Helsinki for two days ( 4 to 6 July)

Trip Start Jun 12, 2013
Trip End Sep 10, 2013

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Thursday, July 4, 2013

Helsinki was first established in 1550 and currently has a population of about 1.4 million, as the capital of Finland. Having just come from St Petersburg to here, it is easy to see the neoclassical architectural influence when Helsinki was rebuilt in 1800s after a major fire, whilst Finland was under russian rule from 1809 to 1917, when Finland was established as a republic. Many of the buildings look very similar in style to St petersburg (many designed by the same german architect Engel who covered any in St Petersburg). As a result, Helsinki was often used as a backdrop to film many scenes, supposedly in Russia, for some movies such as "Reds " and "Gorky Park"(both in 1980s when filming in Russia was not allowed). In our travels into Helsinki and out today, we noted that the timber industry is clearly one of Finland's major industries with train yard after yard loaded with timber ready for transport, and forests predominating the countryside, apparently 86% of the land is covered by forests, and Finland is as the largest forestry industry in Europe.

The landscape on train in and out is remarkably flat with very little in hills to speak of. On investigation, it appears this us due to the effect on Finland during the Ice Age when glaciers were thicker and lasted longer. The tour guide on a boat trip highlighted that due to a thing called "glacial rebound" ( ie. the land has been compressed under the huge weight of the glaciers) land in Finand is rising on average by 1cm per year, and hence the surface area is increasing by 7 square km annually.

On our first day we went out on a lovely boat cruise around the waterways of Helsinki, and Jeff and I couldn't believe the huge contrast to St Petersburg.... Sorry but I will explain this for a moment..... I forgot to mention that in the previous blog, and that was only the last day of our St Petersburg trip, we decided to take one last look at St Petersburg on water on one of the local tourist boat cruises for about 1.5 hr. Well this is something I don't recommend, unless you check out which boat and its maintenance history first! We had noted one of the many boats to be expelling lots of smoke and diesel fumes the day before, but thought that must have been an exception to the rule, but NOT SO! It seems from closer observation that these "tubs" are all pretty old and in need of major maintenance upgrades. As with the city of St Petersburg itself, the decoration in the dining section and lounge section is quite extravagant, but the boat clearly wouldn't pass most basic maintenance and safety inspections in a country like Australia. The fumes from the fuel were throughout the boat, and Jeff and I felt ill for he whole trip. I was gobsmacked to see people happily ordering and eating their meals and drinking wine and beer as if nothing was wrong..... They seem used to it. Even when we decided to go outside and stand up on back deck to avoid the fumes, if you put you head over the side to take in more sights, there was an immediate headful of diesel fumes awaiting!!! Even worse was the toilet downstairs, which was not only filthy with broken tiles, taps etc, but it was filled with fumes also. Needless to say as our last activity in St Petersburg we couldn't wait to leave the city the next morning.

Getting back to Helsinki, the cruise was wonderful, with a clean well maintained boat, English commentary included, fresh clean air and wonderful scenery. - thank you thank you thank you! The guides commentary was good noting some of the local wildlife present a challenge for some of the boats, when they occasionally encounter elks swimming from island to island.... the most common wildlife in Finland is the elk, wolves and the brown bear which is their national animal. We only had two days here, so not a lot of time to explore in detail, but our impressions can be summarised as follows -

- people are very accommodating/helpful and most speak English as second language - such a vast contrast once again to Russians in st Petersburg!
- many people riding bikes and excellent wide bike lanes throughout city
- lots of beautiful parks to enjoy walking and riding
- very relaxing, layback atmosphere and feel like I could easily live here tomorrow and settle right into the lifestyle (mind you haven't experienced their winter)
- obviously the subways are nowhere near as busy as those experienced in Moscow, St Petersburg and London with their 11 , 5 and 8 million people respectively. Jeff and I had a running joke between us that at the nod we would almost need to get ready to "pack a scrum" as we wanted to leave the train in Moscow and St Petersburg and push through the crowd - probably explains the approach of many Russians of what appeared to be every man for himself, as a sort of survival tactic within this huge population of people transferring to and from the city each day.
- on the train journey here, as we crossed the border from Russia to Finland, the contrast of quality of housing and infrastructure was remarkable. In Finland all appears well maintained, clean and tidy, and well organised. The reverse would definitely describe what we saw throughout or travel within Russia. I'll try to find some photos to illustrate this and add them to the blog
- trams are wonderful , although when they change routes and number midstream and announce this in Finnish can be a little confusing(3B and 3T in particular). It is interesting to note that the trams designed here in Helsinki are apparently the ones that the new Gold Coast tramlines will be utilising when it's live next year.
- our apartment booked through airnb is wonderful, very close to city centre, with beautiful scenery out our window including river , parkland treescape, boardwalk where many people picnic throughout the day and to Jeff's delight some lovely young ladies also enjoy the sunny days on the boardwalk in their bikinis overlooking the river.
- we enjoyed home cooked local Finnish salmon both nights in our apartment and it was to die for!!! I can't wait to try some Norwegian salmon over the coming week in contrast. It was just good to be able to enjoys some fresh produce again. The Markets here have some beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables including sweet strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apricots and cherries.
- one very minor point of note was that despite going to several markets and supermarkets, could not see any "celery" on shelves. When I asked for this, the staff members seem perplexed, so didn't investigate further. Curious.... We do miss our celery!
- After Russia again, it is simply great when our host told us it is safe to drink the water from the tap in Helsinki.... The simple things in life mean so much, and of course this means we can once again feel comfortable to enjoy a fresh salad with our meal.
- as with most major cities visited , there is quite a few beggars on the street at the train and tram stations, which is always sad to see. On a positive note , there was a busker (Ed) playing an accordion as we walked to the tram each morning and he was wonderful, and we gladly contributed to his days takings.
- they love their dogs, with many accompanying their owners on the public transport. We have a lovely well behaved Labrador at the feet of the people in front of us on the train we are currently on travelling to Rovaniemi up north.
- they have poker machines in all their supermarkets (K Markets) and people were taking time out after leaving checkouts to play them......????

Our visit here was all too short, but we definitely want to come back. As we were both still recovering from our bugs from Russia, probably didn't fit as much in as we would have liked on this trip, such as the Olympic stadium. Nevertheless, simply loved this city and would highly recommend it for a relaxing break away from the crowds.

Couple of interesting facts
- the hit mobile phone game world wide "angry birds" was created in Finland
- Nokia is Finland's largest company with its headquarters in the town of Nokia.

Ps- you have to love these high speed trains (currently travelling at about 220 km/hr and many in Europe are apparently over 300 km/ hr) with their free wifi - this is the first trip today utilising our 8 week europass for train travel throughout most of Europe and Scandanavia, so looking forward to the train travel throughout if this is any indication!

Next leg of our journey to Rovaniemi for a night before we head up to Kirkenes to catch a cruise ship for a 6 day jaunt down the Norwegian coastline to Bergen. Be in touch soon.
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