“It is very important to make new contacts,” she says.

Tartu has 16 twin cities around Europe, but not one in the UK – at least, not yet. After speaking to fDi she was heading to Oxford – another smallish, spired academic town centred around a 17th-century university.

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Tartu, Estonia’s second city, dates back to 1030 and is known as the ‘city of good thoughts’. With a population of about 100,000 and an area of just under 40 square kilometres, Tartu serves as the centre of southern Estonia and a transit point for goods moving between Riga, Latvia, and St Petersburg, Russia.

Focus on research

The Emajõgi River, which connects Estonia’s two biggest lakes, flows through the city and adds a feeling of vigour to its quaint charm. With the eponymous university as the life and soul of the city, Tartu is very much the Oxford or Cambridge to Tallinn’s London.

As in these British cities, research is a core activity and science a core industry in Tartu. Most of Tartu’s, and a large portion of Estonia’s, research activities are centred around the University of Tartu, which was founded in 1632.

Estonia’s well-regarded Gene Bank has its hub in Tartu. The Estonian Gene Centre Foundation is working to create a database of the gene and health data of 1 million people to identify genes that cause diseases. An Estonian Biocentre, focused on medicine and biotechnology, was founded in 1985 as a joint venture between the University of Tartu and the Academy of Sciences. Tartu has also received funding from the EU to build an incubator, which will be ready in September.

Meanwhile, the city government has set up the Tartu Science Park. It has grown more slowly and attracted fewer investors than hoped, but there are now 35 companies operating there and the mayor’s office will be putting a stronger focus on promoting it. “We are ready to buy new land for expansion of the park and have raised some money for that,” says Ms Jänes.

Attracting airlines

In addition to establishing links with Oxford, another reason for Ms Jänes’ visit to the UK is to try to interest UK airlines in serving Tartu. “One of my most important goals as mayor is to organise international flights because that is very important to foreign investors,” she says.

“Over the past 15 years, international flights have been cut and the quality of our air links is not good,” she explains. Tartu is only 185km south of the capital city, but the mayor realises that for busy business people this is a bit too far. Researchers, students and university employees also need better air access, she says. She adds that there have been some productive discussions with Tallinn airport, which owns Tartu airport, about expansion. “But we need operators to help organise flights,” she says.

A few years down the line, there might well be a host of new reasons for people to visit Estonia’s second city: Tartu is vying with Tallinn to be the European Capital of Culture in 2011.