of the city with art deco buildings. In the middle of the square stands the white glass tower with a cross on it, the monument to the Estonian War of Independence. The tower was simple and beautiful. In one corner of the square, you can look below the ground through a glass panel that shows the original street, stairs, and foundation of Harju Gate, the strongest gate to the Old Town from the 15th century.
Tallinn was relaxing, just wandering in and out of streets and enjoying the architecture. This city certainly had a great spirit to it. Everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun despite the bitter cold. I would certainly go back to explore more of Estonia.