I: The road to the Baltic Sea and the city of Turku

St. Petersburg to Turku via roads along European Route E18
Turku City, Varsinais-Suomi Region, Finland

Next: II: Viking Grace Turku-Stockholm ferry


1. So, we all packed our briefcases, and our Sandero, near our apartment block in southwestern St. Petersburg, Russia, is ready to go now.

A few words on the Sandero. My first car, bought in early 2013, was a 2007 Daewoo Matiz, one of the smallest and allegedly shittiest cars there is. Now, despite a rather sad look, Matiz is actually a fairly decent car, certainly the best you could buy for those money. It is not, however, designed or built with longevity in mind, and, having already suffered some failures due to age and wear of various parts (e. g. my heater sprung a leak and drained all my radiator fluid right in the cabin), I never even tried to take my Matiz abroad. I have a rather faint idea of what to do if my car breaks down abroad, and I’m pretty such that whatever I’m supposed to do in this case, it would be very costly.

Having driven some 30,000 km in two years, after some minor crashes I didn’t even bother to repair the body work after, I sold that Matiz pretty much for pocket change, and decided to buy a proper new car. The Renault Sandero (known as Dacia Sandero in most of the world) seemed like nice choice, and, well, so far it was. A cheap and reliable car, modest and unassuming but nothing to really complain about. I actually even think it’s kinda pretty. (Renault-styled radiator grille definitely suits it; Dacia Sanderos look significantly more boring in my opinion.) I had already driven my new Sandero around Finland a bit, and now it was time for a more serious journey. Spoiler warning: Sandero handled the 3300 km-long road trip fine and there was not a slightest problem.

So here we go. Get some breakfast at a local Burger King, get some gas, and off we go.

2. I live in the southwest of St. Petersburg, and the road to Finland is at the northwest. The simplest (though not the shortest) way to is to bypass St. Petersburg clockwise using its Ring Motorway. The traffic on its western portion is light, and you get to drive across the entire Gulf of Finland on the causeway of Kronstadt Dam. We’re nearing the Tallinn Highway interchange here. The second main route from St. Petersburg to the EU starts here.

3. Driving on top of the Kronstadt Dam (“Safety Facilities Complex” officially). The construction of the dam, meant to shield St. Petersburg against floods, has started in the 1970s, and completed only in 2011. It includes an underwater tunnel under the main waterway, a drawbridge over the secondary one, and a number of floodgates. The waterways are actually shut off only maybe once or twice per year, for a few hours. The motorway aspect of the dam is a much more obvious and perhaps a more important one. Apart from completing the Ring Motorway, it connects the island town of Kronstadt, a centuries-old Russian naval base, to the mainland.

4. After the dam, we leave Ring Motorway via Primorskoe Highway interchange, going west. Primorskoe (Russ. Seaside) Highway is a nice 2+2 urban highway, passing through the St. Petersburg suburb of Setroretsk (Russ. Sestra River Town). Sestroretsk, while lacking estates and palaces which Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo are noted for, is a fairly nice and pleasant town, as far as Russian towns go.

5. After Sestroretsk, the principal road to the town of Vyborg and Finnish border is the Scandinavia Route. I thoroughly dislike this road. Its worst part is a 65 km long 1.5+1.5 section (one lane in each direction, with a huge paved shoulder; trucks and slow vehicles move over to this shoulder to ease overtaking). Huge traffic including trucks to local rock quarries, excellent pavement, and few bends make for lots of speeding and frantic overtaking. Fatal accidents are extremely common. Since 2014, the road is finally being rebuild into a proper motorway, but it will take ages before the 1.5+1.5 “section of death” will be replaced.

The section closer to Sestroretsk, and the entire section almost from the bypass of the city of Vyborg to Finnish border, are regular “honest” 1+1 roads, which are at least not as chaotic. After Vyborg the traffic gets fairly light as well. This picture is taken right before the Vyborg bypass, I believe. Overall, the distance from Sestroretsk to Finnish border is about 150 km.

The “Scandinavia” title is a misnomer as well, by the way; Finland is not a Scandinavian country. Funnily enough, there is a road which will take you from St. Petersburg to Scandinavia proper (the northernmost part of Norway to be precise), the Kola Route, some 2000 km long or so.

6. There are three border crossing points in Lenindgradskaya Oblast (region of Russia where St. Petersburg is located). These are Torfyanovka (Russ. Peat Hamlet), Brusnitchnoye (Russ. Cowberry Village), and Svetogorsk (Russ. Light Ridges). The Finnish counterparts of these border points are called Vaalimaa, Nuijamaa, and Imatra, respectively. All of them are located relatively close to each other, look mostly similar, and the queues are about the same. The main route St. Petersburg — Helsinki — Turku goes through the southernmost Torfyanovka/Vaalimaa border crossing. We’re waiting in a queue before Torfyanovka here. The queues used to be significatly worse before; the ongoing Russian economic crisis made a lot of Russians unable to afford shopping and weekend trips to Finland anymore.

7. Right before the passport checks. I rather like the dull grey watchtower to the right. Somehow it looks very appropriate for Russia.

8. Ah, Finland at last! Driving in Finland is an order of magnitude calmer and safer and overall more pleasant than in Russia. The road between Russian border and the Finnish capital of Helsinki, bypassing cities of Porvoo, Loviisa, Kotka, and Hamina, is called Valtatie 7 (Finn. National Road). As of 2015, nearly all of the road 7 (some 200 km long) is a motorway now; the only remaining section is Hamina-Vaalimaa, about 25 km long. It will be also rebuilt by 2018.

The landspace also changes dramatically. The Karelian Isthmus, crossed by the Scandinavian Route, used to be a Finnish land until the Winter War of 1939-1940. Most of the Finnish towns and villages still exist, although nearly all Finnish place names were changed to rather bland-styled Russian ones. However the population is sparse, many villages are partially abandonded, and most of the area seems to be just one enormous forest, with none of the farms and fields so common on the Finnish side; a typical Russian landscape, in other words.

Note that this road has two lanes in the direction of the Russian border. The second lane is meant for trucks; there used to be truck queues many kilometers long, hauling all kinds of cargo mostly from the ports of Kotka and Hamina. These however seem to be a thing of the past, too, not only because of the Russian crisis, but also because of the development of Russian seaports like Ust’-Luga.

9. Even non-motorway section of road 7 is a pleasant drive, with fairly light and calm traffic. The speed limit is 80 km/h, usually raised to 100 km/h on strictly rural sections, and lowered to 60 km/h or so in villages. (50 km/h in built-up areas.)

The de-facto speed limit in Russia is 110 km/h, 80 km/h in villages and built-up areas. Well, officially it’s 90 and 60 km/h, but as of now, there is no penalty for speeding up to +20 km/h, not even a warning. 90/110 km/h speed limit is virtually never enforced as well. Overall, Russian roads would profit enormously from more differentiated speed limits. The Finns signpost speed limits from 30 km/h to 120 km/h in 10 km/h steps as appropriate for the specific stretch of road, while Russian all-encompassing 60 km/h and 90 km/h are often a poor fit (well, 40 km/h speed limit sign is also common, but that’s it).

10. The motorway stretch of the Valtatie 7. This is a bridge across Ahvenkoski (Finn. Perch Rapids), one of the branches of Kymi river, the largest river of Southeastern Finland. A tunnel looms in the distance. Finland is a flat country, with pretty much no mountains and very few tunnels, and most of them seem to be on the Turku-Helsinki-Russia route.

11. Helsinki has two beltway roads, the Ring I, and the Ring III. As for Ring II, they built a short stretch of it, then apparently decided it was not such an important road after all. We’re bypassing Helsinki via Ring III. This is a fairly nice road, although not built to motorway standards, having some bus stops and traffic lights. It seems to be less congested than Ring I as well. Some constructions on Ring III interchanges is ongoing.

12. Ring III, also signposted as Kantatie 50 (Finn. Primary Road). The display shows predicted driving times to the exits to various Valtaties. We need Valtatie 1, the Helsinki-Turku motorway.

13. The Valtatie 1 is now a motorway along the entire length (about 120 km). One of its stretches has several tunnels in succession. We stop at a huge ABC filling station/restaurant/supermarket at the Lohja exit for dinner, and continue on.

14. After a 550 km long drive, Turku at last! This is our second visit to Turku, and for the second time, we’re here only for a few hours until our ferry departs.

Turku, known in Swedish as Åbo, is the third city of Finland, after Helsinki and Tampere, with population of 180,000 (300,000 metropolitan area). It was also an ancient capital of Finland, back when Finland was just a big Swedish province. The capital was moved to Helsinki only in 1812, soon after Russia conquered Finland from Sweden. Turku boasts an ancient bishop seat, a large medieval castle, and an oldest university of Finland (well, actually the university had been moved to Helsinki, but another one was re-established in Turku). It is also an enormously pleasant and cute town.

Turku is located in the very southwest of Finland, in the mouth of Aura river, which you can see in this picture. A huge archipelago of rocky islands and islets (skerries) is located just beyond Turku. It is called the Archipelago Sea, and is actually the largest archipelago in the world, counting by the number of islands (some 50,000 if you count all of the smallest rocks). A winding waterway through the Archipelage Sea connects Turku harbor with Åland Isles, halfway between Finland and Sweden.

15. We had about two hours to spare, and went on a walk along the Aura river. We had already seen the center of Turku, with its cathedral and university, last year, so we went in the opposite direction this time, towards the sea. No idea who this guy is.

16. A great number of all kinds of ships are moored along the river of Aura. These ships are the main attraction of this parts of the city. This is for example the restaurant ship of Majland, originally built in 1856 in Sweden.

17. The most common type of ship is of course small yachts of Turku citizens.

18. I must admit I’m in love with modern Finnish apartment blocks. There may be not much unusual about them — in fact, they are not all that different from Russian ones, at least from the outside — but something about the design and the proportions and the materials and the locations invariably strikes me as just exactly right, the way things ought to be. Even Swedish and Danish apartment blocks do not look that cozy to me.

19. Steamship Ukkopekka (Finn. Old Man Pekka), constructed in 1938 in Helsinki as an icebreaking inspection vessel. Supposedly, it is the last coal-powered passenger icebreaking steamer in the world. It offers cruises around the Archipelago Sea nowadays.

20. The schooner Olga (1885), also on a cruise duty.

21. More Turku apartment blocks. These balconies completely covered by frameless glass panes are a feature I particularly adore.

22. An older clock tower in the distance, probably a church.

23. M/S Aspö connects Turku with the most remote island of the Archipelago Sea, named Utö (Swed. Outer Island). A really tiny islet, remote, desolate, and stormswept, less than a kilometer across, with a lighthouse and a small village, population about 40. Such a great vacation site naturally has a hotel of its own and a marine connection to Turku. No, really, I would love to spend a week or two there some time in future.

24. A classic British Mini. The Finns love their classic cars. So do the Swedes, but Finns go as far as having a special “museum car” kind of license plate.

25. A whale tail-shaped fountain in the Aura river. The smokestack in the background mysteriously has Fibonacci numbers sequence painted on it.

26. As you might have already notices, I love Finnish apartment blocks.

27. Museum ship Sigyn, a wooden barque built in 1887, named after the wife of Loki, the Norse god we all know from the Marvel comics and movies. It is one of the ships of the Forum Marinum, the maritime museum of Turku.

28. We now reached the area of the former Turku shipyards, known as Wärtsilä Crichton-Vulcan. The shipyards belonged to Wärtsilä, a huge Finnish industrual conglomerate, best known for their ship diesel engines; they manufacture the largest diesel engines in the world, in fact. Their shipbuilding branch sadly went bankrupt in 1989, and the shipyards changed hands several times and belong to Meyer Werft (Germany) now. The production has been moved from the Aura banks to the suburb of Perno back in 1983, and the old shipyard, historically named Crichton-Vulcan, was used only for ship repair, and eventually shut down in 2004. The shipyard lay abandoned for some years, and then most of it was demolished. A new residential district, named Telakkaranta (Finn. Shipyard Shore), is now nearing completion here. The old cranes were apparently kept as monuments, and I must say these are the prettiest cranes I ever saw.

Wärtsilä corporation is named after the village where the sawmill which eventually grew to became the huge company was originally constructed in 1834. Curiously, that village now actually belongs to Russia (and is best known as the site of Vyartsilya border crossing in Karelia). Same with Stora Enso paper corporation, literally the oldest known existing corporation in the world; named after the town of Enso, which now belongs to Russia and is known as Svetogorsk.

29. The actual hooks are replaced with steel icosahedrons.

30.

31.

32. Sorry, I just like these cranes a little bit too much.

33. Construction of an apartment block in Telakkaranta.

34. Suomen Joutsen (Finn. Finnish Swan), a full rigged sailing ship, also from the Forum Marinum museum. Built in 1902 in France under the name Laënnec, it served as a school ship for Finnish Navy until 1991.

35. Yet another museum ship, the Bore, constructed in 1960 in Sweden. It is both the last steamship built in Scandinavia, and, supposedly, the first car ferry on Finland-Sweden route (although I seem to recall some other vessel is mentioned as the first Baltic ferry in the Vellamo marine museum in Kotka). Also known as Kristina Regina in 1987-2010, when it was used as a cruise ship by Kotka-based Kristina Cruises company.

36. Beyond Telakkaranta blocks, there is a rocky outcropping, called Korppolaismäki (Finn. uh… a hill having something to do with crows?).

37. There seems to be some sort of artificial cave under Korppolaismäki. I’m totally at a loss what it might be; I was unable to Google anything, in English at least. Some old military installation perhaps? At any rate, it must be old; the stairs are severely decayed.

38. A huge thick door leads inside. Sadly I didn’t have the time to explore. All I saw inside was a small empty room with lots of graffiti, with exits leading deeper.

39. One more view of the Suomen Joutsen.

40. Passing a short tunnel under Korppolaismäki, we turn back towards our car. An administrative building on Stålarminkatu street, one of the few if not the only building left from old Wärtsilä shipyards.

41. Old gas holder. I like these structures, there are a few in old St. Petersburg industrial districts as well. Fuel gas used to be stored in them back when it was manufactured from coal. Old gas holders are often converted for some modern use. This one is no exception; it now holds a huge tank of hot water, used as a thermal battery for the central heating network. There is apparently a small round steel gas holder next to this one, but we didn’t notice it during our walk.

42. These residentials building are probably older than the ones on the Aura quay, but the location seems to be chosed perfectly.

43. There are more rocky hills and small tunnels closer to the center of Turku. The one to the right is occupied by the Urheilupuisto (Finn. Sports Park).

44. A large stadium named after Paavo Nurmi, a famous Finnish runner who won a number of Olympic medals in the 1920s.

45. A tiny pond in Urheilupuisto.

46. We left our car at a free parking lot on Samppalinnankatu street. It is a five minute drive from there to the Turku Harbour, where we were due to board the Viking Grace cruiseferry, for an overnight passage to Stockholm. So here we are, waiting in a queue with mostly Swedes and some Finns and Norwegians and Ålanders and a few cars from other countries (no Russians in sight anywhere, unlike the previous year). To be continued!

Published on: