From St. Petersburg to Helsinki, by bus
The new high-speed rail service linking Helsinki with St. Petersburg, just launched last December, has been an immediate success, with passenger numbers in the first four months of 2011 up over a third on the same period in 2010.
With the journey time slashed to 3 hours 36 minutes, it is no surprise that cross-border excursions are suddenly in vogue as folk on both sides of the border want to try the new Allegro service. To meet the new demand, train frequency on the Allegro link from Russia to Finland will double with effect from next Sunday.
Throw in the new St Peter Line overnight shipping service to Helsinki, which started operation last year and this week moves to a new terminal in St. Petersburg, and one might well wonder why anyone still takes the bus from St. Petersburg to Finland.
The bus takes longer than the train, but it’s cheaper, and we really think it can make sense. The Allegro train is great if speed is of the essence, and the ship is fine for those wishing to sleep on an overnight voyage to Finland.
But between St. Petersburg and Helsinki lies one of Europe’s most profoundly interesting areas, a region where Russian, Finnish and even Swedish interests have delicately intertwined to create very distinctive histories, politics and cultures.
A visit to Hamina, Finland
The scheduled bus takes about eight hours and stops along the way in the cities of Vyborg and Hamina. The latter is a superb introduction to Finland.
Hamina is an old fortress town, a place that in the past has been variously Swedish and Russian. Being little more than half-an-hour by bus west of the Finnish-Russian border, it is a popular spot with Russians making short forays into Finland for shopping. Yet Hamina’s picture-perfect octagonal square is a fine piece of early 18th-century design and a great spot to linger.
Where to stay
We stopped in Hamina last week and stayed at Pormestarintalon Pihakammari, a super little garden house in a peaceful setting behind the graceful wooden villa that for many years served as home to Hamina’s mayors. Our stay came towards the end of a long journey exploring remote Karelia, and after some wilderness days sedate Hamina was a happy re-engagement with civilization.
How to get there
For travelers coming from St. Petersburg, there is a convenient direct bus to Hamina at 3:40 p.m., which arrives in Hamina at 7:40 p.m. The one-way fare is €30. For those continuing the next day, after the overnight stop that Hamina deserves, to the Finnish capital there are frequent onward buses–generally hourly.
Fares and schedules for bus services in Finland (including many cross-border services to and from Russia) can be checked online.