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Helsinki, Finland 
      

June 8

It was an early morning start. We travelled by boat from Tallinn, Estonia to Helsinki, Finland. Great weather and smooth sailing

As we were unable to check into our hotel room before 3:00, we stowed our bags in a locker at the ferry terminal and struck off on foot for our introduction to Helsinki.

We walked passed dockside warehouses – old (looking more like palaces) beside new – and then the real palace which was simpler in design to one of the warehouses; to the harbour market.

It was bustling with locals and tourists. Vendors under orange, red and yellow tents were selling food (focussing on fish and reindeer meat) with some offering tasty samples; woollen knitwear, furs and wood carved items alongside fruit, vegetables, flowers, plants and one lady selling fresh fish right off the back of her boat. We went into the market building where yet more stalls (permanently fixed) were selling packaged foods, bakery items and fresh fish from glass fronted coolers.

 
 
 

All this was making us hungry and we returned to the outdoor market, purchased some fish, reindeer sausage and beer, then joined others at picnic tables under the bright awnings and carefully guarded our plates as seagulls waited for some neglectful diner, as was a person next to us, so they could swoop in for a snatch and fly. That’s exactly what happened, her anchovy-like fish were gone in the blink of an eye and a beat of a wing.

We walked over to the tourist information centre, noticing here too that the plaid plastic tote-bag with the zipper top were popular. With a map in Terry’s hand, we skipped the formal bus tour, done in eight different languages, and instead caught a tram which did an hour long figure 8 route, so as to became familiar with the city, finishing at Helsinki Cathedral.

The hotel we were staying at is fully automated - Omenahotelli. We booked on-line and set up a code we would use upon arrival after 3:00 and the program told us our room number. It all worked. We simply punched in our number code on the door panel and were let in. What a marvellous use of space.  Everything was there: twin beds together plus another two leather chairs which fold out to two additional beds. Two tables and chairs which provide flexibility for uses, a small fridge, microwave, kettle, flat screen tv, closet and drawer space and a well laid out bathroom; (pay tv and internet access can be had at an additional cost). Efficient and comfortable and the price and location were right. Ideal for one night stays or longer stays, alone or with family. We are going to be seeing more of this style of accommodation. It makes so much sense.

Dinner was purchased at the local supermarket and we had a light "in home" dinner and some breakfast goodies in the fridge.

June 9

Back in the 1600s the centre square of this coastal town had a town hall, a church and cemetery. In 1812 the Russian Tsar proclaimed Helsinki the capital of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland and ordered a new monumental city plan in keeping with the city’s important new role. Today the "Senate Square" is a neat and cohesive example of Neoclassical architecture dominated by four buildings by the same designer ... impressive in their size and scale. Sitting upon a pillar of steps, the Helsinki Cathedral, takes centre stage. Today the cathedral was closed for numerous weddings and the square was filling with colour as people scurried to build floats for a "Samba" festival. A stage had been erected at the bottom of the 53 wide stairs leading up to the cathedral and a Samba group from Sweden was kicking off an afternoon of entertainment. The stairs, as they often are, were being used as bleachers and filling with people. We sat for only a few minutes and were then on our way.

Leaving the square we walked down one of the old cobblestone streets. In the early 1900s asphalt was too soft to withstand the wear and tear of traffic. No shelter from the cold to be found in Helsinki phone booths, from the waist height they are open at the bottom with short cupboard style doors to let you in and a fancy cupola roof to shed rain. Old style street lamps also line this street fitted to a post or a wall of a building with ornate wrought iron brackets. The city installed electric street lighting in 1910 when the municipal electricity works was founded.

Beside the harbour’s Market Square we found the 1908 Havis Amanda ... aka "Manta" ... looking impressively good for a 99 year old. Built in Paris this fountain nude, according to designer Ville Vallgren, symbolises Helsinki and its rebirth. She was first shunned by the politicians as much too provocative. Today she stands with her bare backside to a government building and every year at 6 pm on the evening before May Day university students give her a sponge bath while thousands of onlookers fill Market Square. The ritual ends with a student cap being placed upon her head.

Along with the new main square being developed for the new capital in 1812, a promenade was developed and became part of a 1826 park plan. Esplanade Park grew to its present size of a few blocks in the 1840s. At that time it was a park for the gentry, who went for a stroll in their best attire. Today’s beautiful Kappeli Restaurant at the harbour end of the park, was built in the 1860s and was a place where pastors (herdsmen) sold milk. Late in the 1800s fences were replaced by lawns and lime trees. In 1918 during World War I, pansies and roses gave way to cabbages and potatoes. Today Esplanade is no longer merely a place for show and gentry, but somewhere to have a picnic or spend time strolling which is what we were doing. We shared the walkway with others doing the same thing and with the fifteen full skirted statues by Spanish artist, Manolo Valdes. They come in four sizes.

We left the park behind and started walking to Temppeliaukio Church ... not your normal church. On the way we met ladies in hoop skirts, others in gold lamia, silver discs and orange feathers, while others were in blue dance dresses studded in sequences accented with feathers ... like Los Vegas show girls. All these ladies were headed for the main square where the day’s Samba Parade would have its start.

 

A wedding was also taking place at Temppeliaukio Church ... more easily recognized as "the church in the rock" or "Rock Church". We waited as wedding guests made a double line outside and prepared to blow bubbles (unlike rice - no cleanup necessary). When the young couple appeared arm in arm we were surprised to see them quietly walk through the lines and get into a car. Smiles certainly, especially from the young female minister, but there was no noise, no hugs, no waves. One of those things that makes one go "hmmmm?".

The church was quarried out of the natural bedrock. The interior walls of the church are the natural rock, holding up the roof are slats of wood and 180 pieces of glass let in a circle of natural light. A thirteen mile ribbon of copper (on its side) coils around and around to form the spectacular ceiling. The altar was simply made with two rocks as a base topped by a thick slab of granite. The natural rock backing was sparkling with tiny tea-light candles. Dominating one of the side walls (is there a side to a circle?) was the large brass and wood pipe organ. In addition to holding religious services, the church is a popular venue for concerts, due to its excellent acoustics. And underneath it all a 6,000 person air-raid shelter.

 

The day was bright and sunny. We decided to walk back to the ferry terminal where we had stored our luggage after checkout in preparation for our overnight sailing to Stockholm.

Nearing the park again, we heard music and rounded a corner to find people lining the street. Thousands of people awaiting the parade that was heading our way. We walked as quickly as we could for as far as we thought best and then squeezed through the parade watchers before the onslaught of decorated floats and Samba dancers reached us. The music was uplifting and we ducked back into the crowd for a quick peek before moving on through the market towards the ferry.

 

At a bridge we bumped into six fellows from India trying to get a group picture. Sherrie offered to take the photo (see attached) l-r: Clark, Kent, Steve, Austin, Sam, Ralph and Terhinder.

When the cruise ship pulled away from Helsinki we could see that the cathedral not only dominated the square but the city’s skyline as well.

The ship’s passengers were ready for a party and party many did. Nine million Swedes and Finns make this trip each year. It boasts the cheapest accommodations in an expensive part of the world and offers casinos, entertainment and an over-the-top buffet. The biggest draw for these mini-vacation get-aways is the duty free shopping. Booze, cigarettes, perfumes and caviar seem to top the list of desired items which leave the ship by the trolley cart full. In the meantime, they try to drink as much as they can en route. After partaking of the smorgasbord ourselves, we took our extended bellies down to the Karioke Lounge and listened to some good, some not-so-good and some down-right-awful would-be singers imitate Cher, Celine and Ole Olsen.

It was close to midnight by the time we decided to leave the party and head to our cabin ... but before we did, we went out on deck and took a picture of the sun which was still reluctant to call it a day.

 

click here to continue to June 10  and Stockholm, Sweden   ...

 
    

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