Saunas & nude swimming

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End May 13, 2009

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

There's a biting wind as we sail out of Stockholm and I retire to my cabin to meet my room-mates - a Finn returning home from a business trip and a Brazilian who lives in Sweden. There is a sauna on board so I try it out - it's much hotter than others I've been in and one of the guys ladles water on the hot rocks with gay abandon, sending waves of heat through the room. The sauna is full of loud and drunk Finns, so first impressions aren't great, and someone pinches my towel so I'm standing there after my cold shower trying to work out if I should tiptoe up the corridor naked to the desk and ask for another towel, but manage to get someone else to do it for me. I have been warned this is called "the party boat" and so it turns out to be.
The ship is a minituare city on water - there are swarms of people in the tax-free shop madly buying alcohol, tobacco and perfumes. The bars are full and even early in the evening there are many people in a drunken state. In the loungebar the houseband is playing cheesy songs - Be Mine Tonight segueing seamlessly into O Sole Mio, then Bring Back my Bonnie to Me, followed by a Viennese Waltz. The band is milking these songs for all their worth and spoofing the genre wickedly, but many in the audience don't notice and sing and dance along happily. It's all good-natured, daggy fun but it's a bit surreal after my last 2 weeks of remote, snow-covered wastes. I go to bed around midnight and sleep soundly until less than half an hour before the ship arrives so have to scramble to get ready to disembark.
There is a treat awaiting me - someone is coming to pick me up and taking me to their home to stay for a few days. Normally, when I reach a new place I have to drag my luggage around, find the tourist office, either find accomodation, or if already booked, get directions there, usually involving further bus and train trips, lots of walking and sometimes getting lost.
Pam, the sister of my friend Gill from Melbourne, kindly invited me to stay with her family and she's even come to pick me up in her car. We haven't seen each other for quite a few years but I recognise her immediately among the milling crowd, and in no time she's driving me around giving me a quick look at Helsinki before taking me home to meet her family - husband Jouko, daughter Maija, and son Tapsa (both of whom gratifyingly still speak English with an Australian accent from their time living in Melbourne).
In the afternoon they take me for an outing to Suomenlinna, a huge sea fortress covering several islands. There is a strong sea breeze, and added to the chilly air, and my not-quite-warm-enough clothing, my face and hands are freezing but I bear it stoically.
It's great to be in a family environment and that night we watch the first episode of an Australian mini-series about Mary Bryant, a convict who came to Australia with the First Fleet, married, had 2 children, and escaped with her family and several others in a small boat and sailed to Timor, where she and 2 other survivors were captured and taken back to England and eventually freed after great public pressure - quite an amazing true story.
Helsinki looks and feels differently to the other Scandinavian countries I have been to. The people are generally paler and have broader faces, and they have a unique language - not Indo-European, but a member of the Finno-Ugric family (also Hungarian & Estonian). However, because of significant Swedish influence, Swedish is the second official language. Although Helsinki has been in existence since the 1600s, it took most of the form it has now in the early 1800s when Russia defeated Sweden and transferred the capital from Turku, further west, to Helsinki, and the city was virtually rebuilt in a monumental style with great squares and public buildings.
I spend a few days relaxing, and walking round town, visiting museums and galleries, etc.
My first visit is to the Temppeliaukio Church, built in the 1960s into the rock, from rocks which were quarried on site. While I'm there I listen to a concert by a gospel choir of young singers from the US.
Later I walk over to the Uspenski Cathedral, which is the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Western Europe. I happen to get there in early evening when a service is about to start and attend my first Russian Orthodox service. It's Easter Monday, and having attended an Easter Friday service in the plain, dark wood Kiruna Lutheran Church (see last blog entry)there could not be a greater contrast. Unfortunately I couldn't take any photos, but the front of the church was covered with virtually life-size icons of great religious figures, with an opening through to the altar and still more icons. All the other walls are painted in colours and patterns and there are more icons and sculptures everywhere. There were 3 priests officiating and they spent the whole service in acting out an elaborate theatrical piece - all their actions and chanting are accompanied by the smell of incense and the jingle of little bells as the censer is swung, and they go round and round the icons and the church, nodding to everybody in the congregation, who all bow as they go past. The congrgation stands throughout the whole ceremony and a choir of 2 men and 2 women sing almost continuously - the men deep and sonorous and the women very sweetly and sadly. The priests are in beautiful floor-length white vestments with a design of patterned crosses all over. That night I watch the final episode of Mary Bryant.
The next day I try and get a Russian visa so I can visit St Petersburg the following week. It's unbelievable, but as an Australian I can only apply to the Russian Consulate in Australia, giving specific dates of arrival and departure, details of accomodation, places to be visited, etc. I am rather crest-fallen as I had been looking forward to visiting St Petersburg, and I had even written to say I was coming to a woman whom I had met dancing tango in Sitges and the Tango Maratona in Sweden.
Notwithstanding this disappointment I have a very nice day - I visit the old Market Hall by the waterfront - you have never seen salmon and it's cousin, arctic char, prepared in so many ways - several different methods of smoking and cooking, a variety of marinades, and there are also tiny, crispy-fried fish, which I love.
Later I go to the Amos Anderson Art Museum and see Domus Pompeiana (which Jouko had told me about) - a very well-presented exhibition of artefacts from the house of a Pompeian noble set in a recreation of his villa, and then the Yrjonkatu swimming pool, which Pam and Jouko also told me about.
It has 2 storeys, with a 25 metre swimming pool below and roman arches on the upper level, behind which are little cubicles with a bed, side-table with drawers, etc. You buy a ticket for 12 euros, for which you get 2 hours use of the facilities (swimming pool, sauna, steam-room, cubicle, bathrobe, towel, etc. This is a naked swimming pool (alternate men's and women's days) so as I buy my ticket from the lady at the desk I see naked men wandering around further down the corridor. I collect my things and go to my cubicle, strip off, then work my way around the steam-room, the sauna, a few laps in the swimming pool (all interspersed with cold showers) a couple of times. The steam-room is great - a thick hot fog, completely different to a sauna. In the sauna a man starts talking to me in French and is surprised when I respond in English - he took me for French. After he's gone another man speaks to me in Finnish, then apologises when I tell him I don't speak it and says he thought I was a Finn - how's that, within 5 minutes I'm mistaken for a Frenchman and a Finn. I also overheard a couple of guys talking about a couple of visitors from England - one of them invited the English guy to come to the sauna with some other male friends and said the English girl could go with the other women later, but the Englishman thought he was joking and declined, and went with his girlfriend when no-one else was around, and the punchline was ... they went in their swimsuits. I really enjoy this sauna - it has a nice old-fashioned feel to it, the people are very friendly, business deals are being done, etc.
After all this exhausting activity I go to my cubicle and sit down at the little table set outside which has a list of drinks and light food. I order a dark beer from one of the pretty young waitresses that walks past every few minutes.
While sipping my beer I reflect on how bizzare this all is - outside it's cold and snowing, while here I am sitting naked at my table beneath a faux roman arch, with waitresses wandering around taking orders, and watching naked men swimming laps in the pool below - most are doing breaststroke or the crawl, but one is doing backstroke (not a pretty sight) and one is even energetically swimming the butterfly.
I have dinner around the corner at Kosmos, a restaurant which has been run continuosly by the same family since it started in 1924. It has a lovely feel to it - banquettes in dark wood with carvings along one wall and an eclectic and original art collection on the walls. I have the Finnish antipasto - smoked reindeer, fried baltic herring, forest mushrooms, Finnish cheese, and smoked salmon (deliciously marinated in a way I've not had before); main course is glow-fried Arctic char (a relative of salmon, but much better says my waitress)cooked under a griller so the skin crisps, with char roe and white wine sauce and an egg risotto; dessert is an almond & fromage blanc gateau with sea buckthorn (an orange berry) gelee and pistachio syrup - all quite delicious. After all this hedonism I rug up and tramp through the wind and snow to the station for the journey home.
Next day I take the train to the old capital, Turku (where my young Swedish friend went to a wedding and got blind drunk on 'witches brew' - see last blog entry). The outing is great but the weather was foul - wind and snow all day, clogging up streets and footpaths, and blowing into your face. Went to the Turku Art Museum, where there were some special exhibitions, then to the Aboa Vetus Museum (Old Abo in Latin - the original name of Turku was Abo in Swedish). A section of the medieval town has been excavated and you go down below and actually walk on a small section of the old streets and see the ruins and artefacts that have been discovered. The Turku Castle is also very interesting - begun in 1280, but took it's current form in the 15th century with Renaissance additions. The last stop was the Sibelius Museum, which has a fantastic exhibition of musical instruments (over 1500 items), and a large collection of material relating to Sibelius, Finland's most famous composer.
My last day I go to the Ateljee Bar on the top floor of a hotel - you catch the lift to the 12th floor, then climb a very narrow staircase to a small bar surrounded by terraces. Even though it's not very high you get a good view of Helsinki as it is so flat. That night I go to tango and meet up with Jonna, who I met at the Tango Maratona, and her boyfriend Mikael and her friend Kaija. Jonna is pregnant and her baby is due on May 15, and I ask her to let me know when it's born as it's close to my birthday on May 18 (hint :).
The next day I am sailing for Tallinn in Estonia and have a bit of a misadventure. I thought the tourist office told me the Viking Line ship sails from the West Terminal, so take a train to the end of the line, then a bus, and get off at a stop when I see a Viking ship. It's only 100 metres away across the water but I end up having to walk over 2 kms through the slush around the port to get there, only to find it's the wrong one, so I catch a taxi and just make it to the ship sailing at midday. The day is sunny and relatively warm (3 degrees) as we sail through the archipelago into the Baltic, bound for Tallinn, 3 hours away.

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valeriavine on

.....someone's beat me to comment on your posting! Looking lovely as usual, you must be getting quite good at this travelpod thingy now. I do admire your diligence.

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