With a population of roughly 100,000 Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia, after the capital, Tallinn. Located two and a half hours to the south-east of Tallinn, Tartu is a university town with a youthful, progressive vibe and plenty to see. The University was founded in 1632, pretty awe-inspiring for me considering the oldest building in Australia dates back only two centuries and the oldest university (University of Sydney) is even more recent. Other sites of interest include the National Museum of Estonia and the old town area including Toome Hill. As I visited on a work trip, the Estonian Genome Center was another key point of interest during my stay.
The Estonian Genome Center
Once we arrived in Tartu our first stop was the Estonian Genome Center. We were greeted by the director Prof. Andres Metspalu, a contagiously vivacious Estonian, who recounted to us the history of Estonian genomics, including his initial idea for the genome center in 2000.
The project was enabled by a young, progressive prime minister, who was taken by Metspalu’s ‘crazy idea’ as he described it. His political willingness helped to facilitate and establish legislation to not only protect the sensitive genomic data that would be produced, but also to ensure the knowledge and utility of the data would directly benefit the Estonian people. Thus far the center has generated SNP genotype data (a measure of genetic variation between individuals) for 5% of their 1 million population.
The primary task of the center has been to establish a large-scale population-based Biobank (a store of biological samples for use in research) for research and development in human genetics and genomics. Additionally, the center collects population-based health data and implements the results of these genetic studies in the promotion of public health in Estonia.
The Estonian National Museum
Another highlight of the trip was visiting the Estonian National Museum. 107 years in the making, this place is amazing! In late 2016 the museum collection was moved to it’s current location, a huge single story building in an old Soviet airbase.
The museum has two permanent exhibits and a temporary exhibitions hall. “Encounters” is a fascinating history of Estonian culture over the last 11,000 years, including detailed displays of everyday life in Estonia. “Echo of the Urals”, the other permanent exhibition, provides a more general history of Finno-Ugric cultures. Finno-Ugric people come from a dozen North-West Eurasian regions, with languages derived from a similar language family. The four most common groups are Hungarians, Finns, Estonians and Mordvins.
Both permanent exhibits are filled with captivating visual displays such as traditional tapestries and historically important artifacts. My favourite item was the first national flag (the blue-black-white, “sinimustvalge” flag) made by the students society in 1884, thirty-four years before Estonia was a republic. In 1940 during the soviet occupation, the original flag kept in the museum, was switched with a fake for fear of vandalism. It was wrapped up and buried at the base of a chimney at the farm of the student president. It wasn’t until 1991 that the flag was retrieved. Each colour in the flag symbolises something important to the Estonian people.
The museum is also very interactive and high tech– the swipe of a smart card customises the text and subtitles of each display to your chosen language. And of course there’s a restaurant with delicious food and gift shop where you can buy beautifully hand crafted traditional Estonian goods.
The Old Town and Toome Hill
Another unmissable sight in Tartu is the old town and Toome Hill above it. On an early morning walk I wondered up a cobbled, tree-lined road, walking roughly in the direction I thought Toome hill was located.
To me it just seemed like an inviting leafy place to explore and exercise, so I was quite taken aback by the unexpected sight of a huge cathedral looming out of the trees. It was 8.30 am by the time I reached the immense building and at that time on a Saturday the place was utterly deserted- it really felt like I’d been transported back time.
The front of the cathedral was well preserved, with glass windows covered in perfect white frames. But the majority of the cathedral was in semi ruins- open to the sky, with sun streaming onto a sandy floor.
The high arches with leaves poking through reminded me of the scene in Ever After where the prince takes Danielle to a ruined monastery. While no less charming, this cathedral was slightly less invaded by trees and vines.
The preserved end of the cathedral turned out to be the University museum, with a plaque informing me that it was first built in the 13th century, then added to and ruined during various periods of history.
On my way down from the cathedral I passed a bar we had been at the previous night- a converted gun powder store which resembles a huge barn made out of bricks. Dug out of the side of a hill it would not be the place for anyone remotely claustrophobic. Once inside there is a distinctive German beer hall feel, with large porcelain beer mugs hanging from the walls and an extensive variety of German beer on offer.
It was intriguing to walk on the roof of the Gunpowder Cellar and explore the area from another angle.
If the Cathedral isn’t enough incentive to make the small trek up Toome Hill, the views of the city surely are.
While Tallinn remains my favourite Estonian city, Tartu is definitely worth visiting, not only for the splendid museum but also for the beautiful, peaceful surrounds.