The Secret Tunnels Under Tallinn

Tallinn
Tallinn is an old city, and like many old cities it has its share of secrets. Stories of ghosts, buried treasure and hidden tunnels add to the atmosphere of the medieval streets.

For a couple of years, one of those secrets was revealed when the city opened up the Bastion Tunnels. These corridors were built by Estonia’s Swedish rulers in the 1670s and ran under the earthen bastions that protected the city. These bastions were an improvement over Tallinn’s stone walls, which were now outdated in the age of artillery. The tunnels allowed for the rapid and safe transport of troops from one part of the defenses to the other.

The Bastion Tunnels were used by the soldiers for a time and then were abandoned to the rats and spiders. Abandoned, but not forgotten. The entrances were still visible yet few dared to go down there. Rumors of buried treasure arose but most people were too afraid to venture into the dank, dark tunnels to search for it.

In the more practical 20th century the tunnels got new life. In the 1930s everyone could see that war was coming, and Estonia’s uncomfortable position next to the Soviet Union made it an obvious target. The government reopened the tunnels as bomb shelters. Today, a section of the tunnels is preserved to commemorate this era, with vintage posters showing what to do in case of an air raid, and some frightened dummies set up in period clothing.

The Soviets occupied Estonia in 1940, only to be kicked out by the Germans the following year. They were hardly a liberating force, however, and the partisans who had been fighting the Soviets soon turned their guns on the Nazis. Meanwhile the Soviets launched bombing raids and the citizens of Tallinn hid in the tunnels for protection. Luckily most of the historic city was preserved, but as you walk around you can spot patches where all the buildings are new. This is thanks to the Soviets.

%Gallery-179163%The Estonian resistance actually took advantage of the bombings to strike a blow against their occupiers. Estonians tell the story that the German high officers all stayed at a particular posh hotel. The resistance hoped it would get hit by a bomb and preeminently smuggled ammunition into the cellar. A Soviet bomb hit the hotel and BOOM … no more Nazi officers.

The Soviets eventually retook Estonia and it would remain under Soviet rule until 1991. During that time the tunnels were used again as a bomb shelter. Visitors can see period equipment like radios, air circulation machines and radiation suits. There’s even an old Soviet latrine that still stinks. The photo above shows an Estonian family hoping their suits will stop the radiation from an American nuclear strike. That green bag between the mother and her child is for a baby. I’ll leave it to you to guess whether that contraption would have actually worked.

Eventually the Soviets, too, abandoned the tunnels. Estonia had nuclear missiles positioned all over the country so it was on the U.S. shortlist for bombing. The Soviets must have realized that some 17th century tunnels weren’t going to protect anyone from a direct hit, so the tunnels once again reverted to a home for rats and spiders.

Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, a new group took over the tunnels – the punks. Punk rock was illegal in the Soviet Union. That whole defy-the-system ethos didn’t sit too well with the Communist Party. So the punks went underground, literally. They spray painted the walls, threw parties, drank, took drugs and generally had a good time while thumbing their noses at authority. The police harassed and often arrested punks on the street but never chased them into the tunnels. Our tour guide told us that the tunnels had become infested with fleas and the cops didn’t want to catch bugs along with punks.

Independence came in 1991 and the punks could enjoy sunlight again. The economy wasn’t doing so well and the homeless population swelled. They took over the tunnels and made them as comfortable as they could. Eventually, of course, they were kicked out so the tunnels could be restored and opened as a tourist site. Our tour guide didn’t know what happened to the homeless people.

The Bastion Tunnels make for an interesting tour, yet I feel that the city missed a great opportunity. The punk graffiti was all painted over and eventually replaced with faux graffiti in the punk style. I would have much preferred to have seen graffiti written by some crusty old punk from the days when defying authority could land you in jail instead of just angering parents. It would have also been nice if they could have employed some of the homeless people as tour guides. This would have given them work and given visitors an insight into what it was like to live underneath the city.

And the “Time Machine” ride they have is just too cheesy to waste bandwidth on …

Still, the Bastion Tunnels are one of the most interesting attractions in Tallinn. They’re entered through the cellar of the Kiek in de Kök tower. The name means “peek into the kitchen” because the tower so dominated the town that it was said the watchmen could look down the chimneys of the houses and see what was cooking! The tower has a collection of arms and armor as well as a space for photographic exhibitions. From the top you get a fine view of Tallinn’s Old Town.

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

Coming up next: A Vintage Submarine and Icebreaker in Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbor!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

The East Highland Way day four: Pictish forts and empty wilderness


Views like this reassure me that I’m doing the right thing with my life.

It’s day four of my trek along the East Highland Way in Scotland, and the terrain is getting increasingly rugged. My trip today will take me through the most remote part of my walk. But before I go, I have an archaeological wonder to see first.

I head to a hill overlooking the village of Laggan to visit Dun-Da-Lamh, a fort built by the Picts. These people dominated Scotland in the murky years at the very beginning of recorded history. They were Celts like their neighbors, but with a distinctive art and culture. History first mentions them when they fought the Romans in the third century AD. It’s from a Roman writer that we get their name, which means “tattooed people”, referring to the complex blue tattoos said to cover their bodies. The Romans found Scotland more trouble than they could afford and eventually pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving the Picts to expand their power over the Highlands. These were rough times and the Picts were the fiercest warriors in the region, except for a brief period when they got their asses whooped by the Vikings. The Picts defended their land with massive hilltop forts.

After a pleasant ramble through a sunny valley of farmer’s fields and a sparkling stream, I start a grinding trudge up a steep hill. The trail coils around the hillside, it being far too steep to walk up directly. After a sweaty climb I make it to the top and on a rugged summit see the remains of the fort. It is deceptively simple in design–a single thick wall–but when new it would have been virtually impregnable. Most approaches to the summit are almost too steep to climb, especially if you have angry blue warriors throwing spears and rocks down at you. The one easy route is barred by the thickest point in the wall. Here the stones are piled 23 feet thick, and in the days before artillery nothing could have broken through. A few ravines that allow passage to the top also have strong points defending them.

%Gallery-100245%The stones are of moderate size and I don’t see any that I couldn’t lift, yet there must be tens of thousands of them. The effort required to build this place boggles my mind. It’s obvious why the Picts chose this spot. It gives a clear view down two valleys and a sweeping vista of the surrounding countryside. No army could approach without being seen.

In the tenth century the Picts united with another people, the Gaels, and founded the first true kingdom of Scotland. Even before this momentous merging of cultures they did much to create a Scottish identity. Their material remains gave later peoples something to be proud of. How could the Scottish, looking at these massive forts, the Picts’ intricately carved stone monuments of warriors and animals, and their glittering hordes of gold, not feel proud of their past? This heap of stones where I’m standing did the same for the Scots that the Parthenon did for the Greeks. It gave them a sense of identity distinct from the stronger nations that later ruled over them.

I’ve sat on this hill thinking of the past long enough. I have 15 miles to walk to get to my next stop, the village of Newtonmore, and dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. I set out.

The land between Laggan and Newtonmore is the best part of the East Highland Way. I step off a paved road onto a dirt track leading into a seemingly endless landscape of fields, streams, and hills, silent save for the wind. The track soon dissolves into nothing and I’m walking across short grass and heather. Now my compass comes in real handy. According to the maps I have to go north through a pass between two steep hills, then turn east at a stream and follow it across a broad valley surrounded by grim peaks of gray stone. While the topography is pretty clear, it’s reassuring to do some reckoning courtesy of the magnetic pole to double check where I am.

Where I am is nowhere, and that’s just where I want to be. I don’t see a soul. The few old stone cottages appear to be long abandoned. A see a few sheep grazing, so somebody must come here occasionally, but how often? My only other companions are some grouse and partridge. Rain spatters down on me as I negotiate streams that have never seen a bridge and squish along sheep’s trails that happen to go in my direction.

One peak catches my eye. Silhouetted against the gray sky is a strange shape. It appears to be either a cairn or a single standing stone. Perhaps some prehistoric marker or a monument of the Picts? It doesn’t appear on my Ordnance Survey map, which is so detailed it even marks the old crofts that have lain abandoned for three centuries. That doesn’t mean the stone is a natural feature. The land is so vast that the cartographers could miss something, even though it’s so visible from the valley below. It’s visibility hints that it is man-made, a marker of some kind. What could it be?

I don’t have time to find out. While the rain has stopped the sun is beginning to sink towards the horizon. Scotland’s summer evenings seem to last forever, but the wouldn’t last the hours it would take me to get to that summit and back down. I continue across the valley and up a hill and see Newtonmore nestled next to the River Spey. I leave the mystery of the stone behind for the next hiker to solve.

Coming up next: Exploring Scottish heritage!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on hiking the East Highland Way.