Thank You Russia!
Finnish Railways have a wide gauge. The railways in Finland were built in the 19th Century when Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia and one positive consequence is that they use a wider gauge than most of the rest of Europe, meaning that, indeed, todays passenger does indeed have more room!
“A Single Ticket to Helsinki …..and a Hot Dog Please”
All longer distance trains have free wi-fi, free coffee in First and good buffet cars with plenty of space for bags and even bikes. Stations have easy access, although often with no staff or ticket office.
Although I had a Eurail Pass, prices for some tickets that I bought were reasonable and easy to buy and understand. Although as the stations are often unstaffed, if you buy at the station (as opposed to on line), you may well be buying them from the Kiosk and the person also will sell you a Hot Dog!
So, in short the actual experience of travelling by train is actually excellent!
Can you visit and see Finland by Train?
The Finnish Railways trains, operated by VR, are all pleasingly, new, spacious, clean, very punctual and bright, with room for bags. Many trains have 2 levels affording an even better view of villages, lakes and trees. Seldom were trains busy and finding a seat was not a problem. Reservations are not needed (unless you are travelling in a group or at a really busy time, I cannot see the need). Many Inter City trains are operated by new Pendolino tilting high speed stock, but even the humblest of local or commuter train has the same high standards.
But…Can you Explore Finland By Train?
The network extends across the country, into the Artic Circle and Lapland.
Between Helsinki and the city of Tampere there is a very frequent, fast service. To other cities and to the far north services operate 6-7 times a day, sometimes less. So, some planning is required. There are cross country trains also, which avoid going to and from Helsinki all the time.
I arrived by ferry into Turku where the ferry from Stockholm arrives and connects with trains. Helsinki of course has a port and major rail service and the airport is nowadays well connected by rail.
Additionally, a ferry ride is a ‘must do’ on a lake. We went from Tampere to Hameenlinna, an 8 hour lovely ride, both places are accessible by train.
From the train you really get to see typical Finland with lots of villages, lakes, islands, trees, forests and then lots more trees, lakes and islands. You get to appreciate a bit about Finland’s economy and all the wood cargo trains and loading sidings. Let’s not forget that you will get to interact local folk on a train too!
Buses and Coaches
There is a much more far reaching coach network than rail, although in many places it complements rail and from my experience the bus/rail interchange at stations was often very straightforward. Coaches were comfortable and also fairly inexpensive. Journey times are quite long due to the lack of motorways and interstate highway roads and consequential lower speeds.
In a country with many rural roads hiring a car gives great opportunity for exploration and driving in terms of traffic and signage looks fairly straightforward. The cost of running a car and rental is quite high and distances and times a consideration, especially as there are few motorways. One must also bear in mind The Weather…..whilst mostly lovely in summer with long light days, it’s not always like that and one should drive, well prepared! For many months it will be cold, dark with snow and ice.
One goal of mine visit was to understand more about the Finns and their history so my travels sought out places to help explain what was, to me, a somewhat surprising story.
In short! The back and forth of country borders!
What is Finland today has been Swedish and Russian for most of its past. It was in 1809 that Russia defeated Sweden and took Finland as a Grand Duchy. Firmly ruled to start with, the grip loosened as Finnish Nationalism grew later in the 19th century. The development of the international labor movement (which took root in Finnish factories amongst the many poor workers), the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917 saw, Lenin and the Provisional Russian Government give Finland its independence, finally.
Yet it was not as simple as that. Due to its location and long Russian border, The White Finns defeat The Red (workers) at the end of WW1 and again at the outset of WW2 Finland again fought a tactical war with Russia, and again at the end over the borders. In between, Finland allowed Germany access to Finland and allowed it to move troops to and from the various fronts. Finland picked the ‘wrong side’ and did not finish paying reparations to Russia until 1952. Yet as Finns pointed out, they did not end up as part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
In fact, their post WW2 leaders sought to assure Russia of its friendly intentions whilst remaining independent with a foot in the West. Kekkonen, President from 1952 to 1982 is seen by many as aligning himself too closely to Moscow, who sought influence over Helsinki appointments. Since the collapse of the USSR Finland has joined the EU, taken the Euro Currency but not joined NATO. This latter issue is seemingly still an issue that divides public opinion.
Note 5 th April 2023 Finland joins NATO due to the Russain invasion of Ukraine.
The History Understood
The best place to start is The National Museum of Finland, near the Central Station in Helsinki. This takes you step by step over the last millennium and more. Whilst in Helsinki take the ferry to the fortress island of Suomenlinna and see its role in the national story (as well as being a lovely boat ride and island to explore!).
Next, I thoroughly enjoyed the Lenin Museum in central Tampere. This really explained Finnish independence and the shift from being a Grand Duchy of Russia to an independent state. You get to stand on the very spot where Lenin and Stalin first met…two giants in history. Of course in 1905 when this took place, Tampere was in Russia and the Museum claims that it was the place where the Soviet Union was born!
There are several other sites which detail specific stories and in Hamenlinna you can spend the day and visit the 900 year old Castle and the Military Museum next door. The details do explain the movements of the country borders and one realizes the impact of having a long border with a global power – still, and the compromises which have been made.
I had the good fortune to meet and elderly man who during his National Service in the 1960’s (there is still National Service today) was serving at the time the USSR invaded Prague 1968. He told the story of Soviet President Kosygin making a secret trip, by submarine to southern Finland to meet the Finnish President and how it was so secret that the Finnish Coast Guard nearly accidentally intervened. It is only in recent years that details of this meeting have come to light.
See https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9514041 Kekkonen & Kosygin
< Hammenlinna Castle
Much is written and talked about on ‘design’ in relation to Finland. There are many old and modern galleries, exhibitions and more, across the country and in several towns design and architecture are detailed as important.
Alvar Aalto was an important creator of urban areas as people moved to towns and locations rebuilt in the post war era. He was born near Seinajoki, where you can see a 2-3 block area of his work, including a pristine modern church (you can get quite view too from the top of the separate church tower).
Across Finland there are many old, beautiful, houses and buildings. In truth though, several cities and parts of many towns, are really bland, built I’d guess in the 60’s/70’s with it would seem, no ‘design’ thought at all! They reminded me of Eastern Bloc uniformity from that same era.
Because cities were traditionally built of wooden buildings too many list ‘the Great Fire of x’ as having destroyed everything. One place really worth a visit where this did not happen is Rauma – a World Heritage Site – where hundreds of small old houses and buildings are seen in an active, living town. Definitely worth the effort to get there.
Above Left – Alvara’s civic design , including a church. Seinajoki
< Town of Rauma
Touring By Train
Outside of Helsinki the train took us to the much smaller second city Tampere. A regional and industrial center, it has a nice location between 2 lakes and one is quickly out of town. In and around the town apart from the Lenin Museum you can climb what claims to be the highest shale ridge (!) in the world and ascend the tower at the top of to get a 360 view. There are a couple of other interesting museums and at the Museum of Workers Housing you get see in detail and until about just 50 years ago, how the workers lived. Tampere also is the base for a variety of summer lake cruise companies.
The old capital is Turku with its sizeable fortress, is worth the effort and is a gateway to the islands. We journeyed to Vaasa, which has a couple of Gallaries; Seinojoki with its Alvar Aalto designed public buildings, Pori which seemed to have little of interest, but was the place to get the bus to Rauma which was magnificent with its so well preserved town center. Hameenlinna is a pretty town with lots to see and was the birth place of Sibelius as well as having an important, beautifully located castle and more. Well worth a visit!
Take the Train?
If you are exploring the main towns and cities over a week or so, want to view some countryside and travel across the country, then the train is ideal. Simply travelling on a Finnish train is a very pleasant experience; imagine nice surrounds, scenery to view —refreshment in hand. If you have longer it may be worth renting a car in certain places so as to dig deeper.
Tourism in Finland
Finland is simply not a big destination. By quite a way the biggest number of tourists come from the country next door, Russia and I saw the odd Russian car and heard odd bits of Russian. Next the tourism giants, the Germans come in summer. Asians travel to Rovaniemi the town that Santa Claus comes from. From October to March the Northern Lights draw some visitors to the north too.
So there are not large volumes and from observation relatively few travel beyond Helsinki , if you discount the cruise day visitors which crowd the harbor market (Kuappatori) the numbers seem to drop dramatically. As with other cities cruise line passengers crowd a few areas, for a brief time, and drive by sights in coaches.
I was amused to see in the mid morning at the Cathedral and Senate Square, it absolutely packed with coaches and people, yet visit, on the corner of the Square the City of Helsinki Museum and you will have much of the place to yourself!
Today Finland’s 5.4m live in country with a very high standard of living with excellent, eco friendly infrastructure, which manifests itself in transport. Everything is electric it seems, including many local buses (by the way it is fun to experience the acceleration of an electric bus when the driver forgets the power in the pedal!).
Finland has the lowest population density of almost any country in the world and it is often rated as the ‘happiest’ country. Now that I did not see nor fully understand. Yes, a good standard of living, a health service etc, but there is an isolation which is perhaps partly due to weather. Historically Finland had, it seems a very strong alcohol culture and the City of Helsinki takes about how it encouraged ‘beer houses’ to contain it. Today it is less so. They also still have National Service which in the Western World is now quite rare and are dependent on a few industries and a smaller aging population
There is little immigration to Finland and that must be due to the climate and the language, which makes it very difficult to integrate and so it is a very homogenous society. (I spoke to 2 Afghans running a fast food place in Tampere who had been there 5 years whilst studying – I can’t imagine the cultural change these young folks dealt with; although I assume that they were refugees who had had a tough time before).
Today Russia is less of a direct threat. Finns told us they are happy Russians visit and “ those are very nice and friendly people” one man said. Although today learning Russian is very rare. The legacy debate is over NATO membership – or not.
So it is a lovely country, but like all, with challenges and threats yet blessed with lots of land, water, trees and coastline.
Useful Transportation Resources
Finnish bus and coach timetable https://www.matkahuolto.fi/en/
VR, the national and primary railway timetable and information https://www.vr.fi/cs/vr/en/frontpage
One lake and river cruise option Silverline Cruises https://kauppa.hopealinjat.fi/en/hopealinjat-lake-cruises/
The Sports Stadium built in Central Helsinki which was to have been used for the 1940 Olympic Games. Of coures they never did take place.
Helsinki did host them in 1952