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Published: July 21st 2018
We arrived in Helsinki 20 minutes before midnight. It had just become night - the light fading from the west as we flew into the airport. It would be light again here in less than 4 hours. If you like daylight, this was the place to be on your summer city break. Helsinki is actually the second most northerly capital city in the world behind Reykjavik in Iceland and just pipping the capital of Norway, Oslo, into third. Close neighbours, Tallinn (Estonia) and Stockholm (Sweden) complete the top five. Helsinki Airport was humming even at this late hour. Flights arriving and bodies lying around waiting for the early morning departures. The queues were long at immigration and I was just about to curse Scandinavian efficiency or the lack of it, when the automatic facial recognition passport gates eased the delays. The flight had been full and BA had been doing a Ryanair, restricting the numbers of hand baggage at the gate check in, so we had been lucky to avoid a further want. We quickly located the Airpro office to collect our Helsinki Cards - descend the stairs right next to Burger King after security in arrivals - and made the
12.30 am train into the city. The Helsinki Cards were Region passes, so it was a free ride to town and avoided the scramble at the ticket machines before the long escalator descent into the station. There were actually other ticket machines on the platforms, but most had not taken the risk and they were perhaps only for topping up monthly passes anyway. There was no obvious place to scan our cards to validate them, but a fellow local passenger showed us the ropes as we boarded the train. He seemed quite keen to check for himself that the Helsinki Cards worked on the machines. A big green tick flashed up to show the instructions were correct. We had flown 1150 kilometres from London. He was driving 1150 kilometres to Lapland in the morning. Finland is no small country. The 29 minute journey saw us deposited at the central railway station. The tram stop for West Harbour was directly out front and 15 minutes later, we were at our abode. We checked in at 0130 hours. Daylight would soon return.
I awoke with Princess Anastasia. Princess Anastasia of Naples to be precise. The Other Half was there
too. The Princess was a passenger ferry mooring directly below our windows. We watched with interest from our 15th floor corner view, as the huge vessel pulled alongside and prepared to jettison her cargo of passengers into the bright sunny morning. The seabirds circled in a frenzy waiting for a free meal of bemused fish, as the huge engines churned the water. The tugs let go and she berthed. The sun was shining. Visibility was good. We could see for miles out over the islands that scatter the approaches to the city. In the other direction, we could see the rise of the new residential blocks of apartments sprouting up. The area was once the industrial ship and dockyards, but is now home to the upwardly mobile city workers. Huge construction cranes dotted the landscape, ready to assist in the construction process. A huge cruise ship that had just vacated the harbour steamed off into the distance probably heading towards Saint Petersburg and another waited in the approaches for her signal to enter the port. We headed down to the breakfast with a view to filling ourselves to avoid ongoing expensive food purchases during the day. The beauty of Scandinavia
comes at a price to make your eyes water.
Trams 6T, 7 and 9 conveniently stopped pretty much right outside the door and we rode back to the central railway station. The structure dates from 1919 and came about after a competition to design a new building to cope with the popularity of rail travel. The competition winner and designer was Eliel Saarinen, who later moved to the US. His son Eero probably became more widely known as the designer of Dulles Airport in Washington DC and the Gateway Arch in St Louis. He was also a furniture designer and friend and collaborator with Charles Eames and Florence Knoll. I sit on an Eames lounge chair and stare out our Helsinki harbour, as I started to write this blog. The central railway station was voted the most beautiful in the world by a BBC poll in 2013 and on this fine July morning, it is easy to see why. Two huge statues holding a sphere flank the main entrance arch. A tower rises above the right hand side. Finnish granite topped with copper or bronze. Sturdy and functional, but pretty too in a brutalist sort of way.
Finland is a fairly young country in modern terms. After centuries sandwiched in a power struggle between Sweden and the Russian bear next door, Finland finally gained independence in 1918. The collapse of the Russian empire and the demise of the Tsars in 1917 gave rise to an opportunity for Finnish independence. After a brief civil war between the Red Guard, supported by the Bolsheviks and the White Guard, supplied by Germany, a Republic was formed. The railway station was aspired to in 1909, but by the time it opened it was a time of great optimism for the fledgling Finland. Today, we envisage Finland as a model of success and prosperity, but it hasn't always been this way. Saarinen Senior was one of many Finns who left for pastures new at points in their history. There were hard times even in the recent past. The 1970s saw a few hundred thousand Finns head for the promised land of nearby Sweden with plentiful jobs and a familiar way of life. The move apparently wasn't greeted with such enthusiasm by the Swedes, who weren't that impressed by when they saw their neighbours arrive in such numbers. There was
much talk apparently of Finnish ghettos full of hard drinking and crime, springing up in the major cities. There was another sharp downturn in the economy in the early 1990s. World events conspired against Finland and the disappearance of the Russian trade with the fall of the old order in the Eastern bloc kicked them when they were down.
The Helsinki Cards we had purchased were good for 72 hours and included a host of museums and attractions, as well as the free public transport. We had bought a similar pass in Copenhagen, so we're well versed in the concept. The price of the individual components basically mean you have got your money back inside a day. We had paid a mere €61, which sounds a lot but trust me it doesn't get you far here. We decided to get our bearings with a boat trip. An instant saving of €25. Helsinki is a small port city protected by a host of little granite islands. The cruise set sail towards the east. The huge Viking Line ferries towered above us as we passed the terminals. A constant buzz of manic activity surrounded each arrival from elsewhere in
the Baltic. We headed out past Suomenlinna - the former fortress island that protects the harbour. We would visit later in the holiday. The weather was scorching - in the high 20 degrees Celsius - which had brought the Finns out in their droves to get a piece of summer. Bodies laid about on the rocks and the beaches of the outer islands - all trying to bronze before the short summer was but a memory. As light as it is in summer, the dark days of November and December bring hardly any daylight. Finns hibernate and wait for better days. The islands we passed are covered with summer retreat houses - some no more than log cabins built by granddad 50 years ago and others modernist palaces with unrivalled ocean views.We cut back through the canal that had been constructed in the 1700s, as a short cut to town.
We alighted back in the market square. A series of orange and white tents house a host of food and souvenir stalls. The souvenirs appeared to be the usual range of tat snapped up by the coach loads of cruise passengers who are deposited into the open
arms of the traders. The food stalls offered a range of freshly prepared local and international dishes ideal for the lunchtime snack. We moved on to the nearby Cathedrals. The red brick of the Cathedral was hosting a wedding. The more impressive white Cathedral stood majestically above Senate Square, the domes visible for miles around. It reminded me of St Sava in Belgrade. The heat was taking a toll even after a few hours, so we boarded the hop on hop off bus for a ride round town. Free with the Helsinki Cards, but a staggering €30 otherwise. We had already broken even on the deal. The open top bus provided minimal shade in the midday sun, but it proved a useful orientation exercise for our own exploration later. There is an air of grandeur in the layout of the old city. The Russians built-in the style of both Saint Petersburg and Paris. After a drive round the wide boulevards, we moved out to the wider city - the Sibelius Monument, the Rock Church, Olympic Stadium and back via the Finlandia Hall. We had got to 2 pm and the plan was get some tickets for the football later in
the day and to have a light lunch. However we stumbled on the bargain of the Helsinki week on the 8th floor of Stockman, whilst hunting for the Tiketti agency. In a country where a MacDonald's meal sells at close to 10€, a 3 course meal including coffee is yours for a shade over 13€. Salad, soup and a choice of the 2 main courses of the day. The aircon was another plus. The cheapest tickets for the football were also secured with ease.
We strode past the Swedish Theatre and down the Esplanade, before cutting up to the Design Museum. The achievements of Finnish design are often overlooked in favour of the other Scandinavian countries. The world seems to have got a bit confused with order of the day - the bentwood stool was not a revolution started by Ikea. As long ago as 1936, Alvar Aalto was manufacturing his designs. The classic pieces are still as modern and fresh today, as they were back then and in a totally different build quality class. We think today primarily of 2 mobile phone handset manufacturers - Samsung and the Apple I Phone. We forget the total dominant
force of the 1990s - Nokia - when a functional mobile phone would last days between battery charges. A little known Wellington boot maker led the world for a few short years. The museum also featured the bold prints of Marimekko, which are everywhere in Helsinki and the glass of Iittala. Once again, the Helsinki Cards got us free admission with a combined saving of 28€. One of the stranger tourist attractions in the city was the Rock Church. We get used to the standard design concept, which isn't one where it is blasted out of solid granite and where you can walk on the roof. The roof dome of concrete girders is finished off with 22 kilometres of copper strip. A Japanese tourist wheeled his luggage towards the entrance, oblivious to the sign he had just ignored and to what he would miss. I set off for my first competitive football fixture of the 2018 / 2019 season.
A girl’s football tournament had been on going on the grass pitches surrounding the Olympic complex. The Olympic Stadium was under refurbishment, but the recognised symbol of the tower looked pristine against the blue sky in the warm
afternoon sun. The tower is the same height as the winning javelin throw by a Finn in the 1932 Olympic Games. The Other Half has a connection with the tower. It was from here that her uncle filed his reports for Reuters from the 1952 Olympic Games. We still have press pass medal. He often talked about returning to Scandinavia, but never did. The misconception is that the stadium was built for 1952. It was in fact made ready for the 1940 Games. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 saw them stripped of the hosting rights, so Finland stepped in. Of course, the world had been gripped by a global conflict by 1940 and the event was cancelled. Helsinki would get their chance in 1952 with only a few minor amendments to the facilities. It would be the first Games with the Eastern bloc countries participating and would also see the sporting rehabilitation of the new German states. We wandered round to take a photo of the statue of Paavo Nurmi - the Flying Finn, the local great middle distance runner from inter war years. He scooped 9 Gold medals in the 1920s before being banned from the 1932
Games, after a dispute about his amateur status.
The Finnish top flight match between HJK Helsinki and TPS Turku kicked off at 7 pm in the Tele 5G Arena next door. A modest 11,000 capacity was not tested The Finns had found something better to do. A confused band of 75 or so HJK "Ultras" wandered past swigging beer from their cans. A salutary police van cruised a discreet distance behind them. I say confused on the basis of their attire. A few skinheads complete with their braces and Doc Martins mingled with other lads kitted out in Fila, Sergio Tacchini and Ellesse. It was a scene from the early 1980s before the football casuals had completely taken over. They walked on, presumably looking for their opposite numbers from Turku. I suspect it was more show than intent. The trailing police seemed unconcerned. The noisy visitors from TPS Turku and their solitary banner would only be seen in the ground later. We headed inside, once a token search had been carried out. We were guilty of the Finnish football offence of having water in a plastic bottle. It was poured into a plastic glass and we were
deemed no longer a threat to national security. The 2 apples in my possession we clearly not deemed as missiles this far north. The 10€ seats behind the south goal were nicely in the shade and a decent view. Our "ultra" friends were about 25 seats to our right. They secured their drum location and the security had erected a new line of safety fencing, so their collection of banners didn't obscure the corporate ads pitch side. The teams ran out to a Finnish version Blue is the Colour, so the admiration for all things Stamford Bridge was made instantly obvious. We were treated to a full repertoire of Chelsea songs with Finnish lyrics, all carefully choreographed by top skinhead with the megaphone and his mate with the biggest flag. I said earlier it was my first "competitive" fixture of the season, but the word was a bit of an exaggeration. It wouldn't count as competitive in North East England. HJK were top of the league and seemed satisfied to stroll around in the sun waiting for their lowly visitors to make a mistake. There was an air of arrogance from a team that refers to itself as "The Club"
or Klubbi. Turku looked like a 0-0 scoreline would do just nicely. They finally came out of their shells in the last few minutes when 2-0 down and a frenzied gamble was made to pinch a point. It nearly succeeded. The majority went home happy. We caught the tram back to the central railway station and on to the hotel.
It was about 10 pm when we entered the Sky Bar on the 16th floor. A mix of hotel guests and young Finns out on the town gazed out over the city. It was still broad daylight. I was relieved of 17€ for our two 0.4 litre draught beers. It hurt, but in reality it was quite cheap for Helsinki and the views. In addition, we were sitting on some more of those expensive lounge chairs. We would be better organised tomorrow in the alcohol stakes. Our fellow drinkers were tucking into 75€ bottles of champagne. Money no object to these Finns making the most of their summer daylight and keen to see as much of the sun whilst the opportunity presented itself. The sun finally began to set over the city and the Baltic. It would
soon be back! Appendix 1 Finland Veikkausliga HJK Helsinki 2 TPS Turku 1
July 2018 @ 1900 Hours Venue
: Tele 5G Arena, Urheilukatu 5, 00250 Helsinki, FInland Attendance
: 2311 Scorers
: 1-0 Patronen (HJK Helsinki) 51 Mins, 2-0 Riski (HJK Helsinki) 86 MIns,Adhe 2-1 (TPS Turku) 91 Mins HJK Helsinki
: Rudakov, Patronen, O'Shaughnessy, Obilor, Kouavissi-Benissan, Annan, Dahlstrom (Ollikainen 89 MIns), Valencic, Banza, Mensa (Riski 64 Mins), Klauss (Yaghoubi 79 Mins) TPS Turku
: Viscosi, Rahmonen, Friburg (Kinnunen 69 Mins), Holma, McKendry, Tenho, Blomqvist, Valakari (Peraaho 69 Mins), Aaritalo, Sjoroos (Ade 85 Mins), Jakonen
Tot: 1.137s; Tpl: 0.089s; cc: 19; qc: 28; dbt: 0.031s; 1; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.5mb