Baltic fairy tale

Cultural Reform

Baltic fairy tale

“Our power was only our music, not weapons,” says Katrin, my local Estonian guide. I am at the Song Festival grounds, looking at the bowl shaped stadium where in September 1988, 3,00,000 Estonians gathered, many in folk costumes, to sing the Soviet repression away with patriotic songs. I am totally enchanted by this vision of a singing nation and today Tallinn does have a lot to sing about — it’s a city that’s enjoying its freedom from the shackles of the repressive Soviet regime.

Wired city

Tallinn is Estonian for ‘Danish Town’ referring to the time it was under Danish control in the 13th century. Katrin tells me that Estonia was under foreign rule for centuries, first the Danes, then the Swedes, Germans and finally the Soviets. It seems to have made a smooth transition from communism to capitalism. The Estonians have embraced technology — it has one of the highest mobile phone ownership rates in the world today!

It’s one of the most wired cities of the world where citizens pay parking tickets, file their taxes and vote online. 90 per cent of all bank transactions are done online, and Wi-Fi internet is in most cases, free. It also is a place of entrepreneurship and innovation as it’s the birthplace of the internet phone service known to all — Skype. I am told that a start-up can register and commence business within a week here.                                                                                                                             

The Old Town in Tallinn used to be called Reval. Walking through the story-book old town, I come across a delectable warren of gingerbread houses, terracotta rooftops, cobblestone streets, turrets and spires and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The picturesque Town Hall has been the focal point of the locals for eight centuries. It was the site of one execution (arising from a dispute over a bad omelette) and many tournaments. Today it’s a Wi-Fi enabled sprawl of open air cafes, filled with tourists and locals, guzzling the cheap local beer, restaurants and even an Indian restaurant called Maharajah, owned predictably by a Sardar.

The Town Hall is Northern Europe’s only surviving Gothic Town Hall. We see Old Toomas — Tallinn’s mascot beaming down from the roof of the town hall. Legend goes that a plucky boy entered an archery contest, reserved exclusively for people from noble families. He managed to hit the target on top of a pole and was made an apprentice guard. He later became an expert soldier with many heroic deeds to his credit. The locals noticed that this weather vane looked like him and started calling him Toomas. An ancient

Tallinn institution, the Town hall Pharmacy (with its intriguing symbol of a cup with a snake around its stem) is touted as the ‘oldest, continuously in operation pharmacy’ in Europe (it was already on its third owner in the year 1422).

In medieval times the remedies sold here were black cats’ blood, rabbit’s heart and powdered unicorn,  but now the shop dispenses the usual aspirin and other medicines. There is an interesting museum with ancient medical instruments, herbs and curiosities displayed.                                                                                                                                                 
We walk along Pikk jalg (the long leg), where the colourful guild houses stand in testimony of the powerful merchant and craft guilds that controlled life in Tallinn in the 14th century. Across the street is the bright white Holy Spirit church, with an octagonal tower and a brilliant outdoor clock. We understand that it was here, that after the Reformation, the first sermons in Estonian were conducted.

My favourite here is the extravagant Renaissance style red, green and gold door of the ‘House of Brotherhood of Black Heads’. Katrin tells me that this guild was for unmarried German merchants whose patron saint was Mauritius, a dark-skinned moor.

We walk through the photogenic Catherine’s passage where craftsmen spin out marvelous creations of pottery and stained glass and glass blowers create multi-hued wares watched by tourists.
St Olaf’s church named after the Norwegian king Olav was built as a landmark for ships docking in Tallinn. At one point this was the tallest building in the world with its 460 feet spire. Its tall spire was also its downfall-it was struck by lightning twice and burnt down. I hear that during the Soviet regime it was used to transmit radio signals by the KGB.                                                                                                                                 
As we slowly walk uphill to Toompea, munching on roasted almonds (with sugar, herbs and spices added) sold by medieval maidens in carts, the chilly Baltic winds make our fingers numb. We reach the Dome church or the St Mary’s Church, the main Lutheran Church for German nobility and re-built several times.

The inside is Harry Potteresque filled with baroque chandeliers, epitaphs, tombs and on the wall is exquisite coat of arms, battle flags and wings. Sea-gulls wheel above Toompea (this used to be a wooden castle) — the seat of Estonian power since 1227.

Of present and future

It’s on a steep limestone cliff (one of Estonia’s important resources) and today its home to the Rigikogu, the nations’ parliament and the pink, baroque palace that we see is the 18th century addition. From the Patkuli street viewing platform, we get the fairy tale view of Tallinn that is straight out of a glossy travel brochure — the red roofed pointy towers, the russet roofs fighting for space, the St Olav’s spire rising dramatically, the harbor with ships ferrying Finns from Helsinki, just two hours away,  and the modern, glass blocks in the distance cutting through time.                                                                                                                                           
The castle square is between the seat of the Estonian Government and 19th century symbol of the Tsar’s power in Estonia — the brilliant mustard hued onion domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church whose interiors are a riot of incense, glittering gold gilt and flickering candles.  We walk along the colourful flower market near the old city gates and feast our eyes on the traditional jumpers, hats and gloves in a riot of styles and colours at the woolen market along the city walls.

We also see the other Tallinn — residential areas where the people live in leafy neighbourhoods. We drive through Pirita, the summer playground with its beaches and yachting harbor passing the striking Russalka Monument, which is a sculpture of an angel facing the sea which is a monument to a Russian military ship that sank on its way to Helsinki in 1893.

Today it’s the place where Russian couples lay flowers on their wedding day. Kadriorg, east of the city centre, is a where Peter the Great who conquered the Baltic’s in the 1700s built an extravagant, baroque summer palace for his wife Catherine. This palace now is the Estonian Museum for foreign art. There are ornate wooden mansions and a frozen park with a gazebo, fountains, jogging paths and people walking their dogs. The Presidential palace is also here as well as the uber modern KUMU Art Museum.

Come night, the wilder side of Tallinn emerges. On Party Street there are pubs, cocktail lounges, nightclubs, strip bars and gentleman bars with wild Estonians bursting into song, fuelled by Vodka shots. I am also astounded by the number of casinos at every street corner. On the other side, the scars of the Soviet regime are still visible as people have preserved testimonies of the dark years like the KGB headquarters and the Patarei Prison.

I notice the reluctance of my guide to show me these places — she wants to move on and dwell in the present and future. Tallinn has reinvented itself and is rushing into the future (it is the European capital of culture in 2011) and I see this in the Freedom Square — the new gathering spot of the people. It’s filled with cafes, benches and lively crowds.

I stop at a glass panel on the floor of the street at a corner of the square and peer down. In the depths below, I can see the foundation of the medieval Harju Gate Tower that once stood here. I remember this moment for a long time — the modern, merging seamlessly with the ancient in an utterly pleasing way!         

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