Travel: 48 hours in Tallinn

For a weekend break, visit the capital of Estonia before it is ruined by success, writes Gordon Sander
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The Independent Online
Why go now?

Because of the opportunity to witness an economic miracle in the making. Of all the former Soviet republics, little Estonia (population 1.5 million) has been the quickest adapt to capitalistic ways, a distinction that was confirmed this summer when the European Union officially invited it to join negotiations for membership, while pointedly ignoring the other two Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania. And because this may be your last chance to see this extraordinarily well preserved old city before it drowns in neon and billboards.

Beam down

A city-break package to Tallinn costs less than a flight-only. Using Estonian Air from Gatwick to Tallinn, Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) have a package for pounds 199, including three nights in a hotel; the lowest airfare is around pounds 240. Alternatively, find a flight to Helsinki and take a boat from there: Tallinn is a favourite ferry foray for Finns.

Check in

The basic Regent Holidays package puts you up in the Dzingel, a new three-star hotel two miles from the city centre. A more upmarket option is the Palace, on the edge of the old city (Vabaduse valjak 3: 00 372- 6-407-300); doubles here are pounds 130 a night. Or try the four-star Olympia (Liivalaia 33, 00 372 6 315 315), a 10-minute walk from the old city. This 26-storey ex-Intourist high-rise offers all the amenities, including sauna and pool; doubles are pounds 100.

The Rataskaevu Hotel (Rataskaevu 7: 00 372 2 441939), a friendly, well- preserved old hotel located in the middle of the old city, is a great mid-range buy; doubles pounds 50, double deluxe pounds 60.

Get your bearings

The best way to cover the short distance from the airport to the old city is by taxi. Be on guard for rip-offs; a licensed cab should charge you about pounds 5.

The name Tallinn dates from the 13th century, when the much-fought-over city was in Danish hands (Taani linn is Estonian for "Danish town"). It is a compact city, comprising essentially the attractive old town and the still drab, Soviet-tinged industrial and residential surroundings.

Weekenders will almost certainly wish to stick to the old town. This remarkable precinct is divided into two parts: Toompea, the hill which dominates the city, and the Lower Town - which is where you will probably be staying. This is centred on Raekoja plats - Town Hall Square - and is still surrounded by most of its 2.5-km medieval wall. Make your way to the excellent new tourist office (00 372 6313 940) on the square.

Take a hike

The best way of exploring old Tallinn is via the twin towers of the Viru Gate, in the east side of the Lower Town walls. From here amble along Viru to the corner of Vene; continue on to Raekoja plats. From here, climb Pikmk jalg (yes, it really is spelt that way), which is lined with the houses of medieval Hanseatic merchants and gentry, up to the heights of Toompea. Use the look-out points off Toom-Kooli, Kohtu, and Rahukohtu to regain your bearings and decide where you wish to descend.

Long lunch

Now that you have zoomed around medieval Tallinn, slow down and enjoy a home-cooked meal at Vanaema Juures (Rataskaevu 10/12; 00 372 6313 928), which literally means "Grandma's place". The food is fresh - and delicious. Try the kana and pannkook (chicken and pancake).

Cultural afternoon

Thus fortified, check out the clay pipes, zithers, and other historical memorabilia from Estonia's furrowed past at the City Museum at Vene 17 (00 372 441 829).

Next, saunter across the street, and back through several centuries to the Dominiiklaste klooster, or Dominican monastery, at Vene 16. The ancient monastery, founded in 1246, was headquarters for the Scandinavian monks who converted heathen Estonia to Christianity. At one time the monastery had its own brewery and hospital; however, it was ruined by plunder during the Reformation and razed by a fire in 1521. Today it houses Estonia's largest collection of stone carvings - and, I swear, a battalion of ghosts.

Window shopping

All sizes and styles of traditional jumpers, hats, and gloves can be found at stalls in the flower market close to the Viru gates on Viru, as well as along Muurivahe, where the market runs along the city walls. A knitted jumper, the most popular buy for foreigners, costs about pounds 20. Other suggested stops: Galerii Molen, on the corner of Vana Viru, a craft shop with a munificent "art garage" in the basement and Helina Tilk, on Voorimehe puestee, a porcelain emporium.

Demure dinner

Sit down for some blini and bear or one of the other substantive native dishes at Eesti-Tall (Dunkri 4/6; 00 372 6313 755), a carefully restored, two-floor restaurant in a converted stable.

Night-life

Unlikely, but true: Tallinn boasts the largest discotheque in all of Baltica and Scandinavia, called Dekoltee (Ahrti 10). Among other things this gargantuan, 3,200-square-metre dance house, sited in a former Soviet electronics goods factory, features a huge, oval dance floor; three long bars staffed by cheery, luminous-dressed young Estonians; and a state- of-the-art laser show. Admission is all of 80 crowns, roughly pounds 5.

Sunday morning: go to church

A minute's walk from the old square, Niguliste Church was originally the hub of Tallinn's 13th-century settlement. The early Gothic north doorway dates from the church's first construction; the rest goes back only to the 15th, making the building a virtual newcomer for this venerable city.

At the foot of the slope on which Niguliste stands is what appears to be a demolition site. In fact it's the deliberately preserved remains of the buildings that stood there prior to Soviet bombing of Nazi-occupied Tallinn in 1944 - another reminder of Tallinn's tragic and bellicose past.

Bracing brunch

Splurge out on the immense, smorgasbord-like brunch offered at the Elysee (Lilvalaia 33; 00 372 6315-315), the elegant restaurant of the Olympia Hotel. The spread, which cost 275 EEK (pounds 13), includes krevetisalat (shrimp salad), lihavalik (plate of hams) and sokolaadijaatis (chocolate ice-cream), not to mention the sight of little Estonian tots, dressed up in their Sunday best, bouncing around to live accordion music. .

Icing on the cake

Lastly, trot over to the famed Maiasmokk Kohvik, or Sweet-Tooth Cafe, at Pikk 16. You probably won't have space for any of the elegant pastries after the above repast, but you will enjoy the inter-war atmosphere of this famous tearoom, and the sight of old regulars mingling comfortably with the new, capitalistic lords of Tallinn.

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