NORTH­ERN HIGH­LIGHT

A short so­journ in Helsinki pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore one of the Baltic’s cul­tural trea­sure chests

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS - WORDS JEREMY TREDIN­NICK

Helsinki and its cul­tural trea­sures

It’s early morn­ing in Helsinki’s Mar­ket Square. At the quay­side a small fish­ing boat has moored and a fish­er­woman sell­ing fresh fish is call­ing out to lo­cals. Be­hind her tiny ves­sel, large 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.

Close by, and for a few hun­dred me­tres along the har­bour front, stall own­ers are busily set­ting up at the open-air mar­ket in readi­ness for the day ahead. Some sell a cor­nu­copia of fresh fruit and lo­cal pro­duce, while oth­ers of­fer the typ­i­cal sou­venirs of the re­gion – from ra­zor-sharp Fin­nish knives sheathed in soft rein­deer leather to 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 is in the depths of win­ter only two hours of day­light are on of­fer, so sum­mer can take on a real “party hard” at­mos­phere.

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 to tempt trav­ellers to break their jour­ney – if only for a few days – with a StopOver op­tion at no ex­tra cost to its air ticket. It of­fers a range of sug­ges­tions on in­ter­est­ing ac­tiv­i­ties that can be neatly bun­dled into a short space of time.

If it were win­ter, I would have opted for the three-day trip to the Arc­tic Cir­cle to see the North­ern Lights. In­stead, I choose a shorter two-night op­tion that en­com­passes high­lights

in and around Helsinki it­self. Land­ing at Helsinki air­port very early in the morn­ing, I take the easy and ef­fi­cient train into the city (lines I or P; €5), ar­riv­ing at Cen­tral rail­way sta­tion 30 min­utes later and walk­ing to the stylish Ho­tel Lilla Roberts 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 tem­per­a­tures (from a con­stant 27˚C to bone-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 rat­tling trams pass me by, then I turn back through 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 has at­tracted the great and good of Fin­nish so­ci­ety for 150 years and was a reg­u­lar haunt of the com­poser Jean Si­belius.

Back on the water­front the Old Mar­ket Hall houses tra­di­tional shop stalls sell­ing gravlax and other tasty food­stuffs, much as it has done since 1888. “Hei!” says one shop owner when I stop to browse – that be­ing Fin­nish for “hello!” (To the amuse­ment of many tourists, bye is “hei hei”.) 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, to 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 (helsin­ki­card.com; €48) that gives free travel on pub­lic trans­port and ac­cess to reg­u­lar hop-on hop-off sight­see­ing 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

Helsinki’s at­mo­spheric streets re­mind me of Vi­enna, although it was in fact mod­elled on Paris and St Peters­burg

Art Nou­veau and Art Deco ar­chi­tec­tural high­lights is a great start to the tour.

I hop off just down the road from the Temp­peli­aukio Church (Rock Church), an ar­chi­tec­turally unique place of wor­ship quar­ried out of 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 more than 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 in­sects held greed­ily in their beaks. Soon af­ter I ar­rive a Chi­nese 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, Man­ner­heim­intie, 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. One of the coun­try’s na­tional sym­bols is a brown bear,

and a large stone 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 mod­ern­day 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 dra­matic Suomen­linna is­land fortress, chug­ging through the for­est-lined Degerö Canal, skirt­ing Korkeasaari is­land where the zoo is si­t­u­ated, and fi­nally slow­ing for a look at Fin­land’s im­pres­sive ice­breaker fleet – the coun­try’s nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing is very ad­vanced and some of the best ice­break­ers in the world are made and sta­tioned here. Loud­speak­ers pro­vide a com­men­tary in four lan­guages, but the wind off the wa­ter can be cold, so un­der­dressed tourists are given blan­kets to keep warm as they gaze from side to side at the scenery.

IS­LAND LIFE

On my fi­nal morn­ing I walk down to Mar­ket Square wa­ter­side one more time and jump on a JT-Line wa­ter­bus for an is­land-hop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence (from May to Septem­ber). First stop is Val­lisaari na­ture re­serve, on the epony­mous is­land that has been left in its wild 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 post-war 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.

Next is the Fortress of Suomen­linna, a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site and one of Fin­land’s top at­tractions. A naval bas­tion strong­hold spread across six is­lands, it was be­gun 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 from Rus­sian rule, which are 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 beau­ti­fully re­stored wooden houses that were once the res­i­dences of 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 restau­rant 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. I’ve packed a huge amount into less than three days, but I know that’s just the tip of the ice­berg. fin­nair.com/stopover; fin­land­tours.fi; vis­itfin­land.com

Se­nate Square and Helsinki Cathe­dral

ABOVE LEFT: A statue of a brown bear marks the en­trance to the Na­tional Mu­seum of Fin­land

TOP: Helsinki has many brightly coloured build­ings ABOVE RIGHT: The Si­belius Mon­u­ment com­prises more than 600 steel pipes RIGHT: Quar­ried out of bedrock, Temp­peli­aukio Church is one of Helsinki’s most pop­u­lar at­tractions

ABOVE LEFT: Al­las Sea Pool juts out into Helsinki’s main har­bour and in­cludes both a hot wa­ter and sea­wa­ter poolABOVE RIGHT: The Fortress of Suomen­linna, built on six is­lands at the en­trance of Helsinki’s har­bour, is a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site

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