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Home Page > Travelogues > Estonia > Tallinn > City Center

Other Chapters in the Tallinn travelogue:  Toompea ] [ City Center ] Pirita ] Surroundings ]


Tallinn's City Center -- Well-Preserved and Medieval


The southern part of Tallinn's Upper Town was both the liveliest part of town.  Starting from Viru Square and following west several blocks to the base of Toompea, the Upper Town was the place to go for great eating, wonderful museums, and souvenir shopping.  It included the main market squares and the most active churches in the city.  The Tourist Information Office, located across from the city hall, offered an inexpensive daily pass that allowed one to ride public transportation free and visit most of the city's museums.  It was definitely worth the price.  Tallinn was easily navigated using its extensive and robust public-transportation system. Trolleys, busses, and trams run continuously seven days a week, reaching all the outskirts. The museums universally showed Estonian pride in their history, and the  excellent city guides were helpful for me to find some of Tallinn's hidden treasures.

This chapter of the Tallinn travelogue followed my first and last steps in the downtown.  The first part ran from Viru Square to the City Hall and the wonderful restaurants therein.  The second part is a story about two churches located north of the city center -- one a Polish Catholic church and the other Russian Orthodox.

The first photograph shows the Viru Gate, which was part of the old city wall.  There were three major city walls, two of which were described in the chapter on Toompea.  The third one ran around the full Upper Town, and still stood largely untouched despite considerable development.  The Viru Gate could be considered the "main" gate into the city from the inland side, and Tallinn made it extra inviting.  A huge park led me to there.  The park contained a number of sculpted hedges and fountains.  Following it was a market corridor consisting of flower shops on one side, and outdoor cafes on the other side.  I noted that several of the cafes used American or western themes (such as a place called the 'Arizona Saloon').  Once inside the Gate it was all shopping.

As it was the weekend of EuroVision 2002, the shopping district was loaded with special exhibits concerning traditional Estonian wares.  The second photograph shows the market street known as the Vana Turg, that was loaded with such activities.  As the photo shows, traditional Estonian clothing was being sold on the left, while a pottery barn and traditional jewelers were set up across the street.  Numerous young people were hired on as playactors, wearing traditional outfits and welcoming the visitors from all across Europe (I was one of very few Americans there).  The outfits were simple, peasant wear -- probably a bit heavy for the unusually warm May.

At the left of the photo was a place called the Olde Hansa, referring to the fact that Tallinn was once one of the cities in the Hanseatic League -- one of the earliest multinational trading societies that included port cities from all across northern Europe -- including Hamburg and Luebeck in Germany all the way to Bruges in Belgium.  It hosted a fantastic restaurant that re-enacted a traditional Estonian pub.  The waiters and waitresses dressed in medieval clothing while serving traditional dishes and original Estonian beer, which was very strong and thick (almost the strength of wine).  The help spoke absolutely perfect English, a testament to the influence of the Internet over the previous decade.

The Vana Turg led directly to the Town Hall and the main square where the tourist information bureau resided. The beauty and significance of the building was obvious. However, what was not as obvious is the tiny weather vane situated on the very top of the spire. This weather vane had a 15th-century legend associated with it.  It depicted a famous gate guard named Old Thomas who won fame as a peasant boy that shot down a bird sitting on the spire with an arrow. The full story (and the original weather vane) was given in the tourist literature.

Following along the buildings at the back of the photograph to the left was Vene Street that brought me to the two churches I mentioned at the top of the chapter.  The fourth photograph shows a Franciscan (Catholic) Church that was primarily Polish but offered masses in a couple other language.  The fifth photograph shows a Russian Orthodox Church against the old city wall.  It was only two doors down.  I had planned to attend Catholic Mass that Sunday at the Franciscan Church.  But, when I went to find it again, I got confused and accidentally wandered into an on-going Orthodox Mass.  Although people noticed me enter, no one seemed to mind that I was there, so I stuck around.

For those who have never witnessed an Orthodox celebration, I will describe it.  It was unlike any form of Christianity that I had ever seen.  The Priest wore a long golden rode and had two attendants, young men dressed in maroon tunics with a golden cross in front.  Altar boys, four to six I recalled, wore matching gold tunics with a maroon cross.  The interior of the church was a single square room with no chairs.  A sanctuary was open at the far end that contained an alter and golden icons of Christ.  The Priest and his entourage were in the center of the room, surrounded tightly by the congregation -- mostly poor and middle class ethnic Russians, I surmised.  The Priest spoke aloud, and each time he invoked the name of Jesus the congregation shouted something and then performed three signs of the cross (the Orthodox sign was opposite the Catholic one -- head, then chest, then right shoulder, then left).  After a while, the Priest led the congregation on a procession outside the Church.  His robe held by his attendants, the Priest stopped at each side of the church to say a prayer, bless the ground, and then placed a small broom in a bowl of water held by an altar boy and swung the broom to bless the crowd.  The procession went back into the Church to complete the ceremony.  Then, individual parishioners brought incense to different icons of Jesus, Mary, and various Orthodox saints and prayed.  It was a similar process used by Roman Catholics using candles instead of incense.

That experience stayed with me for a long time, because I previously knew nothing of the Orthodox faith or practices.  I noted some similarities with other Eastern faiths to which I was exposed -- the use of meditation and incense, the colorful nature of the celebration (despite the plain dress of the congregation), and the very expressive and vocal nature of the congregation.  It opened me to a whole new world of faith.

The city center of Tallinn was truly enjoyable.  I only hoped that the activities of EuroVision 2002 were not a one-time affair.  I felt that Estonia's unique heritage, a heritage to which they were very proud, should be experienced and enjoyed by everyone.

Trip Taken 26 May 2002 -- Page Last Updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2006 Tom Galvin

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