Exploring downtown Helsinki and Suomenlinna – a belated Happy Birthday to Finland

On the 6th of December Finland celebrated 100 years as an independent nation and, in honour of the country’s centenary, I thought it high time to return and complete the record of our adventures at the end of August.

After a reacquainting with peace and quiet in the countryside and fully recovered from the excesses of our first crayfish party (read more about both here and here) we headed to Helsinki.

The city is relatively compact as capitals go, and easy to get around on foot or by tram.  It boasts buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, from the Neoclassical grandeur of the Lutheran Cathedral (the green domed building in the pictures above) to the National Romanticism of the central railway station with its towering granite giants.

The waterfront is home to an outdoor market, selling souvenirs and stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, a taster of the produce on offer inside the nearby Old Market Hall, a covered food market.

Where as the high vaulted hall has served customers since 1889, the area’s newest addition is Allas Sea Pool, offering swimming and saunas right on the water.  If this is too tame a prospect, the dark capsule on the ferris wheel in the picture below provides the means to sauna in the air.

Opposite Allas the ferry to Suomenlinna docks and the short trip out to the six small islands that collectively form a Unesco World Heritage site, is worth it for the views of Helsinki alone.

There’s something for everyone on Suomenlinna.  Perhaps most famous for its 18th century fortress, the island is also home to museums of military and maritime history, shops selling art, crafts and souvenirs, a variety of restaurants (including a Japanese tea room) and a brewery.

A popular option is to have a picnic in one of the many open spaces, either brought with you from the mainland or purchased in the small grocery shop near the main ferry quay.  We chose a peaceful spot above a beach on the island of Kustaanmiekka, furthest from the shore, where we could watch the boats go by.

Suomenlinna is not just a tourist attraction but a district of Helsinki in its own right and home to a population of just under 1,000.  Many of the inhabitants are artists and the houses are beautifully decorated, often with a nautical theme.

A visit to Suomenlinna can easily fill a day and should certainly be on your itinerary if you are planning a visit to Helsinki.  And so we leave Finland by wishing it a happy birthday, may there be many more visits to come.

 

 

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Coveting Finnish design classics – Viikki district, Helsinki

Helsinki is an architecture lover’s dream.  There are modernist buildings, functionalist buildings, examples of the Neo-classical, the Byzantine-Russian and the greatest number of Art Nouveau buildings in Northern Europe.  And it’s not just design classics of the past that are worthy of your time.  Head out in to the suburbs for examples of the latest creations of Finland’s civic architects.  High on your list should be the district of Viikki.  Here new housing developments are awash with colour and shape.  Each block has its own work of art, large, free standing sculptures, images etched in to the side of buildings, structures for children to play on.

Viikki’s place on the design map is not just a recent occurrence.  It is the birth place of Arabia, the pottery and ceramics manufacturer, famous throughout the world as it holds a licence to produce Moomin related products.  Arabia is now part of the Fiskars group (designers of the classic orange handled scissors) together with Iittala glassworks.

House in the old Arabia factory is a design centre for all three brands and the textile company Finlayson.  As well as offering many tempting things to buy, the centre has displays explaining the design process and production techniques within the shop on the 2nd floor as well as a separate museum on the 9th floor.

In the same building you will find other Finnish design brands, such as Marimekko, to browse.  Not to be out done by its contents, the modern extension to the old factory building boasts a past winner of Finland’s roof of the year.  It would be hard to find more design success in one place if you tried.

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Harnessing the power of nature – a visit to Helsinki’s Museum of Technology

Helsinki’s Museum of Technology is, appropriately, housed in an old water treatment plant in the city’s  Viikki district.  Here the Vanhankaupunginlahti rapids thunder their way towards the sea as the river widens in to an estuary.  It is the perfect place to harness the water’s power.  The museum focusses on exhibitions relating to technology and industry in Finland from the 19th century to today, some of which are interactive and aimed at younger visitors, such as assembling an over-sized circuit board.  There is an interesting collection of black and white images of industrial workers and a large amount of artefacts, including a full bank of telephone exchanges.

When we visited in August the museum was undergoing an up-grade and was a little dishevelled inside, with some areas cordoned off, but as entry was free that day (a perk of Finland’s national Nature Day – for more of which visit my post here) this was easily ignored.

Across the river from the main hall, and contained in a collection of redbrick buildings dating from 1876, is the Power Plant Museum.  This is open only in the summer months and entry is included under the same ticket.  The plant worked as a sister to the water treatment facility, generating hydro-electricity to pump the clean water to local homes and creating steam as a reserve source of power for the purification equipment.

Much of the equipment is still in place and the scale of it is truly vast.  The heat and noise that must have been produced is hard to imagine, the only sounds a modern visitor can hear being the soft roar of the rapids and distant shouts of children from the surrounding park.  For those less interested in late Victorian machinery, the buildings themselves are a thing of stark beauty, filled with light refracting glass, carved stone and intricate metal castings, all the ingredients you need for an unusual and educational day out.

 

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Celebrating Finnish Nature Day – Viikki district, Helsinki

2017 sees Finland celebrate its 100th birthday and the year is being marked by a series of national events.  100 days ahead of the 100th independence day it was Nature Day’s turn in the celebratory calendar and we happened to be in Helsinki to take part.  We were staying with a friend in Viikki district, a suburb to the west of the city centre and which turned out to be an excellent place to take part in the day’s activities.  Viikki, despite recent housing developments is still home to large areas of farmland, part of which is used by the University of Helsinki for its biosciences, veterinary medicine and forestry and agriculture departments.  There is also a designated conservation area of forest and marshland which, on Nature Day, was hosting bird watching classes.

We chose to join in the family focused fun taking place in the park around Vanhankaupunginlahti rapids.  A children’s fishing competition was underway, with a prize for the person who caught the most species.  Rods were for hire so all could join in, even those still in buggies as you can see in the photograph above.

For anyone wondering what the catch might taste like, fisherman at a stall were demonstrating filleting skills and cooking up samples of fishcake for visitors to try for free.

Other stalls were run by governmental agencies such as the fisheries and wildlife department, who were selling fish and mushroom identification books and postcards and displaying the different varieties of crayfish that can be found in Finland.  As it was crayfish season (click here for more crayfish related antics) this was a popular attraction.

For some it may seem a little strange that the focus of Nature Day leant towards consumption, but an understanding of the Finnish psyche puts this all in to perspective.  These are people who have retained an understanding and a respect for their environment, who, unlike many in my home country, still forage and fish and grow their own, even the city dwellers.  There is a balance here, founded on a solid education.  When you live in a country that for many months of the year is wild and inhospitable you quickly learn that you cannot manage, cannot control or suppress nature.  Instead you must live alongside it, use what it offers sustainably and protect it to ensure that, next year, it allows you to continue.  It is a lesson that we all should heed.

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Seeking out the little details – a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia

It has been six years since I spent a memorable few hours in the company of a couple of hundred drunken, karaoke singing, tango dancing Finns as our ferry cut its way through the ice encrusted sea between Helsinki and Tallinn (you can read about that trip here).  In the intervening years a new, and rather beautiful, ferry terminal has been built in Helsinki and a new fleet of faster, shinier boats have been commissioned.  As a result travel time has been reduced to around two hours and for a mere 20 Euros return it was an easy decision to make to take a day to see what the Estonian capital looks like without the snow.

The trip does involve some considerable time at sea but fortunately there is plenty onboard to keep you entertained with a choice of bars, places to eat, indoor and outdoor seating and a duty free shop big enough to get lost in.  For the highly taxed Finns the Estonia’s cheaper alcohol prices are one of the main reasons for making the journey and the boat is well stocked.  You can even buy a special trolley, the right width to hold beer crates, to carry your purchases home.

Once docked in Tallinn it is a short walk up hill from the port to the Old Town.  The first thing I noticed was that the city felt significantly busier than on our previous visit, perhaps something to do with the 20 degree difference in temperature.  The main sights remained as beautiful but just a little less magical as one of a crowd.

Time to re-evaluate our objectives.  If everyone else was focused on the big, the viewpoints, the ornate cathedrals, the restaurants and the main square, we would seek out the small, the back alleys, the details, the over-looked. And once we started looking there was so much to see.

Let’s start with the doors.  I could have filled an entire memory card with doors.  From the grandest carving to the most modest flaking paint, every building we passed had a door worthy of recording.  And it didn’t stop with the doors.  Gates, ironwork, even mail boxes clamoured for attention.

I was also pleased to discover a rise in street art.  In the right place I am a fan of graffiti and fortunately most that I saw in Tallinn was in the right place, supporting and enhancing not defacing.

I found the location of the piece above particularly appropriate.  It is written on a wall at one of the most popular view points, a place where people are busily trying to capture the present it is fitting to be reminded of that memories are more than just our photographs; you cannot fix feelings on film.

At the market in the main square my eye was drawn not to the nesting dolls, fridge magnets and other souvenirs but to the wonderful milliners stand, not so much for the hats but for the models.  We rounded off our visit with a fantastic (and incredibly cheap) meal in a bar full of locals, made the obligatory stop at the alcohol store to replenish my Finnish friend’s supplies and boarded the ferry back to Helsinki.  As the sun set, rather dramatically, on a day well spent, I was thankful, as I so often find myself, for the little things.

 

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Nature’s Bounty – Foraging in Finland

The first time I visited Finland the forest had been covered in snow.  This was not the light dusting that softens the edges of my home city on rare winter days, but a thick eiderdown, disguising shapes, hiding obstacles, obscuring paths.  The frozen lake was our playground; a trip out on to the ice to check the nets laid beneath, a whirl on the snowmobile or a slow, flat trek on skis across what, in the summer would be open water.  On land we stayed close to the cabin.  We kept away from the forest.

Returning in August I was keen to experience what I had been unable to before, to lose myself in the verdant heart of the island.  And lose myself I might.  Here paths appear and disappear, the terrain changes rapidly from bog to meadow to boulder field, the light, filtered through the dense canopy is muted and misleading.  It would be easy to imagine yourself the protagonist of a fairy tale, witch or wolf waiting in the wings, but the forest does not exude malice.  It is a home, a resource, a friend.

With the guidance of our host we learnt to see beyond the green, to spot the yellow, the black and the brown of fungi.  And once our eyes had adjusted our baskets quickly filled.  With supplies so plentiful we were able to dry some of our haul to take home, the forest still providing many days and many miles away.

After the mushrooms came berries, punnets of blueberries and lingonberries, staining our fingers and our faces with the evidence of abundance.  Made in to jam, cooked in to pastries, the forest’s fruits felt full of flavour compared to their supermarket kin even topping slightly burnt pancakes cooked on the campfire.

For all the bounty of the forest, the lake was not ignored.  The nets provided fish for the table more than once and I could not detect the muddiness sometimes found in those that inhabit freshwater.

But perhaps the highlight were the crayfish.  These tasty little crustaceans are the centrepiece of the traditional rapujuhlat or crayfish party, held in homes across Finland and Sweden in late summer.  Pre prepared crayfish can be bought in supermarkets but we were lucky enough to catch our own.  They are cooked in a brine seasoned with dill, served simply with bread and washed down by copious amounts of schnapps to the accompaniment of drinking songs, a memorable experience, if perhaps a rather hazy one!

 

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Embracing calm at the cabin – Finland

There are times when the world seems to stop for an instant, everything falls silent, we find ourselves able to breathe more deeply, and a flood of contentment rushes in with the fresh air.  In these brief windows of calm I am overwhelmed by gratitude for life, for the series of random events that have led to me being who I am and where I am, for the here and the now.  Past worries are forgotten, pressures of the future pushed aside, the present is allowed to exist in all its glory.

I had one such experience last month as I sat, slowly cooling, on the porch of a sauna, surrounded by woods and looking down to the water beyond as a tranquil evening descended.  How lucky I am to be here I thought.  Here being the immediate geographic, an island on Lake Päijänne, a little over two hours north of Helsinki, Finland, here being the temporal, at the precise point the sky moved towards the ‘blue moment’ as the light began to fade in the shortening evening of Northern late summer, and here being the philosophic, the chance encounters that brought me a Finnish friend.

We who have the privilege to travel, we lucky, fortunate few, who by some twist of fate, some chance of circumstance, have been born in the right place, the right time and whose luck has held beyond the success of our birth, need times such as these.  We need to step back and take stock, to appreciate the now.  We need to forget the next destination, the ticking off of lists, the collecting of experiences and instead, actually experience.  There is great richness in the simple things, in peace and quiet, in time spent with friends and family, not doing but being.

Travel teaches us many lessons.  It makes us tolerant of difference, it provides insight in to our strengths and our weaknesses, it makes us appreciate what we have, if only we stop for a moment to let it sink in.

 

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