Old Town Eesti

Trip Start May 28, 2008
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Trip End Aug 26, 2008


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Monday, July 28, 2008

My first introduction to Tallinn, Estonia was from a tourist map that I happen to have picked up in a hostel in Saint Petersburg, Russia. From what I could gather, Tallinn looked to be a fun, happening, and all around great place to visit. Who can argue with that?

The ferry boat from Helsinki to Tallinn was an adventure in itself, it started with Demian and I partaking in a pre boat cocktail called a Long drink, which is basically gin and grapefruit juice, neither of which I am particularly fond of. However, when combined you don't really taste the gin and the grapefruit juice loses its bitterness. This drink is a popular after sauna refreshment with the Finns, which I found to be amusing; there is something about sweating out all impurities from your body only to immediately replace them. I have decided to Google the recipe was I get home. Yum!

Once on the boat, the party hit full gear. The duty free shops were crammed full of Europeans feverishly purchasing alcohol, chocolate, perfume, and any other gourmet item you could think by the boatload (we found Haloumi cheese-yum!). People brought portable luggage carts so that they could easily transport their cases of alcohol, up to their compartments, to their homes, or at least as far as the deck. We fortunately were able to secure some chairs with a table on a top deck where we played cards and people watched. The guy dressed up like Borat (you know- the lime green Speedo ensemble), epitomized the party mood of this boat.

Tallinn is really a beautiful city. The meandering cobblestone streets, small shops, numerous bars and restaurants, ancient churches and buildings create a wonderfully charming place to spend time. We walked a great deal through the old city, soaking up the sights, and discovering hidden little gems throughout. We found out that the city's pharmacy that is still in use today was built centuries ago and has always been their pharmacy. We also discovered that Tallinn has a Depeche Mode bar. I don't know if it is officially recognized or sanctioned by the band, but still that is pretty cool.

The view from the top of St Olaf's was touted as being spectacular. After climbing St. Olaf's tower (a spiral staircase that goes up forever) which apparently was the tallest tower in the world several centuries ago, and then stepping out onto the very small albeit fully enclosed ledge, I experienced a touch of vertigo and needed to get down as soon as possible. The elderly lady who happened to have been coming through the portal was none too happy with the fact that I was going to go through the same portal at the same time.

"You need to wait, I am coming though, now!" she barked at me in accented English, for which I replied, "you need to move, or I will vomit on you!" Funny how carefully chosen words will get you results so quickly. I was much better as I quickly descended the tower and explored the church until Demian and the kids came down.

One of the highlights of my time in Tallinn was visiting Saint Nicholas's church. There is a painting there that I had wanted to see for a very long time, The Dance Macabre, painted by Bernt Notke in the 15th century. It is a series of dancing skeletons that are 'explaining' to each person that they are dancing with (a king, empress, pope, bishop, etc.) that it doesn't matter how rich and powerful they had become in their lives- they are but a feast for the worms in the end. This truly is a wonderful painting. As I am sitting and appreciating the piece, the organist starts to play Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the church's massive pipe organ. I immediately had chills racing up and down my spine. I had never heard this piece played before and then to have it done at that exact moment, in such an appropriate setting, by such a talented musician, simply amazing. It reminded me of a project that I had done in Art History, back in high school, which explored the connection of music and art, and how two completely different mediums can evoke the same emotional response.

Trying to live a 'normal' life while your country is under occupation is not easy. Estonia has had this problem for a very long time. If it wasn't the Danes, the Swedes, or the Germans, it was the Soviets. Estonia regained its autonomy when the USSR fell back in 1990, but it wasn't something that they were just sitting and complacently waiting for. To learn about these series of fascinating events we visited the Occupation museum. Their collection includes a multitude of everyday items, such as cigarettes packs, telephone booths, WC doors, a beautician's booth, telephones, children's history books, along with old Soviet army uniforms that all come from the decades of 1940-1990.

Along with all this, the story of the Soviet occupation is told through interviews, news reels, and personal accounts that detail just what happened here. I watched the videos that documents the decades from the 40-60, and then I jumped ahead to the 90's when Estonia finally were able to stand up to the Soviets (who happen to be having a tough time themselves- with the fall of the USSR and everything!) I enjoyed this museum; it documented the classic underdog story. In the basement are left over Communist leaders statues from the occupation. If somebody is in need of huge Lenin heads or enormous Stalin statues, this is the place to look.

- Laura


Estonia (Eesti) Footnotes:

The Danse Macabre of Notke on display in Tallinn is the only surviving portion of the original painting, which was over 30 meters. Notke painted another Danse Macabre for St. Mary in Lübeck, but this was destroyed during an allied bombing raid.

The Occupation museum give documents the German occupation equally well along with the Soviet one. The Soviet Union invaded first and behaved brutally in what the Estonians call "The First Red Year", so the Estonians initially welcomed the Germans as liberators and joined the German war effort in earnest. They were not well treated under the Germans, but still fought hard to avoid the eventual return to Stalinist Soviet domination. The U.S. and British agreements with Stalin ceded the borders as they had been after the Soviet invasion, so Estonia was guaranteed to be under Stalin's dictatorship if the Germans lost WWII... which eventually came to pass.

- Demian
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