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Published: July 20th 2010
Finland has been portrayed in popular culture as a country with little to see, thanks to Monty Python. However, last summer, I set out to to prove John Cleese et al wrong. Having spent five months in Sweden two years ago, I had certain expectations of Finland. In particular, that it would be similarly Scandinavian, and indeed Finland more than fulfilled my expectations of unspoilt countryside and archipelagos, and strikingly fair people speaking impeccable English. However, travelling through Finland I learnt more about the history of both nations and their different national identities. At the end of a trip through Poland, Russia and Estonia, visiting Finland further strengthened the impression of the significant impact of the Soviet Union and, before that, Tsarist Russia and the Swedish Empire, on the Baltic region.
My first stop in Finland, as part of the Baltic Tall Ships’ Race, was Kotka, a small coastal town only about one hundred miles from the Russian border. Our previous port had been St. Petersburg and the difference was noticeable. Although an isolated town, Kotka felt far more alive than Russia. The town’s cultural offering was a newly-built maritime and local heritage museum. It was here that I
Mariehamm's museum ship
first read about the Swedish occupation of Finland until the first decade of the Nineteenth Century when Swedish rule was replaced by Russian, which remained until 1918.
Turku, the second city of Finland, was the next stop. As the capital before Helsinki and the oldest city in Finland I expected Turku to be picturesque. Surrounded by an archipelago of sparsely inhabited islands, the entrance to the harbour was beautiful but the town itself was not, having been destroyed by several fires, the last in the Nineteenth Century. All that remains to be seen of historic Turku is the castle, built over six hundred years ago, and Turku cathedral. The maritime industry is also important in the city; what will be the largest cruise liner in the world is currently being built in one of Turku’s dockyards. The Swedish influence is much greater in the western part of Finland where Turku is situated. Although Swedish is an official language in Finland, I did not hear it spoken in Kotka, further to the east, whereas in Turku, on the western coast, many schools teach in Swedish and all road signs are bilingual. The city also has a Swedish university. Controversy remains
Arriving in Helsinki by ferry
about the use of Swedish in Finland as it was originally the language of the occupying forces and the upper class, while Finnish was spoken by peasants in the Eighteenth Century. Today, there is only a correlation between the distance west (and therefore geographical proximity to Sweden) and the amount of Swedish spoken. However, most Finns, in Turku at least, speak both languages, as well as very good English. There certainly did not seem to be a divide between Swedish and Finnish speakers.
From Turku, I travelled to the Aland Islands by ferry. The islands are a tourist attraction to Swedes and Finns in the summer months and have only a tiny population. They are a stop between Turku, or Helsinki, and Stockholm on the ferry, mainly used by the Finns and Swedes to take advantage of duty-free shopping! They were a controversial set of islands after World War One and were eventually ceded permanently to Finland by the League of Nations. However, they remain Swedish-speaking and the smallest province of Finland. In Mariehamn, the capital of the islands, I delved into the maritime history of the islands and visited the museum ship Pommern, one of the last grain
The entrance to the fortress
carriers to sail from Australia to Great Britain until the Second World War. The next day I travelled out to a smaller island; Kumlinge. The islands are connected by a network of ferries and buses which, unfortunately, I only later discovered run as little as once a day between islands. However, they have the benefit that all foot passengers and cyclists travel for free. The islands face a serious problem with emigration. The only pharmacist on the island told me that young people leave the islands to go to university in Sweden and Finland and do not come back. This has led to a gradual reduction in farming and other business on the islands and leaves the future uncertain, particularly on the smaller, outlying islands.
Helsinki could not have been more different. I took the ferry overnight from Mariehamn and arrived in a city that was reminiscent of both Eastern and Western Europe. In some places I could have been in Paris with parks and fountains; in others St. Petersburg, with onion-domed churches. It is not a large city and easy to walk around to almost everywhere. I spent my first afternoon at the Suomenlinna (in Swedish, Sveaborg) fortress,
situated on an island in the harbour. Originally a supposedly impenetrable fortress it eventually surrendered to Russian forces, allowing the Russians to occupy Finland for the next 100 years. The presence of the fortress is almost entirely responsible for the development of Helsinki as a city. Suomenlinna still has a small community with a library and hospital. Visiting the town hall, cathedral, and city and national museums the next day I was again struck by the effect that Swedish and Russian occupation had in Finland. Nearly all the buildings in Helsinki were built by one of the occupying forces and there are statues everywhere of Alexander II. It also seems surprising that, only becoming independent in 1918, Finland was the only ‘new’ democracy that survived until, and past, World War Two, particularly as it neighbours Russia. When Finland first became independent there was the possibility of adopting a communist system but this never occurred. Helsinki today is a vibrant, cultural city, with a particularly strong art and design tradition. The modern art museum exhibits works by many Finnish artists. Although Finland is not well-known for many things in the rest of Europe, there is much to see. I finished my
The Lutheran cathedral.
trip in a shop dedicated to one of Finland’s famous exports; the Moomins.
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