Cruisin the Baltic

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Aug 19, 2011

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Monday, August 8, 2011

Now this is a day worth writing about! I am on a ship heading toward St. Petersburg, Russia.

As the day began, it was raining in Helsinki and I decided to take my time this morning and relax in my room before checking out and heading to the "ferry." I put ferry in quotes because it is nothing less than a full-scale cruise ship like the 70's T.V. show "Love Boat."

While I was planning my summer vacation, I had originally intended to go to Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo then work my way down through Denmark etc. But my friend, Catherine, had suggested that there was a “visa free” cruise to Russia on this particular line.  Realizing that this may be a once in a lifetime experience, I jumped at it.

So, at 10:00 a.m. I checked out of my hotel and headed to the port terminal to check my bag in until 3:30 when I could board the cruise.  I then proceeded to continue on my walking tour agenda to the north central area of Helsinki known as Kallio. Fortunately the rains stopped leaving a foggy, cool day for walking.

Before I continue, I would like to recommend quite highly going to the visitors' booth at Market Square and getting the walking tour guide if you are coming here.  I have found it the best way to actually see Helsinki.  Each tour I have done has taken me around 3-4 hours but it certainly could take longer if you have a family or are more curious.  Also, I am not young and I get tired.

Now, I started from the main train station and went north through the botanical gardens and then crossed the bridge into Kallio.  Following the shoreline, I found the scenery stunning and quite relaxing as I entered this former working class neighborhood.

As I crossed the bridge, I wound up in a fresh foods market that is meant to be one of the oldest markets in the city and is filled to the hilt with fresh fruit and flowers teasing both the olfactory and visual senses. I also noticed so many flower boxes immaculately up kept. Being a horticulturist, I was pleasantly surprised and could not refrain from taking photos of the lovely displays.

I circled around the waterfront taking in the mix of architectural styles and also feeling a bit nostalgic and reminded of my home in San Francisco.  As I have mentioned, I think the cities are similar if not only visually. 

I then climbed a small hill to a church that I think resembles (from afar) the empire state building in NYC albeit a lot smaller.  This church is built in the typical Jungen style so common here. And is famous for having two styles of pipe organ which give daily concerts at noon. Unfortunately it was 12:30 by the time I arrived and I only got to see them.

Next stop on the list was a brick building located at the top of the hill but just below an amusement park of which the location has been illusive since I arrived.  Oddly, I can see the tops of the rides and hear the screams of enjoyment but have never quite been able to place the location.  The brick building is notable for both the architectural style and the fact that it was inspired by the “flip top” cigarette box created first by Marlboro. I didn’t see the resemblance. 

As I passed the monument dedicated to working class mothers, I couldn’t help but wonder what the odd smell was permeating the air. Well, I soon recognized it as coffee.  The largest bean roastery in the world is located just around the corner. Much to my amazement, the Finns are the largest consumers of coffee of any nationality at 10 kilos per person per year. And I thought Italians were coffee obsessed!  Across the street is an old train car factory, which now houses one of the largest indoor flea markets boasting over 200 stalls.

The remnants of this being a working class neighborhood are still noticeable and it is an obvious residential area overall.  Again, I would like to note that the Finns seem to be quite fond of “Goth and alternative” styles to the point where it is no longer alternative but norm.  In fact, I have never seen so many people in one place dressed in black with Mohawks and piercings, tattoos and the like in my life. Surprisingly, there is a preponderance of hair salons, which I really don’t understand with all the dreadlocks I see but I digress.

I followed the tour book down a winding street ending up in a very quaint area, which seems to be sort of the “red light” area with stripper clubs all along the street and then turning the corner, a bunch of used clothing stores and coffee shops and then a random gay bar. Just past is the oldest wood sauna in the city where “blood letting” services are actually available if needed to cure your bad blood!!

At this point I decided to head myself back toward the cruise ship terminal and get ready to experience my first ever cruise.

All in all the walk was about 4 hours and I arrived at the cruise ship terminal at 3:00 and waited hour to board the ship.  At the terminal, the people were super friendly and helpful until I got to the passport control where I ran into a snafu as I have no recent stamp in my passport and couldn’t prove when I arrived in Europe. I explained to the guy that I simply didn’t remember why they didn’t stamp it and that I had only been in Europe for 6 weeks. (Those of you who know me or who have followed my blog know this is a bold faced lie) but nonetheless, after a bit of conversation, I convinced him that I was only a tourist and had innocently neglected to get a stamp.  He reluctantly stamped me out and scolded me sternly making me quite nervous and upset which I still feel a little more or less because I’m entering and leaving EU again on this trip.

Once entering the ship, I was stunned at the enormity of it and how many facilities are available including a cinema and even karaoke in two languages.  Festivities happen all night as if I can stay up that much after such an exciting day, but, I’ll do my best to enjoy some of the live music and entertainment, which consists of: dancing, karaoke, eating, gambling, drinking, strolling under the moonlight/sunrise/set (which is happening at the same time), live jazz, live disco, movies in a real cinema, dinner, and a host of other things including bar xxx which is closed until 1:00 a.m. (for obvious reasons) before I turn in.

As we pulled out from the dock after 2 hours in port, I was absolutely breath taken by the stunning scenery of the Helsinki skyline and islands, which we whisked past while so many passengers were busy clicking away on their cameras.  I was no exception, running back and forth across the deck, taking pictures frantically, knowing this is a once in a lifetime experience, I won’t soon forget if ever. And dare I admit, for the first time in my life, I actually feel lonely.

I only pray and pray that I won’t follow in the footsteps of my grandparents (on both sides unfortunately) and get Alzheimer’s and forget these most memorable “Kodak” moments.

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