TALLINN, Estonia. Bear Stew & Burnt Bees
Originally published in Easyjet Magazine, revised 2014.
Ambling through the winding lanes of old
feels a bit like walking into a book
illustration. This walled town with its
carved doorways and swinging shop-signs dates from medieval times, but after
the 16th century it all declined and became almost forgotten by sightseers.
It is only in the last twenty years or
so that tourists have begun to rediscover some of the people and places which make
this medieval bit of Tallinn ’s
capital city so interesting. Estonia
There are many stories attached to this part of town. In one corner of the square two long stones are set in the ground in the shape of an axe. They are there because a mad priest called Elias Panicke was served a bad dinner in a local eating house a few hundred years ago. He retaliated by beheading the waitress - an extreme reaction even by the customer service standards of the time. Panicke was quickly arrested and executed, and the stones mark his unconsecrated burial place.
Panicke’s ghost doesn’t walk, but there are plenty that do. The town’s most ghostly location is probably the gate tower in
Lühike Jalg street, at the top of the town. This is
reputedly not only home to spectral monks and a pacing lady, but also a fire-spitting
dog. Not only that, but it adjoins another
tower which supposedly boasts a glowing skeleton which emerges at night.
The so-called Cat’s Well on the corner of Rataskaevu and Dunkri streets is another slightly sinister spot. It was thought to be the home of evil water spirits who required animal sacrifices. The locals therefore rounded up stray cats to feed the spirit. The cats’ sacrifice obviously did the trick, as the well never did run dry – although nobody knows how many inhabitants were poisoned by drinking water flavoured with dead cat.
Perhaps they went for help to the Town Pharmacy, or Raeapteek, nearby (11, Raekoja plats) although the medical displays in the
museum might make you wonder whether many of the cures wouldn’t have been worse
than the illnesses. Pharmacists six centuries ago were not very effective, but
they were very impressive with their strange stuffed animals, rare, expensive potions and knowledge of
magic, herbalism and astrology. The
fascinating pharmacy dates from 1422. Its modern stock – aspirin, sticky-plasters
and so on - is more useful but less exotic than the mummy juice and burnt bees
it once sold, but it still has an antique air,
with a checkered floor, leaded
windows, carved benches and a little museum off at the side. Tallinn
The pharmacy was also a social centre, and began brewing its own alcoholic drink in 1467. Known as Hõõgvein, this health-giving potion contains Rhine wine, cinnamon, nutmeg, galingale (sedge), saffron and ginger, and is served hot. You can still buy it, and it tastes, appropriately enough, like hot cough mixture.
medievalism isn’t all about legends, and it is certainly not all spooky. A popular medieval market in the square recalls
the town’s trading history by selling goods like traditional smoked cheese, amber
necklaces and intricately woven and knitted garments. With its musicians and
entertainers and brightly coloured stalls it attracts thousands of visitors
every summer. Tallinn
Looking down on the events in the market square is a weathervane depicting a mannikin in doublet and hose. This is “Old Thomas, ” and he was a real person. In the late15th century, as a boy, he got himself noticed by cheekily winning a noblemen’s parrot-shooting contest with his simple bow and arrow. This left the nobs with their expensive weapons looking rather stupid, and they couldn’t decide whether to punish or reward him. Eventually, they made him the town guard, a job he did very well. His metal figure has been guarding the city since 1530, although the present one is a copy – the original version is now in
museum after being shot down by enemy action in 1944. It’s worth taking a close up look at Thomas just
to see his fantastic handlebar moustache. Tallinn
Many of the city’s turreted fortifications survive, and the fifteenth-century Kiek in de Kök gun-tower even has cannonballs lodged in its walls. Narrow stone steps and cobbled streets lead up near the tower to the summit of the fortified hill, Toompea,, on which
Estonia’s parliament building and ’s cathedral stand.
From that lofty height you can stand on a level with the weathervanes and view the decorative spires, rooftops and gables
One of Tallin’s most unusual places– a major tourist attraction, too - is Olde Hansa, a restaurant and shop in a merchant’s house just off the Square. (1, Vana turg, +372 6279020) This vast place is lit almost entirely by candles, with wolf-skins slung over the back of the wooden benches and walls elaborately handpainted with huge scenes like medieval manuscripts. The menu offers only food which would have been served in medieval times, so there’s no potatoes, tomatoes or after-dinner coffee. Instead, there’s bear stew, deer sausages, honey beer, pepper-schnapps, saffron pickles and more.
Olde Hansa is more than a restaurant: it describes itself as a “household” and it’s certainly an interesting, almost utopian concept. Auri:Hakomaa, its owner, had so hated the monotonous conformism and soullessness of the occupying Soviet regime, that after
Estonia became free he made Olde Hansa into
everything he felt the
was not: a re-enactment of a personal, individualistic, colourful past. USSR
The “household” even has its own guild, in the tradition of
’s merchants whose
guilds closely regulated their lives and businesses. The guild members who work at Olde Hansa socialise
and even holiday together, learning how to create art and music in medieval
style. It’s a strange idea but it really
works – even the women playing live music on the recorder and guitarra seem to
be having fun, and the attached shop, which sells (among other things) medieval
robes, pointy-toed shoes and candles perfumed with wood-smoke, is a sociable
The town has other fine medieval restaurants, including The Chateau (19 Lai, Tel: +372 6650928,) where you can feast in a fabulously atmospheric smoke-blackened cellar decorated with countless antlers and lit with candles stuck in vast heaps of wax.
Strangest of all, the town’s best known ancient music group, Rondellus, recently did a medieval version of twelve Black Sabbath songs, sung in Latin and sounding like monastic prayers. Plainsong performed as heavy metal? It must be the last word in bringing medievalism up to date.
The 13th century Olaf Church (48 Pikk Street), with its 124 metre spire, is not only the tallest building in Tallinn but was also a KGB listening post when Estonia was occupied as part of the USSR. From there, the Russians could hear conversations from as far away as Stockholm. Today, visitors can see a panorama of the city from a video-monitored viewing platform around the spire. The first 136 steps lead anti-clockwise up to a welcome rest area. Then, the remaining 107 steps go anti-clockwise. Just before the top you can take a close-up peek at the bells.
Marzipan has been made in Tallinn for at least five centuries. You can see some of the most intricate marzipan creations at the Kalev marzipan room at 16 Pikk, then take coffee and cakes in the adjoining Maiasmokk, the city’s oldest café (its name means “Sweet Tooth”). The interiors are what you would expect with elaborate mirrors, dark wood furnishings and glittering lights. The sweets, too, are made from old recipes, and depict fruit and vegetables, animals, birds, houses, and even edible dolls, all of which are hand-painted in bright colours.
Jenny Woolf Travel Articles Collection