Karen Jagodin. Vastseliina Episcopal Castle Pilgrim’s house

Location: Vana-Vastseliina Village, Võrumaa, Estonia
Authors: KAOS Architects (Toomas Adrikorn, Margit Argus, Margit Aule, Kaiko Kerdmann, Laura Ojala)
Construction planning: Constructive
Commissioned by: Vastseliina Piiskopilinnuse sihtasutus
Construction: Eviko
Graphic Design: Katri Haarde
Customised furniture and exhibits: Riksen
Medieval fireplace: Oldschool ahjud
Net surface area: 421.2m2
Project: 2016
Constructed: 2017-2018
Prize: 2018 The Annual Award of Estonian Association of Architects

The pilgrims’ house and theme park give an overview of the medieval pilgrimage traditions and provide various attractions but fail to discuss the deeper layers related with travelling that the architecture of the building has considerable potential for. 

Lagle Parek, the initiator of the pilgrimage route from Pirita Convent to Vana-Vastseliina

So many people take up pilgrimages today because they need a change of scenery. Many people need to be alone and this way start a journey of self-discovery. Others take it as a mere change. We will never really know who actually dwell deeper into it and who don’t.

The idea for setting up a pilgrimage route between Pirita Convent and Vastseliina Episcopal Castle actually originated from my annoyance with the massive streams to Santiago de Compostela. So I had an idea – why couldn’t they take up a pilgrimage here in Estonia? And as I followed the discussions among our intellectuals on the Western culture devouring the Estonian culture, I felt the urge to stand up against it and boost the Estonian self-pride. The information boards on the route feature the story of the Estonian nation and how we became a highly developed nation in a short period of time. New knowledge plays an important role for the people who established the route. It’s a journey with a twist, not just a route.


Do you want a cheap trip? Go on a pilgrimage!1 Krista and Carmen – sinners on a pilgrimage!2 EV100 Pilgrimage from Pärnu to Pilistvere!3Pilgrimages are in fashion. Hiking is in fashion. But how many people wonder whether it is proper to say they went on a pilgrimage or they went hiking? Self-discovery is deep and people search for new outlets to put themselves to test. To find themselves, to leave the old behind or make peace with the present.

Notwithstanding his religious convictions or personal reasons, the person who takes that well-trodden path is still concerned with himself on the journey. Located on the trade route between Riga and Pskov, Vana-Vastseliina had received the Pope’s blessing. Even today we can see the remains of the episcopal castle, outlining its former grandeur and dignity among the most powerful buildings in Old Livonia. The miracle of the holy white cross reported in the Holy Cross Chapel in 1353 gave it the status of a pilgrimage site – a white cross had arisen above the altar with the accompaniment of music and remained there hovering, endowed with the divine power to make the blind see and the deaf hear. Curiously enough, the legend faded into oblivion in the local lore for the following centuries only to be rediscovered in the early 21st century and people can now reacquaint themselves with both the story and the medieval pilgrimage traditions in the pilgrims’ house opened this spring.

Travellers, however, need the pilgrims’ house for completely different reasons. They do not need exhibitions or entertainment but food and accommodation. It provides a roof over their head to protect them from the weather and dangers related with travelling, it is a place where they are always welcome as their journey makes them eternal strangers, keeps them far from home and thus dependent on their fellow men’s generosity. This building, however, has not been established to explore the pilgrim’s psyche or to take care of the modern wanderers. This is the first confusing aspect about the pilgrimage house: who or what is it for? Then again, there was an active commercial and trade network along pilgrimage routes already in the medieval times with indulgences among the commodities. Taverns, inns and public baths awaited the travellers already centuries ago and it is precisely the given trade and commerce that have provided the foundation for the exposition at the pilgrimage house in Vana-Vastseliina – the exhibition begins with an overview of the pilgrimage route between Pirita Convent and Vana-Vastseliina and the local miracle while the universal or contemplative considerations related with wandering are disregarded. 


Kadri Moppel, Head of the House, Medieval Theme Park in Vastseliina Episcopal Castle

In the Pilgrim House we wish to introduce the pilgrimage tradition in the context of the Middle Ages – why and how people went on pilgrimages, what were the dangers and attractions etc.

We wish to showcase the topic of pilgrimages, as Vastseliina Castle used to be a well-known pilgrimage site until the 16th century. Today there are few pilgrims travelling for religious purposes, it is more about soul-searching and putting yourself to test. But we wish to tell the story of pilgrimages in the medieval context when religion played a highly important role in people’s life. We meet a lot of people here who have never heard of indulgences, repentance, beliefs and convictions that used to accompany people’s daily life. Our mission to talk about pilgrimages is also related with the establishment of the pilgrimage route from Pirita Convent to Vana-Vastseliina. We don’t have to go to Santiago de Compostela to clear our thoughts, we can do it also in Estonia and broaden our horizons regarding our own history along the way. 


The theme park has become a new ‘pilgrimage site’ for the people constantly yearning for new and thrilling sensations. “A spectacular new virtual reality theme park planned in Noblessner Quarter” 4, “A new €2-million theme park introducing Mulgi culture planned in Valga County” 5, “Try your hand at anything at the medieval theme park” 6 or “A Pilgrim House to open at Medieval Theme Park of Vastseliina Castle”7. But what are the sensations that contemporary audience is yearning for and what should the theme parks provide them with?

The Museums Act defines a museum as a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, preserves, researches and communicates the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, research and enjoyment. A theme park is not a museum, but the Vastseliina Episcopal Castle Foundation is concerned with protecting and communicating cultural heritage and perhaps they indeed play with the name of a museum in order to boost their credibility. The castle development project submitted to Enterprise Estonia claims that the “attraction includes a medieval theme park “Novum Castrum per saecula” providing possibilities for cultural tourism and family vacation with the respective infrastructure while the complex includes elements of various character and orientation: a castle ruins park, a town museum with a visiting centre, trade and art hall, seminar and educational centre, a tavern and kitchen museum furnished with authentic equipment /…/ the new constructions will include an interactive attraction (pilgrim house – ed.) based on medieval issues, castle park, hiking trails, resting areas and other facilities complementing the complex and providing further opportunities”. 8

The descriptions of the theme park excursion on their website also resort to the word museum, “You can wander around the Vastseliina Episcopal Castle Medieval Theme Park on your own, but it will be particularly exciting to follow the footsteps of the medieval order knights, ladies of the castle, Hanseatic tradesmen and alchemists on a museum tour with one of the residents of the castle telling you true stories as well as legends related with the castle.”

In terms of themes and exposition solutions, there has been considerable freedom in creating the theme park exhibits (interactive attraction): there are no collections or extensive findings to exhibit, there is a story of the former site of pilgrimages and the medieval context to provide evidence. The pilgrim house and theme park present a clearly delineated story with the focus on creating a sensation by means of spatial constructions and staging. The sensation has been defined with physical participation: there is a spa with baths and cupping sets, bedrooms with beds of various sizes (again, not for pilgrims to sleep in but for experiencing the attraction!) and the kitchen and dining hall for nutrition within the theme park programmes. And we do find a definition for the exposition in contemporary museology – edutainment. The dictionary of Estonian museum education Sõnastaja (2015) defines edutainment as leisure learning, a pleasant and educational leisure activity at a museum. Spending time by acquiring skills or knowledge while the participant has not set learning as his primary goal.


Margit Aule, KAOS Arhitektid

The volume of the building was defined by the location at a respectable historic complex, the breathtakingly beautiful nature and the meditative world of pilgrimages – accentuated and reverse, set within the slope of the valley in order to allow views of the castle ruins. The new building stands out while also relating to the old, in summer it is concealed by the leaves stretching away from the castle and reaching out towards the stream in the valley. 

The construction of the building was a journey to architectural vision to find a delicate balance between imitating a historic space and creating a medieval atmosphere. The unusually high room and doors, narrow staircases inside the wall, hidden spaces, small windows resembling embrasures, brick floors and plastered walls – it resulted in new architecture with its medieval quality cognitively discernible.

The ascetic and poetic spaces of the Pilgrim House encourage introspection and wandering in the deepest parts of your mind. The two wall staircases leading to opposite directions allow you to circulate within the building until you find the answers to your questions from the depths of your soul. 


In his book „A Philosophy of Walking“9, Frédéric Gros speaks about the various semantic fields and roles of walking with many of them employed also while writing the present article: walking as an excuse for procrastination, walking as an incentive to contemplation, walking as writing and walking as a pilgrimage, the most systematised form of walking in history.

The architecturally successful new building on the edge of the historic episcopal castle ruins park provides a magnificent spatial prerequisite for a sophisticated exposition and multifunctional building welcoming both travellers as well as people interested in the topic of pilgrimages. However, the approach to support visitor attractions that is taken by the project financing system through Enterprise Estonia10 providing the means for regional development raises the question – what kind of sensations should be provided in cultural heritage sites, perhaps the emphasis is too much on superficial entertainment? At present it seems that theme parks with costumed characters are taken as the driving force of regional development. However, the topic of pilgrimage and walking as a means for self-discovery has so many additional layers that people can personally relate to that it would allow the theme park to undertake considerable regeneration and in time perhaps also live up to the potential of its depth. 

KAREN JAGODIN is an architectural historian (with MA from Bartlett School of Architecture) and an active traveller both on land and water. Her research focus has been on Soviet architecture and interior design and she has also written and edited several books on architecture.

PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2018 summer/autumn edition (No 94).

HEADER photo by Tiit Sild.


1 A headline in the tabloid Õhtuleht 14.03.2009

2 A TV show on Kanal 2

3 An event within the programme of 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in July 2018

4 A headline on Delfi 31.01.2017

5 A headline on TV3 news programme 12.07.2018

6 Pealkiri Meie Maa ajalehes 11.07.2017

7 A headline in Lõunaleht 26.05.2018

8 The development plan of Vastseliina Episcopal Castle complex, Continuum Group, 2008

9 The Estonian translation is published by Tallinna Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2016

10 The support provided by Enterprise Estonia is based on the action plan to strengthen the competitiveness of Võru County which, in turn, is based on the development plans of the county and local governments. 


Summer-fall 2022: Built Heritage and Modern Times