Sleek, smooth tarmac on a well-marked road announced the twin-border town of Valka in Latvia and Valga in Estonia.

A confused half hour ensued as we tried to shop cheaply on the Latvian side of the town’s main street but ended up in the costliest supermarket of the trip so far, albeit the same brand that we had been using since Lithuania.

Crossing the border

We were expecting the expense of Estonia, and there were certainly immediate benefits. It was a breeze to bowl along the smart highway amongst orderly traffic and buses in bus lanes.  We both cheered at the sight of cyclists on cycle paths!

As we motored across wide acres of cereal crops and passed industrial-scale grain mills, we admired the neatly cut back verges lining the roadsides and the bus stops with all-weather shelters. In just one short hour it was evident that Estonia is the most developed of all three Baltic states with a wealth and infrastructure, even in its most rural corner, that puts the South Coast at home to shame.

Riverside Tartu is one of the Baltic’s oldest cities and plays second only to the country’s capital, Tallinn.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Estonians built a wooden fortress and settlement called Tarbatu that became a strategic trade link between Scandinavia and Russia. So began centuries of warmongering for control of the increasingly wealthy trading town and later, city.

The last pagan holdout in Estonia, Tartu fell to the German Livonian Knights in 1224.

The magnificent St John’s Church was built and filled with the richest collection of terracotta figures in all medieval Europe. We wandered amongst the 1,000 surviving figurines and gargoyles, each detailing an individual’s features and something of their personality in rich, red clay.

The church now is a hectic imbalance of brick arches and columns that is still holding up despite toppling in on itself.

The ruins of the splendid red-brick cathedral date to the same time, around the 13th century. It squats on top of Toome Hill, above the Old Town. In its grounds is sacred stone, one of 400 in Estonia that were originally used to worship pagan gods. The stones were also sacrificial altars.

The Livonians named the town ‘Dorpat’ and it joined the Hanseatic League in the 1280s and traded peacefully until it was embroiled by Ivan the Terrible in the Livonian War in the late 1500s. Absorbed by the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, the town was fought over by the Swedes and Russians, ending in its destruction in 1775.

Tartu, though has a survivor’s spirit. In 1802 it rebuilt and reopened its university ushering in an age of intellectualism rooted in Estonian ethnic culture. This became a movement for nationalism, and ultimately the quest for independence from the Soviet state, realised finally in 1991.

The university plays an important role in the town today, as its neo-classical buildings form a major part of the centre and its students form a quarter of the term-time population. With the summer in full swing a packed itinerary of festivals was underway and happily for us on the day of our visit, it was all about food.

Serving up hot fish

Stalls of traditional Estonian foodstuffs offered plaited strings of cheese, jars of pickled fish, dark smoked meats, heavy malt breads, fiery mustards and colourful dried berries.

We munched a ‘moosa’ each, a sort of rolled donut of very heavy dough filled with either minced meat or jam. The young chap selling them explained they were a throwback to the days of the Soviet Union and that people liked to eat them to feel nostalgic. With independent Estonia only 27 years old, anyone over 30 would remember the doughy and doughty treat.  It was the stall with the longest queue!

Cycling around the district of Karlova, we admired streets of wooden houses built at the turn of the 20th century.

Echoing the Art Noveau of Jurmala’s beach houses, but on a much greater scale, the bohemian district is now home to the art students and galleries of the university.

We chatted to Petr, a condiment stallholder back at the food fair and bought some of his delicious cranberry mustard. We had seen lots of stalls selling what looked like potent home-brew style beer which we avoided. Local craft and micro-brewing has taken off in Estonia in recent years. In Petr’s own words, “it’s not just the hipsters that can brew some good stuff”, and he advised us to taste the local favourites.

Beneath the central market hall, we found the Emajogi brewery, named after the river, a cosy cellar bar where we duly sampled six local beers (between us). 

Cold beers and hot pants

We had a summer cucumber ale, a floral hoppy ale, a Belgian style beer, an IPA, a white seasons ale – but our favourite was the house-brewed local lager!

The city’s large department store opened proudly in just 2005. High end fashion names are emblazoned across the building’s four sides and its revolving doors were in constant motion as well-dressed shoppers streamed in, and out.

Down by the river, jazz and chillout music drifted from pop up bars and luxury boats as people enjoyed a sunny Saturday afternoon. There was a relaxed feeling of enjoyment. It reflected how we felt, too.