Welcome to Narva

Hermann Castle is Narva’a most popular image. As a medieval stronghold originally established by the Danes in 1256, the wooden fortress was sold to the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights in 1346.

Both the castle and the city of Narva were destroyed during World War II, as the area was the scene of especially heavy fighting, with the battle for Narva in 1944 leading to thousands of casualties on both sides.

Currently, the Russian-Estonian border is formed by the Narva River, although during Estonia’s first period of independence between 1919 and 1940, Ivangorod was part of Narva, but was absorbed into the Soviet Russian Federation in 1945, and was not returned to Estonia when the Baltic country regained independence in 1991. The Russian-Estonian border treaty is yet to be ratified.

Although promoted as Estonia’s best-preserved castle, Hermann Castle was reconstructed during the Soviet period and was recently rejected as a UNESCO heritage site because the building barely resembles the original structure. It was therefore deemed of little historical value. Yet despite this, the castle — especially when seen paired with its Russian equivalent — is an imposing sight that stirs the imagination and stimulates a sense of history.

Narva is primarily a Russian-speaking city and is populated mostly by ethnic Russians. Ethnic Estonians constitute a mere 3 percent of the population. The imbalance was caused by mass Soviet deportations of the Estonians to the Gulag. The survivors were not permitted to return to their land, presumably because of the Soviet Union’s Cold War plans to develop nuclear facilities in the region, to where the workforce was brought from across the Soviet Union.

The city — once renowned for its blend of gothic, baroque and classicism — was reduced to ruins in the course of the devastating Soviet air raids in March 1944. To add insult to injury the Ivangorod Fortress, several churches, the buildings of the Krenholm Manufacturing Company and a large number of residential buildings were blown up by retreating German troops several months later. By the end of July 1944, when the German troops left Narva, 98 percent of the city had been destroyed.

The Soviets, who reoccupied the city in 1944, chose to pull down the ruins of the old town in 1950 to build a modern city center, rather than repair the damaged buildings redolent of Narva’s western past. Only two residential buildings and Narva’s town hall have been restored.

Nonetheless, Narva still merits some exploration. Hermann Castle, Narva’s most visited site, houses the Narva Museum, which tells the story of the medieval town and citadel. All kinds of outdoor events are held against its walls, from Georgian food fairs to rock festivals, including the notorious Narva Bike, to be held this year on July 19-21 and headlined by British pop band Smokie. The three-floor restaurant Castell, located in the castle’s northwestern tower, provides not only food but also a show based on the deeds of the knights, with armored actors dancing and rattling their swords in the aisles between the tables.

Apart from the castle, the city is famous for its 17th-century Swedish bastions. Named Honor, Gloria, Victoria, Fama, Triumph, Fortuna, and Spes the casemates of the seven buildings were used as bomb shelters during World War II, and The Dark Gardens, the city’s oldest landscape park, created on the Victoria bastion in the 19th century.

In addition to the castle, the Orthodox Resurrection of Christ Cathedral and the Lutheran Church of Alexander — both dating to the late 19th-century— have been rebuilt and can be visited.

The only civic building to be restored by the Soviets, Narva’s town hall is considered to be the best-preserved historical building in the city, even if it was severely damaged during WWII and stood without a roof until it was restored in the early 1960s. Originally built by German architect Georg Teuffel in 1668-1671, it was used to house the city’s “young pioneer palace” during the Soviet period. Currently closed to visitors, it now provides shelter for creative workshops and a rehearsal room for a local rock band.

One of the town hall’s rooms houses a model of Narva now as well as paper scale model of the pre-1940 Narva lovingly created by local enthusiast Fyodor Shantsyn. Not yet finished due to the frequent lack of funds, the 1:100 scale model is expected to be the first step in creating an Old Narva miniature park.

The square upon which the town hall sits is where the different approaches to Narva’s heritage engage in desperate conflict. Alongside the old town hall sits a new 10-million euro structure housing the University of Tartu’s Narva College. It is a radical sight.

Designed by a team of Estonian architects, its white façade with a “beak” is a take on the old Narva Stock Exchange which occupied the site before it was damaged in WWII and pulled down a few years later. It’s avant-garde form, with the beak repeating the shape of a part of the stock exchange’s roof, is a nod to the city’s past, yet the cutting-edge innovations hiding inside look decidedly to the future.

The interiors are designed to be the perfect environment for academic studies, while also maintining a slightly informal feel. An atrium is closed on the sides with ironwork gates designed to replicate the patterns found on the wings of a South American butterfly species called Chlosyne narva.

The Narva College building was criticized by preservationists, who wanted the stock exchange rebuilt as it was before being demolished, and opposed by city authorities, which delayed it construction for six years. The building was finally inaugurated by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves in November of last year.

From Narva, it is only 18 kilometers north to Narva-Joesuu, a celebrated resort with a 13-kilometer fine sand beach and pine trees, which attracted Russians both under the Tsars and the Communists.

Located on the Narva Bay of the Gulf of Finland, it is where Estonia’s longest, river, the Narva, which has its source at the northeastern end of Lake Peipus, flows into the sea. The road there offers great views of the river, with Russia on the other bank.

The long list of celebrities who visited the resort before the 1917 revolution includes painter Ilya Repin, author Nikolai Leskov and poet Igor Severyanin.

Close to the beach sits the Narva-Joesuu Spa and Sanatorium. Built in 1960s it is evocative of the Soviet era — when it was launched as a health resort for collective farm workers — and even bears a plaque saying it is protected by the Estonian state as a heritage site, but is now renovated and features up-to-date spa treatments.

The landscape here is defined by the Baltic Klint, a 1200-kilometer-long erosional limestone escarpment which rises up to 50 meters above the Baltic Sea at some points. Starting on Öland island in Sweden and ending in the area south of Lake Ladoga in Russia, its Estonian section is 300 kilometers long, known as the North Estonian Klint and seen as a natural monument symbolizing Estonian national identity.

A ride along the shore will be memorable for the sea views, the splendid 19th-century Oru Park in Toila, which boasts 270 different species of bushes and trees, and the 30.5-meter Valaste waterfall, Estonia’s highest, among other attractions.

"This article was first published in The St. Petersburg Times - www.sptimes.ru”.

Full version of the article can be found here