Legends, secrets and underground passages… Normally they’d be confined to the pages of a children’s adventure novel, but in a medieval city like Tallinn, one can expect to find all of these in spades. Visitors who have a curious fascination with these romantic ideas, specifically the underground passages, are in luck: In late February, after years of preparation, a system of 17th-century tunnels that runs underneath the south flank of Toompea hill was opened to tour groups.
“It’s very, very popular now,” said Toomas Abiline, a historian working for Tallinn’s Linnamuuseum (City Museum), which administers the tunnels. He puts the popularity, particularly among Estonians, down to local lore. For centuries, Tallinners have shared rumours that Toompea hill is riddled with tunnels. The most persistent legend, still whispered in cafés and schoolyards, holds that a Medieval-era tunnel stretches from all the way Toompea hill to the Pirita Monastery.
The tunnels in question were built in the 1670s, along with the Swedish Bastion and the Ingermanland Bastion, underneath which they run. Back then, Estonia was part of the Swedish empire, as was Tallinn itself (then Reval), though the city was allowed a degree self-rule. Attack from Russia was a constant worry. While Sweden funded and built the tunnels under the Swedish Bastion, Reval contributed to the project with work under the Ingermanland Bastion. The hidden tunnels would have been used to shelter soldiers and ammunition from attack, as well as to spy on the enemy.
As Abiline explained, however, they were never used for that purpose. When the Russians finally invaded in 1710, most of the town’s population had already been wiped out by a plague that was then ravaging the area. “Defenders of the city were very weak, and they just gave the city over,” he said.
The tunnels eventually did end up protecting city dwellers however. In the 1930s, when war was brewing in Europe, they were re-outfitted as bomb shelters. “When the Soviet army bombed the city on March 9, 1944… hundreds of citizens were in these tunnels,” said Abiline. And a few of those who took refuge here then, he said, have since come back to visit, and have amazed the guides with fascinating accounts of that time.
The Soviets, for their part, did a lot of work here too – making the bomb shelter more elaborate, modernising the electric generator, ventilation systems, plank beds and toilets that the Estonians installed in the 1930s. It was the rusting remains of this equipment that had to be cleared out during the 2-year, 6 million kroon, city-funded revamping of the tunnels. Sadly, much of the old equipment disappeared during a break-in around Christmas 2004. According to Abiline, the thieves were most likely after the valuable scrap metal here.
Because of this constant rebuilding, most of the 380m of accessible tunnel now looks fairly modern. Walls are whitewashed and smooth, and there are illuminated, green exit signs every few paces. But these underground passages are still not the Hilton. Our group’s guide warned us to stay close, and showed us the deluxe, electric torch she’d brought. “Children like to play games, turn off the lights and run away,” she explained.
A couple of iron bunk-bed racks are among the few remaining signs of the time when this was a Soviet installation. More fascinating are the old, limestone staircases, a couple of old chambers, and one waterlogged stretch of tunnel at the end of the tour (which you can see but not visit), that have been fairly untouched since the tunnels were built.
The tunnels can only be visited by guided tour (by arrangement). These meet at the Kiek in de Kök museum and run from 10:00 - 17:30, every day except Monday. For booking, contact Kiek in de Kök tel. (+372) 644 66 86. Admission €5.80, children €3.20. Joint ticket with the Kiek in de Kök €8.30. Bring warm clothing as the tunnel temperatures are 6 to 8 degrees.
For more information, see the museum’s website: www.linnamuuseum.ee/kok. Tallinn In Your Pocket recommends arriving a little early and wearing flat shoes.