YCAA Study Tour of Tallinn, Estonia; Part 1: the Old Town

By Jaanika Reinvald-Colley, YCAA (Class of 2014-15).

The three-day Tallinn study tour started on the evening of Friday 7 September when we met at the Pegasus restaurant, in the building formerly known as the Writers’ House, built in 1963 to fill a gap created in the bombing of Tallinn during WWII. This happened to coincide with Tallinn’s marathon celebrations and as a result the city centre was entirely packed with people.

Tallinn Old Town

Our first day in Tallinn was spent on getting to know the Old Town. We started the day on Vabaduse Square at 10 o’clock where we were welcomed by one of our guides, Sabina Kaukis, an MA Conservation Studies student from the Estonian Academy of Arts [EEA]. From Sabina we learned about the early history of Estonia and Tallinn.

Being a small country in a strategic location on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Estonian history is one of subjugation and serfdom. Starting with the Northern Crusades in the Middle Ages, Estonia became a battleground for centuries where Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Poland fought their many wars over controlling the important geographical position of the country as a gateway between East and West.

Tallinn was founded in the 10th Century, but only at the beginning of the 13th Century did the Danes establish it as a fortified city. In 1285, the city joined the Hanseatic League and became a junction for organized trade on the Baltic Sea. In 1346 the city was transferred to the Teutonic Order. After the collapse of the Teutonic Order, the city fell under Swedish rule in 1561 and finally became part of the Tsarist Russia in 1710 during the Great Northern War. It was Peter I who restored the ancestral privileges of the established German community in Tallinn. The architecture in the old town, both upper and lower, to a great extent stems from the medieval times, 13th-14th Century and represent the history of the rulers.

The ‘Tall Hermann’ tower (far right) as part of Toompea Castle, Tallinn, with the roof of the Parliament Building seen above the battlements. Source: Visit Estonia.

The Upper Town

Toompea, the upper town in Tallinn, has always been the administrative part of the country. The tallest tower of the original castle, the Tall Hermann, is used for the daily hoisting of the flag ceremony and forms a corner of the current parliament building. Opposite the parliament building is the Nevski Cathedral, the most highly decorated Orthodox Church in Tallinn. Unfortunately we did not have time to go and see the interior of the church as by then Toompea was inundated with cruise ship tourists. At the viewing platforms we saw the lower town, together with its red roofs, medieval church towers, narrow winding streets, public and burgher buildings.

Next stop was St Mary’s Cathedral (aka Dome Church), where we met Varje Ounapuu, a conservation student from the EAA, who showed us around the church and talked about the altarpiece conservation project that she had participated in. Made by the famous Estonian sculptor and carver, Christian Ackermann, the altarpiece is of particularly high value and various departments from the EAA were involved with the works.


The Lower Town

From the Dome Church we took the “Short Leg” down to the lower town, to St Nicholas Cathedral. Dr Anneli Randla took us around the former church. It was partially destroyed in Soviet bombing of Tallinn in WWII and has been since restored as part of the Art Museum of Estonia, mostly displaying ecclesiastical art from the Middle Ages.

Dr Anneli Randla (centre) explaining about the Hermann Rode altarpiece conservation project at St Nicholas Cathedral. Find out more about it here. Source: Jaanika Reinvald-Colley

After an extended lunch break we met again at 6pm for an evening walking tour of the lower town. Dr Riin Alatalu, the head of ICOMOS Estonia, showed us the medieval urban fabric of Tallinn, including the town wall, Town Hall, the oldest pharmacy in Estonia, merchants’ craftsmen’s guild halls, and the domestic architecture of the merchants’ houses. Winding in and out of buildings, at one point marching into a restaurant’s rest room to see the original well and marvel at the painted decoration on the wooden ceiling beams, we got a good feel for the building plots, many of which survive virtually intact from the 13th-14th Centuries.

Having absorbed the architecture of the ruling classes we were ready for the second day at the open air museum, to see how the Estonian peasants have lived through the ages.

Further write-ups of the study tour of Tallinn will follow in the coming weeks.

The YCAA would like to thank the numerous local ‘hosts’ in Tallinn who gave up their time to show YCAA alumni around the city and its heritage, alumni who attended the study tour, and especially Jaanika Reinvald-Colley who organised and facilitated the visit. 


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