Castles and Caverns – Eastern Karelia, Finland

by Deryn van der Tang  (A runner-up entry in the inaugural Travel Writing Competition)

Eastern Karelia in Finland has secrets that once discovered will make you want to return again and again. The sheer pleasure of time standing still and the relaxation of the forests and lakes make this a destination to restore your soul.

Olavinlinna Castle, Savonlinna
Olavinlinna Castle, Savonlinna

As you travel northeast from Helsinki, passing through Lahti and Mikkeli, two larger towns, you arrive in the ancient town of Savonlinna. The landscape of forests and lakes become apparent as you drive, with small farms and wooden buildings making a pleasant rural scene.

The Castle of St Olaf or Olavinlinna Castle is situated on an island in Savonlinna. It is one of the most picturesque castles I have seen with its conical towers and buttressed walls.

It was built around 1475 by Erik Axelsson Tott as a fortress. It has been owned by both Sweden and Russia as it sits right near the border with Russia; it was used to protect Savonlinna and monitor the border between Russia and Finland.

The castle has great cavernous halls and rooms which can now be hired out for festivals and functions. One hall has an enormous statue of St Olaf in it. It also has secret chapels and a hagioscope. This is a small opening in the church wall through which a person could look obliquely into the church to observe the proceedings without themselves being seen.

Savonlinna is a port on the great Saimaa Lake with its many islands, canals and waterways. We went to the harbour and caught one of the few remaining steamships.

The SS Heinävesi has been operating regularly in the Saimaa region since 1906. On board we could sit and enjoy the leisurely pace as it chugged along, giving us time to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the lake and forests.

The journey to Punkaharju took us about two and a half hours. We sailed through some very narrow straits, quite near to the Russian border. Our dinner was served and eaten at leisure in the on board restaurant, just like it was a century ago. Local fish were served and I enjoyed the salmon with potatoes and dill.

SS Heinavesi moored at Punkaharju
SS Heinavesi moored at Punkaharju

We disembarked at Pukaharju and walked to the Retretti which is an Arts Centre carved out of the rocks, caves and caverns. The stairs led down to the underground displays. In each cave or cavern was exhibitedsculptures or artworks, some of them most strange, but fascinating.

Upstairs were Art Galleries some displaying the art of Finnish women. One artist said “Marriage is the burial ground of women of artistic ability”. Finnish women were the first to have the vote and are very independent ladies. This exhibition was truly inspiring. On returning to the steamship for the return voyage, we had a delicious tea with local delicacies to pass the time after a fulfilling day out.

Travelling north west from Savonlinna to Varkaus one passes through the town of Rantasalmi; one should take a detour to Porosalmi to visit the Museum Houses built by Esa Hainanan.

Canoes beached at Punkaharju
Canoes beached at Punkaharju

He has a deep-seated a passion for family, land and his heritage, building wooden houses since he was three years old. He has dredged 4000 year old trees out of the lake which he dried and then cut up to build the traditional style houses. Inside he displays his family history and artworks.

For a holiday rich in culture and timelessness, eastern Finland is a treasure trove. The restorative powers of the tranquillity of the lakes and forests cannot be underestimated for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the main tourist routes. The people are hospitable and helpful, although you may well need a phrase book to help you get by with the language.

(Photographs were taken by the author and supplied after the competition had been judged.)