In Helsinki

Trip Start Oct 20, 2003
Trip End Dec 22, 2004

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Flag of Finland  ,
Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Our ship to Helsinki is Estonian. While we are in the waiting room, we notice a huge store that is duty free. People are wheeling out, literally, luggage carts with cases of beer and liquor stacked up to seven high. It seems that many people come over from Helsinki with fold-up luggage carts. When they get to Tallinn, they buy cases of beer and liquor to take home because it is apparently much cheaper in Estonia. We board and are lucky to find a table in the shade on the sun deck. This is the top deck at the stern. When we arrive, two young men are lying on the deck with their shirts off. On the top deck of the ship there is a huge sauna. During the 3- hour voyage, some young men draped only in towels come out of the sauna to cool down. (A whole different culture!)

The ship also has a casino (of course), a lounge with live entertainment, three restaurants (one is eat-in and take away fast food), electronic game room, day cabins, lounges for sitting, and a duty free store that is three times the size of the one in Tallinn. When I pass by there are five cashiers open and the line at each one is at least 15 persons deep. As the voyage progresses, we see people wheeling grocery carts from the store full of beer and liquor. These carts go all over the ship. The crossing is smooth and sunny. Even though we are on the Baltic Sea, the air really isn't cold.

We get a good look at the Estonian flag that flies above our heads. It is three stripes: white, black, and blue in that order from the bottom. The white represents freedom, black represents the earth, and blue represents the sea.

Coming into Helsinki harbor we get a good view of all the islands, especially Suomenilnna which has the 18th century fortress that guarded the harbor.

It is late on a Sunday, so we take a cab to the hotel. Our driver was a young man with a good command of English. He corrects me when I say that Helsinki wasn't bombed. The Russians bombed it in 1939. He points out the beautiful 1914 Art Nouveau train station by Eliel Saarinen with the "most looked at clock" in Finland.

What a difference 18 miles of water makes. We are reminded of the difference between Spain and Morocco, which are separated by about the same distance. Although Helsinki is virtually the same size as Tallinn, 400,000, it is completely different. It is more modern, more spacious with a great deal of greenery, and apparently much more prosperous. Like Helsinki it has an excellent public transportation system. People seem to be very friendly. Our hotel is amazing. Back in Prague we had a hard time finding a room on short notice a few days before our trip, and oddly enough, the cheapest we could find was a Radisson for about $100--Euro 80. This is such a nice room compared to the ones we usually get for around $100 that we really enjoy it. The staff at the desk speak impeccable English and are very informative and helpful. For almost the same cost for a room as Tallinn, we have a large, air conditioned room with an easy chair (almost unheard of in the hotels we have visited) and a typically Scandinavian "tower" that has a TV on a swivel top, right below two lighted compartments for an ice bucket and two drink glasses, below that a stocked refrigerator, and below that, in a drawer, a safe! The bathroom has a heated floor. The soap display is unusual. It is a Plexiglas cube with nine round holes. In the center is a shower curtain. Body soap is orange fragrance with an orange top in a small glass container like a shot glass that fits into one of the nine holes. Shampoo is lemon with a yellow top. Hand soapis apple with a green top. To use them, you dip your finger in the liquid.

Since it is late on Sunday, we decide to eat in the hotel dining room. We each have a hamburger with fries and the bill is $30US. What a surprise we get at breakfast, which is included in the room charge. The beautiful dining room has five buffet tables: cereals and milk (including skim and lactose free); fruit of many kinds including melons, blood and regular oranges, apples, peaches, nectarines, and a bowl of fresh strawberries, lingenberries, currents, and some we don't know; cold buffet of different sliced sausages, cheeses, lettuce, tomato, and relishes; hot buffet of scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, ham, mushrooms, and potato patties; and a bread spread of several kinds of rolls and breads and spreads and jams and on and on. Oh, the bread! It is dark and crunchy. Apparently the Finns take great pride in it. They say: "meat is just something to go with bread." It is amazing how many people make sandwiches, even at breakfast. We look around the room and see Orientals, French, Middle-easterners, and of course Marty, all making sandwiches.

We decide to buy a Helsinki card because of the freebies. We head for the main esplanade to buy them and get on the free 1-1/2 hr. bus tour of the city. We are the last ones to get on the 11:00 tour. It amazes us that one of the tour languages is Latin! Finland is said to have the best education system in the world, and I guess the Latin tour confirms the statement. The tour guide, like all tour guides, is full of information. There are 5,000,000 in Finland. Half of the population have library cards. Findland leads the world in library lending per capita.

The tour takes in sites away from the city centre like the Olympic stadium that was built for the 1940 Olympics which never happened. (They did get the 1960 or 1964 games, however.) It also stops at Temppeliaukio Church, a Lutheran church that was hewn out of rock and then at the Sibelius monument. We spend some time in the afternoon strolling the huge main market. Afterwards we climb the hill to Uspensky Russian Orthodox Cathedral with its thirteen onion domes representing Christ and the twelve apostles. While we are admiring the church, we see a young man going around blowing out all the candles that are in front of icons and statues. He then announces that the church closes at 16:00 (4:00 pm). We wonder if he ever relights the candles or if they only burn while the church is open. One of the icons is a large, black Madonna with the clothing of the Madonna and Child in Silver.

Unlike Tallinn, the weather is beautiful. Warm but clear with a nice breeze. On our second day we take the free ferry to the Island of Suomenlinna and the fortress. On our way to the boat we buy fresh peas in the shell and fruit. We buy cheese, bread, and cokes on the island and have a picnic along the water. The best parts were the luscious bread and eating the fresh peas right out of the shells.

After we return from the Island we head for the Senate Square and the Lutheran Cathedral, which sits on top of the hill overlooking the square. This cathedral is round and mostly undecorated; it needs a decorator who knows how to do churches in Europe.

Then we took a catamaran back to Tallinn, which only took 1 hours. It was crowded, but fast. We just had time to get out to the airport for our flight and some lunch, though it turned out that we were going to have a light dinner on the plane at about 4:00, so we were not hurting for food. The plane had a sports team and cheerleaders on it, so it was full, but they were not noisy like the Italian sports team we traveled with earlier this year from Italy.

Like many of our friends, we hadn't heard of Tallinn until we came to Europe, but Tallinn and Helsinki are two beautiful seaport cities that are ideal places to visit.
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