Travel: Tallinn, Estonia

The colourful, imposing Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The colourful, imposing Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
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Why does tiny Estonia always do so well in the Eurovision Song Contest? Only when I went to Tallinn, its capital, did I realise the significance of music in the history of this brave country.

In the 1980s, 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 from the USSR. Liberation came just a few years after.

The medieval Old Hansa restaurant in Tallinn

The medieval Old Hansa restaurant in Tallinn

Twenty years on, the feeling of a new beginning is still in the air. Music remains a big craze and I watched 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 this European Capital of Culture 2011.

Tallinn has an amazing medieval old town, now a Unesco World Heritage site, and 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.

In contrast, Tallinn’s modern city buzzes with freshness and Western freedom rediscovered. The city that invented Skype has boutique hotels, bars, shops and clubs that heave late into the night.

Another attraction 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.

A good place to see these influences is Tallinn’s old town, built between the 13th and 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 cobbled lanes, passing colourful gabled houses, quaint courtyards with grand churches and gothic spires, I often felt as though I was in a fairytale.

This illusion continued when we visited Old Hansa, a huge medieval restaurant, pictured below, designed to transport diners back to the glory days of the Hanseatic League and built in the style of a rich merchant’s home.

Our personal serving boy washed our hands and seated us in our Saxon Chamber. Our meal, sourced locally, began with pickled cucumbers, berries and quail eggs.

With no potatoes in our main course – they 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.

Barely a block away from Old Hansa is the most picturesque area, 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 ( 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 by hand.

On top of Toompea Hill sits the huge, colourful Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower. Built in 1227, the former fortress houses Estonia’s Parliament.

There is much to see but the city is compact, so you don’t get tired as you explore.

To get further afield, catch the bus: the audio-guided Tallinn City Tour Bus has three coloured routes 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, which was 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). It comes complete with ponds, fountains and forest, Japanese garden and the Kumu Art Museum.

Then the bus whisked us on to Kalamaja, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Tallinn. Today, it exudes a cool Bohemian atmosphere with shops, galleries, clubs and restaurants a magnet for young, creative types.

We may not have such a great reputation in the Eurovision Song Content but, after a thorough exploration, I certainly returned home singing the praises of Tallinn.