Given that there’s only one month the Fins can properly call ‘summer’, it might be a bit of a stretch to call Suomenlinna, a former military bastion just off the coast of Helsinki, a little holiday paradise. Yet there was still plenty to see when I visited there in April earlier this year, though it was clear that its inhabitants, museums and shops were awaiting the warmer weather and the influx of tourists which then still seemed a long way off.
Suomenlinna is rather unique, as it is both an actual part of the city (making the ferry trip there actually quite affordable) and a monument of military architecture. Officially it’s a bastion fortress from the 18th century, and famously has served to defend Sweden, Russia and Finland at different times. It took a battering from bombardments during the Crimea War as well, and during the Second World War it was used as an anti-aircraft battery station and a submarine base. After the war the number of tourists steadily began to increase; it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Finland. Of the seven small islands that together make up the bastion we visited the largest one.
After visiting a bookshop and sunbathing on a bench on the Esplanade for half an hour, we took the ferry to the island. What a change – the sun went away and the sea became quite rough during the twenty-minute crossing. When we arrived at the quay on the north side and entered through the gate of the pink-plastered jetty barracks, the bald, windswept landscape dotted with brick buildings reminded me of Wales, or Scotland. Most of the original structures and fortifications are still in place; we came across a few cafes, a church, museums, and a visitor’s centre, most of which were closed. (I can’t remember now if we were there on a week day.) We took the advertised route that looped all around the island’s coastline and past the non-functioning cannons on the ramparts, ending up at the King’s Gate, the former entrance to the fortress. Though it is part of Helsinki, we saw few locals (more geese than people, really). Strolling around, however, was fun: here again we saw the wooden architecture that is characteristic of Helsinki, and the small houses and low buildings were painted an identical yellow, which enlivened the wintry atmosphere. The combination of the rough, dark stone buildings and the tidy, cozy yellow houses made for a very picturesque walk. Before we left, we had a cup of tea in Cafe Vanille (the only one we found to be open) to warm up again. It was a pity that the museums were closed as I would have liked to learn more about island life or Finland’s maritime history – but that’s what you get for travelling out of season, I suppose. All the more reason to return someday.