Estonia - my ancestral homeland - is a jewel of the Baltic. With its medieval architecture, castles, old lighthouses, miles of white sand beaches, cultural landmarks, museums and great shopping, Estonia is a traveller’s treasure land.
No matter where you start your visit to Estonia, at some point you will end up in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city (population around 400,000). The city dates back to 1154 and thanks the Danes for its name. It seems that after 1219, when the Danes took control of the city, the townsfolk began calling it “Taani Linn” which meant “Danish City” in Estonian. Foreign intrusions riddle my homeland’s past, with the last happening during the Second World War when Russians invaded Estonia twice and then occupied it from 1944 to 1991. (My parents fled Estonia in 1944.)
If medieval times interest you, Tallinn is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cities. Circling the Old Tallinn area is a 2.35 km stone wall built in the 14th century. And of the original 27 stone towers, 17 survive and some - like Kiek in de Kök (Peek in the Kitchen) and Paks Margarete (Fat Margarete) - now house museums and cafes.
Old Town’s winding cobblestone streets all lead to the busy bustling Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats). You can ‘’feel” the medieval history here as you relax at one of the many sidewalk cafes in the square, munch on some good food and perhaps chug down an Estonian Saku beer.
Dominating the square is the late Gothic two-storey Town Hall (Raekoda) built in the 1200s. Check out its quirky weathervane, a funny-man-with-moustache named Old Thomas (Vana Toomas). On the opposite side of the square is the Town Council Pharmacy (the famous Raeapteek) - it first opened its doors in 1422 and is still in business today. And it was in Town Hall Square that the world’s first Christmas tree was put up in 1441 (neighbouring Latvia makes a similar claim).
A short walk from the square are some gems of medieval churches. The 13th century Holy Ghost Church (Pühavaimu Kirik) houses remarkable art treasures, including a 1483 folding cupboard altar, a 1513 Wrangel coat-of-arms and a medieval clock. Nearby is St. Mary’s Church (Toomkirik), dating back to 1233; it has a large collection of wooden carved coats-of-arms, some dating back to the 17th century. And then there’s St. Olaf’s Church (Oleviste Kirik) first built in 1267 and for a time it was the tallest building in Europe.
Guilds played key roles in medieval Tallinn. For a fascinating glimpse of those times, drop in at the ornate guild hall, the House of the Black Heads (Mustpeade Maja) at 26 Pikk Street. Established around 1400, membership in the Brotherhood of the Black Heads was open to unmarried male merchants, shipowners and intelligentsia. Members met almost every night to drink, socialize and ‘’rest from honest labour”...but first many took in a bowling game in the house alley (the outline of the bowling alley is still visible in the walls).
Why was it called the Black Heads? Well, for some unknown reason, the guild’s patron saint was the black martyr Saint Mauritius, warrior-commander of the Roman Theban Legion.
Like to shop? The sweater stalls lining Tallinn’s stone walls have some of the world’s best bargains for pure wool sweaters and knitted items, beautifully designed and handcrafted. Absolutely a shopper’s delight.
Ahh...but if you can’t get to Estonia in the next while, you can get still get a ’taste’‘of its beer if you live in Ontario. Individual bottles of Saku beer - imported directly from Estonia’s 186-year old Saku Brewery - are now available at Ontario’s LCBO stores.
City of Tallinn
House of the Black Heads
(For English, enter the site through the Saint Mauritius oval and then click on the British flag icon on the upper left).
Traveller’s muse: Step back to medieval times in Tallinn (1)