Rail route of the month: soaring over the primeval forests and lakes of Finland | Public holidays in Finland

Jhe monumental facade of Helsinki’s main train station has an elegant symmetry. Four giant granite men, each holding a lantern, are there to greet me. It’s seven o’clock before a quiet Saturday morning and I’m here on a mission eastbound, heading for the only passenger railway in the European Union to cross the 30th meridian east of Greenwich.

Finnish railway line

From its train number, the Finnish IC1 service sounds like it should be the most prestigious train in the country, just as 50 years ago the TEE 1 number was reserved for the premium Trans-Europe Express which connected without stopover Paris in Bordeaux. Finland’s IC1 rushes nowhere, averaging just over 60mph on the 300-mile journey through lakes and forests to Joensuu, the administrative center of the region Finns know as the name of Pohjois-Karjala (North Karelia). From Joensuu it is another 160 km and two hours by local train to Nurmes, passing through the beautiful countryside of North Karelia and crossing the 30th Meridian along the way.

border markers

Granite statues and clock tower of Helsinki Central Station. Photography: Arsty/Getty Images

The Intercity train from Helsinki to Joensuu is almost empty. What is striking is the innovative interior design of the six-car double-decker train. There is a children’s play area, complete with slide, in a carriage, a pet area at the end of the train and elsewhere a choice of private compartments for two or four people (which can also be booked with a surcharge by solo travellers), and a few airy, open cars. I head for the dining car and a simple breakfast of oatmeal porridge with berries, orange juice and coffee (all for €7.90).

The children's pram on the IC1
Playtime: the children’s pram on the IC1.

Now we slip out of Helsinki, passing passing sidings on the left where a few Allegro trains look very elegant in the morning sun. Until the end of March, these elegant high-speed trains were used on the regular route to St. Petersburg. The service was canceled in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the trains were running, St. Petersburg was only three and a half hours away in Allegro comfort from Helsinki. Now the Russian city seems light years away.

The IC1 from Helsinki to Joensuu passes close to the Russian border; at one point we cross the eastern arm of Lake Simpele, passing less than half a mile from the border. For Finns, the eastern territories ceded to Russia during World War II have been the subject of much myth-making, with stories of an idealized Karelian past that inspired so much music, song, l Finnish art and literature in the 19th century. The reality of life on the other side of the border is less romantic. “See those dark clouds?” asks the chef de train, pointing to the east. “It’s pollution from Enso’s Russian pulp mills,” he says, emphatically using the old Finnish name for the Russian community now called Svetogorsk.

Karelian identity

Lake Pielinen in North Karelia
Lake Pielinen in North Karelia. Photography: Mauritius Images/Alamy

There is an increasingly Russian feel to the landscape as the IC1 drives deeper into Finnish Karelia. There are many Orthodox churches, easily identified by their distinctive crosses, and many wooden houses with barns combined into very large two-storey buildings. The pace of the train slows as we travel up the east bank of Pyhäselkä and into Joensuu. This is the end of the line for IC1, and here those heading for rural outposts further north must change to a Czech-built wagon for the onward journey. Less than a dozen minutes after arriving in Joensuu, we’re on our way north, slamming across a white beam bridge that spans the fast-flowing Pielisjoki.

About 15 minutes later we cross the 30th meridian east of Greenwich – the first of four occasions our train crosses this line of longitude. The easternmost station on the line (and therefore anywhere in the European Union) is in Uimaharju, a village that lies as far east as St. Petersburg. Uimaharju enjoys a beautiful lakeside setting, marred slightly by a cluster of pulp mills and sawmills. Here, an Orthodox priest joins the train. We chat and he explains to us that Orthodoxy may be a mark of the Orient, but that it is not necessarily Russian. “The Finnish Orthodox Church is an official state church here in Finland,” he says, pausing to point to a small wooden chapel topped with an Orthodox cross, in the forest near the railway. “It’s called a tsassouna,” he says.

Karelian style wooden houses
Wooden houses in the Karelian style. Photography: Hidden Europe

The last 90 minutes of the journey from Uimaharju to Nurmes is the most beautiful part of the whole journey from Helsinki. When this line was built, the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire, and there are times when I feel transported back in time to rural Russia of the Tsarist era. Now the green and white diesel wagon has emptied. We spin through forest clearings where rye and potatoes grow, past Karelian-style wooden houses and beautiful wooden churches. It’s a trip to another world, one that reaches Nurmes far too soon. As we approach the town, we pass a huge farmhouse that had been painstakingly moved, log by log, from its original location on the Russian side of the border. It is a fine example of how Finland has ‘re-created’ elements of Karelian culture and identity within its restricted post-war borders.

The end of the line at Nurmes
The end of the line in Nurmes, the furthest can travel by train in North Karelia.

Nurmes is a charming little commune preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of its founding by Tsar Alexander II in 2023. This rural community, perched on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the northernmost part of Lake Pielinen, is a perfect place to spend a day or two. While it’s just possible to make a day trip from Helsinki to Nurmes and back, a round trip of over 16 hours, the best choice is to stay overnight and then continue by bus. The two main options are to head northwest through the Karelian forests to Kajaani or southwest to Kuopio, both of which are well placed on the Finnish rail network. Both bus lines run once a day (except Saturdays), with a journey time of around two hours.

Travel notes

A Finnish Railways VR intercity train.
A Finnish Railways VR intercity train. Photography: Rami Salle/VR Group

The IC1 leaves Helsinki every day except Sunday at 6.57am. With a change in Joensuu, the arrival in Nurmes is at 2 p.m. The return service departs from Nurmes at 3:40 p.m. and arrives in Helsinki at 11:03 p.m. Interrail passes are valid everywhere without any supplement.

One-way tickets in standard class (called Eco in Finland) from Helsinki to Nurmes, if booked well in advance, from €25.60, but can be more than double if booked just before travelling. The supplement to upgrade to first class is still €17.90. Fees for private compartments vary depending on the number of people travelling. Book your tickets online at Finnish VR Railways.

Tickets for bus journeys from the Nurmes railhead can be booked on the Matkahuolto app or website. One way fares from Nurmes to Kuopio and Kajaani are €21.80 and €25.80 respectively.

Nicky Gardner is a Berlin-based writer. The 17th edition of his book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian library. She is co-editor-in-chief of Hidden Europe magazine

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