The past oozes out from between the bricks in Tallinn’s ancient city wall; it clacks along with the feet ascending steep cobblestoned streets to viewpoints overlooking the red-tiled roofs and turrets of the old town; and it flutters proudly from watchtowers and palaces, a horizontal triband of blue, black and white. According to the most popular interpretation, blue stands for freedom, black for a dark past, and white for hope in Estonia’s future. And it’s apt that black for the past should take centre stage, for this is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, where even the dullest of imaginations might populate its streets with a colourful cast of medieval knights, merchants, avaricious overlords and damsels in distress.
The city harbours a wealth of stories, beyond its obvious sights, awaiting the more curious minds and energetic legs. In a hidden courtyard a ruined church blends seamlessly into the surrounding buildings, all that remains of a once magnificent Dominican Friary destroyed in the Reformation by an angry protestant mob who forced the friars to flee town. A bronze Soviet soldier bows his head amidst a tranquil military cemetery on the city outskirts, a far cry from the 2007 mass riots over his controversial transfer there from his original city centre location, the apogee of the division in Estonian society between nationalists for whom the statue symbolised Soviet occupation and Russians for whom it symbolised both the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and their claim to equal rights. Arguably the most cursed church in all of Christendom, St Olaf’s burnt down three times and seven master builders fell to their deaths during its construction while its steeple warns us that lightning can indeed strike twice, or even eight times!
And for every such colourful episode drawn from the historical record, there is a yet more fantastical urban myth, from an execution in the main Town Hall Square that resulted from a dispute over a bad omelet to various accounts of haunted premises involving ghostly monks, knights, prisoners and ladies among others.