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This was one of the few sunny week-ends of these past weeks. On Saturday, a freezing walk in the forest didn’t yield the expected results in terms of photography, as there were very few birds around (some Blackbirds (Turdus merula) and a Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)), and I was too cold to stop and take my time. I walked, blinded by the rays of sun reflecting on the frozen ground. Behind the trees, I spotted a herd of Roe deers (Capreolus capreolus).
On Sunday morning, I was in the bus when I saw the horizon turn a deep orange, beyond the city. I met Patrick in the tram to the harbour, a curious coincidence that made us laugh since I had told him on the phone that we would meet “inside”… the ferry terminal, of course. So we met a bit earlier than expected, on our way to the harbour. I got a really smart smartphone this autumn only, and it was my first opportunity to use a digital ticket. So I scanned my phone, and it worked. Aah, technology…
Two minutes after entering the terminal, we were already queueing to enter the ship. Take that, plane! As soon as we got in, I rushed to the upper decks, hoping to grasp a bit of sunrise light. It was nowhere as intense as what I had seen before, but with this crisp air, the sea was steaming, and the sun, hiding behind a veil of fog, spread a very soft light on the scene.
Crossing the archipelago revealed hidden treasures, like this solitary cabin or this secret harbour looking very much like a smuggler’s retreat… or a customs operation station, depending on which side of the law you sit 😉
At some point, there was nothing to see but water, so I spent some time inside, reading. I went outside for the arrival to the other side of the Gulf of Finland, braving the bitter cold (it’s not that easy to handle a camera with mittens!) and the blazing sun (even in winter, the North sun is fierce). There, sheltered at the end of its bay, lay Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Ferries are amazing in how they give you a vantage point over the harbour, and beyond it, the city. I have a distinct memory from Igoumenitsa, in Greece, overlooking the empty harbour while waiting for departure, at dusk. That was a long time ago.
In Tallinn, it was the middle of the day, and I regretted not taking the ferry before. I hadn’t thought about the limited length of day at this period, but it had felt like a good idea to sleep a bit more in the morning. Anyway, we had to do with such a late arrival. In the end, we were not disappointed.
A bit of history now: the first traces of castles in Tallinn date back from the end of the first millenium, and several of them were built and abandoned before the 13th century. Estonia was part of major trade route that linked Northern Europe to Arabic countries during the Viking era, and impressive quantities of silver from this time were recently found there, more than in any country except Sweden. In 1219, Danish crusaders won a tough battle there, and built a stone castle on Toompea’s hill. Note that it was during this very Battle of Lyndanisse that the Danes received the Dannebrog, a red and white flag that became their official emblem. Stories said that, in a moment of great need, the flag fell from the sky and brought hope and strength to the soldiers. Ah, history…
Anyway, in 1248, Tallinn, known then as Reval, entered the Hanseatic League and became an important member when dealing with Russian traders. The town wall, which surrounds the Old Town to this day, was built in the 14th century. After the Danish rule, Reval became kind of independent under the German Order, then turned Swedish in 1561. Before surrendering to Russia in 1710 during the Northern War, the city developed into the center of a new administrative entity that would become Estonia.
In 1918, Estonia declared independence from the USSR, Reval became Tallinn… and was immediately occupied by Germany. After the end of WWI, a local council was elected again. During WWII, Tallinn was occupied by the Soviet Union, then Germany, then the Soviet Union again, from which Estonia regained independence in 1991. End of the history lecture (main source, others being Wikipedia and the Maritime Museum’s website).
Tallinn’s Old Town emerged almost unscathed from Sovietic bombardments, and is now the touristic highlight of the city; it’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of our late arrival, we didn’t enjoy the sun very long, especially since it had trouble finding a way through the maze of narrow streets that form the Old Town. This nonetheless fitted quite well the Christmassy atmosphere that reigned at that moment.
I particularly appreciated the colorful houses spread out everywhere: here the Post Office, there the Parliament… and churches, lots of churches. Like in Saint-Petersburg. Tallinn is a medieval town that started its development long before Helsinki, and therefore its winding streets make a stark and welcome contrast to the wide and straight avenues of its northern neighbour.
I was surprised by my camera’s capabilities while walking in these dark streets, after sundown. In those low-light conditions, I expected to need very high ISO, but I managed to bring back acceptable pictures without going over the top. I guess it also has to do with me improving my shakiness during a shot.
I can’t really put words on the sensation I had there, when night and cold were plunging upon us. To me, the city felt… purple. Was it the sunset sky? I can’t explain, but I tried to recreate that feeling by adding a touch of split-toning to some shots.
In any case, it was peaceful, and extremely relaxing. We were tourists in a foreign town, but with no plan, we were simply free to roam at whatever rhythm suited us. I was with an accommodating companion, so I took the time to pay attention to details around: a dark alley, a sign lit by a lone lantern, a name…
Oh, and we visited the Maritime Museum. There’s a cool story about this: a few days before the trip, I suggested that visit to Patrick. His answer? “Nah, I don’t think we will have time for a museum”. Fast-forward: we’re in Tallinn, we’ve walked for a few hours, the sun has set… of course we’re getting cold. “Hey, there’s an exhibition about the Viking era in Estonia in this building, why not go?”
For a few euros, we were in. After reading about silver, gold and trade with the East (it was not as fascinating as it sounds like), I realized that there was a second floor… and then a few others above. “Patrick, I think this is the Maritime Museum you didn’t want to visit!”. The most popular museum in Estonia is split over two buildings, one at the harbour and one (ours) in the Old Town. The “Fat Margaret” (ssssh, don’t laugh, it really is its name) is a big (fat) round tower built to defend the city and impress visitors coming from the sea, and it hosts many ship models and other seafaring relics.
The central circular staircase gives access to the different floors, taking you forward in time as you climb. Those floors do not all occupy the whole area, so, depending on where you stand, you can have a different perspective on the building and the collections. Original and pleasant, though I regret that most explanations were only in Estonian and Russian.
It was warm also, at least until we decided to go to the roof. We had left our jackets downstairs, in the cloakroom, but still we engaged in the narrow flight of stairs that took us up. The view on the city was great, however we didn’t stay very long… guess why 😀
So yeah, we visited Tallinn. And I will go again. It feels like little treasures are still waiting to be discovered.