When I was a child, I found a pre-World War II atlas and thumbed through it, marveling at the strange flags printed on yellowed paper. The flag for Germany was emblazoned with a swastika, menacing in my eyes yet matter-of-fact on the atlas. But of all the strange European flags, one stopped me, refreshingly powder-blue: Estonia. What's that? The very word seemed reminiscent of some C.S. Lewis fable.
What happened to Estonia? Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union covered much of Eastern Europe in a swath of red and gold, sickle and hammer. Little Estonia became another Soviet Republic, closed off from the West.
Today it is a charming independent country just across the Baltic Sea from Finland, with a capital city, Tallinn, that could rival any other in beauty. The town was founded by Danish knights and German merchants, who settled amid the native Estonians, but today it also boasts a Russian and Swedish population.
I have spent the past few days in Tallinn, taking in the Old Town near the blue sea and surrounded by a stony medieval wall with towers. The Old Town is a maze of cobblestone streets and white limestone gothic cathedrals, topped by golden baroque spires. One church used to be the tallest tower in Europe before it was struck by lightning.
The most interesting buildings, however, reside at the top of the town. Perched at the rim of a limestone cliff, the parliament building is pink as an easter egg. I couldn't help but wonder how the tenor of America might change with a fresh pink coat over the White House.
Across the way stands an ornate Russian orthodox church commissioned by the last tsar of Russia. Its domed architecture purposefully does not match the plain building style of Estonian architecture. The doomed tsar couldn't have known such a religious monument would be muted in just a few years by the atheist Soviets. But for this reason, the church seems welcome here in Tallinn, where lapsed cultures remain side-by-side in stone, in the timeless way of fables.