Any typical touristic visit to a big European capital is likely to involve looking at a lot of churches.
For example, the Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki. If it looks Russian, it’s because it is. Like a lot of important buildings there, it was built when Finland was an independent Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. In fact, Helsinki is what it is today because of the decisions of Tsar Alexander I. Before being given to Russia, Finland was part of Sweden for almost 600 years. The capital, Turku, was considered too close to Sweden and under too much swedish influence for the Tsar, so he established the new capital and built countless buildings in the same style as in the Russian capital at the time, St-Petersburg. In fact, during the Cold War, many movies were shot in Helsinki, passing it off as the then inaccessible Soviet Union.
I am usually not particularly interested in churches, but they are often the most spectacular and oldest buildings in many cities. But Helsinki has something I rarely see, cool new churches.
Like the Temppeliaukio Church, otherwise known as the Church of the Rock. It was literally dug out of a rock and completed in 1969. The rough rock walls gives it great acoustics for concerts.
The ceiling is made of some ridiculous length of copper strands.
Or the Kamppi Chapel, completed only in 2012, also known as the Chapel of Silence. Installed on a busy square, its thick solid wood walls provide excellent sound insulation and big signs strongly discourage making noise inside.
The bare inside.
Helsinki also has very strange hotels. On this plaza, there is a 19th century Art Nouveau statue known as Manta. You can see the silhouette of part of the statue through the rightmost window. A single temporary hotel room was built around the fountain, so you can stay there and have the statue inside your room! It will remain in place for about two months and if you want to go, you can forget it. All nights were sold within minutes of being put online.
Helsinki’s beautiful esplanade, surrounded by pedestrian shopping streets.
It leads to a small market where you can have beautiful grilled salmon, unfortunately served with tolerable potatoes and disgusting frozen vegetables. You can also try small fishes fried whole, which you are also supposed to eat whole, head and all. Many people try them out of curiosity, but end up throwing a lot away. Scary gypsy women hurriedly rummage through the garbage bins and eat them, before the young Finnish women working the stands chase them away, as they tend to scare customers. Sad, but true. I think the restaurants are mostly for tourists, but the market is real.
While some tourists would buy berries, many of the stands sell cauliflower or potatoes and are clearly patronized by locals.
Taking the ferry to a nearby island. In the foreground, one of the largest sailing vessels in the world, the Club Med 2. In the background, the ferris wheel. You might notice it has a black cabin. A normal ride will spin you around for a few minutes and set you back 9 Euros. The black cabin costs a whopping 195 Euros, but they will leave you in there for 40 minutes. It comes with a glass floor, leather seats and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne!
The ferry took Michelle and I to the island of Suomenlinna, where a large fortress system, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was key to the city’s defence for a long time. Today, it is mostly a leisure destination for locals and tourists, although several hundred people live there.
But there are still military installations, such as the Naval Academy, which results in this somewhat amusingly translated warning sign.
Good thing the cadets don’t have to watch for approaching enemy ships from the fort these days, because I have a feeling they would have difficulty keeping the binoculars on the horizon.
The island also has a toy museum, which Michelle thought might be funny. I agreed and we paid 6 Euros each to go look at miscellaneous toys pilled up tight in two small rooms. By comparison, the grandiose and massive National Museum of Finland cost 8 Euros.
A toy museum should make me feel happy, but this section reminded me of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre…
As I mentioned, the National Museum was immensely better. We learned that people have lived in the area for over 10,000 years. Maybe this is a prejudice on my part, but I have the impression the average Finn of 100 centuries ago was probably not a very refined person.
Even a few centuries ago, it seems cutting people’s heads off was a very popular pastime in Finland.
We also learned something by looking at these magnificently carved and painted yokes. Actually, we learned one of two things: old Finns had a passion for decorative arts, or old Finns had very little to do in winter.
Nowhere else in the world had I seen a trumpet made out of bark. To this day, Finns still come up with strange, but unique and cool ideas. For example, once a year, they have a “restaurant day” in Helsinki. No rules or bureaucracy; anyone is allowed to operate a restaurant that day. Some people set-up a counter in a park, some people put a sign up and guest go eat in their house, and some apartment dwellers even lower a basket on a string down to the sidewalk where patrons pick-up the food and put money in the basket! In North America, this would be very popular. For one day. Then someone would get sick and sue the private citizen restaurateur for hygiene violation, and the city, state/province and federal governments for allowing it. A $100 million settlement later, the event would be banned for eternity and the organizers might be charged for terrorism.
The museum had a temporary exhibit on Budo, the Japanese martial arts. Of interest: while today all would consider these martial arts to be a form of recreation and sport, after World War II, the occupying Americans viewed it as a form of military training and it was banned for years. It was only reintroduced after significant changes had removed the harshest aspects of training and rules had been implemented to give it the appearance of a competitive sport.
And a few miscellaneous Helsinki things we saw, like his cooperative poster exhibit from the 1950’s at city hall. The caption on this one is: “Buttons, decorations, buckles, belts, sewing thread, collars. The things every woman needs.” Cooperatives were huge in 1950’s Finland; people shopped at the “store they owned”. Advertisements did not really push a product or a brand, but more public education messages like: “Eating pork and pea soup makes you strong for skiing”. When the economy picked up after Finland had finished paying all its war reparations to the Soviet Union, posters suggested the order in which families should purchase appliances. First, a washing machine, then a sewing machine, a refrigerator and finally, a vacuum cleaner. Funny that 60 years later, all western families share the same sewing machine: Bangladesh.
Street signs in Helsinki are always in both official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Oddly, Russian is spoken by a few more people than Swedish (6% vs 5%), but since for centuries Swedish was the language of education, the nobility and the arts, it has official status. I am not sure how good Finland’s relations with Russia are today, but it had a very unique and close relation with the Soviet Union. Finland fought both the Nazis and the Communists in World War II, but ended up adopting a certain neutrality during the Cold War. Considering it was a country of only a few million people and the only country in free Europe that had a direct border with the huge Soviet Union, this was perhaps a wise strategic decision. It resulted in Finland being the only country able to do business with both sides, which brought it great commercial success. On the downside, the collapsed of the Soviet Union sent it into a big recession other democracies did not experience.
Finland’s complicated history is well illustrated by the life of one of its former president, Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, Marshal of Finland. His house has been turned into a small museum, the number one rated on Tripadvisor for Helsinki. You must go on a guided tour and unfortunately, photography is not permitted. Mannerheim served nearly 30 years in the Imperial Russian Army before being pushed into retirement by the Bolsheviks, who thought he was too closely associated with the Imperial family. He moved back to Finland and when the Finnish civil war erupted, he led the fight against the Russian-supported Red Finns, with the support of the Germans, whom he had fought all his life in the Russian Army! Following the victory, he ran for President but lost, because the population feared the man who had defeated the Russians was too closely associated with… Russia! In World War II, he became Supreme Commander of Finnish forces, and fought the Soviet Union, very reluctantly with the help of Nazi Germany. When Adolf Hitler, whom he loathed because he was: 1) German and 2) a commoner, paid him a surprise visit, he only agreed to meet him in a train car in a small town, to downplay the visit. Too everyone’s shock, he lit up a cigar in front of the Führer, who detested smoking, and asked a journalist to secretly record the conversation. This 11 minute recording is the only known recording of Hitler that is not an official speech. He eventually served as President of Finland. In his younger days, he spent years riding through Asia on horseback, overtly doing research for a Moscow University and covertly spying for the Russian Army. He also earned a very high distinction for bravery when he personally led a cavalry charge, as a Major-General! This kind of life is just impossible to even imagine today.
One thing we Canadians could learn from the Finns is how to build balconies. They have deep balconies that can be either fully opened, or closed off with windows. Perfect for extending the useful season of your balcony in a northern climate. Now that I am writing this, I remember they do the same thing in Iceland.
And for the silly. If you are going to open a night club where the dress code is “hot & tempting”, what better name than “Club Vatican”. Nothing says “Hot & Wild” like the Vatican!
And speaking of inappropriate dress, I told Michelle that in Norway, I had witness an interesting new fashion, transparent dresses. She seemed sceptical. Well… it’s reached Finland.
And the debate is closed.
And finally, Michelle and I on the ferry from Finland to Russia. In the background, the very ferry that would later take us to Estonia!