We were disposed to enjoy our time in Finland before we even stepped foot on its soil. As all the other Russian travellers on our train were interrogated, their passports checked carefully, the Finnish border guards looked at our British passports, smiled and said ‘Enjoy your stay in Helsinki.’ Ah being back in the EU…amazing!
We arrived in Helsinki on the morning of May Day (1st May), celebrated across Europe by having a day off, however the Finnish have their own take on the holiday. The tradition, apart from getting completely hammered the night before, is to put a student cap (which looked like a sailor’s hat) onto a statue of a scantily clad lady in the centre of the city, then don one themselves, before heading to the park with a picnic and sparkling wine and enjoy themselves. Across the city live bands were playing, silly string and bubbles were being let loose, and sparkling wine corks were being popped. People young and old were out and about in their sailor hats and everyone was having a good time… A celebration and day off work based around sparkling wine and hat wearing…thats something I could definitely get on board with!
After the grandeur and opulence of St. Petersburg and the gold of Russian Orthodox churches, the nordic design and elegant simplicity was a breath of fresh air. The Lutheran cathedral, in the centre of the city, which sits high above the other buildings, is reminiscent of the Russian style from the exterior, but entirely white inside. Not so much as one jewel covered image of Christ and his Mother in sight! The Chapel of silence is the prime example of minimal design, the space is built entirely out of planks of curved wood. Though the favourite church award goes to the Stone church (no prices for guessing why) which is built into the rock face and really shows the material off to its best. We finished the day off looking around one of the city’s contemporary art galleries, Kiasma, which has changing exhibitions, this time of Portrait, elements and Mapplethorpe.
Apart from gorging ourselves on the included buffet breakfast, we did manage to try some Finnish food. Famously termed to be even worse than British, we were disappointed not to find anything too awful. Instead we managed to get our hands on Lapland Reindeer, in a meatball and sausage, as well as trying little deep-fried fresh water fish, served with garlic dip. We took advantage of the Finnish inhabitants deep love of coffee, and sipped a few tasty cups along with traditional handmade cinnamon buns overlooking the sea in the sunshine.
Heading out to Suomenlinna Island was another must for our few short days in the Finnish capital. The island was once the largest settlement in Finland and still has the fortress, underground defences and buildings to show for it. It defended Sweden from the Russians, and later Russians from the Swedes…but now is filled with tourists exploring the fortress walls and little cafe’s dotted about. Bluebells were out in amongst the tress and it was the first place it felt like spring on the trip so far. We spent the rest of our time in Helsinki exploring the well-kept cycle-ways, finding the Sabelius sculpture and yet more perfect coffee stops.
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have notices we mentioned a free buffet breakfast earlier, which seems unusual for a hostel right? Well, the high price of almost everything in Finland meant that it was cheaper for us to get our own room in a four star hotel (they had a deal on) than get two beds in a dorm! This is how we managed to keep bumping into (in actuality, spotted twice from across the street) our second celebrity spot of the trip: Nigel Slater.Some of you may not know him, but he is genuinely a British celebrity chef, with his own TV show and books, some of which we used to own when we had real lives. Turns out he was having a weekend break in the city and staying in the same hotel as us… maybe he found the deal as well….
But our stay in Helsinki was brief (our bank balances were pleased) and it was time to jump on a boat headed to Estonia…. We may have accidentally got on another cruise…