Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A Nostalgic Looks a Tartu's Cafe Athena

It's common for travellers and locals alike to walk past old buildings completely unaware of their history.  I must admit I love discovering places in Estonia that still exist from my grandparents' era. Even though some elements may have changed over the years such as new owners, new lines of business or alterations to the building, very often a building's unique character will remain unchanged.  This is certainly the case for Kohvik Athena in Tartu, now known as Restoran Volga.  

Built in 1783 by pastor Theodor Oldekop, the three storey stone building has changed hands and names many times in the course of its history.  It became a cafe and cinema in 1923 and was a popular meeting place for Tartu's high society in the pre WWII era.  The cafe's name changed from 'Athena' to "Ateena" in 1937 then changed its name once again in 1946 to become the "Ateen" restaurant.  

When the building became a cinema in 1923 it was one of five cinema buildings in Tartu. After the ravages of WWII ended in 1945 it was the only one which had survived. From 1946 to 1994 the Ateen restaurant remained a popular meeting spot in Tartu. Nearly everyone who has attended the University of Tartu surely has a tale or two to share from their experiences here, the live music and alluring dancefloor has always created a hub of activity. 

In the autumn of 1933, when my grandmother Hertha was 19 years old she worked as a waitress at Cafe Athena and naturally had her own experiences. From an insider's point of view she would have seen things that perhaps visitors might not. For example, although Cafe Athena was a very stylish and elegant establishment there was also a shady undercurrent as well. Women of the night often used to meet their clients there and waitresses sometimes diluted the vodka with water to make 50% more profit. They may not have done it to everyone, most likely to those unsavoury characters!  

The Ateen Restaurant closed in 1994 and did not re-open until 2006.  In 2009 the restaurant underwent extensive refurbishment.

Today the Ateen Volga Restaurant is considered one of Tartu's finest dining experiences.  Walking into this restaurant is like taking a step back in time.  The art deco interior features a colourful, serrated, backlit ceiling and arched pillars restored to their original 1930s look.  The interior walls are adorned with mahogany panels, capturing the elegance of a bygone era.  The dancefloor has always been a central feature of the restaurant and Friday night remains dance night even today.    

The Ateen Volga Restaurant is regarded as a symbol of Tartu and one of the city's most beautiful restaurants. Located at Küütri 1, 51007, Tartu - it's definitely worth a visit!