In the first entry of the On the Edges of Europe column, travel journalist Thom Brown ventures to Estonia to explore an abandoned prison turned lakeside resort.
Gazing into the abyss, my feet felt frozen to the crumbling concrete floor. The corridor stretched into the darkness, swallowing the summer sunlight until it faded to black. Smothered by that uniquely musty smell of trapped, stale dust, I began to question the safety of this venture.
Of course it’s safe, I reassured myself.
Clutching a paper ticket and cheap, plastic audio guide earphones, it was time to explore deeper into this crumbling building, one step at a time. My right foot swung shakily forward through the air, landing with an echoey thud. The whole building seemed to tremble at the sound, and then, a shadowy figure emerged from the pitch black, moving just enough into the light for its silhouette to appear.
It was a small, ragged creature, with sharp ears pricked to attention. The animal (monster?) tilted its head so that light seeping through a crack in the walls hit its eyes and bounced back directly into my soul. It felt longer, but it couldn’t have been more than three seconds before I’d identified the animal, turned, and bolted out of the building.
“A fox! There’s a fox!”
My partner, Avely, stopped fiddling with her audio guide, looked up, and presented her well-used where-have-you-been-now? face.
We’d been separated several times on this self-guided tour of Rummu Prison. Built in 1938 and eventually closed in 2013, it’s an archetypal reminder of the harsh justice system enforced by Estonia’s Soviet occupiers. For decades, criminals sentenced to hard labor called this place home. Now, it’s one of Europe’s most eerily fascinating hidden attractions.
From Tallinn city center, the village of Rummu – home to this notorious prison – can be reached by car in less than an hour. While many will visit the abandoned Patarei Prison, close to the city center, Rummu is well worth the trip.
Unlike Patarei, Rummu Prison is a vast complex that gives visitors the sense of going on a slightly dangerous adventure. We parked and found the ticket office, which gave the impression that this would be a typical museum experience. The office had a map, a list of rules, and a friendly ticket lady behind plexiglass.
Rather than wait for a human tour guide, we paid €10 to receive our audio guide, allowing us to explore at our own pace. The self-guided tour should take two hours and comes in eight different languages. So far, this seemed like it would be fun, relaxing, and educational. Exiting through the back door of the ticket office, the widely spaced prison structures came into view, and it was clear we had no idea where to go.
Each building had a number corresponding to a button on the audio guide that, when pressed, told a compelling and often tragic story about the horrors contained within. But the numbers were hard to spot and didn’t appear in order. We often found ourselves alone, surrounded by piles of rubble, feeling like we’d wandered out of the museum and into an unattended building site.
There was a rusted guard tower on the corner. There was no indication of whether it was allowed – or indeed, safe – to climb, but there was also no sign to say it wasn’t. I placed one foot on the bottom step and felt the entire structure wobble beneath me. This sensation only worsened further up, but it was worth it to get a good vantage point of the prison complex. It was massive.
Abandoned buildings dotted the landscape. There were the shells of housing units, shops, and even a gym. Although there were other visitors, most buildings were empty upon entry, generating that niggling knot in the stomach that we shouldn’t be there and that it wasn’t safe. And, in all honesty, it wasn’t safe. Broken glass was sprinkled across every surface, sections of the ceiling hung precariously, and jagged concrete could slice your hand at any moment.
There had, to my surprise, been no obvious attempt to clean up the buildings and make them fit for visitors. There were seemingly no health and safety measures in place. A used car company bought the prison and simply opened it up to tourists in its natural, decaying state. No wonder foxes were happy to call it home.
While most museums try to immerse you in the subject at hand, none does it quite as well as Rummu. You really do feel like an adventurer as you glimpse a sense of the dread, hopelessness, and fear that must have been a daily fact of life for prisoners.
One building was the segregation block, where the most violent offenders were sent to be punished. There was only one way in and out, which took me on a scarcely lit journey past the heavy iron doors of single-occupancy cells. This led to the yard, which was divided up so that each prisoner had to exercise alone.
I, too, was alone as I explored every inch of this dark and haunting structure. A bridge in the yard was red and rusty, like the guard tower, and it shook beneath my weight. I walked up and down, mesmerized by the way the plant life had started to reclaim the cold slabs of concrete that prisoners called their garden.
We stayed longer than anticipated, determined to finish every number on the audio guide. But we weren’t done yet. The best attraction lay next door, beyond the museum walls.
Rummu is best known as the site of a limestone quarry. This is where the prisoners did their hard labor as miners. After the prison closed, the water that was pumped out of this site was allowed back in, flooding the quarry building and creating a large, beautiful lake.
In the summer, sunlight hits the lake’s surface until it shimmers with a sparkling turquoise tint. The limestone ground even looks like sand from a distance. In stark contrast to the depressing Soviet monstrosity next door, a hot day here feels like being on a Caribbean island.
I strolled down the hill to the shores of the lake to find visitors on paddleboards and pedal boats. An inflatable obstacle course had been set up, and children in high-visibility life vests giggled with glee as they failed to avoid falling with a splash into the tranquil waters.
But at the center of it all was a half-submerged building with a horrifying history. The lake was allowed to return before anything had been demolished. All the equipment was simply left abandoned, so remnants of the quarry’s infrastructure remained. Locals and tourists swam freely between these structures of repression. But in a way, that’s beautiful.
Beside the lake is a large hill created from the deposits of limestone dug up by the prisoners. I trekked toward the top, but it became steeper and more slippery higher up. Again, little thought had gone into health and safety.
In Estonia, one of Europe’s flattest countries, you have to take every chance you get to catch a view, so I kept on moving. At the peak, the flatness of Estonia became a blessing. The dense forests stretched beyond the horizon, evoking a sense of awe at this nation’s love of nature. The dazzling lake was revealed in all its glory as I looked down upon the specs of people enjoying their weekend on the water. Some sat in the cool cafe, sipping an icy drink and soaking in the peace.
From here, I could also peek over the wall at the decaying prison. While it seems a shame to let it crumble to nothingness, I can’t envision a better replacement for tyranny and enslavement than the refreshing freedom of a lakeside resort.