Our brief jaunts into the Finnish capital of Helsinki don’t do Finland justice. This is a nature lover’s paradise, and even in the suburbs of Helsinki, we marveled at how the Finns are able to incorporate a healthy combination of country ‘n city. Statistics reveal every Finnish family enjoys a steam in their very own sauna, with some luxuriating in two! Who were we to rock the boat? Our trips to Finland included our very own steaming, gallivants to the countryside, and intermingling with some of the most attractive people on earth. Scandinavia is expensive, but just budget accordingly for the trip as it is well worth the effort. We can’t wait till our next visit when we plan to dog-sled in North country.
There are several ferries that cover the short distance between Tallinn and Helsinki, so we decided to capitalize on the opportunity. We were already based out of Tallinn and wanted to spend a whirlwind day visiting Finland’s capital city in June 2004. We woke up early in the morning to experience Hotel Olympia’s renowned breakfast buffet and chowed down quickly before deciding that the distance on the map from the hotel to the harbor looked close enough to hoof it…and subsequently ended up sprinting the distance to catch the 0800 ferry to Helsinki. We made it to the ticket booth with minutes to spare but the Estonian border guards took their time examining all of Becky’s passport stamps and visas before reluctantly allowing her to board the vessel. Once we crossed the plank, the crew literally sealed the doors right behind us and the ferry took off a minute after schedule. Thankfully, 0800 is too early for most travelers and the ferry was quite empty. We were able to snooze fitfully for the short 90 minute trip to Helsinki and when we awoke, were dismayed to see torrents of rain pouring down upon Helsinki harbor. Thankfully we came armed with rain jackets and umbrella so we bravely made our way out into the dismal weather.
Helsinki harbor is transformed into a colorful market during the day when vendors tout their wares to locals and tourists alike. From fresh seafood to fruit to funky hats and touristy paraphernalia, the whole gambit of choices was available. We decided the most prudent starting point was the nearby tourist information office, which provided excellent free maps and advice and was invaluable in helping us plan our day.
We found out that tomorrow, 12 June, was a huge Helsinki city celebration, full of parades, free concerts, dances and hoopla. However, today there were a few events preceding the big events tomorrow so we noted the times and places and decided to knock out the major sightseeing early on in the day and possibly catch a street celebration later during the day before our return trip to Tallinn. First stop was Senate square which is dominated by an imposing Cathedral at the top of a steep, wide staircase. Services were ongoing but we ducked in briefly to check out the cathedral’s rather plain interior. There were numerous tour groups that were seeking refuge from the rain inside the cathedral so we decided to make a break from the crowds and head over towards the old Russian orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. Lilacs were out in full bloom and old regatta vessels filled the harbor in anticipation of tomorrow’s festivities. We spent some time admiring the frescoes and icons in the interior of the church before opting to leave the city for its outskirts where the Finnish Seurasaari open air museum is located. Public transportation in Helsinki is excellent and numerous residents came up to offer assist once they saw us whip out a map to orient ourselves around the city. We really love the Finns…they are such friendly people! Plus the fact they are super good looking and speak impeccable English definitely makes a good first impression.
The open air museum is situated approximately 4 km outside of the city and is located on a peninsula. The Finns had the foresight over 100 years ago to preserve their historic buildings and the site was selected in early 1900s. It has since grown from a handful of buildings to several dozen wooden buildings representing all four corners of Finland. In each building, a young Finn in traditional costume patiently (and sometimes over-enthusiastically) explained the intricacies of the house, going over the history of when it was built, who lived there, the building’s function, etc. There were not too many visitors venturing out today because of the constant cold drizzle so the young men and women we met were more than happy to chat away to pass the time. Highlights from the open air museum included the church as well as the freakishly tame red squirrels. While we were strolling through the picturesque grounds, squirrels would approach us and pose with outstretched arms for food. It was uncanny how tame the squirrels are…if you stop walking and pretend you have food, they will clamber all over you in an effort to be fed. Becky felt a bit weird having squirrels jump all over her and eat from her hands but Robby had no problem trying to get the squirrels to do “tricks” such as back flips before feeding them. The squirrels are amazingly well behaved and will not grab food from your hands unless you willingly offer it. And believe it or not, they know not to bite fingers or skin but patiently nibble food held between one’s fingers…we kept expecting them to grab the food and run away but they seemed to enjoy being finger fed by humans…obviously they are used to hoards of tourists augmenting their diets with non-traditional foods such as cheese, chips or peanuts! After feeding the wildlife, we were building up an appetite of our own so we made our way back into town and decided to go budget with Chinese food. Is there any such thing as “budget” in Scandinavia? We don’t think so. Each basic dish cost about 18 Euro ($20) and our no-frills lunch came out to a whopping 45 Euros! We sure missed Tallinn’s prices after seeing that bill.
After lunch, we decided to hop on/off on the city’s circular tram tour (3T/3B) which visits most of the major Helsinki sights and is an economical way to explore the city. Combining a dry, warm heated tram to escape the cold wet drizzle after eating a nice meal spelt disaster and in no time at all, both of us were snoozing on the tram. Our conductor decided to wake us up after we were the last two passengers on his tram and suggested we catch a city bus to the main train station where a “Brazilian Dance Fest” was ongoing….he even suggested we participate in the dancing in a surefire way to rid us of our sleepiness. Once there, we were expecting to see Brazilians dancing but it instead were treated to 6 foot tall blond girls wearing tiny thongs and feather/sequin costumes while trying to dance to the samba…not for a lack of effort but the rhythm just wasn’t there and it was a funny spectacle to behold. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the show and no, we did not join in onstage but hid among the masses swaying to the beat below stage. We stayed until it was time for us to catch our return ferry to Tallinn. Our very very short impression of Finland is that we want to come back when the Finns are in their element (covered with snow) so we could hire dogs for a sleigh ride through the woods and well as experience sauna culture. Guess it will have to wait till next time…