Text and photos by Ian Mitchell
Tallinn used to feature on the ex-pat agenda as a convenient destination for the visa run—until the Russian government changed the rules and compelled applicants to return to their country of origin. Before that it was a popular destination for Muscovites, being their “own abroad”: cleaner, friendlier, more Western—until Gorbachev abolished the Soviet Union and it became the actual abroad, like everywhere else. So is there any reason for either category of person to visit Tallinn today? The short answer is yes. Here are a few reasons why.
The first thing to say about Estonia generally is that anyone entering it from Moscow gets the immediate feeling of being in Scandinavia. It is not just when compared to Russia, but also with much of central and western Europe, that Estonia seems cleaner and friendlier. In general it is more organised and more Nordic, but without any sense of officiousness. Estonia is a lot cheaper than the other Scandinavian countries and importantly, in my own doubtless degenerate view, it does not have the absurd complex about alcohol that makes visiting Norway and Finland—I have not been to Sweden—such a bore.
Physically, Estonia is an attractive country. This is not entirely to do with the scenery, which has a quiet charm but is not spectacular in the way that Norway or the Highlands of Scotland are. It is more to do with the human influence on the landscape. I travelled there recently by train, and from the moment we crossed the border at Narva, the countryside looked different. There was none of the mess one is sadly accustomed to seeing all over Russia. No-one dumps their rubbish in the forests in Estonia. There is an evident civic sense amongst the people.
Tallinn is not just neat and well-cared for, it has a spectacular medieval town centre, one of the best preserved in Europe. The Hanseatic Old Town is a riot of different architectural styles, from baronial to baroque, from the thirteenth century to modern. There is a fascinating range of museums, as well as enough smart shops to gratify any credit-card jockey.
But the best part of Tallinn, in my view, is the friendliness of the Estonians themselves—oh, and their excellent command of English.
One aspect of the Estonian countryside which any visitor interested in either history or architecture will enjoy is the immense range of ex-Baltic German manor houses that are open to visitors. Of the 1,200 or so big estates from which the descendents of the Teutonic Knights administered the countryside in their heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nearly half survive. Perhaps a third of these are open to visitors, either as museums or, more spectacularly, as hotels. I visited three magnificent ones. A whole website is dedicated to them (see below).
Since so many Baltic Germans rose to high rank in the pre-Revolutionary administration in St Petersburg, their story has a wider relevance than merely the Estonian past. Indeed, many were international figures. In the excellent Maritime Museum in Tallinn, for example, I learned that Bellingshausen, Kotzebue, Kruisenshtern and Vrangel—four of the most eminent nautical explorers Russia produced—were all Baltic Germans from Estonia.
Next year, Tallinn is going to be European City of Culture. All sorts of special events will be held in the city, one every day, apparently. Now is the time to start thinking about arranging a holiday.
How to get there: plane or train, but train is my recommendation as you see more of the countryside: it is not cheap though, with RZhD charging 10,000 roubles for a return ticket in 4-berth coupe.
Where to stay: there are innumerable hotels, but if you want excellent budget accommodation, try the friendly Hotel Stroomi, where I stayed. It charges Euro 31 per night for a double room with bath and excellent breakfast. (www.stroomi.ee)
The only serious guide book to Estonia in English is canned simply Estonia and is by Neil Taylor and is published by Bradt Guides at £14.99 (available through www.amazon.co.uk)
If you want to follow the Baltic German Manor House trail, see www.mois.ee For information and a programme of events for Tallinn: European City of Culture 2011, see www.tallinn2011.ee