“The first time you see it you have to re-enact the scene with someone special,” says my guide Maarja, gesturing at the statue of two young lovers locking lips in the middle of a bubbling fountain.

I see no shortage of Estonian women in the main square who could easily pass as supermodels, but strangely none seem keen to introduce me to the town’s most famous landmark.

The Kissing Statue is a monument to the university city’s youth, but it is ironic that Tartu’s most recognised statue is one of love.

Tartu was occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991 and the city was home to one of the Soviets’ largest military airbases, used by Russian bombers on regular air raids.

It was also a depot for nuclear weapons, and the locals lived under a 6pm curfew during these years.

“It wasn’t a fun place. There were soldiers with machine guns in the streets, at school we were taught about ‘Grandfather Lenin’, and every family had someone who had been shot, killed in the war or sent away to work camps in Siberia,” says Jaanika Tork, a local who I end up chatting to over lunch.

This fascinating history — along with Tartu’s laid-back vibe, cosy restaurants, 17th-century university and pretty cobblestone squares that have all the grace and elegance of Italian piazzas — is something most visitors to Estonia never see.

The capital, Tallinn, attracts 90 per cent of the country’s visitors.

Most only stay a weekend without exploring further afield or taking the two-hour train ride to Tartu.

But while Tallinn attracts the tourists, Tartu holds a special place for Estonians because it was here the push for independence began — a fight that resulted in the end of Soviet occupation and the country’s first democratic elections a year later.

“Estonians are very stubborn,” says Elina Aro, who leads a guided walk of the city’s historic sights.

“There are very few people who have survived being in a Soviet state so well. They can bend and bend and bend, and then they spring back.

“Tallinn might be the capital but this is where it all started. Tartu is the cultural capital, it’s home to the university that has produced most of our leaders, and without it there would be no independence.”

History is truly alive in Tartu.

And so is romance, if a four-hour kiss is anything to go by.

» Trevor Paddenburg travelled to Tartu courtesy of the Estonian Tourist Board  and Estonian Air (020-7333 0197).

Dig in

If you love noshing down on bread, meat and blood (yes, blood!) you’ll be at home reading an Estonian menu.

Blood sausages

Much like the British and black pudding, the Estonians are fond of blood sausages, especially during the festive season.

Rye bread

You won’t sit down to a meal without being served warm rye bread, which is practically sacred to Estonians. It kept thousands of families alive during tough Soviet times.

Meat, meat and more meat

Estonia gets bloody cold and nothing is more satisfying than a hearty meal. Expect plenty
of beef, lamb and pork on the menu. Elk steak is also on offer, as is, occasionally, bear.

To aid digestion …

Vanna Tallinn is the local liquor, a fiery but tasty drop that’s been compared to Drambuie. Sip it after dinner or have shots when you’re out on the town.

Itinerary ideas when visiting fascinating Estonia.

In 2-3 days

Spend a day or two exploring Tallinn before boarding a train bound for Tartu. You can cram in a day trip, but try to spare a night as well to really get to know the culture capital.

In a week

Spend a couple of days in Tallinn, another two in Tartu, and then head for the islands of Saaremaa or Hiiumaa in the Baltic Sea.

If you don’t mind rushing and want to see as much as possible, spend your last day in either Parnu, the country’s beachy summer city, or Narva, Estonia’s border town with Russia.