When I thought to visit Estonia, I came up short for guidebooks. I found collections on all three Baltic states, or else Estonia was lumped in with guides for Scandinavia.
It seemed to me, however, that this country deserved more, in part to recognize some intriguing contradictions. Estonia, I knew, was the birthplace of Skype technology. Tallinn, however, had last year been honored for its elegance and heritage, as a European Capital of Culture.
Then there were the stag parties I'd heard about, of Brits and Finns prowling Tallinn's cheap bars, much like what one sees in Prague. Yet I'd also read that when you visit, you somehow feel the distress of Tallinn's occupations, the triumph and thrill of its liberations. It's on UNESCO's World Heritage List, and rightly so: Only one street of the Old Town was razed during German air raids in World War II, so much of what you see is what has been around since the 13th century, with careful restoration, obviously.
This city, in other words, has bones.
My nearly fruitless guidebook search -- I eventually found and bought a used 2010 Bradt guidebook online -- occurred to me later while walking through Tallinn, along its medieval city wall and into its watchtowers, and also while visiting the national history museum. Estonians, successively toppled by Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians over the course of 10 centuries, may wonder themselves how long their country will be on the world map and be worth its own guidebook. After all, it was only in 1991 that Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. From 1918 to 1940, the country also enjoyed sovereignty.
It would be easy to think that Estonia has some growing pains still ahead, infant republic that it is. And yet, during my visit to Tallinn earlier this year, I was struck at how durable and ancient the city feels. The medieval defensive wall couldn't keep out invaders (or, for that matter, the region's punishing winter climate), yet Estonia has proved its staying power.
I recognized this all the more when I visited the Estonian History Museum. I wasn't sure what to expect, because the Bradt guide author warned against this museum, writing that it was badly in need of remodeling. Fortunately, that's exactly what happened in 2011 just as Tallinn assumed the European Capital of Culture title. The result is a modern, interactive and engaging lesson that makes something as obscure as Estonian history (and 11,000 years, at that) come alive.
'Spirit of Survival'
Located in the vaulted, airy Great Guild Hall dating from 1410, and off the city's main square, the museum's permanent exhibit, titled "Spirit of Survival," builds on a series of simple questions: Who are the Estonians? Is Estonian a simple language? The answers here could naturally turn long-winded.
However, the museum wins with restraint, presenting a thoughtful collection of poignant pieces: a lavishly beaded and embroidered traditional Estonian bridal veil; a typewriter with a Cyrillic-lettered keyboard from 1940, made by one conqueror, Germany, for another, Russia; and a belt of woven white, blue and black industrial wire, denoting the colors of Estonia's flag, made clandestinely by a prisoner in a Russian Gulag camp.
Once passing through the exhibits, you can't help but admire that the Estonians somehow held onto their language and traditions through so much upheaval and domination. Yet the curators, I thought, seem to acknowledge that while the various occupations were devastating on a large scale, the occupiers also enriched Estonian culture.
This same idea played in my head as I stepped across the street and entered Kalev, the renowned cafe, chocolate and marzipan emporium. Before settling in for a slice of chocolate cake with orange glaze topping, I stood behind a chin-high glass wall to watch one of Kalev's artists work her magic.
Wearing blue rubber gloves, she gingerly picked up sticks with egg-shaped marzipan stuck on the ends, then swirled her paintbrush around them. Then came marzipan figurines of hedgehogs, rabbits, flower bouquets, cabbage heads, red onions and butterflies, not to mention, bizarrely (and my favorite), a roasted chicken.
Tallinn, once a medieval trading settlement, boasts that it invented this sweet made of almonds and powdered sugar. Luebeck, in Germany, claims the same fame. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, with medieval confectioners in each city swapping recipes. I thought of this as I sipped hot chocolate in the dainty Kalev cafe adjacent to the marzipan showroom, recalling how I had once watched a porcelain painter in Meissen, Germany, work with the same gentle maneuvers as the marzipan-artisan here. Before I left the cafe, I went back to the painter, complimenting her on her craftsmanship. She smiled and revealed that during the communist years, she had in fact interned at the famous Meissen workshop.
By far the most eye-catching monument along Tallinn's skyline is an array of blackened domes, which guided me the next day up to the elaborate and imposing Alexandr Nevsky Church. To reach it, I had to navigate the cobblestone road leading to the Toompea, Tallinn's original fortress and the site from where German colonists ruled in the early 13th century.
Life under the Soviets
By 1710, however, Estonia was under Russian control, and it was in 1894 that the Orthodox church built the cathedral. Since Estonia gained its independence two decades ago, there have been occasional grass-roots calls to either relocate or shut down the cathedral; the building is a Russian imperialist outpost and out of place with the more functional architecture around Tallinn. I understood this better later, while visiting the Tallinn City Museum, which has an extensive collection of Soviet propaganda posters, most of them displayed with tongue-in-cheek comments illustrating the absurdity of life under Soviet communism.
But the cathedral still serves the small Russian community in Tallinn. I wandered in on a Sunday amid pealing church bells and found that a feast for the eyes was on. I sat in the back and watched as a priest entered the nave through a grand doorway and, swinging an incense burner, led congregants to a side altar adorned with pink roses. Together, they leafed through their prayer and hymn books, sang, lit candles and bowed at exquisite gold-framed icons.
Afterward, I walked outside and around the cathedral, toward the old city wall and one of its most visited watchtowers. Kiek in de Kok, or Low German for "peep in the kitchen," allowed for guards to observe Tallinn's entire town beneath the Toompea, including the kitchens. It was closed during my visit, unfortunately, but there were some men practicing archery next to it, as if out of the Middle Ages. The day before, I had been at the other end of town to see the watchtower's more rotund twin, named Fat Margaret, which guarded the old city's exit to its port, and marvelled at the four-meter-thick walls.
A historic eatery
From Kiek in de Kok, I walked back toward Tallinn's main square, first stopping for lunch at Vanaema Juures, or Grandma's Kitchen. This cozy, happily retro cellar restaurant is popular with locals, but it also once hosted Hillary Clinton during a 1996 state visit. My meal was good home cooking -- smoked herring, sauerkraut and red beets -- and the waiter, initially surly because I had arrived just an hour before closing, warmed to my question about Clinton's cameo appearance. As I got ready to leave, she brought out a weathered guest book and proudly showed me where the former first lady had signed her name.
The next day, I walked a block from the classy Hotel Telegraaf, where I was staying, to Tallinn's City Museum. A model of the medieval settlement, I noticed, looked remarkably like today's Tallinn. And the sheer number of ceramic tiles, tapestries and porcelain on display illustrates the scale of industry and culture that evolved in Estonia, especially after 1860.
But I was more captivated by the museum's top floor, dedicated to the German and Soviet occupations, air raids, deportations and, eventually, revolution in 1989. I passed by communist propaganda posters, which appear quaint here, juxtaposed as they are alongside black-and-white images of mass demonstrations in Tallinn starting in 1987.
About 300,000 Estonians -- eventually including political leaders -- took to the streets then, singing patriotic hymns strictly forbidden by Moscow and calling for independence.
The Singing Revolution, as it was later coined, lasted four years and, amazingly, resulted in no bloodshed.
And that, to me, warrants its own guidebook.