Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Helsinki ~ Travel Notes

Unfortunately “Finland” in my native Burmese means, “arse exposed”. It amused us children to the max whenever our Geography teacher said it out loud in class. Poor teacher had to wait till the laughter died down, beating the blackboard with a cane, covered in chalk dust, frustrated. This particular childhood memory somehow clings on and still makes me smile to this day.

The red and white striped Gabriela has sailed for 14 hours from Stockholm, the last port of embarkation. The cruise ship carries mostly tourists, many of them jaded from a night of Casino, Karaoke, Duty-free shopping and bounteous boozing on board, slow-paced and bleary-eyed.

Helsinki looms in a distance. Fins are seizing their Saturday, out in the sea, sailing or relaxing on their fancy yachts. There are even baby sailboats for kids. Islands of different sizes are scattered sloppily before the city. The archipelago capital is the third largest among Nordic nations and blessed with whopping 315 green islands to hop on or sail around. 

I look through the viewfinder in an attempt to capture the striking skyline from the front deck. Although it may take 20 minutes or more to reach the harbor, the city’s prominent landmark is already visible. Helsinki Cathedral, the majestic white structure with a green dome, sits jubilantly like a giant wedding cake. Nearby stands another, an orangey brown cathedral with its turquoise top penetrating the dark grey sky. The architectural influence of Finland’s immediate eastern neighbor is noticeably apparent. (I find out later that Uspenski Cathedral was designed by the Russian architect, Aleksey Gornostayev in the late 19 century). A Farris wheel, an essential fixture for a metropolis of 1.5 million people, takes its waterfront spot next to cargo ships and cruise liners, docked at the jetty.

Thankfully, the icy drizzle that greets us upon arrival soon dashes. A sunny afternoon is promised by the time we check-in to Hotel Katajanokka, an 18th century detention facility turned four-star hotel. As the room is not ready, the two of us set out to explore the Senate Square, a mere15-minute walk away from the hotel, according to the receptionist. We will then slowly make our way towards Stockmann department store where I have agreed to meet my Finnish friend, Päivi for lunch. 

Saturday sizzles under the scorching sun. Tourists and locals are roaming the streets of Senate Square, the CBD where a unique mix of iconic landmarks and important structures are on full on display like an open-air museum. Some high profile Hollywood movies were filmed here, notably Robert Redford’s “Reds” and “The Kremlin Letter” by John Huston. The biggest star of the square is of course “Bad Bad Boy”, a fetus-like pink figure that stands mischievously and urinates into the sea. The temporary fountain-statue by Helsinki-based artist Tommi Toija gains so much love from strolling sightseers whose #selfies, without a doubt, are going to fetch so much more social media love in return (or rather LIKEs and RETWEETs, to be politically correct!)


Taking in the sights, sounds and scents of a new place is always thrilling. A yet unknown place that holds endless opportunities to get familiar till I can claim "Yes! I’ve been!". My ‘Travel Mode” is on; I’m prepared, expectant and open. 


The fragrance of pan-fried salmon cuts through the crowd from the temporary tents in front of City Hall, summoning my growling tummy to protest even more. Well, it’s almost 1pm. Fish, fish, fish everywhere; fresh or filleted, smoked or grilled, even pickled and bottled. The deep fried small fish (Vendace in Finnish) looks quite appetising, I must say. Practice of eating small fish is common too in Asia although we don’t dip it in cream sauce like they do here. My grandmother would have fried them crisp with chili & garlic.

The harborfront market in the Senate Square is also a place to pick up souvenirs of Finland; handicrafts made out of wood, knitwear of many colors, stuffed animals, fox fur coats, winter hats, earmuffs, and reindeer skins. If you are not a fan of animal products and looking for something organic, Finnish berries may appease you. Summer here marks the berry-picking season and as one of the world leaders in the development of health-enhancing food, Finland is home to rare berries such as crowberry, cloudberry, rowanberry and lingonberry, which are packed with vitamins and nutrients essential for the human body.

The street behind the blue-hued City Hall takes us to Helsinki’s major shopping district, Aleksanterinkatu. Festive with fashion-obsessed Finns and fabulous cafés, we people-watch and window-shop all the way down to Stockmann. Our Euros are good here as Finland is the only country in Nordic region to use Euro.  

“Are you guys hungry? I’m taking you guys to an island for lunch”. 

Päivi and I haven’t seen each other for over two years but we keep in touch regularly on Facebook. Today, she has brought a visiting friend from Berlin, a pretty blonde named, Cornelia. Four of us from four different corners of the world, united by one language, embark for Suomenlinna, a nearby sea fortress built on six islands. During 20-minute ferry ride, Päivi, playing a tourist guide, graciously runs a live commentary of Helsinki; facts and folklores, in between random ramblings that we are both good at.
Panimo”, a cozy restaurant and brewery is just beside the main pier. The menu offers Finnish favorites such as Traditional Salmon Soup and Toast Skagen (hand-peeled shrimps and roe of Vendace on toast). For the main course, it’s a toss between reindeer or fish, the two staples in Finnish cuisines. I opt for the latter; catch of the day in cream sauce with steamed seasonal vegetables, accompanied by the handcrafted local beer.

After lunch, Päivi leads us on a promenade along the old fortress, which was built during the Swedish rule in the mid 1700s to fend off the neighbor Russia’s every-growing expansionism. The site has seen both Swedish and Russian rule, been damaged during wars and restored as a UNESCO heritage site since 1991.

Sunny Saturday keeps the spirits high. Shirtless young men are relishing the sun, receiving their Vitamin D intake (which is scarce in this part of the world) while two girls practice cartwheels on the grass. A married couple, in full wedding attire, sits on the rock being photographed against the stunning backdrop. Suomenlinna’s audience today comprises of tourists like us, picnickers, runners in Nike gear and of course, swimmers & sunbathers. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can be in the water right now. It even gets chilly the minute I stay out of the sun. Soon, autumn will quickly come and flee. Then it’s time for brutal winter, the longest season in Finland that lasts about 100 days (200 days in northern Lapland where the sun does not rise at all for 51 days). For now, Finns are savoring the last remaining days of 18 hours sun with reckless abandon. 

“Why am I not living here? This is so my kind of place.” enthuses Cornelia. It’s true. The idyllic island is ideal for those who seek a peaceful lifestyle while keeping an option of all-things-urban open. Dotted with charming old buildings some of which have now been converted to souvenir stores, cafés and museums, Suomenlinna is not just a tourist destination but a living community with over 900 inhabitants who reside here permanently.

Sunday morning starts with a visit to the iconic Helsinki cathedral. The superior situation and the shape of it remind me of Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. This neo-classical place of worship was built from 1830-1852, during the Russian empire era and was designed by German architect, Carl Ludvig Engel who was also responsible for other buildings in the Senate Square. I find it interesting and refreshing in fact that the interior is quite marvelously modest compared to the usual ostentatious ornaments as seen in cathedrals of Spain or France for example. The steep flight of steps not only serves as a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the city but also sunbathing spot for many. 


Other notable architecture includes Parliament house, which has been the scene of many crucial political moments in the country’s history, especially during the Winter War and Continuation war. Finland is also the first European country to grant women the right to vote and to stand for the parliament. The marvelous column-lined façade has timeless elegance and minimalist charm. Architecture enthusiasts will certainly get a kick out of Helsinki’s eclectic mix of neo-classical and modern buildings, coexisting in harmony and even complimenting one another. I’m particularly impressed with the shoreline-facing apartments that not only find balance between functionality and aesthetics but also adopt the policy of sustainability and eco-friendliness. 

I meet my two blonde friends later to go to the Restaurant Day celebration. The concept; anyone can be a restaurant/café/bar owner for a day during this food carnival, Paivi explains, originated from Helsinki and has spread all over the world ever since. Finns gather four times a year to celebrate cooking and eating. It’s that simple. The energy here is palpable. Cultures and colors are constantly colliding. Many languages are spoken. Many different dishes are sampled. The city comes together in appreciation of food. You name it, Paella Valenciana, Turkish Kebab, Brazilian Barbecue, Vietnamese spring rolls, Ethiopian Beyaynetu, Chinese dim-sum and a Finnish favorite that I try, Karelian pastry, a traditional Finnish dish made from a thin rye crust with a filling of rice. Butter mixed with boiled egg is spread over the hot pastries before eating. It is versatile and can be consumed as snack, appetizer or finger food for parties. It even works when I pair it with Finish flavored vodka, which I’ve fallen in love and am taking home plenty as my sole souvenir of Finland.

Sadly, the plan to go to Tallinn for a day trip gets clouded by the bad weather. All the boats that leave for the Estonian capital were cancelled due to strong wind. Sunshine-heavy weekend seems like a distant memory on Monday. After reading my Facebook rant, sympathetic Paivi suggests that we go to Porvoo instead, a mediaeval town, located on the southern coast of Finland, about 50 km (30 minutes drive) east of Helsinki.

Porvoo certainly is an unexpected delight, an impressive alternative. Although many fires have destroyed the town and buildings have been rebuilt, it’s easy to make sense of how folks were living way back when. A splendid saunter through the old town uncovers what one usually sees in the postcards; a maze of narrow cobblestoned lanes, picture-perfect churches, eye-catching boutiques and crimson-colored warehouses along the riverbank. I can imagine how cheerful these colorful structures must look under the piling snow. Perhaps it’s the reason they are painted in such bright hues; to shoo away the winter blues.



Three days in Helsinki is relatively short. Because the city offers state of the art museums, an eclectic set of churches, a wide variety of nightlife activities in addiction to its many parks and islands that could keep a traveler busy. Helsinki has both cosmopolitan flair and laid-back atmosphere; it can be vibrant, energetic yet calming if and when necessary. Fins are friendly and easygoing. Plus it is convenient that majority here speaks fluent English. Really, it is no surprise that the city has made the top-10 list of world’s most livable cities this year once again. 

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