Helsinki

July 5, 2005

We only stayed in Helsinki for a few days. We flew in early from Budapest, spent two nights in Helsinki and then took an afternoon ferry to Tallinn. On our return, we took a morning ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki and then flew home early the next morning. This was a sufficient amount of time to see Helsinki.

After arriving at the airport, we immediately went to the Tourist Information booth and bought a Helsinki Card http://www.helsinkiexpert.fi/helsinkicard/ . They go on the honor system where you fill in the date and time you start it when you start it. However, just by having it and before filling it in, you get a 30% discount on the FinnAir bus that goes to the city’s central train station. Normal fare is $5.20 per person without the card. The ride is 30 minutes. There are public buses that go the same route, but the ride is 55 minutes and they do not have room for suitcases.

At the train station, we only had to walk two blocks to get the number 4 tram to our hostel. We stayed at the EuroHostel www.eurohostel.fi which we reserved via their website. It was fast and efficient. The number 4 tram stops about 40 feet from the front door of the hostel. We had used hostels before in Ireland and I had concerns about hostel stays again, but this place is amazing. They have thought of everything you could need and most of it is available for a small refundable deposit. Our room was ready on arrival and we had a choice of smoking or non-smoking. The fifth and sixth floors are the smoking floors. Our room had two single beds, a huge bookcase and two closets with locks on them. All sheets, comforter covers, and towels were provided and in the room already. There is a sauna that is free for using for the first hour and a half in the morning. It is an invigorating and relaxing way to wake up; there are separate saunas and dressing/shower rooms for men and women. After 9 AM, there is a charge. The cost of the room was 40.80 Euros a night for both of us.

There is a restaurant on the ground floor and you are able to purchase breakfast tickets for 5 Euros each person per day from the hostel reception. Buying them at the restaurant was 6.50 Euros a day. The restaurant had indoor and outdoor seating. The breakfast buffet selection was not extensive, but adequate and worth the cost considering the prices in the city. Eating outside, we were visited by a few seagulls looking for a change of menu from fish. I succumbed by sharing my bread with them.

Before we ventured out to see the city, we had asked the reception at the hostel for some suggestions for ‘cheap eats’ restaurants. We received a chuckle bordering on a laugh and the response ‘there are none, everywhere is expensive’. He did suggest a Nepalese restaurant so we stored this information for later in the day.

Most of our arrival day, we walked around the city. The city is surprisingly small and very convenient for walking, though the trams are great for when your feet start aching. The President’s house is a small building with a fence around it. Finland currently has a female president. The Parliament is a rather plain building on the main square where the most impressive building is the Lutheran Cathedral. Across the square is the major university. There are parks and old markets along the quayside where the open air markets are also located. From there, it is a pleasant walk into the commercial center via the Esplanade, a narrow green park with fountains, floral spaces and the oldest coffee house.

We were impressed by how dead the city was. If we saw five cars in an hour on the major streets, it became what we referred to as “Rush Hour”. It was people deserted also There were not many tourists or shoppers about, which we thought was strange considering this is tourist season. Down by the waterfront and about six blocks from the hostel, they hold a daily ‘market’ with tourist items as well as fresh produce. The prices are high!! 4 Euros for a ½ kg. of peaches. We opted to get a bag of chips and two Sandel beers at a nearby Kioski chain store, then headed for a hillside bench in a nearby park overlooking the harbor. As we relaxed, we were entertained by gulls and pigeons dueling for the scraps of chips we dropped.

Later in the day, to utilize our Helsinki Card, we took the ferry to the Old Fortress out on an island. The trip was about 20 minutes and a nice relaxing time. The Old Fortress is a preserved park that was once used as a fort built by the Swedes. There were various buildings and parks. We went into the church and into the little museum to see the historical movie. Headsets are provided to listen to the narration in 10 different languages. Neither of us is enthralled with the maritime history, so we did not visit many other buildings and it was too hot (high 80’s) to bother climbing the wall.

When we returned that evening, we found the Nepalese restaurant. We were two of the six customers there. We were informed as we entered at 8:00 o’clock that they would be closing at 9:00 that evening. The food was excellent and abundant. At a total cost of 35 Euros for the two of us, we felt we had found a bargain. Other restaurants we had checked on were pricier by far. It was not uncommon to see items listed at 15-25 Euros for an a la carte menu with a beer priced at 6 Euros. We had heard that the Finns take the ferry to Estonia to shop and it was becoming evident why they do.

After dinner we took a long walk around the water on the opposite side of our hostel, through some parks. It was quiet, relaxing and refreshing. When we returned to the hostel at 11:00 pm, it was still ‘daylight’ out so it took some getting used to the light. By midnight, it was twilight, but not even close to dark out. The sun was peeking through the sheer curtain again at 3:00 am.

We took the 1 ½ hour Helsinki bus tour also included in our card. There were only 15 people on the tour. Elisabeth, our guide, was quite knowledgeable and was open to questions. The tour made two stops: one at a seaside park which featured a large modern chrome/bronze pipe organ sculpture commemorating Jean Sibelius, Finland’s foremost composer… he composed Finlandia, which many wish was the national anthem. The second stop was at a modern Lutheran Church called the Rock Church; it is ‘carved’ into a rocky hill, with a copper and glass dome peeking out of the hill… a young pianist was performing during the quiet time there.

The most interesting thing about the tour was learning that Finland was once Swedish territory, then Russian and they only gained their independence in 1907 to become an autonomous country. There are only 5 million in the country and over ½ million live in Helsinki alone. The largest minority is Swedish who make up 5% of the population. All signs are in Finnish on the top and Swedish on the bottom. The only two language options for the tour were English or Swedish. Both languages were mandatory in schools, but now only the Swedish minority schools teach both Swedish and Finnish.

Their current president is only the 11th one they have had. There is a rather unflattering modern statue of her head sitting outside the Modern Art Museum.
The country has 190,000 lakes and their only natural resource is ‘green gold’, namely trees, mostly birch. Their flag with the white background represents snow, while the blue cross is representative of the sky. We were also told that all Scandinavian countries have a cross on their flags to show their affiliation to the Lutheran religion.

Elisabeth also noted that 93 of the 200 Parliament members are women, and that 9 of the 22 Cabinet Ministers are women. As noted, the President is also of the female persuasion. She said they have a long history of “persuasive” women and egalitarian society. Women gained their equal footing in the society early on in its history.

After the tour, we took the ferry out to the zoo. The ferry ride and admission to the zoo are included in the Helsinki card. The zoo sits out on an island unto itself. If you are an animal lover, this is not the zoo for you. In many exhibits, we had a difficult time spotting an animal at all. Most of the areas where animals were supposedly kept were overgrown fenced in weed farms looking totally unkempt and not suitable for animals. It was a major disappointment, with the only highlight being the peacock that wandered into the zoo restaurant looking for a hand-out. I felt sorry for the little Finnish children that seemed to have high hopes of seeing wildlife, but instead saw a variety of vegetation instead.

We walked back to the train station to take pictures. During our tour, we found that the four guardians outside the station are characters in the Finnish national legendary epic story Kalevala. Beside it to the right and sitting back off of the street, is the National Theater. Submitting to our fondness for Mexican food without a decent opportunity for it in Budapest, we chose to go to the Iguana Mexican restaurant for dinner. The first clue should have been that the restaurant was crowded with YOUNG people, but we forged forward. Looking like a normal sit-down place to eat, after we seated ourselves, we saw the sign that we had to place our orders at the bar.

A youthful waitress brought our burritos or the Finnish version of a burrito. As she placed them down, she said “Oh, I forgot the salsa.” We never saw her again. Well actually, we did, but could never get her attention without making it a contact sport.

I tried booking our ferry trip to Tallinn online, but could not find a decent price that did not include a car. The day before we were to leave, we went down to the dock, only a two block walk from the hostel. Viking seemed to have the monopoly, but from the brochures in the hostel lobby, this was the best deal anyway. Because we had booked it the day before, we received a 10 Euro discount per person, for booking 24 hours ahead of time. Each round trip was 20 Euro. Our ferry for Tallinn was at 12:30 the third day in Helsinki.

That morning, we got up and to breakfast early. To make the most of our Helsinki Card, we went to the Ateneum Art Museum http://www.ateneum.fi/acms/core/default.asp?docId=11876. This was a great way to spend our last hours. The collection was interesting and the building was really unusual. It had many half floors, creating a series of mezzanines on different levels. There was a large exhibit of wood cut prints that were totally fascinating. They ranged from the simplistic, but lovely to the most intricate designs imaginable.

The ferry to Tallinn was reminiscent of a mini cruise liner. The lounge bar had entertainment for most of the 3 hour cruise, there were electronic gambling machines in all of the hallways, and there was a Duty Free shop that carried everything from soup to nuts, including frozen foods. Of course there were the mandatory restaurants and bars. The scenery did not warrant any attention, so even if we could not understand the entertainment, the amusing part was watching our fellow passengers get involved.

On our pass through back from Tallinn, we again stayed at the hostel. We bought about 20 lbs. of cheeses in Tallinn that we cannot get here in Budapest or at outrageous prices (Budapest when available, cheddar runs $9.00 for about ½ lb.). The hostel has a huge refrigerator on each floor. When you open the door, it is like a safe depository. There are many little doors and each requires a key. For a 10 Euro deposit, you can get a key to lock your goodies away. As small as the cubbies look, there was more than enough room to store our cheese supply.

One thing we found out our last evening in Helsinki is that Stockman’s Department Store, the largest in Finland is a treasure trove for cheap eats. In the basement, there is a full deli with many prepared foods to choose from. You can order by size of container and the container is microwaveable. They also seal the top of the container with the same plastic wrap commonly used in store bought frozen dinners. There is no danger of leakage is they are not kept flat. If you wish, they will microwave it for you on the spot and provide plastic spoons only at no additional charge. We ordered a nice Thai chicken and rice for the two of use and it only cost 4.20 Euro. Had we wanted, we could have bought other dishes and stored them in our cubby in the refrigerator. They could be stacked sideways for easier storage and the wrapping would hold tight.

95% of the Finns speak English, so it is not necessary to start out with “Do you speak English?”

Tallinn next.