gliding past the pristine forests and lakes of Finland

gliding past the pristine forests and lakes of Finland

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


From the train number, the Finnish IC1 service sounds like it’s supposed to be the most prestigious train in the country, just like 50 years ago TEE number 1 was reserved for the premium Trans-Europe Express which ran non-stop from Paris to Bordeaux. The Finnish IC1 runs nowhere, averaging just over 60 mph on the 300-mile journey through lakes and forests to Joensuu, the administrative center of the region that Finns know as Pohjois-Karjala (North Karelia). From Joensuu, it’s another 100 miles and two hours on a local train to Nurmes, passing through the beautiful North Karelian countryside and crossing the 30th meridian en route.

Border markers

Helsinki Central Station

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

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

We are now slipping out of Helsinki, past the sidings on the left where a couple of Allegro trains look very stylish in the morning sun. Until the end of March, these elegant high-speed trains were used on the regular run to St. Petersburg. The service was interrupted to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the trains traveled, St. Petersburg was only three and a half hours in Allegro comfort from Helsinki. Now the Russian city seems light years away.

The IC1 from Helsinki to Joensuu runs close to the Russian border; at some point we cross the eastern arm of Lake Simpele, passing within half a mile of the border. For the Finns, the eastern territories ceded to Russia during World War II have been the subject of many myths, with stories of an idealized Karelian past which thus inspired Finnish music, song, art and literature in the 19th century. . The reality of life on the other side of the border is less romantic. “Do you see those dark clouds?” asks the conductor pointing east. “This is the pollution of the Russian Enso paper mills,” he says, emphatically using the former Finnish name for the Russian community now called Svetogorsk.

Karelian identity

Pielinen lake in North Karelia

Pielinen lake in North Karelia. Photograph: Mauritius images / Alamy

There is an increasingly Russian vibe to the landscape as the IC1 heads deeper into Finnish Karelia. There are many Orthodox churches, easily identified by their distinctive cross, and many wooden barn houses combined into very large two-story buildings. The pace of the train slows down as we cruise along the eastern shore of Pyhäselkä and enter Joensuu. It’s the end of the line for IC1, and here those heading to the rural outposts further north have to change to a Czech-built railcar for onward travel. Within a dozen minutes of arriving in Joensuu, we head north, rattling over a white-beamed bridge that spans fast Pielisjoki.

Related: Railway route of the month: from Bohemia to the Baltic coast

About 15 minutes later, we cross the 30th meridian east of Greenwich, the first of four occasions our train crosses that line of longitude. The easternmost railway station on the line (and therefore everywhere in the European Union) is located in Uimaharju, a village in the far east of St. Petersburg. Uimaharju enjoys a beautiful lakeside location, slightly marred by a cluster of paper and sawmills. Here an Orthodox priest joins the train. We chat and he explains that Orthodoxy may be a sign of the East, but it is not necessarily Russian. “The Finnish Orthodox Church is an official state church here in Finland,” he says, pausing to point to a tiny wooden chapel topped with an Orthodox cross in the forest near the railway. “This is what we call a tsasuna,” he says.

The last 90 minutes of the journey, from Uimaharju to Nurmes, are the highlight of the entire 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. By now, the green and white diesel wagon has emptied. We pass through the clearings in the forest where rye and potatoes are grown, past the Karelian-style wooden houses and some very beautiful wooden churches. This is a journey into another world, which too soon reaches Nurmes. As we approach the city, we pass a huge farmhouse that had been painstakingly moved, register by register, from its original position on the Russian side of the border. It is a fine example of how Finland “recreated” elements of Karelian culture and identity within its limited postwar borders.

Nurmes is a pretty town preparing to celebrate 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 is only possible to take a day trip from Helsinki to Nurmes and back, a round trip of more than 16 hours, your best bet is to stay overnight and then continue by bus. The two main options are to head northwest through Karelian forests to Kajaani or southwest to Kuopio, both of which are well positioned on Finland’s main rail network. Both bus lines run once a day (except Saturdays), with a journey time of approximately two hours.

Travel notes

IC1 departs Helsinki every day except Sundays at 6:57 am. With a change in Joensuu, arrival in Nurmes is at 14:00. The return service departs Nurmes at 3:40 pm, arriving in Helsinki at 11:03 pm. Interrail passes are valid everywhere at no extra charge.

Related: A local guide to Helsinki, Finland: delicious seafood, islands to explore, and a dash of arctic freshness

One way tickets in standard class (called Echo in Finland) from Helsinki to Nurmes when booked well in advance from € 25.60, but can be more than double if booked just before travel. The supplement for upgrading to first class is always € 17.90. Fares for private compartments vary based on the number of people traveling. Book your tickets online at VR Finnish Railways.

Tickets for the onward bus journey from Nurmes rail terminal can be booked on the Matkahuolto app or website. Single fares from Nurmes to Kuopio and Kajaani are € 21.80 and € 25.80 respectively.

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

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