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Published: March 9th 2010
As I am never one to let a bank holiday to go to waste, for the second May Bank holiday weekend it was off to Helsinki with a group of mates.
Why Helsinki? Well, crucially, none of us had been there. In addition, flights were not too expensive and it would not yet be too cold.
Our expectations did not start high when, doing some pre-trip research, we found prominent among the pluses of a Helsinki visit, the fact that the town centre 'is extremely clean'. Now I love a clean city as much as the next person, but it’s not usually the reason I choose to visit somewhere.
As it turns out, whilst Helsinki is a very clean city, that it not the best thing about it - we had a great weekend.
We stayed near the port, the heart of Helsinki, which meant we were well placed to enjoy the weekend markets, including a delicious crepe breakfast and a yummy lunch.
One of the cool things about Helsinki is it is on a peninsula, surrounded by a vast archipelago. No, I didn't know what it meant either. Some quick internet research reveals it is
a chain or cluster of islands formed tectonically (ie by the movement of tectonic plates). What it means is that Helsinki is surrounded both by water and lots of cool little islands - now THAT I like.
We started our adventures with a trip to Suomenlinna Sveaborg, the spectacularly unsuccessful island fortress designed to protect the city from invasion. Finland used to be a part of Sweden, and it was actually the Swedes that built the fortress. They were afraid of an attack from Russia, who had long had their eye on Sweden. Anyway, they built the fortress with a whole lot of cannons to protect Helsinki from a sea attack. Unfortunately for them, the Russians came by land, and attacked the fortress from behind, lobbing cannon shells from the mainland. Even worse, the cannons on the fortress could not turn 360 degrees toward the mainland and so were useless. Needless to say, the Russians won - apparently without the Swedes firing a single shot.
The story of the name is pretty interesting too - it was built by a Swedish prince and was called Sveaborg (castle of the Swedes). Apparently the Finns had some problems with this,
And fabulous weather!
as they have trouble saying the letter 'b', so they called it Viapori, which is the name the Russians also used. When the Finns declared independence from Russia in the early 1900s, they hit back at the Swedes, calling the fortress Suomenlinna (castle of the Finns). This was a not entirely successful plan as Swedish is also an official language of Finland. So, the fortress is called "Sveaborg" in Swedish and "Suomenlinna" in Finnish and both are official names. Hmmm, seems like the Finns should have made the Swedes call it the Swedish for 'castle of the Finns'.
Suomenlinna is actually built across 5 islands, and there are some pretty cool tunnels and caves to explore, as well as a 'hobbit town' looking area. Blue skies and cute buildings ready made the visit.
There are a number of impressive churches in Helsinki, including the famous ‘Rock Church’ (Temppeliaukio Kirkko). No, it’s not a church where the congregation spend their time ‘rocking out’ but a church carved out of a big block of granite, with a copper roof - which makes it look a bit like a flying saucer has landed. It leaves a bit to be
desired from the outside, but apparently is pretty cool from the inside. I don’t have a view on that, as there was a wedding going on inside.
In further island exploration, on our last day we headed to Seurasaari, which houses an open-air museum of Finnish architecture through the ages, complete with Finns in period dress. The highlights, however, are the island itself, which is full of lovely forest paths, and the many red squirrels which are so tame they eat nuts from your hand. They even have bonfire parties in the summer, but we missed that. On the way we did a drive by of the Sibelius Monument, a sculpture memorial to the composer of the same name.
Of course we tried the drink and foodstuffs of Finland, including:
• Reindeer (not bad at all)
• Fruits of Finland - Lingonberry on crepe, cloudberry, blueberry
• Fried herring
• Seafood (not as fresh as I expected)
• … well, you get the idea.
They have a bit of a tradition of Russian foods in Helsinki also, but we did not try bear ... this time.
out is not a bargain, but we tried a range of Finnish spirits - lingonberry, cloudberry and some other berry that I presently can't recall the name of.
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