So in the end I migrated this blog of mine (which ended up being mostly about travelogues) from GitHub Pages to WordPress. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, you can probably skip this post safely.
Why? I mean, GitHub Pages are so hip and WordPress is literally one of the words pieces of software imaginable, right? Well, simply put, GitHub Pages are not really a good fit for travelogues. GitHub Pages, if you didn’t know, is a very simple hosting option available at GitHub (which is mostly about hosting software project code). It is free but all it can show is static HTML pages, or Jekyll templates. Jekyll is the most popular of static site generators these days. These generators take templates written in their own specific languages, and convert them to HTML pages. This is all done locally (or in case of GitHub Pages, on GitHub servers), and all that is ever actually served to website visitors is static HTML.
This is actually quite an appealing concept. It naturally limits interactivity, but most websites arguably don’t really need any interactivity at all. And these days, if you want comments, for example, you can just slap a Disqus widget onto your website — this way you’ll have someone else take care of your comments, and won’t need anything to run on your server. So you can just write your pages/posts in plain HTML or Markdown, and have header/footer/menu/index pages generated by Jekyll. Well not necessarily Jekyll, these days there are hundreds of static site generator projects. But Jekyll’s the most popular, and the only one natively supported by GitHub Pages. An additional advantage is that you can use your favorite text editor, and edit your posts offline, just pushing them onto GitHub whenever you like.
Well, it turns out, this workflow is fine for a basic website with a few pages, possibly about some software project or whatnot, or for a simple blog which doesn’t have many pictures. In fact I believe both of these use cases are precisely what GitHub Pages were designed with in mind. But when you write travelogues, it is mostly about pictures. And when you need pictures, static site generators begin to suck ass.
Vantaa is one of the two major satellite cities of Helsinki, along with Espoo. With the population of 215,000, Vantaa is a bit smaller than Espoo, and unlike Espoo it is landlocked, being located to the north of Helsinki (Espoo is to the west, enjoys a long shoreline, and includes a large number of islands and skerries). Otherwise it is mostly indistinguishable from Espoo though; a mishmash of mostly residential neighborhoods, most of them built from about 1950-1960s to the present day, often separated by small forests or other natural features.
I already told the brief history of Vantaa (formerly known as Helsinge parish village) in the previous part. Like Espoo, Vantaa predates Helsinki itself but it has been a minor village for the majority of its existence. St. Lawrence Church is one of the few relics (if not the only one) of the old Vantaa. The current administrative center of Vantaa is Tikkurila neighborhood as that’s where the city council and other services are located, but otherwise Tikkurila is not particularly special.
You might have heard of Vantaa from the name of Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, which is indeed located in Vantaa, 20 km from central Helsinki. In fact the airport splits the dumbbell-shaped Vantaa nearly in two. Like many big cities Helsinki outgrew its original airport named Malmi, which is located closed to the inner city, and has been repurposed for general aviation (and will probably be closed down in future).
We’ll have a look mostly at two Vantaa neighborhoods, named Kartanonkoski and Tikkurila.
As a matter of fact, there are two ways to drive to Northern Norway from St. Petersburg, Russia. First, you can go through Finland. It’s a pretty safe bet; the quality of the roads is very nice, the traffic is fairly light, and there are many routes you can choose. There are six border crossings from Finland to Norway. The only downside is that driving through most of Finland is relatively boring. Apart from some parts of Lapland and Karelia, the views are decidedly unimpressive. Unless you happen to like trees a lot, I mean.
The other option is, of course, going through Russia! I got my driving license in January 2013, and clocked at least some 70,000 kilometers by July 2016, but I was still very wary of driving extended distances in Russia. Narrow and sometimes poor roads, lots and lots of suicidally reckless drivers, and usually quite significant traffic with a lot of overloaded trucks do not really make for a nice driving experience too. Still, the St. Petersburg — Petrozavodsk — Murmansk — Norwegian border road, the Kola Route (signposted as M-18 or more properly R-21) was, as far as I knew, a fairly nice one as far as Russian roads go. And we’d get to visit two major Russian cities we would be unlikely to visit otherwise: Petrozavodsk and Murmansk!
So in the end we decided to go to Norway via Russia, and back via Finland. Over overall itinerary looked like this:
The letters do not mean anything, sorry. It’s surprisingly difficult to draw a non-trivial map with Google!
Suggested soundtrack for this part: Teleks — Hiljaa virtaa Vantaa (Finn. Quetly flows Vantaa):
Now, Finland, a land of thousand lakes (or, rather 187,888 lakes, as is commonly quoted, though I suppose the exact number depends on how you define a lake), is at the same time surprisingly poor in major rivers. There are some, like Oulujoki, Kemijoki, or Tornionjoki, but these tend to gravitate to the north (Lapland and Northern Ostrobothnia regions). In Southern Finland, on the other hand, the only major river that flows into the Gulf of Finland is Kymijoki in the southeast of the country*.
* Vuoksi may technically count, but it takes a very circuitous route, flowing through Karelian Isthmus in Russia into Ladoga Lake, which in turn discharges into the Gulf of Finland through Neva River.
Central Helsinki in particular lacks any freshwater bodies at all. This might not be immediately obvious, what with all the brackish water of Gulf of Finland around it, but it’s mildly curious when you think about it. Why wasn’t Helsinki built at the mouth of a river, like Turku or Porvoo or Kotka?
If there is one city I love the most in the world, that would be Helsinki, the capital of Finland. (Edit 2020: okay, not so much anymore, Helsinki is simply way too huge) Stockholm might be a close tie, and it’s, objectively speaking, prettier and has more sights, but still, I love Finland more, and thus I love Helsinki more. It looks perfect to me in nearly every way imaginable, specifically perfect as a place to live in. And when I’m talking about Helsinki, I usually mean Greater Helsinki, the whole metropolitan area. Helsinki proper has a population of 630,000, but with its suburbs it’s closer to 1.4 million. The closest suburbs are Espoo and Vantaa, which pretty much completely blend into Helsinki from the west and from the north respectively.
I’m actually not all that familiar with Helsinki; my go-to places for weekend trips are smaller towns and natural sights within reasonable driving distance from the Russian border, and on my vacations, I try to go much farther north. Still, back in March I had a marvelous trip, when I just walked all the way from the center of Helsinki to Espoo (Espoon Keskus area) alone on foot, and got to see a pretty significant slice of Helsinki and Espoo on my way. Last weekend, in late November, I decided to do pretty much the same, only with Vantaa this time. Just walking around, not trying to see any particular sights, just enjoying Finnish streets and suburbs.
For the first time in nearly two years, I decided to choose a different mode of travel than my car. I’m not a fan of winter driving. Road conditions probably weren’t that terrible, but it just takes up a lot of time, and daylight hours up here in November are pretty short. So it’s either waste these precious hours on driving (at least 4.5 hours from St. Petersburg to Helsinki one way), or drive before/after dark, which is twice as exhausting. In the end I decided to buy tickets for the Allegro train.
This series has unfortunately been never finished.
Year 2016 has finally been the year I had both the time and the means to make a kind of journey I really always dreamed about. Sure, Sweden and especially Lapland last year were quite nice, but Sweden felt too rushed overall, and Lapland trip, while a completely surreal experience for me, still had a rather limited scope. So I allocated a pretty huge sum of money for the summer of 2016, and booked three vacations in a row at work. And the first one, in July, was going to be the longest. Two weeks, or 16 days, including the preceding weekend.
This time my only companion was my friend Olga. We originally wanted to do a trip to Iceland. We drew up an itinerary and all, but ultimately, decided to go with something else. While in theory we could afford Iceland, the margin for error was going to be rather thin. Plane tickets to Iceland cost a lot, and then of course you have to rent a car there, or you’re not going to see much of Iceland(*).
(*) Actually, there is a way to visit Iceland while driving your own car. There is a ferry line connecting Iceland with Denmark, via Faeroe Islands. The ferry trip is long and costs a fortune too, though, and just driving to Denmark isn’t a very small undertaking in itself. Of course I still want to do this someday too!
Well, our next choice was Northern Norway. We had had only a fleeting experience with Norway before, just enough to know it is utterly amazing and really the most beautiful place on earth. On my Lapland journey I actually drove a bit around a small bit of Northern Norway, but didn’t have the time even for a small bit of hiking. Thus we intended this time to be quite different!
I’ve just read a book by some Mrs. Alec Tweedie, an English woman who travelled around Finland in 1897. She had previously been to Iceland and Norway; and all of these three countries were as far from popular tourist destinations as possible at the time. Mrs. Tweedie, a woman in her late thirties, recently widowed, went to Finland for three months, with her sister and a local companion, communicating with the locals mostly in German (whenever at all possible; although Finns speaking excellent English were occasionally encountered in surprising places). The book, named Through Finland in Carts, is available for free now in Kindle Store (in fact I stumbled upon it when I just tried typing “finland” into Kindle search). It is the 3rd edition, published in 1913, and containing many notes on the changes in Finland since the time of the actual travel.
Overall I wasn’t a great fan of Mrs. Tweedie’s prose. It seems a bit amateurish and the author is obviously trying too hard at times (although I do admit it strongly reminded me of Three Men in a Boat, sans humor; and Three Men in a Boat is a great book). Still, it was an extraordinarily interesting read for me, since I’m such a big fan on Finland. Mrs. Tweedie she actually paints a very good and fairly complete picture of Finland on the eve of the 20th century, even going to some lengths to describe not only the sights or the people, but also the industry, the agriculture, and in general what the people actually do for their living. So I’ll try to summarize some of the most interesting details mentioned in the book.
The actual route was: Helsinki — Vyborg — Valaam — Sortavala — Imatra — Savonlinna — Kuopio — Iisalmi — Kajaani — Oulu — Hanko. Despite the name, the ladies actually enjoyed multiple modes of travel, including also railroads, steamships (including the entire Oulu — Hanko leg), and boats used for trasporting tar. They also changed several other companions over the course of their trip. The one who accompanied them most was “Grandpapa”, a young Finnish man from a wealthy family, who got this nickname from them for his solemn demeanor.
The author entered Finland by a steamship, of course, taking 4.5 days to sail from Hull, England. Finland was very little known at the time, and she hadn’t even been able to find a decent guidebook or a map of the country before setting off.
At the time Hanko was the only usable Finnish port in winter (due to its relatively outlying location), and even it sometimes had to be closed for weeks. Icebreakers already existed but were not powerful enough to clear waterways for any other seaport. Hanko thus was much more important in those times than now. The author went in summer, of course. In fact she was surprised by how outright hot the Finnish summer was.
Helsinki was the only half-decent city they saw. Every other Finnish city is described as a small, ugly and absolutely uninspiring mess of wooden shacks (including Vyborg which had been the second largest city of Finland). I suppose there must have been some exagerration to this, though. Although Finnish cities still are often described as boring, there are certainly some beautiful landmarks and old neighborhoods predating 1897.
Very surprisingly, the Finns are over and over described as quite slow and tardy people! Like for example, if a Finn says he will do something “right away”, that means “in 20 minutes” in best case. This is particularly interesting as there is a strong stereotype of Finns being slow (though not as slow as Estonians) in Russia. Which these times does not seem to be true at all.
The Finns are also repeatedly described as homely and even ugly people, usually thickset if not outright fat, and with quite rough features. Even women, and especially women. This is of course a subjective matter but I absolutely wouldn’t call a typical modern Finn homely.
Nonetheless, the Finns are said to be in general a very friendly, reliable, and welcoming (if introverted and very stoic) people. Many Finns, especially from the rural areas, displayed childlike amazement at meeting actual living “English ladies” (they even were written about in local papers throughout their journey). The author notes that Northern people in general have a sort of moral integrity that is sadly lacking in people from the more southern countries.
The Finns are in particular often compared to the Scots, and their cultures are said to resemble a good deal.
Bikes were already very popular at least in Helsinki (which had a population of 150,000) back then. The roads however were very rough, both in cities and in the country. The Finns allegedly weren’t much bothered by that, saying “well they’re covered with snow for like half an year anyway”.
Women already enjoyed a lot of rights in 1897 (although they were allowed to vote and to be elected into Parliament only in 1906, but Finland still was the first country in Europe to allow that), which was a continuous source of wonder for the author, who was quite feminist-minded. In particular lots of students of University of Helsinki were women. Women however also performed a lot of physically demanding jobs usually performed by men, such as cleaning streets, or building houses. It is also mentioned that Finnish women gained the right to marry freely (without permission of their father, mother, or any surviving eldest relative) in 1864. Divorces, at the moment of the writing, still were not granted freely (adultery and prolonged (one year) absence of one party were valid grounds), which is still claimed to be a much more free state of affairs than was usual in England at the time. Inheritance laws are also described at some length, and were also quite fair to female children.
Drinking coffee was already a pretty universal custom (and still is).
Finland was a part of Russia in that era, but there still were border controls between Finland and Russia, and obtaining a passport was required to cross the border (although that wasn’t difficult). The author obliviously claims this helps to keep out anarchists, socialists, Jews, and beggars. Yeah, one of these things is not like the others.
The censure was active in Finland, just like it was in Russia. Foreign newspapers from Britain, Germany, etc., were available, but entire paragraphs were blacked out from them by hand. This probably worked the same as in Russia, I just had no idea that they actually went to these lenghts. I mean you could just forbid selling any foreign newspapers at all, right?
Russian soldiers were occasionally seen at least in Helsinki (looking very shabby). There were very few Russians in Finland otherwise. The Finns were somewhat resentful towards them for being arrogant towards Finland, and not really making an effort to understand it. (Note that this had been just before the Russification policy started in Finland, and practically speaking the Finns had little reason to complain at the time.)
The Finns already routinely built summer cottages on various islands and in other remote corners of the country. The author claims that families retreated to these cottages for entire summer. This couldn’t include the breadwinner of the family, I assume?
I won’t describe the gastronomical part of the journey as this is honestly the most boring part for me. The peasants brewed and drank a small beer named kalja, for what it’s worth.
Despite having a small and poor population, Finland already enjoyed some inventions which were uncommon elsewhere at the time, such as telephone. The author even retells an anecdote where a young man, named Pekka of course, asks a beautiful girl Ilma to marry him over the phone, and she is overjoyed to accept; but when he actually goes to her house, he discovered that it actually was Ilma’s mother who he talked to; she just happened to had been secretly in love with him.
Mosquitos and deer flies were extremely, absolutely horrible. In fact it was because of mosquitoes that the author in the end decided against going to the north of Oulu, to Lapland (the original plan was to take a steamer from Oulu to Tornio and continue northwards, presumably along what was to become the Northern Lights Road later). Bed bugs were also a huge bane of peasant dwellings, and a few times prevented the ladies from sleeping at all; another nuisance was a nasty smell from whatever weed the peasants routinely used to stuff the mattresses.
Of course saunas are a big subject and have their own chapter devoted to them, but there wasn’t anything particularly surprising — way too hot, awkward that you’re expected to bathe naked, etc. Well there also was the fact that saunas were more often called bastu in the educated circles, which simply means sauna in Swedish. Washing in hot tubs meanwhile was an utterly alien concept for the Finns.
Apart from the saunas though there were also anthill baths. Basically an anthill was just plunged into hot water, and then you bathed among corpses of dead boiled ants. That was a, how do you say it, popular cosmetological procedure at the time.
Valaam Monastery was pretty much the same as any Orthodox monastery still is to this day. By far the most striking impression of the monastery for the author was meeting a young Russian monk (with a German mother so he spoke German), Brother Sebastian, originally from Moscow, who was sent to the monastery by his rich and influential father three years before for some undisclosed offense. He was already free to return back to secular life after three years, but he claimed he didn’t want to, having been entirely disconnected from the world for so long, not even knowing for sure who the Tzar was at the time. He appeared deeply unhappy.
In Sortavala, the ladies saw a festival of Runo singers. Runo singing and Kalevala is described at length; a traditional Karelian wedding was also witnessed. There were also some more modern performances, like a peasant drama named Anna Liisa, by Minna Canth. It is retold in great detail, taking up fifteen pages. It does not actually end with everyone dying, but the heroine confesses to having murdered her own baby, and is arrested and presumably executed in the end. This kind of plot is perfectly normal for Finland.
Imatra waterfall is described as if it was the greatest wonder of the world. I wonder if it had been more impressive before the big power station was built. Not that it isn’t impressive now, mind you. The author also laments poor accommodation and spoiled nature, both of these factors deterring possible tourists. Of course nowadays Finland has great accommodation options, and unspoiled (or seemingly unspoiled) nature seems to be the whole point of the country.
Juhannus (Midsummer) celebrations with a huge bonfire were seen on Ilkeäsaari, a minor island near Vyborg where the estate of one of ladies’ companions was located. I failed to find this island on any old maps, or even any mentions of this island outside this book. Perhaps the name of the island was misspelled although it sounds valid (and translates as “Bad Island”).
Education was very good and accessible, by the standards of the era. Children attended primary school unversally, and pretty much everyone was literate, in stark contrast with Russian peasantry. Each municipality had at least one school. Over a hundred secondary schools also existed throughout the country. Primary schools were free and secondary schools were very cheap. Teachers enjoyed a good salary and were a very respected class. Even the University only demanded a reasonable one-time entry fee (and small fees for examinations and use of laboratories).
In Savonlinna, the ladies actually stayed in Olavinlinna castle, which remains the greatest attraction of the city to this day. At the time Olavinlinna was mostly deserted. The ladies were lodged not literally in the medieval halls, but rather in the more modern guardhouse, apparently the same one where entry tickets are sold now. Even that was unversally considered absolutely unsuitable for English ladies, and everyone tried to talk them out of it. The stay was indeed not particularly comfortable (and the castle was quite creepy) but not much worse than some of their other experiences. Punkaharju, a town near Savonlinna the location of which is even more picturesque, was also advised to them by pretty much everyone as one of the great attractions of Finland.
Wood, the “green gold” of Finland, was obviously the principal export of the country, and that could be easily seen, with logs transported in sleds in winter, then floated in huge log rafts over all inland waterways in summer, to be collected in great stacks in the port cities like Kotka, where they were sawn on steam sawmills and loaded on ships. In off-season, a million logs could be stacked in Kotka at any single moment; remember that all ports but Hanko were frozen in winter at the time.
As far as other exports go, butter and cheese were, perhaps surprisingly, a pretty important one. Much of these were exported to Britain, and the author laments the allegedly sad state of cheesemaking in England itself. Meanwhile the majority of consumer goods and machinery were imported from Germany.
Travelling in carts sometimes required the use of cable ferries (lossi), much more common at the time in fact, as lots of bridges didn’t exist yet. The ferries, which were little more than small rafts, were awkward and scary to use. They likely were already free to use just as they are now (or at least no payment is mentioned). Another feature of cart roads were common majatalo houses, basically inns/postal stations, which could differ a lot in the conditions they offfered. They were spaced 8-12 miles apart and operated by well-off local farmers, subsidized by the government. The usual and fairly affordable mode of land travel was with postal carriages.
A rural church near Iisalmi was visited and a service there was witnessed but there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual to tell about, apart from the fact that the service reminded the author very strongly of Scotland churches. Peasants were regularly examined by the pastor on their basic knowledge of the Bible. I remember the scene of such an examination from Emil of Lönneberga book by Astrid Lindgren; that was in Sweden of course but it seems that particular custom didn’t differ here. Passing the examination was in particular a prerequisite for marriage. This probably was one of the reasons literacy was so high even among peasants.
Author’s sister actually lugged around a bulky photo camera (a kodak; this word for photo camera was pretty much a generic trademark at the time) and took a lot of pictures but consistently failed to find a dark room to develop them. At the end she had to plug all windows and the like, and yet the film still ended up spoiled and thus, no pictures in this book.
At Iisalmi, the author witnessed a wedding among the poorest peasants, those who lived in savupirtti houses, which lacked a chimney and were black with smoke from the inside. They were torppari — those who didn’t own land but rather rented it from a more wealthy owner. A funny custom was that the groom wasn’t to (formally) ask for the hand of his bride himself; rather a friend of his accompanied him and spoke for him, while the groom remained silent. Overall despite the poverty these people seemed to be quite optimistic and fairly happy with their lives.
The Kajaani — Oulu journey was in a tar boat. The importance of tar as Finland’s major export was falling fast at the time (as its major use is for construction of wooden ship hulls, and wooden ships were already rare), but it still was the traidional industry of Kajaani region (Kainuu). Tar was extracted from trees in tar-pits (tervahauta), large outdoor ovens where wood was left to smoulder, covered over to ensure the absence of air, for days. Tar barrels were then loaded on long narrow dangerous-looking boats, and floated through Oulujärvi lake and Oulujoki river, past Vaala and Muhos towns, to the port of Oulu. Indeed, the modern Oulu-Kajaani highway (National Road 22) along Oulujoki and Oulujärvi is also designated as Tervan tie, “tar road”; I happened to drive on it on my own return trip from Lapland. Tar boats had to pass some narrow locks, avoid storms common on Oulujärvi, and navigate some dangerous rapids on Oulujoki, with help from local pilots. The boat on which the ladies sailed happened to encounter unusual thick fog near the rapids, and had to stop for a while; the ladies slept in a house of a local peasant, who again was very welcoming and glad to help, although the beds and conditions in his house were quite deplorable.
In Oulu they witnessed salmon fishing with great nets on Oulujoki river. Nothing much to tell about it. And then they boarded a steamer for Hanko. The steamer was virtually the only ship or machine burning coal, rather than wood, that they saw in Finland. Finland never had its own coal, and why bother with coal anyway if you have so much cheep wood. Oulu-Hanko steamer (actually to continue on to St. Petersburg after Hanko) was moored very close to huge tar warehouses in Oulu, and thus it was imperative for it to avoid sparks flying out of smoke stacks, which was common with wood-burning steamships.
Some of the passengers on this steamer were emigrants, which were to depart Hanko for the United States then. I remember seeing a small monument to all the Finnish emigrants in Hanko, depicting birds flying away; it is very poignant. Finnish emigrants generally did well in the United States, and many of them actually returned back to their beloved homeland after getting more or less rich. The steamer meanwhile stopped in Jakobstad, Vaasa (which was noted by the author for having girls and women unusually beautiful for Finland), and Turku (where they were shown some mummies in the crypts of Turku cathedral, whatever these were).
Apart from being a winter port, Hanko was (and still is) also a resort town, also particularly favored by Russian nobles and officers. The ladies met a Russian Admiral there, and witnessed Orthodox christening in the local church. And, well, this is where it ended. They departed Finland, noting in the end:
Our eyes were tired with sights, our minds were chaotic with strange ideas and tongues, but yet we felt how misunderstood that beautiful country is, how well worthy of careful study, and what a delightful new field it opens up to the traveller who, though he believes he “knows all Europe, ” yet has omitted Suomi, one of her quaintest gems.
Which is pretty much how I feel about Finland myself, anyway.
The final city I visited over my September Kymenlaakso weekend was Kotka. With its population of 55,000 Kotka is the second largest city of Kymenlaakso, after Kouvola. A lively seaside town, it is not quite as old as Hamina, but still can boast some history too.
Kotka is located in the estuary of Kymi (Kymijoki) river, the one Kymenlaakso Region gets its name from. Kymi splits into two branches near the modern Valkmusa National Park; the western branch flows into the Gulf of Finland at Pyhtää, a mostly unremarkable small old town, and the eastern branch splits some more, forming several islands in its mouth, and these islands are where modern Kotka is located.
The history of Kotka doesn’t really start until the late 18th century; before that, Pyhtää and Hamina (originally Vehkalahti) were the local centers of civilization. The territory of Kymi estuary was simply called Kymi as well; Kymi Municipality was merged with Kotka in 1977. In 1788 however King Gustav III of Sweden started a new Russo-Swedish War, ostensibly to return territories annexed by Russia before (Old Finland, with Vyborg, Kexholm, Hamina, Lappeenranta, and Savonlinna). The idea was to catch Russia off-guard, as it was already busy fighting a war with Turkey. It was a classic case of “short victorious war” actually intended to solve domestic problems. As usual, the plan failed. It was pretty idiotic from the get go; they seriously expected to capture St. Petersburg and depose Empress Catherine II! No wonder the delusional Gustav ended up assassinated a few years later. Well anyway, two major sea battles of this war were fought in Ruotsinsalmi (Finn. Swedish Channel; also Swed. Svensksund), a strait between the mainland and an archipelago near Kymi mouth. The first Battle of Svensksund was a decisive Russian victory; however, the second one was won by the Swedes, and in effect prevented Russia from claiming a victory in the entire war, which it had been close to, making its commanders feel way too self-assured. That Second Battle of Svensksund remains to this day the largest naval battle ever fought in the Baltic Sea, and the largest ever Swedish naval victory.
The town of Hamina, located in about 35 km from the Russian border, has population of only about 21,000 (10,000 if you discount suburbs and villages), but as far as smallish Finnish towns go, it is a very cool one, thanks to its unusual city plan. Hamina is a fortress town, with fortress-like octagonal planning and surrounding bastions and ramparts still preserved to this day.
The place which later became Hamina was historically known as Vehkalahti (Finn. Calla Bay, after a flower), and indeed Vehkalahti Municipality with a calla flower on its coat of arms still existed near Hamina up until their merger in 2003. Villages in Vehkalahti existed since the Middle Ages, and in 1653 Vehkalahti kirkonkylä (church village) was promoted to a town, unimaginatively named Vehkalahden Uusikaupunki (Finn. Vehkalahti New Town; not to be confused with a city named simply Uusikaupunki, to the north of Turku). 1653 is thus considered the year of Hamina founding, which makes Hamina the oldest Kymenlaakso city.
Vehkalahden Uusikaupunki was a fairly insignificant town up until the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. The town got burned down to the ground in 1712, but after the war it became a border town, and thus got rebuilt as a fortress. It was renamed into Fredrikshamn (Swed. Frederick Harbor) in 1723, after King Frederick I of Sweden, who succeeded warmongering Charles XII. Fredrikshamn remains the official Swedish name of the city, but in Finnish it became known as simply Hamina, “the harbor”.
Fredrikshamn was redesigned by Duke Axel Löwen, a notable Swedish military commander and fortifications engineer. It became a star-shaped fortress, with an octagonal city core among sharp bastions; a fairly rare design for a full-fledged city. Apart from the military significance, Fredrikshamn became an important seaport for border trade with Russia — a role which had been fulfilled by Vyborg before. (The new border of 1721 in Southeastern Finland approximately matched the modern post-WWII border, leaving Virolahti and Lappeenranta to Swedish Finland, and Vyborg and Kexholm to Russia.)
The history of the Finnish defensive fortification lines against Russia starts with the declaration of independence of Finland in 1917. The Bolsheviks basically let Finland go, presumably due to having too much trouble on their hands to bother trying to keep hold of the splinter of Russian Empire which had never been even remotely Russian to begin with. Despite the generous gesture, relations between newborn Soviet Russia and Finland remained tense. An extremely bloody civil war erupted in Finland, just as it did in Russia; but unlike in Russia, even with Soviet support, the Reds in Finland were brutally crushed. Moreover, it was Finland which then initiated military intervention in various parts of Russian Karelia, hoping to sway Karelian people (closely related to the Finnish) to join their country. The intervention, known as "Kinship Wars" in Finland, was rather minor in scale and ultimately the Karelians turned out to be apathetic about the whole thing, but nonetheless that was one more reason for Soviet Russia to be on not very friendly terms with Finland.
Thus the idea of the Mannerheim Line was born. It was not what it was really called at the time, but it was indeed commissioned by Field Marshal Mannerheim, the famed Finnish commander-in-chief throughout the interwar period and the World War II. The line was meant to be a contiguous line of fortifications, including concrete bunkers, dragon’s teeth, barbed wire, and natural features such as lakes and impassable swamps. It stretched across the entire Karelian Isthmus, from Humaljoki (Yermilovo) at the coast of the Gulf of Finland to Taipale (Solovyovo) at the coast of the Ladoga Lake.
It’s a common knowledge now that the Mannerheim Line turned out to be a great success in the Winter War of 1939-1940. Soviet offensive was halted by the line for several months, and suffered great losses. This was particularly noteworthy because the line itself was frankly by no means a marvel of fortification. It had been constructed over the previous twenty years, mostly very slowly, cheaply, and shoddily, with rather small bunkers of unreinforced concrete. Few people really believed the line would actually end up being utilized. Only by 1938, when the war already seemed imminent, works on the line intensified. In the end the Mannerheim Line was broken through, but given sheer numbers of the Soviets, that was probably bound to happen anyway. Mannerheim later claimed that the success of the line was more due to the morale and valor of the Finnish troops than anything else.