The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

November 13, 2013

In Estonia's capital city, there's much to see outside of Old Town

by Dave Zuchowski
CNHI News Service

— On one glorious Sunday morning at the end of July, I walked a few blocks from my hotel in Old Town Tallinn, in Estonia’s capital city, then turned left on a street full of flower vendors and people glad to be outdoors on such a fine day. Church bells peeled joyously, and I scampered along the street on my way to City Bike, where I planed to meet up with a student guide named Robin Gielen.

Robin was assigned to lead a two-hour long bicycle tour that I thought would better acquaint me the Medieval section of the city. Fat chance! I didn’t realize that riding a bicycle over the cobblestone streets of Old Town was next to impossible, especially with swarms of people out enjoying their own day in the sun.

Off we went outside the city walls to Catherine’s Valley, named for the wife of Tsar Peter the Great, who maintained a summer palace in Tallinn. As we rode along a tree-lined street, Robin pointed out the gorgeous houses built for the court hangers-on and high society of the tsarist era.

Before long we entered Kadriorg Park, a beautiful garden and forested area with a romantic Swan pond and fountains, commissioned by Peter the Great along with a massive baroque Palace, finished in 1725, that today serves as a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia. (Peter is said to have laid the cornerstone).

Ironically, while the palace was being built, Peter stayed nearby in a small and humble cottage which today serves as a museum that holds some of his personal belongings.

"You’ll find a lot of maritime symbols in the park because Peter loved the sea," Robin said as we biked our way past the Kumu Art Museum.

All curves and sharp edges, the Kumu was built by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori and opened in 2006 as one of the largest art museums in Northern Europe. Too bad the tour didn’t allow for time inside the museum, but the Kumu is one of the stops on the Red Line Bus, which leaves from Old Town, and I planned to come back.

Nearby, the sprawling Song Festival Grounds played a special role in Estonian history and are revered by its people. The outdoor concert arena was built in 1959 to serve as the site of the Estonian Song and Dance Celebration, held every five years, that draws as many as 30,000 performers and 200,000 listeners. In 1988, the grounds were the site of the "Singing Revolution," a massive musical demonstration against Soviet rule and the singing of patriotic songs that set Estonia on the road to independence.

One vestige of the Soviet era, the Maarjamae War Memorial, is a bleak reminder of World War II. Originally the site of a cemetery for German soldiers killed in the First World War, the Soviets covered it with concrete in the 1960s and 70s to form a massive memorial complex that is eerily empty, a gray void along the highway to Pirita Beach, the largest and most popular beach in the area.

On the way back to Old Town, we stopped at the Russalka monument, a tall pillar topped by an angel that points in the direction in which the Russian ironclad sank in 1893. This beautiful monument in a beautiful park-like setting has become a favorite spot for newlyweds to lay a wreath soon after their marriage ceremony.

Later that day, I decided to get even more exercise by climbing the 140 steps of the spiral staircase of St. Mary’s Cathedral, followed by another 250 to the top of St. Olaf’s Church. Both give you a great look at Old Town from the top. The aerobic workout getting there is an added plus.

Dave Zuchowski is an independent travel columnist. Reach him at owlscribe@yahoo.com.