Despite its recent history as part of a Soviet Republic and its languages (Estonian being related only to Finnish, while over a third of the citizens speak Russian as a first language), despite even its geographical position on the Baltic, Tallinn or Reval, as the city was known until 1918, is best appreciated as an heir to the wider Scandinavian and Teutonic cultural legacy of the Middle Ages.
From its conquest by Denmark in 1219, through its membership of the Hanseatic League of German merchants in 1285, its sale to the Teutonic Order in 1345, its annexation by Sweden in 1561, and its subsequent capture by Russia under Peter the Great in 1710, to later occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in turn, Tallinn has retained a cosmopolitan air, as befits a northern European trading entrepôt.
A day's stroll through the Old Town up to Cathedral Hill or Toompea, will reveal a city of both dignity and charm, a bustling commercial centre and a town marked by evidence of deep piety, where merchants' guildhalls and Europe's oldest working pharmacy rub shoulders with Orthodox, Lutheran and Baptist churches and cathedrals. Where those churches feature as many coats-of-arms of the nobility and gentry as the city walls do, and where even the most modern restaurants offer up reminders of banquets as enjoyed by prosperous burghers throughout history. The town is best enjoyed thus, especially in the winter: the Old Town is compact and not too tortuous in its layout, perfect for a walking tour whatever the weather. Should the climate prove a little too brisk, there are plenty of shelters from the storm, both cultural and culinary.
Tallinn is not readily accessible by rail, but otherwise it is easy to get there. There are regular fl ights from all European capitals, and coaches from the other Baltic republics. One of the most enjoyable ways to approach the city, even in the colder months, is via ferry (cheaper in the winter, too) from Helsinki. Certainly that seems to be the opinion of many Finns, who make regular day trips there, perhaps drawn by the relative cheapness of goods, especially food and, it must be said, drink. While more expensive than, say, Riga or Vilnius, Tallinn is a more economical prospect than anywhere in Scandinavia proper.
On disembarking at Reisisadam, the city does not immediately appear attractive. Despite its modern marina, the port is a little shabby, still marked by Soviet architectural brutalism, as indeed is some of the modern town. However, a 10 minute walk will take the traveller to the Great Coast Gate, an entrance to the Old Town, and from then on the 20th and 21st Centuries are only visible in the form of the modern shops and restaurants: continuing the commercial traditions of the town, bringing it up to date without betraying its heritage. Many guides suggest starting at the opposite end of the Old Town, Viru Gate, equally accessible from the port, and heading up through St Catherine's Walk or Katariinan Kaytava, a charming passage full of traditional glassblowing and leatherworking workshops. But the advantage of starting at the Great Coast Gate should be obvious: it is downhill through the cobbled streets virtually all the way.
Once through the gate, the first sight to see is the Fat Margaret Cannon Tower or Suur Rannavarav ja Paks Margareeta, a 16th Century edifice once used as a barracks and a prison, now home to the Estonian Maritime Museum. Then the next building to really catch the eye is the Gothic St Olaf's Church or Oleviste or Olavin Kikko. Between 1549 and 1625, this was the tallest church in Europe (and some say the tallest building in the world) with a spire of 159 metres. Sadly, after fire and rebuilding, it is now only 123 metres high, but none the less impressive for that. Next you can walk along the city walls and head straight for Cathedral Hill, but a more leisurely option is to take either of the streets Pikk or Lai down to Town Hall Square or Raekoja Plats. The Town Hall itself, built in 1371, dominates the square, but it is ringed with eating houses, from simple cafes to ornate medieval banqueting halls such as the Revalia Grill House and the Old Estonia, each offering a taste of what might have been served in a wealthy merchant's home hundreds of years ago. Or the Balthasar, which is located in the same building as the aforementioned 600-year-old and still functioning pharmacy, the Town Council Apothecary, or Raatiapteekki, and serves up modern dishes, each one laden with the restaurant's speciality: garlic. More medieval fare can be found at the Olde Hansa and the Peppersack, which are a short walk downhill towards St Catherine's Walk and the Viru Gate, a beautiful ivy-covered arch, in a street boasting international names in shopping.
A word for the food: hearty. There is a lot of Baltic seafood - sprats are a local delicacy and salmon is popular - but there is an emphasis on meat too. In the medieval restaurants roast ox is a big favourite and since Tallinn is almost part of Scandinavia, it is no surprise to find elk on the menu too - along with bear. There is also plenty of international cuisine, particularly pasta. Beer is the most common beverage, as you might imagine in a city that still draws upon its cultural associations with the German Hanseatic League, but Estonian cuisine has a few home-grown surprises too: berry wine and Vana Tallinn liqueur.
Having dined, you can proceed to the most dramatic viewpoint of the city: Cathedral Hill. This requires a little exertion as it's a steep climb up through the Long Leg Gate or the Short Leg Gate. You then find yourself in a medieval citadel with viewing platforms aplenty, affording a vista of the rooftops. The district now houses the Parliament or Riigikogu, occupying the castle that the Danes built to mark their conquest of the city, albeit rebuilt in the 18th Century, and some of Tallinn's most impressive churches. These range from the recent, such as the Russian Orthodox Alexandr Nevskiy Cathedral from 1900, to the very oldest, the Lutheran Toomkirik. One not to be missed is the 13th Century St Nicholas' Church or Niguliste or Nikolain Kirkko: not only a church but a museum too, with several medieval altars and a fragment of Bernt Notke's 15th Century painting "The Dance of Death" (found in Lubeck also).
You could go on all day listing Tallinn's churches and museums. Indeed, nothing has been said yet about the Dominican Monastery nestling between the Town Hall Square and St Catherine's Walk, or Tallinn City Museum and the Art Museum of Estonia. But after a walk up Cathedral Hill and back down again, if you are planning to stay overnight, your thoughts may turn to another Scandinavian custom: the sauna. Tallinn will not disappoint. The Grand Hotel Tallinn, Hotel Viru and Hotel Olumpia all offer the hot and dry Finnish sauna, perfect for the winter. Then you can venture back into the city to sample its nightlife: an appropriately festive end to a short stay in this city of merchant princes.
NOT ON THE MAP
by Anthony Georgieff
Looking for a one-day trip out of Tallinn? Try Paldiski for a sense of what life under Soviet rule used to be like. But be warned: if you are using an older map you won't find it. As late as 1994 the small town on Pakri, a tiny peninsula jutting out to the Baltic Sea, was a top secret Soviet military base - so secret that the whole peninsula was erased off maps. Paldiski housed up to 16,000 Soviet personnel servicing nuclear missiles and submarines.
What made it so valuable to the Kremlin was the largest submarine training centre in the USSR. For its sheer size, the locals referred to it as "The Pentagon."
What remains of the huge military complex now is perhaps the epitome of post-Communist urban decay. Formidable prefab housing estates, in comparison to which Sofia's Nadezhda looks like a well run rest home, are running to seed, with broken window panes and entrance doors gaping dark in the freezing cold. Top of the pops are the two Chernobyl-type experimental nuclear reactors, built in 1968 in a building large enough to accommodate a submarine. Its imposing walls and watchtowers can be viewed from the outside.
For a macabre sense of the type of things the Soviets liked to do, go to the seafront. Near the Lounasadam, or South Port, you will see something resembling a dug-out graveyard. At closer inspection it will turn out to be just that. In 1956, a Soviet submarine collided with a ship and its crew of 29 died. The incident was so embarrassing that the authorities never even acknowledged it happened. The 29 were buried in secret near the sea. After Estonia regained its independence their remains were reburied and there is a monument to them in an Orthodox chapel.
Of course, Paldiski is not all dust and ruins. Western, primarily Scandinavian, investment is visible, especially in the downtown area, which sports some glitzy bars, and the port. But those cannot outshine the crude graffito someone has sprayed on the walls of the defunct nuclear reactor: "Welcome to Hell!". As far as I am concerned, Paldiski is not hell, but it is useful to bear in mind that it might have become one.