Helsinki (12 – 15 September)

Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki cathedral

Ed’s Helsinki Photo Gallery (opens in new tab)

We arrived again at Helsinki and this time finally actually stopped rather than immediately leaving again!  So this made it our final city – we’d made it to number 40!

Like the journey to Turku, the return train journey back from it was similarly pleasant and we arrived at the train station ready for some lunch.  We headed to the student refectory, Unicafe Ylioppilasaukio, where non-students can also eat, just for a higher price. It was buzzing with activity, and we enjoyed a well priced straight forward lunch amongst the student busyness. Our next job was was to buy a 3 day travel card, which proved surprisingly harder than expected as they seem to hide the sales points! Though not quite well enough, as Greg tracked one down in the basement of a nearby shopping centre, and we were soon on the tram to our hotel.

We got off outside a stern looking building surrounded by a high wall – we were literally staying in a prison! Rather more specifically we we staying in a hotel that had been converted from a prison. Hotel Katajanokka dates back to 1837, and the building originally served as a county prison and pre-trial detention centre. The prison was closed in 2002 and the red brick walls now house 106 luxurious rooms! The hotel retains a substantial number of original “features” ; so the iron staircases and walkways on each floor remain (though carpeted), the hotel rooms have original cells doors (in original door frames – each room is two cells knocked into one), the prison chapel remains, even the restaurant kitchen is the original kitchen. Our room had an extra treat – a small but well built sauna; you could tell you were in Finland! The hotel was also popular for weddings, held in the prison chapel – and it was apparently traditional for the groom to spend the night before the wedding in the one remaining cell (solitary confinement) which wasn’t converted to a hotel room!

On leaving the hotel we headed to the harbour and admired a rather impressive work of art towering unmissably over the docks – the 8.5m tall statue of a small boy peeing into the harbour is entitled “Bad Bad Boy”. I’ve seen commented that the artist felt that since lots of boys had definitely done this it was time they were recognised for their efforts!  Some also claim that it’s a statement about the lack of public toilets in Helsinki. Whatever the reason it makes quite a sight welcoming you to Helsinki harbour!

From the harbour we caught one of the regular ferries (included in our city transport pass) to the fortress island of Suomenlinna which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  First constructed in 1748 by the Swedish crown as protection against Russian expansionism, today it is popular with tourists and locals who enjoy it as a picturesque picnic site.

The island was originally named Sveaborg (Fortress of Svea), and was renamed Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) in 1918 for patriotic and nationalistic reasons, though it is sometimes still known by its original name. It’s an interesting location comprising of a lot of natural landscape to wander around and enjoy, some buildings still in use (about 300 people live there), and many historical and sometimes derelict locations.  Some of the buildings have been preserved as museums and we started with one which is located in what used to be the official residence of the fortress commandant and which showcases the Swedish period of the fortress. The first master of the house was the builder of the fortress, Augustin Ehrensvärd. Following this we explored a fairly unique museum; a dry-docked submarine! Vesikko was a Finnish submarine, built in the 1930s, that saw action in the Second World War. Inside the restored Vesikko you realise just how cramped the working conditions of the submarine that the crew experienced were, and we admired the submarine technology of the era.

We also explored the old fortifications on the island, passing many large guns constructed by Russians at the end of the 19th century and now in various states of decay but still pointing out to sea. It was there that we saw a number of students celebrating beginning a new year. As part of their freshers week celebrations a number of strange activities were going on, which seemed to include some medieval role playing, viking sword fighting reenactment and a great deal of drinking, singing and general merriment – culminating in a few participants stripping off and jumping into the nearest pond (or bit of ocean) in true Finnish fashion!

Dinner was interesting and unusual that evening. We visited Perho Restaurant which was part of a catering college and is used as part of their teaching programme. So we were served by a very young and earnest looking team plus a Maitre D’ who also seemed to be a student, all overseen by some adults keeping a keen but discrete eye on proceedings. This made it a bit different and I am pleased to say the food was very good;  so clearly the trainee chefs were being well taught. We left the restaurant impressed on all counts.

The next day we got up bright and early for a visit to Helsinki Cathedral, previously known as St Nicholas (as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia) until the independence of Finland in 1917.  The building was quite ornate from the outside; a bright white building in a neoclassical style, in a commanding position at the top of a huge flight of steps.  The large broad steps before the church are very steep and present a formidable challenge to those ascending them to visit the church.  From the top the steps remain hidden until you are almost atop the first step – so much so that locals often refer to the top step as the “cliff edge”. Inside was quite modest by comparison, appropriate for a Lutheran building we felt but apparently a disappointment to many a tourist (especially American it seems, judging by Trip Advisor) who expected more after seeing the ornate exterior and climbing the steps to venture inside.

Next up was the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, located on a hill within the city which offered good views over nearby neighborhoods. The Cathedral itself is an Eastern Orthodox (like Russian Orthodox) cathedral with red brick on the outside, and inside is an extravagant, ornate gold church in a different layout to a Catholic church. It has much more bling on the inside compared with it’s Lutheran counterpart and some devout visitors queued up in order to kiss one of the sacred relics which they appeared to consider significant.

We then journeyed to a different part of the city, taking a bus to Seurasaari island which is used as an open air museum and houses over 80 old Finnish buildings which have been collected together and which span the 18th to 20th centuries. The buildings are rural, giving a nice overview of life in the Finnish countryside. It was another nice day, with blue skies and and plenty of sun, so wandering around this museum in its attractive natural setting was a pleasure. It was quite quiet, with only a few other visitors and a small number of attendents at the few buildings open to explore (who were passing the time by engaging in original crafts such as knitting and weaving). One of the more notable buildings was an old church, which is apparently still in use on special occasions. Alongside it are a number of boat sheds that came with the building, as in it’s original location many people would row to the church! There was also a stable with a room above built by the congregation so they had somewhere to change into their church finery after their trip there. We also visited the farmhouse of a weathly land-owning family, which slept a startling number of people under one roof and in few rooms. Several of the houses reminded us of the ones we’d seen in Norway although a number were closed for winter so we couldn’t enter to explore them properly.

After completing our circuit of the museum area we left on one of the many trails to the remainder of the island which formed a nature reserve. We took a path which wended it’s way around the circumference of the small island and gave us some time to enjoy the very beautiful surroundings. There were few others walking along, so we often felt that we had the island to ourselves as we strolled hand in hand in the sunshine amongst the trees, squirrels, birds and occasional pool. About half way round we passed the old outdoor swimming beaches. These are private fenced off beaches with changing facilities but were unfortunately closed for winter, as otherwise we’d have been tempted to give them a whirl!  All in all the island proved to be a delightful diversion from the urban city proper and a great green space to which city residents can escape.

Our final stop for the day was to the historic Yrjönkatu swimming bath, an Art Deco bath which is one of the oldest in the country. Originally planned for demolition it was saved by local outcry and it is now a listed building. Inside it has one of the few remaining wood fired sauna (most are now electric, which is much more environmentally friendly). We enjoyed our swim, steam and sauna here and I even braved the top shelf of the rather fierce sauna rather than the lower “tourist shelf”; resulting in being mistaken for a local by another visitor!

Dinner was at HOKU, a Hawaiian restaurant (yep, in Helsinki), and absolutely excellent. It reminded us of the food we’d had in Japan and it was interesting to discover how heavily influenced Hawaiian food is by Japan – apparently due to the vast number of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in the late 19th century. All the dishes we sampled were really great; I had some exquisite fish (Kuha fish stuffed with snow crab, prawn, lup cheong (sweet Chinese sausage), steamed, and served with a tomato-lemon beurre blanc) with a Hawaiian craft beer, and Greg enjoyed Bi Bim Bap (thinly sliced beef teriyaki, lightly cooked with pickled vegetables, steamed rice, a fried egg and spicy kocuchung sauce). It proved to be an unexpected treat exceeding what we’d expected when walking in the door as it looked more like a neighbourhood bar.

Our final full day commenced with a visit to the Kaisaniemi Botanical Gardens, which truth-be-told were rather unimpressive (especially when compared with the awesome gardens in Gothenburg). The only real point of interest was noting that we’d ended up following a line of fresh chalk – something which made a lot more sense when we crossed the finish line a short time later, well in advance of the runners of the half marathon that we’d stumbled across!

From here we caught one of the very regular (and clean) trams to the intriguingly nick-named “Church in the Rock” (real name Temppeliaukio Church), which turned out to be exactly that. It was a stunning space carved into natural rock, and gifted with wonderful light which reflected off a domed copper roof, together with perfect acoustics. We arrived as some music was playing at the end of mass and stopped for a while to listen, just enjoying the extraordinarily peaceful atmosphere. Staying with the religious theme we then headed towards a completely different kind of chapel in a very unlikely location – the edge of a local shopping center. The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is a very beautiful alder and ash structure that has been deliberately created to provide some respite from the consumerist world. From the outside it looks a little like an oversized orange, but made of wood.  The lack of windows, together with the natural light flooding in from skylights, helps it perfectly achieve it’s isolationist calming aim.

It was now time to eat and we headed to the famous Klaus K hotel for it’s equally famous brunch, which is apparently regarded as something of a local institution. This proved to be thoroughly enjoyable, and began with a buffet element for starter including such delights as crayfish, hot smoked trout and lemon poached salmon, charcuterie, eggs, bacon, smoothies and a divine lobster bisque (which I still have very fond memories of).  Main courses included roast flank steak with dauphinoise potatoes (which Greg had) and Artic Char roasted with butter foam, served with spinach-potatoes and lemon hollandaise (for me). The dessert buffet topped it off with cheeses, croissants, cookies, brownies, cheesecake, berries and other fruit. The setting was splendid and it was over all too soon, when we rolled out completely stuffed.

Next up was a visit to the Museum of Worker Housing, a tenement housing museum. We’d visited one of these in Glasgow, the first city of The 40 Project, so visiting another in Helsinki – the last city – seemed somehow fitting. It was a fascinating visit, and as well as the museum itself we enjoyed chatting to the very friendly lady guide.  She was fairly young and our conversation included such diverse topics as local housing prices (she felt she was part of the last generation who would be able to afford to buy a home in the city) and the local custom of flat parties with friends where a visit to the sauna facilities within their block of flats was considered almost obligatory.  The museum that we visited had a sauna too;  it seemed very Finnish that even a tenement housing complex had its own sauna block.

Dinner that night was near the harbour, at the bistro side (Sundmans Krog) of a famous and very highly rated old restaurant (Ravintola Sundmans). It was very good, with the cold fish buffet a particular standout.

For our final morning we enjoyed a sleep in (a rare treat!) and decided to head into town to do a little shopping. We visited Stockmans, a famous Helsinki department store, and happened to see a rather fine coat of the type that Greg had been looking for for a while – an outdoor wool frock coat, this one made by Tiger of Sweden. So I bought it for him as a 40 Project thank-you gift.

Our return journey was smooth, and was helped by having access to the SAS lounges at Helsinki and Copenhagen (where we changed). Greg had managed to get us “SAS Plus” tickets for the princely extra sum of 1 Euro more than economy would have cost us. Both lounges were very fine – calm, spacious, plenty of power points, wifi, free food and drink (including several kinds of fizz – proper champagne of a variety of labels). A great finish to a fantastic trip and an absolutely wonderful adventure.

So we returned home, and the 40 Project was sadly over.


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