Estonia: Europe’s rising star
Estonia has shed its reputation as a venue for stag parties and become an European mini-break destination par excellence, writes Anthony Lydekker
Tallinn old and new
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has two reputations: culturally it’s a brilliant architectural showcase and, with its deep water port, is included as the next stop before or after St Petersburg for most Baltic cruises. It also had a reputation for a rowdier sort of UK visitor attracted by cheap flights, cheap booze and very busy nightlife –fortunately the nightlife and good prices continue but many of the ‘Stags’ have moved on. As the last Eastern outpost of the Euro, it’s really good value not just because the Pound is stronger right now but prices are very attractive: there are good menus at €10. However it’s more the atmosphere and spirit of Tallinn that brings visitors from Helsinki for the weekend and some just for Sunday lunch on the high speed ferry across the Bay of Finland.
By far the best time of day to see Tallinn’s old city is early in the morning. Photographers like myself know that light at the beginning and end of the day is better than the high bright midday sun. Whether just gazing or shooting, there are wonderful views of this immaculately preserved medieval city. With a gentle slope uphill inland it’s a place of brick walls, huge cobbles, gates and towers. In addition to the light, another reason for an early start is to avoid the crowds that build up in the narrow streets, particularly when the cruise liners disembark. It’s not a coincidence that all the best postcards are shot with empty streets. Fom April to October, by 10.30am the body count on the streets is high from the cruise ships alone.
Getting around Tallinn is easy: plug into the resources of the official Tourist Office (www.tourism.tallinn.ee) which offers the Tallinn Card, Hop-on Hop-off buses, bike rentals plus excellent free maps and listings of around 80 sites and attractions. In addition to rising early, another way to dodge the crowds is to walk up Toompea Hill and, after suitable refreshment in one of the shady squares above the walls, try one of the Towers for great views above Old City across to the sea. Completed between 1549 to 1625 St Olav’s Tower is 124m high. Alternatively the relatively modern Tower at the Dome Church (completed 1779), is a mere 69m to the top.
New in Pirita
Around Tallinn, try Pirita – the flat bay area 20 minutes north on the Hop on, Hop off bus. There’s a large marina built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and an interesting mixture of the ‘newish’ and old.
Tallinn was a significant Soviet naval base and part of the Pirita area is now being developed (or, at this stage, ‘colonised’ may be a better word) by artists as place for young people to hang out. There’s a 19th century fortress with a tower that was used as a prison by the Soviets, for which there are plans for a club and restaurant complex. There are already a number of pop-up bars and a stage in the old prison courtyard. Moored nearby is a rusting Russian destroyer and there’s a pensioned off submarine in a vast hanger. The evolution is reminiscent of the early stages of the changes in the Spikeri area in Riga, Latvia – now a significant arts centre with galleries and a theatre. Nearby, the ‘old’ is magnificently represented by the huge ruined cloisters of St Birgitta’s Convent, which has concerts throughout the summer.
There are also major opera and ballet productions at the Estonian National Opera and pleasingly tickets cost about a 10th of the price of the best seats at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. The composer, Arvo Pärt, is one of their celebrated sons of the Estonian National Opera. Now aged 76, he divides his time between Berlin and Tallinn. He’s well known for a very sparse style of sacred music. Requests for one of his best known pieces, Spiegel im Spiegel, have three or four plays a week on Classic FM: here’s a reminder of the sound (click on the abstract picture in the link): www.bit.ly/lL67oo