Wednesday, 14 July 2010

city-ing this one out

Written 9th July

Helsinki is a lovely, light, open city, which, due to the many fires which destroyed the wooden buildings of the various incarnations of old town, is built on a grid pattern of wide streets with big 19th and early 20th century warehouse, factory and commercial buildings and it is so easy!  We came off the ferry, right into the centre of town, right past the tourist office - who couldn't have been more helpful with maps, leaflets, visitors brochures, walking tour booklets and free parking suggestions - and  headed out of the centre to where she suggested which turned out to be right between the cemetery - a reliable favourite for quiet, undisturbed overnighting - and the beach - another favourite for availability of toilets and beach showers.  And found all of those things!  Excellent.  No wifi but then the dead have other means of communicating :)

And as it seemed rude not to, we headed straight for the beach and a lovely swim, a bit of a bake and a cold, cold shower to wake us back up again.  And then off into town.

Old food market first, a veritable aladdin's cave of foodie treats

- mainly of the fish and reindeer variety

- and a smoked reindeer sandwich - well you've got to haven't you.  And it was very nice, although a little bit of reindeer taste goes a long way!

We had planned a walking tour but a few stops in, we decided we just weren't in the walking tour  zone - and helsinki has a whapping total of 35km of walking tour spread out over seven routes,  proper hardcore stuff! - and this is our fourth city in a week so we are a bit city'd out.  So just a wander instead and a brief introduction to what I believe will be be our last invading and occupying empire, the swedes.

Finland is another country which has been caught in the middle of other nations' history.  The Swedes moved in from the West during the 12th-13th centuries to spread christianity to the indigenous finnish tribes in the south - who had themselves pushed the nomadic tribes of the Sami into the north - and the Russians to the east were always making their presence felt up to the 19th century when, under Peter the Great, they pushed in in force and defeated the Swedes who at the time were busy contending with internal power struggles between the crown and the aristocracy.

And so Finland became an autonomous duchy of the Russian Empire.  Like the Baltic states, they were able to struggle out from under the blanket of the Russian Empire during the communist revolution and  declare independence in 1917.  But unlike them, the Finns managed to resist Stalin and the onslaught of the USSR in a bitter war starting in 1939 although not without losing more than a tenth of their country, 100,000 finnish lives and accepting help from the Nazis and from whom, in turn, they had to fight to free themselves.

We found the Tuomiokirkko, rising high and imposing above the Senate Square - surprisingly small feeling inside for all its outside presence, but with a fabulous brick vaulted crypt - 

the statue of Tsar Alexander I

the senate building, 

the Helsinki museum - from which the only thing I can remember is that Finland was one of the first countries to give women the vote in c1907, despite which they still couldn't go into bars without being accompanied by a man until the late 70's! - I am sure it was very good (and free which is always good!) but I was in a bit of a lack of sleep daze by this point... :)

And some random street jazz, during which it drizzled :(

and the imposing orthodox church

Off again, we found the fleet of finnish icebreakers having their summer vacation

And then just as we were the absolute furthest we could possibly be from the van, the heavens opened and we ended up sheltered under an upturned lifeboat, watching the rain driving in round our ankles and dripping off the sides - nice.

A squelch back to the van then, with a drying drip around another free museum, this one with a night exhibition, a bizarre collect of exhibits which felt like the result of a brainstorming/word association  session: "what is the first thing which comes into your head when I say night?  Beds & bedrooms, toys & bedtime stories, dreams, night animals, ghosts, professions which work overnight shifts, nightclubs & drinking, stars.  Excellent, that's eight rooms of themed displays to create..."  just random

A lovely quiet night's sleep then and a foray into modern finland, specifically the design forum - a shop showcasing products from up and coming finnish designers.  A bit like walking round a large habitat - a pastime I always enjoy like a free museum - but with funkier stuff.  I know I don't like modern art, but modern design I love for its clever and innovative combination of form and function unlike most art which, to me anyway, lacks both.  And it was great.

I particularly liked the coffee tables made from secondhand plates fixed to a metal cross frame, the socket candle holder which was shaped like a giant jumping jack which you just rotated until the holder for the size of candle you had was uppermost, a clever one and the energy saving lightbulb shades shaped like little people such that the ugly bulb became their legs.  So simple yet so useful and so beautiful.  My idea of perfection.

Onwards then, to Porvoo, Finland's second oldest town with its old town quarter of traditional wooden buildings

town hall

and fine cathedral. 

Which was all very nice, and, to be fair, different from the stone mediaeval or baroque old towns of recent days, but we really are a bit town'd and city'd out now.

So onwards and northwards, heading for the world's largest smoke sauna, through finland's lake country - a beautiful green and flat land, covered with forests and looking on the map, like someone has sprinkled so many drops of water over a green glass plate.


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