Saturday 16th August 2008, Helsinki, Finland
This is becoming repetitive, but we woke to a damp, miserable drizzle which has continued throughout most of the day. It's not spoilt our enjoyment but we've not been able to walk around as easily as we otherwise could have done.
We found the metro station right nearby and even managed to puzzle out how to use the ticket vending machine, buying a card valid for the entire public transport network for three days. It's worth it just for the daily ride into the city centre as we are about fifteen kilometres out, but today it was really useful when we got fed-up with sploshing through the city and climbed aboard one of the lovely old trams that trundle their way slowly around the city streets. We chose one that took us past the main tourist attractions on a circular route that lasted an hour. Long enough to dry off and regain our energy.
Considering we are in Finland's capital, the streets are remarkably empty for a Saturday. We visited Stockmann, claimed to be the largest department store in Europe. Large it certainly is, with nine floors of merchandise to explore. On the fifth floor we finally found an elk – or possibly reindeer, we are none too hot on Scandinavian ungulates. Having searched fruitlessly in Finland's forests, we have to be content to have found one alone in a department store doing its Christmas shopping. Unfortunately there were also piles of beautiful, thick reindeer pelts for sale nearby.
The 19th century, white Protestant cathedral sits at the top of a huge flight of granite steps reminiscent of those up to Mayan temples, fronting onto one of Helsinki's main squares. At the top we found it was closed to tourists all day because of weddings - such a shame for couples when it is so wet and chilly. The views across Senate Square were worth the climb up with the National Library on one side and the matching University buildings on the other.
As in Stockholm, we were free to wander around in the National Library, an attractive 19th century building designed by one of Helsinki's chief architects, Carl Engel, also responsible for the rest of the buildings flanking the square. The library has five floors of books on open access with several free exhibitions. Its collections cannot compare with those if Stockholm but there was at least one incunable from the 1460s on display as well as a set of signed photographs of the Beatles.
Also on Senate Square is the Carl Engels café. It is the place to be seen and one of the "must dos" of the city. However, after steaming away gently in the corner waiting to be served by the busy waitresses we gave up and left.
Down on Market Square fronting the dock for the ferries we realised why our guidebook said it could be hard to appreciate that one is in the capital city. Despite the rain the market was in full swing, selling, as at Turku, mainly berries and a few mushrooms. Little boats moored along the quayside were selling vegetables from the prow of the vessel and several cafes were doing a roaring trade selling food cooked and served under awnings as the rain poured down. Unfortunately the stalls selling Finnish dishes such as reindeer burgers or fish caught in Lapland – vendace I think it's called – either had no seats free or they were soaking wet as the rain beat in. So we opted for the stall selling ham and pea soup with rye crispbread. A less popular choice but quite delicious and it meant we got a table in the dry from where we could watch the ferry to Sweden setting off towards the Gulf of Bothnia.
We explored the indoor market hall, similar to the one in Turku, before seeking out the ferry terminal to sort out our crossing to Estonia next week. On our way back into town we got caught up in the Helsinki marathon.
It was impossible to cross the road between the 6000+ runners, so we turned our steps, past the Presidential Palace to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, an impressive brick building and tangible evidence of the city's former domination by Russia. Inside the icons are reminiscent of those we saw earlier in the year down in Greece, as was the intoning of the priest at the central altar. A small party were gathered for a wedding so we stopped to watch. The priest held up two crowns, making the sign of the cross as he intoned the service. These were then held above the heads of the bride and groom by relatives as the service continued. We were left unsure whether we'd witnessed a wedding or a coronation!
At this point we took our tram ride around the city. As we neared the ferry port on the way back, a young Estonian couple, on a day trip from Tallinn to enjoy the Finnish vodka and take back some duty frees, climbed aboard and asked us for help finding the terminal. They were very sweet if slightly tipsy and had obviously had a lovely day out. We left them on the tram snuggling and giggling as they munched their chocolate cookies. It's good that the world has changed so much, allowing people from the former Soviet countries to enjoy a cheap booze cruise across the Baltic.
We walked back through the town centre to admire the immense granite railway station erected in 1914 by the architect Eliel Saarinen, with its four giant figures holding up lamps above the heads of passengers.
Exhausted we caught the metro home and collapsed with glasses of wine as Remoska busied itself cooking us a delicious supper of Finnish fresh salmon steaks with vegetables, accompanied by salad and lemon wedges. Meanwhile the rain continued outside. We are led to conclude that the citizens of Helsinki get so much rain they have developed fins – hence the country's name.
Sunday 17th August 2008, Helsinki, Finland
Grey skies and a mizzle welcomed us this morning though generally it's been fairly dry. We took a twenty minute ferry trip from the quay by the central market square out to a small group of islands known as Suomenlinna.
Together these islands have provided the location for one of the world's largest coastal fortifications. It is now on the Unesco World Heritage list. The fortifications were originally constructed from 1748 by Sweden, who controlled Finland at that time. It was intended for the protection of Helsinki against Russia. Finland later fell under Russian control and in 1808 Suomenlinna surrendered. The fortress then provided protection for the shipping routes to St. Petersburg until in 1855 it was bombarded by Anglo-French forces during the Crimean war.
Following Finland's independence in 1917 the fortress gradually fell into disuse though was used as a prison during WW2. There are still some 850 permanent residents on the islands but nowadays its main purpose is as a place of historical interest and relaxation, within sight and easy reach of the city. The fort is brick built and the islands little more than scoured granite rocks. The area reminded us rather of the naval forts around Plymouth Sound and the scenery was not dissimilar.
It was crowded with holidaymakers and the extensive fort buildings were drab and functional. So after a stroll across the bridges linking the different islands we took the ferry back to the city. Here we found a free concert in full swing in the Esplanadi, a pleasant garden area where people come to stroll on Sunday afternoons. One of the fountains showed a particularly charming mermaid and merchild. The model for the mermaid was the sculptors daughter, none other than the young Tove Jannsen – in later life the creator of the Moonins!
We spent a couple more hours walking around the city exploring different districts and major buildings. There were statues of various Finnish worthies including Elias Lönnrot who published the collection of folk tales Kalevala in verse in 1835, the first written account of Finish folklore and a landmark in establishing Finnish as a literary language.
Near the Cathedral we found the House of the Estates, the seat of the diet that ruled the country until 1906 when it was replaced by a single chamber parliament.
What really makes Helsinki special are its 19th and early 20th century granite buildings with their ornate façades. They are on a huge scale for such a city of this size and are mainly concentrated along the streets in the town centre. They are all massive, heavy buildings, carved and decorated in a variety of styles. Some have balconies, some caryatids, some are decorated with friezes while others have highly ornate doorways.
Before taking the metro home we returned down to the market square where traders were packing up at the end of the day. The smell of fish frying was too much for Ian and he bought a plate of whitebait with fried potatoes. He must have looked hungry as there was so much we shared it and have not felt hungry enough to bother to cook this evening.
Monday 18th August 2008, Helsinki, Finland
When we woke this morning we discovered a note of farewell on our windscreen from our neighbouring German campers who had moved on before we were even awake. They had plied us with wine on our first night here, roaring with laughter when they discovered Ian not only knew what Plattdeutsch was, but could actually recite a poem using it. (It's Low German, the dialect spoken in the Schleswig Holstein area of north Germany near the border with Denmark.) We felt quite touched by their note and their generosity in sharing their wine in a country where it is not easy to come by. Such is the nature of travelling. People come into and out of our lives, never to be seen again. It's the second time we've been invited to share drinks with strangers on this trip, the others were French and in both instances we were brought together by a desire to chat with people in a language we could all understand.
Helsinki is a bilingual city where the official written languages are Finnish and Swedish. The common language of communication for all nations here though seems to be English. We hear it spoken around us all the time, invariably by speakers who do not have English as a first language. We have to say it eventually becomes quite irritating listening to it being tortured and twisted but as a common language it serves an invaluable purpose. It has also struck us as strange that although it is over two hundred years since Sweden controlled Finland and less than a century since it was held by Russia, there appears to be almost no Russian inheritance in Helsinki and most Russian buildings have been altered beyond all recognition.
It was our last day in Finland today. This past week or so has flown by. It's been a most enjoyable experience though we've only had chance to scratch the surface. One day maybe we will return to northern Scandinavia and follow in the wheel tracks of Modestine's friend Eric who has travelled up through Lapland and is at this moment up at the North Cape searching the Heavens for the Aurora Borealis. We cannot do everything though, and have set our hearts on circumnavigating the Baltic.
The campsite has free wifi – of a sort. We used it with difficulty this morning to send a couple of blogs. We are becoming experts in working out computer jargon in every language in Europe and are thinking of writing a handbook of vital computer phrases. We'd start with the useful Finnish phrase "You cannot be connected to the internet at the moment. Please adjust your firewall, clear port 43 and contact your internet provider for assistance." The second useful phrase would be "There are two minutes remaining before you will be disconnected. Please save your vital files now."
Today we have carried out a systematic clean-up operation on the main tourist venues, photographing them and ticking them off in Ian's "I Spy Helsinki" book with ruthless efficiency. He proudly informs me we've done numbers 1 to 39 - and do my feet know it!
Fortunately it's been dry and sunny today so we set off to explore the north-west of the city walking along Mannerheimint. As already mentioned, it is the buildings that are the stunning feature of Helsinki. Many of the more recent buildings we saw today are so huge and heavy they are intimidating, and to my mind, despite their carved decoration, evocative of the architectural style of the German third Reich. Our route took us past the Post Office, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Parliament House, Finlandia Hall, the National Museum of Finland, Linnunlaulu wooden villa district, Töölönlahti, the Finnish National Opera, the Winter Garden, the Olympic Stadium, the Korjaamo Culture Factory and Tram Museum, the Sibelius Monument and the Temppelaukio Church. Several of these were set in pleasant parkland or along beside the lake where hundreds of rabbits nibbled the grass, pretty well oblivious to passers by.
The Olympic stadium is an excruciatingly ugly building. Intended for the 1940 Olympics, because of the Second World War it had to wait until 1952 to host the games.
At the Korjaamo Culture Factory we browsed a photographic exhibition and explored several of the city's ancient trams on display there. Similar vintage ones are still running through the streets on a daily basis.
The Sibelius monument is set in a leafy park. It is made from over a hundred steel cylinders. They resembled icicles and would look especially impressive in the snow. Somehow they seemed just right for the composer and his music which is seen here as epitomising the essence of Finland. Beside it is a steel sculpture of the composer's disembodied head.
One of the most interesting sights of Helsinki is undoubtedly the underground church known as Temppelaukio. It sits inside one of the smooth granite tors that poke up through the city floor in various places. Inside, the walls are just the bare, hewn granite complete with the marks left by the drills and cutting equipment. The top has been sliced off and a copper dome fitted. From outside this shows as a round, green, inverted saucer on top of the rock. The church, like most in Finland, is Lutheran and quite devoid of any ornamentation. We needed to search before discovering the tiny iron cross on the bare altar. As we walked around inside what is effectively a huge cave, we were accompanied by the music of Sibelius. The acoustics are excellent. It is a very far cry from this to the lavishly ornamented Baroque splendours of the Catholic churches of Austria and Southern Germany – bare rock rather than baroque!
On the way home (i.e.back to Modestine, we always think of her as home when we are travelling) we stopped off at the supermarket. Vegetables are fun to buy loose. Carrots, cabbages, courgettes or cauliflowers, they each have their own number which you key in on the scales to get a printed label. We had to ask fellow customers what numbers corresponded to the vegetables we needed to buy. You simply cannot make a guess when a bag of carrots is called porkkanapuss and peas in the pod are herneenpalko. Oh well, at least we can understand the money. Finland is the only country we've visited on this journey that uses the euro. Tomorrow we have to face not only a new language but a new currency as well.