FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The green paradise of Vallisaari

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 10, 2017

The connected islands of Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari are two of the newest attractions in Helsinki, easily accessed with a 20 minute long ride on a JT-Line water-bus from Market Square.

Until recently the islands housed an arms depot and training grounds for the Finnish military and were closed to the public, but a new initiative saw the islands opened to visitors in May 2016. The opportunity to take a peek at what has been happening here was one of the reasons that persuaded me that now was the time to come back to Finland.

The beautiful combination of nature and history is everywhere you walk on Vallisaari

Although Vallasaari is only separated from Suomenlinna by a narrow channel the two destinations are strikingly different. Nature has been allowed to reclaim the islands following the departure of the last inhabitants in the mid 1990s and this saw the transformation from an open landscape to a forest. The Russian fortifications on the island gradually disappeared beneath the green tide and would have remained hidden had it not been for works in 2015 that have helped make these more visible. I like the fact that they won’t alter this, as I think it is part of what makes this place special.

The 113 hectares of territory on the two islands have some of the highest levels of bio-diversity in the Helsinki region, including 450 vascular plant species including some that have been designated as vulnerable. Around 60 bird species have been found, including many threatened and near threatened species such as the red-backed shrike, and a pair of protected Eurasian eagle-owls has chosen the island for their nest. Nearly 700 different species of butterfly have been spotted and this again includes many that are under threat. It’s a green paradise.

All of this, combined with the fortifications, reminds me a little of places like Somes Island in New Zealand – although this doesn’t have the stringent environmental protections for visitor-arrivals and there are more facilities. There are dry-toilets located at various spots on the circular walks around the islands and there are some delightful cafes. We stopped off at Paja, a cafe located 100m south of Torpedolahti, which serves wonderful ice cream and coffee roasted on Lauttasaari. Everywhere on the island had a friendly and welcoming vibe.

A view of Suomenlinna from the shore of Vallisaari

It seems strange now to think that the architects of the Swedish military fortress of Sveaborg (Suomenlinna) did not appreciate that leaving Vallasaari virtually undefended (save for a small redoubt) left a pretty significant weak link in the defensive line. In 1808 this weakness was brutally exposed when the Russian forces brought in their artillery and proceeded to bombard Sveaborg from Vallasaari. The fortress was surrendered on 3rd May 1808 after a siege lasting two months.

The Russians began to fortify the island, now renamed Aleksanterinsaari in honour of Tsar Alexander I, to fill the gap in the defence of Sveaborg (and, by extension, St Petersburg). The development of the fortifications continued over the course of the century, notably with the construction of the Alexander Battery (now a key attraction on the island, augmented by a viewing platform) which Tsar Alexander II named after his son. None of this stopped Sveaborg from being bombarded from the islands once again when the forces on the island unsuccessfully mutinied in 1906.

The view from the walkway at the top of the Alexander Battery

The beauty of the islands today masks an often tragic history, not least with a massive explosion in 1937 that claimed 12 lives and destroyed 16 buildings. The place where the tragic accident occurred is now known as the valley of death. One of the display boards here shows a dramatic photograph of the tall column of smoke from the explosion seen from the Market Square.

I loved every minute of our time on Vallasaari and over the causeway to Kuninkaansaari. The display boards (In Finnish, Swedish, Russian and English) around the islands are terrific at serving up the potted history, photographs and maps that help make sense of what is front of you (we would have loved a guided tour in English but these were not running during our stay).

Thank you all the volunteers whose work has gone into making a walk around Vallasaari and Kuninkaansaari such an enjoyable experience. It has been the sightseeing highlight of our trip to Helsinki.

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