The 13th-century Episcopal castle in the 21st century
The castle in the middle of town
Haapsalu is a small Estonian town, surrounded by the sea from three sides. The sea has shaped the characteristic of Haapsalu and continues to be a factor in its development also today. The town, which was established on the peninsula and islets amid the coves, has gradually grown towards the inland. Consequently, Haapsalu’s main road – Karja and Posti Streets – have become the pathway that leads from the newer part of the town to the Old Town. Walks in Old Haapsalu will bring you without fail to the sea. Ambling alongside the coastline lets you make a nice round tour of the town. While wandering around, you will definitely notice wooden decorations on roofs and window frames and some boasting little towers embellished with woodcarvings on old and dignified houses, but worn and torn by time. And everywhere you go, the all-observing Clock-Tower of the ancient castle will follow you as the Big Brother. The Episcopal castle itself spreads on 3 hectares of land in the middle of Haapsalu town. This characteristic sets it apart from any other Estonian castle. Daily route to home, school, work or shop of many Haapsalu people passes through the castle. A grey stone wall on the fringe of Karja Street cannot be unseen when one takes a walk there; furthermore, the highest building of the town – the Old Watch Tower – overlooks the entire town. In this manner, an inhabitant of Haapsalu is unnoticeably and even without thinking of it all the time somehow in touch with the Episcopal castle.
The Dome Church
The most frequently in touch with the castle throughout the year are churchgoers. The Dome Church is the home church to St. John’s Congregation of Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, where every Sunday, and according to the church calendar also in other days, services take place. Additionally, the church is the host to excellent concerts performed during the year. The Dome Church has unique acoustics and aura, making it an appreciated concert place both for performers and listeners.
The most peaceful times for the castle are rainy months in spring and autumn – it rains and bitter wind whistles, grey walls and grey, sunless weather shape a uniformly grey zone out of the castle. Coming of snow fills the castle’s courtyard with children who mill around on skis and sledges. Weekends then are especially crowded – parents have free days and skiing and sledging become family events with mothers and fathers joining in. Not until the late evening hours can peace and quiet descend upon the castle, the testimony of a big day-time fun and romping are given only by broken skis and sledges.
In spring time, in April and May, when snow has melted and earth shows green under the sun, alongside with thousands of migratory birds who stop on Tagalahe Bay in Haapsalu also tourists will start to arrive. Visitors and tourists arrive to Haapsalu from all corners of the world, from beyond big and little seas. The more towards the summer, the more visitors from afar can be seen climbing, walking and taking pictures in the castle and just sprawling out on grass. The tourist season lasts till the middle of autumn. One can only wish that the Episcopal castle offers visitors from near and afar unforgettable experiences and beautiful memories.
The whole summer for the old Episcopal castle is one party and merrymaking – during days there are hundreds of visitors interested in history, while during evenings thousands of people from near and distant are drawn to rock and pop music festivals and all possible events, to listen to their favourite stars, enjoy concerts in the Dome Church and be part of festivals’ feeling. Bishops, canons, monks, knights and other important characters from beyond centuries do not live in the castle any more but the life here goes on day by day and year by year. Most probably for at least another 700 years…
The Episcopal castle as a living museum
More than 7 centuries on 3 hectares
The Episcopal castle of Haapsalu is one of the oldest castles in Estonia. The entire compound on 3 hectares is like one big museum. Here you can find much of the kind that you cannot find elsewhere: the unique, 803-meter long circular wall; internal defence system with earth ramparts and trenches; the only Dome Church in Estonia preserved in its historical integrity and many other things that can be labelled as exceptional and unique. One can spend days in the castle studying the different layers of the wall from the 13th-16th centuries, discover details of stonework, stairways, master signs carved into stone etc. There are people who come to visit the castle and each time the castle offers them new surprises. The walls of the castle are like a book, which can be read, but in order to read you have to know the secret language and the key to this is the knowledge accumulated over the years.
Earth still reveals surprises
Not only the walls offer the joy of discovery but also earth that from time to time unveils something exciting. In 2005, a rare medieval wash-hand basin made of dolomite was discovered. In autumn same year, a keystone with the coat of arms of Bailiff Hans Maydell carved into it was unearthed just below the window of the White Lady. Naturally, during the excavations guns’ bullets and cannon balls, nails, pieces of ceramics and glass are often found, all of which were used 500 years ago.
Finds from the castle in museums
All the found items from recent decades have been deposited in Läänemaa Museum, but earlier finds can be found also elsewhere, and many of them have got lost. For example, the stone finial with the Gothic adornments of the Dome Church’s old portal is located actually in the Dome Church in Riga. The finds form recent decades are partly displayed in the City Museum in the west wing of the Small Castle. There you can find the entire medieval armoury, which was discovered a couple of decades ago in the King’s Chamber in the Small Castle. In addition that, the museum exhibits interesting details of stonework. In the end of the 20th century, the Pointer’s Tower was excavated, which had been covered with earth 300 years ago. There the remnants of the gate building were uncovered, together with richly decorated stewpots, glazed and coloured floor tiles, pieces of ceramic vessels and many more things that 400 years ago were ordinary but now considered exceptional rarities. A part of the finds from the Pointer’s Tower has been displayed in the City Museum. One can be certain that the castle offers people joys of discovery still for centuries to come and each new find makes the museum richer, thus providing also new knowledge to visitors.