No matter how one looks at it, Kuressaare has duly earned the title of Estonia’s spa capital.
We can regard 1824 as the beginning of spa activity in Estonia, when Rootsiküla landlord Carl Friedrich von Buxhoeveden opened Estonia’s first mud bath on the shores of Abaja Bay near Kihelkonna. The establishment’s six bathrooms had wooden pails that were filled with mud heated using hot stones. Next to ailments alleviated using mud to this day – joint pain, nerve damage and others – its healing properties were believed to also help with syphilis and leprosy.
In 1840, local carpenter Jakob Veise opened the Veise mud treatment establishment in Kuressaare that had no fewer than 92(!) bathrooms. Veise’s widow opened a second sanatorium near Kuressaare Park in 1856. Gynecologist-accoucheur Wladislaw von Szeliga-Mierzeyewski from Saint Petersburg opened his sanatorium in Kuressaare in 1876. The fame of the healing mud of Kuressaare quickly grew in Tsarist Russia and Europe, with summer patrons numbering around 2,000 in the final decades of the 19th century and 3,500 in the early 20th.
Kuressaare (Arensburg at the time) was one of three famous resort towns in what is today the territory of Estonia, alongside Haapsalu and Narva-Jõesuu. By the way, Arensburg was home to four foreign consulates at the time – German, Dutch, Swedish and Finnish.
Next to wealthy European and Russian industrialists and traders, the town’s resorts were frequented by international celebrities; for example, Marshal Mannerheim treated a bad knee in Arensburg for a time. Incurably ill by the time, Lydia Koidula travelled to Kuressaare for treatment a year before her death in 1885.
At the heart of the resort’s social life lay the park square and the buildings around it – bandstand, circus and resort hall – that became the venues for concerts and dances in summertime. The turn of the century “bathing commission” (supeluskomisjon) went to great lengths to explain to the townspeople why their cows were not fit to gallivant in the company of sirs and madams in straw hats.
While the emergence of the Republic of Estonia saw the disappearance of the wealthy from abroad, local celebrities now became regulars. Writer August Kitzberg even kept a house in Kuressaare, while the local paper also wrote about Anton Tammsaare, Anna Haava and Gustav Suits. While the newspaper also mentioned Visnapuu and Gailit, its tone was not always commendatory.
Resort life withered following the Second World War and in the fertilizing conditions of the new regime until the Mereranna Kolkhoz opened its own mud baths in 1965. A grand mud resort for the time was completed in 1978 and later became known as the Saaremaa Walz. The restoration of independence brought a resort boom to Kuressaare and the city’s six spas now have over 6,000 beds in 2021.
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