Published: January 6th 2008December 31st 2007
Panorama of Orthodox Church
Walking towards the Uspensky Cathedral
What exactly is Finland famous for? Well for one thing, it’s the home of Santa Claus, who tends his reindeers in the cold northern part of the country. And then there’s the Formula One drivers Mikka Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, both of them world champions. Nokia is a world famous Finnish company. And who could forget the Moomins, the cartoon characters immortalized by Finnish writer Tove Jansson. Not bad for the most sparsly populated country in the European Union.
Helsinki is also continental Europe’s most northerly capital. Lying between Sweden and Russia (both ruling it at one time and another) the city has endured its fair share of plague, fire and attack throughout its history. But since independence from Russia in 1917, the city has prospered. Angela and I were on our way there to experience New Year’s Eve, Finnish style.
The bus to central Helsinki was painless and cheap. Even better was the location of our hotel, the Simonkentta Scandic. It was dark by the time we arrived at the Central Station, but it took only a couple of minutes to find our place of stay.
The next morning, New Year’s Eve, we got up, had breakfast
The place to be at Midnight!
and ventured outside. We had been hoping for frost and snow in Helsinki, but it wasn’t to be. The sky was gloomy and overcast - the sort of day that we knew would never really improve. Though it was already ten in the morning, the high latitude of Finland meant the sun had only been up for less than an hour.
“I couldn’t live here in winter,” Angela said as we walked towards the centre. “I like a bit more sunlight than this.”
I nodded. It was hardly any wonder Finland was the tenth most likely country for suicide. “Yeah, and the sun sets at quarter past three.”
We reached Senate Square, with the imposing green-domed Helsinki Cathedral standing before us. Built in 1852, this magnificent cathedral is a major tourist draw. We stood admiring it while the square below was being set up for the night’s festivities. At the edge was a large screen and an even bigger stage. Later that night, we’d return with the crowds, but for now, we wrapped our scarves tighter, pulled down our hats and headed for pastures new.
The Uspensky Cathedral is another famous landmark of Helsinki. Designed by
a Russian Architect, and built in 1868, it is the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Western Europe. Four months previously, a blatant heist had occurred within its very walls. Religious icons had been stolen in broad daylight as hundreds of tourists milled about oblivious to the crime. The search is still on for the missing pieces.
Unfortunately, Angela and I couldn’t go inside the cathedral ourselves. It was closed, as it was every Monday during winter. It wasn’t the only place closed either. The Design Museum, a place Angela very much wanted to visit, had also closed its doors to visitors on a Monday. Consulting the map, we headed for the next place of interest.
“Have you noticed the people round here?” I said as we wandered down a hill towards the harbour front. I was referring to the general physical appearance of some of the Finns passing us by, going about their daily business, “They’ve got have dark hair,” I noted. “Not blonde like in Sweden or Denmark. They look like that singer from Iceland - Bjork.”
Very soon, we came to the sea, overlooked by the Presidential Palace. A guard stood outside, seemingly oblivious to the cold
A major draw of Senate Square
temperatures. Just along from this grand building was Market Square. In summer, the outdoor markets were a major tourist draw, but today, in the depths of winter, only a few brave souls had bothered to set up their stalls. We wandered through them anyhow, looking at the fish and souvenirs on offer, before taking refuge in the Indoor Market. Built in 1889, we browsed more stalls peddling smoked fish, cheese, handicrafts and honey.
The ferry terminal to Suomenlinna Island was at the edge of Market Square. As we approached, we saw an electronic display informing us it was leaving in less than one minute. Running across the harbour, we quickly purchased a ticket to board the small ferry for the fifteen-minute journey.
Suomenlinna Island was a sea fortress built in the 18th century. When Finland was under Swedish control, barracks, fortifications and a series of tunnels were built as a block to Russian expansion. It was a waste of time in the end though. The Russians easily took the island after only a briefest bit of bombardment.
The island’s church was rather interesting. Although looking bland at first sight, there was actually a bit more to it.
Firstly, all around the perimeter of the church were chains attached to canons. These canons had been placed in an upright position. But even better was the dome. It doubled as a lighthouse - apparently the only one in the world according to the plaque outside.
Nowadays 900 permanent residents inhabit Suomenlinna Island, with museums, shops, cafes and many old tunnels to explore. Had the weather been kinder, Angela and I might have been tempted to stay longer, but after having traipsed through the biting wind, we finally reached the southern end of the island, which faced the Baltic Sea. It looked bleak and unwelcoming. And then it started raining.
“Let’s head back,” said Angela as the rain blew horizontally into our exposed faces. “I’m freezing.”
I nodded, rubbing my hands together. “Not the best weather for exploring the island. Come on.”
Back in Helsinki, we went for a coffee to warm ourselves up. We found a nice one above a large book store. And after a spot of shopping, we went back to the hotel for a break before the night’s entertainment began.
By 10.30pm we were ready to hit the town. Wrapped up
The display was impressive!
warm, armed with a bottle of pre-made gin and tonic, we stepped outside. Already we could hear the bangs and whistles of fireworks going off all over the city.
We arrived back at Senate Square as the crowds began arriving. On the stage were five male singers, all dressed in suits, singing something in Finnish. With over an hour to go before Midnight, we decided to find a bar to keep warm. We found a nice one overlooking the harbour.
“I like Helsinki better than Copenhagen,” said Angela, taking a sip of her wine. “It just seems…nicer in a way.”
I agreed. “And it’s cheaper too.” I’d already noted that the price of a large beer was about four and a half Euros. Not exactly cheap, but better than the Danish Capital we’d visited back in August. “Come on, sup up. We better head back to Senate Square.”
With only minutes to go before the New Year, we jostled for position among the crowds. The Cathedral had been bathed in a blue light that made it look visually impressive. And then the countdown began. All around people began chanting backwards until the stroke of midnight chimed.
Not that many stalls were open on New Year's Eve
There was an almighty roar from the crowd and then the fireworks began.
“Happy New Year!” I roared in Angela’s direction, trying to make myself heard over the cascade above our heads.
“Happy New Year to you!” Angela shouted back. And then we stood for some time admiring the dazzling display before heading back to the hotel.
“Have you noticed,” I said as we joined the river of people making their way back through the streets of Helsinki. “There are no drunks or yobs about.”
Angela looked around and nodded. “Not like in England then.”
Half an hour later we arrived back at the hotel after a glorious night out in Finland’s capital city. After a quick nightcap we retired for the night, pleased we had seen in the New Year in Helsinki.
The next day, our last in Finland, we decided to see two of the major sights we’d missed the day before. First up was the Sibelius Monument, an abstract sculpture dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1965-1957). Unveiled in 1967 it initially caused quite a stir. Consisting of 600 hollow steel pipes, all welded together, it was certainly striking, but opposition
The Local brew
soon grew. A bunch of metal pipes as homage to the great composer? And what exactly did the pipes have to do with man? Finally, a sculpture of Sibelius near the monument was arranged, which thankfully appeased the opposition.
Our last port of call was the Church in the Rock. Opened in 1969, the interior of the church was excavated and built into the surrounding rock, hence the name. The excellent acoustics inside the church make it a popular place for concerts and other events. We wandered into the building, taking the view from the inside.
And then it was time to head back to the airport. Another city break over and done with. My thirty-first country ticked off the list.
• Everything within walking distance
• Friendly people
• Not as expensive as Copenhagen
• Quiet city - no beeping horns to be heard
• Everyone speaks English
• Lots of warm bars
• Lots of places closed on Mondays
• Bitter cold of winter
• Short, dark days in winter
• Can be a bit of a bugger to get there (to get a food price on airfare, we had
The largest Orthodox Cathedral in Western Europe, apparently
to connect in Germany)
There are more photos below