Monday, June 24, 2013

"Danish Town" and old Europe through the eyes of Tallinn

Last Saturday we took the bus to Tallinn, Estonia. We left on a mid-morning bus and the total journey was about 7 hours arriving mid-afternoon. I will say it was a beautiful drive with beautiful countryside. The border crossing itself took about 90 minutes because a Russian officer quickly checks all the passports on the bus and then we unload from the bus and go through a customs check in a building. Once through, you get on the bus, cross the river and on the Estonian side they gather all the passports on the bus, we continued to sit and N minutes later they return with your passports stamped all the while our bus was gated in. While they were not the buildings that we went through with customs, there were a couple of medieval castles/towers, one on each side, that clearly guarded the fording of the river (border or not). For anyone that knows Game of Thrones, my first thought was of the Twins. Our bus was also overrun with about a dozen and a half teenagers on some sort of trip. Their language and passports said Russian, but they definitely looked more Mongolian. It made me think of my days leading youth groups, but I also wondered why they didn't have more adult leaders.

Anyway, into the city. Tallinn is a gorgeous city with about a half-million people, the capital and largest city in Estonia. It also is the oldest capital city in northern Europe. While the countryside is sparsely populated, the city itself does not feel extremely dense, but it's not that spread out either. We had a short pleasant walk from the bus station to old town, where we stayed and spent most of our time. The streets are lined with trees, lots of shade, and we passed a small street market where the fresh fruit smelled good but we couldn't buy any because we didn't have a small enough bill or any coin. Outside of Old Town, the city is a mix of late soviet era (Estonia wasn't part of the USSR prior to WWII so they don't have the 30's Soviet Architecture) and modern buildings, but Old Town is one of the best preserved examples of medieval architecture with many buildings dating between the 12th and 15th centuries.

We stayed in St. Olav's Hotel which is about 2 minutes from the Old Town Square. It was a far nicer hotel than I imagined and had a full kitchen and jacuzzi tub while retaining an older look with large wood beams. The hallways were a labyrinth though and in some places we ducked under beams to walk (although I'm sure we could have gone around through a different hallway).

As for Tallinn, the name means Danish Town in old Estonian, and was important to Danish Vikings, later the Swedes, and of course later some Russians. It has had its own autonomy too, but certainly also had its fair share of people ruling over it. Estonian is related to the Finnish language from the Uralic languages so like our trip to Helsinki it was impossible for us to understand. However, almost everyone spoke Russian (actually heard a lot on the streets even among the younger generations) and English so we had no difficulty getting around.

We spent Saturday evening walking around parts of Old Town just taking in the breathtaking sights of the buildings and views from over the hills. There is a famous pancake bar there called Kompressor which boasts delicious pancakes so large they bet you can't eat two. We took them on that challenge and ate two (although we cheated having one on Saturday and one on Sunday, so in reality we couldn't actually eat two in one sitting). Other food included local brew pubs/taverns and a cafe/restaurant in the main square on Sunday evening, and indulging on delicious Estonian garlic bread made from black bread. Mmmmm, I'd actually love to have some right now.

Sunday we continued our walk through the old city, looked at all the goods and wares being sold in the main square often from people dressed in medieval garb, hid from the thunderstorm by walking the city wall, and climbed to the roof of St. Olaf's Church (lots of lore about Swedish St. Olaf(v) made its way into Tallinn). The roof is quite high, and has the best 360 view of the city, but the spire reaches far beyond the roof walk to a height of 124 meters (I believe the roof might be about half or a little more).

We did leave Old Town for part of the evening to visit Kadrioru Park, where there is the Presidential Palace and the cottage for Peter the Great of Russia to visit when he ruled the area. They claim one can see the President walking or the First Lady while shopping because the country is small and everyone knows everyone. Who knows if we saw them. From there we visited the Russalka monument and put our hands in the Gulf of Finland on the western border of the Gulf.

We returned to Old Town, ate dinner in the main square and got on a midnight bus out of the city for an 8 hour journey back to St. Petersburg. We got some sleep, but it's difficult especially when you're woken in the wee hours to go through customs and wait in line. Overall it was a great journey though and I think I can say we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And the picture gallery begins:

From the bus you can see part of the fort on the Russian side (and the modern building in front).

As we cross the high security border the Russian fort is in the background.

And now from the Estonian side you can see both forts, even though it may look like one. The Estonian flag is flying about the middle of the picture and the Russian flag is flying from the cone of the tower on the left.

A view of the Gulf of Finland/Baltic Sea as we drive through the beautiful Estonian countryside.

Walking from the bus station to the old part of the city we pass probably the only "Soviet" building in the city, and by that I mean they tacked the old Soviet top to an older building.

The Ballet is on the left and the Opera is one the right. Two theaters, one building.

A building in Old Town that shows the Danish Flag on the left and the Estonian Crest on the right. The Danish Flag is important to the city (and to Danish history) because it first came into use after the Danes were on a failing viking campaign in Tallinn and when they prayed to God, the flag fell from the sky and they subsequently defeated the Estonians. The Danish King Valdemar II thus made the flag the flag of Denmark.

From where we had dinner Saturday night you can see this archway built into this building and it leads up an old road to the hill where Parliament sits.

An old city well that is no longer in use thanks to modern plumbing, but we also love that above Daria is the Russian flag (since so many Russians visit Tallinn, many of the hotels have the flag to represent their guests).

Despite it being quite light outside, this was the best picture of the old cobblestone road and stone wall on both sides as one walked through the arch and up toward Toompea hill and Parliament.

At the top of the hill on one side of the wall you can see a nicely shaded square that has a great view of Old Town.

Another view of the square.

And atop the wall in is a cafe (which we did not eat at, but we hiked the very steep steps).

This tower overlooking the square has been remodeled a little, but I included it because in the small letters you cannot read it says, "A.D. 1373."

A slightly adjusted view.

A view from the square as you overlook old town and in the distance you can see some skyscrapers of modern Tallinn.

On the left, the rose colored building is Parliament. Far more baroque or neo-classical than medieval.

One of three Russian churches in Old Town proper, this is Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral. Completed in 1907 the cathedral sits across from Parliament.

Ahh, although Parliament and the yellow building (probably something government related) are modern, nestled between them you can see one of the old towers of the outer wall (not that the wall is extremely necessary as below is a cliff to protect from invaders).

Part of the wall that rests behind Parliament, there is a cliff and then a park (hence the trees), and the Gulf quite nearby.

And from another high point (overlook/viewpoint) on the hill, you can see much of Old Town and the spire of St. Olaf's Church reaching high into the sky.

To prove we were there and not just stealing lovely pictures from the internet.

Double proof. And frankly, just a lovely view of the city, the park outside the walls on the left, and the Gulf in the background.

From a third viewpoint right under the flags is the brewery where we ate dinner and from where we were sitting when we took the picture of the archway leading up that "dark and dreary road - in complete daylight" toward the hill.

Looking down a short road you can see some of the cafes in the main square starting to light up for the night. The gap in the picture on the left of the height of the buildings is because the square is on the left.

1410. That's all.

Through this gate there is a path that tells the history of Estonia and Tallinn and leads to our hotel. It is closed for the night, but will reopen in the morning.

A view from our hotel as the sun is setting behind us. The spire is of the Church/City Hall in the main square.

Another view from out hotel of an art garden on the left and what looks like a garage is the gate that leads down the "historical" path from our side.

In the art garden there be DRAGONS. Be careful, this piece of wood won't catch fire as it tries to eat you.

And there be bicycles.

And the historical path. On each stepping stone is a date something happened.

Such as 1219 and the Danish Flag incident and the establishment of Tallinn (although there was a small Estonian settlement here before the Danes the city didn't exist until 1219).

A nice street view with the Russian flag and the Swedish Flag (further back).

Inside a small Estonian Lutheran church (where the English ceremonies happen - and a private baptism at the moment).

And there be DRAGONS (albeit a bit blurry) on the pews.

An Apteka,which if you zoom in and can read backwards (because we were too lazy to take a picture from the other side) it says established 1422. Also found in the main square.

The main church/city hall in the main square. On the right are all kinds of open booths selling goods made of linen, glass, wool, roasted almonds, you name it, they have it. Well, not really, but yeah.

So some people were punished on the outer walls of city hall (I had to get on my tippy-toes since I'm not actually hanging in the locks. Also I think there were ones to hold hands and feet too, but they weren't on there now).

And there be DRAGONS. Ok that might be getting old, but there seriously were a lot of dragons in the architecture around the city. These are the rain spouts on city hall.

Oh, this was a cool building on the square. According to the dates below each saint it's from 1539. We have the Four Evangelists, SM, SM, SL, and SJ (I assume, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and then the 5th icon says SP. I don't know if that's Peter or Paul and there are only the 5, but I'm going to assume Paul given that it's post-Reformation and Paul wrote so many books of the New Testament instead of the 13th Apostle (as he called himself), one might says he's the 5th Evangelist.

And there be DRAGONS. Three specifically since this cafe is called III Drakon. We didn't go in, but it's in the basement of the City Hall, boasts to serve medieval food in medieval fashion and almost medieval prices since most things cost only 1 Euro (it brags that it's the best place for eating on a budget and we would have gone if the line wasn't so long).

The main gates of entering the city (the two towers anyway). The picture where I stand in the middle of the road, the gates are split by a tall white monstrosity of a Radisson Hotel (not very pretty), and the picture from the other side looking into Old Town instead of out is ruined by the golden arches of McDonald's (which you can kind of see on the green tents on the right). Oi. Nothing like entering or leaving Old Town like being disrupted by modern corporate imperialism.

More street vendors selling their woolen wares (or wears, haha) in the alcoves of the city wall. Great place for selling that has lasted for centuries.

As we escaped the rain, here we're walking from one tower in the wall to the other tower with St. Olaf in the distance.

So I was pardoned of my offense leading to public humiliation outside city hall and sentenced to 3 minutes in a cubby hole.

From looking out of the exit tower back toward the entrance tower and the stretch of wall which we walked.

A lovely view of 3 spires and the Nevskiy Cathedral.

Some street art.

I don't know why, but I felt like including this old wooden house that is definitely not lived in at the moment. Looks 19th century to me.

And there be DRAGONS. A former residence turned into a consulate (I think German).

One view from the top (or middle depending on how you look at it) of St. Olaf's. Great view of the city.

And toward a modern-ish village/district/neighborhood/something and the sea.

And down onto the wall, separating the city from the park (invaders) and then new town beyond on the south side.

From the roof, looking straight up the spire toward the cross (tiny speck at the top).

And then looking down onto the roof of St. Olaf's and the two small spires that are on the side and rear of the church.

And overlooking the wall where we had walked earlier (and a second of the Russian Orthodox Churches in old town - the dome and two square towers).

Daria on the roof, well protected.

Outside the city walls in the park there was an art display. Somethings are flowers, others glass, others wood, all visible in the foreground and then a fantastic view of 4 subsequent towers.

Before re-entering the city through an arch behind the lilac bushes, here is a pic of Daria, lilacs, and a defense tower.

The pancakes. Half eaten. Delicious.

St. Nicholas in its composite 4 styles.

To add to all my houses on trees/chicken legs.

And to prove the city isn't all medieval, this was one of the more fascinating modern architectural styles.

Even some of the churches went rogue from the brick and mortar and cast iron steeples as this Methodist Church did.

The Presidential Palace. Much smaller than the White House, but I suspect it's entirely his living quarters and not the head of the executive branch. Also not open to tourists, although the outside is.

So this is seriously, no joke, Peter the Great's cottage built in the early 18th century, and he stayed there. Not quite what I'd expect given his tastes in architecture, nor the fact that, you know, he was Emperor.

Especially given that this is what his vassal lived in only about 100-150 meters away. (some gardens and the new presidential palace separate this palace and Peter's cottage).


Daria on a mission to put her hand in the Gulf.

Proof that mission is accomplished (by both of us).

I was just fascinated that this street corner is serious enough that there is one green light to say it's ok for pedestrians to cross, but seriously 2 little red guys saying "Nope. Don't do it."

As we re-enter the city there is a painted map of old town on this wall.

And a view of the main square after all the vendors cleared away (mainly from the rain that afternoon). Notice the double dragon rain spouts.

A modern street locomotive for tourists is entering the square.

Daria be sipping some mulled wine after a cool rainy day.

And there be no more dragons.

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