History

The history of Lääne County stretches back to the Stone Age, when the first people settled here on land that had risen up out of the sea as its waters receded. Stone burial mounds can still be found in Kaseküla, while circular burial mounds can be spotted in Kõmsi and Poanse. The remains of ancient hill forts in Vatla and Kullamaa and on Hallimäe Hill in Palivere also reflect the centuries-old settlement of the region.

The sparsely populated coastal strip of the mainland and its neighbouring islands are thought to have been colonised by Swedes in the 13th century. The Noarootsi area and the islands of Osmussaar and Vormsi still bear Swedish place names and retain traces of the unique culture that emerged from the Coastal Swedes’ closed community. The majority of Estonian Swedes fled the country for their ancestral homeland during World War II.

The Middle Ages can be called one of the golden eras for Lääne County, when it formed part of the Saare-Lääne bishopric. Its first capital was Lihula, where the ruins of a fortress can still be seen. In the second half of the 13th century the seat of power was transferred to Haapsalu, from which the bishopric was then ruled for almost 300 years. At the time the town enjoyed direct links to Rome and many other influential centres in Europe.

Haapsalu’s episcopal castle remains the biggest preserved fortress in Estonia.

The single-nave stone churches characteristic of the county also recall medieval times, as the majority were constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries.

A number of different types of manors survive in the county from the era of fine estates, from the archaic and almost farmhouse-like (such as can be found in Keskvere) to more grand examples (such as those in Suure-Lähtru, Vatla and Lihula).

Although the first folk school was founded in Lääne County in the mid-17th century, local cultural and educational life has been overshadowed by that of Estonia’s more affluent regions. The county was a poor, somewhat backward place in the 19th century, with no industry to speak of and poor soil doing little to encourage agriculture. As a result, a number of religious movements saw fertile ground here in which to put down roots: free congregations arose, as did Estonia’s first Baptist community. The national awakening and the establishment of song and sports associations arrived in Lääne County later than it had elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless, the region has produced some of Estonia’s greatest cultural figures, including composers Rudolf Tobias and Cyrillus Kreek and artist Ants Laikmaa.

New life was breathed into Haapsalu by its status as a resort town in the 19th century and by the arrival of the railway in the early 20th century.

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European Union Regional Development Fund