NORTH­ERN HIGH­LIGHTS

A short so­journ in Helsinki pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore more than one Baltic trea­sure

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JEREMY TREDINNICK

Ex­plore sea fortresses, stun­ning ar­chi­tec­ture and lo­cal cui­sine in Helsinki, be­fore ferry-hop­ping over to the Es­to­nian cap­i­tal of Tallinn

It’s early morn­ing in Helsinki’s Mar­ket Square. On the har­bour quay a small fish­ing boat has moored to the dock and a stocky fish­er­woman with ea­gle eyes (to com­bat the gulls) and a boom­ing voice is sell­ing fresh fish such as mul­let and salmon to lo­cal wives and moth­ers. Be­hind her tiny ves­sel, long fer­ry­boats are lined up next to piers, ready to whisk com­muters and tourists to one or more of the many is­lands that form a bar­rier be­tween the city and the Gulf of Fin­land, a gi­ant in­let of the Baltic Sea. In deeper water on both sides of the har­bour, mas­sive cruise lin­ers are docked – the Baltic is said to be the sec­ond most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for cruises af­ter the Caribbean Sea.

Close by and for a few hun­dred me­tres along the har­bour front, open-air mar­ket stall own­ers are busily set­ting up in readi­ness for the long sum­mer day ahead. Some sell a cor­nu­copia of fresh fruit and other lo­cal pro­duce, oth­ers the typ­i­cal sou­venirs of the re­gion – from ra­zor-sharp Fin­nish knives sheathed in soft rein­deer leather to warmly coloured carved wooden spoons and bowls. Ice cream and cof­fee stalls com­pete with those sell­ing heartier fare such as meren­herkku­lau­ta­nen, or “sea gourmet plate”.

Though it’s only 7am, the city’s res­i­dents all seem to be up and ea­ger to make the most of the good weather and long sum­mer day – Helsinki gets an in­cred­i­ble 22 hours of day­light in mid­sum­mer… of course the down­side of that means in the depths of win­ter only two hours of day­light are on of­fer, so sum­mer can take on a real “party hard” at­mos­phere.

Helsinki was mod­elled on Paris and St Peters­burg – though its at­mo­spheric streets and al­leys re­mind me some­what of Vi­enna

FIN­NISH FO­CAL POINT

Helsinki may lie on the north­ern fringes of Europe, but thanks to Fin­nair’s suc­cess­ful ex­pan­sion into Asia, the city has be­come a pop­u­lar hub for trav­ellers be­tween Western Europe and Asia. Since 2016, Fin­nair has part­nered with Visit Fin­land in tempt­ing trav­ellers to break their jour­ney – if only for a few days – with a Stopover Pro­gramme that of­fers a range of in­ter­est­ing ac­tiv­i­ties bun­dled neatly into a short space of time, and at no ex­tra cost to their air ticket.

Though I’m in­trigued by the chance to f ly into the Arc­tic Cir­cle and per­haps see the North­ern Lights on a three-day trip, I choose a shorter two-night/2.5-day op­tion that en­com­passes high­lights in and around Helsinki it­self, as well as a day trip to Tallinn, the cap­i­tal of Es­to­nia, just a two-hour ferry ride to the south. Land­ing at Helsinki Air­port very early in the morn­ing, I take the easy and ef­fi­cient train into the city (lines I or P; €5/US$5.8), ar­riv­ing at Cen­tral Rail­way Sta­tion 30 min­utes later and walk­ing to the stylish Ho­tel Lilla Roberts (lil­laroberts.com) to drop my bags, be­fore head­ing straight down to Mar­ket Square and the har­bour.

I wan­der past the city’s fa­mous Al­las Sea Pool, a spa com­plex with large swim­ming pools of dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ture (from a con­stant 27˚C to mind-numb­ingly cold) on pon­toons that jut out into the sea, as well as saunas, cafés and out­door deck­ing of­fer­ing panoramic views over the city. On a small knoll nearby stands the im­pres­sive Uspen­ski Cathe­dral, a Rus­sian Or­tho­dox cre­ation of gilded onion domes that’s one of the largest in Western Europe, with an in­te­rior that’s just as colour­fully dec­o­rated as any you’d find in Rus­sia.

A short walk away, the in­side of Helsinki Cathe­dral is plainer by com­par­i­son, no­table for a statue of Martin Luther gaz­ing se­ri­ously down on visi­tors. The cathe­dral tow­ers over the broad slope of Se­nate Square, which is bordered by at­mo­spheric streets and al­leys that re­mind me some­what of Vi­enna – though Helsinki was in fact mod­elled on Paris and St Peters­burg.

I walk up Alek­san­terinkatu, pass­ing the grand Kansal­lissali build­ing that houses the Si­belius Fin­land Ex­pe­ri­ence mul­ti­me­dia show as in turn rat­tling trams pass me, then turn back down Es­planade Park. This long ex­panse of green boasts a 200-year his­tory; once the do­main of wealthy mer­chants and their fam­i­lies, who prom­e­naded up and down its paths en­joy­ing the colour­ful flowerbeds, green lawns and stat­ues of fa­mous lo­cal lu­mi­nar­ies, to­day it plays host to of­fice work­ers grab­bing lunch and soak­ing up the sun. The bar in­side Ho­tel Kamp on its north­ern side was where in­de­pen­dence was fo­mented early in the 20th cen­tury, while at its eastern end Café Kap­peli was a mu­si­cians’ hang­out for cen­turies.

Back on the wa­ter­front the old Mar­ket Hall houses tra­di­tional shop stalls sell­ing salmon gravlax and other tasty food­stuffs. “Hey!” says one shop owner when I stop to browse, which is Fin­nish for “hello!” (To the amuse­ment of many tourists, good­bye is “hey hey”.) I’ve stopped be­cause a jar has caught my eye – it’s la­belled “bear grease/ tar soap” and I’m sorely tempted to buy it, but even­tu­ally de­cide the price is too high for what, for me, would be a mere nov­elty – I doubt whether my wife would use it…

HOP­PING AROUND

In or­der to see as much of the city as I can dur­ing my brief stay I buy a 24-hour myHelsinki Card (€48/US$56; helsin­ki­card.com) that gives free travel on pub­lic trans­port and ac­cess to reg­u­lar Hop-on Hop-off buses mak­ing a cir­cuit of the city’s ma­jor at­trac­tions. Helsinki has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of early 1900s Art Nou­veau build­ings in Europe, and a top-deck drive through dis­tricts filled with Art Nou­veau and Art Deco ar­chi­tec­tural high­lights is a great start to the tour.

I hop off just down the road from the Temp­peli­aukio Rock Church, an ar­chi­tec­turally unique place of wor­ship built di­rectly into a solid rock hillock, with an in­cred­i­ble cop­per ceil­ing dome com­pris­ing 22 kilo­me­tres of wound cop­per tape. My next stop brings me to the Si­belius Park and Mon­u­ment in a lovely green park by the sea. Its cu­ri­ous de­sign com­prises 600 hol­low pipes of gleam­ing sil­ver metal that cre­ate a hum­ming noise when the wind is right. It looks like a dozen church or­gans have had their pipes mashed to­gether. Small birds flit in and out of them, oc­ca­sion­ally with an in­sect held greed­ily in their beaks. Soon af­ter I ar­rive a Chi­nese pack­age tour group de­scends, tak­ing a thou­sand pic­tures within the space of min­utes, then as quickly as they ar­rived they are gone, and peace re­turns.

The bus curls round onto the city’s main thor­ough­fare, Man­ner­heim­vagen, and I jump off be­tween Fin­lan­dia Hall, cre­ated by the leg­endary ar­chi­tect Al­var Aalto, and the grey stone ed­i­fice of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Fin­land. The na­tional sym­bol is a bear, and a large grey­stone statue of one sits by the stairs up to the mu­seum’s en­trance. In­side, the var­i­ous ex­hi­bi­tions lead you through the story of Swedish and Rus­sian dom­i­na­tion, the strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence, and el­e­ments of mod­ern-day Fin­land, through­out which the uniquely Fin­nish con­cept of sisu – mean­ing “guts”, “grit” or “har­di­ness” – shines, high­light­ing the courage and re­silience needed for peo­ple to sur­vive in the harsh cli­mate and con­di­tions of this north­ern land.

Come evening I board a Beau­ti­ful Canal Route water tour, which is also part of the myHelsinki Card deal. For 90 min­utes the open-topped ferry sails through Helsinki’s har­bour and wa­ter­ways, pass­ing the Suomen­linna Is­land Fortress, chug­ging through the Degero Canal, skirt­ing Korkeasaari is­land where the zoo is sit­u­ated, and fi­nally slow­ing for a look at Fin­land’s ice breaker fleet – the coun­try’s nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing is very ad­vanced and some of the best ice break­ers in the world are made and sta­tioned here. Loud­speak­ers pro­vide a com­men­tary in four lan­guages, but the wind off the water can be cold, and un­der­dressed tourists are given blan­kets to keep warm as they gaze from side to side at the scenery.

ES­TO­NIA WITH EASE

My first day has been re­plete with in­ter­est­ing ex­cur­sions, so my sec­ond has much to live up to. A 20-minute tram ride from down­town is the dock for the Tallink cruise line (tallink.com), which of­fers ferry ser­vices to Tallinn, the cap­i­tal of Es­to­nia (among other ex­cit­ing city des­ti­na­tions such as Stock­holm). These fer­ries cater to the hordes of Finns who visit Tallinn at the week­ends, many sport­ing small trol­leys strapped to back­packs in readi­ness for shop­ping sprees for booze and other com­modi­ties that are much cheaper in Es­to­nia than Fin­land.

Board­ing the huge cruise liner Megas­tar I head for the com­fort of the busi­ness lounge on the eighth-f loor deck, whose large win­dows at the front of the ship of­fer views of the qui­es­cent Baltic water as we glide smoothly on the two-hour jour­ney from Fin­land to Es­to­nia. St Peters­burg is a few hours’ sail­ing to the east, while Stock­holm is slightly far­ther away to the west, but also eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble.

Fast and ef­fi­cient dis­em­barka­tion in Tallinn is fol­lowed by a ten-minute walk from the port’s D-Ter­mi­nal into Tallinn Old Town. This com­pact Me­dieval city was first marked on the global map by the Arab car­tog­ra­pher al-Idrisi in 1154. In 1997 UNESCO made it a World Her­itage site, which seems wholly ap­pro­pri­ate to me as I walk its cen­turies-old cob­ble­stoned streets, all kept in su­perbly au­then­tic con­di­tion (mod­ern build­ings have been de­vel­oped in a new town area out­side the an­cient city walls).

It’s like a liv­ing mu­seum of the past, per­fect for a gen­tle but fas­ci­nat­ing walk­ing tour. I col­lect my 24-hour TALLINN Card (visit­tallinn.ee) from the tourist in­for­ma­tion cen­tre in the mid­dle of the Old Town, which gives ac­cess to many mu­se­ums, free pub­lic trans­port, and more.

Over the next eight hours I visit the Town Hall and Square, qui­etly study St Ni­cholas’ Church and St Alexan­der Nevsky Cathe­dral, climb to the bell tower of the Dome Church for won­der­ful views over the town roofs, and fer­ret around in the tun­nels of the Kiek in de Kok Bas­tion and Carved Stone Mu­seum. I sit in the Dan­ish King’s Gar­den for a lo­cal snack of kilu­voileib,a sprat sand­wich of grey fish on dark bread served with a boiled egg, then head for the Great Guild Hall, whose his­tory mu­seum ex­plains the im­por­tance of the pow­er­ful mer­chant guilds in this re­gion.

There’s St Cather­ine’s Pas­sage and St Olav’s Church, the Old City Walls and Tow­ers, and Fat Mar­garet’s Tower and Gate, but my last­ing mem­ory of this al­most fairy­tale city comes cour­tesy of a fes­ti­val be­ing cel­e­brated to mark the be­gin­ning of sum­mer, with lots of mu­si­cal and other events and per­for­mances fill­ing the al­leys, squares, cof­fee shops and halls. The theme this year is “One hun­dred steps of the cen­tury”, as the coun­try cel­e­brates 100 years as the Re­pub­lic of Es­to­nia.

In front of St Ni­cholas’ Church a Me­dieval tour­na­ment is un­der way. An old-fash­ioned Me­dieval “list” stages what many pass­ing tourists imag­ine is a chore­ographed bat­tle be­tween fully ar­moured pro­tag­o­nists. Two fight­ers are pit­ted as a team against two oth­ers with dif­fer­ent “colours”; when one goes down the vic­tor joins his/her part­ner (both men and women take part as equals) to ham­mer the sec­ond war­rior into sub­mis­sion.

How­ever, the crowd soon re­alises, with gasps and squeals, that this is no staged fight but a real con­test with some ba­sic rules but al­low­ing full-on blows to be struck by real (though blunted) swords and bat­tle axes onto chain­mail-clad arms, full-vi­sor hel­mets and sheet-metal hip guards. It’s se­ri­ous stuff – at one point one of the two ref­er­ees calls a halt and sum­mons the mod­ern medics into the lists to check on a fallen and stricken fighter. Teams have come from coun­tries all round the re­gion – it seems that the old war­rior ways of Scan­di­na­vians and other north­ern Euro­peans are alive and well.

IS­LAND LIFE

Back in Helsinki, on my fi­nal morn­ing I walk down to Mar­ket Square wa­ter­side one more time and jump on a JT-Line ferry for an Is­land-Hop­ping Ex­pe­ri­ence. First stop is Val­lisaari Na­ture Re­serve, on the epony­mous is­land that has been left in its ru­ral state, and was only opened to the pub­lic in 2016.

It’s a lovely taste of a typ­i­cal north­ern Euro­pean for­est, with oak, lin­den, beech and sil­ver birch trees grow­ing along­side ev­er­green larch and pines. Song­birds war­ble ev­ery­where you go; in June the mead­ows are car­peted with flow­ers in yel­low, vi­o­let and white, at­tract­ing in­sects that in turn feed thrushes, wag­tails and other birds, which flit around fear­lessly in front of walk­ers. This was an idyl­lic life for 200 vil­lagers in pre- and post­war days, but now the houses have been aban­doned. At the south­ern end of the is­land the 19th-cen­tury Alexan­der bat­tery faces out to the open sea, the di­rec­tion from which dan­ger in­vari­ably ap­proached.

Tallinn’s cen­turies-old walls and cob­ble­stoned streets are kept in su­perbly au­then­tic con­di­tion

Next is Suomen­linna Is­land and fortress, a UNESCO World Her­itage site and one of Fin­land’s top at­trac­tions. A naval bas­tion strong­hold spread across five is­lands, it was founded in 1748 dur­ing the pe­riod when Fin­land was still part of the King­dom of Swe­den. De­signed to com­mand the sea ap­proach to Helsinki, its most fa­mous sites are the King’s Gate, the Great Court­yard and the large can­nons dat­ing to Rus­sian rule lo­cated in the south­ern part of the largest is­land, Kus­taan­miekka.

How­ever, there’s much more to see: the main mu­seum ex­plains the build­ing of the fortress and former life for those liv­ing on the naval base; there are in­ter­est­ing boat yards, a large church and re­stored wooden houses that were once used by the mer­chants who sup­plied the naval gar­ri­son. Add to this arts and crafts shops, cafés, a toy mu­seum and a dry-docked sub­ma­rine that you can ex­plore, and it’s clear a whole day could be spent here alone.

My time is run­ning out, so I have one fi­nal port of call at the fa­mous café on Lonna Is­land, then it’s back to Mar­ket Square and my ho­tel to col­lect my lug­gage, and a pre-booked taxi back to the air­port for a set fee of €35 (US$41). I’ve packed a huge amount into less than three days – but I know that’s just the tip of the ice­berg.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Al­las Sea Pool juts out into Helsinki’s main har­bour front; Es­planade Park; Se­nate Square and Helsinki Cathe­dral

FROM TOP: The Si­belius Mon­u­ment; and Temp­peli­aukio Church

ABOVE: Tallinn Old Town’s cob­ble­stoned streets and an­cient for­ti­fied walls at­tract plenty of tourism

FROM TOP: King’s Gate on Suomen­linna Is­land; and Val­lisaari Is­land

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