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This page was last updated 20 July 2009.
Sunday, 12 July 2009
KLM brought me from Berlin Tegel to Helsinki Vantaa. Tegel is my favorite airport because the gates are numbered beginning with 0. The next morning I was late for breakfast because Finland is one hour ahead of central Europe. Walked around town all day. First west to the Hietelahti Sandviken harbor, where a large flea market offers used clothes and all sorts of old junk. The Boulevardi, later renamed Boulevarden, road leads back to the center. It's quiet, lined with old trees, with many beautiful old buildings on both sides. It later turns into Eteläesplanadi, which parallels a narrow pedestrian street away from the traffic. All Helsinki statues have a pigeon perched on their heads.
|Kauppatori with Tuomiokirkko in the background||Berry vendor on Kauppatori|
Eteläesplanadi ends at Kauppatori at the edge of the ferry harbor. There is a small farmer's market selling mainly berries. The line of beautiful buildings continue alongside Kauppatori, and leads to the gorgeous orthodox Uspenski cathedral with small onion domes on the eastern end of the harbor. Unfortunately the cathedral is hidden by a blocky modern monstrosity that does its best to brutally destroy the otherwise wonderful architectural ensemble. Inside, the cathedral looks exactly like an orthodox cathedral is supposed to look: a huge altar, innumerable gold and silver statues and icons everywhere, and ropes to keep the tourists' grubby hands from touching.
|Pigeon on a statue's head||Uspenski cathedral|
Helsinki escaped the second world war almost undamaged, and it's fantastic to walk its streets and enjoy the architectural masterpieces from the 18th and 19th century. Of course, it didn't completely escape damage done by modern "architects" to whom architecture means stacking as many concrete floors as possible, and selecting a facade style that gets replicated without further thought or variation all over the outside walls. The sixties and seventies saw most of these offenders; later decades occasionally allowed a little thought or taste to soften the faceless concrete monoliths blighting modern cities. But there is much less damage of this kind here than in other cities.
The cathedral is on a little hill with a great view over the ferry harbor to the west, and a yacht harbor (Pohjoissatama Norra hamnen) to the north. In the middle of the ferry harbor is a little island, Tervasaari Tjärholmen, that is a beautiful small landscaped park. Spent an hour sitting in the sun and watching people relaxing and whiling away this sunny Sunday afternoon.
|Pohjoissatama Norra hamnen||jäätelöä - ice cream|
Looping further around the edge of the yacht harbor brought me to Kluuvi Gloet, Helsinki's botanical garden. It's small but beautiful, with a huge variety of meticulously labeled flowers, trees, and other plants. In the center is a row of old greenhouses with desert and tropical plants. The botanical garden is free; the greenhouse charges a small admission.
On the way back from the botanical garden I passed the protestant Tuomiokirkko cathedral, a huge gleaming church overlooking a large square. There is a huge stairway leading up to the church; lots of people hang out there. The church is completely dominating the skyline with its blinding white columns, porticos, and domes on the outside, but inside it's unremarkable except for a huge organ.
|Tuomiokirkko||Across the square from Tuomiokirkko|
Helsinki's metro is so close to the center of the planet that enormously long escalators are needed to reach the tunnels. Like the rest of Helsinki's public transportation system, it's modern, clean, and efficient. Since returning from China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, I keep noticing how clean and and well-organized European cities are.
Monday, 13 July 2009
Yesterday's weather forecast was rainy, so it was hot and sunny. Today's forecast was sunny, so it's raining. I thought, let's hit the museums then, but it's a Monday so most are closed. The Helsinki City Museum near the protestant church is small but very nicely done, and explains Finland's history as part of Sweden, during Russian occupation during most of the 19th century, and as an independent nation after 1917.
Next I went to the Design Museum, but it's not very interesting - most of it is textiles, mostly carpets. They try to demonstrate unique Finnish design but don't say what that means; there are no explanations and no comparisons. My best guess based on the exhibits is that Finnish design is recognizable by its bright colors and 60's shapes. There is a small furniture section and an even smaller industrial technology section, which I was hoping for. Being Finnish, it mostly consists of a display of mobile telephones. Did it really take only 28 years to go from that gas canister sized machine to the iPhone?
In the evening, I went to see a friend at Kerava, 35km north of Helsinki. It's only 30 minutes by train, but Kerava has the feel of a small village in the middle of a forest; their house almost blends into the forest at the foot of a low hill. All houses have a sauna. We walked some trails, and the children were seeking out wild blueberries and strawberries the size of peas on the forest floor. They ate some and carried others home, where they turned them into wild berry smoothies. Far more delicious that any of the big shiny strawberries found in a supermarket at home. Twenty hours of daylight works miracles.
|Statues at the entrance to the main train station||Wild strawberries are very small|
I brought a gift of chocolates, which I bought at Stockmann's department store. It's very large, one of the largest in Scandinavia, and supposed to be quite upscale. Just the right place to get a fancy gift I thought, having pictures of KaDeWe, Galeries Lafayette, and Harrod's in my mind. Stockmann's doesn't begin to measure up to those though, it's cheaply decorated and upscale only in price, less so in quality and selection. As a tourist, it's often difficult to find the best places, going for the biggest buildings or the biggest ads doesn't work.
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
Took a bus to Porvoo, a town 50km east of Helsinki. The old part of town feels very nordic - low wooden houses, brightly colored, and narrow cobblestoned roads. Along the river, there is a promenade and a series of old dark red wooden houses that have become a landmark for Porvoo. Today they are souvenir shops. A little distance further up the river, the town ends and gives way to little meadows, forests, and a small boat harbor.
|Landmark red wooden houses in Porvoo|
The town rises up on a low hill, with a moderately large but unassuming church on top. It has a separate belltower. The church burned down a few years ago but has been restored. Old crooked trees provide shade along the edge of the churchyard. The view from up there over the town and the river is great.
A pair of roads near the river have been turned into a tourist zoo, with souvenir shops, overpriced restaurants, and galleries. It's still old and pleasant, but tour buses disgorge loads of people here so it's not quiet like the rest of the old town. I had lunch at the Timbaali restaurant. I asked the waitress for a typical Finnish dish, and she recommended the fish buffet. Seven types of fish, marinated, steamed, and fried; Salmon, herring, and trout. Ok but not great.
|Old town of Porvoo||Old town meets new town|
Mannerheiminkatu is a road the crosses the river and neatly divides the old town from the new town. It's an ugly concrete and steel bridge that runs just meters past a wonderful old brickwork pub, and blights the waterfront view. The new town is bright and clean and completely forgettable. The bus takes an hour and ten minutes to get there from Helsinki's main bus station. Bought ferry tickets to Tallinn.
Finns seem to tend to the overweight. The older people are, the more excess weight they seem to have.
In a K supermarket, they had half a dozen game machines that looked a little like slot machines, and two old ladies were vigorously punching buttons. Bought a kilo of strawberries at a farmer's market, great but still not quite as good as the wild ones.
Wednesday, 15 July 2009
Walked around the southern end of the city, along the shoreline. Helsinki is a green city, there are lots of trees and little, and not so little, parks. And unlike Paris, Helsinki takes good care of its waterfront and puts little parks and green walking trails there. The destination was Kauppatori, where most of the ferries leave. I got on one to Suomenlinna, an island just in sight of the shore. It used to be an old Swedish military fort, and later a Russian fort, but today it's an Unesco World Heritage park for its military installations.
The ramparts and walls are built from large rough stone walls. Many are preserved, although kind of grown over. Many of the old barracks are also still there, and a large shipyard with a huge dry dock. The dock is still used to keep ships safe in the winter.
|Suomenlinna island in Helsinki|
Suomenlinna is actually four islands connected by short bridges. A marked trail runs past the main attractions. But for me, the real attraction weren't the King's Gate and other landmarks, but just the scenery - much of the southern islands is a landscaped park, with lawns, trees, hiking paths, and scenic rocky beaches. Helsinki is built on very old granite bedrock, and it is exposed in Suomenlinna as flat granite hills and at the beach. Many people sit on the grass or on the rocks overlooking the sea, and in the many small cafes. Suomenlinna's history is military but now it's a very peaceful and beautiful place.
Back in Helsinki, I bought more of those wonderful strawberries and blueberries. A liter of blueberries (they measure berries by volume, not weight) was too much, so I asked for half a liter, and got a Solomonic solution: the vendor divided a basket in two, and then asked which half I wanted. A wise man.
The city's tourist maps, and the Lonely Planet, recommend a walking trail through Helsinki. In the early morning, and on the first day, I covered the southern part (and much of the remaining area there), so I went and looked at the northern part in the afternoon.
On the way to the western shore I passed the Sibelius monument, a mask and a large set of vertical steel tubes welded together to look like a dozen church organs on LSD having an orgy. I had to wait quite a while for a busload of English-speaking tourists to waddle out of my picture. Sibelius is Finland's greatest composer.
The "official" trail turns south towards Töölö from there but on recommendation of a friend I turned north, followed the shoreline (more green trails, I didn't have to use roads) to the Seurasaari island, connected by a white wooden bridge. There are no roads on the island, just paths and hiking trails. It's forested, and hidden in the forest are numerous blockhouses, barns, churches, and boathouses complete with "church boats" that were transplanted or reconstructed from their original locations in the country. Those huts are amazingly small.
|Historic storage hut on Seurasaari island||Costumed women on Seurasaari island|
After nine hours of walking I decided to take the bus back to the hotel.
Tallinn in Estonia
Thursday, 16 July 2009
Took the Linda Lines ferry boat to Tallinn at 8:00. I had a ticket, but I couldn't get on board with it. A gratuitous act of bureaucracy required me to stand in line for a long time again in order to get another receipt tacked onto the ticket, which was then torn off again by an official a few meters to the side. Anyway, I made it onto the ferry in time. It takes 90 minutes to reach Tallinn, the capital of Estonia across the Baltic Sea. Most people do this as a day excursion from Helsinki, but I had a hotel room for the night.
Helsinki is a major European Union capital, and it shows. It has a beautiful and mostly undamaged historical downtown, but it's as frantic and has as much traffic as any other city that size. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, but it works differently. Its downtown is walled and effectively isolated from the rest of the city. Outside you find the usual wide streets choked with traffic, office towers, and malls, but inside the walls time has stopped three - maybe six - centuries ago.
In most other European capitals, rational city planning has organized streets into grids, stars, rings, and axes of sight in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The old center of Paris was rebuilt by Haussmann to replace the crooked mazes of alleys with wide boulevards. No such thing has happened in Tallinn's historical downtown. It's all narrow cobbled streets, mostly curved, and no two are parallel. There are buildings dating back to the 15th century, although the majority is from the 17th. Virtually no building was built in the last century.
It's quite touristy - tour guides earnestly carry yellow signs with a tour number to hold together their flock of Americans or Germans, and clog streets and churches when the group stops to explain some irrelevant historical fact or another. I dislike tour groups, they all study the trees and miss the forest. There are so few places where modernity was prevented from cutting into historical city centers. Despite the tourists, the souvenir shops, and the outdoor restaurants, Tallinn feels authentic and charming, and not tacky at all. Tallinn felt like Prague's little relaxed brother to me - not as big, as opulent, or as ostentatious as Prague, but more authentic, quiet, and restful.
|View from the city hall tower||Main square in Tallinn|
The old downtown is too far from the sea to include any waterfronts, but it has a hill on top of one part of the ramparts, with the old palace, the orthodox Alexander Nevski cathedral, and the Lutheran Toomkirik church on top, as well as the outskirts of the old town with many streets winding up the hill. The Nevski cathedral looks as gilded as any other orthodox church, although less overbearing as the one in Helsinki. The Lutheran church is quite austere except for the countless bombastic painted wooden coats of arms on its inside walls. They don't seem too well organized, you can almost see the janitor searching for an empty spot anywhere to tack on each one as they came in.
I spent some eight hours walking nearly all downtown streets, discovering new gems all the time. There are several great viewpoints on the palace hill, and the panorama from the city hall tower is fantastic. The tower is 34m tall and very narrow, with a very steep spiral staircase inside. It almost looks like a minaret. The square at the city hall is the heart of Tallinn's downtown, lined by - what else - beautiful ancient houses with steep roofs and outdoor restaurants in front.
In Helsinki, everybody speaks perfect English. I am told that there are too few Finns to translate movies and TV series into Finnish worthwhile, so they hear a lot of English with subtitles. However, that doesn't seem to work too well in Estonia; many people speak English quite poorly. My waitress at the Talukõrts restaurant, for example, was unable to explain what "National Drink" on the menu means. (I ordered it anyway but she returned to tell me that they don't actually have any.) She also offered fried potatoes, which turned out to be French fries, and apple juice, which turned out to be orange juice. With ice cubes.
|Gate between the new and old towns of Tallinn||Bastion towers seen from the palace hill|
I really tried to get authentic Estonian food, even though I was warned that this leaves me only a choice of what kind of meat I want with my potatoes and pickled vegetables. My waitress assured me that Wiener Schnitzel is definitely Estonian. I went for the pepper steak, which turned out to be a slice of beef tough as leather, with a gob of raw horseradish on top but no pepper, soaked in an undefinable brown sauce. I did check out the menus of dozens of restaurants, but they are almost indistinguishable - they all have Italian-ish dishes like pasta and pizza, stuffed chicken, and potatoes, regardless of whether they call themselves a pizzeria, grill, restoran, or bar, or all four simultaneously. The only exceptions were a Chinese and a Thai restaurant, both of which also had Italian-ish dishes on the menu.
I did not find a juice bar or ice cream parlor in Tallinn. Helsinki has ice cream stands all over the place, memorize the word "Jäätelöä". (All Finnish words are packed with too many vowels and umlauts.)
The Estonians have their own currency, called EEK (Estonian Kronas). But pretty much everyone accepts euros as well, at a rate of about 15 EEK for one euro. In one place I have seen US dollars accepted - 2 euro or 4 US$. Apparently they are a little ahead of the times, maybe they don't want to repaint their sign weekly as the dollar keeps sliding... The Finns use plastic money for everything, but Tallinn is more normal, people use cash. My guesthouse only accepts cash, for example, unusual for a hotel.
In Helsinki, one can occasionally find an open WLAN. Coverage is better than in other cities, but still quite spotty. In Tallinn, there are very few networks. Also missing are Helsinki's ubiquitous surveillance cameras. It seems that Helsinki is second only to London, where there is one camera for every three citizens to prevent people, who evidently aren't trusted by the government as a matter of principle, from enjoying any shred of privacy.
Friday, 17 July 2009
A Linda Lines ferry brought me back to Helsinki the next morning, after walking around for a couple of hours in beautifully clear sunny weather. Had unimpressive lunch in Helsinki, spent some time in Helsinki's many beautiful parks, had a couple of Finnish ice creams, and took the 615 bus back to the airport.
Find more pictures in my Helsinki/Tallinn 2009 web gallery.
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