A short walk north off the Old Town, within Tallinn’s historic district of Kalamaja, lies a derelict sea fortress. Back in the day, in 1828 to be exact, the Russian tsar Nicholas I had it erected here to provide protection for ships heading towards St. Petersburg. However, since the date of completion in 1840 it played different roles in the region. Nowadays, it is best known for the chilling glimpse into the Soviet Era that it allows its visitors, as in the years 1919-2004 it functioned as a prison. Its medical and executions rooms where many lives were ended by the KGB are a chilling testimony to the ruthlessness of the Soviet period.
During my short stay in the capital of Estonia I caught wind of the whereabouts of a defunct Soviet era prison somewhere within walking distance from my hostel. The site sounded promising and most certainly presented itself something different to the usual attractions one comes while travelling. Now, Tallinn’s Old Town is a stunning mesh of medieval streets and old merchants’ houses that you can happily lose yourself among for a few days and not want to stick your nose out the outer city walls. Yet the magic ring of the “something different” phrase I hear every now and then when I travel never fails to incite my curiosity. It did sound like something off the beaten track too. So, one late afternoon off I went walking, northwards, towards the sea.
Provided you set off in the right direction, you should get to Patarei in no time – perhaps up to half an hour, which includes breaks for taking pictures of some cool traditional Estonian wooden houses in the Kalamaja district. In any case, sooner or later you should spot the telltale watchtowers like the one in the picture on the left. Once found, follow the wall that’s unusually high for a residential area until you reach Patarei’s old and rusty outer gate.
I found the large metal gate open so I went in. Not far behind there was another open gate, but this time a mesh wire one. Next to it stood another ominous watchtower. All around not a living soul. For a while I even thought I might be trespassing but quickly accepted this likelihood while mentally rehearsing my best I’m-a-lost-foreigner-who-just-wants-to-take-some-rather-bleak-looking-pictures look.
Finally, within the prison grounds I found a little booth with a person selling entrance tickets. Sadly, it I arrived too late to enter the prison proper and view the execution and experiment rooms, or the cells. However, I was kindly allowed to have a look round the are and take some pictures before it was time to close. This gave me 15 minutes, give or take.
The first thing I noticed was a very pink figure of crucified Jesus hanging on one of the buildings, with benches arranged in formation right below it. Some alternative art exhibit perhaps? Or a figure to which prisoners prayed in the past? It was hard to guess and, as I don’t speak Estonian, impossible to find out.
I came across a few more visitors wandering around. Our attention was attracted by graffiti that embellishes the walls around. Some of it is obviously pacifist, some seems to depict prisoners’ lives whereas the rest, while being extremely fantastical, portrays crime in the act of happening.
Patarei was an active prison up until 2002. Only 3 years after, it became a museum and a venue holding art exhibitions and music events. Visitors were allowed in for a small fee of €2 – a fee I would have gladly paid had I not arrived too late in the day.
The 15 minutes I had been given by the member of staff selling entrance tickets ran out quickly and together with other visitors I slowly wandered towards the main entrance gate. I did spent an extremely short amount of time in Patarei and, sadly, missed its main, for want of a better word, attractions. Nevertheless, the flying late afternoon visit still allowed me an interesting glimpse into the past and delivered an alternative side of Tallinn to my eyes; a side that’s quite dissimilar to what you find in the celebrated Old Town of the capital of Estonia.
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