Picture: Jussi Hellsten / Visit Finland
The coastal waters off Helsinki are dotted with islands of all shapes and sizes. It is not without reason that Helsinki is often dubbed “the Daughter of the Baltic”.
THE BEST AND most traditional way to arrive in Finland’s capital is by sea. Solitary, rugged islets and skerries, often inhabited only by the gulls, come into view and hint at the proximity of land already many kilometres before you reach harbour. Then larger islands gradually appear to port and starboard. It is abundantly obvious one is arriving in an archipelago city.
Discover living history
The main fairway into Helsinki’s South Harbour passes through the narrow straight known as Kustaanmiekka (“Gustav’s Sword”).
To the right the landscape of Vallisaari, owned by the Finnish Defence Forces, looks practically untouched, but to the left on the island of Kustaanmiekka itself it can be hard on a hot summer’s day to distinguish the outlines of the fortress walls for the thousands of tourists thronging the place.
Kustaanmiekka is a part of one of Helsinki’s most popular sights, the naval fortress of Suomenlinna, the fascinating history and unique military architecture of which caused UNESCO to list the islands among its World Heritage sites.
Work on the construction of Suomenlinna began in 1748, when Finland was still a part of the burgeoning kingdom of Sweden.
Sweden wished to have a naval fortress to protect its eastern outpost from Russia, which posed a threat to Swedish dominance in the Northern Baltic.
Helsinki in those days was a small and largely irrelevant town.
The fort was given the name Sveaborg, and in Finnish it became known as Viapori.
It was a city of its own, with a population considerably larger than that of Helsinki on the mainland.
The cosmopolitan officer class at the garrison also maintained a lively cultural life on the islands, which still flourishes today.
In 1808, despite their greater numbers and the relative impregnability of the fortifications, the forces on Viapori surrendered to the Russians.
Next year, Finland became incorporated into Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy.
The fortifications and artillery, designed to guard against a threat from the east, would now look westwards instead.
Under Russian rule, there was a large military garrison stationed on Viapori, with more than 13,000 soldiers at its highest point.
Helsinki underwent a dramatic change, too: from 1812 it was made into the Grand Duchy’s new capital city. The former capital Turku was suddenly seen as “too close to Sweden for comfort”.
Viapori witnessed yet more construction work, including a church.
The original church was to serve the Orthodox faith, but when Finland declared herself independent in 1917 the traditional onion domes were removed and it was reconsecrated as a Lutheran place of worship.
Interestingly, the church tower also contains a lighthouse, which still guides ships and aircraft into Helsinki.
In 1918 the fortress islands were re-named Suomenlinna, “fortress of Finland”.
The military importance of the fortifications gradually declined, and in 1973 Suomenlinna passed into the hands of a civil administration.