Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Timeless Suomenlinna - A historic travel piece

The Spring (May 2013) CFF newsletter is out.  There are 16 pages featuring historic pieces, personal opinions, poems, recipes, travel pieces and much more. It is released 4x a year and is part of your membership.

Here is a travel historic piece by Jori Ballance:

The Helsinki skyline slowly receded as we sailed away from the Kauppatori Square. We were aboard the commuter ferry Suomenlinna II, on our way to spend the day exploring the popular island fortress of Suomenlinna.    
     The mid-morning sun struggled to warm us against a brisk South Harbour breeze but managed to set the market stalls ablaze with colour.

The sea gulls that decided to accompany us glided effortlessly beside the ferry adding to the postcard setting. Puffy white clouds drifted across the blue sky over the city threatening to scrape the green dome of Helsinki Cathedral.  Our craft slid past the massive ochre hull of a Viking Line Cruise ferry moored in the harbour, waiting to be on its way to other ports of call in the Baltic.
     As I gazed at the ship I wondered how many people on board were aware of the fact that the fortress that I was going to visit played a large role in the success of the bustling city of Helsinki.
     I had first seen images of Suomenlinna while searching for historic locations to visit for an upcoming trip to Finland.  It was the classic aerial photo of the star-shaped bulwarks and defence structures on the southern tip of the island known as Kustaanmiekka (Gustav's sword-named after the Swedish King Gustav III who ruled at the time of construction).  When I discovered how near it was to Helsinki I immediately put it on my 'must see' list of places to visit in Finland.
     Being a history buff I thought I would do a little research on the place.
     I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
     It became evident that it was impossible to understand how this interesting-looking fortress ended up being constructed on a small group of islands off the coast of southern Finland without first becoming an expert in medieval European history.
     And there were plenty of surprises.
     "Well powder my wig", I thought, "Sweden was in cahoots with France in 1748 when construction began on the fortress known as Sveaborg."
      Both countries had a common interest in trying to halt Russia from continuing to creep westward.  Sweden had lost most of her Baltic territory by 1721 and Peter the Great had built his new capital in St. Petersburg.
     Rick Steves, the popular American travel journalist over-simplified it best, "Think of it as European superpower chess.  Russia moves to St. Petersburg. The Swedes countered by building this fortress here in Helsinki, with French financial backing, halting the Russian offensive, at least for the time being."
     It was the second largest maritime fortress in Europe at the time.  Only Gibralter was bigger.  It came as no surprise then, given its size and historical importance, to discover that it was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1991.  Not a bad rating to be on a list with the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza.
     I was trying to recall some of the history as we disembarked and started to explore the site.  Russia gained control of the fortress in 1808 and the next year Finland became an autonomous state under Russian rule known as the Grand Duchy of Finland.  The fortress was known as Viapori and received its present name-Suomenlinna-when Finland became an independent country in 1917.
     We picked up a map at the Visitor Center to help guide us around the massive site.  Although it is a World Heritage Site, Suomenlinna is a district of Helsinki and there are no entrance fees to the fortress.  There are fees, however, to gain access to the museums and other attractions.  There are so many things to see and do.  Check out www.suomenlinna.fi for more info on the site.
     I found it interesting to find that there are no addresses on Suomenlinna.  Each island has a letter assigned to it and each building has a number.  For instance the Governing Body of Suomenlinna's address is C 40, Suomenlinna.
     We strolled along the sandy pathways lining the ramparts and ventured into the arched tunnels beneath them.  There are many parks, cobblestone streets and cafe's and yes, thank you Finland, a brewery located near the main pier where we had a chance to try a sampling of the local beer.
     Alas, we ran out of time and had to return to the city.  I made my way up onto the ramparts for one last look, vowing to return some day.  I was standing beside one of the large cannons, wondering what it must have been like to be a soldier here watching for enemy ships in the mid 1700's.  My daydream was shattered by the loud throbbing club music emanating from a large party boat making its way through one of the channels on their way toward the city.
     I looked at the boat and peered down the sights of the cannon.
     They wouldn't stand a chance...