Review by Fiona Duncan, published 30th November 2004.
My heart sinks. It’s 9.30 in the morning and I’m on the plane to Tallinn, beleaguered by a dozen or more shaven-headed loudmouths who have already kicked off their weekend at the airport bar and are now motoring through the drinks trolley. Preconceptions are there to be broken, but this is exactly what I’d heard about Estonia’s capital: a magnet for bleary British stag parties, drawn via specialists operators by the cheap flights, cheap beer and strip joints, all in a Disney setting.
Tallinn’s Old Town, which grew up during the Estonian capital’s golden years as a major Hanseatic port, is straight from a fairytale: a jumble of old fortifications and winding cobbled streets lined by merchants’ houses painted in jelly bean colours and pierced by church spires and onion domes. But it’s no Disneyland. Though small, this is a youthful, dynamic, Western-looking city determined to make up for lost time trapped, until 1991, behind the Iron Curtain. Many government ministers and entrepreneurs are well under thirty, trendy new bars and restaurants open every week, and the number of hotel beds has doubled in the last year.
Like their Finnish neighbours across the Baltic Sea, Estonians have embraced technology, with a paperless e-government and so many WiFi areas that you can even sit in the park with your laptop and connect to the internet. The flight was grim, but my hotel, the Schlössle, was both elegant and snug and the cobbled streets around it looked instantly appealing. But they had to wait. Instead, I obeyed the unorthodox advice of a friend to first “understand the past and see where I was” and took a 15-minute taxi ride out of town.We raced past the port, crossed a river, plunged into thick pine forest and pulled up in a clearing at Tallinn’s TV Tower, at once beautiful and ugly, where Soviet tanks had come to a halt and Estonia’s peaceful struggle for independence was finally won. Built by the Russians to coincide with the 1980 yachting Olympics, the folorn space-age spire soars 1,030 ft into the sky. Once grandiose, now neglected, there are two compelling reasons for going to this communist icon: the sweep of propagandist but stunningly beautiful stained glass windows on the ground floor and the circular observation deck at the top. First though, you must negotiate the boot-faced Russian lady, as much of a throwback as the tower itself, who sourly doles out the entrance tickets.
Once inside, sipping rather good meat soup in the jaded restaurant on the observation deck, I had an astronaut’s view of Tallinn. Now I could, as my friend had said, see where I was; indeed on a clear day you can see as far as Finland. There was the hilltop Old Town, bristling with spires; cargo ships and cruise liners sailing in and out of the harbour; grim housing blocks in the suburbs; Pirita beach, Tallinn’s summer playground, almost at my feet, and the pine forest that covers much of Estonia stretching away to the distance. I could see too, on a slope overlooking the sea, the Song Festival grounds, where in 1988 300,000 Estonians first vocalised their right to independence in what became known as the Singing Revolution.
It was time to come in from the cold. After my brush with Soviet Estonia, exploring Hanseatic Tallinn was like eating cake instead of stale bread. Sunday morning was perfect, with church bells ringing under a clear blue sky. Town Square is the hub, chocolate box pretty in daylight, ravishing by night, alive round the clock during the white nights of summer. There and in the surrounding streets are cafés and restaurants, cake shops, galleries and museums. Walk along Vene (which means Russia) for example, and you’ll come across the delightfully ramshackle Master’s Courtyard hiding Chocolaterie, the cosiest, most bohemian café in town, with its own master chocolatier. Next door is Katariina käik, a charming alley alongside the Dominican monastery lined by artisans workshops and galleries, and further along, St Nicholas Orthodox church, where everything in the burnished gold interior is spoken and sung in Russian for Tallinn’s considerable Russian population. Back at the top, pop in to Niguliste, a church turned art museum, to see the creepy but compelling 15th century Dance Macabre by Bernt Notke.
There are over 30 museums in little Tallinn. They may not detain you on a short trip, though the town’s many details – a drainpipe in the shape of a boot, the spire of St Olaf’s, in medieval times one of the tallest building in the world, a cobbled side street run to grass, the occasional knock-out art nouveau façade – surely will. From Town Hall Square, Pikk jalg (Long leg) leads from the lower town to the upper town, Toompea, filled with the aristocratic residences of Baltic barons and crowned by the Russian Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Estonia’s parliament and the country’s oldest church are here too, plus a far-reaching view across a jumble of red roofs, but the souvenir shops are tackier and the tourist groups stand in stodgy packs and it’s much more fun back in the lower town.
Pick the right place and you will eat well in Tallinn. Homely and intimate, dotted with antiques, Vanaema Juures (Grandma’s Place) was opened in 1992 but feels decades older, with comforting Estonian home cooking and smiling waitresses in long aprons. In stark contrast, Ö, serving sushi and fusion food, is a scintillating warehouse conversion in black and white that makes the plain look glamorous and the local girls, famous for their beauty, look like supermodels. Coffee and pastries are part of life in Tallinn. As well as at the Chocolaterie, I can recommend Le Bonaparte and Estonia’s oldest café, Maiasmokk (Sweet Tooth) where it seems that neither the interior nor the staff has changed since well before the war.
As for our lads, I never saw them again. I passed strip clubs, pubs and casinos, but I never felt their presence, perhaps partly because the frenetic white nights of summer had drawn to a close. The Estonians, a reserved people, are peeved and puzzled by their antics. “The Finns have been coming here to drink for years but they just fall asleep. The British are different – they get louder and louder and then they want to take their trousers off. We can’t understand it.” I do hope I never have to see a drunken Brit on display in Tallin; I don’t mean to be a prig, but it’s really not the place.
Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) offers a 3-night break at the Hotel Schlössle from £495 per person, including flights, accommodation with breakfast and private transfers. Cox & Kings\' new Treasures of Eastern Europe brochure features short breaks and tours to Estonia and throughout Eastern Europe.Eating OutAs well as Vanaema Juures, Rataskaevu 10, and Ö, Mere pst 6e, Controvento is a popular and dependable Italian in Katariina käik and Pegasus, Harju 1, is a trendy three-storey restaurant and bar, open all day, overlooking Niguliste Church.What it costs for twoFlights and three nights’ accommodation £990
Dinner at Vanaema Juures £30. Dinner at Ö £55. Taxi £8. Museum entrances £12. Total £1095.