Tallinn is a wreck. A beautiful wreck. Not literally, of course. It’s actually a very stylish city with a Nordic modernist aesthetic. Think Denmark or Sweden instead of Vilnius or St. Petersburg. It is probably one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe. Tallinn has something else, too. Like all post-Soviet republics, there is a ruinous, abandoned quality to the place.
This is going to be a post about photography. I have long wanted to visit Estonia, Tallinn in particular, though I can’t remember why I originally formed the idea. I’ve long thought it would be a great place to photograph. It’s actually better than I imagined. Not many places in the world exceed your already fairly high expectations.
We came here for two reasons. Karen needed to put in a lot of hours to meet a deadline for her work. Someplace comfortable and easy that she could camp out. I wanted to spend my hours alone doing what I love most. Dragging around a backpack, loaded with tripod, several lenses, square filters and a remote trigger, looking for interesting places to photograph.
If anything, Tallinn exceeded my expectations. While Karen was safely ensconced in her comfortable gilded ‘office’ cage, I could spend the early hours wandering around the city in solitude.
Tallinn is old and much of its medieval towers and walls remain intact. It has spectacular churches, from Spartan-minimalist Lutheran churches like St. Olav’s to the more exotic Russian Orthodox cathedrals such as Alexandr Nevsky. It’s streets and alleyways are cobbled and ancient. Many of its original 19th-century wooden houses are still intact. This is a UNESCO world heritage site and it deserves the designation.
And then there are the abandoned structures that adorn the seashore. From the centuries-old Paterai prison and the occasional shipwreck to the crumbling Soviet-era monuments and public complexes there is almost too much to choose from for a photographer.
Estonia is a unique place. It immediately feels very different from other places we’ve been in Europe. Where Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania feel very much a part of what we identify with Eastern Europe and former Warsaw Pact countries, Estonia feels like Finland or Denmark or Sweden and… something else. Something connected to the East and Russia, too. It makes Tallinn peculiar and interesting.
Tallinn has long been a tourism darling. And that unfortunate part is obvious if you make the mistake of wandering into Old Town after 10 am. Hordes of people move along at a sideways crawl, cameras swinging from necks and smart phones held out at arms length, whirling around from building to building.
At first we were shocked. Where did they all hide? There are not really very many hotels in Tallinn. Not enough to house the herds we saw wandering the streets. Then I went out early one morning to stalk locations for long exposure photography. Each photo can take up to an hour to set up, properly compose and expose. So I end up standing in one place for a very long time, waiting for my sensor to expose and then shoot a noise-reduction black exposure. As I was waiting on the seashore around 7 am, I saw a massive cruise ship appear on the horizon and make its way into Tallinn’s harbour. A couple of minutes later, another appeared behind it. Then another. And another. Tallinn doesn’t need hotels, because the tourists are using hotels that float. They come in from Helsinki or somewhere else on their way to St. Petersburg, part of a cruise ship circuit carrying Asians, Europeans and North Americans on whirlwind all-inclusive package tours of the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland.
I watched them slowly drift in like floating corpses engorged with flies. They would bump ashore and disgorge their contents on land. The hordes of people would then make their way on guided tours booked on board their ships and swarm into Old Town. By 10 am, the city feels like it doubled in population in a couple of hours. Strangely enough, none of the souvenir shops, hamburger and pizza restaurants we saw in town were ever full of people. The local touts work hard to draw people in, going so far as donning period costumes, but in defense of the tourists, if you’ve already paid for an all-inclusive cruise why would you ever pay extra for food in a restaurant ashore? It’s a problem everywhere in Europe that has developed a cruise-ship economy. The actual economic benefit is elusive. This is why cities like Venice and Barcelona are considering bans on cruise ship tourism. The ships bring crowds and garbage and traffic snarls, but not a lot of actual economic growth.
We were lucky. We found a local apartment to rent just outside of Old Town. In the early morning hours, the city was totally bereft of human activity. We had the place to ourselves and it was glorious. And because the ships dock for just one day or night, the most interesting places in Tallinn don’t get visited by foreign tourists. We had those places to ourselves, too.
For all of its popularity as a tourism stop, Tallinn has managed to preserve an authentic feel. Sure, there are some weird and tacky things if you look: People in executioner costumes wandering around trying to get people to visit a torture museum, or the man from a pizza restaurant in the main square pushing samples on passersby. But generally, this is a pretty authentic place if you avoid the peak hours for visitors. We don’t go out at night usually. Which is a good thing in Tallinn, a place notorious for sleazy nightclubs. But during the day, these places are hardly noticeable.
Tallinn was perfect for our needs. Karen had a superb place to work, complete with a desk and CNN. There were two excellent grocery stores nearby. We cooked our own meals, went out for coffees and ate some fabulous meals out too and went for walks when Karen needed a break and some exercise.
I had an almost inexhaustible list of locations to photograph. There’s nothing worse than being with someone who likes long exposure photography. As I said, each shot can take several hours. I struggle sometimes to stand there in a strong breeze and wait for the exposure to finish or to wait for the right light. It’s an art that requires technical knowledge, luck and a ton of patience. But I can’t imagine if I was the one that had to just watch me wait. Karen has often proven to be an amazing and supportive partner for my hobby. She was essential in our being able to capture some stunning photos of Mount Fuji in Japan. [LINK]. But doing that for several days in a row is too much to ask. So it was fortunate she had a lot of work to do. And working when your husband is just lounging around near you with nothing else to do is also torturous. Lucky for both us, we each had things to do that required hours of effort.
This shot took about 90 minutes. The blue scarf on my camera is to block out stray light from causing flares.
In the end, Karen got a lot of work done and several hours of teleconference calls.
I managed to find some photos I am quite pleased with. The weather was very cooperative. Cool without being cold. Often a mix of sun and cloud in the morning (essential for the best light), and the time of year is one of my favourites for the angle and quality of light. Only on our trip out of the city to Paljassare was the light a challenge, but I managed to take a long exposure of a wreck out there that turned out okay.
Here are some of my favourite places in Tallinn and the photos that resulted from my visits.
A peninsula that has been a nature preserve since the 17th century, this area was under Soviet military control until 1991. It’s now a wetland preserve. We took a tram and a bus out to the peninsula one morning and spent a few hours walking along the seashore.
Lennusdam, Paterai and Kalarand
This is the old harbour of Tallinn. The Lennusdam is a large port that now houses a maritime museum and a seaplane port as well as some industrial marine shipping activity.
Built in the shape of a sextant, the Paterai is a large complex built in 1840 as a sea fortress by the Russian Tsar to protect the shipping lanes to St. Petersburg. It later became a naval barracks and finally served as a prison until it was closed. It is now abandoned and access has been shut. But it’s a spectacularly crumbling and rusted ruin.
Kalarand is Tallinn’s original fishing port and once was home to a huge fishing industry. Now it’s abandoned. And beautiful.
Built by the Soviets for the 1980 Olympics, this is called a city hall. But it doesn’t mean what we would call a city hall. There was never any civic administration or democratic governance here, more of a civic complex with a concert hall. Now it’s literally falling apart. This is what the human world will look like when it’s retaken by nature 40 years after we have ended ourselves.
A very long beach that runs east from Tallinn. There are two large monuments located in a park here. One is now abandoned and has fallen into dangerous disrepair. It was built by the Soviets as a memorial to those who died defending the motherland in the second world war. Estonians don’t identify with this place because the Soviets murdered many more Estonians than died in World War Two. They’re just letting the place fall apart.
Right beside the Soviet monument, however is an Estonian memorial that carries much more meaning for Estonians. It is a memorial to the victims of communism. It’s quite moving. Thousands of Estonians were killed or deported to Siberian labour camps in 1940 when the Soviet Union invaded the country and occupied it until the Nazis invaded a year later. Following the disaster of the Nazi occupation, the Soviets re-occupied Estonia and today there remain many thousands of victims who went missing in the years of Soviet rule. This monument is dedicated to two distinct groups. One is the wider Estonian public who disappeared or died from 1940 – 1991. The other is dedicated to the members of the Estonian officer class of the military who defended the country against the initial Soviet invasion. The ones who didn’t die in battle, were later arrested, imprisoned and murdered. The memorial is ingenius in design. A large black metal wall is punctured with large bullet holes. Each bullet hole is actually a window that holds a portrait of the officer who was killed. It’s a very personal and moving structure.
At the end of Pirita Beach is an old Catholic convent abandoned after it was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible in 1575. It was originally built by merchants in 1400. It was never rebuilt and now remains as a picturesque ruin.
Tallinn’s Old Town is spectacular. It dates from the 14th century and much of it remains pretty intact. Given the season and the time of day we visited the streets, it was devoid of non-local humanity. Glorious.
We’ve rested and worked and exercised our creative muscles now long enough. Tomorrow we leave for Ukraine. We’re returning there to conduct two 10-day retreats, back-to-back. It will be busy. The courses in Ukraine are very large, so we’ll have about 200 students on each course. But we really liked Ukraine when we were there a year ago. We’re looking forward to another visit.
Ukraine will be our final stop in Europe this year. After that we will return to Thailand where we will sit our own long course in November and December on a retreat of about 7 weeks.