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Along the Amber Route: Tallinn

I passed under the Gothic arch and hauled my luggage up the rattling cobblestones of Pikk, the long medieval street, lined with steep-gabled merchants’ houses, that leads to the heart of the Old Town. At the back of St Olai’s, a macabre skeleton was carved on a tomb in a wall niche, a toad on its chest and serpent round its skull. In the window of a tiny souvenir shop, I could see several strings of amber. Further on, a narrow passage beside the Church of the Holy Spirit, with its astronomical clock, led me into Town Hall Square. Across an expanse of cobbles fronted by medieval and Renaissance houses, the lancet arches and dragon waterspouts of the Raekoja – the Town Hall – stood bright in the wintry sunlight, its high steeple piercing the pellucid sky.

Although the present structure dates from 1402, there had been a town hall on this site since the 13th century, when Reval, as the city was then called, was ruled by Denmark. In 1248 it joined the Hanseatic League, a mercantile alliance of north European ports stretching all the way to King’s Lynn in Norfolk. The Danes sold Tallinn, along with their other lands in Estonia, to the Teutonic Knights in 1346. The Knights fortified the city, building the walls and towers that still ring the Old Town. In 1561, northern Estonia was conquered by Sweden during its brief ascendancy as a European superpower, and it was among the territories lost to Russia in the Great Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century. But whoever ruled in the Toompea, the windy citadel that looms over the town, the city’s mercantile class remained stolidly German, the descend-ants of settlers who came in the wake of the Teutonic Knights; in consequence, Town Hall Square still looked, in the words of Arthur Ransome, ‘like one of those night-cap-country towns that old German wood-engravers used to put into their backgrounds’.

From Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

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C.J. Schüler

C.J. Schüler