Most tourists flock to Paris for the kind of bread that breaks the will of even the most die-hard Atkins devotees, but the French aren’t the only ones who take their crust seriously. The Baltic state of Estonia could mount a marketing campaign based on their thick, black rye bread. Tinged with a slight sweetness from a pinch of sugar, the sourdough-like loaves are considered so sacred, Estonians kiss them should they fall to the floor, and are said to miss their native bread more than their Mothers when living abroad. I am slowly rationing my souvenir loaf as I imagine expats do.
But Estonia is not only about bakeries. The land that invented Skype is a leader on the tech frontier. Schools, universities and public offices all have free Wifi, and most Estonians do their banking, voting and file taxes via the internet.
What’s more, Estonia’s President has been a leading campaigner for countries to band together in the international fight against cyber warfare. The nation is home to the world’s first think tank devoted to fighting cybercrime, a NATO-approved organisation.
And, a young, emerging arts community is coming up in the shadow of designers under Soviet rule, who were forced into anonymity working for big factories. My guide is art professor Gregor Taul. We collect bicycles in the compact, medieval old city of Tallinn, Estonia's capital, and make our way past the waterfront, home to an edgy contemporary museum and plans for more creative spaces.
We stop at the Estonian Design House, a café and collective showcasing the work of local designers, with workshops upstairs. Gregor tells me Soviet-style is enjoying a resurgence, some of which is sprinkled throughout the café. We hop on our bikes and ride to Kalamaja, one of Tallinn’s trendy neighbourhoods in the northern part of the city, popular with urban professionals and families.
The wooden houses that dominate Kalamaja are a wonderful part of Tallinn’s illustrated history. When the city was connected to St. Petersburg by railroad in the late 19th century, large factories were popped up around the new trade route. The houses were built to accommodate the thousands of workers. Five-hundred of the two and three storey apartment houses, made of symmetrical wooden wings remain in the city today.
The area, with its cool cafes and over-priced restaurants , is also home to the wooden house district, a must-see for architecture and history buffs, and those interested in a glimpse into how urban Talliners live. Having worked up an appetite, we stop at F-Hoone a large, warehouse-type building serving up simple all-day food in yuppie-dom. I was the only tourist there. Nearby, we wander through a totally opposite atmosphere, the Balti Jaama Market, a sprawling Soviet-style (and in fact, many elderly Russians still shop there) market behind the train station selling new and old things at eye-watering prices. It was an odd mix of goods; new things being sold as old, perhaps to tourists, and cheap socks and produce sold to the Russians.
We ride across town to the Kumu Art Museum, built six years ago and well worth a visit not just for its collection of Estonian art, but also for its architectural value. Many have proclaimed it a contemporary masterpiece.
Our tour finishes back at the port, at the just-opened seaplane harbour showcasing Estonia’s maritime history with a high-tech museum and aquarium. A life-size replica of the British Short 184 is on display, in a former seaplane hangar built in the early 20th century.
Naval artillery, submarines, and simulators fill the space, along with a cinema and aquarium. The working harbour is one of Tallinn’s vital arteries, with hourly ferries carrying Estonian workers back and forth to Helsinki.
There are, of course, palaces and churches to visit. But Tallinn’s first synagogue in 60 years is the real gem of the capital, especially for design enthusiasts. Inaugurated five years ago, the wood and design structure is unusual for a synagogue, contrary to the typical dark, closed structures. The materials alone make it vulnerable, and conjure up all sorts of symbolic imagery, from flames to the historic Night of the Broken Glass. The large expanse of glass forms an arched façade, allowing natural light to wash through the building, while the window is high enough to maintain the privacy of the synagogue’s congregation. It’s an inviting space that welcomes non-Jews inside. Award-winning Estonian firm Koko used wood and glass as a nod to local culture and visited Israel to take inspiration from traditional synagogues. While it’s not hidden, the Tallinn Synagogue isn’t the easiest place to find, especially in an area with few street signs, but it is on the city’s design route.
A weekend in Tallinn is the perfect amount of time to explore the city’s off-the-beaten path offerings, or combine it with another Baltic city like Riga or Vilnius, and compare how far each have come since the Soviet days.
Flights were provided by AirBaltic.
Accommodation was provided by the Nordic Hotel Forum.