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 These bastions were an improvement over Tallinn’s stone walls, which were now outdated in the age of artillery.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

Inside The Urban Underground: Exploration Gets Personal

New Yorker Steve Duncan was so desperate to pass his college math class, he crawled through a tunnel to finish it. A computer assignment was due the next day and the software to finish was inside a building closed for the night. In a moment of desperation, Steve came up with a crazy plan: he could sneak inside. Having heard from a classmate about a collection of well-known tunnels connecting the university’s buildings, he resolved to convince the friend to guide him. After escorting Steve to the tunnel entrance, the friend offered vague directions, wished him luck and promptly left. As Steve recalls:

“He took off in the other direction and … here I was absolutely alone – it was terrifying and eye-opening, because every building on campus was connected by these tunnels. I passed the math class, but what always stuck with me was that first moment of being alone in the dark and being absolutely terrified but realizing that if I could face that, I had access to every part of the campus.”

Duncan had educational goals in mind when he entered the underground tunnels that night, but his experience kick-started an interest in an activity he continues to practice to this day: urban exploration.

Urban explorers seek to investigate the centuries of infrastructure created (and sometimes abandoned) by modern civilization: disused factories, historic bridges and unknown tunnels entered using legal, and sometimes illegal, means. The reason they do it is not as easily defined. Urban explorers come from a range of backgrounds, ranging from urban planners to historians to preservationists to architecture lovers, photographers and just plain old thrill-seekers all of whom are often lumped together under the banner of this general term. Just in New York alone, there’s the founders of the website Atlas Obscura, Nick Carr from Scouting New York and Kevin Walsh from Forgotten New York, along with countless others living around the world. These individuals, taken together, are less a community than a loose network of individuals united by a common love: re-discovering and investigating the forgotten and sometimes misunderstood detritus of modern day urban civilization

Yet the popularity of urban exploration confronts an interesting dilemma facing many 21st Century travelers: now that so much of what we seek to “discover” has been Google mapped, investigated and written about ad nauseum, how is our relationship with the concept of exploration evolving? And what does it tell us about the future of travel?

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Steve Duncan – Urban Historian, Explorer and Geographer
It’s been over a decade since that math class first brought Steve Duncan underground, but he’s continued to evolve his approach to urban exploration from his home base of New York City. Styling himself as an “urban geographer” and historian, Duncan continues to direct his energies towards understanding the unseen layers of infrastructure that constitute our urban environment – namely the sewers, bridges and subway tunnels of the Big Apple.

In more recent years, Duncan has gained increasing attention for his adventures, including a week-long expedition through the sewers under NYC with Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge and a short documentary made by filmmaker Andrew Wonder that follows him as he visits New York’s off-limits subway stations and climbs to the top of the Queensboro Bridge.

But Duncan’s urban adventures aren’t undertaken merely for thrills – they’re a means to an intriguing end. In fact, Duncan cares less about being the first to rediscover forgotten places than taking a fresh look at the urban environments we inhabit. Despite the fact more than 50% of our world’s population now lives in cities, Duncan notes, much of today’s travel media continues to focus on outward-looking explorations of far-flung places perceived to be “exotic” – for instance, the wild jungles of Borneo or the ancient temples of Jordan. Steve believes his own adventures constitute an equally exotic form of adventure – a new inward-focused method of exploration.

As he notes, “I’m not interested in going to places nobody’s been before, [but rather] I’m interested in how we shape places.” This life-long history lover views exploration not as a means for public recognition but rather as a way to better understand his personal passion for the ever-changing nature of cities. Whether or not he can “claim the place” as his is irrelevant – he’s more interested in understanding. As he tells it, “All exploration to some extent is personal. It doesn’t matter if someone’s been there before. If it’s new to you, it’s still exploration.”

Taken together, Duncan’s adventures constitutes a kind of inward-driven “time travel” – a concept in which the worlds of history, the growth and decay of cities and adventure travel merge together to define a new opportunity all of us as travelers can take to re-examine the everyday world around us as a source of curiosity.

Dylan Thuras – Cartographer of Curiosities

Not all stories of urban exploration involve spending weeks in tunnels under New York City. For Dylan Thuras, co-founder of website Atlas Obscura, a mind-altering childhood trip to House on the Rock in Wisconsin defined his early travel memories. The strange house is part museum and part hall of curiosities, filled with bizarre collections of artwork, carousel rides and giant biological specimens. As Dylan recalls, “the fact that this could be tucked away in the woods in sleepy Wisconsin made me feel like there were these magical worlds all over the place … if I just knew how to look, I would start to find these fantastical places everywhere”

Ever since that moment, Thuras and his co-founder Joshua Foer of Atlas Obscura have dedicated their website to altering travelers’ perspectives of the places worth visiting on their itineraries. To date they’ve built a worldwide, user-driven database highlighting more sites on all seven continents. As an example of the sites Atlas uncovers, Thuras mentions two sites in Florence, Italy – whereas the Uffizi Gallery is probably on most travelers’ radar, Dylan and Joshua also want to help you discover La Specola, the museum of wax anatomical models that contains a specimen of astronomer Galileo’s middle finger.

As Dylan points out, if an attraction isn’t listed on the top ten list in a guidebook “… it is easy to slip into anonymity, obscurity and disappear. I want to give people a sense that there is so much more than those ten things and that they might find that they have a better time if they venture into new territory.”

The style of exploration advocated by Thuras seeks to shift the context of the worlds we already know. That’s a far cry from the conception many travelers have in their heads of an idealized explorer discovering uncharted lands. Says Thuras: “This isn’t [exploration] in the Victorian sense of climbing the tallest mountain, or finding the source of a river … but in the sense that every one of us can find new and astonishing things if we look for them … it doesn’t always have to be about far-flung adventures.”

Urban Exploration – What’s Next?

Duncan and Thuras may appear to occupy different ends of the urban exploration spectrum, but their motivation stems from a distinct similarity. After years of endless exploring, categorizing and searching, both have arrived at the realization that our mundane daily worlds can be unknown places of curiosity and wonder. The challenge of getting there then, isn’t in the physical act of getting there. Explorers like Duncan do face large risks of injury in their wanderings, but it’s not on the scale of Ernest Shackleton, Captain James Cook or Edmund Hilary.

The difference in these explorers’ adventures thus seems to be a mental reframing of what we conceive of as exploration. Their perception of what is worthy of our consideration and interest as travelers is gradually shifting from the physical towards the mental. In the relentless search for finding the most far-flung undiscovered locations on earth, all of us as travelers have neglected to look right in front of our faces at the places we inhabit everyday as worthy of discovery. Unlike Steve Duncan the journey might not require a crawl through a sewer to appreciate, but ultimately it can be just as rewarding.

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.

Secret tunnel in Dubai a big surprise to drivers

A new underground tunnel has opened in Dubai that will save drivers tons of time through one of the busiest sections of the city during rush hour, but no one seems to know where it came from, or when it was completed, including the agency responsible for road construction.

According to this story from Gulfnews.com, the new tunnel runs 1.1 kilometers in length, linking the Downtown Burj Khalifa area to Al Mafraq Road, allowing drivers to bypass the extremely heavy traffic that runs to the nearby Dubai Mall. But major cities open new roads and bypasses all the time. What makes this one so unique, is that it appears to have been completed, and opened, without anyone at the Roads and Transport Authority knowing about it. In fact, an official from the RTA said, “We may have announced this already, but I’m not aware of it,” adding, “It sounds like it will save drivers a lot of time.”That same official admitted to having no idea when the tunnel actually opened to traffic.

According to the story, the massive four-lane tunnel with a concrete divider running down the middle, has no street signs or name plates of any kind. The unmarked road also remains mostly empty at this time, as it seems that drivers have yet to discover the entrance, giving those that do know of its existence an unfair advantage in the race to and from work each day.

Obviously we’ve all seen how much construction has been going on in Dubai over the past decade. You know you have a lot of construction underway when a major project like an underground tunnel, such as this one, can be built to completion, opened to the public, and completely escape the notice of the agency that ordered that it be built. Crazy!