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August 27, 2013

Enjoy opera in a castle on Finnish island

It would probably shock the heck out of Danish knight Erik Axelsson Tott, who founded Olavinlinna Castle in 1475, to learn that what started out as a defensive fortification has since become the home of a summer opera festival that draws thousands of opera lovers from all around the world to the lovely lake country of southeastern Finland.

Through the centuries, Olavinlinna (literally St. Olaf’s Castle) was added on to and assaulted by foreign invaders several times, but it still stands, a massive stone citadel that claims the title of the northern-most, still-standing Medieval stone castle.

Remarkably preserved and built on a small granite island and surrounded by Europe’s fourth largest lake, Lake Saimaa, the restored castle offers tours daily that give visitors a look inside the circular towers, the king’s massive dining room, the central courtyard as well as several other rooms large and small. Just be prepared to climb up a stone staircase or two along the way, a formidable task for the physically challenged.

Today, Olavinlinna’s major claim to fame its opera festival, held each July when the evening sky can still be lit by the fading rays of the sun until 10:30 p.m. or even later. Because the castle is connected to the mainland town of Savonlinna by two footbridges that cross the lake, both the well-heeled and those of lesser means approach the festival on foot. There are no fancy limos pulling up to the entranceway here.

Still, for all, it’s exhilarating to make the march to the castle, where the Finnish flag breezes from the top of one of its three towers. People like to stop along the way and take one another’s photo with the castle in the background, listen to a group of talented children singing nursery rhymes on the access island, then enter the castle courtyard through a massive portal.

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