Helsinki, Finland

Finland's once Swedish Fortress

shadow refuge
Living silhouettes in a tunnel on the island of Iso Mustasaari, the one where the ferry from the Helsinki front docks.
back Helsinki
View of the historic front of Helsinki, seen from the ferry that connects the city to Suomenlinna.
Group of friends approach Augustin Ehrenvärd's grave.
In frame
The frozen channel that separates Iso Mustasaari from Susisaari.
Pastel Suomenlinna
Residents walk uphill from the inhabited core of Iso Mustasaari.
old threat
Visitors walk along the southern shores of Susisaari, alongside one of several artillery pieces scattered along the coast of Suomenlinna.
Winter Rests
Garden benches almost buried in snow that the gentle winter sun does not melt.
Tribute to the creator
The grave of Augustin Ehrenvärd, the young Swedish lieutenant who led the persistent and complex building of Suomenlinna.
Mother and son
Ninja (read, Nina) and Severi Lampela, both surnamed Pasanen, Finnish visitors to Suomenlinna.
Camouflage in A
Old bunkers camouflaged under earth and vegetation and on the edge of the Gulf of Finland.
Passerby passes along the channel that separates the island Iso Mustasaari from Susisaari.
the ultimate submarine
The Vesikko submarine, an exceptional vestige of the fleet that Finland owned at the end of World War II and that the Treaty of Paris of 2 forced to destroy.
Detached in a small archipelago at the entrance to Helsinki, Suomenlinna was built by the Swedish kingdom's political-military designs. For more than a century, the Russia stopped her. Since 1917, the Suomi people have venerated it as the historic bastion of their thorny independence.

It would prove to be the last of days with merciful, if somewhat windy, weather. It is under a half-blue, half-white-blue sky that the ferry leaves the Kauppatori market for Suomenlinna, the great fortress of Finland.

As we move away from the front of historic buildings, the distance reveals the domes of Helsinki's cathedral, increasingly prominent over the line of pastel facades that we admire on a gentle diagonal. The vessel heads towards the exit of that geometric and tight cut of the estuary that bathes the capital.

Helsinki Historic Front, Finland

View of the historic front of Helsinki, seen from the ferry that connects the city to Suomenlinna.

On its route, there is a stepping stone of islets that, from Valkosaari to Pormestarinluodot, hinder navigation. After some time, with the dock we had left already transformed into a glimpse, the whims of the island-destination begin to define themselves and, soon, the salmon-colored walls of its palatial wing, now transformed into the brewery local.

To the Conquest of the Resistant Suomenlinna

We disembark at one of the two harbors that serve it and cross that same old building through the tunnel below its light tower. On the other side, a resplendent luminosity reveals to us the domain of Suomenlinna, still frigid and parched by the arctic winter that resisted.

As in other parts of the Finland, the proliferation of signed nomenclatures quickly catches our attention, starting with the place itself.

The fortress began to be built in 1748, at a time when the Finnish territory was part of the Kingdom of Sweden. From this same historical context, from the subsequent split, it resulted that part of the current Finnish population – mainly on the west coast – is of Swedish origin and uses, as their first language, Swedish, from a completely different origin from Finnish.

Suomenlinna, Sveaborg, Viapori. The Trio of War Names

The Swedes have always called the fort that welcomed us Sveaborg (Swedish Castle). The Finns, until 1918, called it Viapori. From then on, in an rectifying manner, they adopted Suomenlinna (Castelo da Finland). Out of respect for the Swedish community of Finland, the two terms continue to coexist.

Suomenlinna Fortress Tunnel, Helsinki, Finland

Living silhouettes in a tunnel on the island of Iso Mustasaari, the one where the ferry from the Helsinki front docks.

Suomenlinna is based on six islands, also with competing names from both dialects. We had arrived at Iso Mustasaari, the second largest and where the most imposing buildings in the archipelago were located: an originally Orthodox church built in 1854, the library, a War Museum and a Dos Toys, among others, and even the local prison. Suomenlinna hosted a minimal-security penal colony in which convicts make efforts to maintain and rebuild infrastructure.

But the islands have far more than just these mildly doomed inhabitants. Beyond the fortress-museum, he lives his own life. The permanent and free residents are around XNUMX. Of these, three hundred and fifty work the entire year in the most different functions.

A Stronghold of Finnish Culture

Suomenlinna has become a complementary cultural hub of Helsinki. Hosted the Nordic Arts Centre. He converted several buildings into art studios that are rented at a low price to interested artists. In their pragmatic, fast-paced fashion, the Finnish authorities pay so much attention to it that they maintain regular ferries, thermal, water and tram connections. In 2015, the Finnish postal service there even tested the distribution of mail using drones.

Grave of Augustin Ehrenvärd, mentor of the fortress of Suomenlinna.

The grave of Augustin Ehrenvärd, the young Swedish lieutenant who led the persistent and complex building of Suomenlinna.

What we find a little everywhere are, however, relics, some more ancient than others of its long history. We are faced with the grave of Augustin Ehrenvärd, the young Swedish lieutenant who led the persistent and complex construction of the fortress. His headstone is crowned by a gothic helmet with a face shield that extends in a beak to below the chin, in such a mystical way that it intimidates us. We go in and out of smaller tunnels that the almost oblique sun's rays invade without mercy.

We cross the channel that separates Iso Mustasaari to Susisaari via the bridge that joins them. We walk along the shadowy shore of this last island and come face to face with the opposite coast line bathed by an almost frozen sea inlet and a soft afternoon light.

We cross Susisaari to the front of the Gulf of Finland. There, the boreal gusts, hitherto spaced, turn into a permanent gale. We find old storehouses disguised as farmhouses from another era, with A-roofs from top to bottom, covered with earth and vegetation, surrounded by snowy sections still far from melting. The furious wind punishes large cannons distributed and hidden on the summit coast, all of them aimed at the Gulf of Finland and the threats that always resulted from there.

Suomenlinna, in front of History: the Finnish, the Swedish, the Russian.

In this zone of vast spaces, great influences and ambitions to match, the Finns have become accustomed to fearing the Kingdom of Sweden on the one hand, and the much larger Russian Empire on the other. The World War II Teutonic invasion arrived as an extra.

An unexpected extra that cost the Finland three important sections of the country – part of Karelia and the city of Kuusamo, Salla and Petsamo, the former “right hand of the nation” – seized by the USSR as a trophy for the Finland aligned with the Axis between 1941 and 1944.

Suomenlinna appeared two centuries earlier as Sveaborg (Swedish Castle). At that time, Sweden held the territory of its Suomi neighbors and Russian expansionist yearnings worried its rulers.

Artillery pieces, Suomenlinna fortress, Helsinki, Finland

Visitors walk along the southern shores of Susisaari, alongside one of several artillery pieces scattered along the coast of Suomenlinna.

The star-shaped fortification adapted to the ways of the six islands and the batteries that we passed in investigative mode were also installed at the convenience of the Archipelago Fleet, anchored there to protect the southeastern edge of the Swedish Kingdom, in obvious counterpoint to the base Russian naval ship of Kronstadt, located next to Saint Petersburg, in the eastern depths of the Gulf of Finland.

Strategically, Sveaborg served to prevent the tsars' armed forces from acquiring a base position on the beaches from where persistent artillery bombardment would make it possible to take Helsinki.

In 1755, more than seven thousand Swedish soldiers stationed in the Finland participated in the work. Two years later, Swedish involvement in the intricate Seven Years War, against Great Britain, Prussia and Portugal (for a change on the Russian side) he suspended it. The alliance quickly proved as cynical as it was short.

Despite defeat in the Seven Years' War, just a quarter of a century later, the Russians took advantage of an autocratic and reckless provocation by the King of Sweden to go on the attack. Against the will of the people and the opposition, Gustavo III planned the destruction of the Russian Baltic fleet and the taking of Saint Petersburg.

Suomenlinna Corner, Helsinki, Finland

The frozen channel that separates Iso Mustasaari from Susisaari.

But the monarch's plans foundered. The Russians prevented the Swedes from landing and forced their retreat to Sveaborg where they were frustrated that the military authorities had forgotten to prevent the rearmament and repair of a nautical force much larger than the Archipelago Fleet.

Warned of this mishap, one Admiral Grieg hastened to retrieve the Russian fleet. Just nineteen days later, he aimed at Sveaborg. It disbanded a Swedish “spy” squadron and established a naval blockade that cut the Finnish south's connection with Sweden.

It was not yet that the Russians would take the rival nation, but in 1808 Tsar Alexander I allied with Napoleon and the Russia gave the final ax. In the hangover of the War of Finland, the eastern third of Sweden was transformed into the Duchy of Finland, finally, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Empire.

Back to Iso Mustasaari passing by the submarine Veliko

Against the raging gale, but in holy peace, we continued to progress to the southern reaches of Susisaari and Suomenlinna. Most of the time we walked alone, given over to the cold and enigmatic scenarios.

We went on like this until, on a dirt slope, we came across two souls only slightly less stray than ours. Ninja (read, Nina) and Severi Lampela, mother and son, both surnamed Pasanen, descend. We go up.

The sight of other humans in that fortified solitude encourages us to communicate. We welcome you. We got into conversation. The two souls quickly prove themselves Finnish in the strict sense. Without foundation or pragmatic objective, the approach makes no sense to them and their embarrassed looks let you know.

We still forced some photos as it was, despite everything, the mission with which we were going there. We abbreviated the interaction and returned to the original paired comfort.

Vesikko submarine, Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland

The Vesikko submarine, an exceptional vestige of the fleet that Finland owned at the end of World War II and that the Treaty of Paris of 2 forced to destroy.

On the way back to the north, we bumped into the complex's shipyard and docks, crammed with vessels, some functional, others not really. We return to the canal and to the dark, frigid shore of Susisaari. And there we stretched until we found another work of nautical-military art worthy of attention, Vesikko, the ultimate Finnish submarine.

During World War II (Winter War and Continuation War), the Finns used it on successive patrols in the Gulf of Finland from Suomenlinna, but just as the outcome of the conflict confiscated the three territories already listed, the Treaty of Paris of 1947 prohibited the Finland to stop submarines again.

Vesikko was the only one to escape the forced and widespread destruction of the fleet. It can only be visited during the summer. The reason why we just enjoy it from the outside, strangely perched with its stern brushing the muddy bank. With the bow suspended above both ground and sea level.

The short winter afternoon, instead, rushed over the horizon with the dry, icy wind already bruising our faces. We point back to Iso Mustasaari. We took refuge in the War Museum. There we learned about the episodes that led to full Finnish self-determination that, from 1917 onwards, taking advantage of the political chaos of the Revolution Russian, the Suomi people managed to assert the former sovereigns.

In Swedish times, inevitably, but briefly, Russian, the walled history of Sveborg, Viapori and Suomenlinna converged on the nationality that was destined for the fortress.

The ferry docks again on time, we weren't expecting anything else. We re-embarked with the evening surrendering to the pitch. Twenty contemplative minutes later, we were back in the capital of the little more than secular Finland independent.


TAP flies to Helsinki 6 times a week, with return prices, with all taxes included, from 353€. The route is operated with aircraft from the A320 family.

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