Thursday, July 4, 2013

Helsinki, Finland

The Rock Cathedral
If I could choose one word to describe my short day in Helsinki, it would be: lovely. I don’t think I had ever visited a more peaceful or calm capital city. In the city itself, there aren’t as many “must-see” attractions as there are in St. Petersburg, but Helsinki is surrounded by a gorgeous shoreline that rivals the craggy coastlines of Maine. 
In order to get a comprehensive picture of the history and culture (and easy access to the major highlights) of the city, my parents and I hopped on board a tour bus. Our first stop was the Rock Church (picture above). An architecturally distinct building, this church is made from rocks and is complete with a beautiful wood ceiling. To be quite honest, the Rock Church didn’t quite match up to marvels such as St. Isaac’s in St. Petersburg, but the church was certainly still memorable for its uniqueness (and worth the visit if in Helsinki). 
Finnish architecture in the Archipelago

The next location could be considered equally as unique: the monument to Composer Jean Sibelius. The monument was a huge cluster of stubby silver poles. I don’t know if I would ever make a special trip out to see the monument, but if you are familiar with Siberlius’ music, then I’m sure the visit would be worth it. Next stop on the bus tour: the Helsinki Olympic Stadium from the 1952 Summer Games. Unfortunately, we were unable to take a comprehensive tour of the complex. The Finns were holding the Helsinki Marathon starting at the site of the stadium. However, this might have been even more interesting to witness. To be honest I wasn’t at all surprised by the vast number of Finns who were ridiculously in shape. Yes, this was a skewed sample, but everyone in the country seemed to be in an excellent fit condition. We especially saw this at the World Festival we stumbled upon near the downtown train station in Helsinki. We were surrounded by thousands of Finns as we walked around the ethnic food tables (the most popular being Indian cuisine) and enjoyed listening to some music from a Finnish Rock band. We were most astonished by the calm nature of the rock concert and the organization of the event. All the food tables were categorized and labeled on maps for easy access to all the festival’s events. My family agreed, we were quite lucky to have been able to witness a cultural event such as this one in order to people watch and try to better understand Helsinki culture even though we were in this city for such a short period of time. 

Fleet of Finnish Icebreakers
Some of these previously mentioned Helsinki sites are deemed “highlights of the city” by many tourist organizations. Personally though, the highlight of my experience in Helsinki occurred when my parents and I momentarily left the city itself. Mid-day, we boarded onto a one and a half hour sightseeing boat cruise of the Helsinki Archipelago. Not as famous or expansive as the Sweden Archipelago, the tiny islands that surround the capital of Finland offered stunning landscapes of green alpine trees, red Finnish cabins, beaches, and craggy rock formations. On our journey through the islands, we passed bridges, the Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Helsinki Zoo (located on an island not far from downtown Helsinki), Fininish Banyas (saunas), and most interestingly a fleet of Finnish icebreakers. While on the cruise, I learned that these impressive ships can travel through up to 5 meter thick of ice and that 60% of the world’s icebreakers are built in Helsinki. 

Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
During our last few hours in Helsinki, we walked along the marina where lapping waves met beautiful shale rock formations landscapes. We walked past cafes where, interestingly, those sitting outside oriented their chairs n a line all facing the streets instead of around a table facing each other. I guess this allows for an optimum people watching setting, but we also saw cafe chairs organized in the same manner in Stockholm, Sweden. I never noticed it anywhere else while on our Northern Baltic cities journey, so maybe it was customary of Scandinavian countries? Of course, while we walked along the Helsinki shoreline, we took notice of the massive Uspenski Russian orthodox Cathedral that dominates the Helsinki skyline. Then it was off to one of our final stops on our whirlwind Helsinki tour: the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral (pictured below). The Cathedral, which can be seen throughout the city, is perched on top of its own ledge overlooking the city. Once you get to the base of the Cathedral, there’s many staircases to climb before receiving a rewarding view of the Senate Square below. To be honest, the inside of the Lutheran Cathedral is nothing special compared with the Orthodox Cathedrals of Russia, but the exterior architecture of Helsinki’s main church was certainly memorable. 

Our day in Helsinki was certainly enjoyable. Even though, I’m sorry to say, Helsinki isn’t as breathtakingly spectacular as St. Petersburg or as eccentric and historically fascinating as Berlin, Helsinki still captivated our attention. My family greatly enjoyed our day and took notice of the little things, such as wondering why a local business added the word “probably” to the following advertisement “Probably the best disco club in the city.” We were able to glean a basic history of Finland that I certainly was unaware of before. For instance, on our Helsinki Archipelago boat tour we learned that a Swedish king in the 1500’s forced Swedish citizens to move to Helsinki in order to populate the area and build a trading city to rival Tallinn, Estonia. While our day, and the boat tour, ended with a slightly hilarious end quote “and now we don’t have to force people to live here anymore,” I can certainly see why that’s the case. Finland is filled with kind and friendly people living in a climate that may be cold and snow-covered in the winter, but offers mild temperatures and an absolutely beautiful scenic landscape in the summer. 

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