Apr 3rd, 2019, 05:20 PM

The Sea from Suomenlinna

By Caleb Lemke
An entrance to Suomenlinna, at the Jetty Barracks. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke
The fortress in the Helsinki harbor.

There's an ineffable quality to a Scandinavian summer. Perhaps it is because so much of the year is spent in frigid darkness that the warmth and sunshine of the summer seem so different than anywhere else. However, that constant summer sun does mean that you'll be woken up by the 4 AM sunrise, a difficult adjustment for those unused to the seemingly perpetual sun. Helsinki will at least have brief breaks from the sun, while in other parts of Finland, such as Lapland, the sun remains in the sky for weeks on end.

The ferry to Suomenlinna begins running fairly early in the morning, even if it is not always full in those wee hours of the morning. With the morning sun shining, I bought the fairly cheap five euro roundtrip ticket once I got on the ferry. Remarkably, the ferries run year round, even pushing through the winter ice. The ride lasts only thirty minutes or so, and in those early morning hours it's a gorgeous and serene little voyage. Just the steady churning of the engine, the gentle rocking of the ferry, and the little green islands, surrounded by the vibrant blues of the sky and the sea. I was one of the few on the early morning ferry, accompanied only by some young cooks hauling out fresh produce to the islands, and their colossal dog, a St. Bernard.

An early morning ferry to the fortress. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Suomenlinna, also known as Sveaborg, is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Helsinki, if not the biggest attraction in all of Finland. Annually, it attracts about almost a million tourists, Finnish and otherwise, and is the sole UNESCO World Heritage site in Helsinki. Originally, Suomenlinna was built as a fortress, its origin dating back several hundred years to 1748, when the Swedish Empire controlled Finland. It was the Swedes who began construction of the fortress, stretching the construction across six closely situated islands in the Helsinki Harbor, under the meticulous eye of Admiral Augustin Eherensvärd. Admiral Eherensvärd would pass away before the completion of the fortress, and is actually interred on the island to this day, in the Great Courtyard, a lovely little alcove and a beautiful resting place.

Admiral Eherensvärd's grave. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

The fortress' history doesn't end there, though. In 1809, Finland was ceded to the Russian Empire after a costly war, becoming a semi-autonomous duchy. However, Suomenlinna was not given to the new duchy, but taken over by Russian forces. It would go on to become an important military post, seeing action in the Crimean War in 1855, and a mutiny by the Russian garrison in 1906. After the 1918 independence, the fortress finally fell under Finnish control, adopting the modern, Finnish name of Suomenlinna. In a more dour turn, the "Whites," those anti-communist forces who fought in the short but violent Finnish Civil War, used the fortress as a prison camp for enemy prisoners of war (POW). Conditions were dismal, with many prisoners succumbing to disease, and many others being executed. It's believed that more than eight thousand POWs passed through in the few months of the Civil War. 

A map of Suomenlinna dating from the 1790s. Image Credit: Public Domain

While its days as a military fortification are long over, and the garrison is no longer present, the Suomenlinna has not turned into some historical relic. The islands are home to a small but active community. The islands boast some 800 year round residents, a library, a school, 11 different restaurants, a hostel, a grocery store, and the Finnish Naval Academy. There is even a brewery on the islands. You can find and try most of the cafes and restaurants around the islands, who are proud to serve the plethora of local brews.

  A street on Suomenlinna. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

It boasts six museums, varying in purpose. There are a few dedicated to the history of the islands specifically, a toy museum, a customs museum, and the Submarine Vesikko, a decommissioned Finnish submarine which was in service in the Second World War. During the World War II, the fortress served as a central base for Finland's fleet of submarines. Be aware though, that, save the Suomenlinna History Museum, all of these museums are only open in the summer, even if you come visit during winter months.

The islands are still covered with vestiges and mementos to the past, attractions you can still find and visit. Notably, the majority of the fortifications on the islands still stand, as does the King's Gate, one of the old sock entrances to the fortifications. The old Jetty Barracks are also still standing, in an shade of pink to distinguishing it from the rest of the buildings on the islands. One of the most scenic places on the islands is the view from the southernmost point of the remaining fortifications, Bastion Zander. There, you have an unimpeded view of the Baltic Sea and more islands of the Helsinki archipelago. Take a few moments to simply stand and watch the ships pass into the horizon. 

The view from the Bastion Zander. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

To best appreciate the serenity and beauty of the islands, it is essential walk the grounds of Suomenlinna, exploring the small villages and finding these hidden monuments and parks across the islands. And as a visitor, you really have no choice but to explore on foot, as there is no other real alternative, aside from a small pedicab service. A few of the locals may have access to cars or bicycles, but there are almost none to be seen. Quaint gravel and cobble-stone paths crisscross the islands, making it a serene and welcome break from the bustle of Helsinki.