The Northern Baltics: Estonia (& Helsinki)

The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are an entirely different experience compared to Western Europe. For one, they are kind of a mash-mash between the medieval, the modern, and Soviet-era influence. For another, there are many leftover remnants that serve as reminders of life under the Communist regime. This sort of experience is foreign to Western European countries, who were never directly subject to Soviet influence.

Town Hall Square & the only Gothic Town Hall in northern Europe

As I only had a few days to spend in each of the Baltic countries, I spent most of my time in their respective capitals. So most of my time in Estonia was spent exploring the enchanting city of Tallinn. Of all the Baltic capitals, medieval history if most evident in Tallinn, as it is the only city with its walls still mostly intact. It’s easy to explore the city walls and Old Town on foot, including several of the ramparts, the cobblestone streets, and the large Town Hall Square (which contains the only Gothic Town Hall in northern Europe). There are also a number of great lookout points from the top of Toompea Hill, with gorgeous views of the city.

View of Tallinn Old Town from Toompea Hill

Some of the most interesting bits of Estonia are from around the time of the Soviet occupation during most of the 20th century. This includes the Hotel Viru, which during the Soviet occupation was the only place where foreign visitors to Tallinn were allowed to stay. Officially, the hotel only has 22 floors, but on the 23rd floor was a KGB office that was set up for spying on visitors. Literally every room of the hotel was wiretapped so that the KGB could keep tabs on visitors and their interactions with locals. Today, the 23rd floor has been converted into a fascinating museum, where you can check out the actual offices and wiretapping equipment that was used to spy on guests. You can only visit through a guided tour, so try to book tickets at least a day in advance if you can. By the way, today the hotel is still in operation, but all the wiretapping equipment has been removed from the rooms (or so we’ve been told :-).

Real wiretapping equipment used by the KGB  on the 23rd floor of the Hotel Viru

Perhaps the most famous landmark of Tallinn is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which sits at the top of Toompea Hill and towers above the rest of the city. The Orthodox cathedral was built in the late 19th century, and has a typical Russian-style architecture. For most of its existence it did not function as a church, since the USSR actively discouraged religious expression. However, rather than destroying the cathedral, the Soviets ironically had it converted into a Museum of Atheism. Today, the church has been restored and is free to visit. The interior is small but quite beautiful, so be sure to check it out.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

For me, the highlight of Estonia has to be Patarei, a former prison. Although originally built as a defense fortress, it was never used as such due to lack of need as well as the damp and unsuitable conditions for soldiers (it was built on marshlands). After the Soviets occupied Estonia, they converted Patarei into a prison, which remained in use until as recently as 2004. Very little has changed since Patarei stopped operating, which gives it a very authentic vibe (unlike Alcatraz, for example, which has basically been converted into a museum). It actually feels as if the prisoners have just left, with broken glass, garbage, and debris strewn all over the buildings. There is also no signage anywhere, so although you’re free to walk around by yourself, I recommend taking one of the guided tours. The woman who served as the guide for my tour was a researcher who had actually interviewed many of the former inmates when they were still serving time at Patarei. She recounted several fascinating stories from her experience.

Patarei was notorious for its brutal interrogations of prisoners during its time as a KGB prison (as well as during its brief time as a Nazi prison during the German occupation in the 1940s). Prisoners were known to suffer beatings as well as other gruesome forms of physical and mental torture. There are also several execution rooms; one was used for shootings, and another for hangings. In fact, you can still see the hook in the ceiling and the trap door in the floor of the hanging room.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Patarei was still used to house regular criminals for another decade or so. One thing that I found really fascinating was the artwork that some of the prisoners created on the walls. Several of the cells contain huge, elaborately decorated murals that clearly demonstrate some serious artistic talent. It’s a little unclear why prisoners were allowed to do this (this seems to be against standard prison regulations), but nevertheless I’m glad I was able to witness it.

As Tallinn is actually less than two hours from Finland by ferry (in fact, many Estonians consider themselves to be Scandinavian), I decided to take the ferry over to Helsinki one day to explore the city. Although Helsinki doesn’t have too much of interest, it is home to the World Heritage Suomenlinna sea fortress. Suomenlinna was actually built 300 years ago during the Swedish occupation of Finland to protect against an invasion by neighboring Russia. Of course, it never served its purpose because Russia was able to conquer Helsinki uncontested several years after the fortress was built. Suomenlinna is absolutely huge (it actually still has about 1000 people living there) and is spread across several different islands. I actually spent the majority of my time in Helsinki strolling around the fortress and visiting its various historic building and museums. Speaking of which, Suomenlinna contains one of the few surviving examples of a German U-Boat on display, which was infamous as a Nazi naval weapon during World War II. You can even take a tour of the inside for just a few Euros. In mainland Helsinki, honorable mention goes to Temppeliaukio Church, which is a church that was carved into solid rock!

“Church in the Rock” in Helsinki

Still hungry to experience more Baltic culture and history, I hopped on a bus to travel a few hours south to the art-nouveau city of Riga, the capital and largest city of Latvia. Stay tuned for that after I return from Israel in two weeks!



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