Travelogue Baltic 7: Helsinki

22 June 2016

Having done little to no research for Helsinki, our Cruise Compass gave a sweetly succinct history to prime us:

In 1550, the king of Sweden had big dreams for newly founded Helsinki. Unfortunately, a series of disastrous fires, plague and war kept the town from growing…. until another series of events changed its path forever. After Russia defeated Sweden and annexed Finland in 1809, Czar Alexander I moved the capital – and the university – from Turku to Helsinki to be closer to St Petersburg. The city flourished, but Russian rule was short-lived. The Finns declared their independence in 1917, endured a devastating Civil War, and emerged with a new Republican government. Helsinki has since been its sparkling capital. Noted for its graceful architecture and elegant gardens; the Senate Square’s neoclassical style has Russian written all over it. Finnish art nouveau also defines much of the cityscape, with the mermaid fountain near the fish market its symbol.

Seeing as everything we’d read about Helsinki spoke of how small and compact it is and since we could see what looked to be a church spire of consequence on the not too distant horizon, we skipped the ship shuttle into town in favour of making the walk part of our own tour.

Right from leaving the docks there were signs of life: pierside restaurants, people on bicycles and pushing prams, a large and lovely park… only problem was that our location didn’t feature on the map we had. It was from the Cruise Compass and we rationalised that either it was because people getting the ship shuttle didn’t need to know or, more cynically, that without the knowledge would be compelled to take the shuttle.

With the spire to guide us, we simply felt that we were getting the full experience; the suburbs that others didn’t get to see. It helped that it was a beautiful sunny day (but not too hot) and that the city is so pretty and green.

It must’ve been a good 3km walk to the city centre, but we did manage to tick off a recommended sight or 2 en route.

We entered Helsinki at Kauppatori Market Square, located at the harbour end of the esplanade. A lively and colourful spot with everything from fruit, flowers, vegetables and freshly caught fish to local handicrafts, the market was a buzz with locals grocery shopping and tourists stroking woollen merchandise and sampling Finnish and Lapland delicacies. Strawberries must be a thing in Helsinki because scores of people were eating them straight out of little baggies or punnets.

Our rudimentary ship map indicated that there was a tourist office just off the square, which made for a logical first stop.

The tourist office is very jacked; lots of maps and brochures, lots of fluent and friendly staff and access to buy tickets to anything that needed.

A quick flip through the “Hel Yeah” book and we’d pegged our first 2 activities.

The first was Suomenlinna, only accessible by water, by a 15 minute ferry journey. The ferry departs from the east side of the market, opposite the presidential Palace. With 6 minutes until the next ferry to Suomenlinna, the lady at the counter chuckled good naturedly at our fluster as we stuffed our research materials in our tog bag and rushed through our thanks and goodbyes.

It was only upon reaching the ferryport – maybe a minute later, on the other side of the market and 100m away at most – that we realised why she was amused. We were possibly the only people in Helsinki rushing. There is no traffic, the people are relaxed and the public transport is superlative.

Suomenlinna is an irregular bastion fortress constructed on uneven terrain and on separate islands. Suomenlinna is also a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of the largest sea fortresses in the world, drawing over 800,000 visitors a year.

The main route across the fortress runs from North to south and takes in all the sights, so we got us a map and that’s what we did.

The brochure shared much of the back story to give context of what we were seeing.

Suomenlinna construction began in the 18th century (1748) when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. It served as a Swedish naval base during the Russia Swedish War in 1788 before surrendering to the Russian army in the Finnish War in 1809. When Finland was incorporated as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire the fortress became a Russian base for the next 110 years, until it became a prisoner of war camp in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. In WWII it served as a coastal artillery, anti-aircraft and submarine base.

In 1973 the Finnish garrison vacated the islands and handed it over to the ministry of Education and Culture and today it is home to 800 or so permanent residents. It has the dubious honour of having served its role in the defence of 3 states – Sweden, Russia and Finland – with guns that still face west as a reminder of the period of Russian rule in the 19th century.

The islands are a completely open-air museum with guests free to explore the dark and murky tunnels inside the bastion walls. It can’t have been pleasant manning those bastions. They are far from comfortably and if chilly now on a perfect summer’s day, must’ve been freezing in winter!

Those first bastions lead to the Great Courtyard which has served as the main square since 1760s and now houses the tomb of August Ehrensvard (who must’ve been someone special, but there was no mention of him in the brochure and little more than his name and date – presumably of his death – in Roman numerals on his tomb).

The church on Suomenlinna did feature quite highly both in the materials from the tourist office and the Suomenlinna brochure. It was built to serve as a Russian Orthodox garrison church, but converted to a Lutheran church in the 1920s alongside Finnish independence. Its steeple doubles as a lighthouse for both air and sea traffic but besides that it’s a church among churches in a very church-intensive part of the world (and very plain after all the glitz and glam of the St Petersburg cathedrals!)

More interested in the military stuff (apparently), we beelined for Kustaanmiekka, which offers a view of the original bastion fortress as well as the late 19th century Russian defence line, complete with sand banks and artillery emplacements. Ramparts on Kustaanmiekka were built to house gunpowder during the Crimean War in the 1850s but with their big wooden doors and the grass grown over their rooves (presumably to hide and buffer the gunpowder reserves), they would fit just as well in The Shire.

What was more impressive was the collection of families on the postage stamp sized beach… SWIMMING!

To give perspective, it was a lovely summer’s day *for the Baltic*, meaning early 20 degrees without windchill, and clasping jersey neck together when the icy wind took up, which it frequently did.

The path next led to King’s Gate, built in 1753 as a ceremonial gateway to the fortress. The gate is built on the site where a ship carrying the fortress’s founder, King Adolf Frederik of Sweden, was anchored while he inspected the construction of the fortress. Royalty really did have it lush.

Last stop was at the Vesikko Submarine, the highlight of the tour for Christian. Built in the 1930s and having served in WWII, the Vesikko is literally one of a kind since, according to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Finland was forbidden to have submarines and all except this one were scrapped. It was moved to its present location and opened as a museum in 1973. Fully restored, Vesikko is an opportunity to get a feel for the confined spaces submariners worked in and find out more about the tech of the time. Christian’s report was that it was very small and cramped inside and that he was surprised that it was only manned by (up to) 4 people.

Feeling culturally enriched already, the only pressure left was getting to the 2nd excursion on time. SparaKOFF is a historic tram that has been converted into a pub and offers passengers a unique sightseeing tour on a 40 minute lap of the city. Of course, the next ride was on the hour, which was in 9 minutes time from when the ferry docked… and station was 600m away.

Again the only people rushing in Helsinki, we power-walked around the market, down the main shopping street, alongside another pretty park – a rarity to finding one right in a city centre – past the elegant cafés and the smartly dressed people casually occupying them, past the lilting quartet playing Vivaldi, barely eyeing the impressive architecture, but delighting in finding the corner to turn right at… and then alarm as we realised we didn’t know what we were looking for… until we saw it.

There it was. The red party tram.

On the other side of the red traffic lights.

We thought we’d just missed it.

But this is Helsinki. And the tram driver had seen us. So he waited for us.

What a fun way to see the city! The tram seats about 24 people at tables for 2 or 4 and has a wooden bar built in at the back end. With big bay windows either side and tram tracks that run past just about everything of interest, it’s the perfect way to get a lay of the land. And have a local beer or draught for a well-rounded experience.

From what we’d mentally navigated on the tram, we made Senate Square our first visit on foot. The Square sits on a site that originally held 17th Century buildings; it is considered a masterpiece of city design and neo-classical architecture with its current 19th century tenants. The Government Palace, Cathedral (a behemoth and a beauty, easily the most recognisable building in Helsinki), University buildings and The National Library of Finland surround the Square, with boutiques and restaurants in between.

The one thing we saw from the tram that we didn’t get to on foot was Temppeliaukio Church, which sounds very impressive, carved out of solid rock, with a dome spanning 70 feet, covered on the interior by 15 miles of Finnish copper wire. It is both a popular tourist destination and working church.

In the short time we had for our afternoon in Helsinki the big takeaway is that it’s very pretty. They’ve taken care to keep a lot of green in their city and it gives the whole place an overarching air of relaxation. The buildings are elegant, the people are graceful. It’s easily navigated on foot or, preferably on a sunny day like that one, enjoyed on ass, at a cafe or on the grass of one of the parks.

If we’d have an overnight in Helsinki there are several things we saw at the market that we’d have liked to try for dinner, ranging from fresh seafood delicacies to more meaty Lapland delights.

But we didn’t have an overnight so it was back to the ship for us. As always, the walk back felt so much shorter now that we knew what we were doing and we were back at the port within half an hour, having hatched a plot to pub crawl the ship to ensure that we had explored the whole thing.