Šiauliai: A Place where Pilgrims Progress to and a Symbol of Lithuanian National Resistance

Travel

Although Lithuania is a small country, even by European standards, its a fair old drive from Vilnius in the south to Šiauliai, a distance of some 213km. Šiauliai (pronounced “shoo-láy”) is an industrial area in the north with the nickname, Saulės miestas, which means the “Sun City“. Driving along the main street of the town, Tilžės Gatvė, its clearly a small place but it looks fairly modern, if the Saulės Miestas shopping mall is anything to go by. We park the Mercedes near Resurrection Square and walked back to the plaza in Vilniaus G for a 150 minute reconnoiter of the town.

Modern public sculpture on Vilniaus ('Girl with Little pipe')
Modern public sculpture on Vilniaus (‘Girl with Little pipe’)
The focal point of the township is ‘Cockerel’ Clock Square, one of Šiauliai’s principal landmarks with its Lord Nelson-like monument, a high column. This is the spot in the town which locals tend to use as a meeting point. After observing the various human interactions in the Square, we moved down Vilniaus Gatvė which we discovered was a very long plaza, the busy hub of the city in fact with clothes stores, cafés, restaurants and fast food eateries in plentiful supply. Šiauliai is not a big centre of tourism, the core business for the tourist info centre is to promote tours of the nearby, magnetic Hill of Crosses. Other items of interest in the street include various statues and fountains dispersed here and there (of particular note are the Pelicans’ Fountain and the ‘Girl with a little pipe’).

Down the other end of Vilniaus street is the Šiauliai Markets which are “small potatoes” by Riga’s (Centrāltirgis) standards. I skirted past the cheap fruit and veg and found a clothing and luggage section where I managed to pick up a replacement bag for my broken one and a warm jacket for the inevitably cooler weather further north. Opposite the Vilniaus street markets is a large grassy square called Sukilėliu kalnelis (Rebels’ Hill), where a monument honours local martyrs executed in the failed 1863 Rebellion against Tsarist rule. The city of Šiauliai is nothing flash but its a decent stopover to grab some respite from several hours of non-stop highway driving.

Hill of Crosses I
Hill of Crosses I
After hurriedly picking up some lunch we returned to the vehicle and moved on to our real Šiauliai destination. The Hill of Crosses (Lt: Kryžiu Kalnas) is 12km north of Šiauliai. You turn off the A12 on to a road that arcs through flat, open land seemingly heading towards nothing in particular, and then suddenly there it is in the middle of nowhere, a small single building and parking lot which is the site’s entrance. Here, the administrative office has a ticket box and a toilet. An adjoining little pavilion is chock full of religious souvenirs, iconography and other devotional memorabilia.

Once inside the turnstiles, you still can’t see the religiously significant hill, there’s still is a surprisingly long walk along a winding path to get to the actual site. But when you get close to it, it is a bizarrely spectacular sight – albeit one a little disagreeable to secular minds and vampires alike! There is over 100,000 wooden and metal crosses, crucifixes and Christ on the Cross sculptures of all sizes and descriptions piled upon each other on the small hill, so many that they overflow down its sides, expanding the scope of the spectacle. So many crosses – it is of no wonder that Lithuanian people have a forté for Kryždirbystė (cross-crafting)! Despite determined efforts by the Soviet authorities to eradicate the collection of crosses, in fact even by eradicating the hill itself three times, the Hill of Crosses has survived as Lietuva’s national symbol of defiance to foreign oppression (be it German, the Teutonic Knights or Russian) and as the place of pilgrimage for devout Lithuanian Catholics.

Hill of Crosses II
Hill of Crosses II
As I was walking back to the exit a silver metallic sign on the path in front of the Hill got my attention: it listed a vast list of things (over 40 points) that you can’t do on the Hill … can’t walk dogs, can’t ride bikes, can’t light fires or make camp sites, can’t smoke, can’t play music or otherwise make audible noises, can’t beg for money, can’t damage the crosses/crucifixes or abscond with the ‘Valuables’, can’t cut down trees or bushes, can’t dig up the ground, can’t pollute the waterways, can’t “spread sectarian strife” (my favourite of the prohibitions!), can’t interfere with processions of pilgrims, and so on and on! However, the sign does stipulate, several times, that the prohibitions apply only to “natural persons” – presumably this means if you are a zombie, alien or artificially created cyberborg, you are free to do whatever you like on the Hill!

Riga III: a Patchwork of Lutheran Spires, Antipodean Bars & Hipster Cafés

Travel

Dome Basilica
Dome Basilica
We decided to spend our final day in Riga staying close to Centrs and the Old Town, leisurely checking out one or two of the places Martīns had suggested we investigate. One thing Riga has no in short measure is churches, so we decided to have a closer look at a couple of the more illustrious ones. The two we visited were on either side of Ratslaukums. The 13th century Gothic-style Pēterbaznīca (St Peter’s Cathedral) in Skārnu street boasts a spire that was once the highest in Medieval Europe. Unsurprisingly then, it offers the best views of Riga from its tower (€7 entry fee, 2015); Doma Baznīca (Riga Cathedral), a monster of a cathedral amongst Baltic churches, is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Riga with its charcoal-coloured spire and weathercock (undergoing a bit of a facelift at the time we were visiting). Doma Baznīca is also famous for its formidably proportioned organ which contains a staggering 6,768 pipes!

Lutheran spires across the Daugava
Lutheran spires across the Daugava
We looked around for a low-key place to have lunch, and found one that suitably qualified, the Queens Pub, just round the corner from St Peter’s Church in Kalku street. The Pub (trying obviously to appeal to the growing hordes of English tourists) was decked out to try to recreate the vibe of a typical English working class inn – lots of football paraphernalia (club banners and shirts), dart boards, etc. To maintain the mood I selected the most Sasanach thing on the menu, the traditional pie and ale. The ladies in our lunch group, ignoring the faux “Anglo-ness” of the Pub, opted for a drop of Latvijan wine (fascinatingly I discovered on this trip that Latvia is the most northerly place that vintners can successfully make wine!).

The 'overflow' markets
The ‘overflow’ markets
When visiting Riga, one trip to the Central Markets (Centrāltirgus) is insufficient to take in the enormity of the Markets’ scope, so we ventured back for a post-prandial exploration. Whilst walking to the location I noticed something a little odd about the city trams frequently passing by. Many of these government trams were driven by women, but that wasn’t what I found odd, rather it was that most of the female drivers didn’t have uniforms, but were wearing light, summer floral-patterned dresses, the type that they might don for a leisurely trip into town to do the family shopping!

Later on back in Skārnu iela we happened upon a bar that you wouldn’t expect to find in tiny Riga, deep in the north of the European continent. The Kiwi Bar was a surprise discovery, replete with a wide choice of Australian and New Zealand beers on tap. Run by an Aotearoan expat, there was the predictable cultural symbols and icons on display, rugby balls and jumpers and pictures on the walls referencing representatively NZ fauna (ruminant mammals and flightless birds). It’s probably about the only place in Latvia where you can enjoy a Speight’s or a James Squire whilst watching cricket on TV … aside that is, from the Aussie Pub two blocks away in Vałnu street!

After drinks and an Antipodean catch-up in the Kiwi Bar we strolled round looking for a good, authentically Latvian place to eat, doing a spot of window-shopping on the way. To those in the know and interested enough to care about these things, Riga and the Rīdzinieki apparently have a growing reputation for hipness. I do not believe that this enhanced fashionability has any correlation with the fact that Riga has in recent years become the “go-to” destination for English lads looking for a cheap buck’s party! Centring around the fashionably arty street Miera iela (Peace street) is Riga’s version of ‘Hipsterville’, the young hipsters with fedoras, casual check shirts and skintight leggings are proudly there for all to see – typically, sipping an artisanal latte at DAD Café. In a shop window I think I spotted what might be the “next wave” of Rīdzinieki hipster men’s fashions, a whole series of outlandish, faux “gangster-hip” safari suits, devoid of any restraint in either colour or design! My personal favourite was the “cocaine-boss” outfit, a garish number with a pattern of black background and green coca leaves which covers the unfortunate wearer from ankle to neck!

Around Vecrīga
Around Vecrīga
We had dinner in Arsenāla street in the Parliament district in a restorāns called appropriately enough Alus Arsenāls. This name in Latvijan means “beer arsenal” & the layout certainly had the appearance of a beer cellar. It was located in a basement with wall recesses with faux beer barrels protruding from them; an arched ceiling tapered on either side gave a slightly cramped feeling. An alternate perspective of this might call it ‘cosy’ (the restaurant’s website describes it as having a ‘democratic’ atmosphere). It had a good selection of Latvian beers and we shared the alus plate starter (a bit too salty for my taste). For the mains I opted for pork chops with mushroom sauce, Latvian-style which tasted OK. I thought I’d give a local dessert a go, choosing something called ‘Ambrose’, a doughy concoction consisting of rye bread & creamy berries (the Baltic staters are very keen on rye bread, the blacker the better for them!). Unfortunately this turned out to be quite bland and unappetising. Overall I thought the meal was a bit on the expensive side, but maybe in Riga it costs extra to get that “democratic’ atmosphere” they were talking about!

Riga II: From Hyperactive Mega-markets to Peaceful Parks

Travel

Underground pedestrian by-pass near the Markets
Underground pedestrian by-pass near the Markets
An attraction of Riga that no visitor should miss is Centrāltirgus (the Central Markets), the absolutely pulsating hub of the city. To get there from Ratslaukums you head south-east in the direction of Centrālā stacija (the central railway station). At Marijās iela pedestrians can cross the rail line via an underground tunnel. Look out for the colourful comic book murals on the tunnel walls (very Roy Lichtenstein style pop-art).

When you come up out of the underground, the tram lines lead you to the immense Centrāltirgus. The markets are made up of four mega-large hangars and an auxiliary building backing on to the Daugava River. The original idea of the markets when construction began in the 1920s was to use full Zeppelin hangars nearly 35m in height, but practical considerations saw the hangars scaled back to just over 20m high. The hangar designs incorporate an admixture of architectural forms – including touches of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Neo-classical.

Centrāltirgus
Centrāltirgus
The four hangars are each characterised by having their own distinct type of goods: one for meat, for fish, for dairy, and for produce and vegetable. Unsurprisingly lots of pungent odours pervade the air, eg, marinated cabbage and gherkins and of course, fish. Some of the more memorable market comestibles on sale include whole pig heads, Baltic eels and lampreys, and visitors can also sample local drinks (kefīr, Latvian kvass, etc), Latvian-style cheeses, cakes and breads, all reasonably-priced when compared to “the High Street”. This is where the ordinary Rīdzinieki come for their daily needs of animal proteins, fruit and veg, so its’ an ideal place for visitors to get a “grass roots” feel for what the locals like to consume.

What’s inside the big hangars is only part of the story. Rows and rows of stalls, spilling out from the hangars as it were, fill most of the outdoor space between each hangar. Stallholders sell souvenirs, CDs, electronic appliances, shoes, everything that comes under the broad heading of clothing, plus various other apparel. In early September each year there is a “Cinema on the Wall” screening held in the Vegetable pavilion. Along with Riga’s Old Town the Centrāltirgus is UNESCO World Heritage listed.

Pilsētas Kanals
Pilsētas Kanals
A canal jinks through the middle of Vecrīga (Old Riga), winding its way from the Osta Ferry Terminus, coming back to the Daugava near Centraltirgus. The canal, Pilsētas kanals as it is known, was originally created to provide a fortress moat for the medieval city (Old Riga being a walled city). When the fortified walls were torn down in the 19th century to extend the limits of the city, this action had the unintentional effect of creating the city canal which flows from the Daugava. Today the canal flows through some 12 hectares of city parkland. These tranquil channels of water and the surrounding strips of greenery are popular with people and ducks alike! Lots of visitors like to take boat trips down the canals (from Bastion Hill), passing under some 16 bridges (there is a 108 year-old German-built flat-top vessel still operating on the canals). Strewn alongside the canals (in the water as well) are a number of interesting modern sculptural pieces with a minimalist sailing boat motif. Both the river boat and the bank afford good views, especially of impressive buildings such as the formidably large, all-white Latvian National Opera building.

The canal-side parks (Bastion Hill, Kronvalda) are good places to relax and get a short respite from all the shopping, sightseeing and restaurants on offer in Riga. The location is quite central, a short walk from Vecrīga, so is easy to find. These two parks, comprising some 12 hectares of greenery, stretch along the Pilsētas kanals for some 3.5 km. Visitors can stroll the path parallel to the canal through beautifully manicured lawns with attractive garden settings shaded by lots of planted trees such as the Ginkgo biloba, Yellow Poplar and Kentucky coffeetree (Kronvalda Parks has over 100 species of foreign trees and shrubs). The parks contain a number of monuments and inscriptions to famous Latvians which are worth a browse.

Freedom Monument
Freedom Monument
Non-Latvian visitors might take a cursory interest in the very tall (42.7m) monument they can visit if they walk from Bastejkalns over the Brivivas street bridge. As large-scale monuments go, Freedom Monument (Brivibas Piemineklis) is an impressive work of sculpture, combining bas-relief and frieze style figures, and granite, travertine and copper materials. The monument with the feminine personification of liberty, Milda, atop, commemorates the Latvian War of Independence against Bolshevik Russia following WWI. At the base groups of patriotic Latvians are portrayed singing and fighting. Two guards of honour stand at attention at the foot of the monument and are subjected to stringent dress inspections by an khaki-clad soldier in somewhat overly-ceremonial fashion. Interesting footnote: monument guards must be at least 1.82 m tall and must remain entirely motionless during their stint of duty (good training to become a public impersonator of statues!).

The open square of Freedom Monument is encircled by the canal parklands. From Brivibas its only a short walk back across the canal bridge to Bastejkalns, or continuing along the canal pathway north, you will reach Kronvalda Parks. Both parks are popular with Rīdzinieki who like to spend hours either strolling through the tranquil gardens or relaxing near the canal. On a summer’s day refreshments are always close at hand, the area being well-stocked with mobile ice cream vendors who position their little carts strategically at all points of the parklands.

Bastejkalns Parks
Bastejkalns Parks

Riga I: Vecrīga According to the Rigamārtinš Guidebook

Travel

Ratslukums & Pilsētahalle
Ratslukums & Pilsētahalle
First full day in Latvia, we left our (Radisson Blu) Hotel on the unfashionable side of Riga and crossed the broad Daugava River on a windswept and ominously overcast morning for our guided city tour. We met our local guide, 27-year-old Mārtinš, at the Town Hall Square (Ratslaukums), a very central location which was the venue of the curiously named “House of Blackheads.” Standing in front of a statue of the Frankish warrior Roland in the Square, Mārtinš, gave us the low-down on Riga’s very extensive damage and subsequent rebirth after its clinical aerial bombardment during WWII. The old city was more or less totally rebuilt from the 1950s to the 1970s. They obviously did a real good job at reconstruction because many of the cathedrals and other buildings retain their authentically Medieval appearance.

Mārtinš is a part-time history tutor and part-time tour guide (everyone under 40 in Eastern Europe seems to have at least two jobs such is the general state of the economy). He filled us in on the House of the Blackheads, certainly one of the most elaborate and gorgeous buildings in Riga, the crème de la crème of Vecrīga. The original 14th century building was one of the many structures to succumb to the onslaught from both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, but the building with its wonderful Dutch Renaissance style twin facade was painstakingly rebuilt post-independence by the Latvians.

St Roland in front of House of Blackheads
St Roland in front of House of Blackheads
The building has a history going back to the powerful medieval Hanseatic League (encompassing both Riga and Tallinn), the Blackheads were an association of unmarried German merchants and shipowners and the House was a venue where apparently the bachelor boys liked to party – hard! The name’s origin is not certain but there may be a connection with St Mauritius (sometimes called St Maurice), an 3rd century Roman soldier of African origins who is the Blackheads’ patron saint. The facade has a kind of grand church-like triangular shape with a striking and colourful portal. It is located in a great position on the southern side of the Square (hard to miss!) facing the monument to St Roland previously mentioned. Presently, this grand Gothic building is officially home to the Latvian president.

Art Nouveau iela
Art Nouveau iela
The streetwise Mārtinš was definitely clued up on all things Riga, he seemed to know stacks of back stories and how the locals tend to think and act. He took us to so many places of interest whilst sharing valuable insights (with lots of witty asides thrown in). We also got a sampler of Riga’s architecture – the older wooden structures, fashionable Art Nouveau blocks and some old Soviet buildings, very grey, unattractive functionalist buildings … especially fitting this description is the Latvian Academy of Sciences with its echoes of the famous (infamous?) Soviet-built skyscraper, the Palace of Cultural and Science in Warsaw. Riga is known for its outstanding Art Nouveau architecture, many in the Jūgendstil (German ‘youth’ style). Some of the best examples are to be found in Alberta Isla, probably none better than the Eizenstein apartment building with the azure-tinted windows. Also very worthy of mention is the old KGB Building in Stabu iela.

Lutheran Church of Jesus
Lutheran Church of Jesus
Not far from the Academy of Sciences ‘eyesore’ Mārtinš took us to an interesting old church, The Lutheran Church of Jesus. What was special about this church was that it was an all-wood construction – in fact the biggest wooden building in Riga still surviving. When we got inside the church Mārtinš kneeled down to touch the nave floor (no, not that! … this was more of a secular gesture). He knocked very deliberately and firmly once on the wooden floor, producing a remarkably resonant reverberation right along the entire length of the nave! Just amazing acoustics!

Mārtinš concluded his highly polished presentation by showing us a few off-the-(tourist)-beaten-track spots where you can get away from the crowds and chill out, including a very nice canal-side garden park in the city. The intermittent rain we encountered didn’t manage to spoil our enjoyment of what was a very comprehensive and entertaining two-hour tour with masses of information and pointers on how to maximise one’s limited time in Riga. The accomplished Mārtinš said goodbye to us at the canal, signing off with an unorthodox but nonetheless very athletic aerial foot-clap that would have done justice to an adroit Baltic seal!

Tallinn IV: Kadriorg – Catherine’s Unwanted Palace

Travel

Kadri Loss
Kadri Loss
If you ever find yourself in Tallinn, feeling a bit jaded after traipsing round Vanalinn, Toompea, Kesklinn and all the other tourist traps in the central part of town, try looking a little further afield. For instance, there’s Kadriorg! Do yourself a favour and take the short tram or bus trip to Kadriorg (3.5km east of the Tallinn city centre) … especially if you are interested in seeing an 18th century Petrine Romanov palace that has touches of Versailles and Italian design about it. It’s not exactly Saint-Petersburg but it is certainly a pointer to what you should expect to find in that most western of Russian cities. The focal point of the suburb of Kadriorg (“Catherine’s Valley”) is an elegant, if small by Romanov standards, strawberry pink (green-roofed) palace. The palace (Est: Kadri Loss), is in a Baroque style, built by Peter the Great for Catherine I (not Catherine the Great but Peter the Great’s Empress, Catherine) as a summer palace. Unhappily the great Tsar died before it could be put to use, as a result Peter’s widow and thereafter Russia’s sole ruler showed no interest from that time on in wanting to live in it.

Kadriorg aed
Kadriorg aed
Currently the regal building is used to house the Kadriorgu Kunstimuuseum, a collection of predominantly Western and Russian art (€5.5 charge for entry (2015)). Kadri Palace has its own miniature version of a meticulously manicured Versaillesesque garden at the back. The surrounding parkland is vast, and it’s various trails are popular with cyclists and walkers alike. The parklands are attractive for visitors to stroll through whilst they brush up on who’s who in Estonian art history (the park has a series of sculptures of famous Estonian artists scattered around the grounds).

Swan pond, Kadriorg Park
Swan pond, Kadriorg Park
Other features of Kadriorg park include a Japanese garden, a canal with floral decorative bridges which bisects the park, and a monument (Russalka Memorial) by Estonian sculptor A Adamson. At the southern end of the parklands you can sit and relax with a picnic in a garden setting overlooking the majestic Swan Lake. The lake (or pond) is a beautiful, peaceful tree-lined pond with several little islands with domed pergolas. Close to the Swan pond is a bluish-grey and white rotunda which functions these days as the Park’s information point. Also check out the cute green mailbox across the road from the info point. Near the park entrance there is a kohvik-restoran with the distinctly German name Katherinethal.

Zhivago sisters dancing
Zhivago sisters dancing
That night, after returning from my excursion to Kadriorg, I rejoined the rest of our group in Town Hall square for a taste of Russian culture and cuisine (interestingly given the bitterness of the period of Soviet hegemony, ethnic Russians still account for over 36% of the city’s population). The place we chose was Kazatchok Restaurant in a nice location in the open space of the square. As the night and the dinner went on we were entertained by a series of dance routines by Russian dancers who donned several traditional, spectacularly colourful costumes. The dancing was very spirited, as befitting an “abundant fairytale”! The dancers were full of energetic leaps and bounds performed to the background music of predictable numbers like “Ra-Ra-Rasputin”!

Smirnoff waitress
Smirnoff waitress
Getting round to the dinner itself, the menu had a lot of options. No one was adventurous enough to try the ‘bear’ (as it turned out bear was out of season and thus unavailable in any case!). I didn’t like the sound of the boiled tongue much or the salted ‘surprises’ so I passed on the hunter’s menu and opted for the fish menu instead. To top a good night off, the establishment gave us all a shot of vodka on the house which we were encouraged to skol down in the spirit of Ruskiyzakazy! Good fun! Funnily enough, one of the waitress with a ridiculously huge red and green bow on her head bolted and hid when I took a photo of her. This was funny at the time but seemed strangely funny behaviour to me later because I found out that her sudden shyness at being snapped was rather at odds with the way she and her quaint Russian cultural outfit and big bright bow was brazenly splashed all over Kazatchok’s own website gallery in all its conspicuousness!

Tallinn III: Kesklinn’s Ports and Northern Wasteland

Travel

Linnahall & Linda Line port
Linnahall & Linda Line port
Most Tallinn visitors tend to flock to the Old Town and Toompea for the sum of their experiences of the Estonian capital. There are nonetheless other areas around the outskirts of this central section that are also worth a visit, if only to satisfy a curiosity about the less touristy parts of town. Sadama, Pohja and Kalamaja are three such sub-districts of North Tallinn. I happened upon these parts largely because our Kalasadama hotel is near them. Sadama (Estonian for ‘harbour’) is the port region of Tallinn, opening out on to the Gulf of Tallinn and the Baltic. Footnote: Tallinn’s harbour is a world-class one, when (inland) Moscow hosted the 1980 Olympic Games, Tallinn was chosen to stage the sailing events.

Close to the cruise ship and passenger vessel ports is the Sadamaturg (markets) which has stalls under the roof and outside all selling pretty much the same items – clothing, bags, ladies fashion, belts, caps, souvenirs, etc. Hardly anyone there when I visited, the stall-holders (95% women) aren’t particularly friendly but they seem to watch you pretty closely (not a great ambience conducive to relaxed shopping). You will find bargain buys at the markets but there are no better deals on offer than there is across the tramlines at Vanalinn. Obviously Sadama’s main customer target is the visitors who come off the boats & ferries from the Port (Terminal B is just behind the markets). The markets had the usual cut-price alcohol for sale, slabs of cheap Saku and A. De Coq beer, Vana Tallinn, whiskey, etc all over the shop.

Sadamaturg: arsenal
Sadamaturg: arsenal
One product I spotted for sale at Sadama Markets made me look twice with some measure of alarm. One of the outside stalls was displaying an armoury of handguns and rifles, sporting weapons of all types, hunting knifes, AK-47P air rifles, ZM20 pistols, & lots more. It was quite an arsenal, a paradise for Estonian recreational shooters no doubt! My slight sense of unease was not abated by the dubious-looking, tough dude manning the stall. After dark the whole area around Sadama takes on a bit of dodgy feel, there are several striptiis clubs and shady-looking nightclubs around and behind Sadama street. Strip clubs are apparently a trend on the rise in Tallinn (they must have been slow out of the blocks on this one!).

On the western side of the Sadama foreshore the terrain becomes even more grotty and rundown, with lots of abandoned businesses, burnt-out shells of old warehouses, aicraft hangars and broken glass strewn everywhere. Near the Linnahall ferry port there is the scarred remains of an enormous concrete structure, long abandoned, on the edge of the water. Tallinna Linnahall was a concert hall and sporting venue created for the 1980 Olympics, but what remains has been likened to an ancient Mayan ruin. The roof of the grey-hued old complex, highly defaced by graffiti, is now just a roost for seabirds and an out-of-the-way rendezvous point for local youth to hang out at. One hundred metres along the shoreline from the ferry port is the Tallinn fish markets (Kalaturg), a very small affair indeed, certainly nothing like Billingsgate!

Patarei Prison
Patarei Prison
Further to the west on the coast in Kalamaja district in a sparsely populated area is yet another abandoned complex of buildings. This is the site of a very large, former prison, which had all the earmarks of being abandoned – broken glass and tiles, graffiti, and the only residents appeared to the odd stray cat. When I checked it out later I was surprised to discover that Patarei Prison had only been closed as recently as 2004 after operating for 85 years! Guided tours of the complex, now a museum called Patarei vanglamuuseum, take place in summer when the prison’s beachfront café is open. The grim place, as expected of a former penitentiary, has an air of eeriness and foreboding about it, the Patarei operators describe it as “very dark (they advise visitors to bring a torch) and partly very dangerous” (piles of loose rubble and decaying rooms). Visiting this prison-fortress museum, remaining in a condition that has not been altered, cleaned up or sanitised in any way, is a fantastic opportunity for an unusual tourist experience – to observe close at hand the workings of a harsh Soviet-era place of incarceration.

Kalamaja
Kalamaja
We walked south through the streets of Kalamaja noting that there were ageing examples of the traditional, all-wooden houses around, especially in the less well-to-do parts of town (hence the original reason for the sub-district being called Kalamaja – meaning “fish house”). At Balti Jaam (Tallinn’s central train station) the Jaamaturg (part produce market and part ‘flea’ market) was getting underway for the day. The station markets had pre-used clothing and the usual stuff but if you have an eye for curios you might find the most interest in Balti Jaam in its old Soviet junk items, toys, weapon cartridge cases and badges. Definitely items for specialist collectors only!

Tallinn II: Toompea – the Upper and Even Older Town

Travel

Toompea Hill is the upper town, the most historic section of Tallinn (or Reval as it was originally called). It is even older than the section of Tallinn contiguous with it, Vanalinn (the Old Town). Ülemlinn (Upper Town) is the site of Tallinn’s first settlement by the Danish in 1219. Among the tourist hotspots are the Riigikogu (housed in Toompea Castle) and one of Tallinn’s most impressive kõrgumas (wall towers). Also worthy of a look on the Hill are its famous Russian Orthodox (Alexander Nevsky) Cathedral and Lutheran Cathedral (Toomkirik or Dome Church). What attracts visitors to Toompea in particular is the great views of the wider Tallinn. Toompea Hill sits on a limestone tableland 20-30 metres above the surrounding areas. Large numbers of tourists jostle for optimal position on the purpose-built Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms, to catch a view (and a photo or thirty) of the fantastic panoramic scenery.

Nevsky Cathedral
Nevsky Cathedral
The Nevsky Cathedral, a striking looking structure on the aptly named Cathedral Hill (AKA Toompea) opposite the city castle, is one of the first buildings you are likely to spot if you enter Tallinn from the south-west. It caught my eye straight away as we drove up Komandandi tee on the way to our hotel (a converted factory in Pohja). A closer inspection of the Nevsky church will reward the visitor with the sight of one of the best Russian Orthodox cathedrals outside of the Russian Federation (in fact the Nevsky Cathedral is a wonderful taste of what is to come if your plans include going on to visit Saint-Petersburg or Moscow at a later point). On the first day I visited the area, there was a souvenir stall seller dressed in medieval religious garb outside the church (darkly hooded, he looked a bit ominous and clandestine, like something you’d see emerging out of a darkened recess in the The Da Vinci Code). Monumental in appearance, the Nevsky Cathedral’s most distinctive external feature is the five, soaring, black onion domes. The Church, dating from the late Tsarist period, was not without controversy when completed in 1900, as it was built on a location that many Estonians believe was the gravesite of the legendary king, Kalev. The Cathedral has some 11 bells, the largest of which weighs 15 tons, large but not significantly so if you contrast it with the Kremlin’s phenomenal 202 ton Tsar Bell, but it is (unlike Tsar Bell) capable of being hung – and rung! Be prepared to queue if you want to look inside.

The Riigikogu
The Riigikogu
On the same square, a matter of metres from the building that is the apogee of Russian Orthodoxy in Estonia, is the building that embodies the sovereignty of the independent Estonian nation, Toompea Castle, which serves as the seat of parliament, the Riigikogu (literally the “state assembly” in Estonian). The structure is a large pink building (lending it the appearance of being cute but still imposing!), corner-posted at one end by Pikk Herman’s Tower, one of Tallinn’s most formidable, historic towers.

Interior of Toomkirik
Interior of Toomkirik
Tucked away behind the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral a short distance, you will see a quite different but equally significant old church. Toomkirik, or to give it its formal name, the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, is the oldest and most famous Lutheran church in the city, The two great city cathedrals are quite a contrast architecturally. From the outside the white Dome Church (Toomkirik) looks a little drained in colour, making a more subdued statement than the nearby domineering Nevsky Church. Inside St Mary’s though it is more visual stimulating despite it being a bit low on lighting. The highlight of the interior for me is the various Teutonic shields with their heraldic insignias and banners displayed on the walls.

The Patkuli vaateplatvorm is located on the western edge of Toompea hill. The spacious, tableland platform looks out on a sweeping vista of Tallinn which encapsulates the contrasting old and newer parts. The view from the platform ranges from Rocca al Mare, Balti Jaam terminus to Pelgulinn, Kalamaja (with its characteristic older wooden “fish houses”), the city ports and the Baltic, to the distant TV Tower (the highest ‘spire’ in Talinn). Immediately to the left of the viewing platform you will see the back of a government building, an elegant white, neo-classical building with a fine colonnade facade.

Patkuli platform
Patkuli platform
After getting your fill of the high views you may want to lope down the 157 steps of the winding Patkuli staircase to picturesque Toomparki below. Down below, the park is a terrific position to survey the western side of Toompea. The best views of the old wall are to be had from a number of vantage-points in both the western side parks (Schnelli, Toom, Falgi ōu) and the southern parks and gardens (Lindamägi, Hirve, Harju, Komandandi and Taani Kuninga). Taani Kuninga Aed (Danish King’s Garden) is interesting to visit because it’s another place in Ülemlinn (the Upper Town) which signifies an convergence of Tallinn history and mythology. Supposedly this is where the Danish flag fell from the sky in 1219 turning the tide of battle against the Estonians. Not really something worthy of memorialising if you were an Estonian nationalist I would have thought, but it is a nice spot with an attractive setting.