A spectacular old fortress just off Helsinki’s harbour offers tourists a chance to clamber over rusting cannons and discover some of Finland’s troubled history.
In 1748, the king of Sweden built one of the most gigantic island fortifications of the time.
It was called Sveaborg, or Swedes’ fortress. Covering a cluster of eight islands in the approach to Helsinki, it was meant to protect the city against any attack by the Russian imperial navy.
Despite this, Russia ended up in control of it and it was only after the end of the occupation of Helsinki by Czarist forces in 1918 that the fortress came into Finnish hands. From then on was called Suomenlinna, or the Finns’ fortress.
Today, the complex presents an idyllic summer playground for Helsinki’s residents in the months when the Baltic Sea is warm enough to swim. Its architecture earned it the status of a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
As the Baltic ferries pass the island at close quarters on their way into port, the horizon shimmers in the noonday sun.
The sea glitters like a shattered mirror, and a slight breeze wafts over the water. Visitors licking on icecream push prams over the rough rocky paths around the fortress.
Local Finns head to the southern side of the island of Kustaanmiekka to relax and sunbathe on the sandbars between the old fortifications.
But the rusting cannons are a reminder that it wasn’t always so idyllic. When Finland still belonged to Sweden, the royal fleet was anchored here, and troops were stationed inside the fortress.
France, then an ally of Sweden, provided 90 bars of gold to help finance the expansion of the fortifications. The model it was meant to emulate was Britain’s Gibraltar, considered impregnable.
Some 7000 men were needed to defend the complex. The shipyard’s dry dock was the largest in the world at the time.
In the course of the 18th century, Suomenlinna slowly evolved into Finland’s second most densely populated area, with merchants and tradesmen settling in. At one point 4,700 people lived in the island complex.
But the Swedes had to pull out when, in 1809, Finland became part of the Russian Empire. After the Crimean War, in the mid 19th century, the military importance of the fortress began to decline.
It turned out that the sandbars provided just as good a protection against enemy warships as the thick walls and fortifications. It would be more than a century before the fortress was handed over to the Finns in 1918.
After World War II, Soviet ships were built in the shipyard as part of Finland’s war reparations to the Kremlin.
Finally, in the 1970s, the Finnish Ministry of Culture took over Suomenlinna. Today, the only invasion that the fortress has to fear is by the armies of tourists who regularly come swarming over the cluster of islands.