Did you enjoy Suomenlinna? Of course you did! Only a short boat (!) trip from the Kauppatori will take you to the place where history meets urban leisure time. The fortress is really interesting, the hobbit houses supercute and the time spent with your friends picknicking on the beach unforgettable.
Now, if you enjoyed yourself but would like to visit something more edgy, mysterious and considerably less touristy, I would recommend the isle of Vallisaari.
Looks good, huh! Today I will even present you with a nutshell history of the island, facts are impertinently copied from http://www.nationalparks.fi/en/vallisaari/history 😉
Since the 15th century the island has served as a sea fortress and a utility island for the neighbouring Suomenlinna. The cattle grazed in Vallisaari, firewood was also brought from here and some fortification structures served as storage.
In the 18th century, Vallisaari also became a pilot base – and now a little quotation from the official website: “The pilots and other inhabitants of the island were a headache for law enforcement. Distilling of alcohol and a tavern on the island caused the people to forget work on occasion. The inhabitants were also suspected of smuggling and serving illegal alcohol”. – Ha! I told you, Suomenlinna experience with a twist 😉 The last pilots left the island as late as in the early 1920s.
Under the Russian rule the fortification of Vallisaari (or Aleksanterinsaari at that time) was at its peak, the batteries you will see when you visit the island are from this period, such as the Alexander Battery (how original) with casemates and thick sand embankments. In the years preceding WWI, the batteries in Vallisaari were modernised with concrete constructions (the “bunker” like buildings you will see, especially around Kuninkaansaari), and a gunpowder magazine was built in the middle of the island.
The history of the two islands as a military area continued after Finland became independent in 1917; the islands served as weaponry storage until quite recently. In Vallisaari, ordnance, torpedoes, and mines were loaded and maintained; weather observations were made; and gas masks were repaired. In Kuninkaansaari, a coastguard station was in operation. During WWII, a German-made air surveillance radar was placed on the island.
And now a little history fact which is present in Finns’ historical memory today. Of course it has to involve and accident: “A destructive explosives accident occurred in Kuolemanlaakso (‘Valley of Death’) in Vallisaari on 9 July 1937. Thousands of kilos of explosives were flung across Vallisaari and all the way to Suomenlinna”, 8 people lost their lives in the explosion. The reason for the explosion is unknown…
The Valley of Death is by the way accessible by a semi-official path nowadays, the atmosphere is… deadly? You don’t want to spend too much time there, especially not in autumn.
“In addition to the functions of the Finnish Defence Force, a residential area with a distinctive identity of its own emerged in Vallisaari, with its residents being principally civilians employed by the state of Finland. The island was at its liveliest in the 1950s, when more than 300 people lived there – a school, a shop, and a youth club were active in Vallisaari, in addition to a choir, a drama club, and a troop of scouts. Although Vallisaari is located close to Helsinki city centre, the islanders led a rural life. People tended their vegetable gardens on the island, in addition to which a whole range of grazing animals was found: rabbits, sheep, horses, and pigs. The last inhabitants left the island in 1996.”
Since then, the islands have slumbered, remaining almost in a perfect natural state. In 2013, Metsähallitus started a project to prepare the opening of the islands to visitors before it opened to public only in spring 2016 – that already is a great promise for those who like to enjoy unspoiled nature with a “record-breaking range of species”. And indeed, you will experience the number and unique mix of plants so typical for Finnish archipelago – within 20 minutes boat ride from the heart of Helsinki. And as for the fauna – bats apparently love Vallisaari and abundant in here. Badgers and whateverbirds can also be spotted here. We were not that lucky, we did see the ‘flying lynx’ (horned owl) though, sitting undisturbed on the corner of Aleksanterinbatteri:
Now, here is the catch: due to islands’ military history the visitors are obliged to stay on official paths, digging is strictly prohibited, dogs have to be kept on leash at all times – and entry to certain areas is forbidden,violators can (will) be prosecuted. Swimming in ponds and on most of the beaches is also prohibited due to the amounts of scrap iron in which swimmers can get caught – plus all the military surprises. Some really exciting looking cliffs have been eroded (and eroding), and you don’t want to take the chance 😦 it is just a matter of time before the island becomes completely tourist friendly.
I understand the security risks, and no thanks I don’t feel like stepping on a landmine, but imho this cultivation process will take a lot of islands’ charm away. I feel so tempted to borrow a metal detector and help Metsähallitus with clearing up the beaches, lakes, forests…
Yet another quotation from the official website which summaries how I felt about the islands: a paradise for children. Made me shed a tear of nostalgia – how many places like that (minus the explosives though!) are there in Finland, where kids can actually experience adventure?
“For children, Vallisaari was a secret world where small islanders experienced numerous adventures, sometimes without the knowledge of the adults. Children threw stones at windows, searched for the mouth of a tunnel that, according to rumours, led to Suomenlinna, and dug up explosives, even though this was strictly forbidden then and is now.”
Sob. But please do adhere to the rules…