Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Estonia Spring Break 2016: Day Two, and an orientation walk through Tallinn's Old Town.

(As is my custom when posting trip summaries, I'm backdating them to the actual day of occurrence. Previously: Day One)


Air Baltic (or "airBaltic") is the low-cost, flag carrier airline of Latvia, and conceptually, it seems to hover on the periphery of Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, as though someone only grudgingly had allowed it landing rights, but without it being otherwise connected to any of the other airlines, either electronically or by carrier pigeon.

Consequently, we had no seat assignments until chugging wearily to the gate, located beyond the furthest reaches of Schiphol. So it goes if you wish to get to Tallinn.

Landing in Tallinn came a few minutes after 2:00 p.m. I'd guess that Lennart Meri Tallinna lennujaam is about the size of the airport in Madison, Wisconsin, although it's probably smaller still. The airport is surprisingly close to the heart of the capital city, and a taxi ride to the Hotell St. Barbara cost only 12 Euros (the exchange rate at the time of our visit was approximately 1 Euro = 1.15 Dollars).

Hotell St. Barbara, named for a 4th-century Christian martyr, sits on the south side of Kaarli puiestee (a central east-west boulevard) and Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square, referring to the country's independence after WWI).

We were up on the top floor of this intelligently adapted former physician's clinic.

I've had worse room views. The entrance to Tallinn's Old Town lies perhaps two hundred yards north, as viewed in the center of the hotel roof photo.

The Old Town is shaped like an oval, with portions of its outer walls still extant. On the other side of the Old Town to the north is the city's historic port area, currently being redeveloped for housing and leisure. The modern passenger port is a bit to the east of this axis.

Admittedly, the lower Old Town functions as a tourist-saturated, medieval theme park during high season, though this should not be implied to minimize its architectural and historic significance, which is considerable indeed. In fact, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Historic Centre (Old Town) of Tallinn is an exceptionally complete and well-preserved medieval northern European trading city on the coast of the Baltic Sea. The city developed as a significant centre of the Hanseatic League during the major period of activity of this great trading organization in the 13th-16th centuries.

The combination of the upper town on the high limestone hill and the lower town at its foot with many church spires forms an expressive skyline that is visible from a great distance both from land and sea.

The upper town (Toompea) with the castle and the cathedral has always been the administrative centre of the country, whereas the lower town preserves to a remarkable extent the medieval urban fabric of narrow winding streets, many of which retain their medieval names, and fine public and burgher buildings, including town wall, Town Hall, pharmacy, churches, monasteries, merchants’ and craftsmen’ guilds, and the domestic architecture of the merchants' houses, which have survived to a remarkable degree. The distribution of building plots survives virtually intact from the 13th-14th centuries.

We started our first afternoon by walking to Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) and enjoying a sunny pear cider, dark Estonian lager, and herring, the latter fried and then lightly marinated.

As UNESCO mentions, Toompea is the upper Old Town, perched on a limestone ridge and the traditional administrative center for Tallinn's rulers.

Estonians have been in the vicinity for thousands of years, but the country has been independent for only 45 of them, first between the wars, and then since the fall of the USSR in 1991. Non-Estonian overlords have included Swedes, Danes, Teutonic Knights, Germans and Russians. The Alexander Nevsky cathedral's prominent position on the Toompea ridge is a constant reminder that Russians were a part of Estonia's history even before the Communists came along during the 20th century. In the present time, almost 40% of Tallinn's population is Russian, many of them relocated during Soviet times.

The panoramic view of the Old Town from Toompea, sweeping from northeast to southeast:

Tallinn's modern "Euro" quarter can be seen just past the Old Town's eastern gates. It creatively combines new and existing structures, and is under construction as we speak. Characteristic housing blocks from the era of Soviet occupation are on the horizon; somewhat surprisingly, the Old Town and adjacent 18th- and 19th-century construction remained mostly intact after WWII, with later Soviet urban planning occurring on the city's perimeter, like a half-circle on three sides.

As a better example of  this phenomenon, here's the view to the northwest from Toompea.

We eventually ran out of steam and returned to the hotel, which houses an excellent Bavarian-style restaurant in the cellar.

As someone now obsessed by street grids, this scene on our street jarred.

I'm not sure what to say about the notion of parking half 'n' half on sidewalk and street. It's goofy enough to have been conceived by the likes of John Rosenbarger, though overall, with certain caveats, Tallinn seems walker friendly, though seemingly less so for bicyclists.

Next: Thursday (Day Three), with a walk through two neighborhoods and a visit to the Museum of Occupations.

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