A song in its heart

Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn,  Estonia.
Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia.
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Tallinn: Low prices have made it a must for Brit stag and hen parties. But Laura Wurzal discovers there’s more to Estonia’s capital city.

Why does tiny Estonia always do so well in the Eurovision song contest? Only when I arrive in Tallinn do I realise the significance of music in the history of this brave little country.

In the Eighties, as the Soviet occupation dragged on, the “Singing Revolution” began and hundreds of thousands of citizens joined together to belt out patriotic songs, expressing their desire for freedom. Liberation came just a few years after.

The feeling of a new beginning is still in the air. Music remains a big craze, and I watched the latest teen heart-throbs Jedward getting mobbed by girls in our hotel lobby. Our base, the Nordic Forum Hotel, a new building just outside the Viru gates to the old town, was perfectly placed to explore last year’s European Capital of Culture with an amazing medieval old town, now a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s easy to imagine the spies of East and West flitting through the shadows and scurrying along cobbled alleyways in the Cold War years.

The modern city buzzes with newness and Western freedom rediscovered; the city that invented Skype has boutique hotels, bars, shops and clubs that heave late into the night. Another attraction, although Estonia joined the EU in 2004, is low living costs. Cheap drink, food and accommodation explain why so many Brits come here for their noisy Hen and Stag parties.

With Tallinn barely 80km from the border of Finland, Estonia has been occupied down the centuries by Scandinavian, Russian and German neighbours – all of whom clearly influenced the architecture of its cathedrals, manor houses and palaces. A good place to see these influences is Tallinn’s old town, built between the 13th-16th centuries when the city was a thriving member of the Hanseatic trade league, and a major trading post between East and West.

Today, the tall, thick walls that encased the town and protected it from attacks remain intact, ringed by guard towers with distinctive red tiled pointed roofs. Walking along twisting cobblestone lanes, passing colourful gabled houses, quaint courtyards with grand churches and gothic spires, I often felt as though I was in a fairytale. Looking up, I expected to see dragons flying overheard.

This illusion continued when we visited Old Hansa, a huge medieval restaurant (www.oldehansa.com) designed to transport diners back to the glory days of the Hanseatic League and built in the style of a rich merchant’s home. Outside the house, we were greeted by fire-eaters and street artists. Inside, on three floors lit by candlelight, staff were dressed in traditional medieval clothes.

Our personal serving boy washed our hands and seated us in our Saxon Chamber. Our meal, sourced locally, began with appetisers of pickled cucumbers, berries and quail eggs. With no potatoes in our main course (the New World hadn’t yet been discovered), dishes of spelt, lentils and turnips laced with ginger arrived with wild boar, rabbit and bear. Drinks ran to cinnamon, dark honey and herb flavoured beers. A main course in the old town costs around 10-20 euros, with pints of beer from 2.50 euros.

Barely a block away from Old Hansa is the most picturesque area, Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats). The hub of the old town for more than 800 years, this square is surrounded by elaborate merchant houses and one of Europe’s best preserved gothic town halls. St Catherine’s Passage, one of the most photogenic of nearby lanes, is crowded with craft shops where artists create and sell ceramics, hand-painted silk, hats, quilts and jewellery.

In Rotermanni courtyard, I found the Kalev Chocolate Shop and Master’s Chamber (www.kalev.eu). Marzipan, an Estonian speciality, has been a Tallinn treat since the Middle Ages, and in a room above the shop, a class explains how to make and paint cute marzipan figurines.

The old town is divided into Lower Town and Toompea Hill. Connecting these areas are two steep but pretty streets, known as Tallinn’s two “legs”, Pikk Jalg (Long Leg Street) – home of the yellow painted, gabled Great Guild Hall – and Luhike Jalg (Short Leg Street).

A climb to the top is worth it, where viewing platforms on Kohtu Street and Patkuli give panoramic views across rooftops and chimneys. In the foreground are rooftops and towers, the harbour and the distinctive white painted medieval church of St Olav, while the new town at the back is mainly modern buildings.

On top of Toompea Hill sits the huge, colourful Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was built in 1900, when Estonia was part of the old Russian empire, as a formidable symbol of Tsarist power. On the same peak, you find Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower. Built in 1227, the former fortress houses Estonia’s Parliament.

There is much to see in Tallin, but the city is compact, so you don’t get tired as you explore. To get further afield, catch the bus: the audio-guided Tallin City Tour Bus has three three different coloured routes (Red, Green and Blue) and you can hop on and off all day.

On the eastern side, we found the harbour, the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds at Maajamae Castle and the former Soviet TV Tower. A few minutes walk away is Kadriorg Palace, built by Russian Emperor Peter the Great, Baltic conqueror in the 17th Century, who named the building in honour of his wife Catherine (Kadriorg is Estonian for Catherine’s Valley).

This baroque palace and park, complete with ponds, fountains and forest, houses a Japanese garden and the Kumu Art Museum, an impressive copper and limestone building that’s both Estonia’s national gallery and a centre for contemporary art.

Then the bus whisked us on to Kalamaja, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Tallinn. Once the town’s main fishing harbour, the railroad arriving in the 1870s brought huge factories and wooden houses for workers. Today, this area exudes a cool Bohemian atmosphere with shops, galleries, clubs and restaurants.

We lunched at the fashionable F Block on Telliskivi, a factory converted into a busy, cheap restaurant, adored by locals, before discovering Balti Jaama Turg market. We may not have such a great reputation in the Eurovision Song Contest, but I certainly returned home singing the praises of Tallinn.

Getting there

Laura Wurzal stayed at the Nordic Forum Hotel (www.nordichotels.eu), where double rooms start from £72 and flew Estonian Air from Gatwick, with prices starting from £205 one-way (www.estonian-air.ee). Visit www.visitestonia.com for more details about the city.