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Culture news
Captured by a castle
07.09.2007 16:28

Viborg_castle by Chen Xingjie

To the northwest of St Petersburg lies the small city of Vyborg, dominated by a medieval fortress and with a charming mixture of architecture that reflects its varied past - originally Karelian, then Swedish, Russian Finnish and now Russian again, writes Chen Xingjie.

During my visit to St Petersburg in June, I took a short break away from the so-called "Northern Capital of Russia" to celebrate the annual White Nights in the nearby city of Vyborg, a three-hour bus journey away.

The fortress-turned-city, 130 kilometers northwest of St Petersburg, is located on the Gulf of Finland near the Finnish border and boasts quixotic, European-style architecture.

The bus trip was somewhat tedious with seemingly endless vistas of silver birch forests along the road. It concluded with the sight of a medieval white tower at the entrance to Vyborg. At first glance, the tower took my breath away with its impressive grandeur and antiqueness.

It rose from a stone castle that rested on a small island, surrounded by the waters of the Finnish Gulf.

A draw bridge led to the castle.

The tall, thick walls are a clear indication of the castle's once formidable military status. The surrounding barracks are a former political prison. A heavy iron cage dating back several centuries is still on display in the square below the tower.

Though the decayed stone buildings aren't exactly pretty, they do give a thoroughly authentic impression of a medieval castle from some 700 years ago.

The castle, the oldest of all buildings in Vyborg, with a population about 80,000, was built by the occupying Swedes in 1293. The name derives from ancient Swedish, as "Vy" means "sacred" and "borg" means "fortress."

The Swedes founded a city here to use it as a base for raids into neighboring Russia. In the 15th century, it was considered the most beautiful castle in all of Sweden.

Vyborg remained in Swedish hands until its capture by Russia's Peter the Great in 1710 when Russia defeated Sweden in the 21-year-long Great Northern War. The Czar valued Vyborg as an important advanced post on the approaches to St Petersburg, then the new capital of Russia.

In 1812, Vyborg was incorporated into Finland, which was then under Russian sovereignty.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the fall of the Russian Empire, Finland declared itself independent.

In 1944, Vyborg was finally seized by the former Soviet Union and has remained as a Russian city ever since. Karelians remained the primary inhabitants until World War II, when many were evacuated to western Finland or forced out by the Soviet troops.

Today, Vyborg hosts St Petersburg's annual White Nights events that include jazz and classical music concerts in June. The Russian film festival "Window to Europe" also takes place here each year.

The landmark White Tower was named after the bishop Olaf who accompanied the Swedish army when it was built in the late 13th century. It stood in the center of the island and had a height of 75 meters. By paying a mere 40 rubles (US$1.6), visitors can climb to the viewing platform at the top of the seven-floor tower to admire the beautiful city. The entire city of Vyborg as well as the rest of the castle unfolds before your eyes.

Repair work that has been going on for 30 years mars some of the view but only marginally.

After descending from the tower, I paid a brief visit to a small museum in the Paradise Tower, the main block of the castle just next to the Olaf Tower, to get a rough idea about Vyborg's history and folklore. Archeological finds from the area and some curious items confiscated by 20th-century border guards are exhibited there.

Opposite the castle is the old city area of Vyborg, with narrow streets and charming Scandinavian-style buildings. Many artists concentrate on their oil paintings of the ancient European buildings and the narrow lanes around.

Wandering through the old city, I ran into an abundance of architectural styles from the 14th to 17th centuries. Also found in Vyborg, unlike other parts of Russia where the Eastern Orthodox church dominates, are many Catholic and Protestant churches.

The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral was one example. The cathedral, situated in Teatral'naya Square, was built to commemorate the visit of Ekaterina II The Great in 1783. It was never closed even during the former Soviet Union times.

More renowned is the St Peter and St Paul's Lutheran Cathedral, a few minutes walk away from the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral. Standing in the Pionerskaya Square, the cathedral was built in the 18th century.

Other places of interest in Vyborg include the Alvar Aalto Library and the Round Tower.

My walk through Vyborg was delightful. The city covers an area that is small enough for all the sights to be reached on foot. The architecture reflects the city's checkered history, which cast it back and forth between the Swedes, Russians, Finns and the Karelians native to the region.

Strolling around, I came to the center of the city and took a rest at the Red Plaza, where cheerful children were chasing pigeons and playing games before the statue of Lenin. That impressed upon me a picture of how Vyborg's modern citizens enjoy life in their ancient town.

With more time, it's possible to travel further and visit the MonRepos Park, "mon repos" means "my rest" in French. The park was owned by barons of the region.

In this nature reserve, 48 species of different plants, some very rare, can be found. One corner of the park is said to contain Chinese-style footbridges.

If you take the bus to Vyborg, be prepared for the normally three-hour trip to take significantly longer due to the speed limits and frequent traffic jams.

One can also reach Vyborg by train from the Finland Railway Station in St Petersburg.

The trip takes around two hours, and is much more punctual than the bus.

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