Helsinki – our first days

Monday 7 to Wednesday 9 August

The ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki was a floating resort. For the short 2 hours and 15 minutes journey there were meals served, live entertainment of bands, soloists and even a magician. There were poker machines and bars and restaurants and cafeterias and lounges and of course the outside deck upstairs. 

The weather was dry when we left Tallinn, but the rain was back with us in Helsinki. As we reached our hotel it was torrential – I got wet just running from the car into the hotel. 

We had requested parking, and we were sent to a nearby parking station. Never have we seen anything like it – we drove down through tunnels, reminding us of a cave tour. After about 500m we arrived at a parking place and took a guess where to park. Fortunately it turned out to be right beneath the hotel. 

The rain had stopped so we walked into Market Square and the information centre and collected some good information on Lapland and Lakeland, our two other destinations in Finland. 

Just above Market Square is Senate Square with a statue of Alexander II and the Helsinki Cathedral elevated above the square.  This is where the tour buses and hop-on hop-off buses congregate. It is a busy place.

Leading off Market Square is the Esplanade – it has a collection of statues including the Havas Amanda nude statue, once modified for morality sake and a statue remembering the poet Eino Leino.

The Uspenski Roman Orthodox Cathedral is also close to Market Square. Its copper and gold domes were so colourful in the late evening sun.

We were visiting in August, about 7 weeks after the summer solstice, where there are just a few hours of dusk. The days were extraordinarily long.  Birds starting singing around 4:00am and complete darkness, finally set in around 10:30pm.

Bruce had found a craft brewery on Triposa, so that was his choice for dinner. We knew Finland would be expensive and it was. However we had a nice meal of salmon with roast vegetables served over a tomato stew. And the beer was good. 

The sun shone the next day – wonderful. We started with a tour around the Central station, an amazing art decor building designed by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919. Its distinguishing features are it’s clock tower and the two pairs of statues, the “Lantern carriers” by Emil Wikström, holding the spherical lamps on both sides of the main entrance.

Next we took the hop-on hop-off bus. We haven’t done one of those for a long time, and at €28 each, we wondered what value it was, as the commentary was sparse. It is a good but expensive way to understand the layout of the city. 

From there we walked past the Natural History Museum with their hilarious giraffes enjoying tea time, then on to the Temppeliaukio Stone Church. This was designed by brother architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen between the 1960 and 1961 following a competition calling for designs. An earlier plan was for a traditional looking church set on top of the rocks, however they decided to blast into the rock and build a roof over the top. The radical design aroused public excitement and is said to have become highly respected and very popular for weddings. It certainly is unique, with the ceiling made of copper wire. The walls are the bare rock and a space between the walls and ceiling is glassed in to allow light. 

A young girl was playing the piano, and the acoustics were fantastic. 

We climbed on top of the rock, the church has been cleverly built so that you can’t see inside it from the rock that it sinks into. 

From there we walked to the monument built for the composer Jean Sibelius. It is in the shape of organ pipes, sitting on a rock alongside the Seurasaarenselkä Fölisöfjärden. It’s a lovely piece of art. 

By now we had repeated half the hop-on hop-off bus tour. We walked through parks until we reached the art precinct. There were playgrounds that looked exciting as well as providing free space for children to run. There were doggy parks as well. Dogs are always on a lead and well behaved. It is hard to imagine life for them in the dark snowy winter season. 

We meandered around, admiring other buildings before trying for a less expensive meal at an Italian restaurant. Although the service and ambience were not as sophisticated as the craft brewery, there was little difference in the cost of the meal. Finland is expensive, we just have to live with it. 

One of the things that struck us about Helsinki was the number of quality musicians playing in the streets, from single artists to groups playing rock or classical strings or xylophones and glockenspiels.

We had a full day to fill in before our overnight train, so we took a cruise around the harbour. The commentary was much more informative, telling us about past battles and fortifications as well as Kings and kingdoms. 

We visited the Indoor Market that has been turned into a food market, both eating and purchasing. Finally a browse through some upmarket shops such as Iittala and Marimiko. Finish design is lovely, but as always, it was just looking for us. 

We had booked to go to Lapland but first we had to get the car out of the underground carpark. We got lost, seriously lost. It is not exaggerating to say we probably drove 5km in underground tunnels, passing entrances to shops and city highlights that we had already seen above ground. It was frightening.

We finally hit daylight and headed off to the car-train station at Pasila, just 5km north of Helsinki. Like a lot of Europe, the road to the train station, and in fact the area around it, was under construction. We drove around for some time trying to find directions and detour signs. Both were sadly lacking. When we finally arrived we were told to wait another 1.5 hours – we were too early. 

We have used the Chunnel with a car, but every car-train is a new experience. The car was loaded onto a car carriage and strapped in. We had booked a sleeper for the 12 hour journey.  Next stop – Lapland.