Saturday, 25 February 2012

Triip to Tallinn (Part 1)

As I sat in the Munich airport, watching the line of snowploughs heading out towards the runways, it occurred to me that travelling to the Baltics in February might not have been my best idea...

A year ago, I had never heard of Tallinn (Tal-in), the capital of Estonia.  I came across it accidentally online. But something about its towers and spires, its cold remoteness, and its many years spent behind the iron curtain caught my fancy.  Without giving it too much thought, I bought a pair of plane tickets as a Christmas surprise for my wife.

Unfortunately, our journey did not go as planned. By the time our plane left London, bound for Frankfurt, we’d already missed our connecting flight.  Germany, it seemed, was having a little problem with snow. However, to the credit of Lufthansa (our German airline), they had already worked out a new plan before we landed. From Frankfurt we were put on a short plane ride to Munich to catch the last flight to Tallinn.  Unfortunately, Munich was in a bad way.  Snow was pelting down in sheets as snowploughs fought a losing battle to keep the runways clear.  We read, did crosswords, shared a frankfurter, and waited. Eventually, we were put on a bus and driven across the airport where, amidst the swirling snow, we boarded a plane. It took another couple of hours to gather the last passengers from other delayed flights, then to have our plane sprayed with anti-freeze, but happily, we did get off the ground.  We arrived at Tallinn late in the night, after seventeen hours of travel, and caught a taxi to our hotel, where we collapsed and were soon asleep.

The next day dawned bright and cold in Tallinn, and after a hearty breakfast, with adventure in our hearts, we confidently set off to explore the city’s famous medieval Old Town.  Of course, we set off in the wrong direction, and for the next 90 minutes all we saw were ugly, weather-beaten buildings, and greasy piles of snow. 

There is no sense in telling the next part of the story chronologically. Once we found the Old Town, we spent two full days exploring the many winding streets and passageways, marvelling at the Cathedrals and fortifications, and soaking in an atmosphere that wanted you to believe in Christmas in February. Once the fresh snow fell, which it inevitably did, this became even more powerful. So, let me just share some of the many highlights of this old, old city.

In a city full of striking buildings, none catches the attention quite like the Alesander Nevski Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. Although beautiful, the church was also a symbol of Russian power, built directly across the street from the Estonian parliament (and causing the removal of a famous statue of Martin Luther). I have never before been inside a Russian Orthodox church, and I must say it was an eye-opener.  Golden icons of dozens of saints hung on every wall and pillar, blazing in the intense candlelight. Most of the saints were unrecognizable to me, but one caught my eye.  In one corner, I spied a middle-age man, praying for the intercession of a knight on horseback, riding down a dragon.  St. George may be the patron saint of England, but here he is taken seriously.
Just down the hill from the A. N. Cathedral is the less attractive, but thoroughly imposing Church of Saint Nicholas (Niguliste kirik). Whereas the Cathedral above burned with active light, this church felt old and dead, which is perhaps fitting, as it contains one very unique item, the only surviving piece of Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre . During the 15th Century, Bernt Notke painted two versions of the Danse Macabre, the first was destroyed in a fire. No-one is quite sure of the history of the second, except that a quarter of it ended up in Tallinn. I say it is a fragment, because most of it is missing, but it is still a huge work, running an entire length of wall. It is a tremendous work, and worthy of close study.

These are just two of the many churches whose spires dominate the skyline of Tallinn. One, the Church of Saint Olaf, was once the world’s tallest building. Unfortunately, its metal spire also made it one of the most lightning-prone, and it twice burnt to the ground.

Despite all of its religiousness, Tallinn was also a dangerous place. Sitting on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, it remains an important strategic point for Russia’s outlet to the Baltic sea.  Thus it is no surprise that it was besieged and changed hands on numerous occasions, and its mighty stone walls suffered a pounding over the years. At one end of the city stands the chunky Kiek in de Kok (Peek into the Kitchen) a cannon tower that traded blows with the forces of Ivan the Terrible, and later used some of his stone cannon balls to help repair the damage. Of the original walls, probably about half remain, but this is enough to give a good sense of how strong the defences must have been.

While Tallinn has plenty of traditional souvenir shops, it also has many antique (antik) shops. These mainly contain two types of items, left over Soviet (or Nazi) paraphernalia and medieval icons. These gorgeous, hand-painted icons, usually about the size of a piece of paper, were available all over town. Most had obviously been roughly cut from walls or doors. I would have dearly loved to buy my own Saint George, however, with a normal asking price of around 400-1,000 Euros, they were a little out of my price range, and I settled for a small reproduction instead.

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