FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Unexpected discoveries in Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

Every trip has its unexpected moments – a new taste, a new discovery or a new perspective on something familiar. Our trip to Tallinn had all three. I thought I would pick up on a few of those.

Ice yachting

I had never come across ice-yachting before I visited the the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour. The yachts on display looked fascinating, and the moment I saw some footage I was completely enthralled. I was left wondering how I had never been aware that such a thrilling sport existed. The way that the yachts glide so gracefully over the glistening ice is quite extraordinary.

Porcelain dogs

Scandinavian sailors had a thing about buying pairs of porcelain Staffordshire dogs when they stopped off in English ports as a sign of devotion to their wives. I’m not sure this was entirely in the interests of the sailors if the caption in the museum was true – apparently dogs arranged in the window looking out to sea were a sign that a wife was on her own and in need of some company!

The must have purchase for Scandinavian seamen

I had never heard this before and certainly not seen any mention of it in maritime museums I had visited in the British Isles. However, it clearly was a Scandinavian tradition as we would go on to discover porcelain Staffordshire dogs on display in museums in Mariehamn, Turku and Helsinki. Strange how something familiar turns up in a completely different context.

Surprising tastes

In our short stay we sampled some incredible dishes at two rather wonderful restaurants which I would recommend without any hesitation.

The first of these was Kaks Kokka which served up an incredible five course tasting menu which managed to make a dish out of five variations on cauliflower. However, the absolute star dish was undeniably a juniper creme brulee served with gin and tonic gel.

The second was Rataskaevu 16 which served up the most remarkable frozen blue cheese cake (yes, it’s really made with blue cheese!). I would never have guessed that this could work so well. It was a very subtle but unmissable flavour and is absolutely divine. The rest of the meal was pretty superb too, but the dessert was definitely the highlight.

Gelato Ladies

A hot day prompted a frantic online search by my heat-averse travelling companion until the nearest source of rescue was identified – Gelato Ladies. This small shop did more than just revive with some rather incredible home made ice cream. I opted for two scoops – rhubarb and elderflower+mint – which were simply incredible. It’s definitely worth seeking out.

Traces of Soviet Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

Estonia has a complex history which has seen it occupied and invaded by many forces over the past centuries, with just a short lived spell of independence between 1918 and 1940. It was not until August 1991 that independence returned with the restoration of the Republic of Estonia.

In common with the other Baltic states Estonia has removed many of the more obvious monuments of Soviet domination, but I was curious to see how much remained.

Architectural survivors

In the preparations for our trip I got the impression that Tallinn had acted faster than other places to remove the symbols of its communist past, so I was slightly surprised to see the familiar communist star in place on a number of apartment buildings and freshly re-painted atop the MyCity Hotel. The neo-classical Russian Cultural Centre (formerly the Naval Officers’ House) from 1954 sports a hammer and sickle high up.

Apartment block (1954) on the Tartu Highway

Symbols or no symbols, nothing could disguise the surviving works of stalinist architecture in the city such as the Soprus cinema (designed 1951, built 1955) and some of the crumbling residential apartment blocks on the Tartu Highway.

In a similar fashion the concrete structures of Linnahall (formerly the V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sports), the heavily planned apartment blocks of Väike-Õismäe (which we accidentally visited after catching the wrong bus) and the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds are other examples that will be very familiar to anyone who has traveled in the former Soviet republics and their neighbouring eastern bloc countries.

The Bronze Soldier

The statue of the Bronze Soldier, officially unveiled in 1947 as the Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn, was originally located in a prominent city centre location. In 2007 the authorities undertook what has to be one of the most contentious removals in the Baltic region, with the overnight move triggering a two day long riot and a diplomatic rift with Russia.

The Bronze Soldier at the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn

Today, you would be hard pressed to guess at the violent upheaval that surrounded the move. The Bronze soldier occupies a quiet and leafy spot in the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn, alongside the graves of fallen soldiers from other nations. The only clue to the sensitivity of the spot is a surveillance camera on the approach.

The cemetery includes a memorial to the submariners who died on the M-103 in 1941; a monument to the fallen soldiers of the Estonian War of Independence; a monument to the 52 victims of the explosion of the Männiku ammunition stores in 1936; the graves of the recipients of the Estonian Cross of Liberty; and the burial place of the aviators of the Estonian Air Force.

To my surprise I found a small Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot containing the graves of British Naval Officers killed in Estonian waters during the War of Independence from 1918 to 1920, with wreaths from the recent visit by Princess Anne).

The fifteen British Naval graves were bravely protected during the Soviet occupation by Linda Soomre, who turned their burial place into a maintenance area overnight to prevent their remains from being desecrated. The graves were restored in 1994.

Statues and sculptures

A display of impressive Soviet-era statues can be found on a grassy area behind the Maarjamäe Palace, framed by the chilling words of Estonian President Lennart Meri in 1999: “It is dangerous to think that the time of Stalins and Hitlers has passed.” Appropriately enough, there is one statue of Stalin (1950) here which is thought to have been removed from its pedestal in the 1960s and stored out of sight for 30 years.

Soviet era statues at the back of Maarjamäe Palace

The most impressive of the statues on display (illustrated in the photograph above) would have to be the group of 4.5 metre tall figures depicting armed workers and revolutionary fighters, originally part of a monument to the attempted communist coup of 1st December 1924. The figures were installed in 1975 in a prominent spot opposite the Baltic station in July 1975 and removed in February 1993.

There are four statues and busts of Lenin, including one in white marble which was completed just as Estonia gained independence. As it was now surplus to requirements it languished in the studio courtyard until it was donated to the Estonian History Museum in 2008.

Summer Hall at Maarjamäe Palace

Maarjamäe Palace was originally constructed as the summer house of Count Anatoly Orlov-Davidov in 1874, but the property was sold by the family after the collapse of their fortunes following the revolution. The palace has seen use as a hotel, restaurant, army aviation school, communal apartments and finally as a museum.

The mural in the Summer Hall at Maarjamäe Palace

After restoration the palace was re-opened in 1987 as the History and Revolution Museum of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The only trace of this can be seen in a mural by Evald Okas in the former summer hall. It is a marvelous piece filled with agricultural workers, astronauts, factory workers and red army soldiers alongside the inevitable communist flags and symbols. Lenin is in there somewhere too.

Today, the Summer Hall can be visited before climbing the stairs to the highly recommended and thoroughly engaging exhibition “My Free Country” which takes visitors through the complex history of the country over the past century.


The crumbling Soviet era Maarjamäe Memorial now sits alongside a new Memorial to the victims of communism. A 35 metre tall obelisk stands at the centre of the Soviet monument which was constructed in 1960 to remember those who had fallen defending the Soviet Union. Today, parts of it are closed off with a warning stating ‘No passage – danger of collapsing’.

Maarjamäe Memorial

The neighbouring Memorial to the victims of communism was officially opened on 23rd August 2018. It is simple in design – a long black walled corridor depicting ‘the journey’ and which symbolises the mercilessness power of the totalitarian system. The walls are lined with the names of 22,000 individuals known to have lost their lives under the communist regime and with a call to remember all those whose names we do not know.

The statistics are sobering – on another panel an explanation reminds us that at the current count there are 141,145 victims who are known to have been deported, imprisoned and murdered between 1940 and 1991.

Patarei Sea Fortress

The Patarei Sea Fortress, built between 1827 and 1840, was turned into a fearsome prison under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. This year an exhibition ‘Communism is a Prison’ opened in two storeys of Patarei’s eastern wing and in the walking enclosures in the inner courtyard. No-one would expect it to be a cheerful place, but it was far grimmer than anything I could have imagined.

One of two entrances to the exhibition at the Patarei Prison

Most of the individuals who passed through the gates of Patarei wound up in distant forced labour camps, or died in the prison. The terrible stories of some of the individuals who passed through these fates are told in the former cells. The fiction of the Soviet judicial system is never clearer than in the story of one poor soul whose execution was carried out before the verdict in his case was given.

The grim interior of the Patarei Prison

There are other sites in Tallinn associated with the brutality of the Soviet regime, including the KGB Dungeons and the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum, but we didn’t seek these out during our three day stay.


Seven highlights from Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

In a country that has the highest number of museums per citizen it is re-assuring to discover that many of them are among the best museums I have encountered anywhere. It is also blessed with some beautiful churches and restaurants serving up some surprising culinary delights. I have picked a few of the highlights from our three day stay in the city.

Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour

The seaplane hangar that houses the Estonian maritime museum was originally constructed in 1916-17 as part of the defensive system to protect St Petersburg, but after Estonia gained independence in 1918 it was used by the Estonian Air Force until the Soviet invasion in 1940. It languished as a military depot during the Soviet occupation, falling into disrepair, until its inspired conversion into a museum in 2012.

The interior of the museum, formerly a seaplane hangar

The sea hangar is an engineering masterpiece that is every bit as awe inspiring as the exhibits it contains – among the first buildings in the world with such large concrete domes unsupported by pillars.

The exhibits are terrific but the presentation is first rate, including some neat tricks to get visitors of all ages to engage. The most impressive of these was a clever set of animations projected onto the submarine Lembit, the museum’s star exhibit. Each animation takes a different aspect of submarine life, though it’s well worth taking a look at the Museum Night animation for their fun take on what the ship would look like with a skeletal crew!

Other engaging exhibits included seaplane flight simulators; remote controlled model boats; an artillery fire simulation; a virtual reality fly-through of the history of the hangars from their construction through to their conversion to a museum; and a somewhat mad but fun immersive yellow sub adventure. The museum ships on the outside were great fun to explore too, including the steam powered ice-breaker Suur Tõll (1914) which has seen service for the Russian empire, Finland, Estonia and the Soviet Union.

The interior of the Estonian submarine Lembit (1936)

Perhaps most importantly, I learnt quite a bit – always a sure sign that a museum is fulfilling its function. I certainly had no idea about the role that the British navy played in the early stages of the war for independence, defending Tallinn and giving the Estonian forces time to organise their navy over the winter of 1918/1919. One of those moments when history could have taken a very different turn.

Estonian History Museum at Maarjamäe Palace

The complex path of Estonian history is not easily explained, but the exhibition ‘My free country’ at the Estonian History Museum in Maarjamäe Palace was quite simply brilliant at breaking this down and presenting it with the help of an impressive array of exhibits.

The Estonian History Museum at Maarjamäe Palace

This is one of those wonderfully engaging museums that keeps you hooked through various ingenious means, rather than burying you under a ton of explanation. The displays ranged from cute little dioramas showing the changes to the palace through time to interactive displays encouraging you to go on a cycle ride through Estonia towns. My favourite, inevitably, would have to be the railway themed pinball machine!

I was struck once again by the bits of history I didn’t know. In some cases this was understandable, such as the tale of British involvement in the Estonian war of independence, with British military aid ranging from uniforms to heavy tanks, which I suspect has now faded from widespread memory outside of Estonia. However, I was taken aback by how little I knew of the history of my own time – had I understood so little of the story played out on our tv screens in the late 80s/early 90s?

In particular, I was fascinated by the story of the remarkable Baltic way demonstration which saw two million people across the Baltic states form a 675.5km human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius. It was good to be reminded of the power that people can exercise in an increasingly uncertain age.

Holy Spirit Church

The old town has a number of wonderful churches, including the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, the Russian Orthodox church and St. Nicholas’ Church (Niguliste Museum).

My favourite church would have to be the 14th century Holy Spirit Church with its gorgeous 17th century painted clock. The plain white exterior gives no clue to the beautiful wooden decoration inside. A series of panels towards the front of the church remember the British seamen who fell during the First World War, including the crew of the submarine HMS E18 who were lost in the Baltic Sea off Hilumaa on 2nd June 1916.

Museum of Estonian Architecture

The promotional material about Tallinn does a good job of emphasising that the city is a medieval gem, which meant that the remarkable variety of architectural styles on display in the city came as something of a surprise. The Museum of Estonian Architecture is a good place to get your head around this, presenting a decade by decade walkthrough of the changing styles.

The Museum of Estonian Architecture occupies the historical Rotermann Salt Storage building

I loved the wonderful array of architectural models on display on the ground floor as part of the permanent exhibition ‘Space in motion: A century of Estonian architecture’. I spent quite a bit of time poring over the detail and was thoroughly absorbed.

Along with many familiar buildings there were some interesting ideas for the future, such as a striking proposal (2011-13) from Kadarik Tüür architects. This would see the waste products from the Aidu open cast oil shale mine stored through the construction of a series of pyramids of which the tallest would be 130 metres tall.

It’s also worth taking a look in the basement at the exhibition focusing on what architecture is about, based on the approach used to teach architectural students. It was quite good fun and certainly made us think.

Tallinn Town Hall

The Town Hall is only open to visitors in the Summer months, usually from late June or early July until the end of August. It is said to be the oldest surviving town hall in the Baltic and Scandinavian region, but it is also a building that has undergone quite a transformation over 700 years.

Interior of Tallinn Town Hall

The builders of the original Town Hall might have been rather surprised to return in the early 20th century and see the rooms carved up into smaller office spaces, many more windows punched through the walls and a rebuild of the eastern façade in Gothic Revival style. However, the damage caused by a Soviet air raid on 9th March 1944 provided the catalyst for a restoration that would return the building to its former glory.

It doesn’t take too long to wander the restored rooms or explore the attic, but it is well worth taking a look around.

Estonian Open Air Museum

The Estonian Open Air Museum first opened to the public at Rocco al Mare in 1964, collecting and preserving historic buildings from across Estonia and the islands. Today, the museum presents visitors with 74 buildings over a 72 hectare site. These range from the modest conical pole tent from Harju district that started the museum through to the baroque styling of the Sutlepa chapel, one of the oldest wooden buildings in the country.

One of the many charming buildings in the Estonian Open Air Museum

Armed with a map and a list of highlights we set off on a walk through the grounds that took us to most of the buildings, with the occasional encounter with the friendly cats on the site. At one of the farmhouses we found a ginger cat basking in the sun on the balcony of a property whose relaxed demeanour was quite deceptive. The moment we opened the door he took advantage of our appearance to sneak into a property and take up a prime position on a bed. He looked very pleased with his achievement!

Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom

The last of the museums we visited on our visit to Estonia was one of the most thought provoking. The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom sets out to encourage every visitor to ‘sense the fragility of freedom’ so while it looks at the events of recent history, it has one eye on the future.

To get the most out of a visit it really needs the time to listen and reflect on the brilliantly scripted and thoughtful audio commentary. The commentary was perfectly pitched and not at all judgmental about the decisions people make under an authoritarian regime, challenging the listener to think how they might act in the same position.

Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom

The commentary revealed just a few of the terrible stories from the Soviet occupation that illustrated the slender thread of freedom, from the university student picked up off the streets and deported to the gulags by mistake (instead of another individual with the same name) to the mother who knew she was about to be arrested and gave her 3 month old son to her sister knowing that it was his only chance for survival (she saw him again 28 years later).

The most haunting tale was of the escapee whose last image of Soviet Estonia was a shoreline littered with opened suitcases, abandoned furniture and all the other possessions that people realised they couldn’t take with them. Among them was an old lady, clutching a clock she couldn’t give up and had consequentially been left behind with. Such a terribly sad position to be put in. Such a sad last image of your homeland to take into exile.


Three days in Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

We thought that three days in Tallinn would give us plenty of time to see the highlights of the city, so we were surprised to find that we still had to leave out plenty of stuff. In some ways this should have come as no surprise. One of the facts we learnt on our first day was that Estonia has the highest ratio of museums per citizen in the world. The official figures from the Ministry of Culture show that there are currently 249 museums in Estonia.

The sinimustvalge

On our first day we concentrated on the sights to the west of the city. This took us to Maarjamae Palace (for the outdoor exhibition of Soviet monuments and the exhibition “My Free Country”), the Memorial to the victims of communism, the Soviet era Maarjamäe Memorial, the memorial to the victims of the Russalka shipwreck, Kadriorg Palace and the House of Peter the Great.

The second day took us out to the east to see the incredibly impressive hangars of the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour, the museum ships outside and the chilling new museum that opened in the neighbouring Patarei Sea Fortress on 14th May 2019. These two combined took up a good chunk of the day (a little short of five hours).

Finally, the third day took us much farther out of the city to see the Estonian Open Air Museum at Rocco al Mare, followed by the Estonian Defence Force Cemetery (to see the Bronze Soldier) and the VABAMU Museum of Occupations and Freedom on the way back.

A view across the Old Town from the Patkuli viewing platform

On all three days we visited the sights of Tallinn’s old town at the beginning and end of the day. The logic behind this was to avoid the large crowds that we expected to see in the streets from the cruise ships (the quietest day of our trip saw 3000 cruise ship passengers in town while the busiest saw 7500) and slot our visits in around them.

Our Tallinn cards covered all of the entrance fees and the buses/trams that we needed to get about the city. A little advance planning to take account of Monday closures ensured that we saw all the museums we wanted to visit. The only unexpected problem was the degree of roadworks near the Russalka monument which required quite a lengthy diversion to get across to Kadriorg Park.


The indirect route to Tallinn

Posted in England, Estonia, Finland, Helsinki, London, Tallinn by folkestonejack on June 28, 2019

The first day of our Baltic circuit took us to Tallinn by an indirect routing through Helsinki that would take us on two trains, one plane, one tram, one ferry and a taxi! Our original plan was to spread this over two days but after British Airways moved our flight forward by 3 hours it made sense to take the hit and get all our travelling done in one day.

The Heathrow Express started our multi-transport day for a short hop between terminals, having spent the night at an airport hotel (that in itself was a little problematic – our original choice of hotel cancelled our room shortly before our arrival, saying they had overbooked). Thankfully our flight from London Heathrow went very smoothly and delivered us to Helsinki airport with splendid views over London, Denmark and Sweden along the way.

A view of Wembley Stadium at the start of our journey

On arrival in Helsinki we had a bit of a wait for our luggage, but once we were on the move everything turned out to be quite straightforward (an airport train in to the central station, switching to a number 7 tram at the stop just outside). We stepped off the tram into Terminal 2 at the West Harbour almost exactly two hours after our flight landed.

Our transfer to Tallinn was to take us on board the Tallink Megastar, one of the new generation faster shuttle ferries operating between the Baltic capitals. It’s also pretty large at 212 metres in length and with a capacity of 2800 passengers. Fast seemed to the operative word – boarding started just 20 minutes after the ship arrived (3.30pm) and the ship left ten minutes before its scheduled departure time (4.20pm).

It was pretty clear that we were among many seasoned Tallink customers so just followed the crowd to the sitting lounge and found a couple of spots to rest up for the two hour crossing. The ships are pretty well geared to the needs of foot passengers with an extensive number of storage lockers of different sizes (most requiring a couple of euros) near the main seating areas.

Tallinn: A room with a view

The Megastar gave us a terrific view of the Estonian coastline as we closed in on the Port of Tallinn in the early evening, not that you had any strong sense of the approaching night with sunset not too far short of 11pm. We should probably have used public transport to get to our accommodation but settled on a short hop by taxi at the end of a long day. Time to chill out and enjoy a view over the harbour from high up in our hotel room.


The Tallink ferries sell Tallinn Cards on board, saving time and effort to find a sales point in the city. We picked up a couple of 3 day cards at 47 euros each and calculated that it would saved us at least the same again – terrific value.