The city for thoughtful people

  • 2005-06-29
  • By Ksenia Repson
TALLIN - There is no question that Tartu, the birthplace of Estonia's National Awakening and first national song festival, is a beautiful town. A sightseer's haven, this is a tourist and cultural center in Estonia.

Tartu is first mentioned in the historic record in 1030. While the original boundaries of the town have been significantly altered, remnants of the unique original architecture remain. St. John's Church and its nearly 1000 terracotta sculptures hold a place of pride for the residents of the city. As art critic Kaur Alttoa notes, the newly restored church is unique in Europe - "there is no other building in the entire European Gothic tradition that could in any significant way compete with Tartu Jaani Church in the number, size and artistic quality of the terracotta sculptures."

Residents and guests alike love to walk around the cobbled Town Hall Square. The Town Hall itself is noteworthy for its architectural style, having been "built at the time when the style of Early Classicism reached the Nordic countries, including Estonia, replacing the earlier styles of Baroque and Rococo" explains Alttoa. This year the square is being reconstructed and exterior lightning will be designed to highlight the famous building.

Some might find the statue of two students kissing in front of Town Hall a bit of a surprise, but it's lightheartedness and almost playful sense pays homage to the fact that Tartu truly is a student city. The students who attend Tartu University really play a role in defining the atmosphere of the town. Former Estonian Minister of Education Jaak Aviksoo heads the university, which was founded by Swedish king Gustav II Adolf in 1632. "Tartu means a lot to me, I was born here, I went to school and graduated from the University of Tartu. So I can call Tartu 'my city'. Despite my extensive visits all over the world, returning back home is very important," Aviksoo explains.

A true and unquestionable fan of his city, Aviksoo is enthusiastic when asked to tell more about the essence of the town for those who have perhaps never been. "This is the best place for academic endeavours. Tartu is first and foremost a university city. Every visitor arriving at Tartu should start from Town Hall Square, walk a few hundred meters to the main building of the University, proceed to St John's Church, a wonderful architectural monument of the Middle Ages and then, last but not least, climb the Toomem Hill to see the ruins of the old Cathedral which now houses the Tartu University Museum, numerous monuments to famous academics who have worked at Tartu at different times, including the Observatory, founded in the early 19th century and which made Tartu famous as a center of astronomy. Tartu is the city for thoughtful people."

Tartu Mayor Laine Janes says that her fondest memories are connected in some way to Tartu. "I feel happy and secure here and as a mayor I wish everyone would experience that pleasure", she explains. "Tartu is a city of good thoughts, spirit and youth. It attracts young people from all parts of Estonia and from abroad. I recommend visiting St. John's Church, enjoying barbeque in Toomem Hill Park, walking to Supilinna or Karlova and admiring the fabulous wooden architecture. Naturally, you should try exquisite meals in our cafes and restaurants," Janes advises.

Despite its traditional roots, Tartu is not static. Each year seems to bring new business and development to the academic city. According to Kadi Novikov, Information Officer at Tartu Tourist Information Center, a number of new restaurants and cafes have opened up this year in Tartu. In particular, Novikov mentions Ulikooli Cafe, Big Ben Pub, Lokaal Suudlevad Tudengid (Kissing Students), Bambus Asian Restaurant and Pegasus- a restaurant on a boat. Having seen more than 20,000 visitors come through the doors of the tourist center last year alone, Kadi believes this is great news.

Tartu is not only popular with its residents and visitors but is a favorite place for Estonians in general. It's unique atmosphere and spirit seems to have captured the imaginations of the entire nation. In fact, it is such a popular place that active campaigning to replace Tallinn with Tartu as the capital of Estonia takes place from time to time's most recently in May of this year by the Social Democrat Party. Until now this campaigning has been unsuccessful. But one must think that the city with the statue of kissing students doesn't take all that too seriously 's after all, this is a place with a sense of humor and a relaxed nature that suits the students who call it home.