Yes, Tallinn is a medieval playground of sorts because with cobbled streets, stone towers and more than 600 year-old churches and town gates, it’s like walking in an open air museum. It’s one of the most memorable and well-preserved European old towns that I have visited in recent years.
Must see places include the 15th century Niguliste Church with its Danse Macabre or Dancing with Death frieze; the twin stone towers of the Viru Gate, especially when illuminated at night; and the cobbled St. Catherine’s passageway, a narrow alleyway seemingly from 13th century Tallinn, and now home to artisan and craft shops. The so-called Three Sisters consists of three adjoining medieval merchants houses.
And in the Toompea District or Upper Town, the Kiek-in-de-Kök meaning “peek in the kitchen” was one of northern Europe’s strongest cannon towers in the 16th century. Now housing Tallinn’s history museum, its name stems from the belief that soldiers could actually see into people’s kitchens when looking down onto Old Town below.
“Normal Estonians would probably know the former KGB headquarters in Old Town,” says Tallinn tour guide Jaan-Laur Tähepõld. “But for me, I see medieval houses, citizens and craftsman, horse carriages and dirt streets because they hadn’t been cobbled yet. It makes me glad to live in a modern time because it was difficult back then, to fight for your life every day.”
Tallinn from Above: A New Perspective on Old Town’s Medieval Glory
It didn’t take long to really appreciate the many aerial views of Old Town Tallinn – the faded red roofs, stone church towers, winding streets and courtyards. In fact, Tallinn has maybe a half dozen such places to see the medieval Old Town from above.
Yet getting to those viewpoints surely involves a bit of huffing and puffing. For example, I climbed the 115 twisting and uneven steps up the narrowing tower in the 15th century Town Hall. As I neared the top, the stone stairwell’s steps became higher with the walls inching closer every step of the way. But the view at the top was worth every grunt.
After my ascent up Toompea Hill, also known as Upper Town, I also climbed the 140 stone steps up St. Mary’s church tower and was again rewarded with stunning views of the Neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the faded pink façade of Toompea Castle. Toompea also has two hillside lookouts directly over Old Town, where I clearly traced the medieval streets lined with muted Baroque green and faded ochre hues on facades of Old Town homes.
Tour guide Tähepõld recalls his thoughts about the view from St. Olav’s Church (which was closed for renovations during my visit): “I’ve seen it on the ground a thousand times, and have seen houses from the inside and have been to courtyards. But from up there, it was breathtaking and amazing to see terraces on the roof, some with a garden or a beautiful balcony.”
The Power of Song: Estonians Singing Their Way to Freedom
Communism may have outlawed freedom of speech, travel and the right to protest, but it couldn’t stop Estonian pride and nationalism expressed through song. That’s because thousands gathered to do it. Leading up to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Estonians came together to sing their way to freedom. “This tradition survived the Soviet occupation with the songs about Lenin and Stalin that we had to sing, but to also sing the songs we like and love, when Estonians were still free,” recalls Tähepõld. “We came together in the 80s when Estonians started singing songs that weren’t really allowed and they spontaneously started singing Estonian hymns during the festivals. The Soviets didn’t know what to do with people who sing,” he adds.
The tradition actually began in the 1800s during the many years of Russian occupation. Today, singing festivals are held every five years in Tallinn’s outdoor amphitheater known as the Song Festival Grounds, where 100,000-plus continue to celebrate their cultural identity through song. Similar singing movements for freedom took place in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, where at one point a chain of singers joined by hand in 1989 stretched 360 miles to form the “Baltic Chain,” from Tallinn to Vilnius.