A forest glade seems an unusual place to find a hunk of granite emblazoned with the hammer and sickle and inscribed with Cyrillic script. ‘It has been called the most beautiful of war memorials,’ says my guide, Ville. ‘I’m not sure what that says about other war memorials, though,’ he quickly adds.
It’s less the memorial and more the setting that appeals to the eye. The Soviet Monument, which remembers 453 Russian soldiers killed in battle during the Continuation War (1941-1944) is cradled by tall pines and serenaded by chittering chaffinches. It sits just off a country road on the edge of the Finnish city of Hanko, south-west of Helsinki, once a key strategic port at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland.
The evidence of conflict is clear to see in the abandoned trenches and lines of boulders that still scar this gentle terrain 75 years on, remnants of a bitter battle between the Finns and their Soviet invaders that is well told at the nearby Front Museum. This dark history is just one story I discover on a two-wheeled tour of the Coastal Route, a 200km cycling trail that loops to and from Salo around the shores of the Finnish Archipelago Sea. This sprawl of mainland and islands offers up a landscape of deep forest, wide lakes and long beaches, with public transport access to other entry points including Mathildedal, Kasnas, Hanko, Tammisaari and Tenhola.
My journey along part of this new route began in Mathildedal, an enclave for escapees from Helsinki who have migrated 150km west to this historic ironworks village for a slower pace of life. Here on the shores of the Baltic, they’ve set up artisanal businesses making delicious bread and sweet chocolate in workshops where iron was once tooled for the Swedes – another former master – whose influence is still identifiable in the official use of Swedish and the many Finns of dual heritage.
The clapboard dwellings where workers lived in the 19th century, traditionally painted in red punamulta, are now covetable homes that, I learn, rarely appear on the open market. My billet is a stylishly simple room above a cafe and shop in a hotel fashioned from a factory building.
The village is also on the fringe of the Teijo National Park, where I go for a walk with Krista, a nature guide, beneath a canopy of spruce, pine and birch, which echoes to the chirrup of the wood sandpiper, with drifts of blueberries at my feet. We step along a slim boardwalk across a mire where bog rosemary and cotton deergrass grow, before emerging on the shores of Lake Matilda.
We stop to enjoy the peace and pine-fresh air on a strand of sand on which the lake, tinged brown by the swamp, rolls golden bands of water. ‘Don’t bears roam your forests?’ I break the silence. Krista laughs: ‘Yes, they’re here, but you would be very lucky to see any.’
The cycling, enabled by a bike-hire scheme with pick-up and drop-off points along the route, is generally on the level near the sea, but as I continue south I cross a high bridge just outside Dalsbruk, on which I stop to enjoy eye-boggling views of vast expanses of forest and water – it reminds me that I am already island-hopping in this fractured landscape. At Kasnas, I refuel at Kallarvinden Cafe on creme brulee before wheeling my bike on to one of the free ferries that ply the waters during summer.
A 25-minute ride connects me to the somnambulant isle of Rosala and I pedal on to the Viking Centre. This museum-guesthouse seeks to replicate a Viking settlement with full-sized period recreations including a ship and a longhouse. It’s the painstaking work of owner Paul Wilson, who has turned his fascination with the era from a hobby into a profession. There is a weapons exhibition, too, where Paul invites me to try axe-throwing. But I prefer to feast on soused fish and refresh in the sauna before resting my weary bones in a bunk in the faithfully recreated chieftain’s hall.
Rosala and Kasnas are gateways to two highlights of this cycling circuit, Oro and Bengtskar islands. Once a secret military base, Oro opened to the public in 2015. Fortified by the Russians at the turn of the 20th century to defend St Petersburg from attack from the sea, it later passed into the hands of the Finnish forces, who formally left in 2014 but still maintain some equipment on the island.
I cycle past former barracks that now house visitor accommodation to the main attraction, an Obukhovskii 305mm gun with a 45km range, used during the Battle of Bengtskar on July 26, 1941. Inside its Bond-esque bowels, I climb the narrow ladder into the control room, with the gun’s hulking metal guts at its centre. In the far corner is a little seat with a steering wheel and a button on the floor that I gingerly press, aware that this would once have fired a 500kg shell.
Oro’s future is about nature tourism. Set within the boundaries of the Archipelago National Park, which lassoes 2,000 of the furthest-flung islets and skerries and the seas around them, it has remained relatively untouched. It is especially prized for the scorched heathland created when the Russians deforested the island, home of the rare pasque flower and beloved by the apollo butterfly.
Bengtskar, 13km south-east, is quite different. This granite outcrop has little greenery, although the absence of sea eagles means it’s a sanctuary for eider ducks. Here sits a lighthouse that Finns, Russians and Germans fought over almost from when it was built in 1906. It’s now a small museum, but I am most curious to climb the 252 steps of its spiral staircase to reach the light room and survey the views from the southernmost point of Finland.
A 90-minute ferry journey takes me east to the port of Hanko, where I meet my guide, Jon. We ride a lift to the top of the brash, red Forties water tower for an overview and stroll along an avenue of fine, galleried, 19th-century villas built in the days when Hanko sold itself to high society as a spa town. ‘They imported the waters,’ confides Jon. We wander along granite cliffs where Jon tells me migrants danced as they waited for ships to transport them to the New World. ‘About 250,000 people departed from here at the turn of the 20th century.’ Then I cycle along the beach to the House of the Four Winds, a cafe once owned by Marshal Mannerheim, where I try his favourite strawberry cream cake.
It’s welcome fuel as I have 40km to cycle to reach my final destination, Tammisaari. Beyond the Soviet Monument, I follow the familiar brown signs of the Coastal Route north, stopping for breathers at golden beaches that defy preconceptions about the Baltic Sea, and to fill my bottle from a spring in Dagmar Park. The forest parts to reveal wide fields as I approach Tammisaari, winding around the pretty streets of its old town, lined with wooden houses from the 18th century.
Tomorrow, I’ll find out more about this fishing village that had big ambitions to become an influential port – just one of many stories on the Coastal Route.
• Bicycle hire is available from Carfield Finland (00358 46 811 8970; carfield.fi) from Dh80 per day, from May to September.
• Travel Experience (travel-experience.net) offers a six-night tour, Cycling: The Coastal Route in Finland, calling at Tammisaari, Hanko, Fiskars, Mathildedal, Kimitoon Island and Salo from Dh3,830pp B&B, based on two sharing. It includes 24-speed hybrid bicycle with equipment, luggage transfers between hotels, road map, paper and digital route notes, and 24-hour emergency phone service.
Where to stay
Hotel Mathildedal offers B&B in a double room from Dh500 per night (mathildedal.fi).
• Rosala Viking Centre offers B&B from Dh190 per person per night (rosala.fi).
• Regatta Spa Hotel, Hanko, has double rooms from Dh650 per night (hotelregatta.fi).
• Hotel Sea Front, Tammisaari, offers B&B in a double room from Dh385 per night (hotelseafront.fi).
What to see
• Teijo National Park (nationalparks.fi/teijo)
• Oro Fortress Island (nationalparks.fi/oro)
• Bengtskar (bengtskar.fi)
• House of the Four Winds, Hanko (makasiini.fi)
• Hanko Front Museum (frontmuseum.fi)
• Kallviken (nationalparks.fi/dagmarpark)
• Frimans Diversehandel (pofriman.fi)
The Daily Telegraph