Short on God, long on liquor; Estonia’s capital city is a medieval jewel. Try Tallinn, it’s the new Prague
To arrive in Tallinn by boat is to take part in a deep experience. As the Estonian capital’s Hanseatic spires come into view, there’s a moment of elation: you’re doing what traders did in the 13th century, and with almost the same view. Then you alight into a scrum of drunk Finnish students.
Yes, Estonia is catnip for thirsty Scandies, so in the 20 years since release from Soviet rule, Tallinn has gained a reputation as a boozers’ honeypot, full of vomiting Swedes and stags. But it’s so much more than that. Since the Czech capital led the post-Cold War charge as Euro-tourism’s new flavour, people have been in search of a ‘new Prague’. Of all the emerging Eastern European capitals, Tallinn truly deserves the cliché. It’s fun, walkable, good value, architecturally rich, and a medieval experience of rumbustious renown.
My hotel was a short hop from the docks, and as I strolled up, I noticed all sorts of arty intrusions into the cityscape. Tallinn is joint holder of the Capital of Culture 2011 (along with Turku in Finland) and it’s taken an eccentric brief: painted subways, knitted graffiti, guided kayak trips.
Go this year and there’ll be a lot to do, although the real pull in Tallinn will always remain the Old Town. I set out to explore, and at Tallinn’s Liberation Square, paused in front of the War of Independence Victory Column, put up in 2009 to replace a piece of Soviet triumphal-ism. “Controversial,” said my guide, Maret Poldveer. Why? “It has a cross, and Estonians are the least religious people in the world.” A 2009 Gallup poll appears to confirm this.
They’re also obsessed with meteorites. Just ask Lembit Opek, a meteorite spotter of Estonian origin. (Estonia has had quite a few land on its soil, apparently.)
I walked up to Toompea, Tallinn’s hilltop settlement, where all visitors begin their tours. From the viewpoint, ochre houses and steep red roofs glittered in fairytale picturesqueness as cameras whirred. I strolled down to Old Tallinn at the foot of the hill, a Unesco-listed beauty, said to be the best-preserved medieval town in northern Europe. Here, old Gothic houses were being restored, many becoming tourist shops and restaurants. I bought Estonian knitwear and drank the most fabulous hot chocolate at the Handmade Chocolate Café, a place of hyperglycaemic cosiness.
I then took on Tallinn’s sights, such as St Olaf’s: once the highest tower in the world and still, as they say, up there. At a Russian market a short walk from the old town, elderly babushkas sold home-darned socks and home-grown produce. It’s in an area of wooden houses that is becoming fashionable, and there are good bars there. I had a two-Euro pint of dark beer and walked back to Vana Turg, the main square of the Old Town.
Here, I went to Old Hansa, a medieval-themed bar, restaurant and shop housed in old cellars. I walked into the pub and ordered a beer. “Where have you parked your horse?” said the wench behind the bar. (Yes, in this medieval pub, they’re in character…) Obviously, I had to respond: “It’s double parked with a mule…” And so it went on, much to the embarrassment of the other punters, who mostly seemed to be young Americans.
Old Hansa seemed to own much of the block, and the experience was all a bit theme-park. But why worry? It was fun. And Maret was impressed: “It’s all done in a scholarly way,” she said. “These are real old recipes and they really research them.”
I went into its shop, where pulchritudinous assistants in bosomy dirndls sold chunky clay pots and medieval schnapps to tourists, and thought: it’s worth every Euro cent. You choose a hand-blown glass bottle, which she fills with the schnapps of your choice, seals shut with hot wax and hands over like you were some periwigged trader from Lubeck.
I left via the restaurant, where I had a bowl of soup and a beer served in a ceramic jug and waddled off, enjoying this town of meteorites, medievalism and beer-fuelled mayhem. Prague may well be the ‘old Tallinn’ – and to prove it, I’ve got a hand-blown bottle full of pepper schnapps in my freezer.
Further information on Visit Estonia