Travel review: Exploring the heart and soul of Estonia

Tallinn old town.
Tallinn old town.
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Estonia is a country with an intriguing history and its capital Tallinn is at the heart of it, as Paul Kirkwood discovered.

It’s always slightly annoying when you tell friends where you’re going on holiday and they say they’ve been there. There was no such issue with my recent destination: Tallinn. In fact, some would struggle to name the country it’s the capital of (Estonia) or place it on a map (south of Finland, west of Russia). Quite why this Baltic capital is so little known and visited, especially given the popularity of Riga in neighbouring Latvia, is a mystery.

Tallinn has so much going for it, not least one of the best preserved, cobbled and walled medieval old towns in Europe. The city also has a curious hybrid character owing to its proximity to Finland and succession of states that have occupied it, namely Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, most recently until 1991,the Soviet Union. The poor Estonians have seldom had their country to themselves for long.

The Soviet influence hit my sister and I immediately on arrival for our three-night break within a Soviet-built 1960s tower block. Austere on the outside, yes, and with a disconcertingly clunky old lift, but our apartment was fresh, airy and quiet and came with a warm welcome from our host Signe.

The frisson of the building’s original incarnation added to our stay and set the tone for an excursion to Hotel Vira built by the Soviets for foreign tourists with a KGB spy base on the top floor. A sign on the door leading to the secret radio room read “there is nothing in here” like a line from Alice in Wonderland. Almost more remarkable than the techniques used by the KGB to observe guests (bugs everywhere and “floor hosts” keeping an eye on guests leaving and returning to their rooms) was how they got away with such Orwellian surveillance for so long. Exhibits include a red telephone without numbers and a purse that sprayed pink die onto anyone who opened it to catch out staff who were required to pass all found items to their managers.

From the top of the hotel we spotted the tower of St Olaf’s Church which we’d ascended earlier. It was the world’s tallest building in the 16th century and, today measuring 124 metres, proudly remains the tallest in Tallinn by virtue of its location within a Unesco World Heritage Site which prohibits construction of buildings that would overlook it.

This fact, along with many others, had been imparted on an excellent and free guided walking tour of the old town that runs for two hours three times daily during the summer. How many cities would offer that? The tour demonstrates the keenness of Estonians to impress.

All three dinners during our trip were outstanding, particularly one we enjoyed in a former train shed in the rejuvenated and now wonderfully Bohemian Kalamaja (“fish house”) district established by fishermen and sailors in the Middle Ages.

Panels with historical information are displayed on houses throughout the city and the museums are very well designed, especially the Seaplane Harbour Museum. Built to house seaplanes for the Tsar’s navy in 1916, it was restored as a museum four years ago, with pride of place going to a 1930s submarine. As always with old vessels. the sleeping accommodation fascinates most. Narrow bunks more like shelves were positioned inches from a spaghetti of steel piping and only feet (literally) from the machinery.

A more peaceful prospect was presented by the Estonian Open Air Museum. Located on the wooded shores of Tallinn Bay, the museum is a collection of vernacular buildings saved and relocated here from across the country. Most of them are agricultural but they also include fishermen’s huts, windmills, a church, fire station, inn, shop and house once occupied by the Old Believers, followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia that fled to Estonia to pursue their way of life freely.

Other aspects of social history that are skilfully illustrated through the buildings included birth, courting, marriage and death rituals. The traditionally costumed and wizened ladies acting as guides looked so authentic.

The most serene moment of our trip was provided by the Art in Motion exhibition within a disused cinema hidden down a backstreet in the old town. At the end of a tiring day we sat with half a dozen other people while animated images of famous paintings scrolled around giant wrap-around screens to the sound of echoey classical music. It was like being on the canvas, feeling the weight of the paint as each brush stroke was applied.

Around the corner in the city’s main square a model of Old Thomas, a legendary talisman and guardian of Tallinn, serves as a weathervane on the Gothic town hall. Our guide joked: “He’s is supposed to keep us safe and repel invaders. Let’s hope he does a better job this century.” We asked him and other guides about fears towards the noisy neighbours, Russia. They paused, looked slightly awkward, then acknowledged Estonia’s small size but quickly stressed its membership of Nato and the European Union, modern day guardians. With the country’s turbulent history, there’s never a danger of complacency.


Recommended accommodation:

Flights: From Stansted with Ryanair. There are no direct flights to Tallinn from northern England.

Tourist information:

Top tips: While most of Tallinn is walkable, you need transport to access some of the outlying attractions. Uber cabs are very cheap at, for instance, about €4 from the city centre to the Open Air Museum. We stayed for three nights but add another one or two if you want to see everything and take your time.

For a film by Paul about Tallinn see