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Along the Amber Route: Helsinki

You are never far from the sight, sound or smell of the sea in Helsinki. This agreeable low-rise city is spread across a rocky, starfish-shaped peninsula in a wide natural harbour fringed by islands. After mist-shrouded St Petersburg, its breezy, maritime air lifted my spirits. This small capital of just over half a million was an easy going place where almost everyone seemed to speak English. It clung to the southern shore of a long, thinly populated country that stretched 1,500 kilometres to the north, beyond the Arctic Circle. The entire population of this nation was just 5.5 million, similar to that of St Petersburg.

I had hoped to arrive by ship, but the service had been dis- continued. Instead, I took the Helsinki express from St Petersburg’s Finland Station. The moment I stepped on board, I was in a different world: from the rackety streets of post-communist Russia to the egalitarian prosperity of Nordic social democracy. The train filled up quickly, mostly with Finns, though there were a few Russians. At Vyborg, the last town on the Russian side, the intercom announced that the dining car and lavatories would be locked until the crossing was complete. ‘Please prepare yourself for a customs and border inspection.’

For five centuries, Finland was ruled by Sweden, with Swedish the language of the administration and social elite; it is still spoken by a minority and recognised as an official language. It was a Swedish king, Gustavus Vasa, who founded Helsingfors, as it was then called, in 1550, but the city failed to develop. The capital remained at Turku on the west coast, and Helsingfors was abandoned to the ravages of the Great Northern War, which brought plague in its wake, killing two-thirds of its inhabitants in 1710.

From Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

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C.J. Schüler

C.J. Schüler