Estonia: Tallinn’s Old Town and fantastic maritime museum.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Tallinn was to take my Estonian friend Maksim’s suggestion and climb up the bell tower of the St-Olaf’s Church, for a long time the highest structure in the city. If you ever want to partake in this activity in the summer, please accept this piece of advice: do not go between 9:00 and 16:00, wait for the cruise ships to leave. Or go, but expect a good twenty minutes of sweaty human traffic jams in a very narrow medieval circular stairway. And there is no real observation platform; you stand on the narrow ledge of a slightly inclined roof. It is fenced, so there is no danger, but if you are afraid of heights, I guarantee you won’t have a nice time.


But the view is very nice, showing you the very small and dense old town of Tallinn. The old walls are still there, but the city grew on them, so they are hard to see.


But right next to our hotel, there was a section we could climb on for a small fee.


From one of the observation towers, you get a great view of what the old wall looked like. You also see why it has become somewhat invisible. When the citizens began building outside the walls (right side), they used it as the back wall of their house, to save on building materials.

Michelle and I went on a walking tour of the old town, and we got one of the funniest guides I ever got on one of these “free walking tours” (and I went on a whole lot in Europe). For one thing, she did not sound like Wikipedia and she was not afraid of national self-derision. She began by saying that people had lived in the area for 11,000 years, but until the crusaders arrived in the 13th century, they had never done anything interesting, so we didn’t have to talk about any of it.


She then mentioned that this church was turned into a “museum of old things”. “Any old thing Estonia has that has some value is probably in this church”, she said.

We also leaned that Estonians often describe themselves as being “reserved”, but that this is really a euphemism for “we are cold and we don’t like people”! This aversion for human interaction has led the Estonians to two important modern innovations. First, they are world pioneers in online voting. In any election now, you can vote online and it takes less than a minute. This avoids human interaction completely, but sometimes this is not possible. While they dislike interaction with people, if it is through the medium of a screen, and not in person, then it is not as bad. So the Estonians also invented Skype. “And that is the only thing we have ever done” said the guide!


Built in 2009, this is the Monument to the War of Independence (1918-1920). It should be the embodiment of pride amongst Estonians, but in fact, many hate it. They mainly hate it for three reasons:

1 – It is a cross. Estonians are not a religious people at all. They were some of the last pagans in Europe and while I don’t know if Christianity was ever a big thing here, it certainly isn’t now. Only 30% of people declare belonging to a religion, and more than half of those are from the Russian Orthodox minority.

2 – More specifically, it looks like a German Iron Cross (it is in fact a Cross of Liberty, an Estonian military award).

3 – It cost 6.6 million Euros to build! Hard to see on this photo, but it is mainly made of glass.


The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built right in front of what would become independent Estonia’s Parliament. In 1924, the government made the horrible decision to destroy the symbol of former Russian rule. Luckily for all, they weren’t sure how to proceed and/or didn’t have the money. It wasn’t really maintained in the Soviet days, but at least it survived and is now apparently in a state of permanent renovations.


This tower, the biggest in the defensive fortifications, is called Fat Margaret. Today, it houses the Maritime Museum. I didn’t go, but it probably houses old maps, anchors and similar things. In another city, I might have gone, but certainly not in Tallinn, were a world class annex to the museum was recently completed.


Here you get to board the Suur Tõll, the most modern icebreaker in the world when it was launched in 1914. 75.6 m long,it could navigate through thick ice, burning up to 60 tons of coal a day, or 30 tons of fuel, after it was upgraded to diesel engines.


I went as soon as it opened and I was alone in the machine room. The ship has a sound system playing the ambient noises one would have hear in various parts of the ship. I have to say being alone in the middle of the enormous, intimidating machinery with the fake noises succeeded in giving me a feeling of “wait, should I be here”!


Although diesel engines were added, the old boilers were not physically removed (not sure how they could be). Here in the old days, a total of 21 men worked in shifts to shovel the coal in the boilers, with an additional senior sailor to organize the work and manage the section.


The Officer’s Mess. Due to the size of the ship, living conditions seemed quite comfortable (although for the guys shovelling the coal, I am not sure working conditions we so good). The sailor’s recreational area no longer exists, having been transformed into a working cafe.


The Officers had nice cabins too. This one used to belong to the Chief Engineer, but it became in Soviet times the cabin of the Captain’s Special Assistant. Such a position had no naval utility or role; it was in fact the title of the political commissar, whose role was to observe and influence the communist disposition of the crew and Officers. I think the position existed in all military units and formations. I am sure the system served the Soviets very well, but the risk of a parallel chain of command was illustrated in 1918, when a group of Finns posing as workers presented a fake letter from the political commissar ordering repairs and actually stole the ship! Independent Estonia got it back in 1922.


A cabin for crew members. Not too shabby, apart from the obvious lack of privacy, but the average worker of 100 years ago probably never had a bedroom of his own, as a child or as an adult, so this would have just been normal.


Certainly better than the junior sailor’s quarters on the Lembit, Estonia’s first submarine. These guys has to sleep on tiny cots hanging over the torpedoes! This is not unusual, the sailors on board an old US submarine I visited in Oklahoma did just the same.


The Officer’s Mess was certainly better. With a crew of about 30, there couldn’t have been more than a few officers. But from what I could gather visiting the sub, this was their recreation, eating, working and sleeping area. And the guys working and sleeping in the torpedo room would have had to walk through the Mess every time they needed to go to the toilet, or anywhere else on the sub.


The kitchen. No island, no granite countertop? How can you cook there?


The old school intercom!


And the sub from the outside. The building itself is almost as impressive as the museum that was built in it.


These very unique domes were built on the order of Tsar Nicolai II, in order to house seaplanes during The Great War (95% sure, please don’t quote me on this one). After being abandoned for decades, they were sold by the Soviet Government in 1990, in a transaction eventually deemed illegal by the Estonian Supreme Court. The museum was opened in 2012.


This is a cut-out replica of the American Civil War Confederate submarine Hunley. It was the first submarine to sink a ship in the history of naval warfare. 7 men would crank the shaft by hand, under the direction of an Officer, who navigated with a compass! The sub could not stay submerged for long, as it had no air reserve of any kind! It “paddled” towards the Housatonic, a Union frigate, and punched a long lance attached to it’s bow into the wooden hull of the frigate. The lance detached itself from the sub and remained in place, with a mine attached to the head. The sub “back-paddled” until the point a rope attached to the mine became taunt and detonated the charge, sinking the Housatonic. Sadly for the extremely brave submariners, the rope was not long enough and both vessels were destroyed.


The 16th century Maasilinna ship, the oldest (somewhat) preserved vessel of Estonian origin.


And a nearly 100 year old seaplane, because after all, this was a seaplane bunker. This awesome museum is quite big and easily a half day visit. There are military displays, all sorts of information panels, a multitude of simulators for kids and adults, etc.


The pharmacy museum is more like a 5 minute visit, but it is original and free. The funny thing is that it is also a working pharmacy, which gives a complete new meaning to the expression “over-the-counter” drugs!


In the old days, the coloured liquid vials indicated the building housed a pharmacy, and referred to the Hippocratic theory of “humours”, with red representing blood, and blue, phlegm. On the wall, the coat of arms of the family, apothecaries for many generations.


Sorry for the terrible photo, but the oldest cafe in town had a really cool ferris wheel made of teacups and teaspoons!


And the restaurant where we had dinner at had this logo, which we didn’t figure out.

Tomorrow, the Estonian countryside!


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