Friday, March 30, 2012


About five kilometers outside of the town of Viborg (Viipuri), lies Mon Repos, a late 18th century manor on a verdant island embraced by blue waves. Here on Europe’s Northeastern periphery, a continental European, Ludwig Heinrich (von) Nicolay (1737-1820), acquired the property Mon Repos and formed it as a physical embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. While lacking the opulence of German manors of the period, it possessed an appeal that with time earned it popular affection and symbolized the loss of this part of Finland to Russia in 1944.

The once renowned English Garden of Mon Repos
Nicolay bought the site, sight unseen, in 1788 from Duke Friedrich Wilhelm von Württemberg, one of the many Europeans recruited by the court in St Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great to ‘Europeanize’ Russia. Nicolay was born in Strasbourg and died at Mon Repos. He came to St Petersburg in 1769 as tutor for Catherine’s son, the future Czar Paul I (1754-1801). In 1776 Paul married Princess Sophia Dorothea von Württemberg (ah, networks!). After the court murder of Czar Paul I in 1801 (some Europeanization!), Nicolay finished an eventful career by serving as private secretary to Paul’s widow, now in her capacity as Dowager Maria Feodorovna. Enjoying the same distinguished title as Goethe, Geheimerat, Nicolay devoted himself to finalizing Mon Repos. Its similarity to Fredrick the Great’s Sans Souci in Potsdam is no coincidence since the manor’s first owner, Duke Friedrich Wilhelm, had modeled it on his uncle’s house Mon Repos in Württemberg, which in turn was modeled on Sans Souci.
Mon Repos manor in the 1830s
No trip to Viborg is complete without a visit to Mon Repos. So we drove out of the town along crooked roads, guided by intuition rather than by road signs. Perhaps it was not meant to be easy to find the manor because, as we were to discover, Mon Repos had survived the war undamaged but had fared badly during Soviet rule. Few sights are sadder for those who have seen the manor in the 1930s than the sight of it today. And few songs capture this sadness better than the song “Do you remember Mon Repos?” (“Muistatko Monrepos’n?”) from 1955. Click here to hear Annikki Tähti sing it. But the park has been well restored since 1992 and a walk in it does much to dispel this sadness. Mon Repos is more than just the buildings. Today the park is its greatest charm.
The manor houses of Mon Repos in the 1930s
We parked our car in the small parking lot beside a white six-door limousine, marveling at finding this symbol of conspicuous consumption here, and entered the gates to Mon Repos. No sooner had we stepped inside them than the magnificent landscaping seduced us. Our visit to Mon Repos started with a long, leisurely walk through its English Garden, once renowned in Europe.
A luxurious limousine surprised us in the parking lot 
Nicolay had designed the park as though it were an integral part of the manor house (and vice versa). He imported rare trees and plants from continental Europe. He decorated the park with statues, equipped it with well-placed benches for resting, arched graceful Japanese bridges over the streams, built piers for excursions by boat around the Bay of Viborg and designed much else to please the senses. In short, we entered a vast garden of delights. Thomas Jefferson at Monticello would have nodded in approval. Had Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Voltaire, accepted the Czar’s invitation to visit he could have indulged himself in solitary reveries during endless walks here.
Arched bridges, pleasant to see and pleasant to tread
We approached the bay and saw a Greek Temple, called Neptune’s House, which Nicolay had built on a promontory. Thanks to voluntary Finnish efforts this temple had recently received a coat of white paint and glistened in the sun. Standing beneath its burnished pillars we enjoyed an elevated view of the sea. Only screeching seagulls, gliding lazily on warm up-winds, broke the silence.
The classical heritage flourishing
Creeks ran through the park and we crossed them on small bridges, artfully positioned in the gardens. Their aesthetic charm invited us repeatedly to extend our wanderings until we lost track of time.
The trails for walking through the park transported us in many ways
The walking paths led us along semi-wild shores and up steep hills where Nicolay had placed statues, obelisks transported from Italy, and the statue of a Karelian bard playing a kantele. Placing a singer of the orally transmitted Kalevala among classical pillars and statues incorporated this Finnish epic in the Homeric tradition. Unfortunately there is no picture of this statue, since we bypassed its location without noticing it.
Assorted classical monuments found a home at Mon Repos
On a small island Nicolay had built Ludwigshafen, a Gothic mausoleum, where he and other family members are interned. The short bridge across to the island was destroyed, so we could not visit it. However, we could observe the large building from Neptune’s House. It was a favorite site for visitors to stop at and be photographed.
A solemn moment in front of Ludwigshafen    
We encountered only a few visitors on our walks through the well-maintained park. One encounter provided a short spell of romance. A young couple, attended by the bridesmaids, celebrated their marriage by a walk through the gardens of Mon Repos to which they had been chauffaured in the large white limousine we had observed. We wished them luck. They deserved to feel like royalty on their wedding day. Who knew what the future held in store for them?
For better or for worse                                                        Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero …    
This festive encounter appropriately embellished the surroundings. Coming from the parking lot, we had entered Mon Repos by the back door. In the early 19th century guests would have arrived instead by horse and wagon driven down a long alley of trees at the end of which stood the manor with its impressive pillars. Since then this imposing entrance has been overgrown by the forest and reduced to a narrow pathway. We walked along it noting that it was unchanged since the 1930s, although a bit wilder.
Once the main entrance to the manor this alley remains unchanged since the 1930s
We had come to Mon Repos to see the manor house unaware of the English Garden. Instead, we had been enchanted by this secret garden where time stood still and spent an afternoon wandering in it. In the distance we could see the white pillars of the manor glistening in the sun. So we finally stopped our dallying and headed determinedly towards the manor. This, we thought, would be the highpoint of our visit. But as we came closer we saw that the windows of the houses were boarded up and that the paint on the walls was peeling. Standing before them we realized that the manor was in a sad state of disrepair. The shinning white pillars were but a Potemkin façade to impress the distant spectator. Closer inspection revealed dilapidated buildings close to their last days. This magnificent enlightenment manor had survived the war but prolonged neglect was leading to its slow destruction. I trust you understand why we do not show a close-up view of the façade.
An empty manor – haunted by the past
Since the park was so well maintained it was easy with a little imagination to see traces of former beauty in these boarded-up buildings. Behind the closed windows and peeling paint lay a paradise lost and opportunities missed. The manor houses were empty, the Finnish Government having removed the extensive library and furnishings at the outbreak of the war. Now only ghosts lived there. For over 70 years Mon Repos has had a past, but no future. We returned to the parking lot thinking that the best way to dispel the sadness of “Do you remember Mon Repos?” was by not forgetting it. So to listen to Maynie Sirén sing it in Swedish, click here, and remember Mon Repos. 

1 comment:

  1. Sehr schön! Vielen Dank für diese Erinnerung!