Tallinn, Estonia

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This well-preserved jewel of a medieval European city is a place of $40 rooms and $5 meals.

A decade after independence from the moldering Soviet empire, the former "captive nations" of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania-postage-stamp republics wedged between the Baltic Sea to the west and Russia, Belarus, and Poland to the east and south - are slowly but surely finding their way from Iron Curtain gloom to Western European-style prosperity. Yet in Estonia, for example, the average household income of its 1.5 million inhabitants is still among the lowest in Europe (around $4,000), the cost of living a third of what it is in the United States, and its currency stable but weak against the dollar (one greenback recently bought 18 kroon), leading to rock-bottom prices such as 20¢ for a pastry, 50¢ for a loaf of bread, 35¢ for a liter of milk, and good hotel rooms for $20 to $40 a night. Those remarkable costs make this lovely land-the size of New Hampshire and Massachusetts combined - and its fairytale capital Tallinn (with a population of nearly 500,000) not only one of the top bargains of Europe but one of the cheapest places on earth.

Just a 90-minute ferry ride from Helsinki ($15-$35 each way) and an eight-and-a-half-hour flight from New York (from $450 round-trip off-season; see box), Eesti (Estonia's name in the local language, very close to Finnish) combines a picturesque countryside and lots of wild, sandy beaches with a capital city whose Old Town is one of Europe's most charming medieval jewels. Granted, there are also plenty of cheesy Soviet-era white elephants, but part of Estonia's fascination is a chance to see firsthand the malign legacy of the six-decade-long Soviet occupation, as well as the progress being made toward overcoming that legacy.

The treasures of Tallinn

The medieval quarter of Tallinn ("TAH-lin") is one of the best preserved in Europe, with a look somewhere between the Nordic and the Germanic (reminiscent of, say, Heidelberg, but at East European prices). Explore the old city walls, the bustling shopping streets, and the picture-perfect Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) - oft used as a movie backdrop and ringed with outdoor cafes and open-air handicrafts markets where bargains include hand-trimmed wool sweaters ($15-$30) and fine glassware and linens. The tiny passageway between Vene and Mnnrivahe Streets called Katarnna Kaik has a whole guild of fine crafts shops offering original handmade scarves, leather books, wood, and linens. Don't miss the impressive Oleviste Kirik (St. Olaf's Church), at 397 feet the tallest building in Europe until the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

Climb the cobblestone streets up to Toompea, the upper part of town, to the grand Alexander Nevski Cathedral, completed in 1900. You'll also find the Kiek in de Kok (admission 60¢), a tower housing military and art exhibits. Its name means "Peep in the Kitchen," because its 144-foot height does let you peer into a few kitchens yourself.

Beyond the Old Town you'll see the rotting remnants of Soviet occupation - gray housing blocks, giant crumbling factories, huge military stations and monuments, scary guard towers (now climbable for a good view), and an enormous red-and-white radio tower that used to jam Voice of America broadcasts but now carries mobile phone signals. At the same time, angular new skyscrapers are gradually changing the city's face.

Stretching eastward along the coast is a beautiful three-mile beach at Pirita, with smooth sands and shallow seas, great for swimming in the summer. The beach adjoins breezy pine forests, and across the road are the looming, atmospheric ruins of St. Bridget's Convent, built in 1407, sacked by Ivan the Terrible in 1577, and now very popular for picnics. To the west of town is a picturesque area called Rocca al Mare, with walks by the sea, a zoo, and an engrossing open-air museum (adult admission $5) with nearly 100 examples of bygone country architecture on 210 acres of forest and low limestone cliffs overlooking the sea (take buses 21 or 6, a 15-minute ride from downtown). You can also walk west on a milelong seacoast path to the Kakumae Beach; much quieter than Pirita, it's the nicest in Tallinn, with clear, calm, and shallow water.

Tallinn hotels

Unless you're a fan of Soviet schlock, in Tallinn you'll probably want to stay as close to the Old Town as possible, and there are several reasonable hotels near the harbor. If you arrive by boat, the ten-minute walk from the port to the Old Town takes you through a factory/warehouse area now being turned into a SoHo-style district, and a few reasonably priced hotels are already up. The ExpressHotel (Sadama 1, tel. 667-8700, fax 667-8800, hotel@expresshotel.ee) is clean and somewhat like an American motel, with basic but spiffy $49 doubles, good service, even free Internet access. Many rooms have fine views of the Old Town walls, just a short stroll away. Nearby, the Rotermanni Viiking (Mere pst. 6a, tel. 660-1934, fax 613-7901, viiking@anet.ee) is a smaller, also newish property with doubles running $32 to $43, with breakfast. Next door is the newer Rotermanni Hotel (613-7900, fax 613-7999, hotell@rotermanni.ee), even fresher but a bit pricier, its units starting at $61.

Along with several luxury hotels within the old city itself, there are quite a few bargains such as Old House Bed & Breakfast, on the left side of the street, not far in from the main entrance to the Old Town (Uus 22, tel. 641-1464, oldhousebedb@hot.ee). With shared showers, it's fairly basic but quite clean and has a nice common room with TV and fireplace; rates run $18-$21 a person. Just down the street is "Hostel" (Uus 26, tel. 641-1281), which, for $25 per double and $10 per person in dorm rooms, offers spacious but sparsely furnished digs; breakfast isn't included, but there are plenty of dining spots up the street by the Raekoja plats. Up on high, in a quiet area at the top of the Old Town near the government buildings, the friendly Olematu Ruutel (Kiriku poik 4a, tel. 631-3827, fax 631-3826) has great views and several nicely furnished rooms from $40 with a private bath and $33 with a shared bath.

Near the Old Town in the lovely old neighborhood of Kadriorg (reachable via tram 1 or a $3 cab ride) is possibly the prettiest place to stay in all of Tallinn, the Poska Villa guesthouse (Poska 15, tel. 601-3601, fax 601-3754, ehf@infonet.ee). Renting eight beautiful rooms from $37 to 48 including breakfast, it boasts a large, well-kept garden and a short walk to Peter the Great's Kadriorg Park, now the site of the president's home and the newly renovated art museum.

If you're willing to venture a bit further afield, the Pirita (Regati pst. 1, tel. 639-8600, fax 639-8821, pirita@firm.ee) is located in the lovely waterfront area of the same name, two miles east from the harbor along a beautiful seaside road and path. Built for the 1980 Olympics (which America boycotted), it offers excellent sporting and relaxation facilities, a fine sandy beach, and a tall pine forest. Some of the 270 rooms have been renovated; they start at $50. Take buses 1, 1A, 8, 34, or 38 from downtown (advance-purchase tickets 66¢, $1 on the bus); it's a 15-minute ride.

Further into the forest from Pirita, a full five miles from downtown, is the old Ecoland (Randvere tee 115, tel. 605-1999, fax 605-1998, ecoland@ecoland.ee), a resort of fairly recent vintage at the edge of the Vilmsi forest, in a quiet neighborhood of country houses (take bus 8, ten minutes from Pirita or 20 from downtown). With heated floors, free morning sauna, and rooms starting at $36, it's an excellent base for cross-country skiing and exploring the local woods or nearby beaches.

Finally, bed-and-breakfasts can be reserved in private homes throughout Estonia from Rasastra (tel. 641-2291, rasastra@online.ee) for $16 single, $30 double per night; similarly priced apartments are also available for longer stays. Accommodations of all types are listed at tourism.ee.

Estonian edibles

The Old Town is littered with restaurants, from quick cafeteria-style joints to elegant restaurants serving various cuisines. Get a fine $2 buffet and a full menu of traditional Estonian meat and fish dishes for $3 to $6 at Kloostri Ait (Vene 14, tel. 644-6887), an ancient cloister turned into a factory and now renovated as a restaurant, cafe, and cultural center, often with free music in the evenings. It's an excellent place to meet locals and travelers.

The cheapest and quickest eats in the Old Town are at bare-bones Lemmik, a cafe at Viru 18 (tel. 641-8357) where a full meal won't set you back more than $4, yet the food is fresh and surprisingly good.

On the square's north side at No. 14, the Cafe Anglais (tel. 644-2160) serves filling sandwiches, the freshest salads in town, huge slices of pie, and great coffee in a spacious, second-floor room next to an informal art gallery; meals run $3 to $6.

For authentically Estonian food (which features lots of meat, potatoes, cabbage, and the mysterious yogurt-grain concoction kama), the best option is a five-minute walk from the Old Town past the concert hall. Tallinna Eesti Maja (Lauteri 1, tel. 645-5252) serves a filling lunch buffet for $4 and entrees for $4 to $8. In the Old Town itself, especially Estonian in mood is the popular, fairly new Vanaema Juures ("Grandma's Place") at Rataskaevu 10 (tel. 626-9080); classic dishes such as mulgikapsad (pickled cabbage cooked with pork and barley) are served in an old, cavern-like basement with decor and music from the early days of the first republic, right after World War I. Entrees run $4.50 to $10.50.

Tallinn by night

This town now boasts a decent range of cultural offerings, from the symphony to modern discos featuring pulsing electronica and techno music. Of the latter, one of the largest is Club Hollywood (Vana-Posti 8, tel. 699-7830; admission $4.75 to $6.50), consisting of several rooms with various kinds of music - and no sneakers allowed! Another is Raekook (Dunkri 5, tel. 631-3370; admission free), a warren-like maze of dance floors, bars, and eating spaces (and even private saunas and bedrooms, rentable for all-night bashes). Check out the Von Krahli Baar (Rataskaevu 10, tel. 626-9096, $3 admission) for smaller, funkier acts and more offbeat music. All three of these spots are in the Old Town. A block away at Eesti puiestee 4 is Tallinn's world-class orchestra and theater complex (contact Eesti Kontsert at 614-7700 or info@concert.ee to find out what's on, though there are usually posters around town advertising the season's performances).

The free Tallinn This Week booklet available at hotels or the tourist office is published so long in advance that it isn't terribly accurate on events (though a good source for sightseeing and dining information); instead, you can usually glean some decent info from the weekly newspapers Eesti Ekspress ($2) or Linnaleht (free), as well as the arts/literary weekly Sirp ($1). Also try the Web site weekend.ee/eng (which is in English).

Touring beyond Tallinn

The capital's hinterland is a landscape that's the least densely populated in Europe, with wild swamps harboring moose, wild boars, lynx, and bears. Wooden boardwalks take you deep into the bogs, and the wild, rocky islands of Saaremaa and Hnumaa offer a solitude hard to find on beaten-down pathways elsewhere in Europe. It's easy to get around, by bus or by car, and it never costs much to stay and eat along the way.

The rest of Estonia is surprisingly empty of people but full of beautiful landscapes and ruins of German manors (as well as some derelict Soviet military and factory hulks). There are fine beaches and beautiful forests, all at prices even more reasonable than in the "big city."

One area especially worth noting is the Lahemaa National Park (tel. 55-663, fax 55-664), about 90 minutes east of Tallinn, unique in that it's a reserve that embraces villages as well as wild areas and beaches. The eighteenth-century manor at Palmse has been restored, the estate including wooded trails and lakes, museums, an arboretum, and a beautiful new Park-Hotel Palmse (tel. 32/23-626, fax /34-167,info@phpalmse.ee). Staying in its $37-48 doubles (including breakfast) is truly like living in your own private mansion. You get here by renting a car from Tallinn's Tulika Autorent (Tihase 34, 612-0012, tulika@online.ee) for $30 daily/$148 weekly. Still inside Lahemaa Park, the beautiful beach town of Kasmu is a popular yet uncrowded peninsular enclave of summer vacation homes - very quiet and quaint, with fine walking trails and pristine swimming spots. It's an excellent day trip, or you can stay close to the water for $28 per double room (including breakfast) at Rannamannid Guesthouse (Neeme tee 31, tel. 511-7975 or tel./fax 32/38-329). Or try the Merekalda Pansion (Neeme tee 2, tel. 32/38-8451, helen.kaldre@mail.ee), whose charming rooms run $25 to $35. Buses from Tallinn to Kasmu depart daily and cost about $2.50.

One pleasure of summer in Estonia is the slew of village festivals and gatherings, from the Viljandi Folk Music Festival (folk.ee) to the summer beer festival and the Baltoscandal Theater in Rakvere. If you plan ahead and do your homework, you certainly won't run out of things to do.

Cyber-Eesti

Estonia today is an extremely wired country, and you can find a lot of useful information on the Web before you go or while you're there. Accommodations of all types are listed at tourism.ee. News about the region (along with reviews of new restaurants and hangouts) can be found at balticsworldwide.com. For more information on the wilds of Estonia, try ecotourism.ee/. For car rental info, try auto-rental.net/balticrates.html.

Hightailing it to Tallinn

Off-season roundtrip fares from NYC on Finnair (800/950-5000) via Helsinki can be as low as $450, rising to around $1,200 from mid-June through August. If you're already in Helsinki, there are so many ferries making the crossing that it's gotten absurdly cheap-as low as $19 round-trip for a day cruise on the Nordic Jet Line (njl.ee), Tallink Express (tallink.ee), or Silja Line SuperSeaCat (silja.ee). The last is the most pleasant of the fast boats, thanks to its size (allowing for a large outdoor deck and a smoother ride).

There are also slower, larger boats run by Eckero Line (631-8606) and Tallink that make a leisurely crossing in three hours, but they run in all kinds of weather and year-round; the crossings - including lavish all-you-can-eat buffet meals-cost about $15. Many of these companies also have special packages including round-trip travel from Helsinki and reasonable rates at one of the hotels near the harbor.

From Stockholm, Estline (estline.ee) runs daily service; its two boats are the most comfortable of the big ferries, particularly the smaller Baltic Christina. An economy cabin for the overnight trip starts at $44 per person each way. Tallinn is also accessible by air from London, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Moscow, and other European cities via Estonian Air, SAS, Aeroflot, and LOT Polish Airways. An American travel agency that specializes in Estonia and the other Baltic countries is Uniontours in New York (212/683-9500, fax 212/683-9511).

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