The first travel companion you meet as soon as you land in the small airport with a friendly atmosphere in the Estonian capital grabs you and never gives up. It fills your eyes 18-20 hours a day and does not intend to let you sleep. Yes, for the light – which in summer avenges itself on the winter darkness, which seems eternal – envelops Tallinn like a cloak of rhinestones: it makes the Baltic Sea sparkle, the sharp roofs of the buildings of the old city, the outdoor tables. ‘open in the colorful Rottermann, the murals in Telliskivi, the two-masted boats in the harbor of Noblesser, the seaplane harbor with its wooden hangars (which hide advanced maritime and virtual reality museums) and even glimpses of the buildings destroyed by World War II bombs. It is a full, penetrating, white light like non-nights that it brings along with an insomnia that multiplies the time to look around. And collect unexpected suggestions. A long weekend is enough to get an idea.
Tallinn is small (just under 500,000 inhabitants), like Estonia – one million and 300,000 people on a larger territory than Denmark and Switzerland – but since August 20, 1991 (the day of its independence from the former USSR, while its entry into in the European Union and NATO dating back to 2004) has evolved so rapidly that it is considered Europe’s Silicon Valley. And the encounter with evolution comes as soon as you arrive, if you can say it: his name is Clevon 1 (from Cleveron Mobility) is an autonomous vehicle designed to deliver everything: packages and various equipment. The Estonian robot has been driving around Tallinn for a little over a week (it is the first city in Europe to experiment) and does not miss a beat: it has very intelligent sensors, if you place yourself in front of it, it does not invest, and above all, it has a super tech heart, which takes orders from an app, and an organic call. Correct to centimeters, as it should be in times of energy rehabilitation. In short, it has some effect. And in Tallinn, it will be the first of a long series.
Under the sky threatening the rain, the huge gray semicircular building, Patarei Merekindlus, the former nineteenth-century naval fortress built by Tsar Nicholas I, was then used as the barracks and was (from the 1920s to the early 2000s) the giant the prison of the battered city. Here, both Nazi and Soviet generals have imprisoned thousands of men for decades: ordinary criminals, Jews deported from the rest of Europe, prisoners of war, dissidents from the Stalinist regime. A tortured humanity that has suffered in the cells is now showing the exhibition entitled “Communism is a Prison”. The visit is a must. For here in front of the Baltic Sea, in the Kalamaja district, the discussed recovery project (advanced in 2018 by the Ministry of Culture) after many years of neglect and bitter memories has begun to materialize, which should be completed in 2026 and cost over 100 thousand EUR. The plan allows for the rebuilding of the entire district with hotels, shops, cultural spaces, cafes, recording rooms, a permanent museum dedicated to Soviet victims as well as archives about the horrors of war. Of all this, we can so far see floor plans, works by alternative artists, kiosks, pubs, concert areas and a decidedly growing evening entertainment, although it can not be compared to the sparkling of Telliskivi Loomelinnak. The former industrial area with a railway character close to the historic center – which was shabby and depopulated a little more than ten years ago – now houses artists’ studios, co-working buildings, new designer shops, restaurants, clubs where musicians and performers exhibit, international start-ups. up locations (there are over 200 of them), workshops by eclectic designers and an army of digital creatives arriving from all over the world.
Telliskivi once again excites lovers of Northern Europe (we are 80 km from Helsinki). And it makes you think of urban change as the cornerstone of social life: it does so with the disused factories resembling futuristic cathedrals, the row of murals, the old railway tracks and the bars placed inside the containers or perhaps in the train’s obsolete carriages who conquers one second Life. Recycling and innovation in this neighborhood are dogmas. Any practical demonstration? Hektor Container Hotel, a hotel whose rooms are in fact containers (located in a fascinating building) equipped with completely environmentally friendly bathrooms and services. Or Fotografiska Restauran on the top floor of the wonderful, namesake, museum dedicated to photography (and more) that seduces everyone with its creative cuisine “at km 0 and no waste”. A few days ago, chef Peeter Pihel received the green Michelin star “because everything is recycled and what is left turns into compost, which in turn circulates in the fields and in the gardens”. Another leap forward for Estonia even in the kitchen. In fact, in kitchens across the country as they have won the Michelin Guide for the first time.
And if you really want to take a step back – which is quite difficult for Estonians who have paid dearly for freedom for centuries – treat yourself to a climb up the hill to the medieval heart of the city: Toompea. Surrounded by a wall, of which twenty watchtowers are left today, Tallin here preserves the urban structure from the 13th-16th. century. The narrow cobbled streets lead to Raekoja Plats (the Gothic town square, which this week hosts four-day medieval parades around St. Nicholas’ Church), where the pharmacy still opened in 1422. It is one of the oldest in Europe, Europe is still active. It’s worth walking into in a few minutes. And then here is the cathedral and the inevitable churches – which in Soviet times would have been forgotten if they were not adapted for other purposes: Pühavaimu church (of the Holy Spirit) which dates back to the 14th century and has the tallest bell tower in Estonia, San Olov and San Nicola (transformed into an art museum in 1984), just to name the most famous. If you walk among rarities and relics – with a few shopping breaks in the attractive traditional shops with hats and ceramics – it is easy to understand why Unesco in 1997 declared Tallinn’s old town as a World Heritage Site (https://whc.unesco.org / en / list). The feeling is great, and the Passage of Santa Caterina, a narrow medieval tunnel connecting two roads, manages to reinforce it.
In search of suggestions, go down the hill, but not until you have made a stop at the flower market, which lies under the fortified walls, between the two access towers. Between two wings you will parade stalls full of colored peonies, roses, weeds, aromatic plants and sunflowers: all stop to buy a bouquet. “Because the Estonians – explains Jan, the local guide – have few words, and if they have something to say, they let the flowers speak”. To be noticed.
We are moving towards the “modern” center. You will still find the past in front of you, but this time the newer one. More examples of architecture and statues made in the USSR, the Original Sokos Hotel Viru and the KGB Museum, which await you with its relics on the 23rd floor of the building for a guided tour. The hotel was built in 1972, during the Soviet era, for the exclusive use of foreigners, and when it was renovated in most of the rooms, bugs were found, bed bugs hidden even in concrete for decades. Even older is the beautiful Estonian National Opera, an example of art noveau, which has welcomed Estonians to concerts since 1913. Still in the center, in the Maakri area, the mirrored skyscrapers and the ultra-modern offices business district which exist side by side with the old brick buildings. As Rottermann has created a treasure trove of, along with the inventories that have now been transformed into trendy restaurants and shops, urban oases that pull around the Estonian Architecture Museum, which is in a magnificent building that has historically been used for storing salt.
The exploration of this transformed and transformative city continues. “Switch to stay yourself,” reads one of the signs that has turned one of Tallinn’s central streets into the altar of protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Not far away is the most elegant café in town, Majasmokk Kohvik on 16 Pikk Street. It stands there, beautiful, with its stucco and its decorated Viennese model cups from 1864. Every now and then someone walks by and shouts something incomprehensible in our ears (“Free Ukraine, Estonia always free”), leaves one flower and another responds. In Silicon Valley in Europe, the fear of war may not be stronger than elsewhere, but here the story thirty years ago is still burning. To reassure visitors, the country has thus decided to write a direct message on its website: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a reason to cancel your trip to Estonia”. The summer light promises sparks.