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Phil Hopkins
Group Travel Editor & Theatre Correspondent
@philhopkinsuk
1:00 AM 2nd March 2024
travel
Weekend

In The Soup In Tartu

 
Tartu: European City of Culture
Tartu: European City of Culture
“You might want to turn the roaming off on your phone,” said our Estonian host, Herling Mesi, as we sped across frozen Lake Peipsi at Varnja, just a short car ride from the centre of Tartu.

“The Russian border’s only 15km away,” she continued, “right in the centre of the lake, and even though we are only 3km from the shore, Russian telecom may pick up your phone signal. If it does you will most probably go home to a mammoth bill!”

Herling’s husband, Marko, had his foot to the floor and was at the wheel of our Karakat accelerating across the ice. They are a homemade custom vehicle built by local fishermen as a way of rapidly navigating the frozen wastelands of the lake, thanks to robust suspension and huge tyres.

Ice fishing on Lake Peipsi. In the background Marko's Karakat
Ice fishing on Lake Peipsi. In the background Marko's Karakat
“You take the border issue seriously round here,” added Herling as we bumped around on the vehicle’s wooden bench seats to the rear, “there’s a 300m no-man’s-land in the centre where Estonian and Russian border guards patrol: you don’t cross it.” No further explanation was required but one was offered. “One man did and was held for seven days!” We got the message.



Ice fishing trips and the rental of small ‘sauna’ boats, which double as floating Airbnbs, are just two of the ways this entrepreneurial couple make a living across the year and, when they are not sailing, or driving, across they lake, they are the proud owners of the nearby Samovar House – and its collection of 234 samovars - which opens as an alternative tourist draw each June along with the Lendav Laev Restaurant.

The Samovar House at Varnja
The Samovar House at Varnja
We had arrived in Estonia’s second city just 24 hours earlier, eager to learn about its new role: one of Europe’s three Capitals of Culture this year. The mantle is being shared with Bad Ischl in Austria and Bodo in Norway and, soon, Bradford in West Yorkshire will become the UK’s 2025 City of Culture.

But for Tartu, approximately 110 miles south of the Northern capital, now is the time for the city, and its surrounding areas, to put on their best suits and tell the world what’s on offer, even if the conversation has to start with a bowl of lunchtime broth!

Supilinn or ‘Soup Town’, just to the edge of the city centre, gets its amusing name with good reason. The area was a flood plain until the 19th century when the River Emajogi subsided, making this an ideal place for cheap housing and vegetable gardening.

One of Souptown's myriad of artistic murals
One of Souptown's myriad of artistic murals
Because of the numerous growing plots in the area residents gave its streets names such as Kartuli (Potato), Herne (Pea), Oa (Bean) and Marja (Berry).

These days it is crammed with lots of fascinating murals, thanks to its Bohemian residents.

Each year, the largest street festival in the Baltics, The Stencibility Festival, is held there as dedicated surfaces – walls, doors and even fences – are given over to street artists to do their stuff.

However, back in town, at most a 10-minute walk from Soup Town, the pace is, perhaps, a little quicker with its hustle and bustle of students and locals.

There you will find Estonia’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Tartu's leaning Art Museum with a bigger 'tilt' than Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa!
Tartu's leaning Art Museum with a bigger 'tilt' than Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa!
The so-called ‘Leaning House’, aka Tartu Art Museum, can be found at the northeast corner of Town Hall Square.

In the 1790’s builders unwisely set part of its foundation on the old city wall and another part on wooden piles.

The latter eventually sank, giving the house a noticeable lean!

Had it not been for Polish engineers shoring the structure up during Soviet times, it might no longer be there.

A little further up the pedestrianised, cobbled precinct sits the beautiful Town Hall.

l challenge any visitor to ignore the ‘Kissing Students’ sculpture, currently in the middle of a temporary ice rink.

Tartu Town Hall with its famous Kissing Students, currently in the middle of the mobile winter ice rink
Tartu Town Hall with its famous Kissing Students, currently in the middle of the mobile winter ice rink
A fountain, built in front of the Town Hall in the 1950’s, became a favourite meeting place and, after rebuilding in 1998, was adorned with the ever-popular sculpture, an indirect nod to the city’s student population: Tartu is home to the largest and oldest university in Estonia and has some 14000+ students, giving the city a vibrant and youthful feel.

Just across, Ulo Oun’s ‘Father and Son’ sculpture acts as a symbol of the relationship between different generations, featuring himself and his son Kristjan when he was just one and half years old.

Sculptor Ülo Õun's 'Father and Son', a symbol of the relationship between different generations, where children are increasingly growing apart from their parents.
Sculptor Ülo Õun's 'Father and Son', a symbol of the relationship between different generations, where children are increasingly growing apart from their parents.
Our guide, who had attended Tartu University, most definitely had a twinkle in her eye.

“There’s a local saying that maintains you can only be considered a true Tartu student if you have swum in the City Hall fountain, crossed the town’s ‘Arch Bridge’ many times, and……..”.

She paused before bursting out laughing, “….and had sex in the library.” She assured me that she still had to achieve the status of ‘true student of Tartu!’

Outside the city centre there are some wonderful attractions.

Alatskivi Castle is fascinating not only for its architecture, but for the fact that it is seemingly in the middle of nowhere!

Alatskivi Castle: Inspired by Scotland's Balmoral
Alatskivi Castle: Inspired by Scotland's Balmoral
The snow white neo-Gothic castle was built between 1880 and 1885 by Baltic German aristocrat, Arved Georg von Nolcken, who took inspiration from Scotland’s Balmoral as he set about building his demanding wife a new home!

There’s the wonderful Estonian National Museum and its million artefacts: named as the most innovative museum in Europe in 2018…..

The digitally stunning Estonian National Museum
The digitally stunning Estonian National Museum
…..whilst the town of Kolkja - part of the curiously named 'Onion Route' - will introduce you to the region’s small community of Old Believers, courtesy of the hi-tech Old Believer’s Museum.

The hi-tech Old Believers Museum at Kolkja
The hi-tech Old Believers Museum at Kolkja
If you still have enough energy to eat then a variety of outlets await your visitation.

Tickle Your Tastebuds In Tartu!

At the high end there’s Michelin recommended HOLM Restaurant...

Food glorious food!
Food glorious food!
...there’s fantastic fish and chips at HUMAL...

fish and chips in Estonia? Absolutely!
fish and chips in Estonia? Absolutely!
...or a cracking home made lunch at the KIVI KORTS Pub close to Alatskivi Castle.

Port schnitzel at Kivi Korts Pub
Port schnitzel at Kivi Korts Pub
Dinner at KAMPUS Restaurant promises diners ‘controlled chaos’, but you cannot leave town without an explosive visit to PUSSIROHUKELDER, or the Gunpower Cellar Pub: stunning!

A Pub extraordinaire: Tartu's Gunpower Cellar
A Pub extraordinaire: Tartu's Gunpower Cellar
Its amazing structure has guaranteed it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the pub with the highest ceiling in the world at 11metres (36ft)!

We’d been hosted by some of Estonia’s finest eateries, partaken of one of HUUM and Saunasell’s wonderful saunas...
Our man Hopkins breaks into a sweat!
Our man Hopkins breaks into a sweat!
...they threw in a complimentary roll in the snow... and seen some amazing sights of nature as well as tourist attractions.

It was time for reflection:

The bid to become one of Europe’s Cities of Culture began in 2018 when local writer Berk Vaher drafted his controversial ‘Art of Survival’ bid, criticised by many as inappropriate.

Five years on, with victory in the bag, he is now regarded as a visionary.

Russia has invaded Ukraine, the Pandemic did its worst and the Middle East remains in turmoil. Suddenly, Vaher’s work looks inspired.

And, over the coming year, Tartu, together with Southern Estonia, will host 300 distinctive City of Culture events, as an anticipated one million people descend on the area.

One such event cannot go unmentioned: Kissing Tartu on May 17/18 when people will be invited to care, to have an honest discussion about delicate subjects, and to take part in an unprecedented joint kissing event that could involve as many as 10,000 people.

We might no longer be part of the 1960's ‘Free Love’ movement but, as a near neighbour of Russia, and every unspoken implication that invovles, Tartu is opening its arms to the world... and, whether it begins with a hug or a simple kiss on the cheek, maybe it’s time to pay this fascinating city a visit?

Enjoy a 'peace' of this beautiful place whilst it's still in its cultural bloom, and remember the words of Hot Chocolate’s lead singer, Errol Brown: “It started with a kiss.”

I loved Tartu, now Tartu waits to love you!

Getting There
Regent Holidays (www.regent-holidays.co.uk / 01174 535 461) is offering a new six-day Tallinn and Tartu twin-centre city break from £865 per person.

Price is based on two adults sharing and includes return flights from the UK to Tallinn, transfers, three-nights in Tallinn at the Nordic Hotel Forum and two-nights in Tartu at the Hotel Lydia on a B&B basis with return train or bus tickets from Tallinn to Tartu.

More details: www.visitestonia.com and www.tartu2024.ee