Published: August 1, 2008 (Issue # 1395)
A girl selling home-made sausages at a marketplace in Antonius Courtyard in Tartu, Estonia’s second city.
Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia, after Tallinn, and is a far cry from the capital in many ways. Whereas Tallinn is the Baltic country’s political and financial capital, Tartu, which is occasionally referred to (with a touch of irony in conversations and utter seriousness in tourists’ booklets) as the “Athens on the Emajogi,” is considered its intellectual and cultural capital.
Located in the south of Estonia, Tartu is an old Hansean city with a near 1000-year history (its first mention in a manuscript dates back to 1030), famous for its university. It is the country’s oldest and was founded in 1632, when the town was under the Swedish rule of King Gustavus Adolphus.
A monument to the king that became one of the main symbols of the university, created in 1928 by sculptor Otto Strandman was destroyed by the Soviets in 1950, and not rebuilt until Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The statue was re-erected in 1992 on its original site, Royal Square, and was created by Elisabeth Tebelius-Myren.
In Soviet and post-1991 history, for many Russians, Tartu University is linked to the name of Yury Lotman (1922-1993), the pioneering structuralist and founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School. Lotman is also one of many links between Tartu and St. Petersburg.
The Petrograd (St. Petersburg)-born scholar, who studied at Leningrad State University, fled from Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism in 1950 to Estonia, where it reportedly did not exist because the Soviet authorities were preoccupied with Estonian national resistance there. Lotman’s work was largely made possible due to more scholarly freedom and less harsh censorship practiced in Soviet-era Tartu.
As a reminder of the history of distinguished Russians in Tartu, one of the guided tours offered in the city is “Tartu’s Russian Connections.”
According to the University of Tartu’s website, even in the 1960s the majority of the professors at Tartu State University belonged to a generation who had received education at Tartu University in the Republic of Estonia before it was absorbed into the U.S.S.R. and thus were the bearers of the continuity of traditions in the process of instruction and scientific research. The classicist-style main building of the university (built in 1805-1809) also hosts an Art Museum, the oldest museum in Tartu University.
The green, squirrel-populated Toome Hill (Toomemagi), a great site for walking tours, is filled with educational facilities and other structures connected to the university, such as the History Museum of Tartu University, the old Tartu observatory (1811) and the old anatomical theater (1803-1805).
Now a public park, it has been used for military purposes for centuries due to its strategic position. One of the main attractions is the picturesque ruins of the 13th century Dome Cathedral (Toomkirik), first destroyed during the Livonian War in 1558-83.
The ruins of the 13th century Dome Cathedral on Toome Hill.
Because of the university, a fifth of the city’s 100,000-strong population are students, which adds a distinctive flavor to Tartu’s environment. Ethnically, 80 percent of the population is Estonian and 16 percent is Russian. English is the universal language to speak in restaurants or shops.
Another link to Russia, though of an entirely non-academic nature, is General Dzhokhar Dudayev, Chechnya’s first president, who declared the Caucasian republic’s independence in 1991. In the Soviet era, between 1987 and 1990 he was in command of the air base of the Soviet Strategic Air Force at Tartu.
Though a controversial figure in Russia, Dudayev, who was killed in a Russian rocket attack in Chechnya in 1996, has a special reputation in Tartu for reportedly preventing his troops from being used to suppress the Estonian struggle for independence in the late 1980s. Dudayev’s memory is marked with a plaque on the Barclay Hotel, where there was once his residence.
What still divides the two countries is the 1941-1991 occupation that brought many troubles to Estonia, especially mass deportations from 1941 and 1949. Some of the history of the period, including the Estonian Resistance Movement and the crimes of the communist regime, is on display in a museum called the KGB Cells, located in the so-called “Gray House” (15b Riia), the NKVD/KGB’s South Estonian headquarters in the 1940s/50s.
In Estonia the total number of people who fell victim to different repressions from the security organs amounted to approximately 122,000, and more than 30,000 of them lost their lives.
Tartu’s most important historical heritage sites also include the old Lutheran St. John’s Church (Jaani Kirik), the University Botanic Gardens (launched in 1803, on the present site since 1806), the town hall square and various buildings around it. Tartu has 17 museums, four theaters, three cinemas and four public libraries.
Tartu was built on the Emajogi River (translated as “Mother River”), which starts from Lake Vortsjarv and ends in Lake Peipsi — Estonia’s two largest lakes (the latter is on Estonia’s southern Russian border and is called Chudskoye Lake by the Russians.)
One of Tartu’s most recently installed popular attractions also gives tourists some idea about local ancient history. Built by a group of enthusiasts in 2005, a wooden replica of a Hanseatic-era Peipsi Barge is equipped with a motor and offers tours up and down the Emajogi River. The river flows for 10 kilometers within the city limits.
"Father and Son" in sculptor Ulo Ouna's self-portrait with his 18-month old son.
The St. Petersburg Times was a guest of the Estonian Tourist Board, Enterprise Estonia (13/15 Liivalaia, 10118 Tallinn, Estonia. Tel: +372 6279 770).
HOW TO GET THERE
Visitors from many countries can enter with no visa, but Russians still need one. If a tour is less than five days long, no invitation is needed, if it is longer then one can go to a tourist agency (the list of local agencies dealing with Estonia is available from the Estonian Consulate General in St. Petersburg's website, www.peterburg.estemb.ru.)
From St. Petersburg, Tartu can be reached, without transfers, on Eurolines buses (www.eurolines.ru), which take about 10 hours (including customs checks.) Buses depart from the city's central long-distance bus station (and can be also caught at Baltiisky Railway Station a little later) at 11:15 a.m. and 11:35 p.m. and arrive to Tartu at 5:50 p.m. and 6:35 a.m. respectively.
The other option is to go by the train that now travels during the nights to Tallinn from where it takes 2.5 hours to reach Tartu. The GO Rail train (www.gorail.ee) departs from Vitebsky Railroad Station at 11:25 p.m. and arrives to Tallinn at 6:26 a.m.
You can take a short cut and skip a stop in Tallinn by leaving the bus at Tapa, a small town on the way to the capital, and take a bus or train from there. There is also a diesel train service between Tallinn and Tartu that takes 2 to 3 hours.
The recently recreated Hanseatic Peipsi Barge offers boat trips on the Emajogi River.
WHERE TO STAY
Villa Margaretha – A classic Estonian villa turned into a hotel, with 18 rooms and a dining room downstairs. According to the management, the historic two-floor wooden house had to be kept as it was built, with no changes to the original interiors allowed by Estonian law. 11/13 Tahe, Tel: +372 731 2030, www.margaretha.ee.
The Dorpat Hotel, a new modern steel-and glass hotel in the center, with 205 rooms and suites of different class and cost, half of which overlook the River Emajogi. A spa, a restaurant and a conference center are available. www.dorpat.ee
WHERE TO EAT
Crepp – A French-themed, early 19th century-look restaurant (upstairs) and cafe (downstairs) located in an old building in the Old Town of Tartu. Crepp is popular for its atmosphere, well-above-the-average meals, French-style crepes, baguettes and coffee. 16 Ruutli, Tel: +372 742 2133, www.crepp.ee.
Restaurant Volga – The name might be deceptive, as the newly renovated restaurant specializes in French-Mediterranean cuisine with an Estonian touch, not Russian food. The interior design of the restaurant, located in the Old Town of Tartu, follows the style of the 1920s/30s, the time when there was a favorite cafe of high society on the premises, its website claims. Menus feature fresh local products such as beef and lamb, fish from the Baltic Sea, vegetables and desserts. 1 Kuutri, Tel: +372 730 5444, www.restaurantvolga.ee.
There are also a plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars scattered around the center.
For more information about hotels and restaurants, check out www.visitestonia.com, www.visittartu.com and www.tartu.ee.