The tourist information about Haapsalu makes quite a point about the fact that Piotr Tchaikovsky spent some time during the summer months of 1867 in Haapsalu and indeed was inspired by a folk song heard in the town from which he developed the melody for his sixth symphony.
Apparently the composer would sit on the promenade and watch the sun go down from here. To commemorate this fact there is a stone seat with a plaque bearing his name and a couple of bars of the tune adapted from the folk song are engraved onto it.
I must say that on the day I visited it was a crystal clear evening with very impressive cloudscapes over the bay. There were numerous waterfowl swimming around and hardly any people. It was indeed a very peaceful moment and I can easily imagine the genius being inspired by this lovely setting.
The buildings along the promenade are all very attractive and include the Kursaal - a small, wooden concert venue where summer concerts are held by touring musical groups. Nearby is an outdoor stage where other performances are held presumably for a smaller fee.
If you do just one thing in Haapsalu make sure it is to take a stroll along the promenade late in the afternoon. If there were a few waterfront cafés selling good coffee they would surely make a fortune. Sadly there are none but don't let that put you off. It's a very pleasant place to be even on a Saturday night.
I'm not a railway enthusiast but I couldn't help but be impressed by the small collection of engines that are located at the sidings at the old station. Sadly there is no longer a working rail service connecting the town to a national rail network but the building is itself a bit of a museum piece. The town's website provides further details about the history of the station.
The large and extensive grounds of the castle are bordered by impressive curtain walls with occasional towers built at strategic points. It's possible to climb up the steep steps of these towers to get a better view but to be honest that was a wee bit disappointing as we could only see over the rooftops of the neighbouring residences.
We arrived too late to enter the inner part of the castle - that will have to wait for a return visit.
There was no charge to enter the grounds and there was plentiful parking in the streets outside the castle.
You should take a close look at the window out of which a ghostly figure of a White Lady is said to appear every August full moon - a consequence of her being buried alive in the walls of the castle for falling in love with one of the priests who lived there. We were a month too late.
Ilon Wikland was born in Tartu in 1930. As a child she often spent her summers in Haapsalu where her grandparents lived. When Ilon was 14 years old she came to Sweden as a refugee and there she has lived ever since.
Ilon Wikland is famous for illustrating many of Astrid Lindgren’s books, for example Pippi Longstocking, The Children of Noisy Village and Karlsson on the Roof. Ilon has donated many of her illustrations to the Estonian state and some of them can be seen in the gallery of Ilon’s Wonderland.
Admission for only visiting the gallery was 25 EEK (April 2010). To visit the them park for children it cost more.
Ilon’s wonderland is open between 11 - 18 every day in May - August, and between 11 - 18 Wednesday - Sunday the rest of the year.
When I visited in April the museum, the Dome Church and the 38 metre tall clock tower were unfortunately closed, because that time of the year you can only walk around the grounds. The grounds are open daily between 7am - midnight.
A wall surrounds the grounds and you can climb one of the towers in the wall for better views. In the mound behind the castle there is a children’s park.
The Bishop’s Castle dates from the 13th century and it was then the centre of the Saare-Lääne Diocese.
A few hundred metres northeast of the castle , where the promenade begins, there is a 15 metres high bird watching tower. From the top you will have a nice view over the surrounding area and when I visited there were lots of swans and ducks in the water below.
Läänemaa Museum is situated in the old Town Hall and it has been housed here since 1949. There are many old photos from Haapsalu, most of them with explanation only in Estonian. The woman working in the museum pointed out a photo with the Swedish crown prince that visited in 1932, and she also showed me a book with photographs where there was a photo from the visit of the present Swedish king and queen.
Other items in the exhibition have explanation also in English. Among other things there is the leg protease of an old smuggling captain.
The museum is open Wednesdays - Sundays between 10 - 18 (mid May - mid September) and between 11 - 16 (mid September - mid May). Admission was 25 EEK (April 2010).
Museum of the Estonian Swedes is a small museum over Estonia’s Swedish speaking population that lived in the coastal are from the 13th century to 1944, when many of the 8000 Swedes fled to Sweden during the World War II.
In one room there are many photos and also items like fishing nets and a boat. In a small room there is a long timeline tapestry showing the history of the Estonian Swedes and upstairs there is an exhibition of traditional weaving and needlework.
There were signs in Estonian and Swedish, but I think there were also leaflets with information in other languages. Admission was 30 EEK (April 2010).
The museum is open Tuesdays - Saturdays between 10 - 18 (May - August) and between 11 - 16 (September - April).
The little baroque town hall looks tiny next to the castle. Even for the administration of a small town like Haapsalu it has become too small in the meantime. It is now the seat of Läänemaa Muuseum, a museum aboput the history and culture of the district.
Opening hours: Oct 1 - Apr 30 Tue - Sat 11.00-16.00
May 1 - Sep 30 Tue - Sat 10.00-18.00
Entrance fees: adults 25 EEK, students 20 EEK, schoolkids 10 EEK
Lots of stories and legends are around about Czar Peter the Great and how he learned the profession of a carpenter in Holland - remember Lortzing's opera. Haapsalu tells how he visited the town incognito and stayed overnight with a citizen of the town whom he recognized as a colleague. The man was also a carpenter. His house in Rüütli where Peter is said to have stayed in 1715 is marked with a sign in Estonian and Russian.
A sad legend tells about a young Estonian girl who was in love with the Dean of the cathedral, and vice versa. Not only was he a cleric, the inner castle was fobidden ground for any female. The Dean tried to smuggle his girl into the castle, disguised in a boy's clothes. However, she was caught. Punishment was severe for her (but not for him, as usual it's the woman who is blamed alone). She was mured alive in a wall. Perfect conditions for a poor soul to become a ghost.
The White Lady's spooking place is the baptismal chapel. In full moon nights in August she appears at the chapel window.
She does indeed, and people assemble in such nights to see her. The effect is caused by the light falling in through the window and its reflection on the back wall which resembles a human silhouette.
The cathedral has a side chapel which serves as baptistery. Usually this chapel is only mentioned in connection with Haapsalu's favourite ghost story, but there is more to it, that's why I am banning the White Lady into a separate tip.
The chapel is round, with a simple gothic vault and three windows. The baptismal font is standing in the middle. The stone font is dated 1631. Inscriptions are in German, two verses from the bible - a remain of German Lutheran culture in Estonia.
The modern statue on the altar, depicting a mother holding her child, is not meaning the Virgin Mary but a memorial devoted to the mothers martyrs of Estonia: the Estonian women who were deported to Siberia by Stalin's regime.
Haapsalu's gothic cathedral is located within the castle walls. It is a rather plain and archaic gothic church with one single nave covered by enormous wide vaults without any supporting pillars. This feature makes it special, it is said to be "the largest single-nave church in the Baltics" (superlatives are popular everywhere).
Because of its good acoustics the church is often used for concerts and recordings.
Access into the cathedral from the inner courtyard of the castle through the museum (entrance fee).
The castle is Haapsalu's main sight. It was erected in the 13th century when the place was the seat of the Bishop of Ösel-Wiek. Those were the times of the Christian mission when the tribes and peoples east of the Baltic Sea were still pagans, Haapsalu was a border fortress on the edge of the Christian world and wars were frequent.
The castle is mostly in ruins but still impressive. Some intact rooms around the inner courtyard host a museum about the history of the place and life in the middle ages. Access to the cathedral and the baptismal chapel is also through the courtyard and museum (see separate tips).
Entry to the castle grounds is free, access through the small gate in Lossi plaats (hint: free public toilets in the corner on the left). For the inner courtyard, museum, and cathedral an entrance fee applies.
The little Russian church is probably not of much significance concerning its architecture, but the location among old trees makes a pretty picture. I cannot tell much about it because, and this sheds some light on the relationship between Estonians and the Russian minority, our guide did not show it to us and it is not on the website of the town of Haapsalu either.