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by Sally Hammond
I turn a corner in Tartu, Estonia, and step back a century. The sunny cobbled place outside the town hall vibrates with brightness and movement, colour and music as dozens of brilliantly costumed couples whirl to a beckoning beat. A folk festival is in full swing, literally. But the difference for me is that this time, I am one of just a handful of tourists caught up in the thrill of discovery.
This is not the usual cultural display, a show-and-tell parade of professional dancers. The costumes you can tell have been crafted painstakingly at night, by lamplight, using remnants of other clothes and the skills of an almost forgotten generation. The dancers are not all lithe and adolescent. Middle aged couples swirl amongst younger ones, and silver hair peeps from under a few embroidered bonnets. There are no sideshows and cheap souvenir stalls, no picture postcards, or Tartu badges and stickers. This is a celebration of life and freedom.
Some of these costumes could have been hidden for decades. During fifty years of Soviet occupation, the three Baltic States may have had their culture suppressed and their economies brutalised, but their will has never been broken. Estonia, it seems, is finding its voice again, not only in song festivals like we saw, but in turning to face the Scandinavian countries for trade and tourism.
Huge quaintly named stone towers like 'Fat Margaret' squat around the walls of the capital, Tallinn, and from Toompea Hill you see the city as it has looked forever – cramped tile and stone buildings, a web of twisting streets with shiny ankle-twisting cobbles, spires and gargoyles. Look closer though and you'll see patched plaster, repairs and scaffolding, for Tallinn is having a major facelift, fifty-plus years overdue.
On the edges of town tall hotels are being built, yet on the footpath beside one we encounter a lineup of ladies selling hand-knitted socks and jumpers, berries, flowers and more flowers. On the street nearby blue and white and red and yellow trolley buses lumber past noisily, jammed with commuters.
A man in folk costume passes and we trail him into the old town to discover more folk-dancing here in front of the outdoor cafes and babushka sellers. Behind the square, Short Leg, the quick but steepest way to Toompea, a jumble of artisan's galleries and small shops are jammed with lace and dolls, amber and paintings.
As I mime my request to the shop assistant, singing and music from the square drowns her reply. There's the feeling of spring in the air. It's true. Estonia is waking up at last, after a long bleak winter.
Getting there: Regular modern ferries connect Tallinn with Helsinki. The 85-kilometre trip takes about three hours.
Passport/Visa: Both are needed.
Getting around: Coach tours are preferable as the country is still not quite ready for self-drive or independent travellers.
Accommodation: Viru Hotel and Olümpia Hotel are both three-star modern hotels.
Currency: Around 7.5 EEK to AUD.
Food: Estonian food is simple but inexpensive. Fish, pork and vegetables, particularly potatoes, are popular.
Shopping: Look for lace, handcrafts, and amber.
Health: Drink bottled water if you are unsure of its cleanliness. Hepatitis A shots recommended.
Things to do:
The Old Town, Tallinn, is one of the best preserved collections of medieval buildings in Europe.
Toompea, the upper part, site of 13C fortifications and the bright Alexander Nevsky cathedral.
Parnu, 80 kilometres from Tallinn, a former beach resort, has an old town and sanatoriums.
Tartu, 187 kilometres south of Tallinn, has a thriving university and vibrant atmosphere.
The International Song Festival takes place in various Baltic countries each summer.
For more details and bookings: Nordic Travel (02) 9968 1783; Well Connected Travel (02) 9975 2355.
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