I’d convinced myself that I could get by with one night in Helsinki, and take the overnight train the next night. However, by the time I’d gotten up and into town, I was worried I wouldn’t have enough time at the famed Fortress. As such I decided to leave it for the next day, and do Helsinki today.
Helsinki was founded in 1550, and has been the capital of Finland since 1812. Oddly used as a fake ‘St Petersburg’ in many Hollywood films, it has around 500,000 people. Built originally by Sweden to compete as a trading post with Tallinn, which was Danish then – it’s also been annexed by Russia at times. Its location and strategic location has meant its involvement in wars and defense has been common, and as such, the fortress has been a long-standing part of Helsink. More on that in my next post.
Starting with the Lutheran cathedral, completed in 1852 and quite possibly the very symbol of Helsinki, it’s situated in Senate square. A huge cathedral, it has a very steep staircase the most of the width of the square in front of it, which has become in some ways a great meeting point, a place to sit in the sun and read, and indeed is even used as a grandstand for concerts which have taken place in the square.
I walked from here across to the eastern edge of the city, and walking out along a causeway to one of the smaller islands – turned into a park – Tervasaari Park. It was hot, and people everywhere were sitting or lying, relaxing in the warmth of the midday sun. In the center was a dog park, and dogs of all sizes were having fun running around. It’s also the first time I’ve seen a dog park split into two – for big and small dogs; probably a good idea as some of the ‘handbag’ dogs could be crushed by the bigger ones.
Back past the yachts in the docks to the other cathedral – Uspenski cathedral, sitting up on some of the solid granite rock that Helsinki is mostly built on. It’s the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe and the 5 domes are topped with 22 carat gold! Unfortunately it was closed for no apparent reason, confusing the tour bus loads that were rocking up as well.
I walked down to the docks to check the times for the ferry to the fortress tomorrow, before going to the old market hall. I’d heard you could even try beaver meat here, but as much as I searched among the displays of fish, bear, elk, and seafood, I couldn’t find any new foods, so opted for some fresh sushi – pricey but very good.
Grabbing a tram I hopped out early by one of the big metro stations – incidentally the metro may be great for residents and especially in the winter, but it doesn’t really go anywhere useful for tourists. From there I was able to walk about 20 minutes to the Church in the Rock – a huge churche literally dug out of the hard rock beneath Helsinki. I and other tourists outside had to wait 20 minutes while a baptism was taking place, before wandering in to marvel at the size and shape of it – from above (as seen on postcards) it looks as though a giant UFO has crash-landed into a park.
(Helsink is built on mostly bedrock – hard granite, and as such new building works frequently require dynamite to build foundations. It’s meant to be quite common to hear explosions in the city center, but alas, not while I was there.)
I continued walking through the city to one of the western parts not serviced by any trams (and I’d given up on buses after the massive walk yesterday when the 15 wasn’t running). Amongst the people sitting having picnics and kids playing, is a magnificent sculpture to Jean Sibelius, the composer. It’s welded together from over 600 pipes, and weighs over 24 tons.
I spent some time waiting for people to get out of my shots, while listening to an Australian nearby tell the rest of his tour group “New Zealanders are like our poor cousins”(!).
Walking back towards town I took a few wrong turns around the surburbs – the streets aren’t the most logical and the map misses out the smaller ones, before reaching the Olympic Park once more. I’d worked out if I waited until later before buying my next 24 hour pass, I would only need one more before the train tomorrow, so I strolled down the lake-front in Kaisaniemi park, alongside the Opera house. With geese in the lake, people drinking beers and picnicking in the grassy areas, and a drug deal going down on a park bench, people of all sorts were out here enjoying it – Helsinki’s parks really are some of its greatest assets. It’s a city with a lovely feel to it, very chilled and peaceful for a capital city.
I stopped in at the main train station and bought my ticket for the next day. Originally I’d planned on stopping half way up the country, but decided to head further as one of the train routes could keep going until Rovaniemi, in Lapland. As this is also where Santa’s from, I could combine the Lapland sights into one stop…
Next, Helsinki’s Fortress…
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