Tartu made headlines over its pipeline of illegal vodka, but it's a world away from the drunken stag parties of Tallinn.
Vodka is significantly more expensive in Estonia than Russia, but the issue highlights just how complex the relationship is between the two countries. Around a third of the Estonian population are ethnic Russians and there can sometimes be deep tension between the two.
Take last year’s furore concerning the Estonian authorities’ decision to relocate a statue commemorating Soviet war dead during the second world war. Days of clashes between police and pro-Russian protesters picked at the running sore that always lies just below the surface of Estonia.
It’s almost impossible for Brits to understand what it must have been like to live under the perma-frost of Soviet rule, but just a glance at Estonia’s official guide book reveals: "The vile and destructive occupation by the Soviet Union, which lasted half a century, interrupted the natural development of many spheres of life in Estonia".
The two now co-exist in an uneasy truce but ask any Estonian about their giant neighbour and they will generally have pretty polarised views.
One small example illustrates the crushing ideology that ruined so many lives and the unimaginable pettiness that characterised Soviet intrusion into everyday activity. Citizens were not allowed to wear, in any combination, the national colours of blue, black and white - the "national" flag was the Soviet hammer and sickle with blue waves at the bottom to symbolise Estonia’s coastal location - Tallinn was the site of the yachting events for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.
And for those in Tartu - a genuinely pretty, medieval town - release from the Soviets in 1991 allowed them to restore the place to its former glory. Soviet rule had allowed the place to crumble, while at the same time building concrete monstrosities so indicative of Stalinist architecture.
Vigorous civic pride however, now means that Churches such as St John’s (1323) can once more take centre stage and are now used for actual services rather than acting as a decaying museum under Soviet tutelage. Attending church was not disallowed, but anyone doing so would be noted by the Communist party and in all probability, denied any promotion or privileges. Entrance to St John’s is free although there is a small fee to visit the viewing platform.
And Tartu is full of surprises even beyond its Kissing Students statue that has become a shorthand icon for the town. Take the Toy Museum. It might seem a dull way to spend an hour or two, but in fact it’s extremely entertaining.
A national appeal saw Estonian people supply toys for all ages and across several generations. And the Soviet toys are fascinating too - many bearing "CCCP" celebrating technological achievements in space or aviation; the universal truth that even under repression children still want to play, is especially prevalent here.
And the joy of the museum, which also includes a play area for very young children, is that any adults in the group will invariably start comparing the toys on show to those they used to enjoy. Without realising it, the grown-ups will slowly start to reminisce about their early days - possibly for the first time in decades.
At just a £1 entrance fee, it’s fantastic value. Other museums, among many, include the agricultural museum that allows visitors to make their own rye bread, which is typically Estonian, while also featuring a Soviet-style schoolroom replete with pictures of Stalin and world maps according to how Russia ordered its view of the globe.
A relaxing way to see the Tartu countryside is to take a barge on the town’s Emajogi river.
Obliging hosts will serve A. Le Coq beer - whose brewery is also on the river bank - as well as some eye-wateringly strong firewater, while a local accordion player helps to take your mind off just how blisteringly powerful it is. The captain - who speaks excellent English (most young Estonians do) will also show passengers how to make rope back in the boatyard and see how the next Viking boat is being built.
One unusual way to see the town - and frankly extract a substantial more out of it than just wandering around - is to hire a guide. For £27 per hour a guide such as Elina Aro will show you every nook and cranny dressed in traditional Estonian costume to boot.
Short sightseeing flights at £155 (three passengers plus pilot) are also possible from the rather forlorn-looking Tartu airport that currently has no scheduled flights but which offers 12-minute jaunts over the city. Although this site is available only in Estonian, the tourist board may be able to help with translation.
The tiny Cessna 152 flies over the former Soviet air base, which now lies disused just a few kilometres from Tartu. Disenchantment with the former regime however, runs too deep for the base to have been converted into an airport - the logical way to have built on existing aviation infrastructure - but is just one further example of how painful those memories are.
One thing Estonians love to do is sing; it was after all the "singing revolution", where thousands gathered across the country to hymn patriotic numbers that hastened the downfall of Soviet occupation.
If not in quite the same vein, the Gunpowder Cellar (Pussirohu Kelde) a 1753 converted powder cellar whose construction was ordered by Russia’s Catherine II, regularly hosts evenings replete with enormous steins of beer and where well-known Estonian bands gather to strut their stuff.
The audience is quite varied and the Gunpowder Cellar’s enormous, vaulted ceiling makes for decent acoustics. The food’s good quality too.
In fact there is no shortage of restaurants in Tartu and for Brits, they’re attractive as Estonia still uses the Kroon despite being in the EU. There is talk that Estonia might have some difficulties in the current banking environment, but for now it remains inexpensive.
As an example, a three-course meal at the swanky 1930s Restaurant Volga in central Tartu features beef carpaccio with parmesan chips and calvados sorbet (£6.20), wine-stewed conger eel with roasted fennel, vegetable spaghetti, sparkling wine foam and parsley emulsion (£13) and crème brulé with fresh berries (£3.20).
Accommodation is plentiful in Tartu and one unusual place to stay may be Villa Margaretha just ten minutes walk from the town centre. With a certain racy past including legends of military men entertaining their mistresses, the hotel is actually very good value at £80 per night for a large twin room. One word of caution - it can get a little cold so ask the amiable staff to alter the heating if necessary.
Tartu’s a place in evolution. Constantly glancing anxiously east to its enormous neighbour and former occupier, it maintains a political defiance common in the Baltics, although conscious of its significant Russian minority who want their own needs recognised.
Estonia’s capital of Tallinn is a marvellous city in itself but for those prepared to travel a little off the traditional beaten track and head south, Tartu is a place full of surprises. Avoid the stags and get there before the low-costs arrive.
Need to know
Simon Warburton flew to Tallinn with Estonian Air. The carrier’s autumn campaign sees it offer flights from London Gatwick at £73, inclusive of all taxes and fees.