Architectural Detail, Tallinn
As I walked around the oldest parts of Tallinn, both the lower and upper towns, I was struck by the large number of beautiful wooden doors on the old buildings. They reminded me vividly of another city on the other side of the world, Cuenca in Ecuador, where I had also been impressed by the colours and patterns on many of the doors. Here in Tallinn I took lots of photos of these doors, naturally, and in this tip share a few of my favourites.
The first three photos were taken in the lower town – the first was almost opposite our hotel and I passed it daily, the third also in that area south of the Raekoja Plats and the second I think on Vene to the north east. Photos four and five were taken on Toompea Hill near the Orthodox Cathedral. But you will no doubt find your own favourites as you wander.
Next tip: some ”proper burgers”
Many of the buildings in the centre of old town Tallinn have a very distinctive architecture. While today they may be restaurants, bars or even in one case a theatre, they have a former life as working buildings and merchants' houses, combining family home on the ground floor with business premises and warehouse storage above. You can still see the wooden shuttered hatches and the beams that must have carried the pulley systems to raise and lower goods.
These houses date mainly from medieval times, when Tallinn was a major centre of the Hanseatic League and home to many well-off German merchants. It is remarkable that so many have survived intact, or almost intact, through so many centuries, despite war, fire and other traumatic events. As a result, Tallinn’s medieval centre is listed by UNESCO as being of “Outstanding Universal Value”. The listing states that this value “is demonstrated in its existence as an outstanding, exceptionally complete and well preserved example of a medieval northern European trading city that retains the salient features of this unique form of economic and social community to a remarkable degree.” You can still walk the winding medieval streets of the lower town where most of these houses can be found, knowing you are walking in the steps of those merchants. According to the UNESCO website, “the distribution of building plots survives virtually intact from the 13th-14th centuries”.
Although varying in size (according to the wealth of the owner and size of his business), most of these houses were built to a similar design. They had a small entrance area, a kitchen with large fireplace, one heated living room, a few more unheated chambers, plus cellars, granaries and a loft for storage. They had narrow frontages and sharp gables. Because the lofts were used for storage the gables had hatches and a winch for lifting goods. Their limestone walls were covered with a wash and their roofs had clay tiles. In the courtyard there would have been barns, byres etc. and accommodation for servants.
There are lots of examples of this style of architecture in the streets immediately surrounding the Town Hall Square and in those leading off it.
Next tip: Tallinn’s oldest pub
I have written elsewhere about the attractive old merchant houses that still line many of Tallinn’s old town streets. Another architectural feature that I enjoyed seeing was the incorporation and retention of small details from the past even where buildings had been renovated and modernised. You can never forget the city’s long history as you walk its streets, as there are reminders in the very fabric of the buildings. Stone crests and embellishments are left exposed when buildings are plastered (see photo two for an example), carved dates are still visible (photo three) and you can trace the line of ancient doorways and windows. A photographer’s delight!
Next tip: the Niguliste Museum
Favorite thing: The thing, that I have seen almost from first moment when I entered Tallinn's old town was nicely decorated and colorful doors. Almost in every street it is possible to see such doors with different wooden carvings and intensive colors. It could be possible to make a photo gallery just of old town doors.
Favorite thing: If you have an eye for detail there will be much to charm you in Tallinn. Everywhere you go there are little things to catch your eye - fabulous old doors and door knockers, glimpses of quiet courtyards through archways, painted gargoyles and carved water spouts, a lovely painted mediaeval clock on a church wall, light and warmth spilling out of windows on a snowy night, painted signs, a royal baker's shop marked by a crown-topped pretzel, - all this and much more. Keep your eyes open as you wander through the narrow streets, look up as well as around you.
While visiting the Dominican Monastery, we came across a posting that explained the origins of the "ettics" stones, which stand out yp to a foot on each side of house entrances.
Basically, the ettics were used instead of addresses by house owners: each had a different design and was specific to its house. Increasing street traffic in the 19th century led to the removal of many of these stones, but you can still see some scattered around the Old Town. (The famous "House of the Blackheads" door still has its ettics.)
Once we learned about these stones, we started looking for them while strolling in the Old Town. It made our walks even more interesting!
(By the way, Tallinn is the only place where I ever found/heard the word "ettics" used. If anyone knows another name for these stones, I would be glad to hear it.)