TALLINN - Boris Dubovik possesses a most interesting set of keys. They open the door to a network of centuries-old tunnels that run under the escarpments of Tallinn's Old Town. Dubovik, the head of Tallinn City Council's Heritage Protection Department, is the man charged with preserving the town's postcard-perfect skyline. Most of his work involves battling to save the visible elements of the city's history 's the church towers and steep red-roofed townhouses.
But lately, Dubovik has developed a passion for the tangible history that lies below the surface of the earth.
"They are very interesting, these tunnels," Dubovik says. "So many people want to know about them and see them for themselves."
For the past three years he has run a project to unearth the tunnels and open them to the public. The task is nearing completion. "So many people ask to come and see."
I could understand their curiosity. Lately I had become a member of the cult of urban exploration 's the study of abandoned buildings and other areas generally off-limits to the public. In a city like Tallinn, where derelict factories seem more common than active ones, urban exploration is an irresistible hobby.
Together with a group of friends, I had begun taking weekend trips to fascinating forgotten locations 's old water towers, deserted fair grounds, forsaken railyards, rotting power plants.
We even acquired a home-published handbook from the internet with useful tips on how to avoid detection, escape arrest and avert injury. Carrying a clipboard, the book suggested, was the most effective way to avoid being questioned by security guards. Take a flashlight, even in daylight hours. Don't vandalize anything, for urban areas are there to be enjoyed not destroyed, the handbook said.
While we sated our appetite with all things abandoned above the ground, our true curiosity lay below the city. There were rumors of a series of tunnels and bunkers. We even discovered what looked like an entrance to a tunnel, but found it blocked by a heavy door and a surprisingly modern alarm system.
Enter Dubovik, holder of the keys. A sprightly mustachioed man with lively eyes, Dubovik scurries about his office with bundles of intriguing blueprints and maps of the city. His division of the Cultural Heritage Department occupies an enviable address in a pretty townhouse on Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square. It's a bustling office, and the workers seem full of zeal about their job, protecting one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe.
"We want to open the tunnels as a museum so people can walk through," Dubovik said, swiveling in his chair to talk. "I will take a group of city council officers for a look tomorrow. Perhaps you might like to come along?"
How could I refuse?
We assembled on Toompea Hill under the onion domes of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on a cold and cloudy November morning. Dubovik led us to the nearby Hirve Park and produced a set of blueprints explaining where we were about to venture. The entire city of Tallinn, he explained, was once meant to be surrounded by a mighty bastion to protect it from invading forces. Only several points of the bastion were ever completed, and the rest of the city was guarded only by the town wall. Two of those bastions remain, the Swedish Bastion and the Ingeri Bastion, built between the 16th and 17th century and linked underground by the tunnels.
"Until we started cleaning them, the tunnels were full of dirt and rubbish. Many homeless people lived in them. We have removed over 800 tons of dirt and rock so far," he said.
He led us down a small flight of stairs to a large metal door, which was pulled open in preparation for our visit. We ventured single-file through the door and into the realm of the unseen.
The stone roof was slick with condensation at first, but the deeper we went the drier it became. It was surprisingly moderately cool inside, considering that outside it had been foot-stampingly cold and about to snow.
But most surprising of all was the condition of the tunnel. It was brightly lit and starkly clean. A modern fire alarm system extended its length, with several fire escape signs positioned near ladders that led to manholes.
Our journey along the tunnel was observed by motion sensors placed every few meters, presumably to detect unwanted visitors. At several points we passed through doorways guarded by retractable gates 's the kind that an intrepid explorer might have to roll underneath to make their escape, Indiana Jones-style.
Dubovik explained: "We have to make sure everything is safe if we want to have people come through. Everything has to be done according to European safety standards."
The tunnel took several turns, then stretched out into a very long and sloped corridor. We moved at a sharp angle from the Swedish Bastion and entered the Ingeri Bastion, and the differently aged brickwork became obvious.
Dubovik led us up a curling flight of stairs that led to a blocked-off passage. We were, he explained, underneath the coatroom of Kiek in de Koik, one of Tallinn's tall stone guard towers that has now been turned into a museum. Plans were afoot to open the passage and allow visitors to see the city from its highest and lowest points.
Further along, the tunnel became lower with doorways that required ducking. Old rusting ventilation systems sat along the hallway, relics from the days when the tunnels were used as bomb shelters.
Down another set of stairs, the floor of the tunnel was covered by a metal grate. Underneath, the ground was spongy with water. Our progress was blocked by a gate. Dubovik explained that this was as far as we could venture. Further along, the floor of the tunnel was submerged by artesian water. We were now under the Mayeri Steps, the staircase that connects Freedom Square with Toompea. Plans were afoot to dig a new parking lot underneath Freedom Square, Dubovik said, and it was hoped that this would allow the water blocking the tunnel to drain away.
That same development should allow for the building of a proper museum entranceway to allow visitors to tour through the tunnels. Dubovik said he hoped regular tunnel tours would be operating within a year.
"We get calls from tourist operators all the time asking when it will be ready. They always want something new for people to see," he said.
On the way out the group was delighted to spot a solitary bat clinging to the roof. Then we were back out in the November cold, the passage beneath our feet.
So how did I rate my tunneling exploration? In truth, I found myself a little disappointed that there wasn't much to see. In hindsight, it seems obvious that a tunnel would offer fairly limited viewing options. The well-kept state of the tunnels also detracted from the adventure of it all. At the same time it was a thrill to walk under the city through passages inaccessible to the general public.
With the tunnels of Tallinn conquered, I've set my exploration compass toward a new target. I've heard there are some amazing submerged submarine tunnels beneath the port town of Paldiski, but I fear they might not be quite so easy to stroll through.