The monumental facade of Helsinki’s main railway station has an elegant symmetry. Four giants, granite men, each one holding a lantern, are there to greet me. It is before seven on a quiet Saturday morning and I am here on an eastbound mission, heading for the only passenger railway in the European Union to cross the 30th meridian east of Greenwich.
From its train number, Finland’s IC1 service sounds as though it should be the most prestigious train in the country, just as 50 years ago the number TEE 1 was reserved for the premium Trans-Europe Express which dashed nonstop from Paris to Bordeaux. Finland’s IC1 doesn’t dash anywhere, averaging just over 60 mph on the 300-mile journey through lakes and forests to Joensuu, the administrative center of the region which Finns know as Pohjois-Karjala (North Karelia). From Joensuu, it is another 100 miles and two hours on a local train to Nurmes, passing through gorgeous North Karelian countryside and crossing the 30th meridian along the way.
The Intercity train from Helsinki to Joensuu is nearly empty. What’s striking is the innovative interior design of the six-carriage, double-decker train. There’s a children’s play area, complete with slide, in one carriage, designated space 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 with a supplement by solo travellers), and some airy, open-plan carriages. I head for the restaurant car and a simple breakfast of oatmeal porridge with berries, accompanied by orange juice and coffee (all for €7.90).
Now we are slipping out of Helsinki, passing sidings on the left where a couple of Allegro trains look very smart in the morning sunshine. Until late March, these sleek high-speed trains were used on the regular run to St Petersburg. The service was focused in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the trains ran, St Petersburg was just 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 one point we cross the eastern arm of Lake Simpele, passing within half a mile of the frontier. For Finns, the eastern territories ceded to Russia in the second world war have been the subject of much myth-making, with stories of an idealized Karelian past which so 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. “See those dark clouds?” asks the train manager pointing to the east. “That’s pollution from the Russian pulp mills at Enso,” he says, emphatically using the former Finnish name for the Russian community that is now called Svetogorsk.
There is an increasingly Russian feel to the landscape as the IC1 heads deeper into Finnish Karelia. There are Orthodox churches aplenty, easily identifiable by their distinctive cross, and many timber houses-cum-barns combined into very large two-storey buildings. The train’s pace slows as we cruise up the east shore of Pyhäselkä and enter Joensuu. It’s the end of the line for the IC1, and here those bound for rural outposts further north must change to a Czech-built railcar for the onward journey. Within a dozen minutes of arriving in Joensuu, we are on our way north, rattling over a white girder bridge that spans the fast-flowing Pielisjoki.
About 15 minutes later, we cross the 30th meridian east of Greenwich – the first of four occasions when our train passes that line of longitude. The easternmost railway station on the line (and thus anywhere in the European Union) is at Uimaharju, a village that lies as far east as St Petersburg. Uimaharju enjoys a fine lakeshore setting, slightly marred by a cluster of pulp mills and saw mills. Here, an Orthodox priest joins the train. We chat and he explains that Orthodoxy may be a mark of the east, but it’s not necessarily Russian. “The Finnish Orthodox Church is an official state church here in Finland,” he says, breaking off to point out a tiny wooden chapel capped by an Orthodox cross, in the forest by the railway. “That’s what we call a tsasouna,” he says.
The last 90 minutes of the journey, from Uimaharju up to Nurmes, is the finest part of the entire ride from Helsinki. When this line was built, the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire, and there are moments when I feel transported back in time to the rural Russia of tsarist times. By now, the green-and-white diesel railcar has emptied out. We slip by clearings in the forest where rye and potatoes are grown, past Karelian-style wooden houses and some very fine wooden churches. This is a journey into another world, one that all too soon reaches Nurmes. On the approach to the town, we pass a huge farmstead which had been painstakingly moved, log-by-log, from its original location on the Russian side of the border. It’s a nice example of how Finland has “recreated” elements of Karelian culture and identity within its constrained, postwar borders.
Nurmes is a lovely wee township that is gearing up to mark the 150th anniversary of its founding by Tsar Alexander II in 2023. This rural community, perched on a narrow peninsula jutting into the northernmost part of Lake Pielinen, is a perfect spot to spend a day or two. While it is just possible to make a day trip from Helsinki to Nurmes and back, a round trip of more than 16 hours, the better choice is to stay overnight and then continue on by bus. The two main options are to head north-west through the Karelian forests to Kajaani or south-west to Kuopio, both well-placed on Finland’s mainline rail network. Both bus routes run once daily (except Saturdays), with a journey time of about two hours.
The IC1 leaves Helsinki daily except Sundays at 6.57am. With a change in Joensuu, arrival in Nurmes is at 2pm. The return service leaves Nurmes at 3.40pm, giving arrival in Helsinki at 11.03pm. Interrail passes are valid throughout without any supplements.
One-way tickets in standard class (called eco-friendly in Finland) from Helsinki to Nurmes if booked well in advance start at €25.60, but may be more than twice that if booked just prior to travel. The supplement to upgrade to first class is always €17.90. Fees for private compartments vary with how many people are travelling. Book tickets online at VR Finnish Railways.
Tickets for onward bus journeys from the railhead to Nurmes can be booked on the Matkahuolto app or website. The single 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 her book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian bookshop. She is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine