Some of the most beautiful cities in Europe have been the European Capitals of Culture and Tallinn is certainly no exception. Situated on the Baltic coast, it is a stone’s throw from Helsinki, Stockholm and St Petersburg yet is still teeming with its own charm and culture. The Old Town is a beautiful medieval settlement dating back to 1050 which has been granted the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site and the buildings there have been kept in pristine condition.
Interestingly, there is only one building in the Old Town in Tallinn that has not been given a fresh coat of paint and gentle restoration and because of that it sticks out like a sore thumb. It is the former headquarters of the KGB in Tallinn and the fact that the Estonians will do nothing with it is a reflection of their feeling towards that time in their turbulent 20th century history. Estonia suffered more than most countries as it was taken over by the Russian Empire then liberated for just twenty years before being taken over by the Soviet Union. Nazi storm troopers pushed the Red Army back in 1941 and this is the part that I found to be the most interesting.
As a German student I have taken much interest in the era of the Third Reich and all of the books and articles that I have read condemn the manner in which the Nazis governed the countries they occupied yet in Tallinn the feelings towards the Nazis were not the same. We visited the Occupation Museum in Tallinn with high hopes despite the fact this museum was barely mentioned in the guide book. There is a reason for this – the museum is rubbish. The information consists of 25 minute programmes played on six different televisions which have no seats for you to sit and watch, the exhibits are good but badly labelled and there are no leaflets or guides within the museum. Yet, the thing that most struck me about this museum was not its desperate need for a new curator but rather its glorification of the Nazis. If you went to this museum knowing little of Nazi occupations you would come away thinking they were a benevolent folk who treated the citizens impeccably and were sorely missed when they left. Clearly, this impression of the Nazis is defined by the Soviet occupations sandwiched on either side which were unbelievably savage and grim yet to portray the Nazis as the good guys? Simply inappropriate.
The Estonians don’t want to talk about the Russians or the fact that many of their people “sold out” to them which is the reason for their lack of interest in the KGB building. They see it as a symbol of the men, women and children who were deported because they were denounced by their fellow countrymen and they don’t want to confront this terrible past. I found myself asking if the museum was deliberately inaccessible to discourage tourists from delving too far into the past?
It surprised me how difficult it was to come across any information about the recent history of Estonia but the medieval history was fascinating and far more centralised in the museums. I would definitely recommend Kiek in de Kok (some delicious cheap cake in the cafe too) for an interactive tour of Tallinn’s history and the Linnamuuseum is also great for local history.
Estonian food is nothing special but worth a try once so check out Karja Kelder where you can have a main course and a large beer for €7 or less although beware of the music – traditional Estonian meets 80s funk. Scary stuff. Once you’ve braved that the best place to eat has to be African Kitchen where the food is delicious and the cocktails are fantastic – if a little un-pc (Sierra Leone was my favourite…).
All in all Tallinn is well worth a visit even if it is yet to come to terms with its staggering 20th century past. It’s by and large a cheap city too – you can eat cheaply and if you stay in the Old Town (which you definitely should!) then you won’t need to take transport anywhere. Enjoy!