Tallinn. It’s the capital and also the largest city in Estonia. On the shore of the Gulf of Finland, it’s only fifty miles south of Helsinki, east of Stockholm and west of St. Petersburg. In February, it promised to be cold and it didn’t disappoint.
Like all Baltic States, it eventually threw off the shackles of Soviet Russia, being part of the Union since 1944. For Estonia, independence came in 1991 and it became a member of the European Union in 2004. The Kroon was swapped for the Euro and I don’t suppose they ever looked back.
We flew to Tallinn from Manchester in a little over four hours, courtesy of Stelios and EasyJet. Tallinn airport is barely 4km from the town centre, so a taxi is the easiest way to get in and out.
We stayed at the strangely titled ‘My City Hotel’ (http://www.mycityhotel.ee/). Originally a Sovier naval academy, it has been in the hands of a private owner and art collector since 2001. The rooms were as warm as toast, which was welcome with the temperature dropping sharply every evening and heavy ice on the nearby Baltic. Breakfast is a fill of hot and crispy bacon, eggs, bread, cake and coffee. Good sustenance to last you a long morning sight-seeing.
From the windows of the hotel you look out onto a magical fairy-land scene of blue lights, gently falling snow and quiet streets. It’s an ideal hotel. There is a bar just across the street, the Valli Baar, that entertains with various singers and musicians most nights. The spirits flow and the welcome is warm. What more could you ask? . The speciality of the house at Valli Baar is Millimallikas. This is a lethal mixture of sambuca, tequila and tabasco served in a shot glass. You’d think that one would be enough for anyone, but clearly people are drawn in from far and wide to suffer significant quantities of it.
My City Hotel is situated on the edge of the Old Town, next to the Soprus ‘Movie Theatre’. It’s a good spot as you can walk in any direction as long as it’s to the right and it’ll take you into the Old Town or the All-Inn (Lower Town) as it’s known.
The Lower Town
By day, its streets are busy with shoppers and tourists. By night, it is transformed by multi-coloured lights and regular fresh snowfalls .
It’s one of the best preserved Medieval areas in Europe and the Estonian government clearly realises the potential of this jewel in its crown. Refurbishment is tasteful and much work is being done to retain the authenticity and charm. Streets are cobbled and building signage is conservative and in keeping. This is good to see in a world where neon lights and ‘golden arches’ seem to abound.
The Town Hall square dominates the Lower Town and the market is very much up to the high standards expected in towns within the Baltic States. ‘Fat Margaret’ is quite a landmark. Built early in the 16th century, the tower was a defensive structure at the end of Pikk Street and Long Street by the Viru gates and served to protect the harbour. In its time it’s been a storehouse for arms and ammunition, a prison and now houses the Maritime Museum. Climb up to the roof and you’ll have a good panoramic view of old Tallinn.
Although it’s popular with Stag and Hen parties, if you time it right and avoid the popular weekend party season, the town is blissfully quiet and civilised. Midweek in winter is bound to be quieter. In the summer, its climate allows for cafe culture, but if climate change is making you long for clean and crisp snow, then buy yourself a decent pair of snow boots, a warm down coat and head here in February. You won’t be disappointed.
The Upper Town
Within the confines of Tallinn, whether you head for the lower or the upper areas, the medieval town keeps delivering ancient charm and fabulous architecture.
The Upper Town or Toompea, as its known, was once almost separate from the rest of Tallinn and heavily fortified. It’s built on a hill and Toompea Castle was the home of the ruling families. Today, Toompea Castle houses the Estonian government and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod back in the 13th century, rose to almost legendary status and was canonized in 1547. As cathedrals go, it’s impressive.
Tallinn is very compact. You can easily walk out to the Baltic and see the Suur Toll icebreaker. When we were there, much of the Baltic was covered in thick ice and a tour of the icebreaker gives you a good insight into how tough life can be at sea in this part of the world.
Kadriorg or ‘Catherine’s Valley’ lies just a handful of kilometres outside of Tallinn but is easily accessibly either by tram or on foot. It is a large park in which is situated the Baroque Palace of Catherine the First of Russia and second wife of Peter the Great.
I dare say the gardens are spectacular in the summer months. In February, everything lay under a good foot of snow.
The Palace is open to the public and houses an extensive art collection.
For a good guide of things to do in Tallinn, you could do a lot worse than to read http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2010/nov/27/tallinn-top-10-cultural-attractions
No trip to Tallinn would be complete without a trip to Hell Hunt (http://www.hellhunt.ee/eng/headquarters). A ‘smoking bar’ but then again, most still are, the food is excellent and the beer even better. Beer is a big deal in Tallinn. There is a whole host of local and national breweries and the range is from the usual lagers to deep, dark brews
Slightly less boisterous is the Olde Hansa themed restaurant. Staff dress up by day to stand outside in national costume, despite the chill, and urge you to enter and experience an ‘authentic’ Estonian medieval banquet. It’s not badly priced, just a little too touristy for me.
I love the Baltic States. Tallinn is one of my favourite cities and whilst it’s spectacular dressed for winter, it must be equally entertaining during the hot days of August.
If you haven’t been, put it on your list. Oh, and make sure you pack a camera amongst your heat-generating underwear!