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Estonia combines the best of then and now

Medieval Perfection and Modern Technology

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Published on: Wednesday, February 03, 2010

By Lew Toulmin

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is one of the hottest cruise and tour destinations to open up in the last decade.  I visited the town on a cruise aboard Princess Cruise’s vessel Star Princess, and was very impressed with the history of the town and its amazing new technologies – some of which are now more advanced that what we have back in the USA!

The Estonian people date back to the third millennium B.C.E., but Tallinn as it is seen today dates to the famous Hanseatic League, a medieval Baltic trading organization which flourished from the 13th to the 17th centuries A.D.  The town is the oldest capital in northern Europe, boasts a well-preserved town wall with 26 defensive towers, is one of the best preserved medieval cities in the world, and has many pedestrianized streets perfect for relaxed strolling. 

Inside the walls are the famous St. Catherine’s Monastery, dating to 1246, a 600-year-old gothic Town Hall, the world’s oldest functioning pharmacy, and the Olevisti Church, at 159 meters the highest structure in the world in the 16th century.  The state of preservation is fantastic, with atmospheric cobblestone streets, beautiful churches, numerous old houses, and of course those imposing city walls. 

Our typical half-day tour, purchased from Princess Cruises for $US 65 per person , began in the city port, located on an arm of the Gulf of Finland, about two miles from the city center, where the Star Princess was moored alongside a modern pier. 

The first stop on the tour was the interesting Singing Center three miles outside of town, where we learned some recent Estonian history.  Groaning under the Soviet yoke, in 1988 the Estonian people began singing traditional Estonian songs as a not-too-subtle message that they wanted Estonian not Soviet rule.  At the height of the Singing Revolution, 400,000 Estonians gathered at the Singing Center to raise their voices.  This was over one-third of the total population of the country and more than the 300,000 population of Tallinn!  Next, in 1989, the singing Estonians joined up with Latvians and Lithuanians to form a massive human chain stretching 320 miles, with over two million people.  Again the focus was protesting Soviet rule. The chain was written up in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest human chain in history.  Incredibly, these non-violent tactics worked, and in 1991 the three Baltic republics were freed.

Our tour then moved on to a walk through the upper part of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Toompea Castle, at the top of the hill, is where the Parliament, President and Cabinet of the now-free Estonia meet and debate public issues. 

Although housed in a perfectly preserved medieval building, the Cabinet operations are very technologically advanced.  Beginning in August 2000, the Estonian Cabinet implemented the world’s first “paperless Cabinet.”  No paper is allowed in the Cabinet chambers, and all operations – agenda-setting, public input, policy drafting, revision of Cabinet directives -- take place via wireless laptops.  Meetings that used to take 10 hours now are reportedly completed in 45 minutes.  Little Estonia has leapfrogged in development over many Western countries, and is more advanced than the US and many European countries in terms of its Internet usage, e-government penetration, and telecommunications and computer infrastructure. 

Beside the castle is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which dominates the skyline with its Russian-style domes.  It was built in 1894-1900 by Tsar Alexander III, as a symbol of Russian domination of Estonia.  Local legend has it that the cathedral was built over the grave of an Estonian hero, whose ghost cursed the building and its Russian builders, and the structure has suffered badly as a result.  Even architecture is highly politicized in the Baltics!

From the upper town we walked downhill through a small gate in a massive wall to the lower town.  Apparently the aristocrats in the middle ages, who inhabited the upper town, did not trust the merchants and the working class population of the lower town, and the two are still sealed off from each other, with only two narrow passages between the two sections.  

In the lower town we inspected the world’s oldest surviving pharmacy.  It was already on its third owner when it was first mentioned in surviving city records in 1422 – 70 years before Columbus discovered America.  In medieval times patients could buy mummy juice, local wine and burnt bees for treatment.  Today the pharmacy sells modern medicines, but also functions as a museum, displaying old medical instruments and other curiosities.

Next we wandered around the attractive Town Hall square, marveling at the many restaurants and antique shops, and admiring the Town Hall itself, dating from 1404.  Unusual antiques for sale included Soviet and Estonian military medals, and lovely Russian icons, some as old as 300 years.

We stopped in the Peppersack restaurant (dating to 1370) near the Town Hall, for an excellent snack of apple pastry.  The service was friendly and the menu, with its medieval-style names, such as Mansion’s Lord Contemplation (duck with pepper sauce) was intriguing. 

Just before we left the Old Town and headed for our bus to take us back to the Star Princess, we took a few minutes to bargain for some of the beautiful woolen shawls, sweaters and hats at one of the many stalls lining the city wall on Muurivahe street beside the main city gate.  All in all, Tallinn is a wonderful cruise and tour destination, and is one of those places where a short reconnaissance demands a much longer visit in the future.

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