kolmapäev, september 17, 2008


If you look at old maps of Estonia, you will only find a few place names that have survived the ages. Tartu was "Dorpat", Tallinn was "Reval", Kuressaare was "Arensburg"*, Rakvere was "Wesenberg", and Viljandi was "Fellin". But even back in the 17th century, Narva was "Narva" and Haapsalu was, well, "Hapsal" ... close enough.

For a long time now, I have wanted to visit Haapsalu. It's a small city of around 12,000 people, located on the northwest coast of Estonia and known for its medieval castle and ornate tsarist-era train station. I cannot explain why it caught my eye, but I had a deep yearning to go. The trouble is that it's never been on any itinerary. There was never a reason to go, so we never went, and when we did go recently it was already mid-September, several weeks past the end of the summer season. Haapsalu is known mostly as a summer place.

Having grown up on the east coast of the United States, I can imagine that summer in Haapsalu is filled with all kinds of pleasant debauchery. Drunken midnight strolls; bittersweet summer romances between store clerks; the simple joys of being human.

But I have to say I was predicting the city to be a disappointment. Most Estonian cities were at least partially destroyed during the Second World War. Either by bombs or guns, Main Street Estonia was decimated and often replaced by ugly Soviet apartment blocks or architectural monstrosities. The eclectic nature of these cities lacks coherence, negating the feeling of being enveloped by a place. It is, in some ways, why Tallinn and Tartu are so popular. They have Old Towns where one can walk and feel as if they are somewhere.

I was expecting Haapsalu to be similarly eclectic, with hints of what it once was but could never be again. Fortunately, I was wrong. As our car turned down Tallinna maantee and headed into Haapsalu, I noticed beautiful house after beautiful house, most of them recently painted with attractive, warm colors. It was like visual candy; I couldn't get enough.

We road straight into the center of town, past the monument of the Swedish boy with a fish in his hands. Up until 1944, Haapsalu was the "capital" of the Estonian Swedes, an ethnic group that lived side by side with the Estonians, yet preserved an ancient Swedish dialect. They are thought to have first migrated to Estonia in the 13th century from southern Finland. In 1944, most of them 'repatriated' to Sweden ahead of the Soviet advance.

Those who remained behind became Estonians until 1988, when they were allowed to form their own cultural associations again. Today there is a modest group of Estonian Swedes, led by a state-recognized cultural council that organizes events for the community. They, of course, receive ample help from the local Swedish business community and embassy.

To understand the odd blending, though, between the Estonians and Swedes, it is best to visit the Ilon Wikland museum. Ilon Wikland was born Mari-Ilon Pääbo in Tartu in 1930, but she spent her summers at her grandparents' home in Haapsalu during the 1930s. She was one of the many refugees to Sweden in 1944, and in the 1950s she began illustrating the books of Astrid Lindgren, including Karlsson on the Roof and the Children of Noisy Village.

Much of her artwork is inspired by her childhood in Haapsalu, and you can literally match the buildings in her drawings with those in Haapsalu. Moreover, Wikland's artwork has now come to be seen as quintessentially Swedish. In this way, Swedes who come to Haapsalu find a village that almost seems more Scandinavian than the ones they know at home.

Wikland's artwork is on display at the gallery*, along with photos describing her childhood in the 1930s. While known to few, one of my favorite of Wikland's books is called The Long, Long Journey. It details her escape from Estonia to Sweden in 1944. Every time I see the images of the little girl packing her bags, I want to cry. I can't help it. I don't cry often, but when I see the helpless child and the shades of blue, it's just ... meh. I've got to choke them back.

Turning down the street from the Wikland museum, we sauntered towards the water until we came to an inviting, wooden house where it was said that Peter I of Russia stayed while he was surveying his newly acquired Baltic provinces during the Great Northern War in 1715. The Russian influence in Haapsalu is mostly sensed in plaques like these that remind us of the restless spirits of that large country that would travel to Haapsalu and feel as if they were at the ends of the earth.

Down the neck of Haapsalu that sticks out into the sea, there is also Peter Tchaikovsky's Bench, where the great composer would spend his summers watching the sunsets and dreaming up musical landscapes of his own creation. They just don't make them like Tchaikovsky anymore, do they. I could see why he preferred Haapsalu. It indeed has a timeless quality; there is a narcotic-like peacefulness that flows through the air.

Haapsalu really started to come into its own during the 19th century as a summer destination, and there is a flavor of the last secure days of the tsars to the place. In 1825, the first sanatoriums began offering mud treatments. The idea is to use the natural properties of warm, Baltic mud to cure people's aches and pains. I haven't tried it, so I'll decline to mock it.

Beyond the Tchaikovsky Bench, we made our way to the Aibolands Museum, the museum of the Estonian Swedes. It was unfortunately closed, and we called up the operators, listed in our tourist brochure {which had said it was open} but, alas, they had returned to their homes across the bay in Noarootsi Parish.

Noarootsi is the last bastion of the Estonian Swedes. Thanks to Estonia's restitution laws, hundreds of the assimilated Swedes in that country found themselves suddenly owners of property in Estonia again in the early 1990s. A few older people have returned, but most have decided to turn their family homes into summer houses, and in summertime the shops in Birkas and Österby are said to brim with "Tack så mycket" and "Hej Där."

Like most great summer places, Haapsalu is home to a plethora of galleries, with an emphasis on painters and weavers. Viewing their work, I again felt the all encompassing air of Haapsalu descend on my being. It was if the multicolored shawls on sale went with the pleasant-colored shop and the stone streets with the castle behind. Some mystical art director was behind it all.

At that moment, I wanted to remake all of Estonia in Haapsalu's image; to make all the old dilapidated buildings shine the way that Haapsalu shined. Even the people in Haapsalu seemed more attractive than on average. I was quite obviously losing my bearings. If I had seen any more gingerbread lattice work or tow-headed women, I might have gone mad.

The last stop on our trek was the castle itself, the Haapsalu piiskopilinnus. The castle was the stronghold of the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, a medieval theological microstate that ruled over most of modern Lääne, Hiiu, and Saare counties -- present-day Estonia's west coast. From 1228 to 1572, the area was subject to cold, hard Teutonic bishops with names like Hartung, Konrad, and Winrich. During the Great Northern War, the castle, already damaged by centuries of warfare, was finally laid ruin. Today, it is a gigantic open-air museum.

At some point while walking amongst the ruins of the castle, I became immensely jealous of the people of Haapsalu, the haapsalulased. They did not appear to lead rough lives. Instead, their city park was a sprawling medieval castle. Their front yard was a tranquil arm of the Baltic Sea. Their environment was colored by neat, adorable houses fit for Swedish postage stamps.

As I watched a group of children spin themselves around on a fun-inviting, bishopric-sized playground at the foot of the castle, I came to the conclusion that I, like Tchaikovsky before me, had just come face to face with one of my favorite places.

* see comments

17 kommentaari:

lagrits ütles ...

Wikland's Gallery (Kooli 5) is not her childhood home. She lived Linda 6 - there's a tiny house between orthodox church and so-called Peter's house (Rüütli 4).
Sorry, as haapsallane I just had to correct you ;)

Giustino ütles ...

Thanks, I was confused about that -- it seemed a bit big for childhood home.

Hansken ütles ...

And Kuressaare was actually Arensburg, not -berg.

But nice story, thanks!

Wv Sky ütles ...

I am amazed that as a "tourist", I fell in love with Haapsalu 5 years ago and have visited it each year since... while you... you lucky dog live only hours away and are just NOW getting around to it!

Haapsalu and the surrounding area have much to offer, from what you described, to other castle ruins and even an old Soviet jet base with bunkers intact... not to mention the old train museum nearby.

stockholm slender ütles ...

First time we visited Haapsalu I spontaneously remarked to my wife that this reminds me of Astrid Lindgren (you could see the Red and White Roses in hot combat in your minds eyes on those narrow, idyllic lanes) - only then she mentioned Ilon Wikland. It is such a lovely town, a true summer idyll. (Of course in Sweden it would be hyper-antiseptic with obsessively manicured lawns and hysterical overall cleanliness.)

L ütles ...

Growing up in Haapsalu I used to think it was such a boring place, but now that I'm 'older' it's definitely grown on me and I love spending at least a month there every summer.

LPR ütles ...

Some rullnokad in Haapsalu stole all four wheels from our Zhiguli back in the summer of 1984. We were in town to see Valge Daam. They did it while the concert was on.

So me and my brother had no choice but to steal them back form someone else's car so that we could drive home.

I don not remember why we did not call the 'miilits'. I think we were too pissed for that.

plasma-jack ütles ...

Giustino, you wrote on Edward Lucas' blog:
"One problem is that the Estonian national news media has three dailies, all of which have basically gone fully or partially yellow to compete against the other."

Would you explain how exactly is EPL (the print edition) being yellow? I'm not picking a cyber-fight, just would like to know your opinion as a reader (because I know how hard they try to write a "white" newspaper). What do you think EPL is doing wrong?

Giustino ütles ...

Would you explain how exactly is EPL (the print edition) being yellow? I'm not picking a cyber-fight, just would like to know your opinion as a reader (because I know how hard they try to write a "white" newspaper). What do you think EPL is doing wrong?

I think EPL is the whitest paper, but at the same time, they are drawn into covering the same crap the others cover.

It's like I said, to compete, you must have your smattering of doomsday predictions, car smash-ups, and scandalous babes. If a Finnish nobody writes a book about the end of times for Estonia, you *have* to cover it because all the other papers will.

Giustino ütles ...

There is no reason Bäckman, for example, should get the attention he gets. If I wrote a similar book about Finland, I seriously doubt the Finnish media would care.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Well, the Finnish media doesn't certainly care about these "writers". I have admired the frozen silence that has greeted these shameful books.

I must say that I just hate the way these things are made huge controversies by the media. And I would also say that while some years ago the Finnish media was just as enthusiastic participant in these silly fights that lately they have largely not gone the extra mile to dig up some dirt about Estonia. I think this is once again our silent consensus in action: Estonia is perceived perhaps mistakenly being under some sort of a threat and it is in our absolutely vital national interest that Estonia remains a stable, Western oriented, independent neighbour. Maybe it also would be in vital Estonian national interest that the relationship with Finland is as strong as possible?

Unknown ütles ...

About Haapsalu - the nicest small town in Estonia I know. Peaceful, neat, beautiful. I have some pictures, where we are in Haapsalu in winter time and walking on sea ice to the sunset. :)

About Bäckman. Think about the size and population of Estonia. You just can't ignore an event, that is going to take place in the largest city of the country, where 1/3 of the population lives (I'm talking about his plans for "introducing" his so-called "study"). It's a country where everybody knows everybody. It's not possible not to talk about it or not to mention it, while otherwise the papers will be blamed on trying to cover it up.

Bäckman's books have received very strong negative attention in Finland, too. His "institute" has published controversial "studies" on the history of WWII, where the Finns get blamed for the Leningrad blockade, for example. We can not stop somebody to make a fool out of himself, but it's not so hard to understand why people feel insecure about all this fuss.

I must point out that Bäckman has actually not insulted Estonians, but Russians. Talking of Russians as they all were still "Soviets", mindless morons who know nothing about their history and past?! He said Russians are treated like niggers in Estonia - ?! Huh, I was just the other day sitting in the university lecture room with tens of niggers, then? :) And those niggers were actually laughing and chatting with me, no way?!

The most stunning thing what he said - Estonians are torturing and repressing Russian children by forcing them to read, that Estonia was occupied by Soviet regime. How's it possible to repress children with some facts about some regime, long gone now?

To my mind Bäckman is trying to evoke the feelings of collective responsibility or guilt - Russians should (according to his words) feel guilty for something that was done by the Soviet regime. No one in Estonia or in Estonian government has demanded for something like that - anyone can understand that people cannot be blamed for the actions of the USSSR leadership. But Bäckman is trying to make them feel like that, again. While it was a common practice in Soviet times, that people had to suffer for imaginary or real crimes of somebody else - millions were executed because they were "the exploiters of the working class", even though they had not exploited nobody in their life.

Giustino ütles ...

It's the same thing with Klenski. He's treated like a genuine political force. But when election time rolls around, he gets a handful of votes.

Wv Sky ütles ...

I cant WAIT to hear your review of Kuressaare (if you ever get there). ;)

Kristopher ütles ...

How about Karksi-Nuia?

Juan Manuel ütles ...

I really like Haapsalu. Is one of the few Estonian places I have been to (the others are Tallinn, Tartu and Paide). I was there in late November, with snow all over the place, and it was an extraordinary place to spend a few days, so quiet and so relaxing. I stayed at a house (külalistemaja) in Kreutzwaldi tänav where you have to use a traditional chimney to heat your room and you get a delicious breakfast... It was awesome. My venelane gf loved it as well.

Zosia ütles ...

Although I'll probably never visit Happsalu, it was really nice to read about it and expand knowledge about Ilon Wikland's hometown.

I'm currently writing a post about Ilon Wikland, so the information you gave in this post is very useful :). Ilon Wikland is not very well known in Poland, despite popularity of Lindgren books. As an illustrator, I find pleasure in reading about other people who perform this kind of job. Especially, if they do not gain enough popularity as they deserve.
:) thanks