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Photo by: Kadi-Liis Koppel

The times we had – TOP public clocks in Tallinn

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By Liine Toomse  •  27.03.2019

Estonians have a little bit of a thing with keeping time. Things must start precisely. It’s very rude to be late on purpose. If you are late then you usually start by explaining how this was due to public transport, bad weather, or even star alignment. Nobody will ever admit that they just ran late. Most people wear a wristwatch or check the time on their phones compulsively. We will arrive at least five minutes early to any meeting or doctor’s appointment. We would have probably arrived even earlier, but we killed time (in Estonian we are ‘making the time fit’, ‘aega parajaks tegema’) by walking around the block, maybe twice. Because being too early is also bad in Estonia. The awkwardness that is you sitting there before everyone else is almost insufferable. 

The only time you can be late in Estonia is when close family or friends have invited you to visit their home and did not demand precise arrival. Then, having been invited to arrive at seven, we will arrive around nine. This exception to the rule confuses Estonians as well.  

Like any city, Tallinn has an uncountable number of clocks to help us be on time. From wristwatches to bank clocks, from church bells to the humble kitchen clock over the fridge, it’s impossible to know how many clocks our city has. All of them are dead useful for making sure we are not late and giving us anxiety about possibly being too early. As one of the latest stress-inducers, the ticket-validators on public transport all show the time now too. Another problem over the years has been switching between summer and winter time each year. This is done on a Sunday, and the following Monday, everyone panics a little about being late or, even worse, early! 

Kadriorg’s sundial – if there’s sun, there’s time

Firstly, the oldest kind of a timekeeper of them all – a sundial – can be found in Kadriorg, a beautiful park area in Tallinn, along with Peter the Great’s summer palace, the Estonian Art Museum KUMU, the Presidential Palace and much more. Kadriorg’s sundial is right next to the Swan Pond in the park and was set up in 1937. The clock is made from local Estonian stone and was designed by architect Aleksandr Loman. It features twelve zodiac signs along with the 24-hour lines that even take into account the local time zone (EET, +2 GMT). 

In all fairness, sundials were invented around 1500 BC in Egypt where one does not need to worry about the lack of sun. In Estonia, sundials are not really the most reliable source for telling time, not clocking in even every other day statistically. Consider this: in Egypt, they expect sunshine 3,300 to 4,000 hours a year (practically every day), whereas in Estonia, we range from 1600 to 1900 hours of sunlight in a year. Most of this time is in summer, when our days are long, nights are short, and one expects to see sun. In winter, Estonians don’t expect to have any sun, so we all take vitamin D and dream of vacations in some warm place, maybe Egypt. But none the less, Kadriorg’s sundial is beautiful to look at even if you can’t tell the time off of it. 

Church of the Holy Spirit clock – time for everyone

The Holy Spirit Church is a beautiful 14th-century church in the Tallinn Old Town. Much about it is remarkable, especially to Estonians. When the Reformation started in 1517, it spread to Tallinn fast. In this church, the very first sermons in Estonian were given to town folk, and by 1530, the whole area had become protestant. It is also the Holy Spirit Church that has the honour of being the place where the very first book in Estonian was written in 1535 – a catechism by the church’s pastors Simon Wanradt and Johann Koell. With so many firsts, it is no wonder that here is also the oldest surviving public clock in Tallinn. 

The Holy Spirit’s clock dates back to 1684 and is a masterpiece of Baroque woodworking in Tallinn by the artisan Christian Ackermann. It is a beautiful painted clock that faces Pikk Street. Clocks were a great sign of wealth and Tallinn didn’t have many of them accessible to public. Most people back then would have had to tell time from the ringing of church bells. The Holy Spirit Church also used to have a very special bell too; it was the only medieval church bell surviving in Tallinn, and it had an inscription reading ‘I ring true to a maid and a servant, to a lady and a lord, and may no one begrudge me this.’ Sadly this bell, surviving from 1433 and having weathered many fires and wars, was destroyed in a fire after all in 2002. Now there is a new bell, but the old clock facing the street still tells the accurate and true time to any passerby no matter their age or origin. 

Freedom Clock – counting the Estonian independence

Most visitors to Tallinn’s main square, the Freedom Square, notice our freedom monument. The Monument to the War of Independence stands proudly and rather unmissably on the west side of the square and has been there since 2009. What most people do miss is a little older monument to Estonian freedom and independence on the same side of the square but to the left of it. Where an old, proud line of lime trees comes from St. Charles’s Church towards the Freedom Square is the Freedom Clock. 

The Freedom Clock is a monument to Estonian independence that was erected in 2003. It was the very first monument on the square after the restoration of independence. The architect Leonhard Lapin designed two twelve-metre tall columns. One is made from white local limestone and tells the time while the second is a metal cylinder that digitally displays the number of years of Estonia has been independent. The Freedom Clock is re-independent Estonia’s first monument to freedom in Tallinn and an interesting and uniquely modern interpretation at that. Like all new monuments in Estonia, it had its supporters and those who didn’t like it. Funny thing is that as typical for Estonia, given a few years, we forgot that we have it. 

Local Trump clock – business clock for busy people

One of the newer clocks in Tallinn stands in Kadriorg’s Business Centre. Probably as a nod to busy business areas, the clock here looks unmistakably like the clock in front of the Trump Tower in New York City. Locals naturally immediately nicknamed our clock the ‘Trump Clock’. This fresh addition to our public timekeepers was made in 2015.  

Tallinn will probably never achieve the same metropolitan cityscape that New York has, but we share a love of towers. If one thinks of New York, one usually thinks of Manhattan and skyscrapers. Tallinn is also referred to as the City of Towers, though our towers are mostly medieval church towers and city wall towers. The thing is, Tallinn doesn’t really have a single skyscraper. To be one, a building must have at least 40 floors and be 150 metres tall. The tallest commercial building in Tallinn is 117 m, smaller than even our own St. Olav’s tower at 123.7 m and the TV Tower at 314 m. So, the four business buildings around our own Trump Clock? Those are four floors high, not quite New York but cute. 

Town Hall Clock – time to meet under the dragons

Tallinn’s Town Hall, in the middle of the Old Town, is the only Gothic town hall in the whole region. It has more or less kept its original look since 1404 with a few changes, like the addition of the clock on the facade. The original clock mechanism dates to 1843 but was replaced with electronics in 2000. Funny thing is that it needed replacing again just this year because the clock refuses to accept winter time; like many Estonians, it seems to believe strongly that turning the clock back is wrong and so returned to summer time of its own accord. 

The Town Hall clock is flanked by two 17th century dragon-headed gargoyles that gush out water while it rains and grow some rather impressive icicles in winter. Right here, probably the most hazardous place on the square to stand thanks to these dragons, we use as a meeting place. When someone in Tallinn sets up a meeting spot as the ‘Old Town’, they actually mean in front of the Town Hall under the clock and the dragons. If you like to people watch, then this is a good place. You will see a lot of tourists, but amongst them the locals stand out by trying to cross-reference their wristwatch, smartphone, and the Town Hall’s clock. Even when the other person is not yet late, we will pace around like they are.

Train station clocks – Instagram gold

Train stations have an unmistakable air of romance and adventure about them. Most people walk by or through the Tallinn station right next to the Old Town. Locals call this the ‘Balti Jaam’ (Baltic Station). Today’s station looks a little square and boring due to a Soviet-era rebuild of a 19th century Historicist building. Tallinn gained a train connection with St. Petersburg, capital of the Russian Empire, in 1870 and many of the smaller train stations still have the original look from that era, but to find some of them, you have to take a train out of Tallinn. Luckily our trains are very much on time!  

One of the local favourites in Tallinn is Nõmme Station, not quite the oldest station but one of Tallinn’s prettiest. The main building of the station goes back to the pre-First World War era but was refitted after the Estonian War of Independence. The big, round clock over the wooden platform roof takes us back to the 1930s and somehow makes one dream of long skirts and parasols. Nõmme Station is a gateway to a beautiful area in Tallinn with little private houses surrounded by big gardens; Nõmme also has a lovely market with fresh local produce. So walk around, visit a bakery, and for once, do not worry about time.