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Monday 15 September 2014

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Tallinn Christmas Market – one of Europe’s finest

Estonia's capital Tallinn hosts one of Europe's finest Christmas markets

If you’re thinking of booking a Christmas break, you could do a lot worse than sample the Yuletide charm of the Estonian capital

We’d been wanting to visit a Christmas Market for some time, and our first thought was to book a trip to a ‘traditional’ German one. A little research telling us that one of the finest in Europe was to be found in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, combined with our earnest mission to visit as many of the countries that once belonged to the former Soviet Union as I could, helped us choose this gem of a city.

Flights to Tallinn were straightforward enough, our carrier of choice being Finnair who took us first to Helsinki, and then the half an hour or so on to Tallinn itself, courtesy of what seemed like a bus with wings. This great little turbo prop hovers precariously over the Gulf of Finland and, on a clear, daytime flight, affords some wonderful views.

Arrival at the hotel in Estonia was simple enough, despite being completely ripped off by a roguish taxi driver who quadrupled the fare; we ended up paying 200 Estonian kroons instead of the suggested 50. If this happens to you, do take his registration number as our hotel did try to take this up for us but, sadly, we were unable to identify the driver.

English is spoken readily throughout Tallinn, which makes for a very easy trip. The half hour walk from our hotel, the excellent Uniquestay Mihkli Hotel, was indeed a pleasant one, albeit undertaken in temperatures at times as low as -17 °C.

Night had fallen on Town Hall Square and the Christmas market had closed for the day, but the shuttered stalls and booths, set against the backdrop of the Town Hall itself and an enormous, beautifully lit tree, offered a tantalising glimpse of what tomorrow might bring. We crossed the square and after a few minutes’ deliberation, not to mention a little gentle harassment from the front-of-house staff at various restaurants, headed to an inviting establishment called Basso which lies just a couple of streets away at Pikk 13 (see below to find out more).

As we worked our way down a most agreeable bottle of red, we reflected on the day’s events and anticipated those of the next in equal measure. We’d been hoping for a festive break and even only a few hours into our stay, Tallinn was delivering the goods in spades.

The rest of our time in the Estonian capital was equally pleasing. A light dusting of snow added the perfect Christmas charm to the wonderful market which, with its array of local goodies and St Nicholas nicknacks, presented itself charmingly against a backdrop of green, blue and golden winter-wonderland sunsets. Warm, aromatic Glögi – the local mulled red (or indeed, white) wine, provided that warm, fuzzy feeling which enhanced the whole experience, while sausages and fried cabbage and potatoes provided sustenance against the plummeting temperatures.

The city is awash with superb restaurants and bars and, whilst the poor exchange rate (the kroon is pegged against the euro) can give your wallet a bit of a spanking, you should find on the whole that food and drink are no more expensive than in England.

Recommended eateries…

Basso
Pikk 13
Definitely our favourite, and a far cry from the dated austerity one expects of former Soviet countries. Bistro-cum-jazz-bar Basso serves as a shining example of chic consumerism and style. Near the entrance, a chalkboard advertised upcoming live music nights; reassuring Christmas classics played in the background as we perused the menu, and the entire place was wonderfully lit with tasteful festive lights. It was the most Christmassy we’d felt in a long time. The extensive menu left us spoilt for choice; the gourmet burgers we opted for were beyond reproach, while the level of service and presentation left us confident that any selection would have been a good one.

Hell Hunt
Pikk 39
No, not as grim a name as it sounds, it simply means “Gentle Wolf”. It’s a vibrant, thriving establishment serving up some of the finest food in Tallinn at reasonable prices, and is frequented by locals and tourists alike. As dining subsides, it turns more into a traditional Estonian pub, with a great atmosphere and an eclectic musical platter. Highly recommended.

Ipanema Rodizio
UniqueStay Mihkli Hotel, Endla 23
Located in the basement of the UniqueStay Mihkli Hotel, the funky Argentinian-themed Ipanema Rodizio is an Atkins dietitian’s delight, its signature dish being a non-stop and richly varied feast of freshly-cooked meat (we’re talking different cuts of beef, chicken, lamb, pork, the list goes on…) brought to your table on skewers. For a fixed price, the chefs will bring you as many chunks of succulent flesh as you can manage; we bowed out after the eighth. The menu as a whole isn’t the most diverse in the city, but when the centrepiece is so varied, who’s complaining?

O’Malley’s
Viru 24
Tallinn has no shortage of Irish bars, and O’Malley’s represents a relatively non-kitsch take on the theme. Easily spotted on one of the Old Town’s main roads, it boasts a relaxed atmosphere and great drinks menu. If Jack Frost is nipping at your nose, try a coffee with a shot of Old Tallinn liqueur to put the colour back into your cheeks…

St Patrick’s
Vana-Posti 7
One of four St Patrick’s pub-restaurants, this branch – housed in a medieval merchant’s house – has impressively high ceilings and nicely rendered faux-ancient tapestries. High standards and a fabulous menu are the order of the day: the excellent menu was unexpectedly affordable. There’s even a fantastic range of indie and rock music playing in the background.

Raekoda – Town Hall Cafe
Raekoja plats
Tucked away in the corner of Tallinn’s impressive Town Hall building is this wonderful little cafe. Its original flagstones and windows give it real Gothic charm but it’s warm and cosy even in the depths of winter. Snuggle up by one of the windows and watch the bustling market while you enjoy a glass of mulled wine and a cake. Well, you need to keep your energy levels up when it’s so cold out there…

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