A Seaside Crossroads

Cobblestone streets, ochre roofs and a fortified castle are typical ingredients of medieval towns across Europe. Weekenders drive out to them for brunch, while foreign tourists obediently climb their towers and purchase yet another refrigerator magnet.

This could have been a cozy retirement plan for Vyborg, a town on the Gulf of Finland that was involved in a tug-of-war between Sweden and Russia for 300 years and was consequently involved in some of the world's largest naval battles. In the first half of the 20th century, the town changed hands between Finland, Russia, and the Soviet Union like a hot potato. In 1944, it officially became part of the Leningrad region.

Maria Antonova / MT
Although the museum at Vyborg's castle can easily be missed, the building itself is a good place to start a tour of the city.
Although its architectural landscape appears to be changing, Vyborg still bears little resemblance to a typical Russian city. The castle is its main landmark, across the bridge from the historic city center. The Swedes built it in the 13th century during their third military expedition to Karelia, a territory that was fought over for centuries by Sweden and the Novgorod princedom. Despite repeated attempts, Russia didn't gain control of Vyborg until 1710, when Peter the Great devised a plan that involved marching freezing Russian troops across 150 kilometers of ice from Kronstadt and laying siege to the fortress for three months. The Swedes capitulated and took Russian citizenship. Ethnically, however, Vyborg remained predominantly Swedish and Finnish until the Soviet period.

Today the castle houses a museum that can easily be skipped and hosts annual events that range from "Castle Dance," one of the biggest raves in northwestern Russia, to "May Tree," a folk music festival at the end of May. The fortress is pleasant to walk around, and there are great views from the top. You can try shooting arrows from a bow into a straw target. A couple dressed in medieval outfits charges 50 rubles for five arrows.

Maria Antonova / MT
The clock tower, manned by a watchman. offers spectacular views over the city.
The clock tower is another landmark offering views across the city. The perennially tipsy tower watchman and clock master Yury will tell you many stories about the tower's difficult fate across the centuries, as it was transformed from a cathedral bell tower to Vyborg's "Big Ben."

Since Vyborg was a key point on the border between two states and strategically located along Russia's passageway to the Baltic Sea, it has no shortage of military structures, which surround the center on all sides. To the west of the castle, a road runs through the Anninsky fortifications, built during Peter's reign with the participation of Gannibal, Alexander Pushkin's African grandfather.

By taking the road further to the northwest, you can reach Mon Repos, one of the largest landscaped English parks in Eastern Europe. Its grandeur was smoothed over in the Soviet period, when it became a recreational area for the proletariat. It was nevertheless the favorite park of Russian academician Dmitry Likhachev, who pushed for its recognition as a museum and nature preserve in the 1980s. The combination of seaside cliffs, ponds, and estate buildings make it a must-see, while 180 hectares absorb the crowds even in tourist season.

The closeness of Finland -- the border lies only about 30 kilometers away -- is apparent in Vyborg, and not just in the town's architecture. Many of the shop signs are in Finnish, and bars overflow with visiting Finns on weekend nights. The historic center, however, has seen better days; many of the buildings stand abandoned and suspiciously unkempt. Don't put off your visit to historic Vyborg for too long, or you may end up visiting a very different city.

How to Get There

Express trains from St. Petersburg leave from Finlandsky Vokzal. The trip takes 1 1/2 hours and costs 160 rubles. You can also take the No. 39 Moscow-Helsinki train straight from Moscow.

What to See

Vyborg Castle (81378) 2-39-40
The tower is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Tickets to the lookout point are 40 rubles.

Mon Repos Park (81378) 2-05-39
The park is about 30 minutes from the city center by foot. Entrance costs 30 rubles. Most of the vast territory is wild Karelian nature, with a section that has tended alleyways, ponds, and pavilions.
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Where to Eat

Round Tower Restaurant
Rynochnaya Ploschad, (81378) 2-36-48

The most famous restaurant in town, located in the 16th century "Round Tower" since 1923. The atmosphere, complete with arrow slits and a heavy wooden door, is meant to make up for the food, which is not spectacular.

Camelot restaurant
14 Krasnoarmeiskaya Ul, (81378) 5-53-22

A small cozy restaurant in the center with a good choice of fish and a "Scandinavian tavern" interior.