Just before boarding our ferry to Tallinn we noticed a sign warning us of enhanced security and possible long queues entering Tallinn. It seemed that someone called President Obama was visiting to talk about some organisation called NATO and rigorous border control checks would thus be in place. So, forewarned we headed on board.
We enjoyed our overnight ferry experience, which proved much more pleasant than the overnight Spanish train journey earlier in the year. Greg had booked us a private cabin, which had a proper bed and a complimentary minibar with two half bottles of ship’s Prosecco. We were booked into the early buffet for dinner and enjoyed a good selection of food including some particularly fine cold smoked and warm smoked salmon. After dinner we went out on deck in order to watch the evening sun slowly setting as we left through the Stockholm archipelago. It was an enchanting sight and we admired many small (and some not so small!) homes built on the many islands that we passed. The ferry also had a small sauna on board and we used that for almost an hour; you could tell it wasn’t an English creation as the temperature was properly hot and no-one bothered with costumes. As we toured the boat we also noticed the supermarket on board was very busy – seemingly with Swedes stocking up on cheap cigarettes and alcohol. We then retired to our cabin and enjoyed our fizz together with a movie – Midnight in Paris, which I’d rented ahead of time on my iPad (after our recent visit to Paris!).
In the morning we enjoyed a nice breakfast – after being greeted with a glass of fizz we went on to enjoy a nice selection of cold meats, cheeses and hot food. We then went back to our cabin to collect our things and headed down to the disembarkation deck to head in to the city. We were prepared for the publicised long wait at border check, so were pleasantly surprised to find that we were seen almost immediately by a border agent. She looked at our passports briefly before cheerfully waving us through; a much shorter wait than when ever we return to the UK!
It was only a short walk to the hotel, but the old streets and the many cobbles were rather tough on our suitcase. On the other hand the excellent travel rucksack I’d purchased (the fantastic Osprey Farpoint) proved it’s worth and was a lot less trouble. Our hotel, the Hotel Telegraaf, was built in 1878 as an exchange station for the Estonian Telegraph company and had also been a Post Office. It’s located in the medieval Tallinn Old Town next to the Town Hall Square, which dates back to the 13th century. The hotel has a proud history – being the scene of a heroic saving of the city in 1924, when a passing soldier and his friends stopped a Russian military squad from sending a message to reinforcement troops that the coast was clear for invasion using the telegraph. Several Russian squads had snuck in during the dead of night and taken over key points of the city, but with the message not getting out the reinforcements never arrived, saving the city. We were early to check in and our room wasn’t ready, but after a quick check the hotel moved us to the room next door which was available immediately.
After that we went to explore the city. We started with a visit to an old Soviet-era prison called Paterei, which had remained in use up until about 2004. Since then it’s fallen into disrepair and is now an incredibly spooky location. On the way we briefly explored the semi ruined Linnahall, a once magnificent concert hall, nightclub and ice rink built in 1980 and closed in 2009 and left to ruin. Standing on the top you can see the express Helsinki ferry port, the cruise terminal and on a good day you can just about see Finland across the bay.
You can buy a cheap ticket to wander round Paterei prison and that is the extent of how visitor friendly it has been made. It’s not very busy so we only encountered a very few other people as we explored; this lack of other visitors added to the atmosphere as we walked through old corridors, and rooms. It gave the impression of having been left in a hurry, as a random variety of stuff was left abandoned – some books in the library, paperwork in some of the offices, old medical equipment in the medical wing (including a surgical theatre with the broken anaesthetic equipment and operating table), discarded magazines, and so on. It is not dressed up, neatened up or even made safe. All in all it was a very surreal experience and felt more like exploring a location in a post-apocalyptic computer game than a real place. I think our godsons would have felt that it would make a good place for airsoft, and certainly I found it rather photogenic in an odd way.
After leaving the prison we were rather peckish, so we headed straight to a place that Greg had found recommended called Kompressor, that served local style pancakes which were reputed to be on the generous side (advice is to only order one even if you are hungry). After making our choices from the various savoury and sweet options on offer we found that the reputation was well deserved – they were both huge and delicious! In the afternoon we visited a local sauna (Kalma Sauna), which is the oldest in Tallinn dating from 1928 and much loved by the locals. We found that the Estonians followed the Russian tradition of using birch twigs in their saunas – there were lots of them soaking in boxes of water so that they would soften enough to use. Russian style saunas are often a lot hotter than their counterparts in other parts of the world, so after even a short time the plunge pool feels really good. It was nice to see it such a social place with groups of friends (including young people) and even a father and son having an afternoon out for a sauna together.
For dinner we headed out to a local cafe, F-Hoone. It was only about 15mins walk, but away from the main tourist area and the neighbourhood definitely felt more suburban. It was located in an old factory block, in a redeveloped brownfield area, with an interior decorated with fixtures and furnishings made from recycled materials or up-cycled. The place felt quite trendy and was pretty full of locals, no obvious tourists to be seen (except us). I enjoyed some very tasty lamb dumplings – they were local style, and a bit like tortellini – in a creamy mushroom sauce. To drink I sampled a nice local craft beer which was recommended, made with rye. After dinner we spent about an hour in the hotel spa, which turned out to be rather nice. It was fairly small, with a small sauna, steam room and pool but was very refreshing and sparklingly clean.
We enjoyed a reasonable breakfast in the morning, but found it fairly generic compared with some of the very fine breakfasts that we’ve enjoyed. It did have Prosecco on offer, so we made Bucks Fizz with the freshly squeezed orange juice. The weather was still being kind to us with bright sun and blue skies so we started our day by visiting a couple of the local chuches. We began with St Olaf’s which is believed to have been built in the 12th century and to have been the centre for old Tallinn’s Scandinavian community before Denmark conquered Tallinn in 1219. What really attracted us was the tower, which I duely climbed to be rewarded with a fantastic view of the Tallinn old town. The spire is now over 120m (it was originally over 150m, before a few lightening strikes!) and the view from the top of the tower is spectacular as there are very few other tall building in the old town; primarily because they are forbidden by local building regulations to be taller than St Olafs!
We also visited St Michael’s (one of two of the same name, the other has more recently been turned into a museum following rebuilding after its almost complete destruction during World War II bombing), which is a Lutherian church used by a local Swedish congregation. Next up, having walked up Toompea hill to the Upper Town we visited the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was apparently built to a design by Mikhail Preobrazhensky in a typical Russian Revival style between 1894 and 1900, during the period when the country was part of the Russian Empire. It is an extravagant orthodox church with a lavish golden interior and was much hated by the Estonian people. So hated that once the Russian occupation ended it was planned to be demolished, but it’s size saved it as it was too expensive for the city to afford the demolition. Our final religious stop was St Mary’s Cathedral which is a Lutheran church in a stark Gothic style with a very austere interior. Building started in 1219 and continued for more than 100 years, and then burned down in 1684. It was completely rebuilt and then extended and remodelled over time to the church it is today.
We took a distinct change of pace next and headed to a 70s era hotel called Hotel Viru. It was first opened on 5 May 1972 , the first high-rise building in Estonia, and is a very noticeable part of the Tallinn cityscape. Upon entering it’s a little like stepping back a couple of decades and the refurbished interior still feels very much like a 70s or 80s creation. However what brought us to the hotel was a very special museum on the 23rd floor. When the hotel was opened it was widely known to have 22 floors, however there were in fact 23… with the hidden final floor being occupied by the KGB! They left the hotel in 1991 after the cold war, and more than a decade later a secret listening room was discovered which now forms the heart of the museum and related tour. The KGB in the hotel was apparently widely known with the local joke being that it was constructed from a new material called micro-concrete, because it was more microphone than concrete. Interestingly it was actually built by Finns because it was felt that they were more reliable than the locals who were considered to be rather lazy and unreliable. Once completed though it remained mysteriously unopened for a number of weeks, presumably whilst the spying equipment was installed.
It was a fascinating tour, with some added flavour as a few burly Americans with some apparently insider knowledge were also on our tour. They were in the armed forces and on a day off, and we wondered whether they were in some way connected with Obama’s visit of the day before. Our tour guide had interviewed many members of staff who had served at the hotel during the Cold War and was able to tell some fascinating tales of the extent of the KGB surveillance operation, which included having cameras as well as microphones built into the fabric of the building before it opened.
One of the more amusing stories regarded a man who stayed quite regularly in the hotel and always got up and had breakfast in his room at the same time every day. One day breakfast turned up half an hour early. He noted that he hadn’t asked for breakfast early and was effectively told that as he’d been heard rising early early that day they thought he might like to eat sooner (despite the spying supposedly being a secret). On another occasion a member of staff was instructed to place an ashtray on the table in front of a couple in the bar. As they weren’t smoking they moved it away. The member of staff was sent to replace it and once again they moved it away. A third time the staff member went to put it back in front of them and they asked him not to. He told then to please just let him do it as he had been told they had to have this particular ashtray in front of them (I wonder why?!). All in all this turned out to be a quirky and intriguing insight into a particular part of Estonian history, and very different to the churches of the morning.
We left the hotel for lunch, and headed towards a small local cafe (Cafe EAT) that Greg had seen recommended. It is a cheap and cheerful student cafe which specialised in local style dumplings where we enjoyed a satisfying and pretty cheap meal. After lunch we toured the city walls, of which a section is available to walk along. We climbed up a precipitously steep spiral staircase in Helleman Tower and walked down the the walkway to the next tower. It gave us a very different viewpoint to being down in the streets below and it was interesting to spend a few minutes just watching those below as they went on their way. The walls included two towers which we explored, one of which had some fascinating old photographs of Tallinn in what looked like Victorian times.
From this section of city walls we headed to what was known as the Tower Museum, housed in the Kiek in de Kök (Look in the Kitchen) Tower – so named because the soldiers could look into the kitchens of surrounding homes when in the tower. Here we planned to take a tour of the famous bastion tunnels. Unfortunately the remaining tour that day was fully booked, so we settled for exploring the museum itself which contained an interesting history of the city. We found the section on the Second World War particularly memorable. Huge damage was inflicted during bombing raids, the most notable of which was by the Soviets in March 1944 when 300 aircraft dropped over 3000 bombs of which over 1000 were incendiary; as a result much of the old city was destroyed, particularly by fire.
We decided at this point that it was time for refreshment, so we tried a local café (Maiasmokk café) which turned out a nice piece of Sacher Torte and some great rich and bitter hot chocolate. (The cafe is also home to a rather peculiar collection of decorated marzipan figures in the guise of a marzipan “museum”). We also ambled a little down the road to see the very ornate door of the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads, which was an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners that was active in Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) from the mid 14th century till 1940, somewhat like the Freemasons. It was originally founded as a military organization, but gradually became a predominantly social organization after the end of the Great Northern War. The Brotherhood was founded in the 14th century and was split into local autonomous Houses in different towns. The Houses tended to be magnificent buildings and the one in Tallinn was occupied from the very early 15th century until 1940 when the Soviets invaded. These days the completely restored building is used for conferences, events and concerts.
Fortified with chocolate we visited a couple of the well known city viewpoints, which gave good views of various sections of the city. We also tried a few of the shops selling local amber, and purchased a small piece as a gift for one of our Godchildren. We’d walked a fair distance by this point so opted to head back to our hotel for a quick rest before heading back out again for a relatively early dinner. We chose a well regarded restaurant which had a reputation for being quite romantic with excellent food, von Krahl Aed (Embassy of Pure Food). We found it busy, but managed to bag a table downstairs in the basement and thoroughly enjoyed the meal. I had some excellent soup as a starter and a very tasty lamb dish for main course. For dessert we shared superb berry sorbets; a great end to a very pleasant meal. We finished our day with another visit to the hotel spa, which we again enjoyed as we had the previous evening.
On our final morning in Tallinn we visited the big church in the centre of town (the other St Nicholas), which is now a concert hall. More interesting was the old pharmacy on the Market Square, which is currently still a working chemist shop and has been continuously since 1422 (well that is when still existing records show it was on it’s third owner)! Some of the original history of the building has been recorded in a book which is available for visitors to peruse, and captures some really interesting details about the early owners; for most of it’s history this was several generations of the same family, as the business was handed down from father to son, and in at least one case, daughter.
And then, it was back to the ferry port and on to our next city of… Helsinki!