Since 1983, the Tallinn Old Town Days have a beige and dark brown coloured logo designed by Pille Karemaa, who was the designer of Tallinna Vanalinna Elamute Ekspluatatsiooni Valitsus or the Tallinn Old Town Buildings Use Council. The central spirally symbol of the emblem is based on the anchor plates of the Renaissance, some of which still exist on the old buildings of Tallinn. The anchor plate is a symbol of durability.
During the ‘50s and ‘60s of the previous century, there was much talk of demolishing the old town since repairing old buildings was not considered economically prudent. In 1962, a project was published that envisioned demolishing 80% of the old town buildings and replacing these with office buildings that would be up to 10 storeys high. Luckily, those who favoured preservation succeeded and by 1965 it was clear that the old town would be preserved.
In 1971, the entire old town was declared a protected heritage site. Constructing new high-rise buildings in the zone surrounding the old town was also banned. In 1980, the Moscow Olympic Games sailing regatta was held in Tallinn and money was allocated from the state budget of the Soviet Union for repairing the unique old town. For this, the restorers of the Polish company PKZ came to Tallinn. The Estonian Maritime Museum in the Fat Margaret artillery tower, the Town Hall Museum in the former Town Hall Prison, the Estonian Museum of Applied Arts in a granary from the Swedish rule period, and several other sites were built. The façades of 400 old town buildings were painted and their roofs were fixed. During the 1980s, the formerly greyish old town became an interesting and noticeable site and the organisers of the Old Town Days now had an extraordinary backdrop at their disposal to create a cultural festival with a truly historical feel.
It was largely thanks to the Old Town Days that people started to notice the uniqueness of medieval Tallinn during the 1980s. The opportunity to get away from the realities of socialism and the pressures of the occupation made people more interested in history. The Old Town Days quickly became the symbol of Estonianism and openness, helped the repressed people to find themselves again and combated the feeling of rootlessness that was increasingly felt in the newer parts of the town. Within a few years, the Old Town Days became a week-long national celebration. Every year, a new theme was chosen for the cultural events. The design elements for the old town decorations were also chosen based on this theme. Tallinn Old Town Days have been dedicated to Hanseatic and Nordic traditions, to Tallinn as a fortress city as well as a city of craftsmen.
From a party of the Buildings Use Council to an established tradition (1982–1990)
16th of July 1982 marked the 10th anniversary of Tallinna Vanalinna Elamute Ekspluatatsiooni Valitsus or the Tallinn Old Town Buildings Use Council. To celebrate this, a concert and a horse parade was held on the Town Hall Square as well as a play recreating the trial of Johann von Uexküll (the original trial where Uexküll was sentenced to death for executing his former peasant took place in the Town Hall in 1535). In the Golden Leg Tower, there was an exhibition of photographs and children’s drawings. On the same day, a conference was held in Kinomaja (Tallinn Movie House) for officials involved in restoration works. This marked the beginning of the tradition of Old Town Days.
The 1980s era has been viewed as one of stagnation. Until the last third of the decade, everything that took place in society was monitored by the Communist Party and the repressive organs of the Soviet Union. In order to organise an event, it had to be approved countless times and the objections of the Communist Party nomenklatura (elite) had to be appeased. Yet, the organisers of the Old Town Days managed to start an increasingly popular tradition and by 1988, its nationalist feel culminated in the songs of the Night Song Festivals. The Old Town Days became a way for young and active people to express themselves. And although many soldiers of the occupation forces also walked the streets during the Old Town Days, people still felt excitement that reminded them of the anniversary Song Festivals.
The duration and the number of events of the Old Town Days increased. Already by 1983, the festivities lasted for a whole week. Increasingly more venues were added. The anchor plate became part of the official logo of the Tallinn Old Town Days.
Impact on the old town
In 1985, as part of the Old Town Days, an international colloquium Problems of the Protection and Present-Day Usage of Architectural Monuments was held and among the representatives of 25 foreign delegations, Michel Parent, the president of the UNESCO International Council on Monuments and Sites, and a member of the executive committee Andras Roman participated. The Old Town Days had become international. In 1984, the hall of the St. Nicholas Church (that now also had a spire) was used to host a concert for the first time.
In 1987, the Hometown House and the Music House on Uus Street were opened.
In 1988, guest performers from Finland, Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, and Azerbaijan participated in the Old Town Days. As signs of the era becoming increasingly critical, kaagikohus (public figures expressing their opinions about the Soviet powers) took place on the Town Hall Square while on Harju Hill regime critical songs were sung as part of the concerts of Laulurinne (Singing Front). In the joke yard of Aara, one could hear parodies and jokes which only a few years earlier would have sent the performers to jail.
After the 6th Old Town Days, people started talking about improving the quality of the entertainment program and making it more historically relevant. For the first time, the newspapers mentioned the idea of resurrecting the tradition of choosing the Count of May and holding knights’ tournaments as part of the Old Town Days.
By 1990, just before the end of the Soviet occupation, many people thought that the Old Town Days no longer had a nationalist feel. Yet, even the harshest critics agreed that the people deserve to have this celebration.
Tallinn Old Town Days – an international festival
In 1991, the half a century long Soviet occupation of Estonia ended. The Soviet Union’s red flag on top of the Tall Hermann Tower was replaced by the Estonian tricolour. Although the Soviet forces did not leave Estonia completely until 1994, the Estonian economy and society changed rapidly. As a result, the aims and themes of the Old Town Days changed as well, yet, thanks to the historical old town setting, there was still a feeling of continuity and connection with the previous festivals.
On the 4th of March 1993, the Tallinn City Council decided to divide the city into eight districts. The old town was now under the dominion of the City Centre Administration and they became responsible for organising the Old Town Days.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world had opened up and the desire to be once again part of European culture was also reflected in the Old Town Days’ program. The theme of the Old Town Days held from the 1st until the 5th of June 1991 was Tallinn – a Nordic Town. Guests from seven different foreign countries participated in the festival. The town was decorated with runic scripts and northern patterns. An international science conference Nordic Peoples’ Sense of the World took place.
In 1993, for the first time after centuries, the “parrot” shooting competition and the election of the Count of May were held again.
The Brotherhood of Blackheads used to organise springtime competitions where the competitors had to use a crossbow to shoot at a “parrot”. The target was a wooden parrot made by a carpenter that was either colourful or silver. The parrot was placed in a “parrot park”, where the competitors went on Sundays from Easter until Pentecost to shoot at the bird. The journey there was a festive parade accompanied by town musicians. The competitors used steel crossbows. The person who managed to knock the bird off its pedestal with their arrow was crowned the king of the crossbowmen. The competition was followed by a feast at the guild hall at Long Street or the building of the Brotherhood of Blackheads.
The theme of the 1996 Old Town Days, which was Tallinn at the Crossroads of Europe, divided the events into Danish, German, Swedish, Slavic, and Estonian days. The days were chronologically ordered based on the dominant part that these peoples played in the political history of Tallinn.
During the 1997 Old Town Days, one whole day was dedicated to Tallinn’s sister town Kotka whose delegation at the festival was led by their mayor Hannu Tapiola. The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra finished these Old Town Days with an unforgettable concert on Town Hall Square. The topic of the science conference held in the Town Hall was Should Cultural Heritage be Accessible or Protected?.
In 1998, different market stalls became part of the festival. This festival that started on the 6th of June showcased 19 different markets that offered various items of arts and crafts. The authors of the idea thought it would liven up the grey town environment, however, the critics saw this as an example of business dominating over culture.
The most exciting feature of the 1999 Old Town Days turned out to be the tent of the State Concert Institute Eesti Kontsert on Freedom Square, where the 60th birthday of maestro Eri Klas was celebrated with a grand opera gala. Yet, there were signs indicating that the festival was not doing as well as it used to. One of the reasons was the noise ban imposed on the request of heritage preservers and the residents of old town, which made it impossible to organise any even remotely lively events or concerts. The organisers of the Old Town Days faced a choice. “Aut vincendum, aut moriendum – conquer or die?” asked art historian Jüri Kuuskemaa when he opened the historic festival dressed as a medieval herald.
By the year 2000, the strange noise ban had been forgotten and new sports activities had been added to the program. The most popular event turned out to be the mountain bike race on the Toompea Hill and the cobblestones of the old town where one could see all the best cyclists of Estonia compete. Children were delighted to play football with Estonia’s top footballer Mart Poom and everyone could try out the new attraction – beach volleyball courts in front of Toompea Castle. It seemed that the Old Town Days had survived the crisis, because despite the windy weather, there were lots of participants and onlookers at every event.
The pace of life becoming quicker, re-evaluating former values, and the new opportunities and threats that resulted from regaining independence were reflected in the Old Town Days as well. However, the people still liked the idea of connecting history and the present day and making the streets, courtyards, and buildings of old town come to life.
During the anxious anticipation of the new millennium, the Old Town Days represented traditions and security.
A resurgence and a new concept (2001–2005)
The Estonian society becoming more mature and stable also left its mark on the Old Town Days. When compiling the program, it was taken into account that it is difficult to surprise Estonians with something new. The organisers wished to offer the people rather a chance to relax in the city during the peak of summer and discover new and interesting historical places just around the corner. Despite there being increasingly more entertainment events, the Old Town Days, the historic “parrot” shooting event, and the choosing of the Count of May were still considered the highlights of summer.
The XX Old Town Days also brought medieval carnival culture to the city centre. An entrepreneurial conference The City in Motion was held for foreign investors. A number of big concerts took place on the Town Hall Square.
Since 2002, one of the most popular events is the fun and exciting Rat Race where many office workers participate or cheer their colleagues on.
Before the XXII Old Town Days, the question “What’s next?” came up again, as it does from time to time. One could see in the media how some people thought that the Old Town Days had lost their charm and identity and become too commercial. The organisers promised to add more cultural events and return to the original idea, but the people still enjoyed spending interesting summer days in the old town as well as getting some sun and simply enjoying life.
Return to core values
In 2004, the organisers wanted to show the visitors as well as the residents of Tallinn some of the lesser known courtyards and corners of the old town. Therefore, there were less big concerts on the Town Hall Square and more chamber music events, master classes and workshops. One of the most popular events turned out to be the Ancient Courtyard in the Rüütli Street Archaeological Centre, where one could witness Viking fights. In Hirvepark (Deer’s Park), an Open Space Council was held in lavvus where people could listen to lectures about Eastern cultures and the importance of parks in the city space. In addition, a conference of the restoration school of the Estonian Academy of Arts called The Spirit and Spirits of Old Town as well as a conference and forum of the Mauritian Institute focusing on the cooperation between the Dominican monastery of medieval Tallinn and the universities of Cologne and Paris called Who Owns the Old Town? were held.
In 2005, the days were oriented around the night of churches and the day of museums and the accompanying concerts. Of course, the traditional “parrot” shooting competition, choosing of the Count of May, and the Rat Race also took place. The motto Every Second is Creation inspired the organisers to create an even better concert program and a more varied list of events. For the first time, ideas submitted by the public were taken into account when compiling the program.
When the XXIV Old Town Days ended, the preparations for the anniversary festival began. From the 2nd until the 4th of June 2006, the XXV Old Town Days took place. The tradition was going strong.
The 2007 motto Dignified citizens, Eligible masters was aimed at honouring those people who have helped to maintain cultural heritage throughout history and have made Tallinn a unique living environment. This was an important factor in why Tallinn was chosen to be the European Capital of Culture of 2011. The title came with the responsibility of treating our history and traditions with respect. For many years now, the Old Town Days have been the symbol of that.
The XXVII Old Town Days that took place from the 2nd until the 8th of June 2008 were based on the idea of different cultures meeting. The geopolitical position of Tallinn has made the city a meeting place of different cultures and has provided it with much historical significance. Therefore, the theme was aimed at making people think about how different people, nationalities, and their customs all affect life in a city.
The 2009 theme Green City focused on finding harmony between the body and the mind in the context of the city space and tried to find out how to combine physical activity and spiritual riches. The focus was on the old town and its surrounding greenery which provide an opportunity to rest for a moment or spend your leisure time in an active way.
The motto of the XXIX Old Town Days Theatrical Old Town encouraged people to be more playful and creative. The festival highlighted not only professional actors and musicians, but also creative amateurs. The theatricality of the old town comes from its history and is felt every day thanks to the medieval background that the old town provides.
The theme of the 2011 jubilee Old Town Days was A City with an Open Heart, which indicated that the ancient Hanseatic town is an open and welcoming one that likes new positive initiatives and innovative ideas. But it also conveys that the whims of nature and the hands of people have made the old town heart-shaped – this can be noticed when looking at the panoramic bird’s eye view of the old town. (The photographs of Arne Maasik displayed during the preceding Old Town Days showcased this heart-shape and provided the idea for the theme and symbols of the XXX festival.) The title of the European Capital of Culture added international interest to the Old Town Days.
A new team
The XXXI Old Town Days in 2012 were organised by a new team (Anne Velt, Katrin Valkna, Vladimir Svet). This meant new and bold ideas. The motto The Yard Gate Opens opened many private old town courtyards, doors and windows that are usually closed to the public. Never-before-seen tricks were performed. For the first time, Saša Pepeljajev was asked to create the opening performance: he sent a giant Dragon of the North climbing on the wall of the Town Hall and put aerialists cycling on a rope running from the tower of the Church of the Holy Spirit to the Town Hall tower. A clip of the performance was even shown on CNN News. In cooperation with the Old Town Society, more than 50 old town yards were filled with music and activities. The festival finished with the traditional knights’ tournament on Skoone Stadium.
In 2013, the theme was Every Tower Has Its Story, which introduced various old town towers to the public – defence towers and wall towers as well as church towers. Almost all of the remaining defence and church towers of Tallinn hosted some concert, exhibition, or activity. Some of these towers are privately owned or rented out. Successful cooperation ensured that these were opened to the public as well. The Bremen Tower that had been closed to the public for a long time showcased what it had looked like as a prison tower. The opening performance was Carl Orff’s powerful opera Carmina Burana, conducted by Eri Klas and performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and their soloists together with the dance group Fine 5.
The themes of the next Old Town Days were The Living Streets of the Old Town (2014), Masters Through Centuries (2015), and The Changing City (2016).
The 2017 Old Town Days were titled Young Old Town and focused on children’s and youth culture. There were many youth concerts, young artists performing, a youth city space project Making the Old Town Young Again and a youth forum held at Hopner’s House that asked everyone to look at the old town and everyday life from the perspective of young people.
In 2018, we celebrated the centennial of the Republic of Estonia and the theme of the Old Town Days was A Hundred Steps of the Century. Estonia 100. The five-day program included one hundred important steps or actions that described different time periods from 1918 until 2018. Every day was dedicated to a different period of Estonian history over the past century and had a corresponding motto: May 30 – Joyfully National (1918–1938), May 31 – Under the Black Shadow (1939–1955), June 1 – Life Is Like a Movie (1956–1980), June 2 – Let’s Sing (1981–1991), and June 3 – New Freedom (1992–2018).
2019 was the anniversary of the city of Tallinn. To commemorate the first mentioning of Tallinn in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry and the beginning of recorded town culture, the Old Town Days titled Birth of the City were dedicate to the 800-year-old town.
The legend says that in 1219, the Battle of Lyndanisse took place in which the local Estonians fought the Danish forces who had come across the sea to conquer the lands. This historical event is connected with the flag of Denmark, known as the Dannebrog, which according to the legend fell from the sky during the battle, ensuring victory for the Danish. In honour of this event, the program was largely focused on our ties with Denmark and there were many Danish guest-performers.
During the opening ceremony, an enormous Danish flag fell from the “sky”. In the old town, places that are associated with the birth of the town and the Danish era were marked. Historical walks and tours proved to be popular. Traditional theatrical Count of May tournament and medieval sword fighting tournament Old Tallinn Cup also took place. For the first time, a street art program was initiated. The folk culture area hosted the folklore festival Baltica. These four days included almost 400 events, with approximately more than 50,000 visitors attending.