Going underground

  • 2010-04-28
  • By Ella Karapetyan

FORTRESS CITY: Knowledge, entertainment and a new experience await those willing to explore Tallinn’s underground tunnels.

TALLINN - Like any respectable medieval town, Tallinn has its share of underground passageways, particularly the defensive tunnel systems built in the 1600s during the time of Swedish rule. Back then, attack was a constant worry, so city planners constructed high bastion walls around the outside of the fortified city. They also installed tunnels under the base of the walls, so they could safely move soldiers and ammunition to where they were needed, not to mention spy on the enemy.

Some tunnels were forgotten. As late as 2003, workers digging a foundation near the Occupation Museum found a pentagonal system of limestone-lined tunnels dating to the end of the 17th century.
Other tunnels have always been well known, in particular the ones that run underneath Harju Hill and Linda Hill at the edge of Toompea, which are now open for tours. They were built in the 1670s, renovated into bomb shelters during World War II, and further modernized during the Soviet period to add electricity, running water, ventilation and phones. Most of the Soviet-era equipment has since been cleared out or stolen, but a couple of iron bunk-bed racks and other signs of the period remain.

The newly opened “Kiek in de Kok and Bastion Tunnels,” with its new exposition “Time travel. Tallinn 1219-2219,” offers new knowledge, great entertainment and a fresh experience. Actually, visitors have a unique chance to see some old limestone staircases and other chambers that have remained fairly untouched since the tunnels were built. The Bastion tunnels 10 meters underground will take each visitor back to the future, showing how people imagined the future would turn out in the past.

The display gives the visitor an idea about the dawn of the town, the history of its fortifications and main military events from the 13th to the 18th century. The renovated “Kiek in de Kok’s” first two floors host temporary exhibitions. The third floor’s exhibition, “Secure city,” gives an overview of Tallinn’s fortresses through the centuries focusing on crime and punishment in Old Tallinn.

The cannon tower Kiek in de Kok was built from 1475-1483. The name was first recorded in the description of the second siege of Tallinn in 1577 as Kyck in de Kaeken, later on several forms of the same name were used, such as Kik (Kyk) in de Kok, Kiek in die Kuche, Pulffer-Thurm Giecken Kock. In 1696, the present name Kiek in de Kok was also mentioned, meaning “peek into the kitchen” in Low German. And true enough, it was possible to watch what the enemy was doing in their “kitchen,” i.e. one position lower down from the about 38 meter-high tower. In 1760 the tower was taken over by the state and was used for storage, apartments and archive rooms.

The third floor display is connected with the events of the Livonian war. Three big cannons, the Lion, the Bitter Death and a breach loading gun from the early 15th century are displayed. All guns are replicas of the originals that were taken to St. Petersburg in the early 19th century. The cannons were made by local masters, the Lion by Karsten Middeldorp in 1559, and the Bitter Death by Kort Hartmann in 1560. The muzzle loading guns are a perfect example of local masters’ skills and tastes. The Lion bears an image of a lion (that gave the gun its name) and both coats of arms of Tallinn, held up by gryphon.

The fourth floor’s exhibition, “Tallinn at War,” tells the story of how wars, famine and pestilence have beset the city over the centuries. The fourth floor display is partly connected with events that took place in the 17th century. The model of the town in 1683 is worth mentioning as an interesting and original relic of former Tallinn. The epitaph of the great famines in 1602 and 1697 is displayed here, too. The stone plaque in the center of the epitaph, a work of Arent Passer, is dedicated to the 1602-03 famine and plague victims. Infectious diseases must also be remembered when finding the Pestilence Doctor in the embrasure. Several firearms from the 17th to the 19th century form a bigger part of the display.

In the fifth floor’s unique weapon chamber, an interested crowd can investigate an exposition of weapons as well as try their hand on a shooting stimulator. It displays various construction details, but the best part of the exhibition here is certainly the wonderful views of the town that open from the embrasures. Old picture postcards with views of former Tallinn decorate the grey stone walls.

On the sixth floor, in the cafe, you can enjoy unique views over Toompea, the lower town and the port.
In its turn, the Bastion Tunnels can only be visited by guided tours. Group size is limited to 20 persons.