I’m just back from a weekend in Galway, the southern Irish city that will be next year’s European Capital of Culture.
The west-coast city has always been something of a cultural hub with its annual summer arts festival. It’s also known, of course, for its traditional pubs [pictured above] and hospitality.
But, as I found over a couple of days in the city, the whole cultural regeneration associated with the European title comes at an interesting time for a place outside of the Westminster-Brexit bubble.
As Bridgette Brew, Head of Tourism for Galway 2020, told me:
“Galway has always had a freedom of mindset, an ability to see a different perspective. It comes from our hinterland looking out to The Atlantic.”
From the Wild Atlantic Way coastal driving route to an interesting take on the burgeoning slow-food scene via a Sunday morning stroll with Galway Food Tours, the weekend offered me plenty of new angles on the familiar story of the illusive Irish craic.
* The first post of the new year takes me back to a snowy Tallinn at the start of its year as European City of Culture. Riga takes o the mantle from this weekend.
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There’s a wind of change blowing in off the Baltic Sea this spring.
For the Estonian capital, Tallinn, which adopted the mantle of European Capital of Culture and the Euro as its official currency in January, it’s a welcome gust.
The city is keen to shake off an image of bawdy stag-night excess in favour of a more highbrow city-break experience.
Tallinn has roughly a thousand years of history as a city, much of it marked by occupation from waves of Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians respectively.
Estonia finally gained its independent in August 1991 and the indigenous culture has blossomed ever since.
The exhaustive programme of cultural events hopes to finally establish the city as a powerhouse cultural hub to rival St Petersburg or Copenhagen.
Luckily, Tallinn has an ace up its sleeve.
The medieval Old Town, a Unesco World-Heritage site since 1997, abounds with fairytale flourishes: ornate 15th-century doorways, cobbled courtyards with cosy gallery-cafés and a slew of skyline-defining churches rising with dignified calm above the ancient squares.
From my base at the Savoy Boutique Hotel, an intimate property in the heart of the Old Town, we embark on a walking tour that blends history, architecture with a spot of offbeat souvenir hunting.
The Gothic Town Hall, one of the few surviving examples in Europe we learn, dominates the central marketplace and has done since before its first documented mention in 1322.
It’s the satellite backstreets that provide the most compelling nooks and crannies, however.
Town Hall Pharmacy, the oldest in Europe, juxtaposes restored Baroque frescoes with dangling bunches of wild strawberry and mountain clover against a counter of modern-day medicines. Kalev, a historic marzipan shop with adjoining café, has a lost-in-time feel and colourful displays of hand-painted, almond-wafting delicacies.
We then climb snow-frosted sidestreets towards the Upper Town, looking across the spires and weather vanes to the Baltic Sea, for a sense of how Tallinn is changing.
The Estonian Maritime Museum will open in the renovated Seaplane Harbour this autumn. The city’s new Cultural Kilometre, running from the up-and-coming Kalamaja district to the city centre, unveils its first events this spring.
The refurbishment of the Eighties-built TV Tower to showcase Estonian innovation should be complete by the end of the year.
It’s only when we step into the hushed-reverence calm of the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a symbol of Tsarist power, the connections across the Baltic Sea to Western Europe feel more than a world away.
Given free time to explore alone post tour, I venture down Masters’ Courtyard, where a tiny cafe-cum-chocolate shop catches my eye.
The interior of Cafe Pierre feels like an Estonian grandmother’s front parlour, candle lit and knick-knack adorned.
Over a warming latte and a slice of plaadikook, a cake of cottage cheese and forest berries, I pour over the op-ed story from the latest edition of the English-language Baltic Times, which calls for a reborn Estonia, a nation culturally closer to Sweden than Mother Russia.
But back out on the street, just tucked inside the snow-drifted city ramparts, old Russian women in headscarves still hawk hand-knitted scarves, hats and booties on the street.
The prices are in Euros these days but the negotiation still resolutely in Russian, spliced with nods of harasho and spasiba.
The next day we head out east of the Old Town to explore Kadriorg, the genteel, leafy suburb dominated by the summer palace built by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great for his wife Catherine.
The Baroque Palace, dating from 1718, was 40 years in construction and never actually seen complete by its paymaster.
The small but compelling permanent collection of Baroque art tells the tumultuous story of the Russian dynasty and its powerful influence on Tallinn.
Later, I branch out alone to catch a few early events from the cultural programme.
First stop the Hotel Viru & KGB Museum [pictured above], where I join the first ever tour in English to learn more about the hotel’s furtive role in the Soviet era – it housed a KGB surveillance centre on the secret 23rd floor.
The corridor opens into a stark, oblong room with a desk covered in old documents and a hawk-eyed view across the Old Town. The second room is a radio-relay centre, the intelligence link between Helsinki and Moscow.
But most striking of the new exhibitions is Dark Matters at the Ahhaa Science Centre.
Based on an idea by the German artist Andreas Heinecke, the sensory-depriving installation has blind guides to lead sighted people through a pitch-black maze.
After exploring a mini-me Tallinn park and harbour with just a white cane and my guide’s voice to help me, I end up in a black-hole café, attempting to add milk and sugar to my cup of tea.
While the cacophony of Estonian Europop adds to my confusion, we discuss how to recognise the faces of our respective families without our sight.
As I think about my daughters’ faces, the sense of loss feels more overwhelming at that moment than the eternal blackness that engulfs me.
As I emerge, dazed and blinking into the artificial light of the museum, just as Estonia has emerged through the mists of post-independence reinvention, I feel something tangible has changed.
The explosion of luminous-green signs around the Baltics signals the start of the Lithuanian capital’s reign as the new European Capital of Culture (along with Austria’s Linz). The Culture Live programme features around 900 events, 60 per cent of which are free to attend. Vilnius is evolving fast having only gained its independence in 1990, the first former Soviet state to do so. A new National Art Gallery, opening in June, will host The V&A’s blockbuster Cold War Modern exhibition from October. Specialist tour operator Baltic Holidays is now offering two-night cultural packages from £229 per person.
To soak up the winter-wonderland charm of the Unesco-listed Old Town, the Stikliai Hotel is best placed with refined rooms and a genteel ambiance, although the forthcoming Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square will give it a run for its money from July 1st. Klaipeda Hotel boasts a great location opposite Cathedral Square with comfortable doubles from £140, while Grybas Hotel has homely rooms in a family-run Baroque house (doubles from £96).
Hit the streets
Vilnius is small, so explore on foot. The Old Town is the atmospheric hub with the Gates of Dawn, where a chapel with a gold-leaf image of the Virgin Mary, the must see. Heading northwest, the KGB Museum is both moving and shocking in its graphic illustration of the brutality of the Soviet regime. The original water-isolation chamber holds a grim fascination. The nearby statue of Lenin has long since been exiled but the bust of Frank Zappa still pays a bronze tribute to Vilnius’ favourite rock star. The Vilnius Picture Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of works by the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, while the Contemporary Art Centre, with its permanent exhibition about the avant-garde Fluxus movement that inspired Yoko Ono, hosts Code Share, an international art exchange, until March 8.
For a cosy latte, Blusyne is a cool café many tourists miss. It’s named after the owners’ dog, hence the sign: ‘In Dog We Trust’. Blusyne is one of Vilnius’ growing band of talking cafes, where debate and coffee fuel the creative ambiance. Mano Guru is notable as Lithuania’s first non-smoking café and for its social programme of giving jobs to reformed drug addicts.
The self-styled Republic of Uzupis (pictured above), across the Neris River from the Old Town, is Vilnius’ hippest hang out for its galleries, coffee shops and boho vibe. Galera is the place to catch the latest art installation, while Uzupio Kavine keeps the republic fed and watered. Uzupis has its own president, passport stamp and publishes a constitution, which includes, amongst others, the maxim that, “Man is free to be idle”. Most people in Uzupis are fashionably so.
Baltic amber is the traditional souvenir and the Amber Museum Gallery is the place to learn about its history before purchase – a simple stone starts from as little as £5. Otherwise, Stikliu street is a haven for designer boutiques and second-hand treasure troves. Try Julija Zileniene at number 7 for designer fashions.
Worked up an appetite
Zemaiciai is a cellar restaurant to stock up on hearty Lithuanian favourites, such as beetroot soup and meat-filled zeppelins (that’s pancakes to you and me), both accompanied by lashings of sour cream. Try a glass of traditional gira, a non-alcoholic drink made from bread and honey with a distinctive burnt aroma. Otherwise, Bistro 18 has a good wine selection and Avilys is a popular microbrewery with hearty fare. For pub grub Lithuanian style, try Busi Trecias – good beers and sturdy local fare. The pig’s ear pancake, the most typical dish on the menu, does exactly what it says on the tin.
Big night out
Go cultured with a classical recital at the National Philharmonic, where tickets start from around £10, or Baltic bling with the credit-crunching cocktails at Mojito Naktys. Ignore whispers about the haunted cellars at La Boheme. It’s stylish and cosy with its huge fireplace and tasty tapas. The latest in place is In Vino, where the wine list is as eclectic as the crowd gathered at the candlelit tables.
The morning after
The bar at the boutique Shakespeare Hotel is a tucked-away retreat for good coffee and browsing newspapers. Better still, get away from the crowd with a laid-back secret Vilnius tour tailor made by one of the city’s alternative guides. As well as pointing out the stories and legends behind the backstreets of the Old Town, they can arrange for a visit to the White Hall and Astronomical Observatory at Vilnius University, founded in 1753 and based on London’s Greenwich Observatory. Climb the winding, spiral staircase to the watchtower for a blow-away-the-cobwebs panorama across the ever-changing Vilnius cityscape.
* This story was first published in the Observer in 2009.