I pulled into Rakvere, Estonia on a rainy afternoon and was drawn to the imposing castle ruins perched above the town like a moth to a flame. Built by the Danes in the 14th century, Rakvere Castle is now a self-billed theme park that aims to educate visitors on the realities of medieval life. Trudging across the muddy grounds certainly provided a glimpse of the miserable conditions once endured by the knights who defended the Duchy of Estonia. Below ground, the castle’s recreated torture chamber hints at the horrors awaiting captured foes. The Middle Ages weren’t for wimps.
Staff in period costumes mingle amidst the ruins as guests are invited to try their hand at various tests of medieval strength. These include jousting, archery, horseback riding, and mock sword fights. Rakvere Castle also offers demonstrations on making gun powder and wax candles, minting copper coins, and writing with a quill pen, though it’s best to book these experiences in advance.
While most of the castle’s activities can be enjoyed by the whole family, the brothel museum is for adults only. Rakvere’s former red light district, aka the “street of fallen women,” gives a tawdry peek into ancient sexual practices. The most interesting item on display is a chastity belt, a heavy metal contraption some girls were forced to wear to protect their virginity. Try it on if you dare!
Since I didn’t book my castle experience in advance and arrived an hour before closing, I had to content myself with ambling around the crumbling walls and admiring the livestock happily munching hay. During the summer months, sheep and geese can be found grazing on the meadow.
Just outside the castle, the Rakvere Bull looks ready to charge off a hill. The seven-ton bronze sculpture was dedicated to the 700th anniversary of the town, which was officially established in 1302. Once known by the German name Wesenberg, Rakvere was the site of many battles as regional powers struggled to assert their dominance. Rakvere Castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times before finally being abandoned in the 17th century.
A large square forms the centerpiece of the town, much of which was built during Estonia’s thriving period of independence between the two world wars. A modern art installation dominates the square, its bright yellow shower heads incongruous with the quaint architecture.
My digs for the night, in the Art Hotell, were conveniently located just off Rakvere’s central square. The restored wooden house was built in the 1800s and apparently used to be a brothel. At the related Art Cafe across the street, the waitress told me the wild mushroom dumplings I’d ordered were handmade by local grandmothers. It’s regrettable that my own grandma didn’t know how to make these savory pillows of delight.
I awoke the next morning to brilliant sunshine streaming through the frost-covered skylight in my attic room. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I bundled up and dashed up to the castle with camera in hand. The ruins looked magnificent against vivid blue skies!
Rakvere Castle is located in the northern part of Estonia, about halfway between Tallinn and Narva. Frequent buses travel the route, though it’s just as easy to hire a car and visit all three destinations as part of a Baltic road trip. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the full castle experience. Visit the Rakvere Castle website for more information.