***  FINLAND  2012   -  WEEKS 4~5  ***
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CAMPING IN FINLAND and LAPLAND 2012 - South Karelia, Finnish lake district and Russian port of Vyborg (formerly Finnish Viipuri):

From the eastern outskirts of Helsinki, we joined the Route 7 motorway glad to be making steady progress eastwards through attractive forests, and be leaving the noise of a city campsite. Inevitably we began passing Russian cars and trucks as we moved closer to the border.

Some 120 kms from Helsinki, we turned off into the town of Kotka. Set on a peninsula extending into the Gulf of Finland, Kotka's deep water harbour made it a natural port. Being so close to the border with USSR, the town suffered much damage during the 1939~44 wars but more recently trade has dominated its economy as one of Finland's largest paper-manufacturing centres, the timber for wood-pulp being transported down the Kymi River at whose mouth Kotka stands. The town was deserted on Whit Sunday afternoon as we walked past the market square down to the wide river and docks to find the Marine Centre Vallamo (Photo 1 - Kotka docks and Finland's National Maritime Museum). Opened in 2008 in a modernistic sea wave-shaped glazed building, Finland's National Maritime Museum documents the country's maritime history, navigation and dependence on sea-commerce, from the early days when it would take stevedores 3 weeks to load or unload a cargo ship to modern dock handling when a container ship can be turned around in 3 days. Of particular interest were the displays on the significance of Finland's fleet of ice-breakers which we had seen at their summer moorings in Helsinki. In the 18~19th centuries, maritime trade came to a standstill during winter when the sea froze causing economic loss and starvation to isolated coastal communities. The advent of 20th century ice-breakers had enabled sea lanes to be kept ice-free with maritime trade and ferry traffic continued throughout the year.

The museum had a special exhibition on maritime archaeology showing finds raised from 2 Dutch trading vessels which sank off Kotka in 1747 and 1771, both carrying luxury goods for the Tsarist imperial court in St Petersburg, including Meissen china from Dresden and a beautifully preserved wooden carriage intended for the Tsarina. Kotka Museum in the same building had displays on the tragic events of the 1939~44 wars for the local community. Children were evacuated to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, some returning after the war having forgotten their Finnish language or never having learnt it, some not returning at all - a tragically forgotten generation.

Click on 2 areas of map for details of South Karelia

We camped for the next 3 nights 20 kms eastwards at Hamina Camping, a delightful spot among pine trees on the shore of the azure blue Gulf of Finland. Detecting new blood, battalions of midges mustered in readiness to pounce. Those that found a way inside the camper were systematically dealt with; if you squashed one with a resultant splodge of blood, you knew it was most likely your own freshly sucked by the tiny monsters. The following morning, the midges were waiting to take their revenge forcing us to breakfast inside despite the sunlight filtering down through the pines and picking out the detail of these lofty trees under which we were camped. This a was a first class and straightforward campsite: the well-equipped and dinky little kitchen was spick and span, the cosily heated showers homely and clean, and the €21 price included free use of the washing machine. If only all western European campsites were as good as this (Photo 2 - Gulf of Finland at Hamina Camping).

The nearby fortress-town of Hamina is one of mainland Europe's easternmost commercial ports. Originally founded as a Swedish fortified outpost of empire, Hamina flourished at a crossing of land- and sea-trade routes. But the town was stuck right in the firing line during the early 18th century Russian/Swedish wars, and the Swedes hastily rebuild the town around a star-shaped citadel. Following Peter the Great's expansion of the Russian Empire, Eastern Karelia including Vyborg and Hamina were occupied by the Russians in 1742. The Treaty of Hamina which ceded the whole of Finland to Russia was signed in the town in 1809 following Sweden's defeat, and during the early 19th century the fortress was consolidated by the Russians with construction of the Keskus Bastioni (Central Bastion) equipped with 58 reinforced bomb-proof casemates. As Russian rule of the Grand Duchy was consolidated, Hamina's military significance declined and the fortress ramparts were gradually demolished. What remains however is the fortress-town's octagonal concentric street plan originally enclosed by the bastions with streets geometrically radiating out from the central core where the town hall now stands.

We drove into Hamina, parked in the market square and having stocked up with provisions at the local S-Market supermarket, walked up to the central town hall. Here the helpful TIC provided us with a copy of the well-presented English-language local guide-leaflet Walking in Old Hamina which details the walk around the surviving traces of ramparts and corner bastions. On one side of town hall square stood the Orthodox Church and on the other the Lutheran Church built in 1843 on the former site of the fortress commander's residence. A memorial plaque in the churchyard commemorates the infamous Treaty of Hamina which was signed here in 1809 ceding Finland entirely to Russian control. Ironically a small war cemetery nearby contains the graves of those from Hamina killed resisting the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939~44 (Photo 3 - Hamina war cemetery for those killed in the 1939~40 Winter War). Using the excellent guide-leaflet, we walked the circuit of turfed fortress ramparts around to the surviving Russian built Central Bastion with its reinforced casemates, now used as a marquee-covered arena for summertime events (Photo 4 - Russian bastion at Hamina, now used as an arena). Access to the final section of ramparts is now fenced off as a military area, with the Finnish army still retaining a significant presence in the town and the cluster of grandiose 19th century Russian military buildings now used as an officer training centre.

We continued eastwards on Route 7 into the densely forested region of Virolahti, to visit the preserved remains of the Salpa Linja, a fortified defence line whose construction was ordered by Marshal Mannerheim after the 1939~40 Winter War to protect Finland's eastern border against renewed Soviet invasion. This defensive line stretched the 1,200 kms length of the newly drawn eastern border with USSR from the Gulf of Finland in the south all the way to Lapland in the north. The most heavily fortified section of the Salpa Line was built in Virolahti; it was never tested in battle but was the most comprehensively constructed defence line of WW2 and greatly reinforced Finnish morale and determination to defend their homeland against Soviet aggression. Its very existence may have influenced Stalin to cease attacks on the Finnish Front in 1944.

Today sections of the Salpa Line in Virolahti have been preserved to show the scale of the 1941~44 fortifications; the most extensive is at the Salpa Centre Museum near the village of Miehikkälä 12 kms north of Virojoki the area's main town. As we drove up, the first indications were lines of anti-tank traps made from huge wedges of quarried stone snaking across the forested terrain. A rough dirt track led uncertainly up into the forest to the museum where a young volunteer who had just completed his National Service in the Finnish army showed us the English-language video detailing the history and construction of the Salpa Linja. We spent the next 2 hours walking the network of paths which led over the hillocky forested heath land, passing zigzag lines of trenches, reinforced concrete bunkers, gun emplacements, barbed-wire obstacles and anti-tank ditches (Photo 5 - WW2 trenches at Salpa Linja defensive line). The trail led around a network of communications trenches down to where a surviving Soviet T34 tank stood, an ugly and menacing brutish monster with enormous steel turret, facing the Finnish defensive lines of stone tank traps (Photo 6 - Soviet T34 tank faces Finnish anti-tank defences). Further around lines of hand-dug deep anti-tank ditches stretched away into the forest and covering these, a German-supplied 75mm anti-tank gun set to disable Soviet tanks halted by the ditches (see left).

Even after 70 years, this area of silent forest still retained an eerie feeling, fortunately lightened by the profusion of wild flora growing among the fortifications: beds of sweetly-smelling wild Lily of the Valley, Finland's national flower (Kielo in Finnish) (Photo 7 - Wild Lily of Valley (kielo) Finland's National flower), flowering wild strawberries and delicate violets. But of greater interest to us were the heath land berry plants so typical of Finland which we had never seen in flower before: tight-packed tiny pink buds of Lingonberry (Photo 8 - Flower buds of the Lingonberry plant), more open larger bell-shaped flowers of Bearberry white in colour and fringed with delicate pink (Photo 9 - Bearberry flowers ), bright green leaved ground cover of Bilberry with its delicate pink flowers (Photo 10 - Bilberry Flowers). All 3 grew in profusion at eye height along trench parapets making them easier to photograph. We looked forward later in the season to picking the berries, particularly the Lingonberries.

Returning to Route 7 at Virojoki, we drove the remaining 10kms to view the main border-crossing into Russia at Vaalimaa. A 3km queue of Russian trucks lined up along the roadside waiting to cross back into their own country with their cargoes (see right). We camped that night at Vaalimaa Camping, a small and straightforwardly welcoming campsite with good facilities and free wi-fi, set on a grassy foreshore looking out across the Gulf of Finland, and just 3 kms from the Russian border. Although a chill evening, the sky was graced with a magnificent sunset display, its golden tail streaking across the sea (Photo 11 - Sunset over Gulf of Finland at Vaalimaa Camping). The following morning, we returned to the main Route 7 but before turning north, we again drove along to the Russian border-control point (Photo 12 - Finnish~Russian border control point at Vaalimaa). To our amazement the 3km queue of lorries had disappeared, processed overnight by the border guards. Nearby a road sign pointed eastwards to Pietari (St Petersburg) 203kms and westwards to Helsinki 187kms (see left). We turned north onto Route 387 towards Lappeenranta at the southern start point of the Via Karelia which we should follow for the next 5 weeks, mainly on peaceful minor roads for over 1,000 kms up through Eastern Finland running parallel with the Russian border. Mainly a well-surfaced road, it passed through endless pine forests with frequent elk warning signs.

Part way along Route 387 to Lappeenranta, we paused at the small village of Ylämaa (pronounced OOlamar) noted in Finland as the source of the gemstone Spectrolite, a rare feldspar found only here. First found in 1940 during digging of the Salpa Line fortifications, the gemstone glows with its richness of colour which in changing light reflects all the spectrum colours, hence its name, from red-brown to deep violet-blue. Cutting and polishing workshops at Ylämaa now sell Spectrolite jewellery to passing tourists and we stopped at the TIC cum gem museum to find out more. The lady apologetically explained that they did not open until next day, the start of June, but on learning we were English she readily gave us a free viewing of the Spectrolite exhibition. Human encounters like this with such a charmingly courteous lady are a memorable feature of our travels. She told us that her mother originally from Vyborg had been evacuated as a refugee from the Soviet invasion in 1940, and she had been brought up in Sweden, returning later to South Karelia to marry.

Reaching Lappeenranta, we needed to stock up with provisions. Lines of Russian coaches were parked at the supermarket, bringing cross-border Russian shoppers who flock here for the comparatively well-stocked choice of foodstuffs, clothing and consumer goods in Finland; life in Putin's Russia is clearly still dreary. Finns with 12 month visas make reciprocal cross-border forays into Russia for cheap petrol and cigarettes. Our reason for visiting Lappeenranta was to take the long-day cruise along the Saimaa Canal to the former East Karelian Finnish city of Viipuri, now the Russian port-city of Vyborg 30kms into the Russian territory forcibly ceded to USSR under the terms of the Treaty of Moscow which ended the Winter War. We had arranged this visa-free day trip into Russia in advance by email with the highly efficient Saimaa Travel Co - Visit the Saimaa Travel web site  It was an expensive trip at €133 each, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cross into Russia on our travels after spending so many occasions hovering on the EU border with this still xenophobic country. We stayed at Huhtiniemi Camping at the edge of town and at 6-45 the following morning drove down to the free parking by the port where M/S Carelia waited to take its passengers on the cross-border cruise along the Saimaa Canal to the Russian city of Vyborg, pre-WW2 Finnish Viipuri.

Having cleared Finnish customs on the quayside, we boarded M/S Carelia and on a bright, sunny morning, made for the upper open deck for the views across Lake Saimaa, Finland's largest lake covering an amazing 4,500 square kms and encompassing 14,000 islands. At 7-45am the boat curved its way past lake islands and the huge UBM logging and wood-pulp factory, Lappeenranta's largest employer, to enter the mouth of the Saimaa Canal. The original canal was dug in 1845~56 at a time when Karelia was part of the Russian Grand Duchy, to link Lake Saimaa with the port of Viipuri on the Gulf of Finland for transportation of timber and other trading goods. Work to enlarge the waterway was interrupted by WW2, and the new 1940 border imposed by USSR sliced the canal in half with Viipuri, now the Russian port of Vyborg, in Soviet territory. In 1963 Finland signed an agreement with USSR to lease the Soviet section of the canal for 50 years, and in that year work began on constructing a more major waterway 43kms long, 20kms of which were in Soviet territory leased by Finland; 8 huge locks overcame the 76m height difference between inland Lake Saimaa and the Gulf of Finland. The modern canal can now carry boats of up to 2,500 tons each carrying the equivalent cargo of a full sized freight train. The main products transported are still timber and minerals from Finland's logging and mining industries. A new 50 year lease on the Russian section was recently signed by the Finnish President and Putin to run from 2013.

Soon after entering the surprisingly wide canal, the boat entered the first of the 8 locks, and as the gate behind us rose up through the water the lock emptied and the boat descended into the staggering 13m depth of the lock, on one side cut down through bed rock and the other wall reinforced with concrete. The massive steel lower gates swung open, the canal traffic lights turned to green and M/S Carelia moved swiftly out into the next section of the waterway. We stood on the upper deck watching the operation of the lock as the boat descended into its gloomy, dripping depths. The entire organisation of the day was faultlessly handled by the Saimaa Travel Co, and the accompanying guide made a point of giving us an English translation of her fulsome commentary and briefing on the practical arrangements for entry to and (more importantly) exit from Russia, particularly the do's and don'ts of Russian customs officialdom which seemed to have changed little since the fall of communism, completion of the bureaucratic immigration and exit forms, and potential confusion over the 1 hour difference between Finnish and Russian time zones.

The 5 hour passage along the canal passed remarkably quickly with so much of interest to see and learn about, with the navigation of the locks and passing of other cargo vessels. After the border town of Nuijamaa, the boat moved out into a larger lake and part-way over this, we crossed the frontier into Russia; but with only a buoy on the lake's surface to indicate the border, the significant moment of entering Russia was something of an anticlimax. The boat continued along the remaining 20kms of canal leased by Finland from Russia, and the countryside within this border zone appeared bleak and totally depopulated (Photo 13 - Exiting Palli locks in Russian section of Saimaa Canal). By 12-30 the distant port of Vyborg was in sight as the boat emerged into the Gulf of Finland and the Helsinki~St Petersburg express passed over the railway viaduct spanning the canal (Photo 14 - Helsinki~St Petersburg express passing over Saimaa Canal). The boat swung sharply around to draw into the quayside at Vyborg with the distinctive castle built originally by the Swedes standing prominently ahead (Photo 15 - Swedish-built castle overlooking Vyborg quay). Viipuri, as Vyborg was previously known, had been Finland's second largest city and a prosperous Baltic port until forcibly annexed by USSR under the 1940 Treaty of Moscow along with the rest of the East Karelian isthmus. Now lying 30kms inside Russian territory (see map above), first impressions as we approached the quay were of a city that was now run-down and neglected. We stepped ashore nervously to face the tersely officious Russian customs harpies for scrutiny of our passports. For the first time in our recent travels we stood in Russia, albeit drab and cheerless as it seemed.

A brief bus tour took us around parts of Vyborg through areas of drab communist era apartment blocks, and at one point one of the elderly Finnish ladies let out a whoop, pointing out the street where she had been born. The issue of the 'Karelian Question' still rankles with Finns as a source of bitterness, particularly those in Finnish Karelia whose family had lost property in the territory around Viipuri seized by the Soviets after the 1939~40 invasion, and the treaty that ended the Winter and Continuations Wars, with so many families uprooted as refugees. We later talked with some young Finns born well after the war who ruefully told us: We Finns like a drink and after a couple of beers on a Saturday night, we often say 'Let's go to Viipuri, beat the hell out the Russians and take our city back'. This feeling of resentfulness has not diminished over 70 years, although no Finnish political party nowadays promotes a policy of recovering the lost territories from their still powerful neighbour. People in Lappeenranta enjoy a schizophrenic relationship with modern Russians from Vyborg: despite the sentimental bitterness at loss of East Karelia and family upheaval, Lappeenranta now profits economically from the Russians who flock there to shop.

We were dropped by the bus back at the market square where immediately Roma beggars and old babushkas trying to make a couple of roubles from Western visitors flocked around. Our first stop was the market hall where stalls seemed well-stocked with fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, and stall holders good-naturedly tried to press their wares on us (Photo 16 - Vyborg's indoor Market Hall). Our aims was to buy souvenir presents of matryoshka dolls (doubtless today mass produced in China) for our granddaughters, and after some haggling banter with the stall-holder, we secured our gifts with the roubles exchanged on the boat. With the efficient briefing given and Vyborg street plan provided by Saimaa Travel, we spent 2½ hours wandering around the Russian city. The main shopping street looked drab but at least since the demise of communism the shops did at least have food and goods to sell. Along Проспект Ленина (Lenin Prospect) we reached Vyborg's Red Square, a large open space where at one end 21st century children played on skate boards while at the opposite end a huge and totally incongruous statue of Lenin glared disapprovingly. In Lithuania, such ludicrous relics of a thankfully bygone age have now been consigned to the scrap heap or theme parks, but here even in Putin's Russia the statue survived. In 1917 Lenin had made his return from Finland to St Petersburg via Viipuri to start the October revolution.

Nearby we found the city library designed in 1935 by Finland's premier architect Alvar Aalto whose works can still be seen throughout Finland. It may have been the avant garde bee's knees in its day, but after 70 years of Russian occupation, the modernistic library looked abjectly neglected like so much else of Vyborg. The whole city with its once elegant buildings had a dilapidated and run-down air which must be another cause of grievous resentment to visiting Finns, seeing their former city so neglected by its Russian occupiers. Further along Krepostnaya, the once gloriously Art Nouveau Post Office Building showed similar signs of neglect. As a sign of the times however, one of modern Russia's objectionable nouveaux riches was busily unloading his ostentatious black-windowed 4WD with cases of wines and spirits for one of his dubious clientele. If he had had any awareness at all, he would have noticed our look of contempt, but he was far too busy making hard currency. We called in at the city's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, one of the few churches to survive communism (Photo 17 - Vyborg's Orthodox Cathedral), but time was moving on; we had to be back at the boat by 4-00pm if we were not to be trapped visa-less in Vyborg. Passing yet more semi-derelict buildings and the ruins of Vyborg's former Cathedral destroyed by WW2 Soviet bombing, we reached the quay and after submitting our exit visas at passport control, thankfully hurried aboard M/S Carelia for the return journey along the canal. The boat was now more crowded with Finnish tourists who had stayed overnight in Vyborg; though what you do to pass the night in one of Vyborg's run-down hotels defies imagination. As the boat pulled away from the quay, we took our final photos of Vyborg castle behind the boat's Finnish stern flag (see left); a neat piece of ironic symbolism, we joked with a Finnish fellow passenger.

The return voyage was similarly full of interest, navigating the locks and enjoying the on-board entertainments both organised and impromptu: we struggled to join in the singing of popular Finnish songs-we-all-know-and-love-to-sing, and learnt Finnish numerals by playing bingo; we knew of the Finnish reputation for hard drinking and a lady passenger duly obliged by drinking herself into semi-stupor during the return voyage. Having re-crossed the border, we spent the remaining 2 hours of the trip on the open deck photographing the late afternoon golden sun shining along the length of the canal, and as the boat emerged from the canal back into Lake Saimaa, we were treated to a flaring sunset across the lake with the sun trailing its golden tail across the water (Photo 18 - Sunset over Lake Saimaa from the deck of M/S Carelia). Although an expensive venture, the trip's organisation and support was commendably thorough; our day across the Russian border had been a novel and memorable experience, though not one to impress visitors to Putin's Russia.

We spent the following day in gloomy rain visiting Lappeenranta having been so lucky in having a fine and sunny day for our Russian trip. Although founded by the Swedes, Lappeenranta fell to the Tsarist Empire in 1743, and the Russians reinforced the town's fortress, basing a garrison here as part of the greater defence of St Petersburg. The town remained in Russian hands until Finnish independence in 1917 and in the 1930s it became a popular spa-resort with its attractive Lake Saimaa waterfront. The remains of Lappeenranta's fortress on its flat-topped hillock still provide a stunning views across the distant expanse of the lake, or at least they would have done had it not been totally obscured today by misty rain clouds (see left). We sought refuge from the rain in the excellent South Karelia Museum, housed in the fortress' former munitions storehouse. The museum documents the history of the South Karelian cities lost to Russia, and the collection of artefacts displayed were gathered from families who had been forced to flee their former homes after the 1939~40 Soviet occupation of what had been the Finnish Karelian isthmus including Viipuri. It was a moving tribute to the human tragedy of the loss of eastern Karelia to Soviet invasion, a fate that, but for Mannerheim's defence of Finland, would have befallen the rest of the country. Viipuri and the entire area of eastern Karelia was totally evacuated of its 450,000 Finnish residents who were relocated elsewhere in Finland. Many of those we spoke to, including the museum receptionist, had parents or relatives who survived the evacuation. Post-WW2 Vyborg, as it was now called, was repopulated by the Soviets with Russians from all around USSR. The impressive centrepiece of the exhibition was a scale model of Viipuri exactly as it was on the morning of 2 September 1939, just weeks before the city was bombed by the Soviets in November at the start of the Winter War invasion of Finland (Photo 19 - Scale model of Viipuri weeks before Soviet bombing in Nov 1939). We stood admiring this model, trying to identify features we had seen on yesterday's visit; so many of the churches had been destroyed in WW2. This was such a moving record of Finland's lost 2nd city, particularly in the light of the scale of Russian neglect we had witnessed yesterday.

Donning our waterproofs again, we walked back down to the waterfront to see Lappeenranta's other summer tourist attraction, the Hiekkalinnan, a giant sandcastle built each year from tons of sand. Workmen were still putting the finishing touches to this year's castle, and in pouring rain in early June we were the only visitors to the 10m high extravaganza (Photo 20 - Lappeenranta's giant sand castle). After another night at Huhtiniemi Camping, we should begin our journey north further into Finland's lake district, hoping for an improvement in the weather.

In Finland unlike UK, the day of the 60th anniversary of the Queen's accession dawned bright and sunny. We set off northwards on Route 408, a minor road built over a succession of causeway-linked elongated islands and glacial esker ridges across Lake Saimaa. The road undulated over hillocky terrain with the sun lighting the delightful birch-fringed pine forests. After the peace and solitude of minor roads, we eventually joined the main Route 13, with speeding traffic and speed cameras, the least pleasant driving conditions yet encountered in Finland. Thankfully we turned off at Ristiina onto a minor lane along the shores of one of Lake Saimaa's many arms to find the Neolithic rock-paintings of Astuvansalmi. A sign showed a 3km path leading to the exposed rock face where the paintings had been found overlooking the lake. The delightful path wound through woodland over hillocks and past small lakes, with signs reassuringly indicating distance, finally dropping down to a rocky shelf above the lake shore. Here an overhanging concave rock face of ice-smoothed granite rose some 60 feet above the rock terrace just above lake level (Photo 21 - Astuvansalmi rock paintings). High on the rock face, protected by the overhanging cliff, were the dim outlines of the paintings, created using red ochre and preserved by a transparent protective film of silica gradually formed over them. The paintings have been dated to around 2,500 BC by reference to the known post-glacial geological history of water levels in the lake system which brought the rock face clear of the lake. The paintings are thought to have been created by Siberian-North European hunter-gathers who migrated to Scandinavia in the 3rd millennium BC. A total of 65 painted figures have been identified, including motifs of elks, boats, hand-outlines and human stick-figures (Photo 22 - Detail of rock paintings with elk and human figures). These northern peoples believed the sun was an elk or reindeer crossing the sky, and the human figures with horned head-dresses are believed to represent priestly shamans who were in touch with the dead. Skin-covered boats were important means of transport for these prehistoric hunter-gathers in such a watery landscape. This must have been a sacred cult site for their shamanistic religion, with paintings from a long time-span overlapping one another.

Considering their 4,500 year age, the primitive paintings were remarkably preserved; the lower ones were smudged or worn away by time, but higher up the cliff the crude stick-figures of humans and elks were clearly identifiable, and their inaccessibility with a 3km approach walk doubtless helps to keep them safe. We stood on the rock terrace admiring this magnificent prehistoric art work and the paintings' amazing preserved state, pessimistically thinking that in uncouth UK, the rock face would probably have been vandalised with mindless graffiti. Despite the swarming midges, the walk back along the woodland path was as enjoyable for its profusion of wild flora with Lingonberries in full flower and the distinctive white flowers of Labrador-tea (Photo 23 - Labrador Tea, Ledum palustre). We camped that night at a basic site by Löydon Kartano, a 200 year old wooden former manor house now a B-&-B; the lake-side setting was glorious and as the sun set, the still waters of the lake gave mirror-like reflections of pink-tinged clouds and pines on the far shore (see left), and an otter passed by in search of his supper.

We continued north the following day into Mikkeli, a town with long military associations as the wartime HQ of Finland's Commander-in-Chief Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. Born in 1867 into an aristocratic family, Mannerheim had an early distinguished career in the imperial Russian army, rising to the rank of lieutenant-general. He returned to Finland at independence in 1917 and led the right wing White Army in the Finnish Civil War. After the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939, he was appointed C-in-C of Finland's armed forces and established his HQ in the Central Elementary School at Mikkeli, a town badly damaged by Soviet bombing in WW2. Mannerheim celebrated his 75th birthday in his railway carriage on 4 June 1942 at Immola in Eastern Finland, where the dinner was attended by Finland's President who awarded Mannerheim the title of Marshal of Finland. The occasion was also attended by Hitler who had flown in for talks with Mannerheim. He was appointed President for a brief period in 1944 and secured peace with USSR but at a humiliating price for Finland: the border was fixed at the 1940 line making the territorial losses permanent, and Finland was required to expel German forces out of Lapland. He died at a Swiss clinic in 1951 and is still regarded by Finns as a national hero.

Unlike many Finnish towns, Mikkeli offered free and unlimited parking close to the centre and we walked along to the Kauppatori (market square) for a delicious snack-lunch of muiiki, deep-fried whitebait fish from local lakes. At one side of the market square, Mannerheim's statue in military uniform stands surveying the stalls (Photo 24 - Mikkeli market square with Mannerheim statue). A relic of Mannerheim's wartime years now stands at Mikkeli's railway station, his official railway carriage, a 1929 vintage VR (state railways) saloon carriage which the C-in-C used to travel around Finland during the war and in which he met with Hitler. The carriage is only open one day each year on Mannerheim's birthday 4 June, and by good chance our visit to Mikkeli coincided with this. A small queue of local people waited quietly by the carriage which is now parked in a siding alongside the modern station platform, and we joined them to file reverentially through the saloon-car and sign the visitors' book (Photo 25 - Mannerheim's wartime railway carriage). Mikkeli's red-brick Cathedral stands primly and prominently on a grassy hillock; its plain airy interior with barrel-vaulted ceiling is decorated with 2 elegant stained glass windows above the altar, one depicting Mikkeli, the other celebrating the lost cities of Karelia including Viipuri. Behind the Cathedral, the school which Mannerheim made his wartime HQ is now preserved as the HQ Museum, and being His Birthday, entry today was free attracting large crowds. Tucked away in the former staff room, his former study is preserved as he left it with military maps and his glasses and cigar on the desk (Photo 26 - Mannerheim's preserved wartime office at Mikkeli HQ Museum). The Winter War had not been expected to last the 105 days, and the HQ showed all the signs of being a temporary set up with a classroom laid out as campaign map room and children's coat pegs along one wall. An informative English-language video gave a frank and brutal portrayal of Finland's wartime dilemma: invaded by the mighty Red Army in 1939, and in spite of heroic resistance under Mannerheim's leadership, forced into a humiliating truce with huge territorial losses along the whole length of its eastern border with USSR and need to relocate 1000s of refugees; then abandoned by the West, forced reluctantly into military alliance with Nazi Germany, attempting to drive the Soviets from the lost territories during the Continuation War and finally forced into a second humiliating peace with USSR and compelled to expel German troops from Lapland with massive material damage from the scorched earth retreat, and punitive post-war reparations. It was all the more remarkable that Finland recovered from all this, as the only country bordering onto Stalin's USSR which managed to avoid Soviet occupation and retain its independence and culture. What we learnt at Mikkeli left us even more filled with admiration for what the Finns had achieved against the odds in resisting Soviet aggression and preserving their independence.

We moved on into the heart of South Karelian lakeland to Savonlinna set astride a narrow isthmus between 2 large lakes, an altogether unimpressive town despite its tourist hype with over-priced parking, over-zealous traffic wardens and a poorly stocked TIC unable even to supply local maps. The town's only saving grace is the mightily impressive turreted bulk of Olavinlinna castle built on a small island in the lake by the Swedes in 1475 to protect the waterway trade routes of their eastern empire (Photo 27 - Olavinlinna castle at Savonlinna). The castle is now the imposing venue for Savonlinna's prestigious annual Opera Festival.

Beyond Savonlinna, Route 14 continues along with the parallel railway line across an interconnected series of lakeland islands and esker-ridges to the village of Punkaharju. An older and more attractive lane runs parallel, constructive long ago along the very crest of the narrowest of classic eskers. Eskers are long, narrow and sinuous natural ridges of stratified sand and gravel debris, deposited in sub-glacial tunnels close to the margin of retreating glaciers. As the glacier melted, these casts of sediment were left as narrow ridges which in the modern landscape range in height from just above the level of surrounding lakes formed by glacial melt-water to heights of up to 100 feet. Such ridges rising clear of lakes and marshland have historically formed a natural line for land routes and modern roads. The entire macro-topography of Eastern Finland's lakes and land reflects the SE~NW direction of the glaciers' line of retreat at the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. The Punkaharju ridge (harju is the Finnish word for esker) provides a classic illustration of such an esker, offering a narrow, winding natural embankment separating the 2 lakes of Puruvesi and Pihlajavesi. The narrow esker winds a sinuous course for some 4 kms, its crest just wide enough to accommodate the old road like a natural causeway. There are several places to stop and examine at close quarters this remarkable geological phenomenon with the wild flowers growing under the pines trees which now grow along its steep-sided slopes (Photo 28 - Punkaharju ridge, an archetypal glacial esker). Click here for a description of esker formation

We camped for 3 nights at Mannila Farm Camping across on the large island of Vaahersalo, a remote rustic retreat with basic facilities but beautiful lakeside setting and remarkably a free wi-fi internet connection and washing machine which we badly needed to catch up with laundry. Punkaharju village had 2 supermarkets, bank, pharmacy and railway station where we waited to catch the railcar for the short ride along the esker ridge to Lusto station to visit the Lusto National Forestry Museum (Photo 29 - Train along the Punkahurju esker-ridge). As the train glided away into the forest, we walked from the old wooden station to the museum. The ultra helpful TIC there was the very antithesis of pretentious Savonlinna, providing us with local maps and details of the nearby arboretum. The Lusto Forestry Museum was an expensive but fascinating place, its sophisticated exhibits documenting the history and economic importance of Finland's forestry industry, with displays on log-floating and pine-tar production. A large hall full of enormous tonka-toys showed the 20th/21st century development of mechanisation for timber harvesting, and if you were looking for records, it included a towering display of the world's largest collection of chain-saws (see right). A novel feature is the Hall of Silence, a darkened arena where computer graphics and surround sound recreate a 3D impression of a lake deep in the forest: butterflies flit around, wood-peckers tap at the pine trees, whooper-swans take off from the lake to fly overhead causing you to duck, and a Great Northern Diver bobs up from the water, its haunting call echoing across the lake. It's very impressive. Across the railway tracks, an unsigned path led to the Finnish Forestry Research Institute's Arboretum, a collection of over 100 tree species all labelled in English; we followed the walking routes around plantations of firs, spruce, larches, pines and other conifers as well as birches. Never before had we seen so many clearly identified conifers and the place was both free-entry and deserted. And back at Punkaharju station, the sidings were filled appropriately with long trains of empty logging wagons waiting to transport timber from the forests.

Continuing northwards along Route 71, we reached Kerimäki, a large village unnoteworthy but for its remarkable parish church, said to be the world's largest wooden church seating 3,000 worshippers on its 1,670m of pews with room for another 2,000 standing. Built in 1848, the reason for the church's mammoth scale was reputedly due to confusion over feet and metres, but in fact its size was the inspiration of the eccentric local priest who felt it right that up to half of the widespread lakeland 12,000 parishioners should be able to worship together. Locals were persuaded to work on construction of huge church, travelling in their kirkkovene (church boats) to attend services. The huge square-cruciform ochre-painted church with its separate bell-tower stood on a neatly mown grassy hillock among birch and pine trees (Photo 30 - Kerimäki wooden church). If the wooden structure's exterior was impressive for its scale, the unbelievably spacious interior was even more so, painted in light grey colours with marble-effect wooden pillars (Photo 31 - Interior of Kerimäki wooden church). There were 4 wood-burning stoves, insufficient to heat such a large church in the freezing temperatures of Finnish winters when services are held in the nearby smaller winter chapel.

Northwards again, the minor Route 474 ran through vast uninhabited stretches of cleared forest land newly planted with young pine saplings. 20kms further, we reached Savonranta, a small settlement set between the huge Lake Orivesi and smaller Lake Pyyvesi, where the Noidankattila boat-anchorage-cum-bar-restaurant offered straightforward camping alongside the moorings. On a sunny evening, we enjoyed a BBQ in our lakeside camp by the boat anchorage with Moon Tiger incense-coils burning to deter midges, and it was still full daylight when we finally turned at gone 11-00pm (Photo 32 - Lake-side camping at Noidankattila boat-anchorage).

In bright sunshine the following morning, the northward Route 474 was a delightful road undulating through endless pine forests, passing lakes and the occasional lonely farmstead. Route 477 crossed into North Karelia but within a few kms we reached the end of the tarmac with the dreaded Kelirikko sign (bad road conditions) with dirt road for the final stretch leading to the main Route 23. Our goal for tonight was Joensuu but first we turned west to visit the Russian Orthodox Monastery of Valamo. The original monastery, set on an island in Lake Ladoga in former Finnish Eastern Karelia had been the spiritual focus of Orthodoxy in Karelia since the 12th century when monks from Novgorod had spread Christianity into the northern pagan wastes. Post 1809, the Russian Grand Duchy enabled Orthodoxy to rival the Lutheranism of the former colonial Swedes, and after Finnish independence in 1917, the 2 churches shared the status of national religions. Today, although membership of the Russian Orthodox church is proportionately greater in Karelia, overall numbers in Finland are now small at just over 1% of the population compared with 82% Lutheran. In 1940, with Soviet attack imminent, the original Valamo Monastery was evacuated. Lake Ladoga froze over that winter enabling the monks to escape with their icons and treasures. Those who survived the journey refounded the monastery on a lakeside estate west of Joensuu near to Heinävesi. A century ago monks at Valamo numbered 1,000 but are reduced to just a handful today. The monastery does however operate an open policy, welcoming visitors to the churches to attend services and even offering accommodation in the monastery's peacefully isolated setting. We arrived at the car park just as the bells were ringing, in time to attend the 1-00pm service in the main church (Photo 33 - Valamo Russian Orthodox Monastery); there is no denying the profoundly spiritual simplicity of Orthodox chanting (Photo 34 - Church interior at Valamo Russian Orthodox Monastery). Afterwards we walked the grounds of the monastery and bought a bottle of the monks' berry wine to drink with our Christmas lunch and remember Valamo.

Route 23 took us eastwards again into Joensuu, and after so many days of rural tranquillity, we did not have high expectations of Camping Linnunlahti, a city campsite next to a fair ground. But the youngster at reception gave us a smilingly helpful welcome, the price was only €17/night, and the noisy fairground closed at 8-00pm. And despite the noise of passing traffic, we watched large hares frisking around under the pine trees later in the evening. Serious rain washed over Joensuu during the night and we needed full waterproofs to walk into the city the following morning. Founded in 1848 by Tsar Nicholas I at the point where the Pielisjoki River flows into Lake Pyhäslekä, the town flourished as a busy trading centre. Joensuu suffered badly in WW2 and although redeveloped since with now 2 universities, the modern town is a featureless place of anonymous 1960/70s apartment blocks, made even more soulless on a Sunday morning in pouring rain. We plodged into town from the campsite through the grid of streets to the Lutheran church which stands at the southern end of Kirkkokato, facing the Orthodox church 2kms away at the northern end, rather symbolic of past centuries of Swedish-Russian warring which scarred these border regions. As much to shelter from the rain as interest in 20th century Neo-Gothic architecture, we went into the church and dripped all over the wooden pews for 10 minutes. Along into town to the Kauppatori (market square), even on a wet Sunday morning a few people browsed the stalls of a flea market (Photo 35 - Sunday morning flea-market at Joensuu in pouring rain). We sheltered for a snack lunch at a food stall run by a smiling Vietnamese family; asked why they had chosen to come to Finland, they humbled us with their simple response 'Because of the war in Vietnam'. Unsure of whether we should speak in English or Finnish, and not knowing any Vietnamese, we thanked them and wished them well. Unlike pictures we had seen of the town's old and charactersome market square, the modern Kauppatori was the very epitome of blandness, its soulless concrete ambience emphasised by pouring rain. The former market hall opposite had been demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Carelicum, a cuboid shopping centre utterly lacking any aesthetic grace. We went inside to find the North Karelia Museum, hoping without conviction for an improvement in Joensuu's prospects. In fact the museum made an impressive attempt to present the turbulent story of the centuries of conflict which had afflicted the Karelian border region and its inhabitants. Tragically moving displays illustrated the impact on families of the 1940~44 evacuations of 450,000 East Karelians and the enforced loss of the region to USSR. The final displays traced the history of Joensuu itself as North Karelia's principal city from its mid-19th century foundation to its post-WW2 redevelopment when, it seemed, determination to make an art form out of blandness bequeathed the city its current soulless urban-scape.

Donning our waterproofs again, we went out into the rain to see what else, if anything, Joensuu had to offer. Part-concealed thankfully by dark trees, the City Hall could scarcely be said to embody the most graceful of Art Nouveau architecture, looking like some brooding monster. We crossed the turbulent river hoping for better views of the city, but were unsurprised of course at finding none. Back past unnoteworthy shops and bars, we walked the length of Kirkkokato to find the Orthodox church, hoping its gilded icons might bring some aesthetic relief to Joensuu's cheerless gloom, but it was locked (Photo 36 - Joensuu Orthodox Church). Of course we should have known that Joensuu was an unappealing place with little to offer; our good friends and fellow-travellers Margaret and Barry Williamson had told us so in their account of their visits in past years, Magbaz Travels  But however compelling the obvious, you have to go and find out for yourself: we did, and it was!

Tomorrow was a new week and perhaps the sun would shine as we venture out into the little populated North Karelian borderlands with Russia, to Finland's and mainland EU's easternmost point, and north into the forested wilderness of Kainuu. Join us again in a couple of weeks.

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks or so

Sheila and Paul

Published:  24 July 2012


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Music this week: Jean Sibelius
Karelia Suite Opus 11: Alla Marcia
Composed in 1893 for performance in Viipuri

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