The most European-like Medieval town of Russia, Vyborg aka Viipuri or Wiborg, is 130 km to the northwest of St Petersburg, close to the border with Finland. Unlike the royal residences Tsarskoye Selo or Pavlovsk, this is not a part of the city – Vyborg belongs to the Leningrad region (which still retains the Soviet name to it). If you are lucky, a 2 hour elektrichka train will make a minimum of stops and get you to this just a little bit haunted city in the wee morning hours.
We arrived in this stonework town before the shops and museums were open, so we had some time to enjoy the old part which is so close to the railway station you don’t even have a chance to get lost. It was not my first time in Vyborg but I never got a chance to wander in the narrow streets of the decadent old town before.
Your walk to the castle or to the old city starts with these two viking boats built (and later reconstructed again) for the 1985 Soviet-Norwegian movie Dragens Fange about – obviously – vikings and the brave slaves. I’ve started watching it but failed to finish it.
Before 11 o’clock Vyborg is almost deadly silent. The life starts about 10-11 when the cafes and museums open their doors to the visitors. They say it’s one of the most visited cities in Russia… and yet it’s one of the most neglected ones too!
Sitting there on the remains of a wooden well (?) and watching the birds, the only living creatures, it seemed, in this Medieval town, made me feel a little bit weird. Vyborg is definitely haunted, I thought (and still do). With all its history and all the silent stone guards of the millions of stories left by the continuous flow of habitants. This white wall house is here from the 16th century – and since then it has been a Knight’s house, a Catholic church of St Hyacinth (in 19th century) and a children arts school (guess the period!). It’s supposed to be an arts gallery now but it looked more like a house for pigeons and tits.
The old part of the town is a maze of bits and odds, rising up the hill and suddenly going down, interspersed with truly old buildings and occasional specimens of Finnish modernism in their – unfortunately – very gloomy ruinous state. Like this one:
The Medieval walls (and angles) seem to be in a better state:
another angle with some rusty Soviet traces:
And now as for a collection of doors, this one is the doubtless winner:
Green is the colour:
or better a greenish green:
and this door is inside the Vyborg Castle:
When in Vyborg, do look up into the air, because the roofs are adorned with cute weather wanes:
A tiny weather wane on top of the 16th century Round Tower, one of the surviving fortifications guarding the gates to the Stone city, the oldest part of Vyborg. They say the restaurant inside is quite a nice and inexpensive place, will try it next time:
Houses climbing up, the ground being quite expensive and limited in the Middle ages… This is Burger’s House constructed with the 16th century boulders:
Your neck is tired? Let’s window-shop!
Hungry? A much advertised Vyborg pretzel (Vyborgsky krendel) is more like a huge shortbread cookie with cinnamon. Too large for one person and a bit overrated. This Medieval-styled shop is called Lavka vkusnostey (Delicatessen) and sells all sort of local or pseudo-local dainties. They also give out free maps, so it’s worth visiting:
You can also try local gingerbread (pryanik) and spicy honey drink sbiten or dried meat if you feel especially carnivorous!
With the opening of the tourist
traps shops, the Vyborg Castle also starts filling up with the visitors. It was built by Swedish in late 13th century, originally including the town itself in its walls. It occupies a whole island:
The Vyborg Castle is a curious place though I guess that it doesn’t impress from the inside you as it should, actually. Probably due to a couple of tourist traps, like a Knights’ hall which in reality is a room filled with various paraphernalia intended to take photos with or in :) The lot being guarded by a very jealous woman, especially attentive to which bench you sit upon (some of them are particularly precious and thus prohibited to sit on, it appears : ).
The Castle and the city have changed hands quite a lot since their foundation. And you know what? It doesn’t feel you’re in Russia but it doesn’t feel you’re in Finland or Europe either. If compared to similarly contested cities like Petrozavodsk or Kaliningrad, I think Vyborg has preserved more of its authenticity. It’s also smaller…
However when you mount the rusty steps to the top of the St Olav Tower, with the wind virtually blowing your shoes away, you do realize the ‘weight’ and the strategic importance of the place. And yes, I DID bump my head on the beam on the right, thanks God it’s lovingly wrapped in some soft material :) When I first climbed this Tower about 15 years ago, I was too short to even care about reaching it with my head :)
The old town as seen from the Tower, with the red and yellow ex-City Hall and the krendel place in the adjacent King’s House. It’s a pity a photo cannot render the wind speed :) My hands were literally flying hence a somewhat unsteady picture: the camera just wouldn’t stand still! You can notice that luckily the Soviet (hard, not soft) touch has not really influenced (read: destroyed) the old part. To the right is the port and to the left is the railway station, both not fitting in this picture:
inside the Castle’s museum, devoted to the rich history of the place:
To sum up, my usual travel checklist as applied to Vyborg:
- postcards – nope, no visit to the post office either
- market – there’s the indoor market on the Market square, will definitely visit it next time
- local food – a beer restaurant was a flop but the cafe opposite the Castle was quite a cozy place (where we tried krendel)
- bookstore – nope
- local history museum – done
- old town – still have some of its corners left for the next time. Plus the ‘new’ city seems quite interesting too. Next time!
Overall impression? That of a city with a mystery. Something is lingering in those places… The old city is being gradually coming back to life and restored thanks to some money inflow but yet it mostly feels abandoned and spooky (an ideal place to shoot movies!). I hope that along with the reconstruction festivals they already organize each summer, there will be more initiatives as how to emphasize the charisma of Vyborg’s old city and, well, sell it to the tourists. The city desperately needs more money…
Due to its proximity to the border, lots of people stop over at the local gas stations on their way to Helsinki without even a slightest idea what this city represents! On the other hand, Finnish people come here to see the city they lost (or just to drink vodka…). Vyborg was considered a criminal capital of the region in the 90s, by the way, with all the illegal or semi-legal (?!) trade and prostitution. I think some of this, other, aura still lingers in the city too.
We didn’t manage to walk in the beautiful Nordic park called Monrepos, nor did we see the remains of the later fortifications. I guess I will be much tempted to see the city in autumn. That will add to the mystic aura it already has – with all its decadence some fallen leaves and a decent mist would be just perfect :)
Adding this to my Travel collection.