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Let's Talk Tallinn: Walking the UNESCO Hanseatic League City Centre

July 10, 2012 at 3:02 PM | by | ()

Who goes to Estonia?! Well, our roaming correspondent John Walton does and, all this week, he'll be filling us in on what's up way up there in this world capital on the Baltic Sea.

Okay, so we're totally obsessed with the Hanseatic League, the 13th-17th century set of merchant guilds spread across northern Europe from Britain to Finland. If you know what you're looking for, you'll spot the signature Hanseatic architecture everywhere from Hull in England to Helsinki in Finland.

Oh look, here's some now!

Tallinn—called Reval back in the Hansa days—is a prime example of the Hanseatic style, with gorgeous buildings that remain (or have been renovated since the Soviet days) all across the wonderfully walkable old town. Join us on a tour!

Right, let's start with a bit of history. Part of what makes Tallinn so interesting from our Hansa history geek point of view is its changing ownership: when it joined the League it was owned by Denmark, but then it got sold to the Teutonic Order of Knights, who built much of the fortifications. Like this part of the old city wall.

The knights also fortified the castle/palace/hill-fort that is Toompea, the seat of modern Estonia's government. Since Toompea is a fairly self-contained area within the old city, and one of the most famous bits of Tallinn, we've skipped it on this tour.

The whole city then ended up in Swedish hands, from where modern history really begins. (For a really good potted guide to modern Estonian history, we once again recommend "The Singing Revolution," which is on Netflix, iTunes and elsewhere, ideal for your next flight.)

Let's start in the main square, looking at the Tallinn town hall, just down from the tourist information center. (They're super-helpful, BTW.)

The town hall itself looks rather like a church, right? It's that steep roof and tower that marks it as seriously Hanseatic. You can go round the hall and climb the tower, but take our advice and make sure you check what time the last entry is. Even in summertime, it's around 4pm or so.

Of course, if you fail to make it up there, you can always admire the building from the outside while sipping on a local beer (a seriously awesome local beer) at one of the many cafs in the square.

From there, head for the nearby Pha Vaimu kirik, or Holy Spirit Church, and don't miss the fantastic clock above the door as you go in. Keep the shape of the spire on the tower in your mind: it's classic Hanseatic stuff.

The stained glass inside is breathtaking, but our favorite bit of the church is the set of memorials to British sailors near the altar—including "Admiral of the Fleet, the Right Honourable Baron Rosslyn Erskine Wester-Wemyss," which is a candidate for the best name ever.

Just down the street and up through a fantastic park mixing old and new, you'll find the Niguliste kirik (St Nicholas' Church), which is now a museum. See that square tower with the distinctive spire on top? That's absolute classic Hanseatic church architecture and you'll see it all across the former Hansa towns.

Turn right at the (excellent) wine store, keeping the Estonian freedom monument on your right, and you'll arrive in the square that contains massive outdoor TV screens (showing the Euro 2012 football when we were there), and also the exceedingly yellow Jaani kirik (St John's Church).

Jaani kirik is where you're heading if you love singing as much as the Estonians do. Summer in particular sees Tallinn absolutely crammed with visiting choirs from around the world who appreciate the large, enthusiastic audiences in this song-loving nation. (In fact, some of our friends from Australia were singing in Tallinn the week after we left!) Stop by during the day to sneak into rehearsals if you're a music fan.

From Jaani kirik, take a wander northwards through the cobbled streets to Oleviste kirik (St Olaf's Church), Tallinn's tallest building and the tallest building in the world between 1549 and 1625. In fact, it's so tall that you can't really get it all in a camera shot.

Why so big? It used to be a navigation aid for—you guessed it!—the Hanseatic League's trading ships. During the daytime, it's a bright, bright white, but in the glorious long summer evenings it turns this incredible shade of golden in the sunset. At 10pm. Isn't latitude great?

Inside, you'd totally be forgiven for thinking that the church came from the Elves in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Tall arches, curved carved wood, flowers, and an incredible feeling of space...you knew that Tolkien developed his Elvish languages Sindarin and Quenya to sound like Finnish, which is a very close linguistic cousin to Estonian, right?

Tolkien nerd moment over, head north from Oleviste kirik to the walls of the city and the amazing rounded towers (which are, um, not entirely round. The city side of them is flat, for reasons that we don't entirely understand).

From here, you can hop on one of Tallinn's awesomely retro trams to head west, east or southeast, walk over to Balti jaam (the main Baltic train station in Tallinn) or—our personal favorite—skip the station and head to Balti jaama turg, the awesome local market selling everything from fresh vegetables to toys, Stalin clocks and old Soviet passports. It's about zero percent Hanseatic, but it's 100 percent awesome.

Oh, and speaking of the Hansa, one last fascinating fact: the name of Germany's largest airline "Lufthansa," keeps the Hansa alive. Since "Luft" means "air" in German, the airline's name means "Air League" or "Air Network." Awesome, huh?

[Photos: John Walton/Jaunted]

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