TARTU - It could be the artsy, goofy atmosphere of this student town, or it might have something to do with the mysterious "Tartu vaim" (Tartu spirit) that locals are always talking about, but for some reason restaurants and bars in Tartu are light years ahead of their Tallinn rivals when it comes to creativity.
There, I said it, and I know I'm risking some serious flack from the Tallinn crowd. But if anyone needs proof, they can just drop into Maailm, a place in Tartu's Old Town that oozes with conceptual mischief.
"Maailm" means "world" in Estonian, which explains the classroom globe hanging above the front door. Just inside is the restaurant's signboard, covered with portraits of grand men who shaped our times: Einstein, Mao, Tarantino â€¦Batman. A creaky wooden "stairway for dummies" (painted with ascending numbers 1- 20 in case you've forgotten how to use stairs), leads up to the seating area. And from there, as Alice would have put it, things just get curiouser and curiouser.
Weird doesn't even begin to describe the interior. Located in the attic of an old house, the ceilings are low and fly around at unexpected angles. The walls are either papered with newsprint or covered in a collage of glossy, travel-magazine photos. Makeshift lamps of various sizes and shapes are formed from cloth and wire. The furniture is somewhat mismatched, not that you'd notice given the busy decor, and a couple of the seats are actually swings suspended from the rafters.
All of this oddness somehow gels together to create a cozy, busy hangout where students come to nibble, drink and otherwise act unscholarly. If Maailm has one flaw, it's the bar's popularity. At 8 p.m. on a Wednesday the place was already filling up, so it's best to come early.
The menu consists mainly of simple and cheap fare, including everything from Masala fries, to Spanish eggs, to African salads, to nachos, to cheeseburgers. Salad wraps, one of the most expensive items at 65 kroons (4 euros), are enormous. The salmon pasta I had was decent. It wasn't the best I've had, but for 50 kroons, I'm not going to complain.
Next comes dessert, which for me was one of the 25-kroon ice-cream shakes. In my opinion, any place with nerve enough to name shakes after the Dalai Lama and Leonardo Di Caprio deserves a visit just for that. My Mother Teresa shake (bananas and kiwi) was one of the best I've had in the country. On top of that, it was delivered by a smiling waitress - another Estonian rarity.
It was just then that I noticed a sign on the wall offering two Sakus and garlic bread for 50 kroons. I think I'm moving to Tartu.