My favorite place to watch the seasons change is Kalamaja Kalmistupark (Kalamaja Cemetery Park), the largest open space in my neighborhood. As is the case with many of central London’s green spaces, Kalamaja’s park began its life as a cemetery. But unlike London’s overcrowded graveyards which soon became health hazards and so were shut down, Kalamaja’s Cemetery – first opened in the 15th Century on the outskirts of medieval Tallinn – continued its quiet and bucolic existence up until the day in 1964 when the Soviet military decided to destroy it in order to make way for a new building project that never happened. It wasn’t until 2009 that the park took the shape in which you can see it today.
To honor the park’s past as Tallinn’s earliest known burial ground for Estonians, you’ll find a small chapel in one corner of the park. The restored wooden bell tower with its red metal roof is built on top of a sturdy stone gateway and supports a weather vane which reads 1780 – the year in which the last cemetery chapel was built. Inside the open archway, you can see a few fragments from the tombstones which were found while transforming the space into a park. In attempt to erase any trace of the thousands of Estonians and Swedish-Estonians who had been buried there, the Soviet military melted down all their iron crosses and then crushed their stone monuments before using the remaining rubble as paving material elsewhere in Tallinn. Hanging on one of the white washed walls of the chapel, you can see a single new gravestone which lets you know that the place where you’re standing had been a cemetery for almost 500 years. This vanished burial ground is one of the reasons why the park has been designated as a state-protected natural site by the Estonian Government.
As you walk around, you’ll find a few other reminders that the park was once a cemetery. Not far from the main fountain with its collection of small erratic boulders, you’ll see a set of five new iron crosses. A stone marker resting on the ground between them reads: “To the memory of the thousands who rest here.” You can see other reminders – as well as links to the Swedish-Estonians buried here – in the decorative motif used on the park’s iron gates. Rows of Scandinavian sun crosses – similar to the ones that fill the Swedish cemetery on Vormsi Island – greet you as you enter the park. The sun cross symbol also reappears outlined in cobblestone elsewhere on the grounds. And if you walk into the park from its main entrance on Tööstuse Street and head downhill, the park’s downwards paths will sometimes give you the feeling that you’re entering a kind of underworld. This illusion, however, is not a piece of intentional landscaping but an accidental one. Blocking the park’s view of the Baltic Sea is an earthen berm built to carry a rail spur which once went around Kalamaja’s northern coastal border. Today, Kalaranna (Fish Beach Street) runs along the top of this raised earth mound which cuts off the horizon.
None of this is to say that the park feels in any way gloomy. Quite the opposite. The park is now a place filled with light and life. There are dozens of benches where couples or friends sit and talk. From the time it opens at 6:30 AM until it closes at 11 PM, the park is filled with joggers, Nordic walkers, dog walkers, and regular walkers as well as mothers pushing baby carriages. There is also a playground where moms and dads can take their small kids to play. And there are even a couple of those outdoor ping pong tables for anyone who is a bit older. Near the playground, there is a small parking lot for people who come visit the park from outside of Kalamaja.
In fact, the park has so many visitors these days that Kadriorg Park (the Tallinn city department charged with maintaining Kalamaja Park) has even added a couple of portable toilets as the 2009 designers forgot to include any public facilities. Kadriorg Park has also posted a list of rules. Most of these rules seem reasonable including “no drinking,” “no fires,” and “no camping” as well as “all dogs must be on a leash” and “clean up after yourself.” Some of the rules, however, seem like a throw back to Soviet times when everything was forbidden and when the answer to everything was always “no.” My favorite rule – especially given the normally calm Estonian national character which generated an entire series of Soviet-era anecdotes about the “Hot Blooded Estonian Guy” (горячий эстонский парень) – is “no loud arguments.” Fortunately for its caretakers, the park is pretty much litter free thanks to its many and strategically placed trash cans.
As always, I love exploring borders – including the ones of this park. Starting in the north-east corner and heading clockwise, my favorite boundary line is on the park’s eastern side as it serves as a kind of microcosm of Kalamaja today. The lovely little wood house painted red at Kungla 53/2 should remind you of what Kalamaja must have been like during the interwar period – and what it might become once again. Not too far away from this architectural gem, you can see several rows of horrendous Soviet-era garages which were built on top of the ruins of the old cemetery caretaker’s house after it was also destroyed. The park’s eastern border is also home to various other nice old wooden houses and their gardens. By the time you approach the park’s south-east corner, you’ll find yourself at the back of an old and somewhat unattractive factory. However, this is a very special building as it happens to be the place where the wonderful Estonia Pianos are made. This corner of the current park – once slated for redevelopment in 1923 – was not a part of the original cemetery. Today, you will find rows of short bushes which show you the outlines of what might have been.
The park’s southern border is marked by busy Tööstuse Street – Kalamaja’s main east-west through-way. Across the street, you’ll see several buildings that were once part of the immense Volta factory which started making electric motors and other related equipment back in 1900. By the park’s main entrance on Tööstuse next to the stone fountain, you’ll find an information board about the park as well as Kadriorg Park’s rules of behavior. The park’s western border is marked by a limestone wall covered by a narrow sheet-metal roof which once separated the cemetery from the former Noblessner Navy Vessel Factory. You can see the Russian Imperial factory’s tall Jugendtil water tower in the south-west corner. When the factory became a Soviet military installation, razor wire was added to top of the limestone wall – although the wire’s metal supports are all that remain today. The park’s north-west corner is hidden by a run-down and largely abandoned Soviet-era factory which awaits either demolition or a new life depending on who responds to its “for sale” sign. The park’s northern border is that same earthen berm supporting busy Kalaranna Street.
While I like exploring everything around the edges, most of the time I just prefer to walk through the park and spend at least some time sitting on a bench in quiet contemplation among its many oaks, maples, lindens, and chestnut trees. While the park is also home to a few lost evergreens and some other types of trees, these four main species set the tone for the park and provide you with a front row seat to watch the changing of the seasons.
In fall, after the park’s fountains are turned off during the first cold snap, the leaves start turning every possible shade of yellow from sun bright to buff brown. You can sit on a bench and watch the leaves falling to the ground – escorted by maple seed pods helicoptering down and protected by the random thumping of falling chestnuts. Soon, the entire park will be covered in a field of gold. Tallinn’s leaf-peepers come out of the woodwork to take photos of this colorful scene while younger Estonians add to their ever-growing archive of selfies. You can also watch kids of all ages kick up the fallen leaves covering the park’s paths, making the sound of wrapping paper torn from birthday presents. Hidden among all the gold leaves slowly turning brown, you can find acorns, horse chestnuts, and other seeds promising future life. After the first rain falls, you will spot patches of mud as you start smelling that first musty hint of decaying and decomposing leaves – before the park’s keepers show up with their blowers and rakes to gather everything up for compost. On my fall walks to and from the park, I tend to notice all the lovely wooden houses painted autumn yellow and Kalamaja brown.
In winter, the best time to visit the park is right after an overnight snowfall when you can be the first one to walk on the paths. You can see bright white snow clinging to black leafless branches as you listen to the frozen crunch underfoot. As the weather thaws and then freezes again as it always inevitably does, you might be able to spot small icicles hanging from the trees or listen to the slow drip-drip of melting snow. While you might be lucky and chance upon a bright sunny day, odds are that the sky above you will be gray or even black. On my winter walks to and from the park, my eyes look for the wooden houses painted white and gray in order to keep them from fading entirely into the background. The few new buildings painted black stand out like black sheep in a flock of white ones.
In spring, you can watch life as it slowly returns to Kalamaja. First the trees start to bud and then their leaves begin to unfurl. Grass starts growing and turning green as it emerges from the dark brown earth between the last stubborn patches of snow and ice. But the moment you should wait for is when all of the park’s wild blue-bells start to bloom – if the weather is just right, then the entire upper half of the park becomes a glorious field of blue and green. By the time all the new green leaves have unfurled, the park’s fountains have been turned back on so that you can hear the sound of flowing water. During my spring walks to the park, I notice all those wooden houses painted in every wonderful shade of Kalamaja green – along with their rare blue neighbors.
In summer, the long days give you the perfect excuse to linger in the park. Everything grows quickly to take full advantage of the extra hours of light shining down from the bright yellow sun overhead. If the weather and clouds are right, a nice sunrise or sunset will give the blue sky a lovely orange or red glow. You’ll notice that the leaves growing from the trees’ brown branches will turn an even deeper shade of green. On my way to the park in summer, I notice all of Kalamaja’s wooden houses painted in every different shade representing all four seasons – green, brown, yellow, orange, red, blue, white, gray, and black. Together, these colors form the palette of my wooden neighborhood.
Although it is located within earshot of the Estonia Piano Factory, Kalamaja Park suffers from one discordant note: sadly, no matter where you sit, you can always hear the steady roar of passing cars ….
Image: An iron sun cross from Vormsi Island made by resident blacksmith Algor Streng.