We boarded the train north from Helsinki Central Station. The trains were very comfy, especially since we travelled first class. It had plenty of leg room, free wifi and reading material (although they were all in Finnish), even a tea/coffee making station.
We had little idea of what the Finnish landscape looked like, except that there was a lot of forest and water. Well, we got plenty of both. This is photo I took a few weeks later when I was in Lapland, but it showed the landscape we passed through during those 6 hours – forest, more forest, on very flat land, broken up by the odd swamp/stream/river/lake.
To me, this seemed like the Arctic equivalent to the Australian outback, where you can pass through thousands of kilometres of red sand, rock, and low-lying scrub. This kind of landscape is vast too. It starts west of Finland in Sweden, and stretches across Russia all the way to Siberia and beyond. It would have been pretty hard-going navigating such a place for the early settlers, who were mainly hunters and woodsmen, since the woods were dense, and everything looked the same.
Suomenlinna comprised of a few godforsakened rocky islands about 10km from Helsinki. It was well-fortified by the Swedes, as you can see.
With many cannons, all at the ready.
But although the walls were literally 10 feet thick, they were no match for the Russians. They besieged the fortress for two months before the Swedes surrendered.
These days, the islands are besieged daily by tourists, and the inter-city ferries from Helsinki to Tailinn and Stockholm.
We took a day trip from central Helsinki to the island fortress of Suomenlinna.
On the island, there were signs that spring had sprung. The trees were surely budding.
And on the ground was a carpet of bluebells.
There were even some Arctic geese grazing. The sight of Arctic geese reminded us that we were getting close to the frozen north.
The Finns, like the Danes and Swedes, also have a thing for open sandwiches. When we had lunch at a cafe in what was the Helsinki equivalent of Dymocks, we had a good selection to choose from. I chose the smoked ocean trout with salad, egg, dill and sour cream, and rye bread of course underpinning it all. It was delicious.
Our lunch was so delicious that we came back a few days later to sample more. This time I was more adventurous, and tried the Baltic/North Sea special of pickled herring. All the countries around the Baltic and North Sea seem to like this preserved fish. It’s not only available at lunch, but also at breakfast, and even as a snack! It’s certainly very strong flavoured, and so goes well with boiled eggs, onions and leeks, and strong, dark rye bread.
One thing the Finns do have is a strong connection with the natural world. It comes through in their design, art and architecture. In a country of rock, water and vast forests, it is natural to want to incorporate these elements in everything.
Helsinki’s Church of the Rock is certainly one strong representation of nature. Instead of clearing the granite to make way for the church, it has been built into it.
The builders have tried to use only local materials – even the copper dome that makes up the roof. It’s used for Lutheran services and also for concerts as the acoustics inside are very good.
In a nearby park is a sculpture dedicated to Finland’s most renowned composer, Jean Sibelius.
It is a bit abstract, but with a bit of imagination, you might be able to see that the ‘organ pipes’ represent a birch forest.
Design-wise, Helsinki must have one of the largest design districts anywhere, with plenty of clothing, homewear, furniture, and everything else in between, being offered by designers. The products weren’t exactly the cheapest (ie. Ikea) but they were very good looking and of great quality.
Leading up from the port was another Parisian-esque boulevard. Like in Copenhagen and Stockholm, Helsinkians were out of in force taking in the sun, despite the temperature being 8C or so. It’s all relative, I suppose, since if your winters are colder frequently colder than -5C, 8C is positively balmy.
The park above is a favourite meeting spot in Helsinki. The Bridge of Love on the other hand, is a favourite place to consolidate your love.
It wasn’t the only time that we saw this phenomina – we found such bridges in Germany too – but none that were ‘official’ love bridges, with plaque and all. Later I saw a doco from Germany about love bridges, where lock smiths and key cutters admit that they were making a mint from all of the engraving they did for these locks.
Maybe this phenomina will catch on in Oz one day? It’s a little more elegant than etching your lover’s name on a toilet door.
There were some older areas down toward the port area. You can tell that both the Swedes and the Russians influenced the city through its churches. The main Lutheran cathedral was built by the Swedes in the 19th Century. It certainly breaks up all the red granite around the place.
This cathedral on the other hand had Russian influences and is an Orthodox church.
By the port you can view the eclectic mix of architecture in the city. Notice that there are no high-rise buildings about the place, so that the city still blends into the landscape.
The main market was also by the water.
It sold lots of distinctly Finnish souvenirs made from wood, reindeer, and wool.
All that knitwear reminded me that it must get pretty cold out there in the winter. It wasn’t exactly warm that day either, but the sunshine at least made things bearable.
A short flight across the Gulf of Bothnia brought us to Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Finland in my imagination seemed like a real mystical place to me, the polar opposite to Australia in every way, particularly in climate. I also read that the Finns are different from the other Nordic countries culturally, so I was curious to see how deep those differences went.
At first sight, Helsinki seemed newer, spacious, more planned. That was probably because Finland didn’t become its own country until 1920 – the country was governed by Sweden or Russia since medieval times. Before then, Helsinki was just a regional centre, hence its historical centre was smaller than that in Stockholm, or even Copenhagen.
Its central railway station (the unpronounceable ‘Rautatieasema’) was certainly an early 20th Century creation, with its modern lines and colours.
These guys are famous, well in Finland anyway.
They’ve even got their own train ride.
The Finnish language was certainly a big enigma – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, and it’s difficult to see any similarities with any other European language. Luckily the Finns speak very good English, and they don’t seem to bat an eyelid when you speak English to them straight off.