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Suomenlinna: A majestic military fortress

DPA
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Located off the Helsiniki coast, it is one of the largest island fortifications in the worlds

A spectacular old fortress just off Helsinki’s harbour offers tourists a chance to clamber over rusting cannons and discover in passing some of Finland’s troubled history.

In 1748, the king of Sweden built one of the most gigantic island fortifications ever at the time.

History

It was called Sveaborg, or Swedes’ fortress. Covering a cluster of eight islands in the approaches to Helsinki, it was meant to protect the city against any attack by the Russian imperial navy.

Russia ended up in control of it anyway. Only after the end of the occupation of Helsinki by Czarist forces in 1918 did the fortress come 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 those months when the Baltic Sea is warm enough to swim in. 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 is shimmering in the noonday sun. The sea is glittering like a shattered mirror, and a slight breeze is wafting over the water. Visitors are licking on ice creams and pushing baby prams over the rough rocky paths around the fortress.

While tourists march forth to see all the attractions on their lists, the Finns head to the southern side of the island of Kustaanmiekka to relax and sunbathe on the sandbars between the old fortifications.

The rusting cannons are a reminder that this was not always so idyllic. When Finland still belonged to Sweden, the royal fleet was anchored here, while 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 7,000 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.

Finally, in the 1970s, the Finnish Ministry of Culture took over Suomenlinna. Today, the only invasion that the erstwhile fortress might have to fear is by the armies of tourists who regularly come swarming over the cluster of islands.DPA


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