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Finnished? No, still loads to see!
Member Name: grahamt
Date: 22/08/10, updated on 22/08/10 (97 review reads)
Advantages: Beautiful parks
Disadvantages: Uninspiring architecture
I remember Helsinki less from an architectural point of view, where it is even more Stockholm than Stockholm, than for its people. Last time I was here was to give a presentation to an audience of Finns. I really do think that this should be officially classed by the UN as Cruel and Unusual Punishment. If you've ever tried to engage a Finnish audience you'll know exactly what I mean. Utterly unresponsive is an understatement.
We have been told that the Stone Church in Temppeliaukio (Temple Square) is worth a visit. It's about half a kilometre from where the coach drops us. We are guided by the SatNav on my Nokia 5230, to which I had had the foresight to download the city maps of all of our destinations, other than St Petersburg.
A more aptly named place it is hard to imagine. The initial view of it, as we walk up through a small garden that acts as a divider between the two sides of Fredrikinkatu, is of a sort of cave, with a very wide entrance. Outside are hundreds of what look like sailors. We are informed that they are actually graduates, having their graduation ceremony within. The church is unavailable for half an hour, until the service ends.
We retire to a souvenir shop across the road to wait. They're selling Christmas decorations! It's June FGS!!!! I'm guessing this is typical in Finland, where it's often hard to tell the difference. Of course, we have to buy a couple of knick-knacks for the tree, and some postcards for the family. The shop owner and her staff couldn't be more friendly and informative. I suppose what you get from the Finns depends upon whether you are salesman or customer!
The Stone Church is an amazing place. Circular in construction, it features a ceiling made entirely out of a flat coil of thick copper wire. The windows surround the church, just below ceiling level, and below, right down to floor level, is rough-hewn rock. To one side is a magnificent pipe organ. This is clearly a popular tourist attraction, as well as being a functioning church, judging by the number of visitors and non-Finnish tongues being spoken.
Our next destination is the Sibelius Memorial. This is about a kilometre away up Mechelingatan, an easy walk, and set in a park which is also named after this world-famous son of Finland. I am a huge fan of the music of Jean Sibelius; his Karelia Suite first turned me on to classical music back when I was very young.
Whereas the architecture is generally uninspiring, the parks in Helsinki are beautiful. The memorial is unique: constructed of a bunch of vertical steel pipes of uneven length and standing around two metres above the ground, you can walk under and around it. At the time of its erection in the 60s, it garnered much criticism and as a result a bust of the composer was added, alongside.
Now it's time for a drink and so we wander off behind the memorial to a small, beautifully decorated café (Regatta) set beside an expanse of water. Refreshed with tea, coffee and nibbles, we adjourn to the separate loo, which alone was worth the visit and the price of the refreshments: luxury not expected to be found in the middle of a public park!
Leaving, we walk back through Sibelius Park over to Mannerheimintie and head back in the direction of the city centre, passing along the way the Opera House and wandering through the park in which it is set, around the edge of the lake. This leads on past Finlandia Hall, to the Forum and the Central Railway Station. By now it's time for lunch so we enter the pedestrian area facing the station.
I say pedestrian but the rail lines in the pavement warn you that trams are a frequent hazard for the unwary. We are looking for a typically Finnish restaurant but fail to find one. I remember the last time I was here, we were taken [ironically, bearing in mind the history between the Russians and the Finns] to a Russian restaurant, said to be the best in Helsinki. I can't remember where it was but we don't really have time for more than a snack anyway.
We do find a restaurant which could probably be defined as Italian influenced; it's open and the prices are reasonable. It turns out to be a good choice; food and service are excellent.
Next we head for Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral (the one in the picture above), set atop a huge flight of steps off Alexandersgatan. A very impressive place but, sadly, not open for a visit inside. The views from the top of the steps is not as impressive as I had hoped it would be: the surrounding buildings are, themselves, quite high and so a clear view over their roofs is not possible. I would guess a view from the cathedral's dome would be more so.
What we do realise is that we are quite close to the port and so we venture over in that direction, opposite the steps. What we find on Kauppatori is an outdoor market selling everything under the sun, including fast food, which looks delicious, if only we hadn't already eaten! Had we known, we would have come here instead. A browse around the stalls and then it's time to go back to the ship.
From the market we wander back though the gardens between Norra and Sodra Esplanaden to where the coach will take us back to the ship and on to St Peterburg. We have greatly enjoyed our visit to Helsinki, despite the variable weather. Had we had the time there would have been still more to see I'm sure. But, for now...
Summary: A typically Baltic city that is very enjoyable to explore on foot