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Tallinn’s once-decrepit district of Kalamaja is quickly becoming a hotspot for art and music, writes Clare Vooght. Welcome to the Dalston of the Baltics

 “A lot of people used to get stabbed in this area,” grins Jack, our guide, as we stop next to a building site. Once rife with unemployment, drug addiction and crime, Kalamaja – an old fishing district of northern Tallinn, dotted with old warehouses and sketchy alleys – was a no-go zone. But Tallinn’s burgeoning hipster population are moving in and reclaiming the area – to the extent that it has now been nicknamed the ‘cultural kilometre’. And it’s hauling in anyone who’s young and in search of a good time.

We set off on our bikes – modelling our crash helmets and yellow hi-vis jackets – and spot DIY posters promoting gigs and warehouse parties. Gone are the days when Kalamaja was synonymous with an impoverished Russian population – now it’s all about edgy bars, pop-up galleries and raves.

It’s not surprising the area gets missed by tourists, who tend to visit Tallinn for Eastern European culture and history – in fact, Tallinn is the European Capital of Culture for 2011. The old, stone city walls are still intact and scores of streets and passages wind through the Old Town to churches, including the 13th-century Gothic St Olav’s, and various museums where the city’s rich past is enshrined. Central Tallinn’s attractions are obvious but Kalamaja’s gems require more digging, making them all the more satisfying to discover.

Underground parties

We pedal down a dusty and potholed track, leading to the Patarei Sea Fortress, originally built as an early 19th-century naval base. When the Soviets rolled into Estonia, it became Tallin’s central prison. Now, more than 20 years since Estonia regained its independence, a stage is set up in the yard for Estonian and European DJs to perform on, and sprawling murals – one of a giant crazed green monkey freeing itself from a burning jail, policeman in hand – plaster the old prison walls. This is just one of a glut of ever-changing gig venues in the old factory buildings, which originally sprung up when workers poured in from Russia after a railway was built from Tallinn to St Petersburg in 1870.

Mutant Disco is one of the sweaty electro nights that hops from abandoned warehouses to old workers’ housing blocks around Kalamaja. Most locals stay updated on where the next events are happening through Facebook. But if, like mine, your knowledge of the Estonian language is zilch at best, the way to find out what’s going on while in town is to explore – look for posters, chat to people on the street or walk into one of the area’s permanent fixtures.

One such spot is F-Hoone, which translates to F-Block. This bare, brick-walled ex-Soviet factory is now a restaurant, owned by a Tallinn DJ. We make a much-needed pitstop for lunch and it turns out the food is as achingly hip as the orange-and-blue-tile decor.

Fine food

The meal starts with a delicious seafood platter of spiced Baltic sprat, hot smoked perch paté, herring caviar, herring kebab, cold smoked salmon, beetroot and a quail egg – all served in tiny pots, ramekins and on a wooden board. When I taste the fresh, delicate, pristinely presented main course of flounder fillet in lemon butter, I am reminded of this area’s long-standing function as a fishing port.

We set off again, speeding under yet another dodgy bridge, reminding me what a dive the area must have been. We pass Ökosaar, an old, London double-decker bus which doubles as a cafe preaching eco-values to anyone who will listen. And then on past EKKM – a bar set in an old house, with a courtyard surrounded by rusty metal grills and umbrellas emblazoned with Estonia’s big beer, Saku. I like to think this is a sign that the area has been accepted back into Tallinn after so long on its fringe.

And then, as suddenly as Kalamaja began, shiny flats and office blocks push up from the tarmac. The potholes in the road are gone, along with the grit and the excitement of being the first tourist to get in on a well-kept secret. But then I remember Tallinn’s Old Town too, and the thrill of rediscovering some of the best bits of the past.

For more information see Visit Estonia visitestonia.com or Tourism Tallinn tourism.tallinn.ee. Baltic Holidays offers a three-night package with B&B at the Nordic Forum Hotel for £215 per person based on two sharing. Includes flights from Luton and transfers balticholidays.com

Getting there

Estonian Air flies twice weekly to Tallinn from Gatwick with return fares from £95. (estonian-air.com)

Where to eat

Budget

Serving cheap handmade pies and an eclectic mix of Estonian, Russian and international dishes, Kohvik Moon is a good place for a tasty meal that won’t dent your wallet too much. And it’s near the seafront, so you can walk off a heavy lunch with a coastal stroll (kohvikmoon.ee).

Midrange

An unashamed tourist trap, Olde Hansa takes its medieval theme seriously. Staff dress in costume, and every inch of the candlelit restaurant is decorated to look like the typical house of a rich 15th-century merchant. The food is satisfying, rich and meat-heavy, and the non-stop shots of ouzo-like liqueurs are intoxicating (oldehansa.ee).

Luxury

Ö is modern, liberal and cool, decked out in monochrome and adorned with twisting chandeliers and racey black-and-white paintings. The food is decadent but not heavy. Try the parsnip soup, followed by the mouth-wateringly tender veal, then the curd cheese brulee (restoran-o.ee).

Where to drink

Budget

Seek out Hoov, selling dirt-cheap alcohol (beer for around £2 and cocktails for £3.50). Centred around a courtyard, it’s a hit with young and edgy locals, especially during the summer, when DJs occupy the outdoor stage. When it’s cold, revellers move to the bar’s cosy and rustic interior (hoov.eu).

Midrange

Despite its name, Hell Hunt is a laidback, no-nonsense bar and an escape from the tourist droves. The pub, which is three minutes’ walk north of Town Hall Square, serves decent, well-priced grub and real ales. It also has its own brand of light and dark beers (hellhunt.ee).

Luxury

Museum is a swanky spot for getting a little sozzled on prosecco. You’ll be spoiled for choice by a never-ending drinks list. But prices still come up lower than your average London bars. We’ll drink to that (museum.ee).

Where to sleep

Budget

If keeping your trip cheap is a priority, stay at Meriton Old Town Garden. Comfy rooms in the quaint, old-style building start at £42 a night and you’re still based in the heart of the Old Town (meritonhotels.com).

Midrange

Right between the bars, restaurants and quaint architecture of the Old Town and post-warehouse cool of the Rotermann Quarter is the quirky Nordic Hotel Forum. For £108 a night (two sharing) you’ll find large rooms, a spa and swimming pool (with wave machine) and intriguing carpets with a grass and yellow brick road design (nordichotels.eu).

Luxury

A prime example of Tallinn’s old-versus-new approach to things, the five-star Telegraaf Hotel in the Old Town mixes sleek modern design with four-poster beds and chandeliers. Prices start at £129 per night and previous guests include Morrissey and Bob Dylan (telegraafhotel.com).




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