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Looking Down on Medieval Tallinn


One of the habits of my travels is to find a tower from which to look down on the sights (and sometimes lights) of a city, despite my occasional attack of jelly-legs if the view is a bit too breathtaking.


In Tallinn, Estonia, there are two key choices in the walled Old Town area, both church towers: St Olaf's (in title photo) and St Nicholas (just above). But the choice is skewed in favor of the slightly shorter St Nicholas by the fact that it now has an elevator to the viewing level, skipping 233 very steep steps.

P1330449P1330537P1330458The elevator and viewing platform, opened in early 2023

Tallinn's long history as a trading hub—it was the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League and a key strategic point for trade in the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea—has left it with plenty of other towers, too, connected to the walls which surround the city's Old Town to this day.


The most famous of the towers is called Kiek in de Kök, a large cannon tower that's part of a system of bastions and underground tunnels that are open to visit. The name means "peek in the kitchen," allegedly because troops in the tower could see into the homes around it.


St Nicholas and St Olaf's churches both date to the 13th century, with Olaf a little older; the area was only 'Christianized' in the early 13th century when it was conquered by Danes with Papal approval. From that time, it grew over the years, extending its walls and occasionally changing rulers.


The walls, which were largely finished by the 16th century, are visible nearly everywhere in the Old Town, with houses and more built up against them, and with towers and archways marking the points of entry and exit. Parts can be seen in the pictures just above.


The city's other border, besides the walls, was the sea, and both the old and new sections of the city face it. Tallinn mostly lived inside its wall until the 19th century, and its biggest growth came in the 20th century. The newer areas of the city are quite a contrast to Old Town!


The larger cross above is a monument to Estonia's 1918-20 War of Independence. Plans for it were made in the early 1920s and a law calling for its construction was passed in 1936, but World War II and Estonia's absorption in the Soviet Union meant that it wasn't erected until 2009. It's on the edge between old and new areas, and at the foot of the Kiek in de Kok bastion.


From the tower, you can see quite a variety of architectural styles in the Old Town, with most buildings dating to the 18th century and before, but with many modifications in the 19th. I stayed in an 18th century building modernized in the 19th and with an elevator installed in the 20th!


And, two more spectacular churches: the 13th century St Mary's Cathedral, the city's oldest and only survivor in its neighborhood of a 17th century fire, and the spectacular Alexander Nevsky cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church built in 1894 when Estonia was part of the Russian empire.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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