The town was greeted with "ohhs and ahhs" from most of the other passengers. Because although the cruise line is owned by a company based in the UK and it was sailing through Europe, the vast majority of passengers were from the United States with the second largest group coming from Japan. The daily menus and schedule of events were even printed in both English and Japanese.
Medieval European walled cities are not really part of the American or Asian experience. Obviously! And Tallinn is a very nicely preserved, beautiful city with the charming cobbled streets, ambling walkways and beautiful timbered houses.
But, as the old saying goes, you "cannot swing a dead cat by the tail" without hitting a Medieval walled city in Europe. Frankly, once you see one, you've pretty much seen them all. And after 9 months of living and traveling in Europe, we have seen many. (Oh dear, have I become a bit jaded?)
But outside of the old city walls is something that truly is uniquely Estonian. The Song Festival Grounds...
The Estonian Song Festival is held here every 5 years. (It will next be held in the summer of 2009.) As many as 30,000 singers can fit on the stage you see with more than 100,000 spectators in the open air seating area.
Still not impressed?
Let me tell you the "truly special" part. When our tour guide began to speak about the Song Festival, a smile lit her face and she stood a little taller. She had an assistant with her who was a tour guide in training. Previous to this she had been kind of slouching along, obviously bored. But she also stood very tall while the guide spoke about the Song Festival and pride shown from her eyes.
The Song Festival is special because of how important it obviously is to the Estonians.
For most of the preceding centuries, Estonia has been a land of serfs. Essentially slaves to foreign masters. They have been controlled by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians. Until 1989 they were part of the Soviet Union. Their culture was marginalized. They were made to feel worthless.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the Estonian Awakening Movement began. Estonian artists began to preserve and perform the traditional stories, music and dances. And a pride of self slowly began to form.
In 1869 the first Estonian Song Festival took place in Tartu, Estonia. The festival was held every five years. In 1896, it was moved to Tallinn and has remained there to this day. The ruling class of the country, by this stage either the Germans, the Russians or the Soviets, forced them to include some foreign songs. But ultimately the Song Festival has always been about Estonian Pride.
Our tour guide nearly had tears in her eyes when she explained that many of the older Estonians say that during the Soviet years, the only thing that kept them going was the Festival. Each Festival gave them the strength to go for five more years under Soviet rule.
The tour guide further explained that many people believe that it was the strength the Estonians gathered from the Song Festival that allowed them to declare their independence from the Soviet Union in 1989.
So the grounds may not look like much, but they are powerful indeed. Here they are filled with people during the last Festival. (Photo borrowed from the Laulupidu website, the official website of the Song Festival.)