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by Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

Knight falling on bended knee

I suddenly feel my hand being clutched, and not by my husband Rick! I turn to see a knight in chainmail armour falling before me on bended knee - not for undying love, but for a 1€ photo op. We are in front of the Old Town Hall which has been on this spot since at least 1322, the present building dating back to 1404. Vana Toomas (Old Thomas), symbolizing Tallinn, appears as a weather-vane atop the hall. Legend has it that as a peasant lad, Old Thomas won an archery contest reserved for nobility, and instead of being punished he was invited to become a guard.

Lower Old Town Square

This is our first of many meanderings around medieval Lower Town's Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), at the city's heart for eight centuries. The vibes of the Middle-Ages emanates from Gothic edifices, now turned into "tempt the tourist" shops, and restaurants with outside seating placed under great umbrellas. Cheery young people in medieval dress wave menus to entice passers-by to partake of a morsel or sip a drink in their establishment.

Town Hall Pharmacy (Raeapteek) is said to be one of the oldest continually running pharmacies in Europe; by 1422 it belonged to its third owner. Old apothecary equipment sides the walls, but medieval remedies, such as crushed dried bee wings, have been replaced with current pharmacy offerings, like Aspirin.

Olde Hansa is a shop stacked with goods that gained popularity centuries ago: goblets, tar soap, onion jam-and some odd shoes with curled-up toes. Salesclerk, Anna, is on hand to clarify a shoe was not just a shoe back then, but a show of wealth. "These are commoner shoes with hardly any curl. The rich wore shoes with curls almost reaching their knees, with metal rings for strings to attach the curl to their mid-calves. The king's curl was tied to his waist-so you can see why he was carried."

Toast at Olde Hansa

Anna invites me and two other shoppers to partake in a snort of pepper schnapps, brewed in-house. Taking the traditional stance-baby finger at the bottom and thumb on the rim of the shot glass, other hand on the head (a sign of respect) and one leg crossed in front of the other at the knee-we toast in unison. Then…down the hatch. Very tasty!

Another day we climb Toompea hill, known as Upper Old Town, to see how the wealthy once looked down their noses at the commoners.

View from Upper Old Town

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral reigns; ordered by Tsar Alexander III and completed in 1900. The Toompea Castle, which for seven centuries served the nation's foreign masters, today houses the parliament of Estonia.

We move along to the formidable 15th century stone bastion, Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the Kitchen). The curious name stems from soldiers joking about how from the top they could look down into the kitchens of the houses below. Inside, spiral stone stairs lead to many levels displaying torture devices and weaponry from the medieval ages right up to WWII.

The nearby Bastion Tunnels are next. We don small blankets to wrap around our shoulders against the chill and follow Anilee, our guide, down uneven stone steps to tread through 300metres (of the total 500 metres) that are currently staked out. Along our route we learn the various uses of these tunnels over the years. A small cell is where Catherine the Great had a 71-year-old monk imprisoned for speaking out against her. In this damp, cold, lonely place he lasted four years before his soul departed.

Tunnel used as air raid shelter

During WWII the tunnels became air raid shelters used by the Germans and later the Russians. A gas-masked manikin and old radio equipment sets the scene. After being abandoned for decades, during the 1980's punkers moved in to party and hide from the militia.

From 1991 to 2005, during the turmoil of Estonia's newfound independence and skyrocketing unemployment, the tunnels became shelters for homeless people. Near the end of the tour we get a glimpse into a part of the tunnel that until recently was underwater for centuries. A ghostly aura wafts out on mildewed air from rough stone walls and stalactite ceiling.

Sweet coating for roasted almonds

Out in the brilliant sunshine again, it's time to purchase a bag of fresh roasted almonds which had been stirred in a vat with cinnamon and sugar-a good pairing for our cappuccinos.

Tallinn's gothic structures, along with the living history atmosphere of medieval costumes and customs displayed by shop/restaurant staff, and the bustling light-heartedness of the town squares will forever linger on as a happy memory.


More Info:
Estonia Tourism:
Suggested Accommodation: Park Inn by Radisson

PHOTOS by Rick Butler

1. Knight falling on bended knee
2. Lower Old Town Square
3. Toast at Olde Hansa
4. View from Upper Old Town
5. Tunnel used as air raid shelter
6. Sweet coating for roasted almonds

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