Lappeenranta harbour area in summer.This is one south eastern corner of Finland you wouldn’t mind painting yourself into.

IF YOU reach Lappeenranta on a day when the air is still and the barometric pressure low, you will find that money does, in fact, smell – even though they purify the flue gases at the paper mill, the regrettable side effect of conventional pulp production remains a pungent sulphuric smell.

But that is where the unpleasantness ends, rarely occurring as it is. Lappeenranta, the most important city “on the south-eastern corner”, as locals put it, has seen centuries of development as a meeting point of cultural influences.

Fact file

• Lappeenranta lies by Lake Saimaa, and when the water is open, you can catch a boat from there down the Saimaa Canal to Russia, and even continue to the Baltic Sea; just sort out your visa first. The first three locks are in Finland, the other five in Russia.

• At the market square, around the year, small huts with cafés in them serve you hot drinks and a special local treat, Karelian pies with butter and a sliced boiled egg on them.

• Attention in-line skaters: on a sunny summer day, head out north from Lappeenranta, 12 kilometres to the village of Taipalsaari, and come back to the city awe-struck.

Lappeenranta is located in South Karelia, 215 km from Helsinki.

Once past the bulky stone gates, history buffs can lose themselves in the fortification area that overlooks the harbour, boasting Finland’s oldest sports hall, an authentic Orthodox church, a classy café in a quaint wooden building, and the regional museum; in all, as aesthetically pleasing as it gets in Finland.

Walk for five minutes and you’re smack dab downtown, where the bars, restaurants, shops and the pedestrian area Oleksi await. There you are bound to learn what it means to be Karelian. If someone you don’t know grabs you by the arm, it does not necessarily mean you are falling victim to petty larceny: some local may just want to hear your opinion on the new tinning of the old church roof, or the local ice hockey team’s player acquisitions. What sadly counts as outpatient lunacy in bigger cities is, in Lappeenranta with its 70,000 people, a warm human touch.

The old town hall in Lappeenranta.The proximity of Russia is clearly manifest in the city, to a greater extent than elsewhere in Finland. This adds to the city’s well-being and cultural diversity; no wonder that many local people would rather see Russian taught at school than Swedish. Speaking of schooling, the western flank of Lappeenranta is home to the University of Technology (LUT), a high-class education provider and pool of diverse technological expertise with a good number of international degree or exchange students. In that area, LUT alumni have boldly painted a border on pedestrian asphalt for where “the Free City of Skinnarila” begins. Wouldn’t it be titillating to see exactly how free things truly are down there?

Mika Oksanen