Hello from Helsinki

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May 29th 2019
Published: June 15th 2019
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Wednesday 29thMay 2019

Hello from Helsinki

After an early breakfast we made our way by taxi to Ferry Terminal D at the docks in Tallinn for the two-hour journey across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki has been on our list since that wonderful mid-summer in 2005 when we entered Finland from Sweden in the north in our motorhome and only managed to get as far south as Oulu.Motorhome News from Europe 26 Time was the enemy then as ever and we promised to return one day and visit Helsinki.

Getting around Helsinki is remarkably easy. A €3, two-hour ticket, took us by tram directly to our ‘hotel’, The Hellsten Senate, a fairly basic apartment complex with our own suite – lobby, large bedroom and bathroom, kitchen, lounge and diner with TV and really great value in this rather expensive country. But then, it’s expensive for us to travel in any Euro country since Brexit – the exchange rate is dire. With a little time left on our travel ticket, we managed another tram ride to and from the local supermarket to stock up the fridge for our three-day stay.

If you're particularly short of time there are bikes and electric scooters available for hire everywhere at the drop of a credit card. Pick one up and drop it off. That said, the scooters are outlandishly dangerous, coming at you at high speed from all quarters!

Helsinki is a relatively young city and this is reflected in its architecture: wide, often tram-lined streets of pastel and white, five or six story apartment blocks, and much of it strikingly rich in Art Nouveau. A five-minute walk takes us from our apartment past the onion-domed Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Europe, to the busy harbour-side market, set up in the early hours each day as we discovered, where it’s easy to spend an hour admiring the vast range of local crafts and gifts. Fur is still on the ‘for sale’ list here and fox furs hang alongside reindeer skins and leather, silver and various wooden products. Janice has now found her sea-buckthorn sauce in a bottle and a Finnish flag pin-badge has been added to my hat that now weighs nearly half a ton. Should you chance to notice an old guy walking with a strange list to port on your travels, it’s likely to be me. There’s a fabulous indoor market on the harbour too, selling everything from local berry preserves to salmon and reindeer meat - a nice place to stop for morning coffee whilst watching the world go by.

From the harbour market it’s possible to see the stunning, white, Neo-Classical Helsinki Cathedral, which dominates the city centre. The cathedral was built on the north side of elegant, Carl Ludvig Engel designed, Senate Square in 1830 at the bequest of the then Russian administration. Workers are busy erecting a stage in readiness for tonight’s open-air concert and many tourists are sitting on the steps enjoying the view and city bustle in glorious sunshine. If I were to have just one memory of Helsinki, it would certainly be this most beautiful image. We learned in India that Jain philosophy portrays a plain exterior and beauty on the inside, but this Lutheran Evangelical Church is quite the opposite; the interior is unexpectedly plain and surprisingly tiny. That doesn’t detract from the peace and tranquility it represents, however.

Churches tell us a lot about our history and I guess that’s why they feature high on the tourist list. Recent Finnish history offers us a most unusual Lutheran church, built into solid rock here in Helsinki as recently as 1969. Temppeliaukio Kirkko, or Church in the Rock as it is perhaps better known, is quite a surprise. There is little evidence of a church from the outside other than a copper dome, but once inside, the ambience is truly quite amazing; light filtering through slatted windows beyond the shallow roofline tempting us to stop and listen to a most interesting and modern musical rendition in preparation for a concert later this evening.

A visit to Tourist Information is a must for us in every city, it inevitably saves us both valuable time and money. This one, inside the quite extraordinary Art Nouveau Central Railway Station, offers a two-day transport pass and the chance to inspect the station’s lovely interior. Dating back to around 1919, it is renowned as one of the most beautiful in Europe and not to be missed if you’re a fan of Art Nouveau.

Intrigued to see more of southern Finland, we breakfast early to catch a bus from the main bus terminal at 9.18 the following morning. That’s easier said than done it seems. Where do we get our tickets? There’s a machine on the concourse but directions are in Finnish and we don’t know what the different zones mean. The information desk is unmanned, there’s no-one to help and we stand and stare as the bus leaves the terminal. There’s not another bus for an hour, but determined not to be beaten, we ask a young lad for help. “Yes, I speak English,” he says, “but I don’t know how you get tickets!” Finally we discover a sign with a few words in small print ‘Tickets can be bought from the driver!’ (We later discovered it's also possible to buy tickets at many of the small shops around town.) It's somewhat satisfying to note that other tourists are experiencing the same problem - staring into space in the hope of a Prince Charming on a white charger coming to their rescue!

So, with an hour to spare we’ll take a stroll through the spick-and-span quiet streets to see the 1931 Parliament Building, a powerful though somewhat austere structure of neo-classical granite columns, and the Finlandia Hall, a modern concert and conference centre, the naming celebrating Finland's most famous composer, Sibelius. The bus route to our destination takes us out through suburban apartment land into the countryside, through lush green farmland and small villages, the first signs of houses, to a major highway through birch and pine forest, and a fifty minute bus ride later we’re in Porvoo, a small university town with its modern shops and equally modern facilities. But what we have really come to see is the old town we might associate with rural Finland and the red-painted fisherman’s cottages by the river, to give us another perspective on Finnish society beyond the city - and we’re not disappointed. The cobbled streets here are lined with rustic, colourful timber-clad homes, chic boutiques and souvenir shops, in a haze of pastels shimmering in the sunlight and the restaurant we have chosen for lunch, Glassikka, opposite the church, is quite outstanding and wonderful value – as one might anticipate this far from the city. Three buffet courses, all you can eat plus coffee, for €12.50 each.

Our day trip to Porvoo cost us the price of a bus ticket, €12 each, but should you want the ‘official tour’ from the city, you can expect to pay €62! A pleasant evening stroll along the waterfront on our return leaves us most satisfied with this, our second day in Helsinki.

It’s Friday, and it’s drizzling. We’re a bit damp after an early morning walk but the weather improves as the morning passes and, despite low cloud cover we have decided to take the 15 minute ferry (included in our two-day pass) from the harbour to the heavily fortified island of Soumenlina, protecting the city from invasion from the sea. The fortress was originally built as a base for the Swedish Fleet back in 1748. At a guess, the main island where the ferry terminates is about a mile from end to end and, having just missed an earlier ferry, we’re left with just an hour to see everything. This is an enormous fortified complex worthy of more of our time - that precious commodity regularly underestimated, but we must be back on the mainland in time to collect our luggage from the hotel at midday, check-out time. We'll then make our way to the port for our overnight ferry, The Princess Anastasia, to St Petersburg, Russia - our next port of call.

Helsinki has intrigued us. It is still a young city, it’s functional, the transport system is efficient as one might expect, its architecture is rather pleasant, some stunning neo-classical apartment buildings, the copious Art Nouveau is worthy of applause, and we have certainly enjoyed the experience - but there’s something missing, I can't put my finger on it. It’s not electrifying! Perhaps we should have given ourselves longer to get to know it and its people better. It doesn't help that we're country folk at heart and not in any way, townies. So, it's a quick hello, goodbye, Helsinki, we're of to pastures new on the overnight ferry.

“All aboard the Princess Anastasia, bound for St Petersburg!”

David and Janice

The grey haired nomads

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18th June 2019
Indoor market - Helsinki harbour front

Did you try any reindeer meat? Love the photo of the neo-classical church, and I was picturing an equally grand interior until I read the rest of your post... but I suppose it doesn't have to be grand to serve its primary purpose :)
19th June 2019
Indoor market - Helsinki harbour front

I'm sure we tried reindeer meat on our last visit to Finland back in 2005? I do know we didn't have whale meat in Norway. That church is an inverted tardis! Good to hear from you - and hoping you got the best out of Morocco. I loved it and would go back. but Janice wouldn't necessarily agree.
18th June 2019

The Beauty of Finland
Helsinki is on our list and as you say it has intrigued you.... and now us. Eager to hear more of your impressions.

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