Tallinn, Estonia

17/08/2011

James Walker escaped the riots and visited the European Capital of Culture


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Tallinn centre - where the beer costs a bit more.

 

Although Nottingham has got two shopping centres and a castle, it is yet to be named European Capital of Culture. Instead the award this year goes to Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn occupies an area of 159.2 km2 (61.5 sq mi) with a population of around 412,000. The Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has remained in remarkable condition given the first of its fortresses was built in 1050, and they were bombed by Soviet air forces in WWII. But that’s enough stats from Wikipedia. The bottom line is this place is absolutely gorgeous.

Tallinn is full of cobbled streets, odd shaped buildings, and dimly lit bars. Basically, it’s a mini Prague. It’s absolutely perfect for a romantic meal out or to catch up with friends. We particularly liked the African Kitchen which served up some great curries for five euros. If you fancy a pint in the main square then expect to be paying silly money. We got stung for 6.5 euros for a Chai Latte in a tower wall cafe and it cost 2 euros to get in! Amazing how quickly the shackles of communism can be cast off. Estonia only became an independent democratic state in 1991.

Tallinn has a long and uncomfortable history of invasion. As a sea port city, they’ve had everyone knocking on their doorstep. Naturally the most recent invader is the British stag. I witnessed one group of knuckle draggers kitted out in ‘help for heroes’ T Shirts start chanting ‘Ing-er-land’ at the top of their voices as they entered a gourmet bar hosting one of the many jazz events being put on as part of their culture festival. Expect more of this now that Ryanair offers a £70 return flight. Perhaps anticipating this, there are numerous ‘clubs’ offering dancing girls as well as massage bars that come with a happy ending. If they can be filtered downhill to this area then you might be able to enjoy your night after all.

Where Tallinn falls down in size it gains in location. The airport is two miles from the centre with a regular bus service. The ferry port is in easy walking distance from the Old Town as is the rather rude sounding Kunsti muuseum. This is worth visiting just for the modern architecture although the art inside isn’t bad as well. This can be found in the beautiful surroundings of Kadrioru Park which offers some great walking routes. They’ve even got beaches running up the coast, although you’ll need a fair few tattoos to keep you warm by the Baltic Sea.   

Tallinn is a place for walking, home to the flaneur. The people are friendly and polite and generally all speak English. So trying to pronounce those words that seem to quadruple vowels can be avoided. They are proud of their saunas, which are roughly 20 euros for a private room, but whatever you do don’t challenge them to a sauna sweat out. Last year in the World Sauna Championships (I guess our equivalent would be eating hot curries) Russian finalist Vladimir Ladyzhensky collapsed and died of severe burns. If sweating and walking isn’t your thing, then take a day excursion to Helsinki.     

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Helsinki – home of the Moomins.

The ferry from Tallinn harbour to Helsinki takes just over two hours and costs 82 euros for a round trip. Just make sure you don’t catch the night ferry or else you’ll be holed up for hours. When you arrive in Helsinki harbour there are regular busses into the city centre (2a) for 2 euros. It’s best to get off opposite the main train station, which is about ten minutes away.

Helsinki was a bit of a disappointment after Tallinn. Although it has some stunning architecture, it looked as dirty as any other European city – either before or after a riot - with a cluster of McDonalds and generic brands to entertain the half a million inhabitants. It’s also quite expensive in comparison. But Helsinki is only four hundred and fifty years old so it’s not their fault they haven’t got quirky old buildings and cobbled paths.

What Helsinki does have is an archipelago with hundreds of tiny islands around the harbour if you fancy a little bit more sea action. There’s massive imposing buildings of varying architectural styles wherever you walk and an ice bar (yes completely made out of ice) for those who fancy a pint at 23°F (- 5°C). Guests are issued with thermal coats, boots, hats and gloves before entering - but it’s not a session bar. Forty minutes is the recommended time to spend here, so get supping up.

But the real beauty of Helsinki is its culture. Not just the home of the Moomins, it also has some fantastic art galleries. The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma is opposite the train station and costs 10 euros to get in but is free if you’re under 18. It’s currently exhibiting ARS 11 until 27 November which focuses on perceptions of Africa. 

Across the road is the Ateneum Art Museum which is currently running the ‘illusions of reality’ exhibition which looks at naturalist painting, photography and cinema from 1875-1918. Running aside this is an exhibition on Finnish literature with excerpts from Minna Canth whose famously miserable endings highlighted the plight of women and the poor. Of course if none of this tickles your fancy you can always get one of the twice daily trains to St. Petersburg which only take three and a half hours. But if you do, make sure you get a visa in advance which takes a minimum of six days and will set you back the equivalent of one hundred purchases from Pound Land.

Visit Tallinn website

James Walker's website

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