by Joe Johnson
Since the reform of the Eastern bloc in the late eighties and early nineties, the area has seen a steady increase in tourism. Attracted by the beautiful architecture, unique culture and low prices, holiday makers began to flock to cities like Prague and Bratislava some time ago. While such destinations are still popular, the Baltic states, that is, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are currently experiencing massive popularity, attracting a wide variety of tourists from stag weekenders to elderly couples in search of an alternative to the obligatory annual excursion to Spain or Greece.
Of course these chilly northern European countries will never be able to replace the big Mediterranean destinations as two-week summertime shoe-ins but they do provide a welcome alternative to sun-beds and Sangria, if only for a couple of days. So what’s the best choice to ease you into eastern European culture? Estonia is perhaps the most ‘western’ of the Baltic states, with it’s party reputation and wide variety of eateries catering for all tastes, making it a good shout for your first Eastern European city break.
Tallinn has a distinctly old world feel, the city centre is dominated by medieval buildings, towering spires and large pedestrianized areas, for those that are interested, there’s reams of history surrounding the city to trawl through. The best way to experience this history is by taking a free tour operated by students. No shoddy affair, the student tour guides are charismatic and speak near-perfect English.
If you’re quick, then you can capitalise on plenty of other free events, shows and exhibitions being held all over the city to mark 2011 being Tallinn’s year as European Capital of Culture. If you are still wondering whether Tallinn would cut it as a intellectually fulfilling sight-seeing destination, that designation should go some way to answering your question.
Now, eastern Europeans do have somewhat of a reputation for being less than welcoming, this is a quality I’ve experienced when visiting former communist states such as Bulgaria but I can’t say the say the same of Estonia, or at least Tallinn. There’s a palpable sense here that the locals really want the tourists be there, they welcome them rather than simply tolerating them.
This friendly atmosphere is evident in the way the city is geared towards Western tastes, quaint Medieval buildings are fronted by cafes serving pizzas and Budweiser, while the bars seem keen to please alcoholic British tourists with rock bottom prices and scantily clad barmaids. Thankfully, the pandering to tourists does not reach sickening levels, and Tallinn retains enough intrinsic charm to be able to lose yourself in the folklore of its twisting, cobbled streets.
I’ve always been slightly dubious about Scandinavian food ever since I had a bad experience with the Sweedish meatballs in Ikea (I’ll save that for another post). Their apparent penchant for smelly fish and whale blubber burgers doesn’t really resonate with me, but in Tallinn, I was pleasantly surprised.
Delicacies like Elk soup, Elk pie and fried cheese balls all graced my table at one point or another, and none of them are as vile as they sound. This part of Europe doesn’t have the same attitude to food as the Mediterranean countries, but you can still find great tasting local dishes if you look hard enough, just be prepared to enjoy everything with a side dish of cabbage.
Tallin was certainly pleasantly surprising, I’d even go as far to say it was an enchanting place to spend a weekend. It offers an easy route into Baltic culture for those new to Eastern Europe and there is no shortage of things to do, even if those things are trying to decipher the menus in the cafes. If you’re using cash as an excuse not to go to Tallin, then I’m afraid you don’t have a leg to stand on, it is without a doubt one of the cheapest places I’ve ever visited, and the thrifty among you could probably get away with spending less than £200 in total over a weekend. You can’t say fairer than that.
Joe is a travel blogger specialising in Eastern European destinations. His next trip abroad will be when he takes his Sardinia holidays.