Saturday, 3 August 2013

Castle on an islet

Tonight marked the season finale of the Savonlinna Opera Festival, an annual event held in the heart of the Saimaa lake region some 330 kilometres northeast of Helsinki. The festival attracts tens of thousands of cultural travellers from around the world to the beautiful lake-surrounded town of Savonlinna during the four weeks it continues offering repeated performances of half a dozen operas plus a number of concerts.

The guided tours start from the courtyard of the Water Gate Bastion with the tall tree in the middle.

We couldn't figure out what it was. A special kind of maple perhaps.
It  is one of the favourite festivals for both opera lovers and the performing artists thanks to its unique setting: a medieval castle on a small island in a stream between two waterways only a few steps from the town centre. What’s more, the light nights add a magic flare to those not used to Nordic summers. The schedule is planned in such a way that you can stay for several days and see a different opera each night.

The King's Hall can be hired for events. It was whitewashed also in the Middle Ages. 

The Ecumenical Chapel in the Chapel Tower, the middle one of the towers,
can be hired for family events.
We have been talking about visiting this festival for years. Many of our friends travel to Savonlinna practically annually, often on an organized trip of one sort or another. We just never managed to go, perhaps partly because we are so used to visiting the west as our ‘reference groups’ – friends and relatives – are mainly from the western parts of the country. This July we finally headed east and enjoyed every moment.

Note the passageway leading towards the Bell Tower. It is built on the wall of the Small Courtyard of the Main Castle.

View from the passageway towards the balcony of the King's Hall...

...and down to the Small Courtyard.
Any kind of recording was forbidden during the show (Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns under the thought-provoking direction of Guy Montavon) but we attended a guided tour the next afternoon to have a closer look at the majestic Olavinlinnai.e. St Olaf’s Castle.

The present tops of the towers are one of the Russian additions from the 18th century.

The passageway up on the castle wall.
View from an opening in the wall of the passageway down to the Water Gate Bastion...

...and from the Bastion up to the passageway on the wall.
It is the northernmost medieval castle in the world lending its name from Saint Olaf, the patron saint of knights. Saint Olaf was a very popular saint at the time the castle was founded, although his acclaimed merits in the christianization of Norway relied more on sagas of a ‘holy man’ than on the reality of a fierce Viking.

Then we returned to the Chapel Tower...
...and climbed up to a room surrounded by windowed nooks with benches on both sides...
...and a toilet booth with a hole down to the rock and the lake.

Building of the Olavinlinna fortification was started in 1475 by Erik Axelsson Tott, a knight and the then Governor of the Viborg Castle, to protect the strategically important eastern border of Sweden from the Grand Duchy of Moscow. That was a scheme designed to succeed as the location of the castle was most ideal for defense. The stream is so swift it stays unfrozen at all times so it was inaccessible for the enemy even in winter.

Further up we climbed the spiral staircase of stone...
...until we reached the topmost hall with the round openings all around...
...and had this view towards the Great Courtyard and the covered 2200-seat venue of the Savonlinna Opera Festival.

At the end of the 15th century, the castle had five towers two of which have been destroyed. The remaining three have been extended and modified over the centuries. And so has the rest of the castle. Attacks against it were numerous and fierce. Therefore it was constantly under some kind of repair, rebuilding and refortifying.
Then down the stairs and through corridors...

...back to the marvelous tree inside the Water Gate Bastion.

Olavinlinna served its purpose for some 250 years. The first surrender to the Russians occurred only in the early 18th century. After a few years it returned in a peace treaty to Sweden once more and finally in another treaty to Russia in 1743.

You can see a toilet sticking out of the Bell Tower here...
...and a closer look here.

A period of extensive construction and fortification followed. For example, the bastions were built under the Russian rule. However, in 1809 when the whole Finnish area went under Russia as the Grand Duchy of Finland the castle lost its strategic importance.

After that Olavinlinna housed a garrison and for a short period a prison. Since the late 19th century, that is since our Grand Duchy times, the state has taken care of the castle as an antiquity. The latest large-scale restoration was completed in 1975 when the castle had its 500th anniversary.
Finally back to the Small Courtyard with the passageway up on the wall...

...and through the arched entrance hallway to the bridge leading to and from the castle.
I am embarrassed it took me this long to visit the stately Olavinlinna, one of the few proper castles in our remote and sparsely populated country. And I would be most surprised if we didn’t find ourselves crossing that pontoon bridge to the opera venue also next July. There will be six new productions to choose from: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Nabucco, and Kullervo based on the Finnish national epic The Kalevala. How could we not attend?


  1. What a splendid castle, built in an unique position.
    You had wanderful weather, the sky is so bright and blue!

    1. We were lucky this time, not a drop of rain for days. You never know for sure around here how the weather is going to be. Fortunately summer rains tend to be just passing showers, which is not bad at all.