Tallinn (Financial Times: How To Spend It 6/00)

 A decade after the Russians left, Estonia’s capital citizens are racing headlong into the 21st century. But they haven’t neglected to preserve their compact, colourful city’s delights.

Four years ago, even three, the notion of spending a long, luxurious weekend in Tallinn would have been inherently absurd, both because of the total absence of luxury facilities, as well as the safe conditions required for enjoying them. An adventure, yes, but a weekend of fine indulgence? How well I remember a Finnish coastguardsman’s rejoinder to me as I boarded the cross-Baltic ferry in Helsinki, prior to my visit to post-Soviet Estonia in 1996. “Be careful,” he intoned, his eyebrows pointing southward. “There is danger there.”

But that was then — and in the whirling carousel that is modern Estonia, four years ago was very much then. Now, booming Tallinn, capital of the most successful of the former Soviet republics, has numerous places where you can splash you — and you don’t have to look over your shoulder while you’re doing it.

Proof positive of how much Tallinn — and Estonia — have changed is the brand new and breathtakingly modern Tallinn International Airport. Just don’t try to chat up the conscientious, Finnish-trained customs officers; they may reprove you for interfering with their work. Ditto the stone-faced taxi driver who whisks you the 3k from the airport into town. The super-rational, purse-lipped Estonians just aren’t the chatty type. However what they lack in garrulousness, they more than make up for in genuine human warmth.

You won’t regret asking your taxi driver to drop you off at the renovated St Petersbourg Hotel on Rataskaevu, in the heart of Tallinn’s history-drenched Old City. In its previous incarnation, during Estonia’s arduous “Soviet time” (1944-1991), the St Petersbourg, whose vbenerable, mural-inlaid premises date back to the 14th century, was the favoured hostelry of Politburo types on official business from Moscow.

Today, though, the spacious, but still intimate-feeling 27-room establishment, is light years away from the hotel’s old apparatchik self. The luminous, yacht-like Hermitage restaurant is one of the best in the city. It is surpassed only by the Stenhus restaurant at the St Petersbourg’s even more lavish (though to my mind slightly claustrophobic) sister hotel, the Park Consul Schlösse. Compare veal noisettes with wine, herb broth and potato fondant at the Hermitage, with the Stenhus’s breast of wild pheasant.

The Hermitage, which was designed by British designer Torill Knight — as was the rest of St Petersbourg — also boasts a wonderfully eclectic collection of modern art, fauvist-like paintings of Tallinn mixed with photos and caricatures.

After breakfasting on a veritable cornucopia of juices and cereals (providing the intrepid traveller with sufficient carbohydrates for a day of trekking up and down the Old City’s cobblestone streets), head out through the hotel’s luminous foyer, whose picture windows overlook Raekoja plats, or Town Hall square. The foyer is also the perch for the St Petersbourg’s mascot, a surprisingly voluble (for an Estonian) parrot named Mickey.

The only individual in Tallinn I know of who is more talkative than Mickey is Jens Moustgaard, owner of Eeslitall, the famed subterranean restaurant-bar next door to the St Petersbourg. Moustgaard, who almost single-handedly brought the hospitality business back to Tallinn, is always good for a chat, or an argument, in various languages, including English. He holds court over his fine kitchen and bar, which serves a mean wiener schnitzel wand a very fine Manhattan. Check out the 18th century hand-painted ceiling in the main dining room.

Luxurious accommodation is on offer just outside the Old City at the Palace Hotel. Once best known as the headquarters of the local mafia, it is now much spruced up and its sprawling presidential suite is Tallinn’s largest and most expensive. The King and Queen have bedded down there, as have other royals, including the Rolling Stones, who played Tallinn in 1998.

Raekoja plats is the natural starting point for your exploration of the Old Town (after Prague, Europe’s best preserved medieval old city). The massive square has been significantly enlarged since it was built during the 15th century, when Tallinn was a major Hanseatic entrep ôt and traders from all over northern Europe gathered here; it also was the site of numerous public executions, including one of a 16th century priest who killed a waitress for supposedly serving an omelette that was cooked too hard.

Overlooking the square, and rounding out its dioramic appearance, is Tallinn’s best-known building, the 14th century town hall, with its soaring 61.5 metre-high, weather vane-topped steeple. A closer look at the other quaint, gabled building lining the square reveals most to be inhabited by some of the new-fangled shops, banks, and galleries that have lately come to town. The delicate balance between the venerable, frozen-in-amber historic Tallinn, and the brash, modern one is better maintained here in Raekoja plats than elsewhere in the Old Town, which is already showing distinct signs over development.

The Café Anglais, which is located on the second floor of one of the buildings overlooking the square, is the city’s trendiest café. In addition to mogul-watching, this light-filled, high-ceilinged bistro offers photographic exhibitions, live jazz and poetry readings. The food is worthy of your attention as well. Try the marineeritud kanafilee salat (maranated chicken filet salad) or an einevõilevad sink (Estonian cured ham sandwich).

Return to Tallinn’s shadowy, tragedy-strewn past by leaving the square at its north-eastern corner via Saiakang, a dark and echoing passage which is the site of a medieval bakery — and numerous murders. Emerging from this tunnel street, directly on your right is the impressive 14th century Church of the Holy Spirit, looking much as it did during the middle of the last millennium. You’ll recognise it by the large, ornate, still-ticking 16th century timepi9ece etched into the exterior. Take a moment to savour the church’s rich interiors, including its folding altar and ancient pulpit, Tallinn’s oldest.

Just across this historic intersection, at Pikk 17, stands the gothic, saddle-roofed headquarters of the Great Merchant Guild, now the Estonian History Museum. A brief your of this repository of Estonia’s striated past, with its Danish, Livonian, Swedish, and Russian (to name a few) periods, may leave you slightly confused, but nevertheless amazed at how these doughty people, who have experienced but three decades of freedom (including the last one) over the past 800 years, have managed to survive with their identity intact.

It also may help you to understand the go-for-it attitude of today’s turbo-charged Estonian youth. The latter may be seen mingling uneasily with their elders across the street at Tallinn’s oldest café, the century-and-a-half old Maiasmook. Enjoy the scene while sampling a kapsa pirukat (pastry with cabbage). Look up to admire the delightful lattice-work pattern ceiling mirror, dating from Russian imperial days.

Continue your history walk along Pikk to admire the renaissance facade of the medieval guild, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, at No 26, and a few doors down, a trio of Tallinn’s most intriguing old houses, the matching, ochre-coloured “three sisters.” At the end of Pikk is the less beguiling but still formidable former KGB headquarters, where hapless locals were caged prior to being deported back to Mother Russia. Pikk ends in the Great Coast Gate, and Tallinn’s most bulbous fortification, the aptly named Fat Margaret, now used by the Maritime Museum. On the museum’s wall is a plaque commemorating the British sailors who fell during the 1918-1920 Estonian War of Independence. Estonians don’t forget anything.

By now, you may need to clear your head. Double back up Pikk (or along adjoining Lai Street) and climb the long winding balustrade leading up to Toompea, the Upper Old City. It’s worth the trek, for at the top is a sweeping, panoramic view of the Gulf of Finland.

Now for dinner. It’s difficult to go wrong at the sumptuous Egoist restaurant, the fantastically decorated creation of waiter-turned-restaurateur Dmitri Demjanov. Go mad on caviar and duck with raisins and mango, followed by chocolate mousse. Afterwards, retire to one of the plush sitting rooms, festooned with 1930s radio sets, and order a glass of the potent local liqueur, Vana Tallinn.

At least another morning or afternoon should be given over to the other major sights of Toompea, especially the imposing Alexander Nevski Cathedral, and the incongruously jolly Kiek in de Kök (Peep in the Kitchen), a tall, fat, six-storey cannon tower that played a key role in the 15th century Livonian War, between the hapless Livonian Order and the invading Russians (while the even more hapless Estonians looked on).

Today, Russians, like other visitors, come to Tallinn to shop in the city’s plentiful shops and street markets, such as the capacious Müürivähe market. Kaatarina Gild, on nearby Vene Street, is a good place to find Estonian craft objects. Draakoni Galerii, back on Pikk, has a wonderful range of watercolours and oils.

Stock up on both women’s and men’s clothing at top local designer Ivo Nikkolo, on Suur-Karja. Estonia also boasts the newly enlarged 14,500 square metre Stockmann, the plentiful satellite of the famed Finnish department store, and, as locals will proudly tell you, the largest store in the entire Baltic region.

The Tallinn offers a surprisingly wide array of nightlife. Hollywood is the most popular disco in town, if techno is your thing. Go to the balcony and watch the people who are watching the people dance on the jammed floor below. Or head for the most happening bar in town, the high-energy, high-tech, restaurant, bar and disco, Võitlev Sõna, just around the corner from the Palace. Ask for Darryl, the enthusiastic British expat who set up the place. Ask him — as another drop-dead Estonian couple sashays through the groping coloured searchlights — why he thinks Tallin is the northern European city of the future. Of course, by that time, you probably won’t need much convincing.