Tallinn guards the southern entrance of the gulf of Finland. Built atop a steep hill it nurtures the centuries it as known. Ancient walls and turrets survive, bell towers and onion domes shape the skyline, a labyrinth of streets entwine within its walls, like some mad, medievalist fantasy. Not just that, mind you; this is no theme park, no historic splinter suspended in amber. The modern city has grown around it, recording both the dour order of Soviet days and the sometimes crass exuberance of a westward looking independence.
Climbing to the highest point in Tallinn is the sort of journey through time that medieval cities provide. The streets wind upwards between close grouped tall buildings. Archways lead off into beckoning squares and courtyards, flights of steps lead to flights of fancy. Rising higher than the high pitched roofs are a host of towers. The sleek spire of St Olaf’s church was once the highest building in the world, surpassed in the 17th century. The onion domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral strike an eastern chord, signaling the long dominance of Russia over Estonia.
More than forty per cent of the population still speak Russian and the cathedral’s size and prominence is a mark of that culture’s persistence. Russian rule began in the early 18th century when the Swedes ceded their authority. After the First World War the Estonians gained brief independence, but the recommencement of hostilities in the 1940s saw Russia annex the land once more.
Age drips from Tallinn, but most becomingly. At the summit, land and city fall away and the eras through which the city has journeyed become visible. The regimented streets of the communist age form one zone, the brash spires of consumer capitalism another. Beyond the city the flat lands merge in an infinity of Baltic blue. The air itself seems scarcer here, the buildings white and calm above the bustling city.
Tallinn retains much of its impressive walls and guard towers. These sport colourful names, there is Fat Margaret and, intriguingly, Kik in de Kok. Sounds painful, but it’s old Low German meaning ‘peep into the kitchen’, the vantage point allowing such snooping, apparently. The city grew in the heyday of the Hanseatic league and many original merchant houses survive. Some have been converted into restaurants and bars, and occasional street theatre breaks out as players attempt to lure custom with costumed displays of local legend. Typical Paddy abroad, I suppose, but I wind up parked before some seriously frothy beer at Mad Murphy’s in the Town Hall Square. Irish tricolours flutter in the brisk breeze; they’re fond of flags here, the flapping colours and emblazoned pennants underlining the medieval atmosphere.
It’s not all gaiety. St Catherine’s lane is lined with ancient tombstones, the pressing walls on each side kept apart by buttresses. Outside the city walls the atmosphere changes markedly. Trams skate along straight boulevards, Soviet era apartments and powerful public buildings assert themselves. In the New Town glass towers take the eye upwards, street signs, neon and tacky commercial joints vie for attention. Still the ancient peeps through like a palimpsest. Old wooden churches are left marooned in the concrete and neon.
At one redevelopment site the foundations of an old building remain. Along the ground, beneath glass, a timeline of Tallinn’s history is laid out. From Danish invaders to Teutonic knights, the Swedes were followed by the Russians, then a brief flicker of independence before the dark Soviet days. As the Iron Curtain evaporated, Tallinn became independent again. It is now in the Eurozone and prices are cheaper than its Baltic neighbours.
Amongst Europe’s oldest capitals it was Europe’s Capital of Culture last year. We can be sure the blossom of Tallinn will not fade away. Its citizens provide a streetlife that’s lively and bright, with a keen sense of style and modernity too. But they are wise enough to hold onto their past, building on its firm foundations for a promising future.