More Scenes from the King’s Road: Kotka to Porvoo

Czar's Fishing Lodge, Drawing Room

Czar’s Fishing Lodge, Drawing Room

The more I learn, the less I know. Finland’s story, as for any country, is varied and complex, and my understandings are necessarily incomplete. I stand at the fence and peer through its slats, conscious that I see only fragments, not the whole. Here is a second set of fragments from the King’s Road.

The Czar’s Fishing Lodge

Czar's Fishing Lodge, Langinkoski Rapids

Czar’s Fishing Lodge, Langinkoski Rapids

The Imperial Fishing Lodge in Kotka, “the only building outside Russia once used and owned by the Emperor of Russia,” is undeniably an idyllic place. [Langinkoski Imperial Fishing Lodge Booklet 9] On his first visit there, the man who would become Czar Alexander III became enamored of the Langinkoski rapids on the estuary of the Kymijoki River. When he became Czar, he brought back his Danish wife, Dagmar, who is said to have loved the place as much as he did. In 1889, at the Lodge’s inauguration,

. . . the vessels of the imperial squadron fired thirty shots in his honour. . . . [That evening] the Emperor got up and unexpectedly presented a toast to Finland, after which he ordered the band to play the Pori March . . . [Lodge Booklet 6]

Czar's Fishing Lodge, Kitchen

Czar’s Fishing Lodge, Kitchen

When at the lodge, the Emperor fished, chopped wood, and carried water from the river and the Empress cooked. She didn’t like to wash dishes, though, “so she left that to the servants.” [Lodge Booklet 6] Emperors and Empresses had license to do that sort of thing, though there were some in Russia who thought it unseemly for the imperial family to take its holidays “in the wilderness of Finland, eating nothing but fish soup.” [Lodge Booklet 9]

Meanwhile, back home in Russia, his fondness for the Grand Duchy of Finland notwithstanding, Alexander III busily rolled back the liberal policies of his father, Alexander II.

. . . reactionary where his father had been liberal, Alexander governed from three principles—orthodoxy, autocracy, and narodnost, or belief in the Russian people. [Glenda Dawn Goss, Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of FinlandLoc 873]

Czar's Fishing Lodge, Double-Headed Eagle Embroidery

Czar’s Fishing Lodge, Double-Headed Eagle Embroidery

Though he continued his predecessor’s practice of honoring Finland’s autonomy, Alexander III was a strong proponent of “Russification.”

[His] political ideal was a nation containing only one nationality, one language, one religion and one form of administration; and he did his utmost to prepare for the realization of this ideal by imposing the Russian language and Russian schools on his German, Polish and other non-Russian subjects, by fostering Eastern Orthodoxy at the expense of other religions, by persecuting Jews and by destroying the remnants of German, Polish and Swedish institutions in the outlying provinces. [citation]

Two years after his death, “a memorial stone for the Emperor was unveiled at Langinkoski.”

The translation of the text on the plaque mounted on the stone reads: “Alexander III, Builder of Peace, enjoyed rest and recreation here under the aegis of a faithful people from 1888 to 1894. The people of Kymi and Kotka erected this memorial plaque.” During the Civil War of 1918 following the independence of Finland, the memorial stone was shot at and vandalised, and there were attempts to remove it. The traces of vandalism have been retained as a memento of one phase in the history of Finland. [citation]

Strömfors Iron Works

Strömfors Iron Works

Strömfors Iron Works

Thirty miles west of the Czar’s Fishing Lodge, the Strömfors Iron Works sits in Ruotsinpyhtää at the westernmost junction of the Kymijoki River. As the town changed hands, its name changed, too. A potted summary at Wikipedia tells some of the tale:

The area of Ruotsinpyhtää was originally part of Pyhtää. After the Treaty of Åbo in 1743 the border between Sweden and [the] Russian Empire was drawn on the Ahvenkoski rapid, dividing Pyhtää between the two states. Due to this the western side became known as Ruotsinpyhtää (Swedish Pyhtää). In 1744 Jakob Forsell (later af Forselles) and Anders Nohrström bought the local ironworks, which was renamed Strömfors after their surnames. In 1817 Strömfors became the official Swedish name for the municipality.

Parishioner's Carving, Church at Strömfors Iron Works

Parishioner’s Carving, Church at Strömfors Iron Works

Among the well-preserved wooden buildings is an octagonal wooden church with an altarpiece by the esteemed Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. It’s the only altarpiece she painted, and it turns out she got the commission because she put in the lowest bid. The guide who told me smiled wryly, for the painting is now an extremely valuable work of art. Another artwork, valuable in its own way, is a small statue sitting on a shelf, purchased by the church from the impoverished parishioner who’d carved it.

Church at Strömfors Iron Works (Photograph by J. Holford)

Church at Strömfors Iron Works (Photograph by J. Holford)

What I loved most about the wooden church were its simple lines and the way light flooded in. I was reminded of the Russian garrison church at Suomenlinna, from which the Finns, on achieving their independence, removed the onion domes. “[T]he tower was rebuilt square. . . . The arched, curved bays, kokoshniks and other orthodox ornamentation were removed and the walls were plastered smooth.” [citation] The feeling of the Suomenlinna church, as of the wooden church in Ruotsinpyhtää, is of a great weight lifted—of light and air.




For our King’s Road exploration, we might have chosen to stay in Porvoo but for two things: we wanted a base in a more rural setting, and we’d been alerted that Porvoo’s proximity to Helsinki meant that, “in the summer at least, you’re hardly likely to be alone.” [Rough Guide to Finland Loc 2342]  That advice turned out to be right for us, but Porvoo is nonetheless a lovely “wooden town.” One of six towns in Finland founded in the Middle Ages, Porvoo is the only one that retains its medieval street plan. [citation]



Most of its buildings, though, are of more recent vintage. The Danes burned Porvoo to the ground in 1508; in 1708 the Russians followed suit. In 1760, the Great Fire of Porvoo destroyed two-thirds of its houses; it’s said that the fire began with a pot of fish soup left unattended on a stove. [Porvoo Official City Guide 23]  The people of Porvoo rebuilt their homes after the Great Fire, and safety measures since imposed have assured their presence today. [citation]

Lukiokuja 4, Runeberg's First Home in Porvoo

Lukiokuja 4, Runeberg’s First Home in Porvoo

Among those homes is Lukiokuja 4, where Johan Ludvig Runeberg, a Swedish-speaking Finn, took up residence in 1837 when he first arrived in Porvoo.

The main outlines of this doughty icon’s life are well known: how the great fire in Turku that destroyed the university there destroyed his hopes for a career; how in Helsinki he was unable to obtain a position at the Imperial Alexander University; how he spent most of his adult life as a gymnasium (high school) teacher in the town of Porvoo. . . . [Goss Loc 468]

By the time Runeberg died, “the honouring of his memory assumed almost religious proportions.”  Jean Sibelius was among those who paid homage. As a young boy, he “accompanied his mother on a pilgrimage to visit Runeberg in person . . . . [and] journeyed again to Porvoo to lay flowers at the poet’s newly dug grave.” [Goss Loc 472]

Among other works, Runeberg wrote the text for what became Finland’s national anthem, Vårt land (Maamme in Finnish). The Pori March, the performance of which Czar Alexander III had ordered at his Finnish Fishing Lodge, bore a Runeberg text, as well.  After Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917, signaling the utter failure of the Russification program in Finland, the Finnish Defense Force adopted the Pori March as its official marching song.

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(This is the second of two posts of Scenes from the King’s Road. The first post may be found here.)

Listening List

Sibelius “set more poems of Runeberg to music than those of any other bard.” [Goss Loc 504]

On Spotify, for Sibelius songs set to Runeberg texts, sung by Anne Sofie von Otter, click here.

On YouTube:

Norden (Northland), from Sibelius’s 6 Songs, Op.90 (1917)

The text, in Swedish and English, may be found here.

Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote (The girl came from meeting her lover), from Sibelius’s 5 Songs, Op. 37 (1900-2)  (With grateful thanks to Anneli for introducing me to Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote and many other Sibelius songs.)

The text, in Swedish and English, may be found here.

In 1933, Marian Anderson met and sang for Jean and Aino Sibelius at their home, Ainola. Anderson wrote at the time that, when she finished singing, Sibelius, “with tears in his eyes, came over and embraced me.”

Merchants' Warehouses, Porvoo

Merchants’ Warehouses, Porvoo


Credits: The quotations may be found at the links indicated in the post. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise accredited, are mine.


Scenes from the King’s Road: Virolahti and Hamina

Salpa Bunkers

Salpa Bunkers

I will show you a way
that I have travelled.

—Eeva-Liisa Manner

In the middle ages, the King’s Road, now primarily a tourist attraction, was “Finland’s most important route.” [Baedeker’s Finland Guide 234]

Although rarely traveled by kings, the King’s Road was used by diplomats, couriers, and ordinary travelers. . . . [and] maintained by royal decree. The road was imperative for communication between the kings and queens of the Baltic nations. . . . Land along the road would be given to those loyal to the crown so that it would always be preserved. . . . little villages and hamlets sprung up to support international commerce – medieval style. [The King's Road in Finland 2]

Our thought was to rent a car in Helsinki and meander, looking in on towns in the countryside along the way. The question was, in the time we had, should we head east toward the Russian border, or west, toward the archipelago outside Turku? Only in our household, perhaps, would the decision end up turning on two things, both to the east: Loviisa, with its wooden Old Town and connection to Jean Sibelius, and Virolahti, part of the 1200-kilometer Salpalinjan (Salpa Line) Bunkers along the Finnish-Russian border. We headed east. Continue reading

In Tallinn

Tallinn Old Town

Tallinn Old Town

Just outside the walls of Tallinn’s medieval Old Town stands a high-rise hotel with a bleak, functional design. When it opened in 1972, it was Estonia’s first skyscraper and the largest hotel in the Baltics. The local joke, that the hotel was “made of micro-concrete, as in concrete and microphones,” was in fact no joke.  The top floor contained a radio center, not discovered until 1994, from which the KGB spied on hotel guests. Continue reading


View of 26th Estonian Song Celebration from where I stood (lower right in hat and vest) (Photograph by J. Holford)

View of 26th Estonian Song Celebration from where I stood (lower right in hat and vest) (Photograph by J. Holford)

It must be somewhere, the original harmony . . .
—Juhan Liiv

When we first decided on a trip to Helsinki, we didn’t know that Tallinn, Estonia, was so nearby. Nor did we know, when we first arranged our schedule, that our arrival in Tallinn coincided with the last day of the 26th Estonian Song Celebration, a storied national event held once every five years. I was able to get two tickets, on the grass. Whether we could actually attend was open to doubt, but at least we’d have a chance. Continue reading

In Helsinki

Monument to Alexander II, Senate Square

Monument to Alexander II, Senate Square

A young woman strode forward, her cello strapped to her back, to join a gangly young man with a red thatch of hair. The gate personnel announced we would soon begin boarding for the flight to HelSINKi, and the young woman shook her head in contempt. She was Finnish, he was Latvian, and she spoke in English. “These Americans. They don’t even know how to say HELsinki.” The young man nodded with a world-weary air. Continue reading