I recently had a work assignment that took me to the Finnish capital for a week, so naturally I tacked the weekend onto my trip with my sister Jackie joining me for a few days.
When you think of Finland today, you probably get thoughts of a peaceful nation with a fabulous economy and very high standard of living. You would not be wrong in that assertion, however you might be surprised by the fairly recent history of civil war and collaborating with Nazi Germany against Russia in WWII.
Finland had become part of the Kingdom of Sweden, but after the Finnish War in 1809 between the Swedish and the Russians, the vast majority of the Finnish-speaking areas of Sweden were ceded to the Russian Empire, forming the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland.
To cut a long story short, Finland declared independence in 1917. A civil war between the Finnish Red Guards (Communists) and the White Guard ensued a few months later, with the Whites prevailing.
Tensions remained with the Soviet Union and during WWII Finland fought twice against the Soviet Union, first defending its independence in the Winter War and then invading the Soviet Union in the Continuation War.
In the peace settlement Finland ended up ceding a large part of Karelia and some other areas to the Soviet Union. The Karelia Region straddles the Finland-Russia border and has been an oft disputed territory.
By gaining part of the region, Russia gained not only some valuable territory (equating to 11% of Finland’s territory that had accounted for 30% of its economy), but also a larger buffer zone for its previous capital of St Petersburg, which had been only 32 km from the Finnish border.
Since then peace has prevailed and Finland is regularly said to have the most contented citizens of any country.
Brief history lesson over, how contented was I with the visit?
I had actually visited Helsinki once before in 1992, but remembered precious little about it.
On that occasion I had arrived by train from the Arctic and spent a few hours roaming the capital before getting another train to Finland’s second city of Turku.
This time I flew in on easyJet from London and took the cheap & efficient train from the airport to the main train station.
As I would be staying for a week I had booked an apartment in Jatkasaari District and purchased a week long travel pass for zones A&B, which enabled me to get any type of public transport that I wished for the duration of my stay.
To start with I would live like a local, stocking my flat with supermarket goodies, cooking my tea and commuting daily by tram direct to the office.
Finns like to arrive to work early, take lunch around 11 and finish up between 3 and 4 in the afternoon.
True locals then go home to pursue physical pursuits, but for me it meant maxing my travel pass to zip around the city by tram to view the sights and get my bearings from the comfort of my seat.
I hopped on and off like they do on those open top bus tours to snap some of the interesting local architecture.
One street name also caught my eye as being straight out of a Finnish Harry Potter book translation…
Friday saw an early Finnish finish and a chance to meet up with my big sis for proper wandering.
We met in the lovely Market Square in an equally lovely coffee shop also selling delicious (if pricey) cakes.
Jackie had already walked 12,000 steps that day so needed a leisurely evening, so we agreed on some Market Square pursuits and a walk around the nearby Katajanokka island district.
The Flying Cinema & Helsinki Eye
We bought dual attraction tickets for €20 each, starting with the flying cinema, an immersive 3D film show that transported through the lakes, mountains, seas, forests & tundras of the naturally blessed nation.
Our seat jerked about as we ‘flew’, cold sea-spray dappled our faces and we were chilled by icy breezes as we wondered at glacial landscapes, dodged rocky escarpments, joined up with gaggles of honking geese and brushed against vast snow-frosted evergreen canopies.
Next up the big wheel for a (blue-tinted) birds-eye view of the city – the large & small ferries nipping between the harbour islands and further afield, the Orthodox & Lutheran cathedrals, the grand buildings surrounding Market Square and far out to sea.
I went to pay my respects at the Orthodox Cathedral, the largest of its kind in Western Europe, before we set-off for a walk.
It was time to work off that delicious gateau with a walk around the maritime headland. A very nice walk too affording more great views of the city.
We also stumbled upon Finland’s Baltic ice-breaking fleet, resting up before seeing action once more once the shallow Baltic Sea froze over in the Winter months. Three giant vessels stood moored side by side, with POLARIS designated as the lead ship by virtue of being furthest from the dockside.
It was a lovely bracing walk alongside the cobalt blue Baltic as seabirds filled the air and that lovely salty aroma filled the atmosphere. There were plenty of cafes, shops & bars as well, but we would be saving our expensive burger for later.
We then decided to flex our travelcard and take a tram nowhere in particular, passing the main cathedral and coming to a stop at the central train station.
After our €20 burger in the central Kamppi district we took our tram home for a supermarket dessert.
To be continued……..