In 1550, the Swedish King Gustav Vasa decided to develop a port town in order to complete with the Hanseatic port of Tallinn in what is now Estonia. He forced all the traders from neighbouring ports to Helsingfors (known to English speakers as Helsinki). The venture was not as successful as he had hoped it would be, and for the next 200 years the town on the rocky, windswept peninsula remained a backwater outpost.
When the Russians threatened from the east, the city was burned to the ground in 1713 to prevent it from falling into foreign hands, and all the citizens fled. The Swedes constructed an island fortress named Sveaborg (now known as Suomenlinna) in 1748 in order to protect the eastern portion of their empire. In the early 1800s, the Russians succeeded in capturing what is now Finland, and added the territory to their own empire. The capital was moved from Turku to Helsinki in order to have the administrative centre closer to St. Petersburg.
The 19th and early 20th centuries saw rapid growth, with beautiful buildings designed by German architect GL Engel making the waterfront more attractive. The Russians were back during WWII, inflicting heavy damage on the city with their bombs. Postwar recovery was swift and seven years later, Helsinki hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 1952. Rapid growth and prosperity has been attributed to the ‘Helsinki Spirit’ of its residents.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Many travellers opt to take an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Turku, and then travel by train onwards to Helsinki. We would have liked to do this as well, however, I suffer terribly from motion sickness, and the thought of a 12-hour ferry ride was too much to contemplate. Luckily for us, Norwegian Air offers very affordable flights between the two capitals, and we were delighted to learn that we would be flying with the first airline in the world to offer free WiFi on board all its aircraft.
The downside of this decision meant that we would have to make a two-and-a-half hour train trip to and from Helsinki to Turku if we wanted to visit the old-world charm of the former capital as well. A pop-up add on my Facebook page had alerted us to the existence of an online apartment-booking agency called AirBnB, and when we found a fabulous 3-bedroom apartment in a gentrified neighbourhood near the Tallinn ferry terminal, we decided to focus our stay to Helsinki and enjoy the luxury of the ‘apartment with a sauna’. It turned out to be a great decision, because it allowed us a pleasurable and relaxed visit to Finland’s capital, and we were just a short stroll away from the port when it was time to head to the Baltic States.
We purchased the very affordable transit passes for the duration of our stay and made very good use of them. We walked a good deal of the time when the weather was sunny, and hopped aboard a tram or a bus when the skies opened and we experienced the more typical weather of the region, and the season. The pass was even valid for the ferry to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed fortress on an island near the entrance to the harbour.
The biggest surprise in Helsinki is the existence of a style of architecture that none of us knew existed. As we walked through the streets of Helsinki, admiring the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in northern Europe, we kept noticing the unusual detailing depicting animals, plants, flowers and nature. We dug a little deeper and discovered that this style is known as ‘National Romanticism’. We loved it.
The most iconic buildings in Helsinki are CL Engel’s Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral) and E Saarinen’s Central Railway Station, however we enjoyed the tiny details on dozens of lesser-known buildings throughout the city just as much.
We almost made it a game, searching out the owls, squirrels, bats and bears on the façades of the buildings as we followed the walking tour outlined in our guidebook.
A notation about a rock church caught my fancy, and we made it our destination one sunny afternoon. The low green dome looked a little like an earthbound flying saucer as we approached the church from the south, and the main entrance to the building did nothing to tweak my interest. However, what a delightful surprise awaited us when we saw the rock-hewn interior. We all felt we just had to sit on the upholstered balcony pews for a few minutes to take it all in.
A group of young people had gathered on the main floor of the church, and appeared to be having a lesson of some sort. I just assumed that they were engaged in bible study, until they suddenly stood up and walked towards a small stage set up on the left side of the chapel. Suddenly, music filled the church and three young women began to sing. Their rich, full voices made us shiver, and I was reminded of a young Janis Joplin for a few moments.
As we listened, I realized they were singing in English, and that the song was ‘A Precious Lamb of God’. I tried taking a video with my Nikon camera, but luckily Donna did as well with her iPhone 4S. There was no comparison in the quality of the video, the iPhone won hands down. I made a vow, then and there, to order my first iPhone when the new iPhone 5 is released in the near future.
Here’s a link to the music that made us shiver, in the Rock Church, Helsinki: Helsinki Rocks!
We saved our trip to the island fortress for our last day in Finland. The ferry ride to the island was a real treat in itself and we spent the afternoon wandering around the fortifications, admiring the unusual bunkers, camoflauged by grassy mounds and standing beside the rusting cannons pointing out to sea. The fortress is spread over four separate islands, joined together by small bridges.
We made our way across all the islands, to the two-storey monumental King’s Gate, erected to welcome the Swedish king when he came to inspect the construction of the fortress. In the summer, tourists can return to Helsinki by ferry from this point, but in the off-season, visitors have to make their way back along the various pathways to where they landed.
We had passed a quaint little wooden building that has clearly seen better days, but which now housed a charming café. We stopped inside soon enough to capture the last three interior seats, and ordered huge bowls of steaming hot soup. The potato and leek soup was accompanied with large pieces of bread baked on-site, and made for a very satisfying meal. The desserts looked tempting as well, but we were full to bursting.
It was getting dark as we rode the tram back to our luxury apartment, but before heading indoors to that welcoming sauna, we decided to have a drink in the massive red brick jail just a stone’s throw from our apartment building. The 19th century prison has been recently converted to a Best Western Premier hotel, with its restaurant and bar situated in the basement, near the underground cellblocks.
Aptly named the ‘Jailbird Bar and Restaurant’, we admired the re-furbished interiors, but couldn’t imagine ourselves actually staying overnight in one of the prison cells. We took a peek into the ‘dungeon’ next to the dining room, and were completely ‘creeped’ out by the solitary confinement rooms. The room at the end of the hall was nothing more than a huge hole, where prisoners had to make do sleeping on the rough exposed rock surface. The room was lit by dozens of small tea lights. Shivers!
We returned to the warmth and comfort of our apartment and turned our thoughts to the travel ahead of us. The next morning we were booked to board a massive ferry to make the two-and-a-half hour crossing to the port of Tallinn, Estonia. Our time in the Nordic countries was at an end. It was time to explore the Baltic States – new territory, new languages, new foods, and new adventures.