Thursday, 14 July 2016

Tallinn: the Old Town

Town Hall Square

Here we are in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I was surprised to discover that until Estonia became independent in 1918, after centuries of rule by the Teutonic knights, Danes, Swedes and Russians, it was known as Reval. Estonian is the smallest of the Baltic states by area (17, 500 square miles) and population (1.3 m). A third of the population live in Tallinn.

This walk focuses on the interior of the Old Town - the walls are described in a separate post. We start our exploration in the buzzing Town Hall square, lined with restaurants and bars. The Town Hall itself dates from 1404 and looks rather like an Italian one with its slender tower and gothic arches.

On the facade there are a pair of splendid dragon heads which presumably take away rain water from the roof. Happily we didn't see them in action.

We went through a small alley to emerge onto Pikk, one of Tallinn's most interesting streets. Directly opposite was the Great Guild Hall, constructed in 1417. It now houses a branch of the Estonian History Museum.

On the left is the Holy Spirit church with this beautiful clock on its wall.

We turn right along Pikk and almost immediately are delighted to find a pair of wonderfully restored art nouveau buildings. This one dates from 1910.

The second, on a corner, is even more beautifully coloured and decorated and dates from 1908-09.

An entertaining plaque on the side gives details of those involved .

This is the view further along Pikk looking back. On the left the first yellow building is another Guild building, the House of the Blackheads. We saw its counterpart in Riga,

At the end of Pikk we passed the Olaviste church (church of St Olav) with its tall spire and then saw the Three Sisters, three merchants' houses of 1362, complete with upper storey warehouses and hoists. They have now been converted into a luxury hotel.

We made our way along Lai and went through the Pikk Jalg Gate to climb the steep cobbled street to reach Toompea Hill. Several artists were hard at work on the right hand side.

At the top we turned right to see the Knights' House. It was built in 1848 as the headquarters of the Knighthood, the local aristocracy. I found that rather a surprising concept!

At right angles to it is the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, originally built in wood by the Danes in 1240, but rebuilt in the 14th century.

There were some nice views of the old town from the Patkuli viewing platform, but I was especially taken by the lovely floral decoration on the eaves of this house.

Toompea Hill is also home to the Prime Minister's residence and to the Estonian Parliament. Opposite Parliament is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a neo-Byzantine structure of 1894-1900.

We headed down to the Old Town again to end our tour with a visit to the Niguliste church (the church of St Nicholas). This 15th century building is now a fine museum of religious art.

The magnificent altarpiece of the High Altar of the church was commissioned from Hermen Rode of Lubeck and completed 1478-1481. It is thought to have been financed by the Great Guild and the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, who headquarters we passed earlier.

But the real highlight is the frieze of the Danse Macabre painted on canvas by Bernt Notke (1440-1509). An earlier version by the same artist in his home town of Lubeck was destroyed during the second world war. Each figure is depicted in his or her earthly glory and then as a skeleton, offering a reminder the ubiquity and inevitability of death and the need to be prepared at all times.

It is then but a short distance along Harju back to Town Hall Square.

Conditions: warm and sunny.

Distance: about three miles.

Rating: five stars.

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