do there as the romans do

For €2, the traghetto combined a more interesting way of crossing the Grand Canal than one of the bridges with a much cheaper source of gondola fun. We crossed in a green, hazy morning, poled fore and aft by men in stripey black-and-white jumpers. The euro coins were just stacked on the gunwales, showing great confidence the boat wouldn’t list too much and dump a day’s fares on the bottom of the canal. In a rare display of Venetian machismo, the locals stood rather than sitting in the tiny, heaving boat. The traghetto put us off at the fish market, piled high with sad looking fish and things with tentacles, and we wandered through an entirely different set of winding passages to the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

This gallery holds da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, although not actually on display (sadly), and a magnificent collection of largely religious art, although half the gallery was closed off (something they didn’t warn us about at the door; this was a recurring theme in Italy) and we killed some time with a set of mediocre nationalist statuary packed away in the basement. The early Renaissance saints and the terrifying baby-head-studded ceilings were high points, although not so high as the couple of genuine Hieronymous Bosches. A vaporetto took us all the way back to the railway station – Italian for railway is “ferrovia”, exactly cognate with “eisenbahn” or “chemin de fer”, just not with “railway”. Depressingly, the train down to Rome was already nicer, cheaper and more comfortable than pretty much anything on the rails in England.

In a touristy country, in a day and age where English is very much the tourist lingua franca, the train of course had English-language announcements alongside the rapid-fire Italian ones. They had a very clear, careful, neutrally accented voice, which would be excellent if they included the names of stations. Unfortunately, they just put in the Italian voice clips, leading to “The next stop is [avalanche of Italian syllables in a completely different voice]”, which was almost totally incomprehensible. A pair of rather fat Americans sat in the seat in front of us, one upbeat about the excellent landscape zipping past, the other generally moaning about Italy, but they got off at Florence.

Roma Termini station is about 70% boutique, 30% trains and 0% useful signage; it took about twenty minutes of increasingly sun-scorched irritation to find something which would sell us a bus ticket. Having done so, the bus journey was one of the worst I’ve had in a first world country, a packed, rolling sweat-dungeon with barely any seating or suspension which vibrated across the inexplicably cobbled streets like a tiny mobile hell. The suffering was slightly alleviated by two priests who got on next to us and gossiped for the entire trip. I couldn’t make out a word, but it was superbly entertaining.

Our airbnb was a little tucked-away flat in a 17th century block of flats, down a street which in most cities would actually be considered an alley; it had a lovely wooden ceiling, solid quarry tiles, and a bell in the courtyard that had probably chimed the same hours in the same way since the time of Good Queen Bess. Our host showed us the wifi code and indicated the location of some good restaurants, and we followed those directions across the orange-lit Tiber to Trastevere. There, after a good amble around the cobbled streets eyeing up restaurants, a man in plastic Roman armour finally snared us into a restaurant with a mascot which looked oddly like Ian McShane. It’s funny, I think the centurion was actually scaring a lot of punters away as an engineered touristy gimmick, though we couldn’t doubt that the guy genuinely and probably thought it was something people would like.

We went for the set menu: pickled mushrooms, salami in oil, spicy bruschetta and rubbery strips of salted pig skin. I feel every pig-based culinary culture has invented its own approach to pig skin: British scratchings, Ukrainian salo, the weird Romanian thing I had over there, whatever that Hungarian crackling spread is called. I also feel that, having grown up with one of these things, you will find all the others faintly disgusting. However, the pickled mushrooms were lovely. The vast second course (maccheroncelli and ragu; the proprieter gave me a bib) would have been worth the whole meal on its own, and the main (lamb chops and crispy roast potatoes in the local fashion) was absolutely divine.

It was a warm night, and we took a wandering journey home along the high bank of the low Tiber. Archaeology is absolutely everywhere, and every few hundred yards we would encounter a curiosity like a terrace of buildings plonked atop the crumbling remains of an ancient theatre, or a digsite showing the compound remains of a half-dozen ancient temples built on top of each other’s foundations, and we detoured away from the river a while to gaze down the moonlit vastness of the Circus Maximus, beneath a horizon contoured by the immense silhouettes of the Palatine Hill.


a palace and a prison on each hand

The Doge’s Palace is a place of almost unbearable grandeur. It’s not just where the Doge (a non-hereditary, very carefully elected* ruler) hung his amusingly unique sort-of-like-a-flaccid-Phrygian-cap hat, but is also a functional government complex, where high courts sat and Councils of Forty, Ten, Greatness etc met. The members of these courts and councils were all scions of staggeringly wealthy merchant families, who were denied many other forms of showing off (to forestall dangerous bling arms races, Venice’s oligarchs collectively kept a tight lid on most public displays of wealth – it’s why gondolas are glossy black, and why there are essentially no public statues before 1797, when the Republic fell.)** So the Palace and its decoration represented not only the political institutions of the Republic (of which they were quite justifiably proud, maintaining something like a millennium of stability at the centre of a multi-continent hurricane of money and invasions) but also, personally, the best opportunity for most of the richest people in southern Europe to show that they were men of wealth and taste.

Thus, its staircases feel like ascending into a heaven made of gold-leafed stucco, and the rooms they lead to range from exquisitely realised high-relief classical pantheons to acres of Old Masters plastered across every flat surface. The finest painters and sculptors of Europe were brought here to decorate the walls and ceilings with various Doges and allegorical figures doing thematically appropriate things: trashing Turks, dispensing justice, chilling with saints, accepting the benedictions of classical figures. The largest walls are reserved for apocalyptic naval battles or twenty-five-metre-wide murals of God and all His angels, the ceilings covered in yet more magnificent paintings separated by rivers of gold leaf. The effect is overwhelming. The flat roofs seem oddly boring until you realise how much harder they were to build than vaulted cathedral ceilings; similarly, the building’s flat square facade, pre-modernism, would be obvious to everyone as incredibly accomplished as well as space-efficient. Oddly, the armoury is the one part not filled with bling; the weapons there that aren’t trophies of war are mostly functional, serious things for the palace guard, swords and crossbows and what may be an original Puckle gun. The Bridge of Sighs takes you from palace to prison, a glum, intimidating place of graffitied stone and very well made interlocking iron bars.*** Back in the palace, one room contained an absolutely marvellous temporary exhibition of Indian jewellery. Jade thumb rings and tulwar hilts shimmered with rubies and emeralds under two-storey paintings of the Battle of Lepanto.

Most clock faces show twelve hours, and trust the time-checker to work out from context whether it is midday or midnight. Several around Venice, apparently not trusting their audience, have twenty-four, either numbered I-XXIV or with two I-XII sequences continuing from each other. One clock inside the Doge’s palace, however, only shows six hours. Along the walls of the first floor loggia, specially carved lion-faced postboxes swallow anonymous denunciations; in the courtyard below them is a statue of the unloved St Theodore, who was the patron saint of Venice until the city, wishing to distance itself from Byzantium, stole the bones of St Mark from Alexandria and took him as their patron. Poor displaced Theodore appears here and there but is easily mistaken for the more popular Saint George (they share the “stabbing a dragon” gimmick), and everywhere in the city the symbol of  St Mark, a winged lion, holds its book open with expressions ranging from “READ THIS, SINNER” to “hurr hurr funny book”. Here and there you can find plaques thanking the British “Venice in Peril” fund for stopping some part or other of the city from falling into the waves.

St Mark’s Square was full of predatory seagulls, making close passes overhead; I shouted a warning to Fran, but she misheard it as being about pedestals, and ten seconds later her panini was inside a mob of opportunistic birds; this is the second time this has happened this year. We had reserved a timeslot for St Mark’s Basilica, which given the huge queues turned out to be a brilliant idea; waiting for that slot, we took a lift up the Campanile for views of the city’s sunlit roofs. Down in the canals below, gondoliers offered parties of pensioners and Chinese tourists a production-line trip (€80 for an hour, probably quite a bit more for the optional extra musicians.)

Here’s a video I took of one of the best ones.

The basilica itself is a different style of magnificent. Its lower levels are a gorgeous selection of patterned marbles in white, green, grey and purple; the serious decoration, the stucco and mosaics, only starts a couple of metres up. Inside, it feels more Orthodox than Catholic, with gilt mosaics and long-faced saints smeared across the inside of a clutch of great domes.  It feels larger inside than out, and it’s a strikingly patched-together, almost ramshackle place – the ragged, uneven floors, the repairs and compromises made to the architecture over a thousand years, the plaintive cries of “no photo!” from staff ignored by tourists and tour guides alike, the little extra barriers inside trying to charge you a few euros more to go up on the balcony or look at Those Famous Horses**** and the general gloomy lack of light all give the place an ancient, entropy-laden, wonderfully Byzantine atmosphere.

We strolled down the wide, stall-strewn waterfront, where little pumps recirculate water over overpriced chunks of coconut and crowds of tourists go to and from the day ferries, to the Arsenal, the real source of Venice’s power. The naval museum (its doors flanked by the immense anchors of the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts Tegetthoff and Viribus Unitus) was closed, but in the Arsenal sheds to the north they keep an amazing collection of boats: gilt barges, tiny fishing skiffs, a large WW2 torpedo boat and a complete boiler and engine assembly from a huge yacht. The ticket to the Doge’s Palace also gave access to the museums ringing St Mark’s; it said “museums” as if they were plural, but all seem to be part of the same complex, a multi-level sprawl whose contents ambled amiably from leathery old globes and classical statuary to bits of Napoleonic and Habsburg swag; among one suite of grander rooms, a great deal of noise is made about “Sissi” as if anyone this century should know or care who she was.***** Most entertaining of all were the uniquely Venetian things, like a complete set of every coin ever minted in the Republic, a pair of flood shoes somewhere between platforms and ship rudders, and a model depicting an apparent traditional Venetian pastime: making a human pyramid on top of two barges.


*An amusing exception being the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary general who left an enormous endowment to Venice on condition that a statue be erected to him in St Mark’s Square. The Venetian government thought about it very hard and said they’d take the money, but the statue would go up opposite the school of St Mark, a vastly less grand location.

** I quote: “New regulations for the elections of the doge introduced in 1268 remained in force until the end of the republic in 1797. Their object was to minimize as far as possible the influence of individual great families, and this was effected by a complex electoral machinery. Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors.”

*** Looking out on the shimmering green waters, imagining that this is the last time you ever will, you can see how the bridge got its name. Although it’s not clear if that’s actually true or just a very old urban legend.

**** The four horses on the balcony of St Mark’s are replicas anyway. The originals: are shrouded in myth, may have been from Rome, were definitely in Constantinople for centuries, were nicked by the Venetians when Crusaders sacked the city in 1204, were nicked again in 1797 by Napoleon but returned to Venice after Waterloo, and now hide indoors from air pollution. Their story is fantastic but the horses themselves are quite boring, and the reverence and significance which these obviously incomplete parts of a looted chariot statue were and are given is an essay in itself about Europe’s relationship with the classical world. Though to be fair they’re also covered in gold and quite shiny.

***** “Sissi”- Elisabeth of Bavaria – was the wife of Franz Josef I, who through his immense longevity and witlessness presided over the destruction of the otherwise extraordinarily long-lived and resilient Habsburg empire. Sissi herself was a vain, pointless, miserable consort known only for being pretty and dying violently. She is still, bizarrely, the object of intense devotion both here and in Vienna. Anyone who, like me, is wondering when the Diana meme will finally die will find it distressing that Sissi’s cult appears to be going strong after 120 years.

welcome to doge city

 (Click the images for decent resolution!)

Down through the overcast, peering through windows threaded with windblown condensation, we first made out the landscape of the Po valley: yellow fields and red roofs, straight railways and wandering rivers. Venice airport proper is on the coast of the great Venetian lagoon, but we had saved money by flying to Treviso, an hour inland by bus. However, unlike seemingly every other Ryanair customer in Europe, we had actually kept our seats.

From above, Venice is shaped roughly like a fish, with the Grand Canal winding through it and accentuating the cut of the pectoral fin where the Basilica di Santa Maria sits. The tail is the Arsenale district, with the Doge’s palace and San Marco nestling in the fish’s belly. Above, the cemetery island San Michele floats by like a discarded square of polystyrene. I can’t work out where the Giudecca fits in this metaphor; possibly it’s a friendly eel.  At the fish’s mouth, the cruise ships moor, and above their docks the causeway to the mainland brings in people by road, rail and rubber-tyred tram.

It was a grey, hazy day, and we crossed the causeway in a spray-filled breeze, with docks and infrastructure crowding the skyline to the right, and the green waters of the lagoon stretching away to the left. Ahead the city was a broad, low sprawl of roofs, the towers rising above it an intriguing mix of styles, neither Italianate nor Byzantine but a mixture of both. Our airbnb was in the Cannaregio area, near the old ghetto which gave the world that term (somewhere near the fish’s forehead? Alright, I’ll stop.) It’s a quiet district, where the few remaining Venetians who actually live in the city tend to roost; our host was one of them, and he led us – through the crowds, across little arched bridges, along canals full of little boats, past glorious mansions with cracked old stucco faces- to our fabulously opulent lodgings (marble terrazzo floor, walnut furniture, gilt-framed mirrors – and this was, genuinely, at the cheap end).

What is left to say about Venice? Marble palaces slowly crumbling into grey-green canals, gleaming black gondolas poled by men in stripy shirts or moored between even stripier barbershop-poles, tiny alleys you almost have to walk sideways through, glittering carnival masks and twisted glass wonders behind shop windows. Any decent art gallery will have at least one Canaletto knockoff showing the glorious city on the water, and very little has changed since they were painted. It’s everything one expects: rarely more, but never any less. This ridiculous, impossible, architecturally unlikely fantasia was a massive player in the Mediterranean for no less than a thousand years, took on the Byzantines and the Ottomans in stand-up war, enabled Crusades and established its mystique as a tourist destination while the concept of tourism was still being invented. Eaten by the French, then the Habsburgs, and finally the Italian state fabricated in the 19th century, it’s less unique now, perhaps, than ever before, but is still an absolutely singular place.

We wandered out at dusk, exploring the back streets with no particular aim; Fran bought a dress more suited to the Venetian chill at the “everything €9”fashion shops (there are, bizarrely, dozens of similar places infesting this otherwise incredibly expensive city). Dinner started with a local specialty, pasta in cuttlefish ink: despite looking like a plated crude oil disaster and leaving you with a pronounced “goth lipstick” effect, it’s actually very tasty. We chatted to a retired Dutch couple who came back regularly for the biennial art exhibition – they’d been back in Venice five times and ate at this place every time (a recommendation!). To round off our first evening, we walked through the dark alleys of the central district to the Rialto. There’s no menace to Venice (excuse the rhyme); even the darkest alley holds nothing worse than a mild urine scent or an unusually insistent hawker trying to flog you a selfie stick. It is, however, an unbelievably easy place to get lost in; there are no visible landmarks and a great many routes are blind turns off squares where the casual ambler can’t tell if there’s a way forward until they walk there. Even with all the helpful signs saying PER S. MARCO, the only practical ways to navigate are a GPS smartphone or a lifetime of practice.

Still, we came to the Rialto district – a large (somewhat overrated) bridge, banks thronged with attractive (somewhat overpriced) restaurants – and after a rejuvenating coffee took a vaporetto back up the Grand Canal. The long, low ferryboats – vaporetto means “little steamer”, though they’re diesel now – are the only practical public transport in a city with no roads and no railways, and although expensive and crowded at all hours of the day are a very enjoyable way to travel. When the Grand Canal rolls past, the ticket price is justified by the view as much as by the convenience, as all the buildings turn their most elaborate faces onto the water. The dark arches of the fish markets, the striped poles where the gondolas moor, the immense white Casino with its private red-carpeted pier, the giant white hands of some mad art exhibit rising from the water to caress the facade of a mansion, all glide by twice: once clear-cut and starkly floodlit, once shimmering and broken by the ripples of the ferry’s wake.

Venice & Rome 2017
Canals by Night – Doge’s Palace, Basilica di San Marco – Traghetto and Trastevere – Roman Remains – Pantheon, Vatican Museums – St Peter’s, Castel Sant’Angelo

hey ho, on the devil’s mount


"Sorry, your listening post is on another hill."

“Sorry, your listening post is on another hill.”

In Grunewald, overlooking much of west Berlin, stands a steep green hill called Teufelsberg. This means “devil’s mount”, and while the ominous associations lift for a moment on learning the name was after the nearby Teufelssee (“devil’s lake”), they return full force on learning that the hill is not natural, but artificial, built from the ruins of a dead Berlin. Between round-the-clock aerial bombing from the RAF and USAAF, and the Red Army taking the city a street at a time with rifle, hand-grenade and 203mm siege howitzer, Berlin was more rubble than city in 1945; and when the Cold War began in earnest, the blockaded West Berlin had no way of shipping its remains beyond city limits. Thus: a giant hill made of piled-up destroyed buildings, with an indestructible Nazi training college underneath it, and an odd observatory-looking NATO listening post on top.

I hadn’t even intended to go to Teufelsberg, but the Technikmuseum and the Gatow airbase were both closed on Mondays for whatever weird Berlin reason, so Plan C it was. Navigating was more difficult than it should have been; Google Maps’ listed paths are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike reality. Realising this and adopting the traditional hill-climbing method of “up”, I accidentally stormed up the smaller Drachenberg instead, and after spending a while catching my breath on the windy open plateau there, had to come halfway down again in the blazing sun. Still, it was a lovely walk; trees have been planted on Teufelsberg, the leafmould and wild grass have covered the detritus of the war. It feels like any other wooded hill, but where the path wears away to the bones of the land beneath, it’s not rock that is exposed, but brick, concrete and rebar.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either's good.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either’s good.


Ascending the much more heavily wooded Teufelsberg, for real this time, I couldn’t work out what the actual status of the listening post was. A website offering tours said it had shut down and I couldn’t find its successor; Wikipedia gave a very muddy and uninspiring account; and coming to a fence at the top, whose many, many repairs showed evidence of a constant, vicious running battle between fence-maintainers and people with wire cutters, made me no more optimistic. But persevering along the path I found a gate, where several extremely scruffy-looking people with beanbags and a small child asked me for money. As it turned out, the complex has been overrun with hippie-ish squatters who charge entrance based on no authority whatsoever. They said €7, €5 for students (and had a clipboard to make it seem all legit). I said I was a student and showed them my young person’s railcard. They were in no real position to argue.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

The squatters have padlocked most of the buildings up (the fucking hypocrites), but what remains is an intriguing post-Cold-War sprawl of lovingly-if-messily maintained gardens, recycling stations and hoards of furniture arranged with Germanic pedanticism, all in the shadows of huge dead NSA structures sprayed with really quite impressive murals in all sorts of lurid colours and degrees of fatuous countercultural nonsense. I don’t know the engineering behind the listening station, and all the significant kit is long gone, but what remains is a series of tall buildings capped with puffball globes made of fibreglass hexagons. The highest and largest building has two lesser globes on the roof of a squat office building, and a single greater one between them, on a tiered column lined with shredded tarpaulins.

Above: Domes. Below: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Upper left: Domes. Lower left: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Said main building is easily accessible and is basically a graffiti gallery; all very run down, but not stinking of piss, which is a mercy. The roof has been lined with a fence made of wooden forklift pallets, there are separate bins for different recyclables and you just know they empty them every day; very German squatters. There’s no electricity, though, and health & safety is generally thoroughly Ukrainian; to get to the highest point, inside the top dome, you need to climb about fifteen flights of stairs in pitch blackness (thank heaven for the LED function on modern smartphones. The dome itself has almost no views, just a port in it, but the echoes are incredible, and I spent a good fifteen minutes up there whacking pieces of detritus into each other and stamping my feet to see how it would sound.

Leaving, I discovered the fridge of drinks by the clipboard hippies was on an “honour system”, so I donated a euro for a rainbow-labelled COLA-MIX in order to a) rehydrate b) maintain my self-destructive habit of buying oddly named sweet drinks in foreign parts. It wasn’t that bad, in truth. Going downhill was even more of an odyssey than coming up, as I once again put my trust in Google Maps and was once again betrayed. Trying desperately to follow my phone’s directions along paths which weren’t there, I ended up on mountain bike tracks which testified to the daring, not to say total suicidal lunacy, of local mountain bike riders, and ended up at the right place by luck as much as judgment. Overall, I had the time of my life, but it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have anyone else with me; between the steep hills, mild peril and totally improvised navigation, I suspect most companions would have got quite annoyed with it all. But I’ve always found that the best way to have an adventure is to point yourself in the vague direction of something interesting and follow your nose.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016



“…some radiant joy will gaily flash past.”

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I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.

The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.

The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.

We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

among the wars and the waters

A BRIEF INTERLUDE ON THE HISTORY OF TALLINN from which, at a glance, the most impressive thing about the place is that it’s independent at all. The Estonian state in its modern incarnation has existed for less than 45 years, in two non-consecutive periods, and already has two independence days, both celebrating getting away from Russia (the first in February, celebrating the 1918 independence; the second, in August, celebrating the 1991 independence, in a “for real this time” sort of way.)

Tallinn has been around for a long time, as raiders’ outpost, Hanseatic trading port, fortified naval base, and eventually capital of its own country. But it is mainly a history of being batted about, invaded and occupied by the dominant regional power of the time, and there have been a lot of those in the Baltic. The extensive and wonderful medieval city walls surrounding the Old Town, the enormous trace italienne fortifications surrounding them, the monstrous coastal ex-fortress (“Patarei” means “battery”) and the fancy seaplane hangars are all parts of the Baltic power game.

Estonians are related ethnically and linguistically to Finns (and thus, going a very long way back, to Hungarians) – the ancient Estonians existed as one of the many seafaring, sometimes-trading sometimes-piratical groups operating in the Baltic through the Dark Ages, which we English inelegantly give the catch-all name “Vikings”. They were one of the last pagan groups in the Baltic, principally because neither the Catholics on one side nor the Orthodox on the other wanted to set off a holy war with the other, and fought variously with Danes, Swedes and the Republic of Novgorod (the northern proto-Russian state which was later subsumed into the Grand Duchy of Moscow) as well as ignoring and, er, possibly eating various luckless Catholic missionaries from the German states. They built hill forts and stone castles, including the basis for the later Toompea Castle on the Tallinn citadel. In the 13th century the Christianised Danes, sick of Estonian raiders, allied with the Teutonic Order to launch a Northern Crusade into the area, slaughtering the loosely confederated pagan tribes, wrecking their hill forts and eventually (in the face of some violent revolts) establishing a state called Livonia, run by a Christian knightly order called the Livonian Order, or Sword Brethren.

A variety of horrible wars – Sweden, Denmark, Muscovy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth being the main players – swept over Livonia for the next three centuries, but Tallinn itself mostly did fine. Known as Reval at the time, it had become part of the Hanseatic League, an immensely influential semi-formal association of merchant towns, which ran most trade in northern Europe from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. Serving as a natural point for trade between Muscovy and everywhere else, Reval was coining it, and this period was when the town hall and the main late-medieval fortifications, including Fat Margaret and the Kiek in de Kök, were built – both protecting the city’s wealth, and displaying how rich they were to be able to afford this sort of martial bling. Fancy walls and Hansa status weren’t an invincible defence, however, and with the rest of Estonia Tallinn mostly-voluntarily came under the power of Sweden in 1561. The Swedes, then an up-and-coming power who cemented their Baltic pre-eminence in the apocalyptic Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, considered Reval an excellent base to bottle up the Russians, and invested a staggering amount of money into defensive upgrades – the enormous bastions, redoubts and ravelins that surround the medieval walls to this day.

Sweden’s Baltic dominance and ownership of Tallinn lasted until the Great Northern War (1700-1721), when Peter the Great of Russia kicked the shit out of the Swedes and took all of Estonia as war booty. (True to form, Britain involved itself on the weaker side for postwar concessions, switched sides halfway through and generally enjoyed watching everyone get wrecked.) The improved fortifications were never tested – the horrific plague outbreak that ravaged the Baltic during that war reached Tallinn in 1710, just before a Russian army did, and after losing two thirds of their population to the plague the survivors collectively went “sod this, not worth it” and opened the door to Ivan.

Tallinn was part of the Russian Empire for the next two centuries, and went through the same general developmental upheaval as the rest of Europe, but retained its prosperous trade, its medieval old town and its German mercantile-urban elite, the last only leaving in the 1890s. British and French ships blockaded it during the Crimean War, but didn’t attack. In the run-up to the Great War, it was a key component of the enormous Russian effort to block off St Petersburg from the sea with coastal fortresses in Estonia and Finland, and Royal Navy submarine squadrons used the port for raids on iron ore convoys from Sweden to Germany; and, during the utter chaos of the Russian civil war, the Eestis took advantage of everything falling apart to declare an independent state, with its own democratic government and adorable little excuse for a military.

Russia invaded again in the 40s, twice: the first time, in the aftermath of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they annexed the Baltic states, abducted the existing governments, military, police etc and deported them to Siberia in cattle cars to die, set up puppet governments claiming to be “popular fronts” and legitimised them through rigged elections, shot anyone who resisted, and generally made such a horror of themselves that when the Nazis attacked in ’41 they were welcomed as liberators. The Nazis, of course, did their usual thing with Jews (not that there were many in Estonia by that point) then, as the Eastern Front moved so decisively westward in 1944, the Soviets returned, kicked the Nazis out and killed or deported everyone who had cooperated with them and anyone else they found slightly threatening. They again installed a puppet government as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, then carried on doing their general repression thing until the mid 50s, breaking resistance through mass deportations, conscripting the young men for forced labour, sending dissenters and people with money to the gulag etc – all of which was partially reversed with the Khrushchev thaw. Then, when the USSR collapsed, Eesti got independence again in 1991, and threw in with the EU and NATO as quickly and enthusiastically as it could; you spend Euros in the shops now, and there are semi-permanent NATO deployments there. I didn’t get any impression of tension while there – Tallinn has a huge Russian-speaking minority, most tourists there are Russian, and if anything we got treated better having a Russian friend than we did just speaking English – but the country is clearly on Putin’s shopping list, and sabres are being rattled on both sides of the border.

Tallinn 2015

Old Town and Toompea Linnahall, Patarei Prison, Seaplane Museum – A Brief Interlude on the History of Tallinn – St Olaf’s, Fat Margaret, Old Hansa

tall olaf and fat margaret


St Olaf’s is a curious building to look at. In style, it’s just a fairly simple church, with a plain sloped roof over the nave and a square tower supporting a sharply pointed spire, all in that boxy, whitewashed Baltic style. But in scale it is enormous. Getting to the top, through an amazing assortment of different rickety wooden steps and winding stone spirals that hide in those white walls, was an adventure in itself.


The viewing gallery is at the base of the staggeringly tall spire, whose steep sides are a patchwork pattern of old green and new brown copper, narrowing to a sharp point aimed straight up at heaven.* Health and safety measures are refreshingly Eastern European, and only a waist-high metal fence and a narrow wooden pathway stop you sliding down that hot, curved copper to oblivion on the cobbles. From the tower, you can see all Tallinn: the red roofs and white walls of the Old Town, bounded by marching lines of medieval watchtowers; the glass and concrete of the newer city, shining in the hot white light; the huge, clear shapes of the coastal giants; the tarmac expanse of the port complex, as it embraced a pair of Baltic cruise liners; a smudge on the far coast we fancied was Finland, under the cobalt-glass sky. A party of game old Japanese ladies passed us as we came back down the vast tangle of stairs, and we privately wished them luck.

Back when cartography was FUN.

Back when cartography was FUN.

Next was Fat Margaret, a short stroll through shady cobbled alleys later. She is, as you might expect from her name, a stout old thing, stony-faced and round-bottomed, with a neat stone arch linking her to her little sister, and three decks of gunports running through her two-metre-thick walls to cover the harbour. Plaques on the street outside said nice things about the British and the Royal Navy.  An excellent video display on her first floor showed the history of Margaret, who was once known as the “Rosencrantz Tower”. The Meremuuseum inside is run by the same group as the seaplane hangar, and the big-ticket items have been moved there, leaving behind a lovely, intimate history of Estonian sailors, traders and ice-fishermen, full of model ships, spyglasses, two-headed eagles, a century and a half of black-and-white photos and a millennium of mad old maps. On the roof, a number of picnic tables sat under parasols, and a lady manning the little bar there provided us with milkshake floats and supporting evidence for Russian stereotypes about Eesti slowness.**

Early 19th century map of the various Russian batteries and minefields securing the Gulf of Finland.

Map of early 20th century Russian defences securing the Gulf of Finland. Yellow stands for high-density minefields, orange for low-density minefields. The greatest concentration of gun batteries, to the left, is between Helsinki and Tallinn.

Outside the walls, on the west side of town, were lawns, flowerbeds and curious public art installations: giant ants, weird abstract shapes, curious mirrors. Someone had set up an “Olympics of Creepers”, an assortment of climbing plants from around the world, each with their own bamboo cane to “race” along.*** (Eesti slowness jokes at the end, please.) Getting a little footsore, we strolled back through the new(er) town, certain landmarks now familiar – the weird, cool, shining gold apartment block with the luxury shops in its cut-back lower levels, the amazing, oppressive brick Art Deco oddity, the scrappy car park which always seemed to have some new kind of vermin in it – to Liivalia and a bolognaise dinner.

The Creeper Olympics. No, not the internet kind, the plant kind.

The Creeper Olympics. No, not the internet kind, the plant kind.

But Misha doesn’t seem to need sleep, and after filling up we went back out again to the Old Town, locating “Catherine’s Passage” and investigating the tat shop hiding in a cellar there; and to Old Hansa, dark and full of guttering candles, for honey beer in big earthenware tankards. At another tat shop, I bought a tiny Estonia lapel pin and a fridge magnet made of Baltic pine and amber. The streets were deserted late in the evening (“after dark” would be inaccurate; white nights, remember) and we found ourselves back up on the Toompea, looking down on the city as it glittered with a hundred thousand points of light. I watched one enormous red dome-shaped building on the eastern horizon, could swear that it actually seemed be getting bigger – but it was only after a few minutes that I realised it was the moon, full and red and enormous.




* It is believed the spire has been struck by lightning at least ten times. It’s rude to point.
** A Russian joke:
An Estonian waits at a railway station. Another Estonian passes by, pumping a hand-car. The first one asks: “Iiis iit faaaaarrrrr tooo Talllinnn?” “Notttt verrryyyy faaaarrrr,” the other answers. The first gets onto the car, and helps work the pump. After two hours of silent pumping, the first Estonian asks again: “Nooowwww iis iit faaaaarrrrr tooo Talllinnn?” “Noooowww iiitt iiiis verrrryyyyy faaaaarrrrr.”
*** The American plant was a clear winner with the Japanese one fairly close behind. The British creeper was pathetic and hadn’t even started.


Tallinn 2015

Old Town and Toompea Linnahall, Patarei Prison, Seaplane MuseumA Brief Interlude on the History of Tallinn – St Olaf’s, Fat Margaret, Old Hansa