In May 2010 I decided to leave my job in Australia and travel around the world before moving to the USA. This journey ended up involving travelling in 18 countries on 4 continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Australia) and taking me around the world 1.5 times over a 12 month period! I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 19 of that journey (Estonia).
August 18th, 2010
The Anatomy Museum in Tartu, Estonia is part of the local University History Museum and ended up being a fascinating yet rather gruesome place. I feel sorry for the guy with elephantitis…..he was 19 and had 5kg testicles! 5kg! You were not allowed to take photos in there, but I snuck a photo past the stern ladies guarding the place of these big boys! I am glad I have a strong stomach – there was jar after jar of diseased and deformed body parts. The worst room was the one with babies in jars…yes that’s correct – babies! From fetus to 8 months old – normal, deformed, conjoined twins – they had it all….pretty revolting this part to be honest.
The KGB HQ had a museum in the basement…which of course was the prison and torture chamber. They had an interesting display on the “Forest Brothers” – Estonian freedom fighters who hid in the forest and fought the Soviets right into the late 1950’s – pretty impressive as Estonia is quite a small country. They must have been very tough people.
Then whilst deciding where to go next, I saw a link on the internet about a place called Narva on the Estonia/Russia border – they were re-enacting over the weekend the August 1704 Battle of Narva, the second Imperial Russian siege of Narva which was ruled by Sweden at the time. This battle was during the Great Northern War and resulted in the capture of the town by Russia and the subsequent massacre of all Swedish inhabitants. Not much changed in the next 285 years! This sounded interesting so I caught a bus up there.
My first stop was to tour Narva Castle where the battle re-enactment will be staged. This castle was built in the 14th century and mostly used by the Tuetonic Knights. It was more or less destroyed in WW2, but fully restored in the 1950’s. The castle is unusual in that the main building is a huge tower – which you can go to the top of for great views. Inside on each level are various museum displays.
I was surprised to see a statue of Lenin in the Narva Castle grounds!
Opposite Narva Castle, straight across the river on the Russian side is Ivangorod Fortress. The fortress was built in 1492 to protect the Muscovy Empire from invading armies. In the 1600’s it was captured by Sweden and not retaken by the Russians until their victory in 1704. It was in use right up until the end of WW2 by both Soviet and German forces. Today it is a museum.
The first day of the battle re-enactment in Narva kicked off Friday with a night battle. These guys take it pretty seriously – the tents, uniforms, weapons etc are all very exact and detailed down to the point of the Swedish soldiers actually being Swedish! After presenting all the men to the crowd, the battle kicked off with gun powder explosions, bayonet and sword charges….all pretty exciting! The crowd was mostly Russian so they were cheering on “Rossiya”…who of course won!
Saturday was the main day for the re-enactment, this started off with cavalry, infantry and artillery displays, then a battle in the gardens near the old town hall and square. These guys are using real gun powder so it was very loud! This battle then went along the streets – the crowd (including me) are right amongst it all. When the guns go off it is quite deafening and you feel the blast (at one stage I was about 2 metres away)! Great fun!
Then the battle went into this small ravine, we watched from above. The Swedes were in retreat with the crowd still cheering on Russia. The finale was in the castle grounds, where they had a cannon. Now this thing was truly an experience – the noise, the blast and the shock wave really hit you!
The final Russian charge resulted in the fall of the castle and Sweden’s demise. This was a really interesting and fun day. I think when I get back to the US, I will check out the Civil War Gettysburg battle re-enactment – it is meant to be massive. All that gunsmoke has been accompanied by smoke from the massive fires in Russia in the past day, very hazy around here and a bit hard to breathe at the moment!
Another interesting place about 30km west of Narva is Sillamae – a town that was built in the 1940’s – 1950’s to house Soviet workers. This town was top-secret and under Soviet rule, it never appeared on any maps until the end of the Cold War…why? They were building nuclear and chemical weapons in the factories there! Now there is not much to do there, but the main attraction for this nice little town on the Baltic coast is that it is basically an open air museum of Stalinism architecture – a number of buildings still have communist symbols such as the hammer and sickle, and red star.
The Soviets wanted the workers of Sillamae to be happy (top-secret meant they really couldn’t go anywhere), so they built a nice town for them. On one boulevard they apparently used to put palm trees along it in summer, then move them into greenhouses during winter to keep them alive!
When I was up looking at the old factories of Sillamae, I came across a street with all these abandoned 1940’s/50’s homes. All the windows and doors were covered in sheets of metal to seal them up. I started to explore and found one window where the metal had been pulled away. I thought here’s a chance to get inside…then I noticed hundreds of empty syringe packets on the ground……oh oh a “junkie squatters lair”! No way was I going into a dark house like that, there were used needles lying around and possibly a crazed junkie squatter – no thanks!
From Narva I made the journey west to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia – famous for its old town. Lots of churches, amazing old buildings, fortress walls etc. There is one tower which is rather unfortunately named “Kiek in de Kok” tower (seriously that is what it is called)! Tallinn is a really nice old city, with fantastic restaurants and bars, but as with all Baltic capitals it is full of tourists – especially Australians!
Like Lithuania and Latvia there is an Occupations Museum in Tallinn which details the history of the Soviet occupation (1940-41, 1944-1991) and German occupation (1941-44), as well as the local resistance movement (the “Forest Brothers“). The collection included historical artefacts, but also personal items and photos. In the basement were a number of interesting statue busts of former Estonian Communist leaders and Soviet leaders such as Lenin.
I took a great day trip to Lahemaa National Park which is less than two hours drive to the East of Tallinn. On the way there the tour group stopped at an ancient burial ground which was Danish of all things (old Kingdoms)!
The National Park has beautiful pine forests, bog swamps, ponds, beaches and Jagala Waterfall. All in all a very nice place to visit.
There were also stately manors mostly built in the 18th and 19th century dotted around the National Park (remnants of former Russian and Scandinavian empires). Some have been fully restored, others were more or less abandoned and have fallen into disrepair.
The next day I went to the Russian market in search of old communist collectibles, then I took a train out to Paldiski, a former Soviet nuclear submarine base on the west coast of Estonia. The last photos I had seen of this place were from about 5 years ago, since then it seems they have destroyed most of the old Soviet military monuments and buildings, but there were still many communist era apartment buildings.
Paldiski still lives on even though the Russians left in 1994, 3 years after Estonia gained independence from the USSR mind you! There were also a number of abandoned military school buildings and factories. It was interesting going upstairs in these deserted places. I am not sure if you are allowed but I did anyway, the Russians destroyed all the interiors etc before leaving so the buildings would be unable to be used after they left! It was a bit eery walking about in these places, but still quite fascinating.
Today is my final day in Tallinn and has provided a strange highlight. I went to the Patarei Prison, a bleak place still in use up until 2005. Previously it was a Soviet prison and it too was quite an eery place, more or less left as it was abandoned.
There was one old lady at the ticket office, apart from that you can roam just about anywhere in the prison yards and buildings, no-one is there to stop you, apart from a few locked doors here and there. I ended up in guard towers, the execution room, cells and in old offices and cells rummaging through paperwork, medical files and books.
The medical area of the prison still has an operating table and equipment, many cells still have beds/furniture, even pictures and magazine pages stuck on walls where the prisoners left them etc. Quite a bizarre, but very interesting experience in its own way.
Tomorrow I take the fast ferry to Helsinki, Finland from where I will catch a train north to the city of Tampere. Soon I fly out from Finland to Hong Kong, then Taiwan and before I know it I will be back in Melbourne, Australia. This journey is coming to an end pretty quickly now, but in reality it is the start of a whole new adventure!