Lappeenranta and Helsinki - Andrew - September 1999
Helsinki - Andrew, Jacqui, her Mum and friends - 2014
Finland is a large and mostly empty country in the far north of Europe. Andrew has been writing to Finnish penfriend Karoliina Kiianen since the early 1990s. In 1999 she came to visit him in England and in September 1999 he returned the visit to Finland.
Finland is remarkable for its unspoilt forest and lake scenery, there are something like 187,000 lakes in the country! Much of the country is low-lying with the only sizable hills in the far north area of Finnish Lapland.
The country's capital is Helsinki and is in the far south of the country on the Baltic Sea.
Lappeenranta and Helsinki - Andrew - September 1999
Finland has always been a country that has interested me...it always seemed so remote and mysterious - a great frozen land on the edge of Europe.
However, my visit to Finland came about because of my long pen-pal relationship with Karoliina Kiianen which, after 7 years or so of pure written correspondence, finally led to her visiting England in July 1999. We got on very well and so I decided to make my September holiday for the year in Finland.
Karoliina's home town is Lappeenranta, a medium-sized town (by Finnish standards) in the heart of Karelia not very far at all from the Russian border. The town is pleasant, very quiet and has some quite old parts. It grew up around the Linnoitus, or Fortress, which overlooks the harbour which opens out onto Lake Saimaa; although from the shore it looks for all the world like the sea!
The Linnoitus itself is made up of mostly earthen ramparts, shored up with stone work, and is like a small fortified town rather than a "Castle". The buildings inside its ramparts are mostly now shops, galleries and cafes, as well as a small but well-laid out museum. There are also some private residences, and a small church. To read more about the Linnoitus of Lappeenranta see the Castles of Europe pages.
From below the ramparts of the Linnoitus the MV Kristina Brahe leaves most days for the cruise down the Saimaa Canal to Vyborg in Russia.
Karelia is the most easterly part of Finland's vast Lakeland area, only a tiny amount of which we explored. The forest in some parts is hugely dense and populated not only with the ubiquitous moose, but also bears. At the time of my visit in September the forest was also home to the rather vile Hirvikärpänen, or moose flies, smallish, dimwitted insects that crawl into your hair...I even found one on the plane home about six hours after I'd left the forest!
Karoliina's parents live out in the wilderness about 20 minutes drive from Lappeenranta (so I guess by Finnish standards isn't that much "out in the wilderness"). The area is surrounded with small Lakes and forests and is good for unwinding. In September Autumn is just kicking in and so the trees, particularly the silver birches (of which there are many), are just starting to change colour.
A short drive east of Lappeenranta, even closer to the Russian border, is Imatra which was for centuries the home of the famed Imatrakoksi (waterfall). This was dammed up early this century, but every weekend in summer the waters are allowed to flow once again to the accompaniment of Sibelius and a light show. It was quite a spectacle and completely free!
Of course, I couldn't come to Finland and not visit Helsinki, which is a fair way from Lappeenranta. Finnish trains are very comfortable though!
You arrive in Helsinki at the monumental Central Station with it's four wonderfully powerful torch-bearing statues on the outside of the building. These two scupltures, framing the elegant arched entrance to the station, are massive and were designed by Emil Wilkström.
Helsinki only became Finland's capital relatively recently (before it was Turku). Turku was considered too close to Sweden by Finland's Russian overlords and so the capital was shifted to the small fishing village of Helsinki - known as the 'Daughter of the Baltic'.
Helsinki is surrounded by an archipelago of small islands (indeed much of the coast of Finland has small islands off it). A group of four or so make up Suomenlinna (Finland's Castle) which is more like a fortified community than a Castle proper and was built initially by the Swedes to guard the entrance to the Gulf of Finland and the approaches to Helsinki. It was enlarged by the Russians, and then the Finns themselves - and even came under British fire at one stage. Once one gets used to the fact that this isn't a Castle as such, Suomenlinna is fascinating and a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon. To read more about Suomenlinna see the Castles of Europe pages.
Back on the mainland, one cannot help to be drawn to Senaantori (Senate Square) with the impressive and dominant Lutheran Cathedral overlooking the beautifully preserved buildings in the style that typified a Finland trying to emerge from its Swedish and then Russian domination. Senaantori is very much the heart of Helsinki, it's the place where people congregate to watch the world going by. The interior of the Lutheran Cathedral is rather sparse and not particularly church-like, particularly to someone used to the medieval extravagances of the Cathedrals of England.
A legacy of Helsinki's Russian period is Uspensky Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church outside of Eastern Europe and a very attractive building in itself which dates to 1868. When we visited the Cathedral wasn't open, although it was billed as being so, so we had to make do with an exterior view only. But at least we got the superb view over towards the Lutheran Cathedral from the plaza outside Uspensky.
Between the two Cathedrals stands the harbour area with its market and quiet bustle; something that seemed to sum up Helsinki - bustling, but not frantic. Near the market stands the "Maid of Helsinki" statue, known officially as "Havis Amanda".
Further from the centre of town is the Olympic Stadium with its tower which offers some wonderful views of the City and the archipelago beyond it; the Stadium was built for the 1952 Summer Games. Outside the Stadium is a statue to "The Flying Finn", Paavo Nurmi, who won four gold medals at various Olympics and who lit the flame at Helsinki in 1952.
The tower of the Stadium is reached in a small rickety lift and would afford better views if you weren't enclosed in a metal cage, but nevertheless it's worth making the effort as the view is very extensive over Finland's relatively flat landscape.
Not far from the Olympic Stadium is Sibeliuspark with it's astonishing monument to Jean Sibelius. The Monument, which you can play like a giant xylophone, was designed in 1967 by Eila Hiltunen and is one of Helsinki's most distinctive and enjoyable statues.
Finland is a country of "quiet pleasures" - there are few landmarks of the kind you might find in, say, France or Spain but the landscape of lakes and forests has a way of working into your memory.
The Finns have a quiet dignity and fortunately quite a few speak English as Finnish is one of the most impenetrable languages I've ever come across!
I would like to go back and see some more of this vast country...Turku, Tampere, Rovaniemi, Lapland, the Northern Lakes...maybe some day soon.
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