While the first records of civilisation in Viljandi date back to the 5th millennium B.C., it only became formally established as a commercial centre in the 12th century. Sometimes called the cultural capital of Estonia, it is Viljandi’s unique location, people, nature and architecture which set it apart. The heritage of the place has been kept vibrant by its people through, for example, songs which are seen as a symbol of freedom and independence.
Location and people
Viljandi lies in a valley on the shores of Lake Vijlandi whose many outflowing streams make it a treasure to behold. The lake is encircled by a hiking trail with lay-bys for visitors to picnic and set campfires. Many legends surround the lake and are retold in songs. One tells of the boatman of Viljandi who fell hopelessly in love with a blue-eyed girl.
Known for their entrepreneurial spirit, varied cultural and sporting hobbies, the people of Viljandi are considered its greatest asset. The town has a population of 20 000 people and is the sixth largest in Estonia.
Looking over the edge of the Kuresoo in Viljandi, visitors can see the highest marsh above sea level in Europe.
Nature trails lead visitors through meadows and forests to some of the most exciting places in the area. There they learn of the great mysteries of Soomaa’s national park (370 km²) which protect the wetlands, meadows and forests.
Regular floods are one of the specific features of this location. Local people call them the fifth season.
Arts and culture
Kondas centre is an arts centre dedicated to naivist art, modern folk art and outsider art. It offers shortterm courses for inhabitants and tourists and is responsible for the eight massive strawberry sculptures that decorate the town. The inspiration for them is Paul Kondas’ “Strawberry eaters” painting.
Heimtali village is a must-see to pick up some local handicraft. Fairs are organised there every spring. Famous handicrafts include patterned sweaters – knitted by local women – which are worn by royals.
On the slopes of the town lie the ruins of an ancient castle. In its wall is a mysterious paw print – pressing one’s fingertips in this print is said to have all honourable wishes fulfilled!
Archaeological excavation fundings are exhibited in the Viljandi museum, which is housed in the old apothecary in the former marketplace. The well in the courtyard seems to be the source of power and rhythm for Viljandi even today. People gather there for the various festivals – Hanseatic days, the Ugala drama theatre’s open-air performances and the folk music festival.
History is also reflected in the many manor estates – more than 20 have survived to this day. The most perfectly preserved is Olustvere with its magnificent mansion, outbuildings and a verdant park. An exhibition of wooden horses carved by the local master Voldemar Luht narrates the stories of Estonian history by means of small horse figurines.
Traditional music is an active part of the everyday life of the people. The Estonian traditional music centre has organised the Viljandi folk music festival since 1993. The festival is well known among the folk music community throughout the world.
More than a hundred concerts with over 400 performers are held in the ruins of Viljandi castle, churches, indoor venues and throughout Viljandi county. Five open-air and three indoor venues, ten workshops, theme-exhibitions, an instrument-fair, a handicraft yard, and a fairytale room ensure large participation.
A host of festivals take place in Viljandi throughout the year. The early music festival, Hansa days, a number of dance festivals, the theatre-in-a-suitcase puppet festival – these are just a few of the events. During the most popular event – the Viljandi folk music festival – there are so many performers and visitors that the town`s population doubles.
Viljandi is one of the five Estonian Hanseatic towns. During the tradition of Hanseatic days, the town is crowded with guests, concerts and a handicraft fair is held. People walk in the streets wearing historical costumes. A medieval atmosphere is created. Craftsmen offer linen towels, baskets, woollen socks and gloves, honey, and sea buckthorn jam. Fortune-tellers, fire breathers and witch doctors are also present to entertain and enthral.
The Eduard Pohl match factory has entered the Guinness Book of Records for making the world’s longest match ever lit.