Sunday, July 3, 2011

Baltic cruise: Helsinki: sauna nation

[We pick up my travel journal on the eve of our historic first steps on Russian soil.

The post title comes from the two million saunas in Finland; enough to house the 5.1 million Finns simultaneously, with room to spare.]

July 2, 2011: Helsinki

Back on the boat, docked in Helsinki. What a fantastic day! Not a cloud in the sky. We passed a sign before midday that read 29℃; hilarious, when you consider that we thought this'd be our coldest stop. (It is our most northern one.)

♫ One of these things is not like the others ♪
Sailing into Helsinki was very reminiscent of the approach to Stockholm, with the many treeds islands and islets. As we entered the port -- which is rare amongst the Nordic countries for its tendency to freeze in the winter, and explains Finnish expertise in the manufacture of icebreakers -- sailing vessels lined the horizon: while we were too early for the regatta in Warnemünde, we docked smack in the middle of one in Helsinki. They're very serious about their boating: their oldest yachting club began in the mid 1800s and is still in operation.

The day began with markets: first, the covered Hakaniemi Market Hall, built in 1914. It sold all sorts of food -- including amazing fish, of course -- and I loved all the old photographs of its early days, displayed throughout. Then we took in the nearby, open-air kauppatori (market square). There were all sorts of vendors again, including fishmongers selling their catch right from their boats, those selling all manner of woollen garments -- later, I picked up a pair of wool socks from a woman who spoke very little English; a rarity, I can assure you (at least in Helsinki, despite the two official languages being Finnish and Swedish) -- florists, painters, jewellers, and many, many food stands. We made a note to come back for lunch.

Uspenski Cathedral
So began the religious segment of the day: first, the Eastern Orthodox church, Uspenski Cathedral. Oddly, it was open to tourists during a baptism; tourism trumps all in Helsinki, apparently. Next up was the Lutheran church, Helsinki Cathedral. The dramatic white steps leading up to it, and the cobblestone square and fountain before it, make it a natural congregation point for the Finns, it seems. On this day, it was the start of their gay pride parade, Helsinki Pride.

We could feel the energy building as we made our way to one final church, and the last sight on our list: the famous Rock (Temppeliaukio) Church. (Unfortunately, it was closed for a wedding; scrap that tourism trumps all bit.) This energy reached Notting Hill Festival proportions as we headed back to the kauppatori. All the city's green space -- plenty enough to rival Stockholm, incidentally, which has been widely lauded on that point throughout our cruise -- was lined with picnickers, out to show their support, enjoy the sun, have fun, or all of the above.

Helsinki Cathedral

Frequent readers will know the weight I give a city's vibe or pulse. Helsinki has it in spades, as well as a sense of conviviality and community (if that milktoast term means anything these days) that I hope extends beyond the celebrations of the day; that's the problem with day stops to new places, of course: I don't know. Frankly, residents might risk cardiac arrest, displaying such joie de vivre on a daily basis.

I suspect much of what I felt is there year round, because there was plenty of evidence unrelated to gay pride: one intersection was strung with many laden clotheslines, whether as art or in fun (or both, of course), I couldn't say. In a park, a band included a cardboard box drummer -- and a good one at that!

Everywhere you turned, people were out enjoying themselves, in groups big and small. After seeing a few hen dos in full swing mid afternoon, it came to us that the seasons may have a lot to do with this: in the winter, parts of northern Finland never see the sun, and even Helsinki is limited to three or four hours of daylight for long stretches. Best get out and enjoy that (almost endless, at times) sunlight when it comes then!

I'm forever relating new places to those I've seen. With Helsinki, I struggled. Much of it reminded me of what I'd imagine the southern USA is like, along the coast. (But I'm relying on television for much of that, I hasten to qualify.) The public transportation is all European, though, even if the street cars hint at San Francisco. We really enjoyed Stockholm, but, particularly for a short stay, you can't beat Helsinki's accessibility; it's a walker's city. (I do see a long weekend in Sweden in our future, however, when we have the time to explore.)

We rounded out the day with a (late) fish lunch in the kauppatori -- even tastier than we'd been imagining on our long walk back -- and a boat tour of the harbour. The latter may have squeaked in as the highlight of an amazing day, as it allowed us to take in the sights (and a load off!) in a fully licensed environment.

I met two lost ladies from St. Petersburg earlier in the day -- they were looking for the bus terminal; luckily a passer-by spoke Russian and was able to direct them -- and tomorrow I get to see it. Can hardly wait!

Up next: St. Petersburg, Russia

There are more pictures from the amazing day in our Picasa album, as usual.

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