Destination: Tallinn

  • Mission 1: Roam the grounds of the abandoned Patarei Sea Fortress Prison (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 2: Visit the Soviet statue graveyard and walk amongst the Lenins (DEFERRED);
  • Mission 3: Reach the vantage point of the Tallinna Teletorn (TV tower) (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 4: Ascend to the secret top floor of Soviet Hotel Viru to former KGB listening station (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 5: Take the convenient ferry link onward to Helsinki (ACCOMPLISHED).

Highlight: When I say the best bit was the outbound ferry out of Estonia, I don’t mean I was delighted to leave. It was just a genuinely pleasant trip on a super fancy ferry.

Lowlight: Not all post-Soviet states are as cheap as chips. Don’t count on doing Estonia on a shoestring.

Feat of Architecture: Linnahall; a concrete concert/sports venue comparable in function to Lithuania’s Palace of Concerts and Sports but this one has a harbour backdrop and its own helipad.

Recce fact: In the Gallup Poll, Estonia was found to be the country whose population view religion of least importance. Having said that, there is no dearth of churches.

Home to the founders of Skype, Estonia is economically prospering these days having shifted from agriculture to a strong service-based economy. It is still gaining traction as an European tourist destination and although it’s a tad pricey in comparison to its neighbours, it thrives as a cheap alcohol haven for its Finnish brethren who enjoy regular booze cruises. The Soviet era may be long gone but socialist ideas aren’t completely dead, e.g. public transport is free in Tallinn for Estonian citizens. Nor is the criminal underworld linked to Russia entirely phased out, but generally Estonia aren’t doing half-bad for themselves and serve as an inspiration for other rising and would be EU member states.

Port of Tallinn

Medieval defensive walls of Tallinn

First Impressions

Although the cost of living is slightly higher than its Baltic brothers’, Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia is still cheap enough by European standards. 25% of Estonia’s population today are ethnic Russians, hence you’ll hear the Russian language widely spoken in public places. Having already visited 28 European countries at this point, I was racking my brain to find a point of reference; another country comparable to Estonia. At this point in time, I would discover shortly afterwards that Finland shares the most similarities although Estonia is much more visibly medieval in style.

The Great Grey – Linnahall

The Old Town was absolutely swamped with tourists in late August. After battling my way through the Town Hall Square, I proceeded to scour the cobbled streets for the former KGB headquarters. It is extremely easy to miss; a freshly painted building with the lower windows bricked up (to conceal the horrors that once took place within from the outside world) and a plaque which translates to something along the lines of “This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupational power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians.” The building has long since been redeveloped into modern real estate. I suppose that is the best thing to do with it really, rather than exploit it as another spectacle and preserve a constant reminder of bitter times.

Eventually, I reached the port and made a beeline for Linnahall, which was conveniently situated directly under a permanently tethered large helium balloon beacon. Apparently the balloon accommodates up to 30 passengers, but is frequently out of operation due to the wind.

I had ogled over Linnahall pictures for years on Instagram and Pinterest. It was like meeting a celebrity for the first time. A modernist ruin of a celebrity. If the Soviet Union and the ancient Mayans teamed up and conceptualised a structure, Linnahall would surely be that brainchild. It seems perfectly conceivable that a grandiose cultural display of the state could be taking place inside whilst sacrificial heads are rolling down the temple-like steps on the exterior. Originally, it was intended for more of the former and less of the latter, as V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport (as it was then known) was opened in 1980 in time for the Moscow Olympics, although was never actually used for sporting events itself. What is quite astonishing is that Linnahall is not officially abandoned and has been used for minor purposes in the recent past, but has fallen into severe disrepair and may no longer be deemed structurally sounds. As of 2016, the government have announced a €250m redevelopment plan to take place by 2019, which will hopefully see the doors reopen permanently. The inside is equally intriguing as the outside, but is not accessible at present.

Speaking of the government, Prime Minister Taavi Roivas became the European Union’s youngest head of government in March 2014; merely a youngster in the world of politics. Like many other citizens of Estonia, he is gifted in languages and speaks Estonian, Finnish, English and Russian. You will find all four languages written on many signs and information boards which makes them rather unwieldy, but it certainly covers all the angles. The Finnish and Estonian languages may share similar roots (Finno-Ugric), but they are not mutually intelligible by default.

Prominent Tallinn Architecture

At present (August 2016), Tallinn city centre is largely a construction site. It took a considerable amount of photo editing to crop out all the nearby roadworks, construction dust clouds and scaffolds from these photographs. Several skyscraper hotels and tall church spires jut out among the contrasting red-roof traditional style buildings. The tallest spire of St. Olaf’s Church was once fitted with KGB radio surveillance equipment due to its height. Following several fires, it stands today at only 123m; 36m shorter than it was originally in the 1500s (then among the tallest in the world for a period of time). The Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral is quite exceptional, with black domes rather than the customary gold or blue. There isn’t an ugly residential estate in sight for miles around. Väike-Õismäe is one such subdistrict on the outskirts of Tallinn, showcasing a layered, circular shaped utopia of social housing – an experimental housing project which has stood the test of time, if not exactly prime real estate these days.

Teletorn – A Symbol of the Revolution

While it is true that the TV Tower is a vantage point, it does feel quite remote from the more interesting parts of the city. But as far as TV towers go, it is evident that Estonia have put more than just a little bit of thought into making this a suitable attraction, after five years’ closure for refurbishment.

Most TV towers consist of nothing more than a lift and an expensive (sometimes rotating) restaurant, but this one additionally offers an outdoor walking on the edge experience (no thank you), sci-fi style interactive kiosks and displays (including one featuring toys and cartoons from the Soviet Era- yep, our recurring chum Misha is there). The circular glass floor cutout sections are a nice touch so those with a strong stomach for heights can stare directly down to the ground from the 170m observation deck.

Glass floor
Glass floor

Events here were markedly similar to those which took place at the TV tower in Vilnius, Lithuania during the events in 1991 when Soviet troops stormed the tower, attempting to seize control of communication and prevent the announcement of Estonia as an independent state once again. In a brave operation to maintain the freedom of media, operators innovatively jammed the lift doors with a matchbox as the people flocked to the tower in its defence. Meanwhile, Moscow was having its own problems with Boris Yeltsin’s pro-democracy demonstrations.

Estonia famously regained its independence without bloodshed through a Singing Revolution, whereby the people gathered en masse at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak) over a period of four years from 1988, singing “forbidden” nationalistic songs and gathering for Estonian rock concerts against the approval of the Soviet Union. Iceland was first state to officially recognise Estonia’s independence in August 1991 and earned themselves a plaque on the wall of the Foreign Ministry.

Hotel Viru and the KGB’s Secret 23rd Floor

Sokos Hotel Viru; once the pride of the Soviet Union and the embodiment of luxury in Estonia since 1972. Now it is conjoined to a modern shopping centre and the interior feels very dated. Still, I would have stayed there for at least a night out of curiosity had the rates been a little more attractive. The 23rd floor is accessible only via a guided tour, which gives a much better context anyway. Without the guide’s explanations, it’s not obvious from appearance that the ashtrays and dinnerware on display were bugged with microphones. The 23rd floor wasn’t so much forbidden, well-guarded listening station as simply an inconspicuous level designed to generate interest, with a clear message to staff that “There is nothing here” when they came up to use the copy room. The lift doesn’t have a 23rd floor button so guests were none the wiser, probably assuming it was used for services/maintenance if they did manage to work out that there was an additional storey from the outside. Here, the KGB monitored foreign guests and people of interests, and obviously selected staff were in on the plot as they were instructed to assign particular guests strategically among the 60 rooms fitted with listening devices. Logically one would think that staff members should be chosen based on their international experience, number of languages spoken etc. when dealing with foreign guests, but instead they were chosen preferentially on the basis that they spoke and understood only Russian and had no exposure outside of the USSR, to reduce the likelihood of any foreign cooperation to compromise the espionage activity.

The hotel embodied everything the USSR wanted the world to see; all that was great about the Soviet Union. It was equipped with a top fine dining restaurant and patisserie, selecting chefs with the best reputations from throughout the union, a swimming pool, the whole shebang. The best part about this museum is that it hasn’t been fixed up in any way. The KGB vacated the hotel hurriedly as soon as Estonia regained its independence, not stopping to cover their traces and bring the equipment with them for whatever reason. All the equipment here today is more or less in the state in which it was found, although a few items have been added for effect, including mannequins sporting KGB uniforms which were also left in situ, replicas of documents, a few signboards and other related propaganda.

The Unsavoury Occupation Sandwich

I had hoped that I would finally get to encounter an original Lenin statue, as I haven’t had much luck so far in my other missions to track one down. Alas, yet again it wasn’t to be, as the grounds of the Estonian History Museum/Maarjemäe Palace were completely off-limits due to reconstruction and so was the statue graveyard seemingly. In spite of having read that it was still accessible, there was just physically no way in. Not to be defeated, I trotted off to the Museum of Occupation. This is a highly recommended museum situated very close to Tallinn’s Freedom Square, featuring memorabilia from the era of occupation (1939-1991 inclusive) when Estonia was under the control of the Soviets, the Nazis and the Soviets once again in an unsavoury sandwich of oppression. 

The building itself is intriguing from the outside with concrete suitcases lining the path to the entrance, presumably alluding to the mass deportations that have already been encountered in other missions (e.g. Mission Lithuania). An estimated 10,000 Estonians were taken away to Siberia and Kazakhstan during that regrettable time in history.

There were considerably less Nazi exhibits (as they were there for only a brief time), but managed to do considerable lasting damage, bringing with them the Holocaust and Nazi ideals. When the Estonians welcomed the arrival of the Germans with flowers and celebrations, they were unaware that they weren’t to be their saviours but instead, harbingers of death. Less-Germanic Estonian groups (Jews, Roma people and Russians) were forcibly removed/eliminated.

Among the exhibits were a collection of Soviet cars (with our bear friend Misha at the steering wheel), KGB prison cell doors, Lenin busts, medals, typical household items, phoneboxes, a sea mine, spy equipment and an audio-visual room. The audio-visual exhibit depicted the life of a homosexual whilst it was criminalised during the occupation. The silent film was a bit too artsy-fartsy for me to deduce any meaningful interpretation, as scenes consisted of male nudity, the measuring of male genitalia with specialised calipers and someone peeing on another man’s face. Speaking of urinating, the most impressive former Soviet statues of officials who once stood proudly on the streets of Tallinn have been relegated to guardians of the toilets. Keep up the good work, lads. Wouldn’t want any enemies of the state taking a whizz.

Memorial Monuments and the Joey Dunlop Tribute

The Maarjemäe War Memorial, situated along the coast near Pirita beach, is intriguing enough compel curious visitors to hop off the bus for a closer inspection with its emblematic obelisk and gravestones (which I later found out belonged to the Russian crewmen of the Avtroil and Spartak destroyer vessels). The memorial is very well maintained, although it feels desolate. It appears much more modern than the 1960/70s erection that it is, by design. Although it was originally purpose-built as a memorial for the Soviet troops who perished fighting in 1918, WWII additions were added later. Clearly a unique combination of a rolling landscape and architectural geometry, yet something about the hills put me in mind of Teletubbyland. One feature I didn’t understand was the dark creature-like object clinging on in the middle where the pinnacles of the dolomite-clad walls meet. I’m sure I remember encountering something similar while playing Silent Hill. Apparently they are “perishing seagulls”. Who knew?

The North West 200 (so called as road speeds top 200mph) – one of the fastest motorcycle road races in the world, taking place annually to the scenic backdrop of the North Antrim Coast, is the pride of my home country Northern Ireland, as are our local riders. Sadly, many lives have been taken too soon in this sport. Indeed, another young life was lost at the NW200 in 2016 while I was spectating by the roadside, leading to the event being cut short. While it’s astounding that this kind of event is allowed to continue year after year with so many deaths occurring, people still gather from far and wide to show respect to these brave/daredevil riders and to share in the thrill as they zip past at lightning speed. One of the sport’s most admired and record-breaking riders was Joey Dunlop; Northern Ireland’s working class hero who won the Isle of Mann TT races not once but thrice. He tragically perished on a forest road in Tallinn in 2000, in not a 750cc race (which he had already won), but a 125cc race. He lost control of the bike on the wet road surface and crashed into a tree at high impact. His death resulted in a day of national mourning back home and still today, Northern Irish citizens make a pilgrimage to Tallinn just to pay tribute at his memorial (located by the tree). The road itself has evidently seen more than one tragedy, as another tribute was spotted further along the path for another rider. For me, it was bizarre, yet warming to see very Northern Irish articles such as Ulster flags and football scarves in the middle of an Estonian forest, so far from home. All for “Our Joey” of the famous racing Dunlop family.

Patarei Prison

Kalaranna Fort, a.k.a. Patarei Prison is open for visitation during the summer season and otherwise by organised tours. One can explore freely throughout the grounds for a mere €3. This fortress and gun battery has existed since 1840 and was converted, firstly to barracks, then to a prison in 1920. It’s hard to believe that it still served as an active prison until as recently as 2002. The 2016 documentary, Patarei Comes to Life features accounts by locals and former prisoners on its dark history and potential future redevelopment/restoration.

There is some very interesting graffiti on the prison doors and walls with certain running themes; namely: the Soviets/KGB were never trialed and brought to justice for all their crimes, profanities against the USSR vs. profanities against the USA. Most of the graffiti is written in English and some in Russian, albeit it’s hard to distinguish what (if any) is original, as most of it is recent. Another common find are posters of females (celebrity and non-celebrity alike) that had been affixed to cell walls and tables; but not from nudey magazines, no. They wouldn’t have been accessible. It seems that fully clothed lassies from 90s pop magazine cutouts (or maybe even from the Estonian equivalent of a Littlewoods catalogue) plus a vivid imagination was enough inspiration for the inmates.

Most of the cells were completely dark with only slivers of natural light shining through. Several corridors were sealed off with locks and chains for whatever reason, but the majority of the prison was completely open for exploration. Accessible areas even included the guard’s watchtower which overlooked the facility and exercise yards (if you could call them that as there was barely room to swing a Soviet sickle in the cages). Warped wooden staircases creaked and bowed underfoot on the ascent, threatening to yield at any moment. At this point I was beginning to wonder if allowing Joe-public the freedom to roam around was wise or not at this stage with all the rotten floorboards, crumbling ceilings, dark coves and barbed wire. The most sinister room was not even the hanging chamber (pictured with chair) but the medical unit and operating theatre. It could serve very adequately as the set for a horror movie without any additional props or dramatic staging. Original medical equipment, tubing, bed pans, typewriters, scales etc. are all still in place and astoundingly haven’t been looted.

If you visit, don’t forget to pop-into the tiny shop of Soviet memorabilia and the Beach Cafe and Bar on the way out with the fantastic little oddities on display.

Food of Estonia

Estonian cuisine is a bit Russian, a bit Scandinavian, a bit Eastern European and maybe something else original but I wasn’t able to put my finger exactly on what that was. Breakfast offerings included omelettes and my arch enemy- buckwheat porridge (I’m still trying to acquire a taste for it after a 9th or 10th attempt). There is a plethora of Russian restaurants around serving the usual pelmeni, shashlik, solyanka etc. but this time I opted for an Azerbaijani restaurant (Šeš-Beš); a less common find at home.

While it’s possible to have a (far fetched) Estonian culinary experience in one of the expensive tourist spots around the Old Town that serve lavish feasts including everything from elk soup to wild boar or bear meat, in my opinion the best place to sample local style dishes is in Lido. Although it’s a Latvian chain, you will find most typical dishes of the region here in a buffet style for a reasonable cost. It has salad bars, a charcoal BBQ, a dumpling/pelmeni section, desserts, the whole heap; not to mention the extravagant, themed decor.

Hesburger, the Finnish answer to McDonalds is scattered around Tallinn in abundance. Burgers come with their very own cardboard circular collar to keep them intact and to give the impression that you are receiving a jumbo sized meal. Like many things in life, unwrapping the packaging leaves something to be desired in what’s revealed, but it was actually a very nice burger. Kid’s meals came with Moomin merchandise as the free toy. How very Finnish.

Sounds of Estonia

I have selected a number of interesting songs from Estonia for my new Euro Jukebox page, e.g. featuring Estonian (Lady Gaga-esque) popstar Kerli and the punk anthem of the Estonian Singing Revolution. Here is a clip of the Estonian Festival of Song and Dance where one can get an idea of the sheer number of people present in the stadium- up to 30,000 singers singing in perfect unison to an audience of 80,000. Estonians continue to host one of the largest choral mass gatherings every five years at the Estonian Song Festival.

Mission Estonia Summary


I’m concluding this mission with a boat; a jolly big one. Not the one that I would shortly sail on onwards to Helsinki, although it was impressive as well. It was surreal to think that I was departing from the same port as that of the ill-fated MS Estonia; becoming one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century. Cruiseliners and ferries come and go in and out of Tallinn’s port, delivering a constant stream of regular and new visitors all day long. Europe In my humble opinion, Estonia is the most accommodating of all the Baltic states based on my brief encounters, and Tallinn has the most to offer visitors. For some reason, I’m still more attached to Riga, Latvia. I suppose Tallinn lacks that certain grim factor which has an appeal of its own. Tallinn and Helsinki pair very well for a 2-in-1 city break owed to the frequent ferry link. And that’s exactly where the next mission begins… Mission Finland.

Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, please do drop me a message below and tell me your thoughts and feelings about Estonia: