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ESTONIA HAS PLENTY TO SING ABOUT

Where parliament meets in TallinnReg Butler, on a tour of the Baltic capitals, discovered that the 3-hour morning ferry from Helsinki was crowded with Finns on a day trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

At the information desk of the huge vessel, they said all the other 15 daily crossings were equally packed. Most Finns would just go briefly ashore and return on the next ship. Or maybe they'd return early next morning. 

The explanation isn't a thirst for sightseeing, culture or a desire to see how the former Soviet satellite is coping with a decade of independence. 

Instead, the big attraction is the ultra-low cost of cigarettes, alcohol and a night on the town, including non-stop striptease till 6 a.m. One bar in the local "What's On" magazine advertises the curious mixture of billiards and striptease.

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TRAVEL FACTS

For British passport holders, no visas are needed, or for the other Baltic Republics of Latvia and Lithuania. 

Several tour operators feature brief City Breaks to Tallinn, based on direct Estonia Air flights from Gatwick. Ask your travel agent for quotes.

The Estonian Kroon (abbreviated as EEK) is pegged to the euro. 

Language: Estonian is closely related to Finnish, if that's any help. Otherwise, English is overtaking Russian as the most widely spoken second language. 

Estonia Tourism doesn't have an office in UK. But their website is packed with information.

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Aboard ship or ashore, standard international cigarettes like Dunhill, Rothmans or Marlboro are ridiculously cheap. But shore prices are set to increase steadily until they reach European Union levels. 

For travellers from high-taxation Finland, a carton of 200 and a bottle or two of vodka can save the cost of the return ticket. So the rest is all profit and fun. 

Ashore, our tour group revelled in the low drink prices. Our evening meal and breakfast were included, but a cafeteria lunch set us back just a few pounds. Even in thetop restaurants a main course was not much more expensive. 

The local guide filled our ears with stories about the big changeover from Soviet rule to independence. The keynote in June 1988 was the outbreak of the Singing Revolution.

Sign of an apothecary The Estonians have a long tradition of folk-song and dance festivals. On the city outskirts is a purpose-built Song Festival Ground where up to 30,000 singers in folk costume take part in a big parade and song-fest every summer. Another 100,000 people come to listen. A dance festival takes place in another stadium.

In 1988 the Song Grounds turned into a political rally, night after night, ending with over 300,000 Estonians voicing their demand for self-government. That was about one-third of the ethnic population, impossible for Moscow to ignore.

The Estonians say "We sang ourselves free." It was a Singing Revolution without any victims, though some people got sore throats. 

Estonia certainly has plenty to sing about. In May 2002  Estonia hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in  Tallinn. The main local theme that promoted the Contest was "A Modern Fairy-Tale" based on Estonia's rapid rise into one of the most successful independent states in Eastern Europe. It's a decade-long story with a happy ending since breaking away from Soviet rule.

Today's sightseeing can't avoid the historic political background. The city centre is pure medieval. Perched on a hill called Toompea is a castle like an inner town, the base for over 700 years of foreign rulers. The Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians all had their turn.

Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church, built by the Russians in 1900. Down below was the trading city, a member of the Hanseatic League which handled most of northern European trade between the 13th and 15th centuries. The merchants could afford to build solidly for the future. The hilltop castle and the trading city were each ringed with walls and towers. A cannon tower called Fat Margaret is said to be the only virgin lady in town.

With the growth of tourism, the watchword is preservation and restoration. Run-down buildings have been spruced up, interiors modernised, and ground floors converted into shops, restaurants and bars. Inside the mile of fortifications, 20th-century building styles are banned.

Typical is a 15th-century building called Olde Hanse, where a former weigh-house now operates as a medieval restaurant with colourful frescoes. Waiters in period costume serve a 15th-century menu. A rival medieval-themed restaurant includes candlelight, Gregorian chants and spiced wine. 

Everywhere you look in central Tallinn are similar medieval gems. Wrought-iron shop and restaurant signs remind you of former centuries when most people couldn't read, and needed a helpful shop sign. An apothecary's shop on the central Market Square has been non-stop in business since 1422, but has now been converted into a cafe. 

The outer ring of bastions was removed last century and left as a green belt of parks. Newer suburbs then grew outside that ring. During Soviet occupation, plans were made to tear down the inner medieval city and rebuild in modern Russian style. But luckily Moscow ran out of cash.

Meanwhile thousands of Russians moved into suburban Tallinn, attracted by the more cheerful lifestyle and relative prosperity of Estonia. They were housed in gruesome apartment blocks built of pre-fab concrete, all identical in style, and every flat the same size. 
A sausage and coffee shop in Parnu
Our tour headed across Estonia towards Latvia, with a lunch stop at Parnu, billed as a Baltic California. True, there was a sandy beach, and it may have seemed blissfully like California to Soviet residents on holiday from Moscow or Siberia. But the weather is closer to the British Isles, which perhaps explains why Parnu has a Bristol Hotel and an Irish pub. 

                                                                                                 

Consider these other Baltic destinations

HELSINKI - go when the sun shines

LATVIA - Varied weekend in Riga 

LITHUANIA - The bumpy road to Vilnius


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Estonia - the Bradt Travel Guide by Neil Taylor - a good down-to-earth guide, written by an expert who makes frequent return visits to Estonia.

Lonely Planet: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania - A collaboration of three authors to cover each of the three Baltic States.

Baltic Capitals - A perfect buy for a multi-capital journey that features Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and the very off-beat Kaliningrad, and including a brief glossary for each language. 

Baltic States Insight Guide - a comprehensive survey, to be published from April 2005.


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