A cluster of beautiful 18th century wooden houses, painted in vibrant shades of mustard and red, line the streets. Colourful pots of flowers brighten up the facades, and small bee hives dot the gardens. Fields of yellow dandelions grow wild on all sides around old cannons. Weathered barns and warehouses stand tall. I am in Lappeenranta, in south eastern Finland, in a densely forested region called Karelia, near the Russian border.
The city of Lappeenranta, bordering Finland’s largest lake, Lake Saimaa, and founded in 1649, was once the centre of the Finnish tar trade and a market town. It was the Swedish Queen Christina who signed the city charter. The large fortress of Lappeenranta was originally built by the Swedes in the 1720s and then strengthened and added to by the Russians. Our guide, Hanele Fair, explains that Finland, Russia and Sweden were always in conflict and defensive fortresses were often built on the borders of the country.
We start exploring the town at the “Kissing Park” (so called because it was a favourite rendezvous for soldiers and their girlfriends), with the statue of a soldier riding a horse, a famous landmark that was founded in 1850. It harks back to a time in history when these mounted cavalrymen, in their red pants and grey jackets, were an important part of the small town’s street life. Fair regales us with stories of soldiers who swam in the lake with their horses and a recalcitrant horse that ran on Main Street with a naked soldier.
On the southern slope of the fortress, stands the oldest monument in Lappeenranta. This harks back to the most important battle in Finland’s history, fought here on August 23, 1741. This battle resulted in the Russians winning over the Swedes and the beginning of the Russian era in the city’s history.
We walk to the fortress situated on a high ridge, lined with spindly birch and linden trees. Well-preserved red brick houses of the cavalry from the late 1800s and warehouses built for weapons dot Dragoon Hill on the way. Many have now been turned into student housing, offices and private residences; one building houses art and dance schools for children. Down below, Saimaa Lake stretches for miles, like a sheet of glass. Fair says that in summers, people wash their cotton rugs with a brush and soap on its banks — a typical Finnish pastime.
Entering the fortress through the Water Gate, we pass streets lined with colourful wooden and stone buildings. Some of the buildings have been converted into cosy cafes, others sell local handicrafts from fine linen and amber to toys and jewellery. In front of the erstwhile Russian Commanders House is a wooden guillotine — this is the longest street here, named after Queen Catherine of Russia. The fortress also has the oldest Orthodox Church in Finland, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which dates back to 1785.
Three old buildings in the fortress are today museums that showcase life in this part of Finland and its military history. We recoup with coffee and cinnamon cake at the historic Majurska Café, which celebrates over 200 years of history, having been a prison for women and a sports hall down the ages.
Lappeenranta is a lively place in the summer due to various festivals and celebrations, including a popular sand-building exercise where artistes, aided by school children, build the biggest sand castle in Finland at the end of Linnoitusniemi Cape from June to August, using 3 million kg of sand. The themes include circus and fairy tale castles.
We take a lunch cruise on Lake Saimaa from the Harbour which Fair calls the “living room of the city.” There are boats and ships moored here with cafes and restaurants. We sail on the lake passing small islands with summer cottages, through the narrow Saimaa Canal (a great engineering feat of the 19th century) that runs from Lake Saimaa, via the city of Vyborg, to the Gulf of Finland. The canal is used by ships that carry Russian timber to Lappeenranta’s giant pulp and paper mill. The canal, which is 43 km long, has eight locks — it’s an exciting experience as the boat lowers itself to pass through the locks and back again.
Everything in the town has a reference to Russia. Lappeenranta is the closest European city to St. Petersburg and approximately one-and-a-half million Russian visitors come here every year. “Russian cars dot the streets; They love to shop here as it’s cheaper,” says Fair.
We end the day baking traditional Karelian pies at Elma, a small bakery decorated with kettles, pans and utensils in pastel shades of pink and green, and colanders turned into lamp shades. Our baking classes are conducted by the owner, Lotta Karha, and her friend Reetta Tuuha, who has launched her brand (called Rimpsu) of the modern version of these traditional pies. In a kitchen with a large table, we roll out the rye-and-wheat dough, cut it into segments and roll it out into flat round pieces. We pipe it with rice and barley porridge and close it, pinching its sides, before sliding it into a hot oven.
Golden brown pies are brushed with some butter before the toppings, like reindeer meat and mozzarella cheese and tomatoes, are added. They serve as a perfect end to a day spent unravelling the region’s complex history.
(Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based writer)