We added Finland to the trip as a link from Russia to the Baltic countries. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were on the itinerary from the beginning so when we looked at getting there from Russia, Finland fit right in. Besides it was another country that neither of us had been to.
As our northernmost destination we knew it would be cold. About the only other thing we knew about Finland ahead of time was that it would be expensive. That was true on both counts. We tried to fit in some northern lights viewing but couldn’t work it out so we opted for four days in Helsinki to just get a feel for the country and culture.
We stayed at an Airbnb not too far from the train station and the port. Since we arrived at the main station on the Allegro from Saint Petersburg, we opted to walk to the apartment guided by Google maps. The walk wasn’t bad but uphill and typically cobblestoney, not exactly ideal for a rolling bag, but manageable. When we got fairly near the apartment (about 200 meters away) our host Jori walked up and introduced himself to Kathy. We were a bit early for our scheduled meeting with him so I don’t know how he found us but glad he did. The streets in Helsinki have two names (not sure why, maybe to make up for U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’?) so I wasn’t really sure what we were looking for since the street name we had didn’t match what Google was showing us. Anyway Jori walked us to the apartment, showed us around, and offered a few tips for our stay in Helsinki. Jori is interesting, very well traveled and world knowledgeable but happy to hang in his garden space in Helsinki these days (or at least when the weather is nice enough to enjoy it). Actually Jori’s garden retreat was featured in a book about Helsinki so it’s quite the place.
The apartment was small with a couch that folded out into the bed, a small table with four chairs and two plastic chairs in the main living area, small but complete kitchen, and a bathroom with toilet, sink, and somewhat open shower with plenty of hot water and water pressure. The decor was black and white with lots of interesting artwork on the walls. We were fine for the four nights we stayed there. The fold out bed was a tad small but the mattress was comfortable and the duvets cozy so we slept well.
Helsinki is a beautiful northern European city. Though a little hilly, we found it a real pleasure to walk around in. It was easy to get oriented so we could always find our way, unlike some cities where it seems difficult to ever get your bearings. One day we got a transportation pass and rode the tram out to a few more distant sites but mostly we just walked.
One of the highlights of our visit was the island fortress at Suomenlinna (ferry ride included in our transportation pass). It was cold that day but sunny, as long as we stayed out of the shade and wind we were pretty comfortable. We didn’t have anything in particular we wanted to see or do there so we just explored the island and found lots of good photo ops. That same day we also visited the Rock Church and the open air museum at Seurasaari. En route we paid tribute to Jean Sibelius at his monument and had a coffee and pastry at a nearby cafe. Actually the cafe was like a tiny fisherman’s shack with a yard full of interesting stuff, including an open fire pit that was going strong. We ate inside though because it was plenty cold and windy out. The Rock Church is different, built into the side of a hill, not cathedral like or traditional at all. We’ve visited a lot of Western churches through the years and this one is definitely unique. It’s well lit with natural light so the rock walls feel light and airy even though you’re basically in a cave (strange, huh?). The Sibelius monument is impressive with a conglomeration of pipe-like things with Sibelius’s disconnected head (bust) nearby overlooking the bay. We traipsed around there a little but it was cold so we had a coffee at the fish shack nearby. The open air museum is an impressive collection of old buildings from around Finland. The buildings weren’t open yet so we just walked around on the muddy path checking out a few buildings from the outside. It was fun but cold for a couple of Floridians. We visited nearby Tamminiemi, the house of Finland’s former President Kekkonen. It’s a modernist house with minimal Scandinavian design elements overlooking a lake. We got to put on more blue plastic shoe coverings to walk around in so that was fun. The house isn’t large but well appointed with understated furnishings (except for the 1960s egg chair that seems out of place). Since Kekkonen presided over Finland during delicate Soviet times he was courted by East and West and has an interesting collection of gifts from various world leaders of the time (cigar box from Fidel Castro, maps from LBJ, statues from Krushchev, etc).
Eating in Helsinki wasn’t high on our list of things to do even though there are plenty of great restaurants. However we found great soup at the Soup Kitchen in the Old Market Hall at the harbor. A bowl of bouillabaise with unlimited bread and water was about $10. I thought the soup made an excellent meal – chock full of salmon, mussels, shrimp in a really nice broth. We also had some open faced smoked salmon breads that were okay but nothing special and not really worth the $5 cost each. But mostly we grabbed food from Stockmann’s and headed back to our apartment. The salad counter there had great selections that we often pillaged. Breakfast was also in our room – coffee, smoothies, muesli, fruit, more coffee.
One of the highlights of the trip so far was our afternoon at the Loeyly Sauna. We booked two hours from 4 to 6 with a dinner reservation following. It was a pleasant 20 minute walk from our apartment along the waterfront (the Sea of Finland, complete with ice). Once there we were briefed on the proper protocol and headed into the changing rooms. Since it’s a mixed sauna, clothing is required so we changed into our swimsuits. First we tried the regular sauna after showering (apparently needed to keep from immediately baking). There were three levels of benches. We sat on the top level on our little towels for about 20 minutes and got quite warm. The heat felt great, especially after being cold for the past four days.
Now warm to the bone, we decided to take the recommended dip in the (almost frozen) sea. We went out the door and crossed about 10 meters of deck to the two ladders hanging down into the sea. The sun was out but it was a little chilly (probably around 48 degrees F) as we got to the ladders. We lowered ourselves into the sea to our necks and climbed back out. It was a quick dip but enough to immediately cool us down in the almost freezing water. Brrrr. Crossing the deck back to the sauna felt warm.
Another round in the regular sauna to warm up from our dip. Then a little cool down and relaxation in the lounge (and a couple of glasses of water from the dispenser there to replace some of what we had sweated out).
After that we tried the smoke sauna. The room was dark and foreboding and smelt of smoke. There were a few other foreigners in there with us. We all felt like we were experiencing a ‘real’ sauna and congratulating ourselves for hanging in there. It was okay until a large Finnish guy in a skimpy Speedo came in, lifted the manhole cover with one bare hand (that was a feat by itself since the cover was heavy and the handle hot as hell), and dumped a few ladles of water into the heater with his other hand. After just a few seconds the heat index seemed to shoot up to an unbearable level. It was really uncomfortable so we and the other foreigners in there slowly slunk out to cool down before we all passed out. Being from Florida we thought we could handle heat and humidity but the Finns won that round.
We decided to take one more dip in the sea since it didn’t seem so bad the first time – double dipping. Well that wasn’t such a good idea. On the second dip I plunged to my neck again. But then we figured we needed a photo for proof so I lowered back in a bit. My legs went numb as I hung on for a picture. It felt like they had fallen off. I’ve never been in water that cold before but it was extremely uncomfortable waiting for Kathy to get the picture. After a wobbly climb back up the ladder I recovered enough to stiff leg it across the deck back inside and straight to the shower and sauna. Ah, warmth. But that was it. We ended up with a couple of beers but canceled our dinner reservation there despite the beautiful setting right on the water.
We took the Viking ferry from the downtown harbor the next morning. On the way we stopped at Robert’s Coffee in the Old Market for a giant cinnamon roll for the ride since we didn’t know what to expect on board. We departed Helsinki at 10:30 arriving in Tallinn at 13:00. However the ship had plenty of reasonable food choices. The seating seems to be limited in all areas to people who purchase food or drink there (at least the signs indicate that food purchasers have priority) so we bought a couple of coffees to have with our cinnamon bun and settled down at a table for the voyage. The crossing was really calm so the two motion sickness pills I downed weren’t necessary but, fearing potential motion sickness, I was playing it safe (though this would make for a bad first day in Tallinn). The ship was interesting with two dance floors (fore and aft) and other entertainment including an English guy playing acoustic guitar and singing soft rock from the 60s and 70s like Tom Petty, The Eagles, The Beatles. The folks dancing were from another era too. Picture disco outfits dancing to Frank Sinatra and Rudy Vallee, swinging Finn and Estonian couples. All in all the Viking ship was much better than our previous 25 hour ferry from hell (the spectacularly misnamed ‘Eastern Dream’) from South Korea to Russia. See you in Estonia!