Tales Of Tallinn And Tartu

Tales Of Tallinn And Tartu
A Techy Berlin Meets Medieval Mystery With A Soviet Hang-Up


“Estonia braids history, nature and folklore into harmonious symphony…to wander through Estonia is to embark on a journey where dreams and reality merge; where the invisible threads of the universe are woven into the fabric of existence, where every lake echoes reflections of queer creatures, and the forest is soiled with forgotten footprints. The separation between the mortal realm and the supernatural is thinly veiled, allowing glimpses into a world of fairies, elves, and spirits that traverse these ethereal planes” – ChatGPT



Tallinn: Midsommar

Danse Macabre: Dance of Death

In a poetic twist of fate, only a 25ft long fragment of the Tallinn Dance of Death painting has survived the centuries – the original is thought to have been almost 100 ft long and included about 50 figures.

A preacher in the pulpit introduces the dance to the tune of Death playing the bagpipes, while carrying a coffin. A dialogue between Death and other characters including – Pope, Emperor, Empress, Cardinal, and King – is presented as a band of text below the figures.

The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, was a common theme in medieval art. It depicts the universality of death and challenges viewers to contemplate the transience of life. The morbid artwork was particularly prominent during the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century.

Artworks of this genre stress equality in the face of death. Though people are lined up according to their social status – the wealthy toward the front, the poor toward the back – they all share in the same skeletal disco.

The first known mention of the Tallinn Dance of Death painting goes back to 1603. It is attributed to Bernt Notke, one of the best-known artists in Northern Europe during the Late Middle Ages. It’s recorded that such a painting was commissioned in the late 15th century from the workshop of Notke, though the commissioner is unknown.

It is also not known who paid for the painting in Tallinn and where it was initially located. In the mid-17th century, the artwork was located in the chapel of St Anthony of St Nicholas’ Church. Notke painted work on the same topic for St Mary’s Church in Lübeck, but this was destroyed in 1942.

Today the painting is displayed in St. Nicholas’ Church, which contains the Niguliste Museum, a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia, where it is a main attraction. You can also see the deathly pop modernism version of the painting – complete with VR headsets and selfie sticks – over at the PoCo Exhibition.


Sangha Meditation: Bodhi Monastery

Directly opposite St. Nicholas’ Church are a cosy number of flats sitting right above the Estonian Theravada Sangha Monastery. It’s a surreal experience to wake up here and peer over the balcony to the sight of a modern medieval procession. Each night the Monastery hosts a free meditation from 6-8pm. You’ll be warmly welcomed for tea, before an hour of straight-backed introspection, and with their guidance, the hour goes surprisingly quickly.


Lama Rama: The Ichthus Gallery

Hidden within the cellars beneath the medieval Saint Catherine’s Dominican Monastery, ancient underground rooms hold original works of art – listed for sale by the the man who currently rents the space, an artist named Aleksandr Savchenkov.  The artist is usually in the small gallery, called Ichthus Art Gallery, constructing new pieces while the occasional visitor mills about to a muted soundtrack of Latin chants.


Deep Dives: Submerged Soviet Prison

Surprisingly beautiful on a starry night – this Soviet prison is now a popular diving spot. When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the Soviets moved out and many of their institutions fell, including the labour prison at Rummu. Both the prison and the quarry were abandoned in the changeover.

Today, some of the former prison can still be seen on land, as parts of the structure stick out from the crystal clear lake waters. It is open during summer and hosts an adventure centre with an entrance fee of 3€. Different activities such as snorkeling, paddleboarding, and canoeing are popular with locals and tourists.


Bohemian Fleas: Telliskivi’s Creative City

Estonia’s largest creative city is a vibrant bohemian hub located within a former industrial complex. Each individual business is at liberty to design its space as it sees fit. The eclectic array of mismatched décor creates a vibrant atmosphere.

On Saturdays, Telliskivi hosts the biggest flea market in Tallinn, where you can spend hours browsing through selections of artwork, antiques, and oddities. There’s also a massive annual food festival that draws in thousands of people. Telliskivi allowed Tallinn’s free spirits to reclaim a neglected part of their city, while breathing new life into a drab former factory complex which popped up around the old Baltic Railway tracks.

The Fotografiska is a contemporary museum of photography, art and culture. It has a lovely restaurant and is near plenty of Headshops and sweet spots for bird feeding scenes straight out of Pocahontas. You should also pop by Rohe for savoury vegan pancakes and guilt-free golden nuggets.


Ye Olde Hansa: Stalking Sigmund Freud

A favourite with tourists searching for a true medieval feast, Ye Olde Hansa is one of the few places you can find ‘authentic’ Estonian food in Tallinn’s Old Town. Wet the appetite with some Monk’s Bride Schanpps and expect flickering candle lit lunches or dinners, with RuneScape regalia offering pristine service fit for ‘my lord’. Other recommendations for lovers of instagram aesthetics and gimmicky themes are The Gallery – selling ethereal artworks from local artists alongside Klimt cocktails, Stalker – an art deco bar with a hint of Illuminati paranoia, Sigmund Freud – serving dark and stormy brews of distilled ‘Van Gogh’s Ear’ psychosis, and Rukis or Dopamyne Matcha Bar – for sweeter and greener afternoons.


Kumu Gallery: Estonian Coffee

The only place that seems to sell ‘Estonian Coffee’ (a flat white with a shot of vodka), the Kumu Art Museum is one of the largest museums in Northern Europe – becoming an incubator for new ideas from domestic and foreign artists. It predominantly houses classical Estonian and Soviet spectacles.

“Kumu” is a stylised portmanteau abbreviation of the Estonian words kunsti muuseum (“museum of art”) – but it also signifies a ‘hum’ of noise, as illustrated in one of the top floors of the gallery, which houses a thrum of talking figure heads from the past.


What’s Cooking: Burning Books

This free museum is building a collection of books that are banned, censored or burnt around the world. Located off the picturesque streets of Tallinn’s Old Town, this non-profit presents each exhibit together with an explanation of why a certain publication has caught the eye of the censors – with the more controversial examples, like The Anarchist Cookbook, stored under the counter and produced on demand.

The owner of the museum is a connoisseur of the banned, and a passionate freedom of speech advocate, who will happily chat you through the many stories behind the books. And if you are feeling extra mischievous, you can even purchase a banned book to take home in the museum shop – or just a pair of very cool socks with a museum logo. The museum is also open to donations, should you happen to have a banned book to hand.


Unicorn Horns: Reaping Raeapteek

Opposite Tallinn’s Town Hall is the Raeapteek – considered the oldest operating pharmacy in Europe, as well as the oldest commercial establishment in the city. According to the earliest records available, it had already had its third owner by 1422, meaning it had opened years prior.

Back in the Middle Ages, the pharmacy sold a wide variety of medicine and potions. Its offerings included mummy juice, burnt bees, earthworms, snakeskin, and even unicorn horn powder, not to mention sundry kinds of herbs and alcohol. Townsfolk came to Raeapteek not only to buy medicine, but also to seek out treatment advice and spiritual assistance.

It was also where people gathered to chat over a cup of tea or a glass of claret, hearing news and passing them on to others, similar to today’s cafés. It is reported that important meetings of the town were often held here, too. Many other goods became available in later years, such as candy, tobacco, ink, playing cards, gunpowder, salt, spices and chocolate coated marzipan to rival Pierre Chocolaterie.

Today, the Raeapteek sells modern medicine on its first floor, as well as claret and trinkets, while running a small museum of historical medical instruments and other curiosities.


Romantic Reputations: Kissing Hill

It’s now not clear if this park, also known as Viru Gate Park, is called “kissing hill” because of the two life-sized sculptures of embracing nude couples that adorn the park, or whether the sculptures were commissioned because the park had already established its name.

It is based on an earthwork and two associated (much earlier) gate towers that were incorporated into part of the Bremen Bastion. This was an unfinished part of Tallinn’s defensive infrastructure that was started in 1686 and never completed, but converted to a public park in 1897. It was the last of a series of bastions constructed in Tallinn when the city walls were recognized as being unsuitable to stand up to artillery (several of the ones that were completed are still extant to the North and West of the old town).

Both of the iconic statues were made by a local artist, Tauno Kangro, in 2007. The standing one is called The Moment Before the Kiss and the kneeling one is The Moment After the Kiss. The northern (modern) retaining wall has alcoves that are occupied by flower sellers, which offer a very colorful sight and an amazing aroma. Underneath the hill, entered by a hole in the western retaining wall, is a lively bar.


Elamus Spa: Therme Wien

Elamus Spa is located near Rocca Al Mare, and provides a calming child-free experience in their 21+ spa. With indoor and outdoor pools, cocktail bar, and a huge range of saunas, you are welcome to spend all day here for just £25. Everything you need is provided, and head over earlier to have it all to yourself!


Echo Chambers: Concrete Cromatico

This set of concrete chambers resonates according to different notes of octaves. “Cromatico” is a sculptural visualisation of the chromatic (“well-tempered”) musical scale, which has dominated Western music for nearly 300 years.

It consists of 12 concrete chambers, all of which together represent notes of the piano for one octave. The visual view also represents the black and white keys of a piano. Like a piano, each key on the monument, or the chamber inside the structure, has its own pitch. For each sound, the corresponding note on the ceiling of the chamber is between F and E. This way, visitors can see how the room should resonate when they make a sound inside.

The structure is composed of concrete and is 30 cubic meters in size. The dimensions of the chamber are taken from human proportions. The lowest chamber is note E (164 Hz) and the highest is note F (88 Hz). “Cromatico” helps visitors feel how the surrounding environment echoes, depending on the pitch and size of the room.

The location of the sculpture is also symbolic. It’s found on the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, Lauluväljak – an outdoor venue for the local Estonian Song Festival and other concerts. During the local song festival, the area accommodates about 100,000 visitors and the performer’s sector can hold over 15,000 singers.

“Cromatico” is the biggest musical or sound sculpture created by artist Lukas Kühne. He has also created a set of concrete rooms in Iceland, Tvísöngur to represent a special Icelandic singing tradition.



Tartu: Tatooine

Tartu’s Toome: Spheres of Influence

Founded in 1802, the Old Observatory of Tartu University was built on on Toome Hill, when the university reopened after its hiatus in the 18th century.

This venerable building holds historical importance, not only for being Estonia’s oldest and largest astronomical observatory, but also for housing the first point in the Struve Geodetic Arc, a series of survey triangulations that mark the first accurate measuring of a meridian. A scientific undertaking of colossal proportions, the Arc’s aim was to determine the exact size and shape of Earth.

As early as the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton proposed that idea that our planet might not be a perfect sphere, that it is rather an ellipsoid slightly squashed at the poles. This curious effect is a result of interplay between gravitational forces and the Earth’s spin. Early expeditions to Lapland and Peru confirmed initial suspicions.

Named after Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, the Struve Geodetic Arc is a series of points surveyed between 1816 and 1855 that stretch for over 2,820 kilometers from the tip of Norway to the shores of the Black Sea along the meridian that passes through the city of Tartu. When completed, the Arc comprised 258 main triangles and 265 geodetic points. Only 34 points survive to this day. The main points are marked by drilled holes in rocks, iron crosses, commemorative plaques, and obelisks.

This experiment was by far the greatest geodetic survey in its day. It results had great repercussions on geography, geodetic measurements, cartography, and other related fields. It permitted the development of precise modern topographic maps. The Struve Geodetic Arc produced measurements of remarkable accuracy and some remained in use well into the second half of the 20th century. The Struve Geodetic Arc is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Champagne Showers: Karl Ernst von Baer

Karl Ernst von Baer is one of Estonia’s most famous scientists, considered to be the “father of embryology.” On the 10th anniversary of his death, a monument was erected in a park in Tartu, the city where he received his university education and spent his final years.

Every April 30, the local medical students now partake in a strange ritual, gathering at the monument to dump champagne on his head, in an act of “cleansing”. In addition to this “shower,” the students also adorn the statue with a necktie.

When exactly this tradition started is difficult to tell, but from 1988 onward, the Estonian Students’ Society has led the effort. The motivation behind this tradition is also slightly unclear. The most accepted explanation is that the champagne shower is meant to demonstrate improvements in local Estonian’s hygiene habits. Von Baer wrote his dissertation about the endemic diseases of Estonian people – and one of his conclusions was that the living conditions and health habits of the lower classes needed to be improved.

A Walpurgis Night student festival is held on the same evening, with a procession starting from the town hall and moving towards the statue – where designated students have the honour of doing the washing…


Karzer Clink: Tartu’s Student Jail

Troublesome students were detained in this tiny graffiti-covered jail. The University of Tartu is the highest-ranked university in the Baltic states (according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings), and the only one to appear on the list of the top 500 universities in the world. Not all of its students have been upstanding citizens though, as this vandalised little room high up in the rafters of the university’s main building colourfully demonstrates.

For decades, the university has supplied Estonia with its establishment: 40% of current representatives in the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament, attended the university, as did 87 percent of practicing attorneys, and an astonishing 99 percent of Estonian doctors – not to mention every single judge practicing in the country. But that doesn’t mean the university hasn’t seen its fair share of troublemakers.

This student lock-up, originally one of five, was built in 1802 to provide correction to those who “had offended public morality and the code of student conduct”. Such offences against morality could range from, at the lower end, unpaid debts or hiding one’s name or social class (punishable with one day’s imprisonment) to duelling, which received the maximum penalty of three weeks. The longest case on record was of a student locked up for four months for gouging out a fellow student’s eye during a duel in a tavern.

But it would be wrong to assume that all of those locked up emerged repentant and eager to make amends to society: among the texts scrawled on the wall, almost all in Latin or German (the latter was the language of instruction until 1919, when the university switched to Estonian), you can find lines like: “The plan of creation has one thing not upright/That we cannot drink in sleep at night” and “What a blessing are wine and girls/Nota bene! They go together splendidly!”

A fire in 1965 gutted much of the university building and destroyed four of the five original lock-ups. The one that remains has undergone considerable renovation. But it saw little use in the 20th century, with one significant exception. The Estonian poet Hannes Varblane, while a student at the university in the early 1970s, volunteered to be locked up there as part of a deal to escape being kicked out of the university. He had a poor attendance record and was under threat of expulsion, but promised he would study while imprisoned.

Today you can visit the lock-up as part of a tour offered by the University of Tartu Art Museum, the tour is 6 euros, which will also get you access to the museum’s collection of art and sculpture.


Tartu Art Museum: And Students Union

Stop by the Tartu Art Student’s Union for an insight into some rebellious minds, before heading over to the Tartmus, who hosted a fascinating exhibition on ‘outsider art’ and the collections of Hans Prinzhorn and Emil Kraepelin.



Wild Estonia

Famous Floods: Tuhala’s Well Witches

This disappearing geyser has been attributed to witchcraft, but really it’s all about rainfall. In the small village of Tuhala, the Witch’s Well is an example of what is known as a “karst spring.” The opening from which the spring issues is located over an underground river, which is normally located far enough underground that it isn’t a problem. But after extremely heavy rains, the river tends to swell up and issue forth from the well, completely flooding the surrounding area. The geyser effect can last for days, making for a major disaster for those effected by the flooding.

In the past, this pandemonium was not seen as simply an unfortunate natural occurrence, but was blamed on those perennial villains – witches. According to the local lore, witches would gather down in the well and lash eachother with branches. This pagan reverie was thought to cause the catastrophic flooding that came periodically came from the well. The well does not flood each time it rains, just occasionally. It is often years between each flooding, so it is a major attraction when it does occur.


Baltic Bats: Piusa’s Sonorous Sand Caves

Having made their home in the man-made passages since the 1950s, the size of this protected bat house has swelled to become the largest bat colony in all of the Baltic States. Counted at a remarkable 3000 bats in 1999, five different species of bats have flourished in the underground world, causing many scientists to come to Estonia to study them. Although the caves can be explored, visitors are warned to stay on marked paths only to avoid injury in the delicate caves, and to not stir up the flying mammals.


Palasi’s Paddington: Beware The Bear

Two well-hidden huts in the forests of Alutaguse (Palasi) let animal lovers spend the night among the predators of the forest; Featuring bunk beds that provide tired wildlife watchers with a chance to doze off to the sounds of nature, as well as special hatches which let photographers snap photos from the safety of shelter.

Even if you don’t spot a brown bear, there’s still a good chance you’ll see another type of animal; Raccoon dogs, wolves, lynx, elk, foxes, and many different types of bird call the forest home. They’ve also been known to wander by the hides to the delight of the humans concealed within – but catching a glimpse of a wolf or lynx is a truly rare treat.