DAY ONE : THURSDAY 12th SEPTEMBER
After several months of radio blogs, it’s nice to be back on the travel side of things – and this time it involves three of my favourite things : Eastern Europe, beer and just a little bit of kitsch.
Yep – Tallinn may have been on the map in some form or other since 1154, but for most people the first they heard of it was in 2002, when it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest.
Now I might admit to being a little partial to the occasional Eurovision Song Contest, though I’m not as much of an expert as my mate John. He not only watches Eurovision every year, but actually travels to the venues, writes many blogs on the subject and even squeezes in the national finals of other nations. And whilst he can reel off countless stats about who won every year (in 2002 it was Estonia’s Baltic neighbours Latvia, proving that they really do gang up together), where the UK finished up (Third, Jessica Garlick if you must know) and even who the hosts were (Annely Peebo & Marko Matvere), he’s also quite handy for getting useful information about almost any European capital : namely the best method of getting from the airport to town and the nicest pubs.
So that’s the kitsch done with, now onto my other reasons for choosing Tallinn. Initially I’d been planning another visit to Prague. Having been there three times, I can now confidently navigate my way from the airport by public transport for around £1, use the trams and metro systems to best effect, not look Too Much Like A Tourist on the Charles Bridge and – usefully – flash my NUJ Press Card at the gates of Prague Castle and get in for about £1.50, rather than the full price of £15.
Unfortunately, though, it seems that many regional UK airports have stopped doing summer flights to Prague. The nearest I could find to Nottingham was Manchester, and the earliest I could travel locally was October. And then I saw Tallinn.
A couple of years ago I visited Riga, the Latvian capital – and on a global scale just down the Baltic coast from Estonia. And very nice it was too. Whilst Prague has embraced European integration by slowly whacking up its prices, the northeast of Europe seems happy to keep costs relatively low. Latvia hadn’t even adopted the Euro as its currency – a small bonus, though the exchange rates were a bit naff. So it seemed only fair to try out Tallinn too.
As usual, a panel of experts (apart from my mate John) had advised me what a terrible mistake I’d made. “It’s full of stag nights,” said one friend. “It’s the Baltic – it’ll be bloody cold,” said another. “They’ll move you from your hotel to a prison cell,” quipped one less than helpful online review of my chosen accommodation.
But aside from these perils, there are – in my experience of Prague, Riga, Budapest and Bratislava – plenty of nicer certainties with Eastern European cities. First, the compulsory Old Town area, usually full of cobbled streets and cosy cafes. Second, the local beer, plentiful, cheap and enough to knock you senseless after three pints. And thirdly, we’re back to kitsch. These are the kinds of places where folk music, karaoke and Europop are all considered to be the height of fashion – more likely to start a trend on Twitter than Sally Bercow pulling her pants down on Minor Celebrity – Bring Me A Shotgun or whatever its called.
So it’s time to be cultured, trendy and kitsch all at the same time.
Oh, and Tallinn’s also the European Capital of Culture this year – a title shared in the past by Liverpool and Glasgow. Which means I won’t be able to understand anyone and might well get beaten up in an argument over a fried Mars bar.