On Finnish soil

Trip Start Jun 30, 2013
Trip End Sep 17, 2013

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Monday, July 15, 2013

July 15-19: We took a train around the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. I hear that Helsinki is the most expensive city in Europe for accommodation, food, etc. It's why I decided against extending my stay beyond the tour's end. Now that I’ve seen a bit of Finland, though, I would like to return for more.

After checking in I wandered out to get oriented, and I liked the feel of the city centre. There’s a wide boulevard with trees, musicians were performing at a small stage, and many people were happily milling about.

Our first full day was spent on a walking and tram tour. The outdoor market was bursting with freshly picked berries, mushrooms and luscious vegetables; the indoor market had breads, cakes and countless other things.

We visited an interesting copper-roofed Church of the Rock: its rough rock walls create excellent acoustics.

 There are two official languages in Finland, Finnish and Swedish, even though Swedes now constitute a very small minority of the population. Helsinki is spread across a number of bays and peninsulas and over a number of islands. One of our dinners required taking a small passenger ferry on a couple of minutes’ ride to an islet with an old, established restaurant. Lovely views from the dining room and a delicious meal.

The second day we drove into the countryside to visit the homes of two composers. Villa Kokkonen was purpose-built for Joonas Kokkonen, designed around the piano, with music in mind, by famous Finnish architect and furniture designer, Alvar Aalto. Its current live-in caretakers are musicians who give tours of the home, grounds, sauna cabin and views to Lake Tuusula and then perform a mini-concert, followed by refreshments.

Ainola is the name of the home of Jean Sibelius (named for his wife Aino). It is now a museum. Sibelius and his wife are buried here. In Helsinki is an attractive monument to this well-loved composer.

Then it was on to Porvoo, a riverside town dating back to medieval times and still representing the dense street pattern and wooden houses. There’s a small medieval cathedral and plenty of tourist-friendly shops and places to eat.

Back in the city, we had time for exploring. Marimekko is a wonderful and iconic store full of bright, cheerful colours and designs on clothing, housewares and more. Fun to browse, if not to buy (it’s not cheap).

Senate Square is the focal point of the city, with its domed Lutheran church sitting prominently on high. After all the gold in Russian churches, it was a stark contrast inside the Lutheran one.

Panoramic city views were seen from atop Hotel Torni; I made a quick visit to the Ateneum Art Museum to see Finnish and other works; and a Tall Ships event was underway in the harbour while we were in town: youth-crewed ships from many European countries and a few from farther away.

A nice touch is the Chapel of Silence in downtown Helsinki, offering a quiet oasis for contemplation or rest from a busy day.

In our free time I took the ferry over to the sea fortress called Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg in Swedish. It was built during the Swedish era in the mid-18th century and now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I saw a lot on this tour, learned a lot of history, enjoyed the experience. Now it’s back to London for me.

Late addition: finally at the end of November, Erja uploaded her photos from the Russia-Helsinki tour to her site on Phanfare. These are the links:

 I'll add a few of hers to the end of this entry's photos. In some venues, where one had to buy a photographer's pass, Erja offered to buy one and share her photos.


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