A Medieval Monastery In Estonia

Estonia
Estonia had an interesting time in the Middle Ages. Along with the other Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia, they were the last bastion of paganism in a continent that had become entirely Christian.

Various Christian kingdoms decided this was a good excuse for conquest and launched the Northern Crusades. From 1208 to 1224, the Germans, Danes, and Swedes attacked Estonia and eventually conquered it.

Once the knights had finished their work, it was time for the clergy to step in. Prominent among these were the Cistercians, one of the most powerful monastic orders of their time. In 1220 they were rewarded with lands at Padise near the important port of Tallinn. They built a small stone chapel there and began expanding it into a large fortified monastery in 1317.

In 1343 the Estonians rose up against their occupiers and burned down Padise Monastery, killing 28 monks. The uprising was crushed and the Cistercians rebuilt the monastery better and stronger than before. It continued being a monastery until 1558, when it became a fortress protecting the landward approach to Tallinn. The building changed hands several times during the region’s many wars. It was besieged twice, the siege in 1580 lasting 13 weeks, during which the defenders (Russians at that moment) got hammered with Swedish artillery and eventually were starved into submission.

%Gallery-180500%In 1622, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden gave the monastery and lands to Thomas Ramm, Burgermeister of Riga, in exchange for Ramm giving up the city to the king’s army. I suppose the Ramm family wasn’t very welcome in Riga after that.

I visited on a quiet, gloomy winter afternoon as part of a day trip with Tallinn Traveller Tours, after a morning spent chasing the Estonian Army. Mart, my guide, led me up some slick icy steps to the top of the tower to look out over the snowy countryside. Somehow I managed not to slip and fall to my death. Writing for you people always seems to send me up unsafe heights. At least it wasn’t as bad as the minaret in Samarra.

After we made it down safely, Mart took me around the castle grounds.

“Imagine being a kid here,” he said. “We all played like we were knights in castles, but the kids around here get the real thing.”

Lots of Estonian kids are lucky that way. Forts, manor houses, and monasteries abound in the Estonian countryside. This area was fought over for centuries yet the Estonians managed to keep their distinct language and national character. Eventually they managed to get independence too.

We entered the great hall, once used for meals and services, and admired the fine arches and carved columns. From there we explored the dark, chilly cellar, where a centuries-old oven was still black from baking bread for the monks.

“Look at this,” Mart said, shining is mobile phone light on the wall.

A mosquito was perched on the cold stone.

“I’m surprised it’s still alive,” I said.

“I should kill it,” Mart said. “I hate those things. They swarm around you all summer.”

He left it alone. I was glad. I’ve always respected survivors.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming Up Next: Gifts from Estonia!

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town

Tallinn
Tallinn is a medieval wonderland. The capital of Estonia isn’t on a lot of people’s bucket list but anyone at all interested in history, architecture or art will love this place.

The central attraction is Old Town, a medieval walled city filled with old buildings and fortifications. The sheltered bay and the easily defended Toompea Hill made it a natural place to settle. Sometime about 1050 A.D. a fortress was built atop the hill, the first of many. In 1219 the Danes showed up as part of the Northern Crusade to subjugate the Baltics and convert the local pagans to Christianity whether they wanted to or not.

The Danes improved the fortifications and expanded the town, which became part of the Hanseatic League, a trading organization of a hundred northern cities. The Danes sold Tallinn to the Livonan Order, a branch of the Teutonic Knights, in 1346. The Swedes came next in 1561. Tallinn weathered plague and the Great Northern War and became part of Russia in 1710. In 1918, Estonia declared independence from Russia and fought a bitter war against Bolshevik Russia. Independence didn’t last long, however, and the fledgling nation fell first to the Nazis and then the Soviets during World War II.

Despite all this conquering, Tallinn’s historic core has survived remarkably intact. It’s so well preserved that the whole Old Town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the 14th century city wall still stands, including a couple of stretches where you can climb the narrow spiral staircases of the towers and end up on the medieval catwalk. The Viru Gates, flanked by thin pointed towers from the 14th century, makes a nice entrance into Old Town.

Dominating the town atop Toompea Hill is Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower. It was used as the center of government since 1229 and is now the site of Estonia’s parliament. Nearby stands the inappropriately named Maiden’s Tower that used to house a prison for prostitutes.

%Gallery-178685%There are several interesting old houses of worship. The oldest is the atmospheric and very chilly Dominican Monastery from 1246. My favorite was the Holy Spirit Church with its colorful Renaissance clock, elaborate altar, and painted pews. The 13th century St. Nicholas got bombed in World War II but was meticulously reconstructed and now houses a display of religious art, including the freaky “Dance Macabre” of cavorting skeletons.

The photo below was taken from the spire of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the many towers that offer fine views of the city. Also try the Town Hall for a great view. The most visible church that seems to get on all the postcards is the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its onion domes.

Several of the medieval buildings house museums: Epping Tower has a collection of medieval arms and armor, the 15th-century Great Guild Hall houses the Estonian History Museum, a 14th century merchant’s mansion is home to the Tallinn City Museum, and Fat Margaret’s cannon tower from 1530 is now the Maritime Museum.

One of the most popular attractions is Kiek en de Kök, an imposing tower on the slopes of Toompea Hill. Its basement connects with a network of tunnels beneath the bastions. There’s enough of interest here that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to this place later in the series.

As you can see from the photos, I visited Tallinn this February. While I only saw about five minutes of blue sky in the six days I was there, and it snowed every day, there are advantages to visiting in the dead of winter. First, prices of hotels and flights plummet and you can pick your dates without having to worry about getting a place. This makes it a good budget travel option for those who don’t mind a bit of cold.

If you’re coming from England, you’re in luck. Ryaniar flies to Tallinn from Luton, and easyJet flies from Gatwick. There are also regular connections from Munich, Helsinki, and other important cities.

Tallinn makes a good budget option whatever the season. Old Town is compact enough that you don’t need to pay for transport, and a Tallinn Card gets you free tours and free entry into all the sites. Being so compact you can see a lot of the city in one day, making the card well worth the money. The cost of the card is 24 euros for 24 hours, 32 euros for 48 hours, and 40 euros for 72 hours. Children up to 14 years get the card for half price. The card comes with a good city map and guidebook.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Snowy Traditional Village in Estonia!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Athens day trip: Acrocorinth, one of Greece’s greatest castles

Acrocorinth, Greece, castle, castles
Greece is justly famous for its ancient monuments. The Acropolis, Delphi, and other Classical sites are the reason most history lovers come to this ancient land. The medieval period, however, produced many equally impressive monuments and it’s a shame they’re so often overlooked. Greece is filled with giant castles, remote monasteries, and lovely churches decorated with gold mosaics and richly colored paintings.

One of the largest castles in Greece is Acrocorinth, less than an hour away from Athens by train. It sits atop a rocky hill 1,800 feet high overlooking the famous city and harbor of Corinth. Its strategic location close to the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land connecting the Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, makes it one of the most important castles in the country.

I arrived there one rainy morning to find the hill and its castle wreathed in mist. A taxi ride from the train station took me up a winding road past sheer drops. No approach to the summit is easy, and from some sides it would take a skilled mountain climber to get up. Only the western slope is relatively passable, and it’s protected by triple walls.

Acrocorinth is such an obvious point for defense that there’s been a castle here for more than 2,500 years. The ancient Greeks built a temple to Aphrodite at the top and built walls made of massive stones to serve as a refuge for the Corinthians against pirates and invaders.
In AD 146 the Romans destroyed Corinth and its castle and for many years they lay abandoned.

The temple was replaced by a church in the 5th or 6th century AD. By this time the Western Roman Empire had collapsed and the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, was a powerful Christian state ruling over much of the eastern Mediterranean with its capital at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Corinth and Acrocorinth became important again as a Byzantine regional capital.

%Gallery-146085%The Byzantines had their hands full fighting Muslim armies and were seriously weakened when they lost most of what is now Turkey. Little did they expect the next blow to come from fellow Christians. As knights from Western Europe set out on the Fourth Crusade, they originally planned on retaking Jerusalem from the Arabs. Instead they diverted to Byzantium and sacked Constantinople in 1204.

The Crusaders surrounded Acrocorinth but saw that an assault would be foolhardy and settled down for a long siege. Acrocorinth was defended by the Greek lord Leo Sgouros. For four years he kept the Crusaders at bay, but the strain of living within the walls eventually drove him mad. One day he mounted his horse and galloped over the cliffs to his death. This didn’t deter his garrison, however, and they continued to hold on until 1210, when the situation became so hopeless that they finally surrendered. The French knight William de Villehardouin built a castle on Acrocorinth and strengthened the walls.

The Byzantines slowly pushed the crusaders out of their empire and Acrocorinth was retaken in 1395. The ravages of the Fourth Crusade permanently weakened Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were moving in from the east and took Constantinople in 1453. The Peloponnese held out for a time and Acrocorinth didn’t fall until 1458 after a long siege during which Greek soldiers snuck through Turkish lines and climbed the cliffs to bring supplies to the beleaguered defenders. The Venetians took the castle from the Ottomans in 1687 and many of the walls visible today are their handiwork. After a long war the Ottomans retook Acrocorinth, only to lose it for good to the Greeks in 1823 during the War of Independence.

The view from the top had me entranced. To one side, ancient and modern Corinth lay at my feet, with the Aegean stretching out beyond. To the other side lay olive groves and open countryside. As I explored the rugged hilltop with its medieval walls, Crusader keep, and remnants of temples, churches, and mosques, I was entirely alone. Two American tourists left just as I arrived, and besides a guard and a workman at the gate, I saw no one. That was fine by me. Places like this are best seen in silence and solitude.

It doesn’t bode well for the local economy, though. Sure, winter is low season, but there should be more people seeing this wonderful place. Low season in Greece also means shorter hours. Acrocorinth shut at 3pm. Old Corinth, with its important museum and picturesque Temple of Apollo, shut at the same time. If I wanted to do the castle justice I didn’t have time see Old Corinth.

As the guard closed and locked the castle gate I walked down the road back to Old Corinth a few kilometers away. It had stopped raining and I didn’t mind the walk. This being Greece, however, a passing motorist stopped to pick me up. It turned out to be the workman I had spotted on Acrocorinth, an archaeologist working on the restoration of Villehardouin’s tower. His English was limited but he expressed his gratitude at my visit. He loved the castle as much as I did, and was thankful that money for its restoration was still coming through. Not from my visit, though; entrance is free. I would have happily paid five euros.

Down at Old Corinth everything was closing. I took some photos of Apollo’s temple through the fence and wandered down a street lined with tourist shops and restaurants. All were open and none had customers. I settled in for lunch at a restaurant called Marinos. The owner and his family and friends were having a big, loud meal. I was the only customer. The food was excellent, though, and they serve a wine from their own vineyard not just a hundred meters away. I hope they have better business in the high season; they deserve it.

From the restaurant I called the taxi driver who had brought me up to the castle. It was getting late, the rain had started again, and walking all the way to the train station after sampling the local wine didn’t appeal.

“You liked the castle?” he asked as we drove down the hill.

“Loved it. Too bad I couldn’t see Old Corinth.”

“Yes,” he sighed in obvious frustration. “They should stay open longer. You would have bought a ticket. Instead you end up less happy than you should be.”

“Has business been bad?” I asked.

“The tourists are still coming but they’re getting a bad experience. I do day tours and sometimes we show up at a site and it’s closed. People fly all the way here and don’t get to see what they want.”

“People being the way they are I guess they sometimes blame you.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Sometimes they do.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Acropolis!

Discoveries at a Templar abbey in Ireland

Ireland, Mourne Abbey
Mourne Abbey in County Cork, Ireland, has been the focus of an archaeological excavation to discover more about the history of this medieval religious center.

The abbey was built around 1199 by the Knights Templar. After the rulers of Europe turned on the Templars and destroyed the order in 1307, resulting in 700 years of conspiracy theories, the abbey was handed over to the Knights Hospitaller. This knightly order got its name because its original purpose was to care for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem after the First Crusade, but soon they acquired more land and more power to become one of the leading forces in the Holy Land and Europe. They owned some of the toughest castles in the world.

Their power waned after the Muslims reconquered the Holy Land but the order still exists today. The abbey was abandoned when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries as part of his break from Rome in 1541. It has since fallen into picturesque ruin.

Now a team of archaeologists has excavated the site and discovered remains from the Hospitaller’s stay in the abbey. The team uncovered the foundations of a 13th century preceptory, the local headquarters for the knights. Very few remains of the Knights Hospitaller have ever been found in Ireland. The archaeologists discovered decorated floor tiles, the tomb of a 16th century knight, and several artifacts.

The abbey is open to the public and there’s a medieval castle and town an easy walk away. For more images of this historic abbey, click here.

[Photo courtesy John Armagh]