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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Tallinn Ülemlinn: The Even Older Town, Birthplace of Modern Tallinn

ESTONIA | Tuesday, 6 October 2015 | Views [555]

Boriss Jeltsini plaque on the staircase

Boriss Jeltsini plaque on the staircase

Toompea Hill is the upper town, the most historic section of Tallinn (or Reval as it was originally called). It is even older than the section of Tallinn contiguous with it, Vanalinn (the Old Town). Ülemlinn (Upper Town) is the site of Tallinn's first settlement by the Danish in 1219. Among the tourist hotspots are the Riigikogu (housed in Toompea Castle) and one of Tallinn's most impressive kõrgumas (wall towers). Also worthy of a look on the Hill are its famous Russian Orthodox (Alexander Nevsky) Cathedral and Lutheran Cathedral (Toomkirik or Dome Church). What attracts visitors to Toompea in particular is the great views of the wider Tallinn. Toompea Hill sits on a limestone tableland 20-30 metres above the surrounding areas. Large numbers of tourists jostle for optimal position on the purpose-built Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms, to catch a view (and a photo or thirty) of the fantastic panoramic scenery.

The Nevsky Cathedral, a striking looking structure on the aptly named Cathedral Hill (AKA Toompea) opposite the city castle, is one of the first buildings you are likely to spot if you enter Tallinn from the south-west. It caught my eye straight away as we drove up Komandandi tee on the way to our hotel (a converted factory in Pohja).  A closer inspection of the Nevsky church will reward the visitor with the sight of one of the best Russian Orthodox cathedrals outside of the Russian Federation (in fact the Nevsky Cathedral is a wonderful taste of what is to come if your plans include going on to visit Saint-Petersburg or Moscow at a later point). On the first day I visited the area, there was a souvenir stall seller dressed in medieval religious garb outside the church (darkly hooded, he looked a bit ominous and clandestine, like something you'd see emerging out of a darkened recess in the The Da Vinci Code). Monumental in appearance, the Nevsky Cathedral's most distinctive external feature is the five, soaring, black onion domes. The Church, dating from the late Tsarist period, was not without controversy when completed in 1900, as it was built on a location that many Estonians believe was the gravesite of the legendary king, Kalev. The Cathedral has some 11 bells, the largest of which weighs 15 tons, large but not significantly so if you contrast it with the Kremlin's phenomenal 202 ton Tsar Bell, but it is (unlike Tsar Bell) capable of being hung - and rung! Be prepared to queue if you want to look inside.

On the same square, a matter of metres from the building that is the apogee of Russian Orthodoxy in Estonia, is the building that embodies the sovereignty of the independent Estonian nation, Toompea Castle, which serves as the seat of parliament, the Riigikogu (literally the "state assembly" in Estonian). The structure is a large pink building (lending it the appearance of being cute but still imposing!), corner-posted at one end by Pikk Herman's Tower, one of Tallinn's most formidable, historic towers.

Tucked away behind the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral a short distance, you will see a quite different but equally significant old church. Toomkirik, or to give it its formal name, the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, is the oldest and most famous Lutheran church in the city, The two great city cathedrals are quite a contrast architecturally. From the outside the white Dome Church (Toomkirik) looks a little drained in colour, making a more subdued statement than the nearby domineering Nevsky Church. Inside St Mary's though it is more visual stimulating despite it being a bit low on lighting. The highlight of the interior for me is the various Teutonic shields with their heraldic insignias and banners displayed on the walls.

The Patkuli vaateplatvorm is located on the western edge of Toompea hill. The spacious, tableland platform looks out on a sweeping vista of Tallinn which encapsulates the contrasting old and newer parts. The view from the platform ranges from Rocca al Mare, Balti Jaam terminus to Pelgulinn, Kalamaja (with its characteristic older wooden "fish houses"), the city ports and the Baltic, to the distant TV Tower (the highest 'spire' in Talinn). Immediately to the left of the viewing platform you will see the back of a government building, an elegant white, neo-classical building with a fine colonnade facade.

After getting your fill of the high views you may want to lope down the 157 steps of the winding Patkuli staircase to picturesque Toomparki below. Down below, the park is a terrific position to survey the western side of Toompea. The best views of the old wall are to be had from a number of vantage-points in both the western side parks (Schnelli, Toom, Falgi ōu) and the southern parks and gardens (Lindamägi, Hirve, Harju, Komandandi and Taani Kuninga). Taani Kuninga Aed (Danish King's Garden) is interesting to visit because it's another place in Ülemlinn (the Upper Town) which  signifies an convergence of Tallinn history and mythology. Supposedly this is where the Danish flag fell from the sky in 1219 turning the tide of battle against the Estonians. Not really something worthy of memorialising if you were an Estonian nationalist I would have thought, but it is a nice spot with an attractive setting.

Tags: old town tour

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