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Suomenlinna – *The* Fortress of the North

Posted by on July 6, 2011

I’d saved a day for Suomenlinna, in case it did take some time. I boarded the ferry from Helsinki’s Market Square, where conveniently the 24 city transport pass includes this trip. As it turns out, the ferry is only 20 minutes to get there, and despite the crowds I managed to get a window seat. Quickly I began to realise than even inside on the ferry, when people opened the door I found that being dressed only in a t-shirt and shorts was not the best plan.

Market Square, Helsinki from the Ferry

Market Square, Helsinki from the Ferry

Cruising out of the harbour you get a great view back of the Market Square and the old city behind it.

On the open water, if you’re lucky you’ll pass one of the cruise ships or ferries to other European countries chugging along on its way. They dwarf the ferry to the fortress, and there are usually a few of them in port at the least.

As you come up to the docks, people are already waiting to board. A quick disembarkment and you’re there – Soumenlinna fortress, even if you are still unable to pronounce it!

Part of the fortress walls

Part of the fortress walls

The fortress is, like many other sites I’ve visited, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like the other parks in Helsinki, it’s enjoyed by the locals as a picnic site, as being as being a tourist location. Actually built across six islands, with bridges connecting them mostly, it was originally called Viapori – until 1918 when for patriotic and nationalistic reasons it was renamed to Soumenlinna – or Fortress of Finland. Originally built by the Swedish crown, commencing in 1748 when Finland was still part of Sweden. In 1808 the fortress surrendered to the Russians – some say lamely, leading to eventual occupations of Finland.
Some of the defenses

Some of the defenses

The Russians made many changes to the islands and the fortress, and in the build up to World War 1 was improved to act as a forward defense for St Petersburg! After the Russian Revolution, however, an independent Finland took it back, and nowadays it’s no longer practical as a military base, and was turned over to civilian control in 1973.

5 fun facts about the fortress

  • A service tunnel from the mainland originally brought electricity, water and heating, but in 1990 it was modified for use by emergency transport.
  • A penal labour colony exists on the island for volunteer prisoners who pledge not to use drugs.
  • While a museum / sightseeing location, about 900 people actually live within the walls of the fortress.
  • In the 2011 elections, 24% of the Suomenlinna population voted for the Green League.
  • One of the islands was actually two – they filled in the gap between them when extending the reach of the fortress.

Church in the fortress

Church in the fortress

Personally, I begain with a map, and headed for the church as it’s close by and the cold was an unwelcome surprise. Built in 1854, as a Greek Orthodox church for the Russian troops, it used to have five onion domes, until the 1920s when it was converted to an Evangelical Lutheran church – and a lighthouse – potentially one of the only churches in the world to also be used as a lighthouse, and is still used as one today. It blinks ‘H’ in Morse, for Helsinki.

The main track, which I followed, leads eventually to the King’s Gate. It takes one through the original casemates into the old central square. A few shops are dotted around, and it opens up as you continue along the casemates into a picnic area, with a small lake. This is actually where the ocean used to run through, but they filled in the space between two of the islands, creating the park there today.

Used to be sea, now a park

Used to be sea, now a park

Where the King originally came to inspect the building of the walls and defenses, they created a landing just for him – an arch entranceway at the edge of the fortress, which could later be used for loading supplies or boarding boats, and was quite sheltered. This has now become known as King’s Gate, the end of the 2km or so trail across the islands.

Despite the cold wind, and to the curious looks from other visitors wrapped in jackets and trousers, I walked up to the edge where the artillery defenses sat, and walked around that way – it was exposed, but gave a great view over the sea and towards some of the other landmasses. I then turned back into the center and made my way back to the main part of the island, and the ferry.

The King's Gate

The King's Gate

Coming back into Helsinki is quite a good view, and you can see the ferries docked, and massive cruiseships towering over you. I do want to do a cruise one day, but I have a feeling that’ll wait until whether I eventually make it to Antarctica – the only way to really see that continent well. But we’ll see.

I caught the tram back to the hostel where I caught up on emails and did some quick planning for up north, finally finding a guest house which wasn’t absurdly expensive, and headed to the station to get some food and board my overnight train to Rovaniemi, and the Arctic Circle…

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