On our bus ride from the Helsinki Finland airport into the city, Rick is quick to say what I am thinking, “These buildings remind me of Moscow.” We later learn that Hollywood used some Helsinki streetscapes for movie scenes taking place in the Russian capital, and a bit of condensed history tells why. Finland’s story is likened to a wrestling match between Sweden and Russia. Sweden moved in during the 12th and 13th centuries, building settlements and fortifications, with Russia always hovering and ready to skirmish. By 1809 the country under the Russians became known as The Duchy of Finland. When Russia was preoccupied with the Revolution, Finland declared Independence in 1917 (but had to fight more wars against Russian aggression, and then Nazi Germany to keep this freedom).
But…we had not yet seen the city centre or the pedestrian street area, where our eyes feast on an array of architectural styles; one of my favourites is the National Romantic design of the Finnish National Theatre. Out front is a statue of Aleksis Kivi, said to be the country’s greatest author.
We note more malls and big department stores in the central area than we have seen in other Scandinavian countries, the absence of souvenir shops, and a strong coffee culture as evidenced by the quantity of people-packed cafes.
Other observations: Walkers actually obey traffic lights at intersections, even when no vehicles are visible. What we really need to keep an eye out for are Bicycles. Bike lanes are part of every street and often intersect sidewalks making it imperative to look both ways with the amount of cyclists whizzing by at lightning speed, especially those commuting to work with seemingly only seconds to spare.
Of course, I am quick to locate the open air market, and Rick has no choice but to follow along as I check out the tent-roofed vendors selling fresh veggies and fruit (the cherries and blueberries look especially enticing). Eateries offer up traditional dishes. (I take note of where the Lapland tent is for future reference). “Ahha, this is where souvenirs are sold!” I say, as I finger the hand-made crafts of every description, Lapland fur hats with ear-flaps, and more.
Old Market Hall is on the same grounds as the outdoor market. This long red brick building opened in 1889 and is still going strong, and although Rick says he is in dire need of a cappuccino, I manage a quick browse. Most of the items sold outside are repeated, with a few additions like a meat shop. There is plenty of seating for a quick meal from mini-restaurants here also.
The Church Trail
In some countries the churches are quite similar, and although beautiful, after viewing several I have a hard time remembering which is which….but NOT so in Helsinki!
The neoclassical giant Helsinki Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko) presides over Senate Square. We climb some 50 steps to its chalk white façade capped with domes of green. The inside is fairly unadorned, a commonality of the Lutheran denomination. It was built from 1830-1852 as a tribute to Nicolas I of Russia, and called St. Nicholas Church until Finland declared independence.
Further out from the centre of the city we come upon the Rock Church or Temppeliaukio, which opened in 1969. Carved out of bedrock, it has a feel like no other. The bare granite rock in hues from pale creams and yellows, sands and browns, charcoals and blacks needs only a simple alter with a small cross, a few candles, and a vase of white flowers to align with nature’s décor. The copper ceiling is joined to the rock with long vertical windows. A copper-coloured pipe organ swells melodiously in the excellent acoustics – making this church a popular venue for musical events.
In a busy traffic area and next door to a sizable mall is a structure that is incongruous to its surroundings. Kamppi Chapel of Silence, completed in 2012, has a rounded exterior of spruce wood. The inner sanctum of alder planks cut to shape rises up 11.5m with windows around the upper edge before the roof. All sound is blocked out – making it a place to escape the bombardment of stimuli in everyday life – a place to meditate, contemplate and reflect.
A Monumental Monument
Just follow the tour buses to find Sibelius Park and there it is – Sibelius Monument – of welded steel organ pipes with the bust of famed Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) to one side. Artist Eila Hiltunen unveiled her tribute to Sibelius ten years after his death. As well as seven symphonies, he was a poet dear to Finnish hearts for his important role in national identity – such as, when in 1899 Russia imposed a strict censorship policy, Sibelius composed a melodrama in the same year with the sentiment, “I was born free, and free I will die.”
Fine Finland Fare
I pull Rick back to the outdoor market, being that I can’t get my mind off the Lapland food tent – and think this a perfect spot for a taste of traditional offerings. I glean from others ahead in line that Reindeer Stew is the most popular dish. The indigenous Sami people (often called Lapps or Laplanders) that inhabit the artic area of Scandinavia are reindeer herders from way back, the reindeer being an important animal for food and transportation.
Carrying a steaming bowl, along with a local beer, back to the picnic-type tables, we dig in! The slivered reindeer meat is mellower than beef, but tasty especially with each spoonful catching up some of the creamy mashed potatoes and Lingonberry jam (this tangy cranberry-like berry is anther staple found in plenty in these northern forested areas). A hardy and scrumptious meal!
Finland is a wonderful place to visit, where the unpretentious citizens go about their business, yet are quick to be helpful and congenial. An enjoyable stop!
Next we will cross the Gulf of Finland on Viking Ferry Line for the port of Tallinn, Estonia.
Costs for Finland and more info:
Finance Minister, Rick, after tallying the costs (for lodgings, food, entertainment, travel) reports we finished Finland for $260 CDN a day.
Best Western – Hotel Carlton, Helsinki
Best Western Carlton Helsinki