I recently read that Estonia is the poorest country in the Eurozone – that is, the country with the lowest GDP per capita which also operates with the Euro as its currency.
But that’s factually incorrect. Although it was written in 2011, Estonia is now ahead of Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Montenegro and Kosovo, and also has one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies.
Even if it was true, or even close to being true at the time of writing almost seven years ago, a trip to the country wouldn’t have given off an air somewhere with such a mantle. You only have to go to its capital and see for yourself, with streets and buildings that, if anything, scream affluence and class, rather than poor and poverty-stricken.
Then again, Tallinn is one of the most remarkable places in the world.
During World War II, Estonia fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and, in parts, was heavily bombed by both German and Soviet forces. According to official reports, 757 people were killed and more than 20,000 people were left without shelter.
Yet despite the chaos and destruction caused by the bombing, much of the Old Town and City Wall remained, keeping Tallinn’s enchantment intact.
Constructed in the 13th century, almost two kilometres of the wall, 26 defence towers and two gates still stand. It contains within its boundaries such relics as Toompea Castle, where all rulers of Estonia have held parliament since the 1300s, and St Olaf’s Church, which has been struck with lightning 10 times, burnt down on three occasions and is believed to have been the world’s tallest building between 1549 and 1625.
It is the Old Town’s structures like this which anywhere else would be just another attraction, but here these medieval-looking structures combine to form Europe’s most magical destination, each a page of this storybook city.
There are even legendary guardians watching over the city. Weather vane Vana Toomas, Estonian for Old Thomas, stands atop the spire of Tallinn Town Hall. According to the fable, the model for this small statue was a peasant boy who excelled at the springtime contests involving firing crossbow bolts at a painted wooden parrot on top of a pole, organised by Tallinn’s Baltic German elite of the time.
Unable to receive a prize because of his class status, Toomas was rewarded with the job of town guard for life. For the rest of his days, Toomas gave sweets to the children in Town Square. When he died, the children constantly asked: “Where is Old Toomas?” Once the weather vane was erected over the town square, parents would tell the children that Old Toomas was watching how they behave and would leave sweets under their pillow for good behaviour.
The tale of the city’s watcher only adds to Tallinn’s mystique, but a scan across its iconic skyline confirms its fairy tale status.
Even beneath its surface are some fascinating foundations. The Bastion Passages are a series of 1670s-era military tunnels that run beneath Toompea, built during the time of Swedish rule. During World War II they were used as air raid shelters, but they were not widely known about until 380 of them opened to the public in 2010.
Reading that Estonia was the poorest country in the Eurozone makes me laugh. Tallinn alone makes this impossible because it is rich with culture, rich with people, and rich with a charm that will make you want to go back for more.