Going Baltic over Tallinn

Medieval torture, louche restaurants and fashionable boutiques – CHARLIE INGLEFIELD finds out why Tallinn is leading the Baltic recovery.


IT had been 15 years since I last stepped foot on Tallinn’s soil. Estonia’s capital back then was still trying to find its long, lost identity having only recently cast off the oppressive clutches of Mother Russia. I remembered my first glimpse of Tallinn back in December 1997 with the unmistakable sight of the huge chimney of the old power plant acting as a beacon for our creaky Viking Line ferry as we made our way through the early morning mist. Tallinn was cold, dark and sinister and immediately appealing to explore.

Fast forward to the current day and Tallinn is now a leading European tourist destination, promising and delivering on a captivating historical past and a few pleasantly surprising additions as well. According to popular opinion, the quality of food and restaurants has improved tenfold since communist days. Sampling the culinary delights of Tallinn with some Finnish friends was the perfect way to reacquaint myself with this fascinating city. Helsinki’s locals often pop over for a day trip (think of a visit out of London to Oxford followed by a pub lunch, this is Helsinki’s equivalent). I could not believe what a make-over Tallinn has done to itself…..once you get away from the old port terminal, where we docked, which sadly dates back to the grey, concrete ways of the Russians. The city today is alive with hipster locals and happy tourists.

Leave touristy Tallinn behind
It pays to leave the tourist maps at home and deliberately get lost in the old town as aimless wandering around these beautiful cobbled streets reaps rich rewards. The many alluring alleyways tease and tempt one with a mixture of glorious buildings from the past, with the gleaming top of St. Olaf’s church leading the way, and of course a cracking selection of restaurants and bistros to choose from. Raekoja Plats or the Town Hall is the heart of the hustle and bustle of the old town. The old town hall which dominates the square dates back to the 15th century and provides the perfect setting to Tallinn’s identity with pretty coloured buildings and the old pharmacy completing the square’s make-up.

We decided that a little aperitif at midday was required to fuel ourselves up for a day’s exploration. First stop was the highly recommended Kaerajaan restaurant, located to the centre right of the square if approaching from Viru Street. Named after a popular Estonian national folk dance, we were seated on a table beside the window with perfect views to people-watch over a glass of Merlot. We plumped for a plate of Estonian snacks to keep the wolves from the door and how wisely we chose. A selection of crusted rye bread herrings, smoked cheese and grilled wild boar was the perfect appetiser and we left slightly rosy-cheeked, fulfilled and a need for further culture before picking a venue for the main course.

Torture house to die for
I am not sure why we decided on visiting the museum of medieval torture following a hefty first course and it was certainly one of the more eerie 40 minutes I have spent in a museum. Located on a random second floor apartment on Viru Street and guarded by two disinterested ladies, fifty ways of getting brutally interrogated were simply displayed in two otherwise empty living rooms.  This would not be a place to crash for the night should the nearby hotels be shut. Particularly creepy were the weighing chairs, silently swaying back and forth on their own accord without any assistance. Apparently the jury would decide that your weight would mean that you were a devil worshipper and therefore a painful death was required. We were all thinking the same thing which was how many people had been condemned to the most barbaric deaths courtesy of these contraptions. Also, most of them seemed to originate from Germany and Austria. There was me thinking that Austria was all rolling fields, Apfelstrudel and Mozart.

Boozing in Baltic boutiques
It was nice to step foot back in the sun as we hurried away from the museum in search of some light and happiness. Half the fun about exploring Tallinn is not to follow any set tourist path but to let yourself be taken by the side streets of which there are plenty to entice one in. Around every cosy corner and courtyard there are eccentric merchant houses, church spires and medieval walls. To accentuate the blend of new and old, we came across tasteful artwork in rustic doorways, combining effortlessly alongside antique shops and fashionable boutiques.

After our torture experience we had recovered sufficiently to finish our lunch and we chose Sfaar restaurant close to the harbour. Having a gourmet lunch in what is essentially a posh clothes shop may seem a little weird but there is nothing like the excited chatter of guests at their tables gobbling their food and an expansive labyrinth of wines to choose from. It’s always a good sign when the table next to us had a group of slightly tipsy Finnish housewives on an afternoon’s excursion away from their husbands, clinking glasses and talking about their latest purchases.

I again couldn’t resist the wild boar, which came out piping hot in a delicious creamy herb sauce washed down with an appropriate glass of two of Tempranillo. Our dessert was disappointing only because the promised chocolate cake came out as a vacuum-packed cheesecake but that aside there could be no complaints.  With the warm glow of a little too much wine we walked happily back to the harbour, this time bathed in sunshine and giving us the chance to look back at the gold-glinted church spires and castle walls.

This underrated city has had a hugely impressive makeover since the nineties, emphasised by being awarded 2011’s European Capital of Culture. Tallinn has well and truly stepped out of Russia’s shadow.

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