Helsinki

Trip Start May 20, 2011
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Trip End Jun 06, 2011


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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Monday, May 30, 2011

We arrived in Helsinki about 7:30am. Fortunately we got an hour back last night.  (Surprisingly - to me anyway - there is a 3-hour time difference between London and St. Petersburg so we kept having 23-hour days, and correspondingly short nights on the eastbound leg of the journey.)  It was quite rainy when we pulled in and looked like it might stay so for the day.    However, by the time we finished breakfast and went to catch the shuttle bus into town it had stopped raining, and as we got into the city it was starting to clear.  By afternoon it was a lovely sunny day.

From the center of Helsinki, where the shuttle dropped us, we walked down to a park, The Esplanade, that was essentially a very wide boulevard between two streets.  The streets were called Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplanadi which Google Translate tells me are North and South Esplanade, which seems logical.   In the centre of the park is a statue of J.L. Runeberg, poet and author of the Finnish national anthem. 

The park led down to the harbour where there was another statue called Havis Amada.  The statue is a mermaid rising from the water and surrounded by four sea lions.  Apparently every year on April 30 (Walpurgis Night - called Vappa in Finland) university students place a cap on her head in a ceremony.

We did a quick walking tour of the harbour area passing by the Helsinki City Hall and the Presidential Palace, complete with soldiers standing guard, and looked up at Uspensky Cathedral, an imposing red brick church with green roofs standing on a bluff overlooking the harbour.  A large column on the harbour square commemorates a visit to the city by the Empress Alexandra in 1835.  Nearby were a number of stalls where vendors were selling various items.  There were also a number of stone turtles wandering about, their purpose uncertain.

Based on information I had gleaned from the tourist info I had on my iTouch we decided to take a harbour cruise.  Leaving the harbour we passed a statue of a young woman, called the Statue of Peace, commemorating peace between Finland and Russia.  On small islands were two restaurants that looked quite similar but one had a green roof and the other red.  Leaving the harbour we passed the sea fortress of Suomenlinna which is built on six islands in the harbour.  Built by the Swedes in the mid 1700's it served as a defensive fortress through many wars, and briefly as a prison.  It ceased being a military establishment in the 1970's and is now a popular tourist attraction and picnic site for locals.  An interesting feature is its church of which the central dome also does duty as a lighthouse.

We continued out into the archipelago passing a number of islands on which there were vacation homes and cottages, many with saunas down by the water-front.  Saunas are apparently very popular in Finland.  The trip felt a little like travelling through the Gulf Islands in BC.  As we got closer to the city there were more larger homes and apartments, clearly suburbs of the city.  Returning to the harbour we passed an island that contained the Helsinki zoo.  We could see some enclosures but no actual critters as we cruised by.  We went by several very large ice-breakers, moored for the season. They are used to keep the sea lanes clear of ice in the winter.  Turning back into the harbour we saw several of the large ferries that travel between Helsinki, Tallinn, and other destinations. 

Upon landing we stopped by the market stalls which required careful inspection by Liz and the acquisition of some souvenirs.  Market browsing complete, we meandered past Uspensky Cathedral again and then into downtown.  At one point we walked through a square where the power lines above were festooned with shoes - clearly not just a North American phenomenon.  We came upon an imposing building with a TV camera truck deployed across the street, obviously waiting for someone to emerge.  We did not wait around to see who it was, not that we'd have likely known in any case.  Subsequent research determined that the building, called The House of The Estates, is a government conference centre.

We then walked across the street to Tuomiokirkko, a white cathedral with green roofs which dominates the downtown, fronted by a large open plaza called Senate Square.  This distinctive church is a symbol of the city and features prominently in tourist literature.  Directly in front of the cathedral on the square stands a large statue of Emperor Alexander II.  Apparently when Finland became independent of Russia in 1917 there were demands for its removal but they were ignored and it is now a popular tourist attraction.  On either side of the square are two similar looking buildings.  To the east is the Council of State, formerly the Senate Building, and to the west is the main building of the University of Helsinki.

I particularly wanted to see the main railway station a few blocks away.  It was built in 1918 and designed by Eliel Saarinen, a famous Finnish architect.  The station was most impressive and very much a period piece, reflective of the time it was created.  Interesting that it still functions well today, a century after it was built.  There were a number of other impressive buildings in the square by the station including the Finnish National Theatre to the north, and the Museum of Finnish Art to the south.

By then I'd pretty much worn Lizzy out so we made our way back to the shuttle pick-up spot.  On the way we passed by another well-known Helsinki sculpture called The Three Smiths, a statue of three smiths hammering on an anvil.  The statue is apparently a popular meeting spot and stands next to a building called The Old Student House which is run by the University of Helsinki Student Association and is used for meetings and social gatherings.

We were only four for dinner this evening, one couple being a no-show for some reason.  We have another early start in the morning as we are booked on a Stockholm tour, but we get another hour back tonight so should get a good night’s sleep.  Being this far north and this late in May sunset doesn’t come until about 11pm.
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