Before I went to Estonia, I think my impression of it was some kind of utopia with a bad history of being stolen. Now I’m back, I’m not entirely sure that’s inaccurate.
From what I’ve read, Estonia has only been independent for 30-40 out of the last 700 years, 24 of which are the last 24. It’s belonged to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia and it baffles me that despite this, it’s managed to hang onto its own identity. We group it collectively into “The Baltic States” with Lithuania and Latvia and yet it actually has very little in the way of cultural, linguistic or historical links with either of them, other than the fact that they’re next door. And I get the impression that Estonia – or Tallinn, at least – is way ahead technologically than the others, so much so that it’s evidently nicknamed E-stonia. The impression I got of Vilnius in 2011 was of a place that was still figuring itself after Soviet rule, still in the process of being reborn. I haven’t yet been to Rīga but it’s on my list for next year. Tallinn, however, has a quiet air of self-confidence.
I didn’t see much of the modern city. I was only there three days and I spent most of that in the Old Town, which, in places, dates back to the thirteenth century. Speaking of being owned by other countries, Tallinn is said to mean “Danish town” or “Danish castle” and the place was known as Reval up until 1918. I haven’t yet worked out where it was called Reval, how the name Tallinn wasn’t lost and how it’s managed to return to Tallinn – people over here still defiantly refer to Opal Fruits and sweets are far less important than capital cities.
As I was saying. Tallinn has a magnificent mediaeval Old Town, all red roofs, merchants and guild houses, churches, alleyways, walls, towers and so on. Were it not for the occasional car or Segway on the cobbled streets, you could quite easily imagine yourself back in the fourteenth century. It’s crying out for a fantasy novel or three to be set in its streets, preferably during the present day. Modern fantasy, set in Tallinn’s Old Town. I want to write it but considering the question over the last week has led me to conclude that I have no idea how to write fantasy of any kind.
There are a few good viewpoints over the city. The number one is from the spire of St Olaf’s Church, at the northern end of the Old Town. The downside is that access is via a very steep and narrow set of winding stone stairs, not designed for two-way traffic or tour groups, both of which must be endured these days, and which has resulted in… not a phobia but certainly an aversion to stone staircases. It’s ok going up, not so much coming down and meeting people coming the other way in either direction is hellish. But the views are unparalleled.
The second best viewpoints are from Toompea, a limestone/sandstone hill at the southern end of town, criss-crossed with alleyways and plenty of places to look out over Tallinn, be that over the more modern end of town or over the red roofs of the Old Town. These places are overcrowded by tourists in an incredible way, especially given that I thought I was there a little before tourist season really began. I don’t know where these groups come from because you only encounter them at viewpoints, never in the streets. The presence of tourist shops can coax a handful away from the view to give the rest of us half a chance to glimpse it but it is surprisingly few. Maybe they’ve already had their fill of souvenir shops. I can always go in and look at Russian dolls, replica Fabergé eggs, amber of all colours and in all settings, wooden Vikings (for Estonia appears to be the only country outside of Scandinavia that had its own Vikings), linen and the usual array of keyrings and postcards.
There’s also views from the city walls (more spiral staircases!) but because the walls aren’t actually all that high, you can’t really see much apart from the neighbouring street from a little way up.
Down below, in the actual streets, there’s definitely a tourist area and a non-tourist area. I was at the north end of Uus, definitely a quiet area, give or take drunk stag-weekenders staggering home on Friday and Saturday nights. The Town Square, however, only a seven minute walk away, was teeming with tourists and pavement cafes and restaurants and shops and so much life! It’s unbelievable how quickly the character of the place can change.