Bastionin tunnelit

Bastion Passages: a long walk through the history

Do you have sights that you have heard many times about, but for one reason or another you are not excited to visit yourself? For me, the Bastion passages were like this. I had seen pictures of them and heard praise, but for some reason was still skeptical. When I finally descended to these historic tunnels one rainy early spring day, I realized how wrong I had been: the Bastion passages are amazingly interesting and worth seeing!

If you haven’t been there yourself yet, you might can’t to take a virtual photo tour with me. Luckily I took a lot of pictures, so there is a lot to share!

Bastion passages: a stairway to the past

The tour begins by descending the stairs to the passage of the Ingrian bastion that meanders under Harjumäki hill. There are three of these bastions, built during the Swedish rule in the 17th century around Tallinn’s Old Town. In addition to this museum one, there are Swedish and Skoone bastions. The plan was to build a total of eleven of them. However, the state ran out of money due to the war against Russia that started on 1700. Therefore only three of the bastions materialized.

Before, the passages were accessible only on guided tours, but today they can also be explored independently. I highly recommend downloading the audio guide to your phone and taking a tour with it. It’s a good idea to download it before you get on the spot, but you might even get more out of this little photo tour with it. I attach the audio tour numbers to my story, with which you can listen to the English narration related to each image.

Bastionin tunnelit

Bastion passages: eye candy and history

From the lower end of the stairs opens an impressive sight: endless looking vaulted tunnel illuminated with interestingly colored lights. The passage is not a continuous cylinder, but more like a chain of small halls with doorways in between.

As you move from hall to hall, you also move along the historic timeline of the passages. On display are artefacts visualizing different time periods that add a fun spice to the story of the audio guide.

Bastionin tunnelit

Where it all started: The time of Swedish rule

In the 17th century, bastions began to be designed in Tallinn under the leadership of the Swedish Erik Dahlberg (audio guide, section 3). In addition to Dahlberg, a key role was also played by a gentleman named Gebhard Himsel, pictured below. He was a city engineer, a high school math teacher and a pharmacist – so the renaissance genius of his time! (Picture below, section 23 of the audio guide).

Construction work began in 1686, but as was often the case with such slow and heavy fortification work: the art of warfare developed faster than the fortifications were completed. The bastion tunnels were thus used little or not at all as originally planned. (Sections 22, 24 of the Audio Guide)

Bastionin tunnelit

The gentlemen in the picture below are guards from the last times of Swedish rule (audio guide point 21). A 20,000-strong force of the Russian army besieged Tallinn, and the Swedish army’s army basically had enough will to fight. It so happened, however, that the plague that had spread to the city quickly wreaked enormous devastation, and Sweden was forced to surrender in 1710. Swedish time in Estonia was over, and Russia under Peter the Great was now the new ruler.

The couple of hundred years of tsarist Russia began. After the war ended, the new rulers turned the underground passages into prisons. It is said that the former metropolitan father Arseni (also pictured below), who defied Catherine the Great’s orders, lived in the cells in the tunnels until his death, until 1772. He was buried in St. Nicholas Church on Venekatu, and was later canonized as a saint by the Orthodox Church. (Audio Guide, Section 18)

In 1857, Alexander II ordered the removal of the bastions from the list of Russian fortifications, even though they had been in combat readiness during the Crimean War only a few years earlier. After this, the bastions were transferred to the civil administration, and the park areas around the Old Town today were created on top of them. (Section 15 of the Audio Guide)

Bastionin tunnelit

Part of the bastion passage was under water for over 100 years

An interesting detail of the tour was to hear that about half of the bastion tunnels are almost in their original form. That part of the tunnel was closed by a wall just over a hundred years ago, as the deepest part of the tunnels were often filled with water. The premises were forgotten until they were rediscovered in 2004, when the Bastion tunnels began to be renovated into a museum.

The section illuminated with colored lights at the beginning of the round has been altered and refurbished over the decades, whereas the end part is still close to the original shape. An interesting difference between the two! (Section 19 of the Audio Guide).

In the next century, the cannons will roar again

In the early 20th century, the new Republic of Estonia was not allowed to enjoy peace for long before as early as the beginning of the 1930’s news of the deteriorating political situation in Europe began to spread. In 1936, the construction of bomb shelters began in the bastion passages.

Less than ten years later, bomb shelters were really needed. In 1944, Germany had occupied Estonia, and the Soviet Union bombed Tallinn terribly on March 9. Harjukatu, the Estonia Theater and Niguliste Church were almost completely destroyed.

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Do you like this post? If you do and would like to support me, a nice way would be to stay in my Airbnb apartment in Tallinn on your vacation. I promise you will like it – it’s right in the heart of Old Town! Check the booking calendar in here. 

Sorry to interrupt! Please scroll on and continue reading.

Bastionin tunnelit
Bastionin tunnelit

This is Laine Mõisamaa with her grandmother. They are fleeing the bombing with nearly a thousand other townspeople. As the bombing subsides, and as they climb out of the Bastion tunnel, an inconsolable sight opens up in front: ruined blocks and streets full of corpses. The bombings killed more than 500 civilians, dozens of soldiers and more than 100 Russian prisoners of war. (Sections 12 and 14 of the Audio Guide)

Bastionin tunnelit

During the Soviet era the threat of nuclear war and Western influence lurked

My journey through the passage continues, and at the same time progresses along the timeline of the bastion tunnels for decades of occupation.

During the Cold War, the Bastion passages were converted into civil shelters for a possible nuclear war. The old soil floor was covered with stone tiles, and the tunnels were ventilated, drained, and plumbed. Soviet citizens were prepared for a nuclear war – warfare was even a subject in schools. People had to get used to being in a bomb shelter and using a gas mask. Fortunately, these horror images never materialized. (Sections 8 and 9 of the Audio Guide)

Below you can see Civil Protection Lieutenant Olga Ivanovna Petrovan – she is an on-duty order officer. Behind her hovers one of the well-known ghosts of the bastion tunnels: a shimmering female figure sliding through stone walls. However, she is believed to have moved to Toompea to a house on Toomkooli street. (Sections 10 and 11 of the Audio Guide)

The Iron Curtain tried to prevent Western influences from invading the Soviet Union, but its openings oozed influences that were considered destructive: punk was the worst of all. Punk rockers harassing Soviet militias lodged in the corridors of the bastion. The stories tell of nocturnal punk band gigs and the devastating going about questioning the occupier’s ideas anyway.

The punk rockers lodged in the adjacent Swedish bastion, but if the militias raided there, the punkers ran for their lives to this Ingrian bastion and out through it. At that time, the toilets were still working and water came from the taps. The hot water pipe running through the corridor warmed up a bit. (Audio Guide Section 7)

Bastionin tunnelit

It’s time for independence – but not equally euphoric to everyone

1990 The Soviet Union disintegrates. A free market economy came, but it also brought the homeless to the streets. Some of them found a home in the passages. Water, electricity, and ventilation were cut off, but a year-round temperature of 8 degrees was better than being outdoors.

In the early 2000s, the tunnels in Bastion were cleaned up and the homeless were evicted. The last of them was former border guard Jüri, who didn’t want to leave. It is said that he eventually moved to the Skoone bastion on the port side of the Old Town. How can it be: Is Jüri still living somewhere in his underground home? (Audio Guide Section 6)

Through the Stargate into the kingdom of stones

The bastion passages continue unobstructed from room to room until towards the end when we reach an iron stargate. On the other side of it begins the Stone Sculpture Museum. This Raidkivimuuseum is in that part of the tunnel that was under water for over 100 years.

The museum is unique in the world, as rarely is the museum itself built of the same material as its exhibits. However, this is the case in the limestone tunnels of the Bastion passages, as limestone in various ways is on display in this part of the museum.

The museum consists of halls built with different themes. There are sundials in the Sun hall, but unfortunately do not work. Why? Because here the sun does not shine! In the Death hall there are tombstones and in the Garden of Eden there are subjects from the plant world and human figures such as Adam and Eve. One of the biggest treasures is the rocky canopy that used to be above the baptismal font of St. Nicholas Church. In the picture below it sways over my husband’s head. (Audio Guide, paragraphs 25-34)

Bastionin tunnelit

Finally, fast-forward the facts and feelings!

The Bastion passages sure arranges a happy and interesting surprise! The exhibition was nicely compact but interestingly built, so with a relatively short visit we got an interesting overview of both the times of Swedish and Russian rule and the decades of the 20th century. When the stone museum side peeked into the Middle Ages, the passages actually tells a history of Tallinn through the centuries.

There were a lot of people in the museum without the audio guide, but I personally recommend listening to it – especially as it costs nothing! Only with the help of it did we realize how interesting layers are hidden in those corridors slithering under Harjumäki hill like a pearl ribbon.

Address: You enter the tunnels from the same place as the Kiek in te kök museum, ie from Komandandi tee 2

Bastion tunnels website:

Open: May 1 – September 30 Mon–Sun 10 am–6pm
1.10.–30.4. Tue–Wed, Fri–Sun 10–17, Thu 10–20
Check here for possible national holidays when the museum is not open.

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