Estonia Week on 501 Places No.3: A trip to Haapsalu and an old man’s memories

Our third night in Tallinn, and we are yet to explore the Old City in daylight! That is the plan for tomorrow, but today we took the chance to venture out of town, 100km out to be precise, to a small coastal spa town of Haapsalu.

Once we finally found the right bus station (how often do we make that mistake?) we bought our ticket for the bus to Haapsalu, a two hour trip west of Tallinn. An unremarkble journey across flat countryside (although I did almost manage to knock myself out on the TV which was positioned at just the right place for a 6ft 2in person coming from the loo- the swelling is coming along nicely…)

Haapsalu is a sleepy town of around 12,000 inhabitants. Known as a spa town for the healing properties of the local mud, the lakeside houses were once the prized dachas of the Soviet elite. Now they are likely to be inhabited by retired Finns, lured to the town by the cheap cost of living as much as the magic mud.

Haapsalu is dominated by its episcopal castle, and although the 13th century cathedral was closed the castle grounds were free for all to wander around and explore. There was even a kids’ playground within the castle walls, as well as a giant chess set on wheels!

We took the path along the coast and ventured across a barricade into what turned out to be a fascinating out-of-bounds area on a headland. Now full of derelict buildings, we learned later that this entire corner of the town had been a restricted Soviet military zone that had been destroyed as the Russians left and was now left to ruin, despite talk of redevelopment for luxury seaside housing.

The bleak, evocative coast around HaapsaluVenturing back into town we came across an old man, probably in his late 70s, dressed in a very shabby way and with long blond bedraggled hair. He stopped us with a few words of German, and soon we were conversing, with me trying desperately to remember the little German I knew. I let him talk, and once we had worked out that he had an aunt in Halifax in Yorkshire, he told us of his life in Haapsalu, and specifically during the war.

As half Swede and half German, he recalled how most of his family, as well as many local people, reacted as the Soviets advanced into Estonia. Everyone who could do so got into a boat, and he recalled the harbour full of small boats leaving Estonia to get away from the Russian army. Fearing they would end up in Siberia or worse, they sailed for Sweden, Germany, or in his aunt’s case, England. Much of the Estonian population left suddenly at this time.

He was later educated under the Russian system, and now despite his hobo-like appearance speaks six languages (but not English) and lives exactly where he had once been raised before the war. It was great to linger and chat with him, and I regret not taking his picture, although this blog will help me to keep a record of our conversation.

We left Haapsalu happy to have visited this pretty little spot. As the owner of a cafe told us, and like many equivalent places around the world, it is very appealing to older people because nothing ever happens there. For the same reason the young people of the town get out at the first opportunity. Speaking of Estonian cafes, much as I am enjoying the fantastic cakes on offer, we have also heard more 1980s Brit and American soft rock classics than we have for many years – is anything else ever played on Estonian radio?

Back in town tonight, we visited Elevant, an Estonian Indian restaurant. We had a korma and a regular curry, the only twist being the meat, which was wild boar and moose. Very tasty and high quality food and service, with a price tag to match. Yet again we planned on having a cake and coffee in a cafe after dinner, and yet again we were foiled by over-eating. Tomorrow maybe?

Having seen so many teasing glimpses of the Old Town at night I am excited to be finally exploring it fully tomorrow. We have a Tallinn 24 card, which includes access to all museums in town and a number of tours, so we will be making sure we get our money’s worth! A full report on Tallinn will follow…

I am grateful to www.europenethotels.com and the Tallinn City Tourist Office for their partnership and support of Estonia Week on 501 Places

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Freelance travel writer

2 Responses to “Estonia Week on 501 Places No.3: A trip to Haapsalu and an old man’s memories”

  1. The Holy Lama #

    The very descriptive write up opens up the landscape and culture beautifully. And good to know that you like Indian cuisine though the meat was quite different.

    September 16, 2009 at 6:04 am
  2. Andy Jarosz #

    Thanks for your comment, and I'm glad you're enjoying the posts. Yes, it was different although within a thick sauce the individual flavour of the meat does get lost.

    September 16, 2009 at 3:50 pm