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Suomenlinna Sea Fortress (Helsinki, Finland)

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Suomenlinna C74 / 00190 Helsinki / Finland / Tel: (09) 684 1880 / www.suomenlinna.fi

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      28.08.2007 11:55
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      A fascinating historic site and a pleasant place to visit

      For one of the world’s largest fortresses, Suomenlinna is remarkably unobtrusive. Even as you sail out across Helsinki harbour, which it used to guard, you can’t easily discern on which bits of which islands it is built.

      Not that it isn’t formidable. When you eventually land and can study for yourself how it was all put together, you can see that it could have been very formidable. It just doesn’t conform to the traditional notion of a fortress – that of a single entity with continuous ramparts.

      Instead, it consists of clusters of separate fortifications on a cluster of separate islands, six in all. Some of the fortifications are massive, others relatively small in scale, but all offer only a low profile against the skyline. Sometimes they are faced in granite of rusty red or charcoal grey with gaping embrasures for guns, sometimes they consist simply of earthworks sited to make landing difficult or to protect artillery emplacements. Doubtless all these strongpoints were designed to support each other with mutually covering fire, but the integration of the whole is not obvious and the impression is of a higgledy-piggledy construction, seemingly dotted about almost at random.

      This haphazard appearance need not unduly worry the casual visitor, who is less likely to be concerned with the defensive integrity of the place than with having an interesting and enjoyable day out. And for that purpose Suomenlinna is admirably suited, whatever your tastes. The fortress is not just a historic curiosity of battlements and barracks, nor just a tourist attraction of museums, cafés and souvenir shops, though it has all these things. It also supports a thriving local community, with nearly a thousand people permanently resident on its islands. Despite all this and the throngs of day-visitors that come there on a bright summer’s day, it doesn’t feel crowded. Any number of quiet, green corners can be found where one can sit to reflect and recover, perhaps enjoy a picnic or just gaze at the variety of views.

      Perhaps it’s best explained if I simply describe the visit my wife and I paid Suomenlinna on a Saturday in June.


      * A summer visit *

      We had trans-shipped to the ferry boat directly on arrival by hydrofoil from Tallinn, since the two quays are only a hundred metres apart, and right in the middle of the city.

      From central Helsinki the ferry takes only a quarter of an hour to reach Suomenlinna and on a fine day the trip is a pleasant one. From the ferry’s open upper deck there are views back across the busy quayside market to the city skyline or out to the many low-lying islands with which the seaward approaches are strewn. The fare is €3.80 (c£2.65) return and would be good value just for the boat-ride, but it also entitles you to land and spend as long on the island fortress as you like, catching a later ferry back.

      Arriving late morning we reached Suomenlinna in need of refreshment. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Brewery Restaurant with beer garden in the attractively converted Jetty Barracks by the pier doesn’t open until 12 noon. This I later came to regret, because we became so engrossed in sight-seeing that I never found time to sample the island-brewed beer. However, a coffee and cake on the veranda of the quaintly weather-boarded Café Vanille was a suitable, if sober, substitute, and from here we could watch our fellow-visitors pass by while we studied the guidebook and planned our visit. Some planning is essential, because of the sheer scale of the place: in total it covers nearly a square kilometre, some 200 acres, and the main track that runs through the two largest islands is nearly a mile long.

      Among the passers-by were wedding guests, themed in 18th century costume, on their way to the Lutheran church just up the hill. This looked a fine building, but, with the service in progress as we went on that way, we never saw inside it. We did encounter the wedding party later though, with the bride and groom riding in a horse-drawn carriage. Suomenlinna is apparently a favourite venue for Helsinki couples wanting to tie the knot in a memorable manner. Indeed, it seems to be a favourite venue for many events and outings of all kinds.

      Onwards – between a forbidding long stone structure, now apparently a library and exhibition centre on the one hand, and a leafy green space on the other, to arrive at the modern Visitor Centre. This houses both an open access area with a relief map of the whole complex and racks of free bumf in numerous languages about its various aspects and events, and also a museum with video show for those interested in learning more. We decided this was worth the €5 (£3.50) adult entry fee (children free), but declined the additional option of a €6.50 (£4.50) English language guided tour of the whole fortress.

      The museum, and especially the video show, proved good value for anyone interested in trying to trace the history of the place to help make sense of the remains one sees going round it.


      * Suomenlinna’s history *

      For one of the world’s largest and seemingly most formidable fortresses, Suomenlinna has had a remarkably inglorious military history.

      It started life as Sveaborg in 1748, at which time Finland was a province of the Kingdom of Sweden. A young Swedish officer called Augustin Ehrensvärd was put in charge of establishing a strongpoint from which to ward off Russian expansion in the eastern Baltic. Inspired by British examples of fortified naval bases like Gibraltar, and by the theories of Vauban, the foremost military engineer of the era, who favoured vast networks of interrelated bastions and redoubts, Ehrensvärd devoted the twenty-four remaining years of his life to making Sveaborg impregnable. Apart from its multiple fortifications and gun batteries, it housed a large garrison, and a huge store of munitions and supplies.

      Strange, then, that it capitulated almost without a fight when first besieged in 1808, probably causing Ehrensvärd to turn in his grave within the tomb that is one of the monuments on the main island. Admittedly the attack came by land, when a Russian army took Helsinki, rather by sea as had been envisaged, but even then the garrison outnumbered and outgunned the besiegers and probably could have held out indefinitely while awaiting reinforcement from Sweden. Instead, the commandant, Cronstedt, abjectly surrendered, incurring the contempt of his men, who refused to return his salute at the final parade, and accusations of cowardice or worse from his compatriots when he returned home in disgrace.

      Whatever the true extent of his culpability, the supposedly impregnable fortress had fallen, and Sveaborg, together with the rest of Finland, passed under Russian rule for more than a hundred years. It only saw action once in that time, during the Crimean War in 1855, when a combined British and French fleet sailed into the Baltic in a show of strength and bombarded the defences. The Russian artillery couldn’t match the range of the naval guns, and the defenders could only cower behind the battlements while they took a battering. But the fleet had no orders to press home the attack and eventually sailed away again without attempting a landing.

      In the chaos that followed the First World War, Finland seized its independence, and the fortress was briefly used as a prison camp to house Russian prisoners. It was also patriotically renamed Suomenlinna (literally “Finland’s Fortress”), but played no role in the “Winter War” of 1940 when Russia reinvaded. It was finally decommissioned as a military base in 1973, to the enduring benefit of Helsinkiites and visitors looking for an interesting or even fun day out.


      * Museums *

      In addition to the main historical museum incorporated in the Visitor Centre there are several others:

      ~ Rather incongruously, given the military nature of the place, a Toy Museum housed in a little villa, with an extensive collection of teddy bears, dolls and antique toy trains. (Adults €5/£3.50; children €2.50/£1.75)

      ~ Manege Museum – devoted to Finland’s national defence since independence (Adults €4/£2.80; children €2/£1.40). Or, much better value, for (Adults €6/£4.20; children €3/£2.10) you can combine this with seeing the

      ~ Submarine Vesikko, one of the very few Finnish submarines to have seen active service in the Winter War. Small in scale, almost a miniature, but fascinating to see how such a vessel could be operated. The submarine base at the time was located on Suomenlinna, and the dry dock of the shipyard section remains in place. On its own this is also (Adults €4/£2.80; children €2/£1.40).

      ~ Ehrensvärd Museum, in the former Commandant’s official residence, and devoted to the founder and the period of Swedish rule, with contemporary fittings and furniture. (Adults €3/£2.10; children €1/70p).

      ~ Customs Museum. All about smuggling in the Baltic through the ages and its prevention. Duty-free, as it should be.

      So if you really like museums, you could spend all day – and quite a few euros – indoors peering at charts, relics and artefacts. On a raw day in winter this would probably be a very good use of time and highly recommended. But in warmer weather, and with limited time at one’s disposal, it is more pleasant, and just as interesting, simply to wander round and take in the sights as one goes.


      * Wandering around *

      Beyond the Visitor Centre the main track passes over a bridge across an inlet between the two main islands, with a quay for pleasure boats to land. One could turn right here, towards the marina café and bar for further refreshment, or left along the inlet to the Submarine Vesikko. We ascended the hill, through a tunnel-like gate in the granite walls, to the Great Courtyard, a square encompassing the Commandant’s residence and the Ehrensvärd monument. Off to one side is a terrace, with a view over the original dockyard, which, when it was built by Ehrensvärd’s shipwright collaborator Chapman, was one of the largest naval facilities in the world.

      Onwards past more barracks and storehouses, past a little tree-lined reservoir – an ideal picnic spot – to arrive at an open space, a natural amphitheatre, where a stage had been set up, an audience was foregathering and a performance was evidently in preparation. A play? An open-air concert? Both are held at various times on Suomenlinna, as well as other festivals and entertainments, but we had no time to wait and discover which it was on this occasion.

      As you approach the southern-most and hence most exposed end of the main island you encounter the first of several gun batteries that have been left in place: heavy, big-bellied artillery pieces still pointing seawards. Centrally positioned among them on the island’s highest point is the Kustaanmiekka fort, with Vaubanesque star-shaped bastions at its corners. It was badly damaged in the bombardment of 1855 and is still – a century and a half later – undergoing restoration.

      Finally, you descend in the shadows of the fort’s outlying bastions to the King’s Gate – the original, heavily fortified, formal entrance to the defences, below which is another jetty.

      So that’s the length of the main track concluded. Have you seen everything? No, not at all. You’ve hardly penetrated the extremities of the two main islands, and not even touched the others. There are more bastions, batteries and bulwarks to inspect, more former barracks that now house art galleries, ceramics workshops and other craft centres. Although Suomenlinna is no longer a military base, it does house a Naval Academy. There’s a grocery shop for the residents, and even a gym. You can walk back round either fringe of the islands and see a new set of seascapes, finding new spots amid the summer foliage to watch the shipping come and go and listen to the seagulls.

      If all that walking sounds too much for you, you can bring a bike across with you at an extra fare, but none are available for hire on Suomenlinna. Wheelchair access is possible in many areas, but some of the tracks are rough or cobbled and would be difficult.

      We were there about four hours, far too short a time to see it properly. Rushing back to the main jetty, we just had time to cross the adjacent bridge and set foot on a further island, Pikku Mustasaari, but not to look around the complex of 18th century buildings there, before catching the ferry back to the mainland.


      * Refreshments *

      Not knowing what to expect, we took our own picnic with us, and on a fine day this is an enjoyable way to eat, but it is quite unnecessary. Suomenlinna is full of restaurants, cafés and bars, of all types and price-ranges. In addition to those already mentioned in passing, there are:

      ~ Restaurant Walhalla; open evenings only for those wanting a gourmet experience, and, I suspect, pricey to match. We never saw inside so I don’t really have a view on whether it’s worth it.

      ~ Restaurant Ylakerho; in the converted officers’ club, which includes an outside terrace with views as you eat, and – more unusually – a rentable sauna!

      ~ Nikolai Pizzeria; pizze in the Russian style? Unfortunately, I never saw inside and can’t really advise you.

      ~ Café Chapman; also with outside seating for light lunches, but with a la carte dining in the evening. This looked family-friendly at lunchtime.

      ~ Café Piper; English style tearooms in a parkland setting, again family-friendly and with good views from its terrace.

      ~ Japanese Tearooms. For those preferring a more oriental style.

      And a few more besides. You won’t go hungry. If you’ve had too big a dinner to move, or even if you haven’t, you can, incidentally, stay the night, at the Hostel Suomenlinna, which is open all the year round, although I’ve no idea what the accommodation is like there.


      * When to go *

      Whenever you’re in Helsinki, of course. I can’t pretend to know the city well after just one day’s acquaintance, and I’m sure it has many attractions, but Suomenlinna definitely seemed to be a highpoint. To judge from the number of locals enjoying a day out there, many of them appear to agree with this assessment.

      I suspect that, arriving on a warm June day, we were lucky enough to get the timing about right. The lilac and syringa were in bloom, the oaks and limes were green and fragrant, and the meadow areas full of violas and yellow ragwort. A weekday might have been less busy than a weekend, but there was really no sense of the place being overcrowded and everything was open. Some of the museums are closed on particular weekdays and the cafés tend to be open for shorter hours.

      There is, I imagine, a counter-argument: that winter would be the best time to appreciate the more austere military aspects of the fortress, free of the clamour of day-trippers, and to imagine what it was like under siege. The island is, after all, accessible to visitors all day every day of the year. You’d have to be truly dedicated though; winter days in Helsinki are short and bitterly cold, and few of the cafés and museums in which you might shelter stay open.

      Either way, next year is the 250th anniversary of the foundation of this remarkable World Heritage Site and I expect some special display, festival or celebration will be laid on for the occasion. If you happened to be contemplating a visit to the Baltic region, that would be a good time not to miss it.


      * Recommendation *

      I thought Suomenlinna was a great place to visit: atmospheric, attractive and interesting. Cheap too; if you stay out of the museums you have only the inexpensive ferry fare to pay. If you do go, be sure to allot it a full day minimum. We definitely short-changed ourselves by allowing only a few hours. Serious students of military architecture could probably spend weeks without exhausting themselves or the sites of interest. But even if you are only a casual sight-seer, you’ll find plenty to enjoy there.


      © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2007

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    • Product Details

      Suomenlinna Sea Fortress was built over 250 years ago and once had a population of 4600, larger than the population of Helsinki at the time. Construction began off the coast of Helsinki in 1748, when Finland was part of the Swedish Empire and the Swedes built a fortress on the islands as a counter to the increasing Russian naval strength in Kronstadt. In 1808, the fortress surrendered to the Russians, with Finland becoming part of the Russian empire. The fortress was originally called Sveaborg (literally, Sweden’s Fortress), but was renamed Suomelinna (Finland’s Fortress) in 1918, one year after Finland finally gained independence from Russia. Today, the fortress is an integral part of the city and home to around 900 inhabitants. There are a variety of attractions on the islands, including guided walks, the Suomenlinna Museum (with the Suomenlinna Experience multi-media show), the Ehrensvärd Museum, the Doll and Toy Museum, the Manege Military Museum, Submarine Vesikko, the Coast Artillery Museum and the Customs Museum.