Friday, 24 May 2024

Estonia's Second City Illuminated: Deciphering the EU's Spotlight

Estonia's Second City Illuminated: Deciphering the EU's Spotlight
Tuesday, 23 January 2024 16:17

Embarking on a journey through Estonia's enchanting landscapes, the allure of the untamed countryside becomes palpable, a stark contrast to the modernity of Tallinn, the bustling capital. Nestled amidst snowy fields and dense, mysterious forests, the country's rich history is felt, a tangible link to a past that lingers in the air. Despite its proximity to London, Estonia remains a realm of wilderness, harboring wolves, bears, moose, and wild boar within its endless woods.

As the road meanders away from Tallinn, a mere gateway unveils another world—one where the haunting remnants of collective farms bear witness to Estonia's Soviet past until its liberation in 1991. The transformation since independence, marked by NATO and EU memberships, as well as adoption of the euro, is evident, yet the thrill of traversing this evolving landscape remains.

Enter Tartu, Estonia's second-largest city, often overlooked by British travelers. Mere miles from the Russian border, and with recent geopolitical events affecting tourism, Tartu emerges this year as the European Capital of Culture. Despite its historical significance and proud heritage, it has seldom been a top holiday destination for Britons.

Tartu's claim to fame lies in its prestigious university, founded in 1632 amid the ebb and flow of Swedish and Russian influences. Witness to Estonia's tumultuous history—from Swedish invaders to Russian colonists and fleeting independence post-World War I—Tartu stands as a resilient symbol. Swallowed by the Soviets at the close of World War II, the city regained its Estonian identity in 1991, attracting students from across Europe and earning a reputation as the leading university in the Baltic States.

As Tartu dons the mantle of the European Capital of Culture for the year, its streets resonate with anticipation, promising a season of artistic events that beckon international sightseers. The question lingers: What awaits those who make the trek to this historic city, and is the journey truly worth the adventure? Tartu, with its blend of ancient charm and contemporary vibrancy, holds the answers, inviting curious travelers to explore a city shaped by centuries of resilience and renewal.

Tartu, though modest in size, stands tall in the realm of academia, boasting neoclassical college buildings that command the city center. The vibrant pulse of this city emanates from its sizable student population, approximately 15,000 strong in a community of 100,000. Amidst this academic hubbub, Püssirohu emerges as the most atmospheric student bar, housed in a cavernous old arsenal with bench seats, trestle tables, and a tempting array of local beers on tap ( For those seeking a more refined atmosphere, Werner ( beckons with its elegant, old-fashioned café charm, serving aromatic coffee and alluring cream cakes.

While the antique city center exudes charm, its limited expanse prompts exploration beyond its confines. Tartu's cityscape, though not uniformly picturesque, carries a historical tapestry woven through periods of foreign occupation and fleeting independence. Traditional wooden houses from the Tsarist era, ranging from dilapidated to lovingly restored, punctuate the urban landscape. Soviet-era structures, predominantly grim yet intriguing, add another layer to Tartu's architectural narrative.

The city unfolds as a tapestry of history, with the KGB Museum ( standing as a poignant testament in the basement of the 'Grey House,' where Estonian victims endured Soviet interrogations and torture. However, amidst the shadows of history, Tartu emerges as a lively enclave, its bustling streets adorned with shops and cafes. It's a stark contrast to the time when all private enterprise was forbidden barely 30 years ago. Strolling through the city center, one could almost forget the specter of Soviet occupation.

While acknowledging the losses suffered under Soviet rule, Tartu's resilience shines through since gaining independence. In a new era marked by a renewed geopolitical tension, the city beckons as Europe's latest cultural capital, offering a compelling reason to visit this year. The former factory turned trendy hub, Aparaaditehas (, now hosts hip bars, boutiques, and restaurants. Among its gems is Typa (, a converted printworks turned workshop and museum where visitors can create their own postcards and even craft their own paper—an immersive experience in Tartu's vibrant cultural revival.

Recharge your senses at Resto Aparaat (, a culinary haven offering nourishing soups and local draught ales, with A. Le Coq ( proudly representing the town's brewing legacy. Adjacent lies Fahrenheit 451, a snug second-hand bookshop paying homage to Ray Bradbury's dystopian masterpiece on governmental book-burning. In a locale where not too long ago, numerous books faced bans, the act of reading freely feels like a cherished privilege, a luxury often taken for granted in the West.

For those with a youthful spirit or accompanying youngsters, the enchanting Toy Museum ( is a must-visit. Housed in a brightly painted wooden house reminiscent of a Grimm's fairytale forest hideaway, the museum unveils an enchanting collection—a window into a bygone era.

Venturing into the leafy parkland on the town's outskirts, once a Cold War-era military base, the Estonian National Museum ( unfolds as a dramatic time tunnel narrating Estonia's tumultuous journey from prehistory to independence. The futuristic, airy architecture of the museum itself becomes an attraction.

Classic Estonian cuisine, robust and wholesome, takes center stage, and the ideal spot to procure local produce is the handsome Art Deco Market Hall ( Amidst the bread, cheese, fruit, and veg, and a delightful array of jams and mustards, historical photographs of old Tartu adorn the walls. Kalev (, renowned throughout the Baltic States as Estonia's premier chocolatier, beckons with factory outlets in Tartu offering delectable chocolates at bargain prices, one conveniently located opposite the Market Hall.

Delve into the historical corridors of Tartu University (, once harboring its own jail for unruly students, a tradition halted over a century ago. The attic cells, adorned with vintage graffiti from these rebellious undergraduates, provide a fascinating glimpse into academic history.

For those seeking a seamless journey, direct flights to Tallinn are available with Air Baltic (, Ryanair (www.ryanair), or Wizz Air (, starting from as little as £32 return. Tartu, accessible by road or rail, invites you to stay at Hotell Lydia (, a modern gem in the heart of the old town. Boasting a stylish spa and one of Tartu's finest restaurants, Holm (, offering delectable buckwheat blinis, the hotel ensures a memorable sojourn with doubles starting at €115 per night, inclusive of breakfast.

Embarking on his journey to Tartu, William Cook was graciously hosted by Baltic Holidays (, a travel company rooted in a fervent love for the Baltic States. This British-based company specializes in tailor-made tours, curated with precision and care. With a commitment to unveiling the hidden gems beyond the well-trodden paths, Baltic Holidays offers an immersive experience, guided by friendly locals who bring a personalized touch to every adventure.

In the heart of the Baltic States, this travel company goes beyond the ordinary, ensuring that travelers like William Cook discover the nuances and sights that often escape the typical tourist's gaze. From the enchanting streets of Tartu to the untamed beauty of the surrounding landscapes, Baltic Holidays crafts journeys that delve into the soul of the Baltic region.

More than a travel agency, Baltic Holidays becomes a companion on the road, sharing a passion for exploration and a commitment to creating memories that transcend the ordinary. As William Cook's journey unfolded, guided by the expertise and warmth of Baltic Holidays, the trip became a testament to the company's dedication to showcasing the true essence of the Baltic States.

In conclusion, William Cook's sojourn to Tartu, facilitated by the hospitality of Baltic Holidays (, encapsulates the essence of a travel experience curated with passion and precision. As a British-based travel company deeply enamored with the Baltic States, Baltic Holidays goes beyond the conventional, offering tailor-made tours that venture off the beaten track. The company's commitment to revealing hidden gems and showcasing the often-missed sights is epitomized by their friendly local guides, who add a personal touch to each exploration.

From the neoclassical splendor of Tartu's academic hub to the enchanting Toy Museum nestled in a fairytale-like wooden house, Baltic Holidays ensures that travelers like William Cook embark on a journey that transcends the ordinary. Beyond being a mere travel agency, Baltic Holidays becomes a companion in discovery, fostering a connection with the heart and soul of the Baltic region.

As the narrative unfolds, guided by the expertise and warmth of Baltic Holidays, the trip becomes a testament to the company's dedication to creating meaningful and unforgettable travel experiences. In the embrace of tailored itineraries and local insights, William Cook's adventure becomes a celebration of the Baltic States' rich tapestry, reaffirming that, with Baltic Holidays, every journey is an exploration of the extraordinary.