Excerpts from 850-word article


by Pam Hobbs

Imatra, Finland: When the hotel manager likens me to Catherine the Great, hands me an umbrella and invites me for an evening walk in the rain, I hesitate meomentarily. When fellow guests in raincoats hurry past us, I realize it is probably a good idea to go along. Not sure whether we are escaping from something in the Valtion Hotelli or heading for an outdoors adventure, I join the throng scurrying towards the woods.

At a bridge above the river we wait as the roaring gets louder, and then watch a great surge of foaming water cascade into the floodlit gorge. Diverted from the hydro-electric installation, the falls are permitted full-rein for only half an hour or so each evening. At this time they are accompanied by a multi-lingual commentary telling us the flow is 600 cubic metres per second. Also that the spectacle is at its best ten minutes into the show.

As early as 1772 Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, came here expressly to see Imatra's falls. By 1850 the area around them had been declared Finland's first natural park, and a small wooden inn was built for overnight guests. It became a popular destination for the aristocracy of St. Petersburg. Czar Nicholas 1 and his family came often.

But this was not a happy destination for everyone. Following a broken love affair, many a young woman threw herself over the falls, often arriving from St. Petersburg or Helsinki purposely to do so. The practice continued well into the 1950s. It became so bad that any girl buying a one-way ticket for Imatra would be followed by police.

Crown Park, decreed a natural preserve by Czar Nicholas 1 in 1842, contains the rapids, rock carvings, wooded parklands, a statue 'Maid of Imatra' dedicated to the suicide victims, and a fabulous restored castle hotel.

Known as The Grand Hotel Cascade when it opened with much fanfare in 1902, the hotel as much as the falls attracted St. Petersburg's elite. At one time fourteen trains a day operated between that city and Imatra. Now called the Imatran Valtion Hotelli, it has been restored to its original turn of the century appearance. Resembling a royal lodge in Imperial Russia it was soon recognized as the 'Art Nouveau Castle' for its decor that includes a considerable amount of painted woodwork on ceilings, floors, walls, doors and trim. Colours are refreshingly soft - pale green doors and trim upstairs, a light orange centre hall, and so on. Even the furniture is painted with greens and blues. A notable feature in the reception hall is a stone and copper fireplace, with a grouchy face carved on one side and a happy face on the other. Each of the 54 guest rooms and suites is different from the others. All are comfortably furnished and decorated to the early1900s, and have modern ensuite baths.

The hotel's main dining room is finished almost entirely with wood. A smaller room furnished in Imperial Russian style contains photographs of the last Czar and Czarina. Meals here are served on blue and gold porcelain ordered from Leningrad; the menu is Russian. The Castle Cellar lounge bar is suitably dark to live up to its name. A terrace overlooks the falls.

Because of its scenic location at the mouth of the River Vuoksi on the banks of Lake Saimaa, Imatra attracts visitors the year round. In summer lake steamers depart daily for Satamasaari Island. Others stop at various little ports, or to watch seals. You can fish for salmon in the river. An eighteen hole golf course is on the border, so if you have a powerful long shot you may find yourself walking to Russia to retrieve the ball. The region hosts numerous festivals, in which visitors are invited to participate. Winter sees cross-country skiing in the park.

From Imatra one-day trips to St. Petersburg are easily arranged. Savonlinna is a delightful lakefront community that can be 'done' in a day. During summer, concerts are featured all over town, and operas in the fifteenth century castle. Lake steamers, a morning market and outdoor cafes all add to the pleasures of Savonlinna.

Punkaharju is an area of simple beauty about midway between Imatra and Savonlinna. It has walking trails, lake steamers and Retretti - one of the world's more unusual art museums. At ground level its 2,000 exhibits include Finnish ceramics and paintings. But then there are underground caves with light and lazer artistic presentations in individual caverns, using waterfalls and coloured rocks with startling effect. Twenty-five metres below ground a concert hall cave accommodates an audience of one thousand. Ten minute shows presented throughout the day feature sound, light, lazers, and the sombre music of Finnish composer Sibelius.

Imatra, Punkaharju and Savonlinna are all included in coach tours from Helsinki. With an additional mini-visit to St. Petersburg, they make for an interesting 7 to 10 days' vacation in south east Finland.