To older generations brought up on city escapes confined to the conventional western tourism hubs such as Paris, Barcelona and Rome, my weekend break to Tallinn seemed to cause quiet derision – a bizarre adventure into the forgotten, alien land of the Soviet Bloc. Yet in recent times, rich and undiscovered capitals of Eastern Europe have unveiled themselves as provocative historical and cultural attractions. A new generation of Brits looking for cheaper and more exciting alternatives, have increasingly aimed their sights at Eastern destinations such as Prague, Budapest and Krakow.
Tallinn offers something unique: a modest city of 400,000, its Baltic position places it at the epicenter of Russian, Scandinavian and central European frontiers. Such geography establishes an eclectic legacy of history and culture which is both contemporary and antiquated. All at half the price of Western Europe.
With its jaunty chaos of medieval buildings, sublime Russian churches and narrow cobbled streets, Tallinn’s Old Town is the crown jewel of Estonian tourism, becoming an UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997. The enclosed streets are awash with strange and wonderful architecture, magnificently archaic clocks and stained glass windows. At night, silhouetted lager guzzlers giggling in dark alleyways, interrupt a feeling of silent surrender to the ever-burgeoning number of curious arrivals.
‘Raekoja plats,’ the city square, though surrounded by overly priced cafes, remains a beautiful space.Tallinn’s new pedigree as ‘Cultural Capital 2011’ has meant determined acts of national celebration- an erected stage adorns the square as part of the ‘Old Town Festival’. Its variety of performances ranged from the confusing to the questionable; a stumbling duo of youngsters dressed as jesters preceded the headline act of what can only be described as a series of old woman group dance-offs.
The Old Town’s sights and activities are viewable in a single day. Climbing St. Olav’s Tower (the tallest building in the world in 1549) is perhaps the highlight. Well-worth the claustrophobic ascent, its wondrous panorama of the tumbling, rooftop skyline reaches all the way to the sea. Excursions outside the crowded Old Town streets are distinctly refreshing with trips to the Kadriog Palace Park and the brilliant nearby art museum.
Tallinn holds a strange contrast between the diverse depth of its culture, architecture and cuisine, and its modern tourist identity. Its genuine charm is often submerged by an overly twee masquerade defined by patronizing foreigners and artificial tourist attractions.
Its small scale should vitalize a community atmosphere, whilst in fact all it means is that tourism is concentrated to an unprecedented degree. You can sense the cobbled streets ever-eroding beneath the waddling processions of middle-aged tour-goers and old continental couples. Its atmosphere, while perfect for friendly late night partying, is stagnated by hostels, surprisingly expensive cafes and such superficial but amusing pageantry as dining in ‘Ye Olde Hansa,’ served by waitresses in tacky medieval attire.
Having said this, whilst true cultural discovery can prove an endeavor, the joy of Tallinn is in its diverse, alien beauty and obscure fun: as historical information often gives way to modern pastiche, visitors are left trying to figure out what exactly is going on. Tallinn offers a relaxing sleepwalk into an unknown melting pot of history, restocking your cultural fix with ample chance for rest and contemplation in its sprawling cafés. For those seeking a lively cultural authenticity, other Eastern European city breaks such as Budapest or Prague would offer greater fulfillment.