1. Helsinki Haven
City of Islands
315 islands in Helsinki. No, I don�t mean in Finland, I definitely
mean Helsinki. They are everywhere! Nearly 300 of them are so tiny
you couldn�t kick a football on them without it going into the sea
every single time. But there are a handful of larger islands, and
one of these is Suomenlinna island.
I caught a ferry to Suomenlinna Island on my second day in Helsinki,
and arrived on the island 15 minutes later. I had purchased a bus
ticket from Espoo to Helsinki for 3 euros (AUD$5.50), then caught
the tram for the 3 minute ride to the port of Helsinki. And because
these transport tickets are valid for 80 minutes, the bus, tram and
ferry rides were all included!
The ferry was packed with
hundreds of locals and tourists (all on summer holidays), and the
first ones aboard moved straight to the top of the boat to get the
best views of the islands scattered in the bay.
Suomenlinna literally translates
to Finland�s Castle, but it�s one of Finland�s most historic fortresses.
Built in 1748, its fame came about due to the fact that when it was
invaded by the Russians in 1808, it simply surrendered without a fight!
So much for this massive construction of high walls, underground bunkers
and huge cannons on every corner. At that time Finland was occupied
by the Swedish, and my theory is that the Finns didn�t see much difference
between being occupied by the Swedes or the Russians, so they weren�t
too keen to lose their lives for either one of them. And now, 250
years later, the Finns (who finally got their independence in 1917)
still have a dislike for both these nationalities. Hopefully this
will change by the next generation.
Suomenlinna Island is actually
a cluster of 4 larger island all connected to each other with short
foot bridges. It was unusual to see so many people sun-baking on the
hard rocks which curve gently into the sea shore. Such a contrast
to Australia�s seashores where we have miles and miles of yellow sandy
beaches, and hardly anyone to share them with.
of the prison camp dungeons.
After the civil war in 1918,
the fortress was converted into a prison camp. And in 1991 Suomenlinna
Island was admitted to the World Heritage list. I found the small
dungeons were neatly preserved along long, dimly lit passages, with
some of the arched doorways making ideal photographic locations. A
walk to Kingsgate, another popular tourist attraction, marked the
end of my island tour, so I made my way back to the ferry which had
very few tourists making the return trip to Helsinki. After all, it
was only about 3.30pm.
Finnish people are very neat, clean and orderly. They are a very proud
nation who keep their streets spotless and their public gardens looking
like show pieces, even though the gardeners get all the attention
when you�re fortunate enough to see them at work. These gardeners
look like they�ve just come out of modelling school and even though
they wear heavy work boots, these slim young ladies are still such
a pleasant sight in their small, tight shorts and sleeveless tops.
Typically, the Finns are
mostly blonde and blue eyed, like all the Nordic (Scandinavian) people.
They are mostly of a slim or athletic build and take exercise and
fitness very seriously, going to gyms and saunas regularly (many homes
even having their own sauna!).
They drive newish and roadworthy
cars, and the taxis are mostly Mercedes and Volvos. The buildings
are well designed and there are numerous art centres and museums throughout
the entire city. They�ve even heated the ground of their largest city
mall so that it remains ice and snow-free all year round!
The statues in the city are very easy to find. All you have to do
is look for a perched bird and more often than not, there�ll be a
statue under it. Helsinki has so many trees and gardens it�s a wonder
why these feathered creatures prefer to sit on statues. But they do.
The main culprits are seagulls and pigeons and the only good thing
about this practice is that they add a fresh white crown on the heads
of these works of art to add some contrast to the black and green
coating of the weathered bronze statues.
The Havis Amanda Fountain
has an interesting story. The statue in the centre of the fountain
caused a stir when it was unveiled in 1908 because it was of a naked
lady. But the story gets better. The artist who designed it (Ville
Vallgren) insisted that his statue be positioned with her backside
pointing towards an adjacent building which was occupied by a man
he despised! Nowadays the Havis Amanda gets regular attention from
student revellers on the eve of Labour Day (April 30) when they don
a white student�s cap (like a sailors cap) on her head and go splashing
in the fountain�s waters, filled continuously by 4 large, long-whiskered
sea-lions around its perimeter.
The Cathedral (1852), formally known as St. Nicholas� Church, is a
Lutheran church (Finland�s main religion) and dominates the skyline
of Helsinki. Built on the highest spot in Helsinki�s Senate Square,
it definitely sits on the most expensive real estate in all of Finland.
This brilliant white building with beautiful green domes is strikingly
different from anything else in the city. But the grandeur and beauty
of its exterior is nothing like the simplicity and sparseness of its
interior. Other than the magnificent and intricately designed organ
on the first floor, the Cathedral resembles an empty shell filled
with privately numbered pews which have doors blocking each side of
As a stark contrast there
is the Uspenski Cathedral (1868). This is a Russian Orthodox church
and has a very dark and gloomy appearance. The external structure
is of red brick and very grand looking, somewhat like a castle, and
its green-tarnished copper steeple also features well on the Helsinki
skyline. But its interior compliments its intimidating exterior perfectly.
As you walk inside, the dark walls and numerous icons of the saints
make you feel somewhat uncomfortable. There�s quiet choir music playing
in the background and 2 glass-enclosed tombs (caskets) in the main
hall. Whereas the Cathedral made their books, brochures and candles
available to visitors on a trust system (unmanned tables with slotted
boxes for payment), the Orthodox Cathedral was heavily manned and
their candles were twice as expensive as their trusting opposition,
at 1 euro each! Ah, the price of faith.
When I travel, I�m always impressed by the courage and determination
of street performers. To me, these are people who are willing to risk
being publicly ridiculed in the attempt to earn some money and/or
practice their skills.
But one of my first encounters
wasn�t very encouraging. A young and obviously inexperienced street
performer had enticed a member of his huge audience to come and help
him with his flamed torch act. But when he asked the volunteer to
participate, he refused! This left him a little bewildered, but soon
allowed the expressionless volunteer to return to his place in the
group unscathed. Then he meekly chose another man to come and assist,
but was rejected immediately. His eyes scanned the rest of the crowd
desperately but no-one jumped out to help him. So he had a hundred
eyes on him and no act to perform. Very intimidating. Yet the crowd
still lingered, either hoping that this guy would eventually get his
act together, or otherwise get to see a healthy young man fall to
pieces in front of them. Luckily his plea for them all to leave was
eventually accepted and they quickly dispersed. And I always thought
that getting an audience was the biggest problem!
Almost every corner of Helsinki
seemed to have a piano accordion in full swing. But if there wasn�t
a piano accordion, then there�d inevitably be a violinist or even
a 3-piece orchestra. These all looked like locals, but there was one
guy I�m sure was an outsider. He had dreadlocks and was black as the
ace of spades with only his bright shining teeth adding some colour
as he smiled broadly while playing his bongo drums.
The Esplanade Bandstand
(in Helsinki�s distinctive Esplanade Park) gives free musical performances
to the public during the summer months. This is where you can sit
comfortably near some of the most expensive restaurants in Helsinki
and hear 2 shows every day. On this particular day the Police Band
were thumping away with boppy jazz tunes, and looking like anything
In fact, I learned that
it�s popular for street performers in Ireland to use poetry readings
to earn their keep. And it was suggested that maybe I should try it
when I get there in December. I�ve never imagined reading my poems
so publicly, but maybe it would make an interesting story. For example,
�My first attempt at street poetry � 4 hours of reading and collected
Outdoor Summer Sports
As I passed by a park, I noticed a few groups of young adults playing
a match. It was a Frisbee match. There were 2 teams of 5 players each
using a Frisbee pretty much as you�d use a ball. I didn�t notice any
obvious goals, so I guess the point of the game was for each team
to try to keep possession of the Frisbee within the marked court.
It was a very active game but all the players seemed fit enough to
keep running after the Frisbee which curved deceitfully as it flew
through the air like a boomerang.
Another game nearby was
a mini-soccer match. And when I say mini, I really mean MINI! This
time there were 2 teams of only 3 players each and the goals were
set only about 25 metres (80 ft) apart. And these goals were made
of flimsy skinny poles stuck into the ground so that the goal area
was only 1.5 metres (5 ft) across and a horizontal pole going across
the top of each post making it 1 metre (3 ft) high. I followed the
game for a while and cringed every time the soccer ball hit one of
the posts, almost making it collapse. But they didn�t seem to mind.
They just grabbed the dazed post and casually gave it a hefty push
once they got it upright again, and all this while the game kept going
Public Rug Washing
Finnish apartments don�t have carpets, they have polished floors,
tiles or lino. But they have lots of hall runners (or rugs) covering
their floors. And there�s no way they can clean these long rugs in
their small apartments. So this is where the Public Rug Washing facilities
come to the rescue. There are about a dozen of these facilities in
seaside locations all over Helsinki which have floating pontoons only
a metre (3 ft) off shore with many wooden washing tables on them.
The one I saw had 3 pontoons side-by-side each with 6 tables on them.
A man had just draped a long rug over one table, then scooped a bucket
of seawater from the side of the pontoon and splashed it over the
rug. Then using a scrubbing brush and an aromatic but biodegradable
pine soap, scrubbed that section before rinsing it off again with
the almost salt-free seawater. Once washed, these rugs are carried
back to shore and put through a 3 metre (10 ft) wide squeegee, then
hung over one of the many adjacent wooden drying racks. They are left
there to dry in the sun and collected at the end of the day or on
the following day (provided that no-one else has helped themselves
Most of Espoo
is a lush green. The "flying saucer in the background is actually
a lookout tower."
2. Espoo Walk
Espoo is only about a 15
minutes car drive from Helsinki, and is Finland�s second largest city.
And this is where Nokia, Finland�s largest organization, has its world
headquarters (I always thought Nokia was Japanese!) But apart from
that, Espoo (pronounced Espor) is really like a large quiet country
town. In fact, many of its inhabitants have come from the countryside.
And these people have been attracted to the benefits of living in
such a �green city� which doesn�t have many of the drawbacks that
the larger city of Helsinki brings with it.
A short 90 minute walk through
Espoo brought many of this city�s attractions to my attention.
Espoo is very green, which
is typical of all of Finland. Something that amazed me was that 59%
of Finland is forest, and this is the highest percentage of any country
in Europe. And what�s more, Finland has over 56,000 lakes greater
than one hectare in size! No wonder that fishing is such a popular
pastime in this country. And the fishermen of Espoo were also out
on this unusually warm summer�s day. Maybe they belonged to the nearby
Yacht Club with the small marina in front of it.
Like Helsinki, Espoo is
also situated on the southern coast of Finland, and the seascape is
unbelievable. Lots of tiny islands litter the bay, but they are pretty
little islands. Their shores are of a smooth but solid volcanic rock,
yet they all inevitably have trees and other vegetation growing on
them. And even though it was the middle of summer, these plants were
a healthy deep dark green in colour.
Many Finns were in the water.
I usually like to wait for much warmer weather before I venture into
the cool waters, but for these people it may be about as warm as it�ll
Something that seemed unusual
were the plants growing out of the seawater. Very tall reed-like plants
with long sword shaped leaves grew in huge clusters along the shore
and even further into the water. I couldn�t understand how such greenery
could survive the salty seawater � until I tasted the water. The water
was almost salt free. And yet, it was certainly sea water! Maybe the
water this far north is constantly watered down by the melting ice
in the North Pole?
But I should�ve realized
that the water was very �fresh� because of all the ducks swimming
and feeding in it. Have you ever seen ducks on seawater? I haven�t.
Yet there they were amongst the seagulls and terns which swooped repeatedly
into the waters feeding on small fish swimming near the water�s surface.
Going inland, I walked through
the Espoo Forest (yep, a forest!). Most of the trees were birch trees
(Finland�s national tree) and I also passed by many beds of brilliant
purple Maitohorsma flowers in bell-shaped clusters. Yellow complements
purple perfectly, so it was pleasing to see many pale yellow Midsummer
flowers amongst them in the forest as well.
Each time I came to a road,
I walked under it! It was just as if these concrete nuisances didn�t
really exist. And the cars driving over them were so slow and unhurried.
This was a weekday, albeit during the summer holidays, and yet I felt
I was about as far from a city as I could manage to get.
People walked their dogs,
joggers ran past, and walkers powered their way through the forest.
But then there were the �preying mantises�. Not the insect variety,
the homo-sapien variety. Dressed in bicycle-shorts, T-shirts and knee
pads, these guys (didn�t see any women) wore roller blades (in-line
skates) and held 2 long sticks much like snow sticks. And these 2
metre long sticks gave them the appearance of preying mantises. Most
of these guys just stood by the roadside and chatted but I did get
to see one in action. He came flying downhill and then as he came
to the bottom of the slope he used his massive long sticks to propel
himself uphill, digging them simultaneously into the ground and skating
forward at the same time.
About the only thing that
I found bothersome in Espoo were the field insects. These are those
minute flying insects which are most common on grassy fields and swarm
around you in the thousands, following you wherever you go. But at
least I was travelling amongst them at a safe walking speed, because
I�m told that ploughing through these swarms on a bicycle usually
results in a few of them ending up in your eyes or up your nose. Immediately
I began to feel sorry for those preying mantises.
article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey
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