Tallinn is one of Europe’s most impressive medieval walled towns, with over a dozen watch towers, the beautiful Viiru Gate, and over a kilometre of walls still surrounding the exquisitely-preserved medieval houses and cobbled streets. In its height during the 16th century, Tallinn’s wall network was 2.4 km long, up to 16 metres high, and was protected by no less than 43 towers – an impressive and impregnable site to behold! Tallinn’s oldest wall structure is the Margaret Wall, commenced in 1265 on the orders of Margaret Sambiria, Queen of Denmark and reigning fief-holder of Danish Estonia. Her commissioned wall was far smaller than what we see today – just 5 metres tall and 1.5 metres thick (at its thickest part). Over the centuries, the walls of Tallinn have grown upwards and outwards, particularly in the 14th century as the Dark Ages were a time of turbulence. In fact, this medieval wall was actually guarded by a revolving roster of “voluntary” citizens of Tallinn, who were firmly invited to take turns parading the walls. Today, despite past demolitions, there are over 20 defensive towers and about 10 gates comprising of the Walls of Tallinn, nearly all of which are still in great shape, and able to be visited. All of this together is why Tallinn’s walls are a part – in fact, a significant part – of the UNESCO world heritage site that encompasses Medieval Tallinn. Even if you never stepped foot in to the city (which would be a mistake!), Tallinn’s impressive medieval walls would be reason enough to visit this incredible Baltic gem.
Pro tip: There is a small fee to visit the walls. Many of the towers are actually museums dedicated to Tallinn’s history. According to Visit Tallinn, the best places to see Tallinn’s walls from the outside are the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea and Tornide väljak (Towers’ Square) near the train station.
One of the best-preserved examples of medieval life and architecture is the walled city of Carcassonne in the south of France. Though La Cité started out as a Roman hilltop fort, it was in the Middle Ages that Carcassonne hit its peak. In 1067, Carcassonne fell into the Trencavel family through marriage, allying it with other great cities of the south, such as Albi, Nîmes and Toulouse – even Barcelona. The already-medieval city was further gothic-ified by the Trencavels – including the Chateau Comtal in the centre of Carcassonne. What Carcassonne is perhaps most known for its role in the horrid Albigensian Crusades. Carcassonne was a sanctuary for the ostracised Cathars of the Pays d’Oc. A gnostic offshoot of Christianity, the Cathars were not accepted by the Catholic Church, who attacked Carcassonne in 1209, killed Viscount Trencaval, and ousted the city’s citizens, with Carcassonne eventually passing into the Kingdom of France. 300 years later, the Huguenots of Languedoc, including those of Carcassonne, didn’t fare much better. Despite its troubled history, today Carcassonne is a beautiful medieval masterpiece, a living replica of what life looking like hundreds of years ago.
Pro tip: Carcassonne is a very popular tourist destination. Visit only in the off season to avoid the worst of the crowds. There are accommodations in La Cite as well as the more modern side of Carcassonne. Another (more cost effective) solution is to stay in the less-popular Béziers, and train in to Carcassonne.
St Malo, the gem of the Bretagne coast (known also as Brittany in English), is a famous walled city surrounded on three sides by ocean waves, rugged rocks and set of thick stone ramparts. Though perhaps not as well-known or as iconic at the nearby tidal city, Mont Saint Michel Normandy’s coast, St Malo is an amazing place in its own right. A walled city built onto a peninsula that juts out from the jagged Breton coast, the tall, grand houses of St Malo exude a sense of long-held wealth. And in fact this walled port town clinging to the northern French coast has a long and complicated history of piracy and extortion – something that is reflected in the city’s high ramparts, castalled towers, bastion strongholds – such as the Bastion Fort La Reine (from where this photo was taken) – and the forts atop the tidal island surrounding the ramparts. St Malo has always been a rebel. Like much of Bretagne, St Malo has long championed for autonomy – and from 1590 to 1593, St Malo was even an independent Republic! Going one step further than the rest of Bretagne, the walled city’s motto was: “Not French, not Breton, but Malouin” (the demonym for citizens of St Malo). Sadly, none of this stopped the city from being occupied in WWII, nor its destruction when it was bombed by the Allies in 1944, thinking it was a Nazi military base. Rebuilt in all of its former glory, the beautiful St Malo is today a popular summer holiday spot by French from Paris and other large cities as well as Brits arriving by ferry from Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth and beyond.
Pro tip: Be sure to try the Moules Frites while in St Malo (and Bretagne in general!), especially drizzled in a delicious bleu d’Auvergne cheese sauce! For background info, especially to learn more about St Malo, read Anthony Doer’s All the Light We Cannot See, a beautiful book set partially in St Malo during WWII.
Crash! One of the largest canvases in the world, West Berliners began painting on the 14-foot wall in the 1980’s while the corresponding East Berlin Wall remained immaculate – guards would not let East Berliners approach the Wall on pain of death (fearing escape attempts). First constructed in 1961 to separate the two countries, the Berlin Wall (especially the western side) later became what Facebook is today: a relatively uncontrolled blank slate on which people can express opinions, feelings, and dreams. In one mural, a car – a white Trabant – is depicted crashing through the Berlin Wall. Trabants were a popular East German car brand, and despite being cute and bug-eyed, the reinforced plastic cars were poorly made and notoriously hard to drive – though East Germans were desperate to get one, so desperate that they had to sign up on a list just to be considered for ownership. Trabants then became a symbol of the communist East Germany, and ceased to be manufactured after the fall of wall. It’s not hard to understand what the artist was trying to depict here: an East German in his or her iconic East German car crashing through the oppressive and separatist Berlin Wall after it fell in 1989.
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburg Tor) in Berlin, Germany
Berlin is a place with a challenging history. Located in Germany‘s eastern side, the city of Berlin was part of the state of East Germany for decades before the Berlin Wall fell. Berlin itself was a divided city: half in the East and half in the West. Families divided right down the middle. Lives, jobs, families, loyalties – it didn’t matter. East stayed in the East, and the West in the West. (In the end of course, it was better luck to be living in West Berlin.) But that all changed November 9th, 1989 (still scarily recent…) – the day the Berlin Wall fell. Citizens on both sides reportedly climbed atop the Wall in celebration. The Brandenburg Tor is possibly the most iconic monument in Berlin. Built in the 18th century by Prussian King Frederick William II, the Neoclassical style, topped with bronze statue of noble horses, was chosen for this ‘victory’ gate. The Brandenburg Tor stands on Pariser Platz – the same place as the old city gate that once marked the entrance to Brandenburg an der Havel town, ancient capital of the pre-Germany state of Brandenburg. Used by the Prussians, the Nazis and the East Germans as a symbol of the city’s power, the Brandenburg Gate was partially destroyed in WWII. On August 13th, 1961, the structure became part of the Berlin Wall, and its original use as a gate was re-instated (one of eight points for crossing the Wall). Nearly impossible to traverse by East Germans, the gate remained a symbol of power – but in a negative sense, sparking protests, demonstrations and eventually celebrations the day the wall fell. Today, it reminds Berliners and visitors alike of the power of standing together.
Here, one of Tallinn’s many terracotta-topped towers pokes through the mysterious mist. Unlike many other towns and cities across Europe, Tallinn has been able to keep true to its roots. In fact, Tallinn prides itself on the fact that many of the city’s buildings, churches, houses, warehouses, walls, and towers maintain their original forms. Some even date all the way back to the 11th century–impressive! Especially for such a small country under the constant shadow of nearby giants vying for control over its’ strategic position (namely, Russia, Germany, and Sweden). In fact, Estonia wasn’t even a country for much of its recent history, only gaining its independence in 1991 (and briefly just after WWI). Perhaps because of this loss, the Estonians want to make up for lost time and preserve as much of their history as possible. Tallinn has not been “improved” or “modernised” like so many other European capitals; (think anything from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Madrid). Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes, we need that misty, magical, timeless place with tiny, winding cobblestone roads, local taverns and ancient churches that make us feel as if we’ve travelled back to the middle ages.
Why don’t people come here? As much as I love places like London and Paris and Madrid, there is more than just these few places in Europe that are breathtaking and spectacular…and Tallinn is certainly wonderful. Europe is a popular honeymoon destination (Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Roma), but places like Tallinn or Prague or Budapest need to be on that list. Tallinn is old – and beautiful, maybe more beautiful than Europe’s ‘traditional’ Aphrodite’s. Several kilometres of city wall remain, grey stone topped with red, turreted roofs. The cobble-stoned streets that overlook the blue Baltic sea makes the city charming, lovable. This is a place one can fall in love. Like these doe-eyed pigeons, this is the kind of place I’d rather spend my honeymoon – quiet, relaxing, beautiful, historic, friendly. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site. The town square is positively medieval. There is a darkened tavern in the city centre that serves authentic elf soup that patrons drink out of clay pots (no spoons allowed). Estonia has a pulse that you rarely find, and it is easily one of Europe’s best kept secrets.