High-Tallinn it in Estonia

HARD HISTORY: Tallinn’s architecture evolved to fight invasion.

HARD HISTORY: Tallinn’s architecture evolved to fight invasion. 

Tallinn wasn't on my itinerary originally. In fact, I'd never even heard of the place. But serendipity soon changed that. Flying out, I started chatting with the stranger beside me about one of my other destinations, Helsinki. He suggested I take the two-hour ferry from there, across the Gulf of Finland, and spend a day in Estonia's capital.

Tallinn, he said, was a must-see. A medieval, walled city, the Old Town is more than eight centuries old and, with its twisting cobbled lanes, guard towers and Gothic spires, it is like stepping into a fairytale. He wasn't kidding.

My friend and I like it so much our one-night stay becomes two. We don't see any of modern Tallinn, either, finding plenty in the picturesque historic sector to keep us entertained.

History hasn't been kind to the city, however. Its location as a significant trading point between east and west appealed to multiple invaders over the centuries - the Danes, Swedes, Russians, Nazis, the Russians again, have all taken control.

"We've had many conquerors," Carol tells us one evening as we explore the glowing lamp-lit town as part of her walking Ghost Tour.

As a result, the architecture is defensive. Starting in the 13th century, the inhabitants built a system of high walls, guard towers and gates. By the 16th century, Tallinn was one of the most fortified cities in northern Europe, complete with a network of secret, underground tunnels. These we can explore, descending into the cold, claustrophobic confines of the Bastion Tunnels for another tour. The limestone walls of the tunnel are four metres thick, we're told.

Museum Kiek in de Kok is located in the six-storey cannon tower. Of the original 46 towers about half remain, and so does 1.9 kilometres of the wall. The museum is a testament to the brutality of the Middle Ages, with various weapons and torture devices on display.

Carol had given us plenty of grisly detail about the violent history of Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square), previously the scene of public executions. Surrounded by merchant houses, No 11 is still home to the Raeapteek, a pharmacy that has been trading there since the 15th century, making it one of the oldest in that part of the world. The medieval theme continues in several of the restaurants nearby.

Olde Hansa, its alfresco dining section complete with crenellated awnings, serves up "historically authentic" cuisine. Bear, elk, wild boar and rabbit are all on the menu; beer is served in heavy earthenware steins; and staff are all in costumes. "Here are some weapons for your food," they say when serving meals.

A couple of doors down is Peppersack. Similarly themed, it stages a theatrical sword fight at 8 o'clock every night, providing hammed-up, over-the-top fun as we dine.

Estonia's gift to the world has been the invention of Skype, but sitting beside Ewan on that flight was also a gift.

Had it not been for that, I may never have enjoyed the pleasure of the delightful Tallinn.

Sunday Star Times