That One Time I Went to Tallinn

Estonia is one of those places on Earth where, despite the beautiful landscapes, mesmerising history and being reasonably accessible, nobody actually plans to go there – they just end up there. Of everyone I’ve met who has been to Estonia (which is a surprisingly high number), I’ve yet to meet somebody who said it was part of their plans from the start to go there. Their stories are always something along the lines of, “Well, I went to Russia for the World Cup and the place we were staying was about 20 minutes from Estonia, so we figured, ‘why not?’”

And so it was the case with me. I had planned a trip throughout Europe where, after Helsinki, I would fly to Warsaw and then to Berlin (this trip to Warsaw did not eventuate, as will be revealed later. Suspense!). About a month after the plan was all set and ready to go, I discovered a cruise that would take me from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where I could then spend a day in a city that still has its medieval walls protecting it. I figured, “why not?” and booked the cruise.

Why not indeed.

Tallinn peaking over its walls as I approached from the docks.

I arrived there on the 15th March 2020. In the preceding months, there was this disease going around Europe (didn’t you hear?). I was also blitzing my way through several countries, figuring I could return later to see the out-of-the-way sights later since I would be based in Berlin for several months (these plans were also laid to rest – rather dramatically, too). Governments had been putting up notices about runny noses and staying home if sick during this time, but by the 15th, governments were pulling out the big guns and shutting everything down; museums, concerts, public transport, flights, borders, you name it.

I woke up in Helsinki that morning to several messages from my family reporting the news. My plans had already been affected; Poland had shut its borders, so travelling to Warsaw was not going to happen. And if I couldn’t travel to Warsaw, I couldn’t travel therefrom to Berlin. My family urged me, quite reasonably, to get on the next flight to Berlin from Helsinki where at least I had months of guaranteed accomodation and a secure base of operations, plus several contacts in the country if things really hit the fan. I, quite predictably, checked if my ferry to Estonia was still happening. It was. Therefore, I told my family that I’d book the new Berlin flight after spending the day in Tallinn and headed down to the docks of Jätkäsaari, much to my family’s frustration (but they could hardly have expected anything else).

This tower is called “Fat Margaret” and that never fails to put a smile on my face.

The ride over was pleasant enough, only taking about an hour and a half. I did some reading (I was halfway through Living with Hitler, which is a great book compiling interviews from three of Hitler’s personal staff), observed the frosty Baltic Sea from the port windows and walked around the decks, which were sparsely populated (wonder why). But when we docked, I realised that I had been underestimating just how serious the government responses to this newfangled, mysterious disease were going to be. I had to line up and get blasted by machines checking my temperature (and God knows what else), poked and prodded by medical staff speaking a funny gibberish that sounded similar to the gibberish I was hearing in Helsinki and answering questions from a portly, no-nonsense Estonian government official. He gave me a funny look when I said I was a tourist, but it’s an offense to lie about that sort of thing – at least, I think it is. Look, lying is generally not the best course of action, especially when it’s in relation to entering another country.

Anyway, I passed the screening with flying colours and looked over at the towers rising above the Walls of Tallinn. Officially founded in 1154, this city has been a significant presence on the Baltic Sea. Humans had been in the area for thousands of years prior, but Vikings were among the first ‘organised’ groups to make settlements around the area. It became a major trading port in the Hanseatic League, which was a powerful commercial confederation in the 13th-15th centuries. The League had its own private army to protect the Baltic Sea merchants from pirates, although it did intervene in a number of wars throughout Europe. Oh, and Tallinn was originally named Reval, just so you know. The city has changed hands several times over the years, starting when the Danes staked the first claim (1219-1346), until the Teutonic Knights captured it (1346-1525), but the Kingdom of Livonia managed to get its turn (1525-1561) before Russia invaded, but Sweden got to the city first (1561-1709). Russia, however, had the last laugh (1709-1918).

The Medieval Walls and some towers from within the city.

Since then, apart from a brief spell of occupation under Germany (1918), Tallinn has served as the capital of the independent Republic of Estonia…at least, from 1918 to June 1940, when Estonia (alongside Latvia and Lithuania) was occupied by the Soviet Union (technically, they were invited to join, but with nearly half a million Red soldiers on their doorstep there wasn’t much of a choice, was there?). This was done in response to the absolute thrashing Europe was experiencing at the hands of the Nazi war machine. Starting from 1936, Nazi Germany had remilitarised the Rhineland, retaken Saarland, annexed Austria, annexed the Sudetenland (and invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia anyway), annexed Memel, invaded Poland (alongside the USSR), conquered Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and was about to enter Paris after absolutely routing the French and British military forces. In four years, they had almost conquered the entire continent.

The Soviet Union had not expected this outcome to happen; They expected the Nazis to be caught up in a messy war in the West, giving the Communists time to build up its own military might. See, it was no secret that the land up to the Volga River – which included such cities as Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Moscow, Stalingrad (Volgograd), Kiev, Minsk, and even Lenin’s birthplace, Ulyanovsk – was part of the Third Reich’s conceptual Lebensraum – the space that would be depopulated of Slavs, Jews and other ‘inferior races’, then repopulated by ‘superior’ Aryan Germans to allow the Third Reich to become self-sufficient. The Nazis were about to submit France and possibly Britain too. Once that happened, they would be turning their gaze to the vast tracts of Soviet Russia (Although Italy kept forcing the Germans to bail them out in their ill-conceived forays into places like North Africa and Greece).

Among other precautions, the USSR annexed the Baltic Republics to prevent the Germans from using them as a landing stage. Well, as it turns out, when the Nazis decided to finally invade (June 1941), they decimated the Red Army and captured Tallinn in August 1941, holding it until the Soviets recaptured it in 1944. And so, Estonia was a Soviet Republic until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. Since then, Tallinn has been the capital of the reestablished Republic of Estonia. Fun Fact: Estonia has two independence days: 24th February and 20th August, given they declared independence twice (1918 and 1991, respectively).

A view of some towers from outside the city.

What I always found fascinating is that these medieval walls have stood strong for hundreds of years. Many of these towers and walls managed to survive centuries of warfare, from bows and arrows to trebuchets to gunfire to aerial bombing, which only adds to their charm even more. These humble medieval walls have protected the old city centre remarkably and continue to do so, which cannot be said for most European cities.

I approached the ancient city and entered through one of the gates, half expecting a housecarl or something to run after me, begging me to prithee payeth the toll. Once inside, I was overwhelmed by the deafening silence, save for the bone-chilling wind that whipped by from the sea, carrying that distinctive briny waft with it. I shivered, not from the wind, but from the surreal situation I found myself in. Standing in the middle of a deserted street in the middle of the day in the middle of a medieval city was more than enough to make me question my reality. I felt like an interloper, like I was trespassing in a sacred place, so much so that my heart skipped a beat on the rare occasion a person walked by or a car drove past. I must say, seeing cars in a place like Old Tallinn is bizarre. You truly feel like you’ve gone back in time, what with the spires, cobblestone streets, and buildings older than your own nation’s founding everywhere you look (Remember, Australia only federated in 1901!), so seeing a car drive by would be like if you went back to Ancient Egypt and suddenly saw a plane fly overhead – absolutely mental.

Anyway, I ventured further into the city, conscious of how loud my footsteps were in the narrow alleyways. All the activities I had planned – museums, tours, churches – were cancelled. I had nothing else to do but buy some snacks from the few shops that were open, wander around aimlessly with solitude for company and wait for my ferry to return…in seven hours.

Where did everyone go?

I tried to make the most of my time there, but deserted streets are hardly welcoming. There were signs of life in the heart of the old city, which is a large square lined with shops and features the oldest town hall in Northern Europe, a beautiful gothic-style building straight from the 14th Century. But I’d be exaggerating if I said there were even fifty souls in a place that regularly had hundreds of people gathering for social events. The few people I spotted were definitely not in the mood for conversation, either scurrying back to their plague-free abodes or warily eating lunch, sitting as far away from the other patrons as possible. This was quite remarkable, even for the infamously introverted Estonians. You’d think that martial law had been declared or something, and it might as well have been. The tension and anxiety were so palpable it threatened to suffocate me, even more so than the cold (but I’m a rare breed of Australian – I like it when it’s cold!).

I still went to the museums on the off chance they were open – and no, they were not. I’m not naïve, just hopelessly optimistic (at least, that’s what I tell myself). Regardless, the entire city is a museum, and the mix of Germanic, Slavic and Estonian influence is fascinating. For example, you’ll see a church that looks like it was lifted straight out of Nuremberg, but when you walk outside you can see those dreary, drab apartment blocks that pop into your head as soon as someone says ‘Soviet Russia.’ Yet there’s a store selling marzipan sandwiched in between a sauna house and a store selling intricate woodwork, all adorned with signs that have way too many umlauts in them, that makes you realise just how unique this one city is.

The Tallinn City Hall, plus some of the few people I actually saw during my time in the city.

Growing paranoid, I got the feeling I was being watched from every window, which had every curtain drawn. Walking around a medieval-looking town in the midst of an outbreak of disease has a way of screwing with your head. So, I headed outside the and walked around the walls, taking in the nature that the Estonians are famous for loving. Hardly anyone was around, but it felt less intense; it was very cold and the wind was pretty hectic – plenty good reasons to stay inside. Even if there were no reports of a new plague, I don’t think many people would have ventured into these parks. Or maybe I’m telling myself that for reassurance. To see nobody in a nature setting can be comforting; to see a city practically deserted has me thinking I’m about to be ambushed by raiders from Fallout or something.

I checked my phone and discovered that, in rapid succession, nations were declaring emergencies, shutting down and preventing people from coming in. I still had two hours before my ferry took off for Helsinki, which would take another two hours to reach its destination, after which I would only get back to my accomodation after an hour. That would mean arriving back at nearly midnight, leaving very little time to book the next flight to Berlin – if there was a next flight to Berlin. It was at this moment I realised that I might have been an idiot.

A nice park – just the place for some respite.

After hanging around in a park for a while and doing my best to keep myself from panicking, I headed back to the ferry terminal and hung around, determined not to miss my ferry. I bought some chocolate and nervously munched on it while the ferry took its sweet time. I ended up eating the whole block, but I still wasn’t calm. Once on the ferry, I may have sucked down a couple pints of Põhjala to calm the nerves, which meant drunkenly stumbling back to my accomodation in the freezing cold. Fortunately, I did not forget to order the next flight to Berlin at 10.45AM the next day. As a rule of thumb, I should get to the airport two hours early, i.e. 8.45AM, which meant I would have to leave my accomodation by 7.45AM, so I had to get up at 7.00AM. I went to sleep at 1.00AM. It was when my alarm went off that morning, with my head swimming and my gut growling from a nutritious diet of chocolate and dark beer, that I realised I was definitely an idiot. Don’t worry, I got to Berlin just in time, only to encounter more significant problems once there. But that’s a story for another time…

Looking back, I do not regret my decision to go to Tallinn at all. I have an experience unlike any other I’ve had in my travels and the daunting atmosphere and exceptional circumstances are so extraordinary that I’ve never had anyone question the validity of my story – it’s too crazy to be the result of fibs. Plus, I’ve got the pictures to prove it. I’ve always found it regrettable that I wasn’t able to visit the museums or explore the city beyond the historic centre. Yet I never say never – I’m sure I’ll be back in the area soon enough and an opportunity will pop up to revisit Tallinn. And on that day, I’m certain I’ll shrug and think to myself, “Why not?”

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