We arrive at 22h, just in time to see the first of three glorious red-gold sunsets on our way to the Three Sisters Hotel. At the end of a cobbled street in a corner of Tallinn’s mediaeval walled old town, next to St Olav’s church, three 14th-century former merchants’ houses (the ‘sisters’) have been knocked together and renovated to form one of the first contemporary boutique hotels in Estonia.
Outside, huge arched doorways and windows echo the shape of the roofs above. Inside, first impressions are good: sleek slate floors, high ceilings, chalky walls, modern washes of tangerine light, beautifully restored frescoes (discovered by the owners under 14 layers of paint and wallpaper), an old wooden staircase and 600-year-old beams. Young and very attractive (something of a theme in Tallinn) staff whisk our bags to our quarters at the top of the stairs.
The door opens to reveal three big rooms within. Hip Nordic touches such as blocky natural-wood window sills, a granite loo and low-slung sofas sit cleverly next to an antique sleigh bed and intricately carved French screen. That’s not to mention the huge flatscreen telly that keeps me preoccupied while Mrs Smith splashes in a look-at-me way for half an hour in the tub.
It’s 23h, and the hotel’s cellar bar beckons. Tallinn has always been a party town. Even back in Soviet days, Finns would pile over by the boatload to go clubbing and get hammered on cheap Russian vodka. We weren’t going to miss out. A dry martini and a Raspberry Collins later, I’m yanking the lady down a snaking cobbled street towards the town’s main square. Her Helmut Newton-inspired stilettos, combined with the bumpy road, make this look like something police would describe as an ‘incident’.
First stop is Pegasus, a moment from Raekoja Plats, the mediaeval town square. It is a simple bar, white with splashes of colour, packed with stick-thin blondes moodily sipping cocktails in repro Tulip chairs. This makes it an ideal location for practising the Italian cuddle (leerus maximus: the art of pulling a loved one to your chest, hence clearing a line of vision above their head).
Countless bars later, we stumble into the Moskva, an industrial-looking cocktail bar, to try the local tipple – a lemon vodka. Here, I learn a couple of lessons. One: it is, quite simply, paint-stripper. Two: no quantity of this poison will loosen your date into the idea of joining you for some lapdancing at nearby Club X, even if you ask repeatedly.
The following morning I am forgiven, once I have expunged my sins with the locals in one of Tallinn’s spas. A 100ºC-steam, plunge pool and massage at a local spa leaves me clean, fragrant and ready for culture.
There’s a lot to see, and it’s all pretty close together – ideal for a weekend. Mrs Smith has done admirable research and, despite fairly atrocious map-reading skills, has us hiking up Toompea Hill in no time. There’s been a stone castle on the hill for more than 800 years, but it’s the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral that dominates now. Inside, it is intricately decorated with icons and mosaics imported from St Petersburg; at around 40 metres high, it’s built on an awesome scale. Next door is the pink Baroque Palace, which was built in the 18th century for Catherine the Great. A short stroll further on, we stop to take in fantastic views of the city below.
Raekoja Plats is the perfect spot in which to have a beer in the evening sun. Tallinn is no shoppers’ paradise and, 24 hours since her last retail hit, Mrs Smith starts seeing possibilities in unlikely places: in this case, an open-air folk market. I’m enjoying my beer, and heighten my pleasure by withholding our funds. The power is quite dizzying.
On Saturday night, we dine on delicious Italian food in a restaurant called Bocca, before hitting Club Privé. Beyoncé and 50 Cent pumps out of the speakers, while white, dreadlocked youths hold dancing competitions. If you don’t like the sound of that, or locals’ favourite Hollywood, with its split-level bars and caged dancers, there is Sigari Maja, a more gentlemanly affair with leather armchairs and cigars, on Raekoja Plats.
Back to the Three Sisters; where,we’re happy to report, bar snacks are available throughout the night. During more civilised hours, the hotel’s intimate restaurant, with more than 300 wines in its cellar (where you can also park your own booze), is one of Tallinn’s finest. If you want to, you can eat a six-course meal in the kitchen, watching the chef cook by candlelight; in the summer months, the cobbled courtyard is romantic, too.
On Sunday, we dither between taking a look at Kadriörg Palace, commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718,which sits in parkland peppered with cherry trees near a huge lake; or seeing for ourselves how good the city beach is – we’ve heard lots about it. In the end, we counteract the excesses of Tallinn nightlife with some more wholesome wildness: just over an hour from Tallinn port by ferry is Naissaar, an island in the Gulf of Finland that has been turned into a nature reserve with beaches, woodland and, allegedly, deer and moose. There are Red Army trucks available, left over from Naissaar’s days as a Russian military base, but we prefer to explore on our own by bicycle – invigorating yet exhausting.
I just want to clear something up. Tallinn is a very popular stag-weekend destination; you’ll notice this as you wait to board the plane. But don’t be put off. First, the majority of the population (six-foot-tall blonde ladies) redresses any imbalance that might concern male visitors at the outset of their journey; second, there wasn’t a bachelor party in sight during our weekend. Like (or, perhaps, because of) Irish theme pubs, stag troops are easily avoided.
Before we leave, my soon-to-be wife and I opt for a cooling spritzer in the courtyard, where the summer smell of passionflower fills the air. We have explored, but there’s more we haven’t seen: the hotel is an intriguing puzzle, with its secret staircases, choice of different rooms and higgledy-piggledy layout, it must feel different every time you stay here. I mull over the possibility of having my own stag weekend in Tallinn. My arguments are good, strong ones: Estonia has recently joined the EU, so scheduled flights would be cheap (return tickets start at £36), and we have made local friends, who could show my friends a good time. Then a stunning blonde sashays in with our drink, and Mrs Smith vetoes the plan. Sorry boys.