Those who managed to board the islands’ shores, either illicitly or on special authorization of the Finnish Defence Forces, used to bring back stories and pictures of unspoilt wilderness, rich fauna and heaps of open caves, bunkers and other decaying military structures open for exploration.
Two fortification islands joined by a narrow earth dam and sealed off from the rest of the world, Vallisaari (“Bulwark Island”) and Kuninkaansaari (“King’s Island”) were always a mystifying presence in the Helsinki archipelago.
At once a natural part of the landscape and completely unreachable to most people, Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari stood in a stark contrast to the popular and well-developed Suomenlinna sea fortress islands that neghbor them.
Those who did manage to board their shores, either illicitly or on special authorization of the Finnish Defense Forces, used to bring back stories and pictures of unspoilt wilderness, rich fauna and heaps of open caves, bunkers and other decaying military structures open for exploration.
On May 14, the veil of secrecy around Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari was partially lifted as a public route opened between mainland Helsinki and Vallisaari. Not having had the opportunity to visit the islands before (which, yes, I will forever regret), I knew I had to go that very same weekend.
Sunday 15 May started out cool and grey. This was no problem for the four of us – myself, Paul, Paul’s sister and a very special newborn human being whom I won’t be introducing here just yet – as it meant fewer crowds and more freedom to wander around and look for the islands’ treasures at your own pace. After a hectic Saturday spent in town, this was more than welcome.
As the vessel pulled to the Vallisaari docks, I felt a tinge of excitement that had less to do with the place itself at that point and more to do with the sheer novelty of what lay ahead of us. Having lived in Helsinki for almost half of my life, I wasn’t very used to surprises. Sure, I’d seen my share of abandoned buildings, tunnels and sewers, but two whole islands with their own intricate histories and geographies to explore? That was something new!
In the end, just as we had anticipated, the area proved way too big to take in in one day and too rugged to accommodate the pram that our youngest group member was traveling in. There was much of Vallisaari we didn’t get to see, and we barely made it to Kuninkaansaari at all. But this was alright, because we knew we would be coming back sooner or later.
Vallisaari under Swedish and Russian rule
One of the first things the visitor sees when stepping foot in Vallisaari is the abundance and diversity of abandoned military architecture. I’m not just talking a few crumbling monuments peeking out of the bushes; the whole island is positively chock-full of old buildings, bunkers, caves and other structures in varying states of decay.
These structures offer an interesting window into Finnish military history from the 16th century to today. The first bulwarks were erected in Vallisaari in the 16th century under Swedish rule. In the 19th century, the islands were properly fortified by the Imperial Russia and, in 1863, visited by Alexander II himself. Aleksanterinpatteri (“Alexander’s Battery”), a grand artillery battery built during this time, was named after him (unfortunately no pictures – blame the weather).
The Valley of Death
The origin of Vallisaari’s second major site, Kuolemanlaakso (“Valley of Death”), is as dark as the name suggests.
After Finland gained independence in 1917, the island was re-purposed into an ammo depot, employing some 100 people. On 9 July in 1937, a series of devastating fires and explosions erupted at the ammo storage facilities, killing 12 people and seriously injuring dozens. By the time the fires and explosions finally died down the following day, a 50 meter wide and 170 meter long “valley” had appeared where the buildings used to be. The site became known as Kuolemanlaakso.
Vallisaari’s later history, luckily, is a lot more cheerful. By the 1950s it had been converted into a residential island for employees of the Finnish Defence Forces and their families. If you read the info signs along the Aleksanterikierros path, you’ll find stories from former residents of the island describing their little village as a “secret paradise away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Helsinki”.
This is the Vallisaari that is now for the first time open to the general public.
The islands get a face lift
Last year, the state-owned company Metsähallitus (“Administration of Forests”) took over the maintenance of Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari from the Finnish Defence Force. A lot has been done since then to clean up the veritable jungle that the islands became after the departure of the last residents in 1996: paths have been cleared of weeds, safety measures put in place, toilets built and a small barn cafe opened. Many of the dilapidated military structures are now off-limits, though some remain freely accessible.
All this has been to prepare the islands for the expected 300 000 annual visitors. Luckily, it doesn’t appear to have happened at the expense of their unique charm: 85 percent of the islands’ combined area has been left untouched. Deviate from the dirt road and you’ll soon find yourself standing amidst swamps, ponds, crumbling military and residential structures and vegetation gone wild. This is the kind of wilderness that is entirely absent from Suomenlinna, known for its restaurants, museums and quaint picnic spots.
Moreover, a significant part of Vallisaari remains off-limits to visitors for reasons of safety: the terrain is very challenging in places and may still hide unexploded ordnance from decades ago. It is absolutely forbidden to dig or start a fire anywhere on the island. Info signs threaten risk-takers with prosecution, though whether that will stop the craftiest of us from trying is another matter.
Will you add a visit to Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari to your summer’s to-do list?
For an idea of what Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari (and some of their now-enclosed spaces) looked like pre-transformation, see these two posts by the Finnish urban exploration blog Esoteerinen maantiede.
77 vuotta sitten Vallisaaressa räjähti – elokuussa sinne pääsee, Nyt (6/4/2014)
Henkeäsalpaavan kaunis Vallisaari haastaa nyt Suomenlinnan – uusi turistikohde aukeaa tänään, Helsingin Sanomat (14/5/2016)
Salaperäinen Vallisaari on Helsingin uusin retkikohde, Kerran elämässä
Suomenlinna saa ensi kesänä haastajan – näin Vallisaari muuttuu, Helsingin Sanomat (8/9/2015)