“Estonia is the most developed of the Baltic States,” said our taxi driver proudly as he drove us to our hotel in Tallinn. I was pleased to hear this as travel with a six-month baby is not easy at the best of times. The Hotel St. Petersbourg, located in the heart of old Tallinn, had been duly informed of our imminent arrival, and ushered us into our large room. We dumped all our stuff, grabbed back the baby and set off on a search for dinner. It was past 10PM on a Friday night. We thought nothing of it until we found that most establishments were no longer serving food. Finally we found one that was willing to feed us. A quick glance at the menu – poached eel, fried thymus, boiled tongue – convinced us that Restoran Eeslitall was a genuine Estonian establishment and we went into its two hundred-year-old dining room. I resisted the urge to order the Viennese Piglings from the Children’s Menu for my son. ‘Unusual’ would be the best description of our meal, but ‘edible’ would do just as well.
We returned to our room to be disconcerted by the following notice on our pillows: “Street noise might disturb you. Therefore we provide for light sleepers complimentary earplugs for your additional comfort.” Light sleepers? For the next two nights, our room positively vibrated to the high notes of the blues band in the bar opposite. Remarkably, the only person able to get to sleep before 3AM, when the band finally called it a night, was the baby, who was undisturbed by incomprehensible lyrics being shouted in his ear at top volume. Ah well, it was no different from home life for him.
The next day, we set off for a wander round ‘ye olde towne’. Tallinn consists of an old old town (Toompea) and a new old town (Vanalinn). Both are picture postcard perfect. The former is set on a tiny pinnacle of a hill, surrounded by a stone wall. The towers and churches date from the fourteenth century, bar the odd cathedral hastily constructed by the Russians during their (first) Estonian domination at the turn of the century. There is still much debate on whether to move the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky somewhere – anywhere – else, now that Estonia has formally regained its independence. The Parliament building is also up on the hill but entry is not allowed, except to the small green park on its south side, which gives fabulous views over the sea.
The new old town is just as attractive. Every building is historic, most from the seventeenth century. The whole area has been immaculately restored (bravo, bravo) and mindless wandering pays off with the discovery of multiple churches and small curiosity shops. Antiques can be had for a bargain in Tallinn, especially Russian icons. These have usually been smuggled out of their land of origin, with the risk of serious penalties if caught. Now that the Estonians have got their hands on them, they are more than happy to sell them on to the eager tourist. The artwork is extraordinarily intricate, with representative items from the schools of St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as lesser known works. But be careful, ours was pronounced ‘ringed with woodworm’ by our local framer when we got home.
Cafés and restaurants are plentiful in the new old town. (There are fewer options in Toompea.) The Millennium Café on the east side of the Main Square has one great kind of Danish pastry and a lot of log-shaped sausage-filled pies. You can get a good cappuccino just about anywhere. The best restaurants are affiliated to hotels: the Hotel Schlössle has very good food from a limited menu choice, and The Hermitage in the Hotel St. Petersbourg has a wide range of Western and Estonian dishes, including the ubiquitous fried perch, and a fine selection of desserts. (Get the hot chocolate muffin, avoid the white chocolate tart). Generally, the food is not quite up to Western standards, but then, neither are the prices. An exception (on the food side) is the newly-opened Restoran Laguun on Vene Street at the intersection with Apteegi, which serves tasty fish dishes and heart-warming hot rum cherries in vanilla ice cream.
There are also several good galleries in the new old town. The Adamson-Eric museum – one star, worth a detour, as the Michelin guide would most probably say if they did tour Estonia – has a boring collection of work by the eponymous artist, but also has rather good temporary exhibitions by less well known compatriots. Unfortunately, you can’t buy any of the pieces, or perhaps we simply did not offer enough EEK (Estonian kroner abbreviated).
With arms opened wide to the West (and firmly closed to its former Eastern European allies), it is no surprise to find Tallinn has its share of European and American designer goods. The Bally shop on Vene Street has a particularly good range of shoes and a constant selection of sale items.
However, there is a lot more to Estonia than the medieval glory of Tallinn, a fact few visitors bother to verify. But hire a car (Hertz or Avis will deliver and pick up right from your hotel for no extra charge) and explore. The university town of Tartu is a popular destination, with its decrepit St. Peter and Paul cathedral perched on a hilltop. There wasn’t the money to re-roof the whole vast interior so the nave was turned into a library, and the rest was left open to the gods, with worrying notices saying “Be cautious! The building is liable to fall down!” posted on each exposed brick pillar. Tartu University first opened in the seventeenth century as the second university in the Swedish empire. It has since seen several forced closures due to Russian attacks, German invasions and deportation to concentration camps during the Second World War. The building is attractive – or should that be important? – enough to grace the back of the current 2 EEK note. The main square is a mini-version of Tallinn’s same, though the statue of the young couple embracing over the central fountain was only erected in 1998. I wondered if it was replacing a former version of Lenin saluting Soviet youth, but the elder gentleman I asked just shook his head in dismay and returned to his card game. Galleries are definitely more interesting than museums in Estonia so avoid the Toy Museum (some of these items looked too close to the Tiny Tears dolls I threw out when I turned eleven) and head to the art gallery on Lossi Street for a variety of modern paintings.
Lunch is served at a dozen restaurants around the square, but none on a Sunday. We walked up Vallikraavi Street to Café Wilde and had a choice of two or three different sandwiches and cheesecakes. The café was named not after Oscar, but Peter Ernst Wilde, an eighteenth century medical publisher.
Viljandi also makes for a pleasant day trip. The ruined castle is not much to look at, but the views from its battlements over Lake Viljandi are glorious. The park surrounding the castle makes for pleasant meanderings, topped off by a peak into St. John’s Church. The latter is accessible by crossing over Tartu Bridge. “Destroyed was it when the army moved backwards,” explains the confusing notice at its entrance.
One final trip worth a special visit is Rocco Al Mare, Estonia’s only answer to an American theme park, minus rides or Disney characters. In fact, Rocco is an open air museum that depicts life in turn-of-the-century Estonia. There are a handful of fabulous windmills, beautifully restored, but the park is dominated by huts, barns and granaries. There are no descriptions in English, but each building is fully furnished, so it doesn’t take much to work out storage room from horse barn or kitchen from bedroom. In case you can’t, each location has a guide dressed in traditional gear, burning with eagerness to answer your questions – until they find out you don’t speak Estonian.
Not only is Estonia clean – there is no rubbish littering the highway or main streets – it is also green and verdant, perhaps due to a penchant for rain that it shares with the British Isles. Best of all, it is never crowded, even in the summertime. There are a few Russian tourists, several Scandinavians, and we heard the odd German accent. Go now, before your neighbours get there.
I was reminded of Estonia’s zero-customer-service Russian background only once: when we were leaving the country. “ You give me boarding pass, passport,” said the female Immigration Officer without a smile. Then she started, as if suddenly remembering something, looked up and added, “Please.”