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 These bastions were an improvement over Tallinn’s stone walls, which were now outdated in the age of artillery.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]

‘Undercity: Las Vegas’ Takes You Above And Below Sin City



Just last month, Gadling took you on a journey inside the world of urban exploration, bringing you on a behind-the-scenes look at the urban explorers who are inventing new ways of visiting the areas under, above and inside the cities we traverse every day. Today, we’ve got another intriguing look at the urban exploring phenomenon to share with you, courtesy of the short film series above called “Undercity: Las Vegas.”

Part of an interesting collaboration with shoe company Palladium, the film series follows the exploits of urban historian Steve Duncan, profiled in Gadling’s recent feature, along with director Andrew Wonder, as they investigate the subterranean water tunnels and unfinished construction sites that comprise the lesser-known side of this urban neon mecca of gambling and nightlife. In this particular clip, Duncan manages to sneak inside the as yet unfinished Fontainebleu Resort Las Vegas, climbing nearly 60 floors to take in an eye-popping view of the early Vegas dawn.

Though the trespassing on the construction site is clearly illegal, it’s an intriguing look inside the urban underbelly that few Las Vegas visitors ever see. Those interested in seeing the full film can head over to Palladium’s video hub to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this ongoing series.


Exploring the tunnels under the Western Front

Western FrontThe common image of the Western Front in World War One is of muddy trenches and artillery barrages. That was certainly the experience of most soldiers. But while huge armies slugged it out in the mud and ruin of France and Belgium, another war was going on underground. Sappers from both sides dug tunnels under enemy trenches, packed them with explosives, and blew them up.

The explosions were huge, like this one the British detonated under the German position on Hawthorn Ridge on 1 July 1916. The explosion used 40,000 pounds of high explosives and marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

Sapping was extremely dangerous. Tunnels collapsed or got blown up by enemy mines. Sometimes mines intersected one another and there were hellish fights in the near darkness. Two good fictional portrayals of this war-beneath-a-war are the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and the Australian film Beneath Hill 60.

Now part of that underground battlefield is being studied by a team of British archaeologists. After detailed research in archives of several nations they’ve pinpointed a network of British and German tunnels under the French town of La Boisselle and have tracked down who fought there and when. They even know where some of these poor fellows got buried alive.

Right now the team is using ground-penetrating radar to map the tunnels and will being excavating in October. Some tunnels can still be entered while others are too unstable or have collapsed. Eventually the site will be opened up as a museum commemorating those who fought underneath the Western Front.

[Photo courtesy UK government]

Book Review: Underground England

England, england, undergroundEngland is a land of countless half-forgotten legends and secret hidden places.

In Underground England: Travels Beneath our Cities and Countryside, Stephen Smith explores these places, worming his way through damp caves and exploring haunted tunnels under crumbling castles. While he starts with natural caves, of which England is blessed with more than its fair share, he soon veers off into man-made places, trying to puzzle out the history hidden beneath a mass of legend.

Smith discovers that the Green and Pleasant Land is in fact the Damp and Dark Honeycomb. Stately homes have secret rooms under the stairs to hide once-illegal Catholic priests. Cold War governments created massive bunkers to save themselves (but not us) from their folly. And there are follies of a different sort–fake grottoes created by the rich and bored, like that of the infamous Hell Fire Club, which Smith reveals as far more notorious than nefarious. Eccentric Englishmen indulging their whims.

A bit like Smith himself. He’s obsessed with anything subterranean, anything weird or hidden. Burrowing under England with him is like being cornered for hours at a country pub by an uncommonly interesting local wit. Even his language fits the bill–a mixture of double entendres, pop culture references, and bizarre words. Lots of bizarre words. Appurtenances? I knew that one. Demesne? No problem. But to deckle? Prelapsarian? Thank God for the Oxford English Dictionary! I respect a man who can teach me two obscure words in the first six pages without slowing down the prose. And he doesn’t let up for the next 284.

You won’t find much on London’s underworld, however. Its wartime shelters, abandoned Tube stations, and vanished rivers are covered in Smith’s earlier book Underground London. If it’s anywhere near as good as Underground England, I’m buying it. Smith offers us a true glory hole (in the mining sense of the word). A brave traveler could make a whole under-the-road trip out of the contents of this book.

Weekending: Sarajevo


Istanbul’s unique position straddling two continents affords a lot of travel opportunities, with quick direct flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As an American living in Turkey, I try to explore as often as I can, particularly to less-traveled destinations. While my last weekend trip was to Prague, for this trip, I ventured to another Eastern European capital with far fewer tourists but an equally fascinating history.

The place: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
When I stepped off the plane in Sarajevo, the immigration officer asked me what I was doing in Bosnia. I struggled for a moment before answering “holiday” but really had no single good answer. A combination of cheap tickets, a holiday weekend, and an intriguing destination was what brought me to Bosnia. Most people associate Sarajevo with the tragic Bosnian War in the 1990s, or as part of the former communist Yugoslavia, but today the city is rebuilding and winning fans with cafe culture, Ottoman architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventure. The blend of religions and ethnicities have led the city to be called the European Jerusalem, and travelers will find the excellent exchange rate ($1 USD = 1.5 BAM, which is tied to the Euro 2:1) and widely-spoken English especially welcoming.

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  • One of the most amazing things about Bosnia is the the people. Resilient, scrappy, and friendly, Sarajevans have survived a lot and recovered remarkably well in a short time. I was particularly sobered by imagining the incredibly difficult adolescence people my age (30) must have had during the 1992-95 conflict. To get an idea of life under siege, you only have to walk around the city and take in the many bullet hole-ridden, damaged and shelled buildings, like the Moorish National Library which is undergoing reconstruction. Every visitor should go to the Historical Museum, across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn war correspondent hub, with a humble but moving exhibit on the siege. The Tunnel of Hope is another must-see museum documenting and preserving the cramped passage between the city and the free zone, where residents could connect with aid and communication with the outside world.
  • Sarajevo also offers excellent value. Decent hotels start at 40 Euros and rarely top 100 Euros. I stayed at the very comfortable and personal Hotel Michele for 85 Euros with a nice breakfast and wifi; celebrity guests have included Bono and Morgan Freeman. Tram or bus tickets are under 2 BAM, with taxi rides among the lowest in Europe (the most expensive ride is to the airport and under 25 BAM). Most attractive to expats who pay a small fortune for alcohol: beer, wine, and cocktails are 3 to 10 BAM most everywhere. While not a party town, there are a few good night spots including one of my favorite bars ever: the delightful Zlatna Ribica with the most well-stocked bar bathroom I’ve ever seen.

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  • While many of the sights are fascinating and affecting, the small museums and tourist attractions are still limited and can be seen in a day or two. The historic Bascarsija Turkish quarter is fun to stroll but crowded with more souvenir shops than craftsmiths these days. Sarajevo is better spent relaxing at a cafe on pedestrian Ferhadija Street and absorbing the history and culture than ticking sights off a list. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, there are also lots of opportunities for hikes, day trips, and skiing in winter.
  • Bosnian food is not bad, but many staple dishes are strikingly similar to Turkish food, such as stuffed burek pastries and cevapi meatballs (see: Turkish kofte). While tasty and locally-sourced, the food in Sarajevo tends to be heavy and meat-centric, without the abundance of salads and fish that balance out Turkish menus. High-end international and modern Bosnian restaurants are popping up around town, while cheap eats can be had for under 10 BAM. Reliable mid-range options include Noovi Wine Bar near the British Embassy for pizzas and a great regional wine list, and To Be or Not to Be (name reflects the plucky and determined spirit of Sarajevans during the siege) for homemade pastas and funky twists on traditional dishes. A famous local restaurant is Inat Kuca, or House of Spite, across the river from the National Library. The story behind the name dates back to the building of the library (then City Hall) when the house’s resident refused to let them build over his home, so they took the house brick-by-brick across the river to where it stands today (how’s that for thwarting eminent domain?).

Getting there

Tiny but admirably high-tech (they offer mobile and web check-in) Sarajevo International Airport doesn’t offer many flights outside of Eastern Europe, but national carrier B&H Airlines has affordable flights from major hubs including Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich. Many travelers arrive via car or bus from neighboring countries; Croatia’s popular Dubrovnik is 5-7 hours by car and there’s an overnight train to/from Zagreb.

Make it a week

Check out the other half of B&H: Mostar in Herzegovina is another beautiful river town with a famous bridge not far from the Croatian coast. Bosnia is also an emerging destination for adventure travel with a large diversity of activities and landscapes. The Balkans have a wealth of places to go, but be aware of the history and potential Serbia visa issues when traveling overland.