The glorious sun is shining down on my shoulders, already relaxed from the heavenly massage in the hotel Elemis spa.
In my hand a glass of the finest champagne fizzes as my mouth waters at the sublime meal set before me, in the shade of the idyllic cobbled courtyard.
I feel pampered yet surrounded by history as I soak in a new culture, foreign enough to be exciting yet familiar enough to be comforting.
This is the five-star holiday feeling – but where am I?
Well, if you turn right out of the UK, zoom past Germany, pop through Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia and shuffle past Russia, once you get to the shores of the Gulf of Finland, you will have reached your destination.
Estonia is a small country with a remarkable history and capital city Tallinn is its charming piece de resistance. After suffering through multiple occupations including Danish, Nazi and most recently Russian, it is enjoying the fruits of independence (gained in 1991) and European Union membership (2004).
Although already firmly on the budget airline and therefore the stag party map (men in novelty onesies abound at the airport), there is much more to Tallinn than cheap booze.
Be in no doubt, this is a country with talent and ambition in spades and Tallinn, with its compact and medieval walled old town, mysterious former KGB buildings, modern five-star restaurants, plush hotels, cultural quirks and designer shops, has all the compelling ingredients required by intrepid travellers, as well as budget and luxury weekenders.
And right at the top of the list is food.
In Tallinn they take this very seriously. When a country has been taken to the brink, it learns to be creative, particularly with fresh in-season produce. And with a population half-Estonian, large part Russian with Belarusian, Ukrainians and Finns thrown in, they have a lot of cultural references to draw from. And, it would seem, wildlife.
I didn’t actually eat bear (they roam wild in the forests of Estonia), but it was pretty much the only animal I didn’t try in my culinary exploration of Tallinn. Herring, beef fillet, quail, quail eggs, trout, elk, ostrich, white fish, salmon, fish eggs, goat’s cheese were all on the menu at the city’s finest. It was foodie heaven and usually washed down with plentiful fine wine and a flavoured vodka (when in the former USSR…)
At each of the incredible restaurants we visited, we were presented proudly with the local, flavoursome and filling black bread with our meal. Every restaurant had a variation, hand-baked, proudly arranged and smelling glorious. The sense of pride is palpable – an eagerness to impress diners that’s rarely seen in UK restaurants.
I stayed at the Hotel Telegraaf – a 19th century building once the exchange station for the Estonian Telegraph company and now transformed into a luxurious 86-room boutique hotel complete with the impressive Restaurant Tchaikovsky, where we ate sumptuously one evening in the outdoor courtyard and a luxury spa, complete with Elemis products.
Here luxury is a byword. Guests have included royalty, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart among others. Muse were in situ shortly before we arrived. The rooms are all different and slightly whimsical. Ornate mirrors and cheeky art contrast with modern fittings and the backdrop of a building once repeatedly bombed.
But back to the food. In Tallinn you don’t just have to eat it – you can also play with it and make it. We spent a remarkably enjoyable hour accessing our inner child at a marzipan-painting workshop at the Kalev chocolate shop in the modern Rotermann quarter. Then went back to the city’s cobbled heart and got serious with a cooking lesson at Kook.
This modern kitchen/restaurant, sitting opposite the subtly blanked-out windows of a former KGB operations centre – in Tallinn it can be easy to forget its dark history – was where we were expertly put to work whipping up a delicious meal of white fish tartare (I had to debone the fish which was a first for me) with ryebread and beetroot to start. Then a seasonal forest mushroom sauced with braised rabbit and new potatoes. And a rhubarb and cowberry kohupiim cake to finish. The whole experience was a huge hit.
We visited so many incredible restaurants, it is impossible to describe them all, but needless to say you will never go hungry.
It is just as easy to go five-star or to eat cheaply at one of the city’s many bars and cafes, many with chairs and tables out on the street during the summer months. And take a walking tour of the old walled city to get your bearings. Tallinn had the advantages of the modern with the benefits of a largely car-free centre. It is a city of contrasts with a sense of mystery which still has to entirely realise how much it has to offer.
Visit before it does.
A tale of two Tallinns, but which one you embrace is up to you.
This first appeared in the Lancaster Guardian. Click HERE