Suomenlinna, the sea fortress located in front of Helsinki, is one of the most visited spots of the Finnish capital. There you can relax walking around, enjoying the excellent views from its old walls or finding an isolated place where to feel the past of history.
A place with a special charm
vision of an impressive fortress salutes to the thousands of people that travel by ferry to the Finnish capital every year, just a few minutes before arriving to Katajanokka: the watchmaker against the threaten of past Russian invasions, Suomenlinna, also known in Finnish as Viapori and originally named in Swedish Sveaborg, is a quaint place included in UNESCO World Heritage site since 1991 (there are only 7 places in total in Finland that had deserved such a distinction so far), with an area of 80 hectares, and certainly represents an important part of Finnish history and national identity, full of surprises and new experiences to be discovered. From every of its corner the unexpected can happen. You can get lost through its narrows streets and discover the small pleasures of its library or the six museums scattered around, or take a look at the Finnish Navy´s Naval Academy, or even you can find rock stars in glamorous and colorful clothes desperately running not to lose the last ferry that connects to Helsinki (as I saw with my own eyes last year happening with the legendary Finnish glam rock band Hanoi Rocks). Nonetheless one of the best music recording studios in Finland is located there.
The fortress has even been the improvised location for some adult Finnish movies, hidden from the looks of the local authorities. But it can also be an excellent place to find a quiet spot to read a book in peace or have a romantic summer picnic. For the lovers of Julio Verne´s tales, nothing much better than taking a look at the last surviving Finnish submarine: Vesikko, that has also found its resting place in Suomenlinna. It is not by chance that the island receives around 600.000 visitors per year, overall on summer season, when the ferries provided by Helsinki City Transport Office that connect often and efficiently Helsinki ´s market square with Suomenlinna in a short trip of around 20 minutes are totally crowded with tourist from all over the world.A town within a town, Suomenlinna has 900 inhabitants and 400 people work there all over the year. 8 kilometers of walls surround the barracks and buildings of the fortress, with 105 cannons that remind you of less pacific times.
The visit of the death
Not everybody can say to have a sweet memory of the island. Actually, when the Finish civil war broke in 1918, Suomenlinna was used as a death camp for red prisoners. From January to May 1918 the bitter war left death and hate inside Finland. The final victory of the right wing (The Whites) left 80.000 Reds convicted to captivity. Around 10.000 prisoners were stored like animals everywhere in the barracks and buildings, with a total lack of hygiene, and the tiny space of the island suffered the grimmest period of its history.
Conditions were inhuman and many did not survive there; it is estimated that around 1.500 died during these months due to executions (80 prisoners) and overall to the hard conditions that made them even to have to take turns for sleeping due to the limited space Finally a general pardon came at the end of the year, and with it, the end of the suffering. The fortress remained as a restricted military area until 1948, but its public exposure was improved due to the Olympic Games of 1952, when started to be promoted as a touristic attraction by the Finnish government, with better traveling connections.
Spread your wings and fly away
The island was one of the most extensive projects of defensive construction during Swedish rule, considered as a kind of “Gibraltar of the North”. Nowadays, the visitor can enjoy an interesting exhibition in The Suomenlinna Museum about the vessels built in Suomenlinna´s dock from the seventeenth century to the present.
But not only has Suomenlinna strong bonds with the sea. For many people and foreign population that have immigrated in the past decades, it is an unknown fact that Suomenlinna also housed a plane factory. In 1921 the Air force Aircraft Factory (Ilmailuvoimien Lentokonetehdas) was established at Suomenlinna, and some years later, in 1928, a second factory under the new name of Valtion Lentokonetehdas was opened at Santahamina. The works lasted there until 1936, when the factory was moved to Tampere. These companies are actually the old ancestors of the actual powerful Patria Finavitec Oy, the leading Finnish company in building war material. During the decade of the 20s, airplanes like the A.22 were produced in the plane factory of Suomenlinna, being the first industrially manufactured aircraft, copied from the German design of the Hansa-Brandenburg W.33
The first Finnish –built Hansa made its first flight on November 4, 1922, and you can still see one surviving model in the Finnish aviation museum at Vantaa. It is certainly a shocking experience to see Finnish planes decorated with the sadly infamous Swastika (The Finnish used the symbol already before Hitler). The first models had two melons shaped under French Lamblin radiators and a rounded nose, and shared many features, like the FIAT engine, with the Breguet 14, that was the backbone aircraft of the Finnish Air Force at that time.
It is well known that you have to face the past in order to achieve a better future. Finland´s capital, Helsinki, faces its history with its dark and bright periods just few miles away in the small but important territory comprised in Suomenlinna´s fortress. If the noise of the (otherwise calm and quiet compared to other European capitals) city disturbs you too much, make a small escape to Suomenlinna fortress and enjoy the secret and epic stories that its walls can whisper you: tales of planes, war, love, death, music, poetry, adventure and conquer.
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