In the weeks leading up to my cruise, many people inquired as to where I was going. I would tell them our itinerary, and a common (surprising) response was "ooooh, Tallinn! You are going to love it, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe!" This was surprising to me because 1) Tallinn wasn't ever really on my radar before and 2) Estonia? Really?
Well, they were right. Tallinn was an unexpected highlight of our trip, and even the fact that I had sprained my ankle the day before couldn't slow us down. With the help of Chris' ankle brace I managed to tramp my way across the ancient part of Tallinn and across some castle ruins. Yay castles!
Tallinn was another port where we didn't book an excursion through the cruise company. The historical part of Tallinn is pretty small so wandering around by ourselves was pretty easy, and the free map identified all the main touristy locations. The cruise ship also offered a shuttle from the port to downtown area, so we were all set.
Some quick background: the first traces of human settlement found in Tallinn are about 5000 years old. In 1050 the first fortress was built on Tallinn Toompea, the hill and upper part of the town. The city was also an important port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia during the period of Northern Crusades in the beginning of the 13th century when Christianity was forcibly imposed on the local population. Danish rule of Tallinn and Northern Estonia started in 1219. The Danes sold Tallinn along with their other land possessions in northern Estonia in 1346. Medieval Tallinn enjoyed a strategic position at the crossroads of trade between Western and Northern Europe and Russia. The city, with a population of 8,000, was very well fortified with city walls and 66 defence towers.
Tallinn passed to the Swedes in the sixteenth century, and then to imperial Russia in 1710. The 19th century brought industrialization of the city and the port kept its importance. On 24 February 1918, the Independence Manifesto was proclaimed in Tallinn, followed by Imperial German occupation and a war of independence with Russia. On 2 February 1920, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed with Soviet Russia, wherein Russia acknowledged the independence of the Estonian Republic. Tallinn became the capital of an independent Estonia. After World War II started, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1940, and later occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 44. After the Nazi retreat in 1944, it was again occupied by the USSR. After annexation into the Soviet Union, Tallinn became the capital of the Estonian SSR.
So basically, Tallinn got jerked around for centuries but has cut the strings and become a real boy. Yay!
After getting off the bus in downtown Tallinn, we wandered down a large street lined with market stalls. At the end of the street were the gates of Tallinn, the medieval entrance to the city. Once we passed through the gates, we were in the Toompea, an area that was once a separate town that occupied an easily defensible site overlooking the surrounding districts.
I was immediately struck by how beautiful Tallinn is. Cobble streets are flanked by colorful row houses, and you can easily imagine a bustling medieval market in the city center. People wander from cafes to shops, and there are actually a large number of modern dance clubs situated throughout the medieval area. The ruins of a stone church stand on top of the hill overlooking the lower town, contrasting with the more modern Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its characteristic onion domes. You know how theme parks will sometimes have a "medieval town" or something like that in the entrance shopping area? Well, Tallinn is what the theme parks are trying to recreate. It's the real thing, you guys.
We spent the afternoon walking to the major sites (the castle, the cathedral, the scenic overlook) and ducking into shops. There was lots of amber, wool clothing, nesting dolls, and jewelry. We even ran into our South African friends at the overlook area. But after walking through the town most of the afternoon, my ankle (and feet) needed a break so back to the ship! While we were only in Tallinn a few hours, it made quite an impression. And now we have ANOTHER place to add to the "must return to" list. Maybe we should just do the same cruise again sometime.
In sum: Tallinn is beautiful, quaint, charming, and perfect for any medieval-history nuts.