Suddenly, I feel my hand clutched, and not by my husband Rick! I turn to see a knight in chainmail armour falling before me on bended knee - not for undying love... but a one-Euro photo op!
We are in front of the Old Town Hall which has been on this spot since 1322, while the present building dates back to 1404. Vana Toomas (Old Thomas), symbolizing Tallinn, appears as a weather-vane atop the hall. Legend has it that as a peasant lad, Thomas won an archery contest reserved for nobility, and instead of being punished, he was invited to become a royal guard.
This is our first of many meanderings around medieval Lower Town's Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), the capital's heart for eight centuries. The vibes of the Middle-Ages emanating from Gothic edifices, now turned into "tempt the tourist" shops, and restaurants with outside seating under a canopy of umbrellas.
Cheery young people in medieval dress wave menus to entice passers-by to partake in a morsel or brew in their establishment. We do not need a lot of coaxing, and with Estonian claims of "100 ways to serve pork and potatoes," our server's suggestion is superb: juicy pork roast with boiled spuds and delicious tangy-yet-sweet sauerkraut, with slabs of black rye bread.
Town Hall Pharmacy (Raeapteek) is said to be one of the oldest, continually-running pharmacies in Europe; by 1422 it was on its third owner. Old apothecary equipment sides the walls, but medieval remedies, such as crushed, dried bee wings, have been replaced with today's popular pharmaceutical offerings.
Olde Hansa is a shop stacked with goods that gained popularity centuries ago: earthenware goblets, tar soap, onion jam... and some odd shoes with curled-up toes. Sales clerk, Anna, is on hand to clarify a shoe was not just a shoe back then, but a show of wealth. "These are commoner shoes with hardly any curl. The rich wore shoes with curls almost reaching their knees, with metal rings on the toes to attach the curls to their mid-calves. The king's curl was tied to his waist," she chuckles, "so you can see why he was carried."
Anna invites me and two other shoppers to partake in a snort of pepper snaps, brewed in-house. Taking the traditional stance - baby finger at the bottom and thumb on the rim of the shot glass, other hand on the head (a sign of respect) and one leg crossed in front of the other at the knee - we toast in unison - then down the hatch. Very tasty!
Another day we climb Toompea hill, known as Upper Old Town, to see how the wealthy once looked down their noses at the commoners.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral dominates the hill; ordered by Tsar Alexander III and completed in 1900. Another prominent edifice is Toompea Castle, which for seven centuries served the nation's foreign masters (German Teutonic Order, Danish, Swedish, Russian), and today houses the parliament of Estonia.
We move along to the formidable 15th century stone bastion, Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the Kitchen). The curious name stems from soldiers joking about how from the top, they could look down into the kitchens of the houses below. Inside we climb spiral stone stairs to the many levels displaying medieval torture devices, right up to WWII weaponry.
The nearby Bastion Tunnels are next. We don small blankets from a pile to wrap around our shoulders against the chill and follow Anilee, our guide, down uneven stone steps to tread through 300m of the 500 currently staked out. Along our route we glean the various uses of these tunnels over the years.
A small cell is where Catherine the Great had a 71-year-old monk imprisoned for speaking out against her. In this damp, cold, lonely place he lasted four years before his soul departed. During WWII the tunnels became air raid shelters used by the Germans and later the Russians. A gas-masked manikin and old radio equipment sets the scene.
After being abandoned for decades, during the 1980's punkers moved in to party and hide from the militia. From 1991 to 2005, during the turmoil of Estonia's newfound independence and skyrocketing unemployment, the tunnels became shelters for homeless people. Near the end of the tour we glimpse into a part of the tunnel that until recently had been underwater for centuries.
A ghostly aura wafts out on mildewed air from rough stone walls and stalactite ceiling.
Out in the brilliant sunshine again, it's time to purchase yet another bag of fresh roasted almonds being stirred with cinnamon and sugar - a good pairing for our cappuccinos.
Surrounding the two-tiered Old Town (a UNESCO site), we venture into Tallinn's modernity of cutting-edge skyscrapers and malls, then it is back for more of the bustling lightheartedness of Old Town's cobblestone streets and living history in medieval costumes and customs that will forever produce a smile.
Rick Butler Slideshow