When Patricia suggested that we visit Helsinki, I think my first reaction was , ‘Why’? With her inimitable smile she said simply , “It looks charming”. I can attest to Patricia’s instinctive appreciation of everything ‘charming’ , after all, she married me. I answered , “Let’s take a look?” As it turns out, her instincts were correct, Finland is charming, Helsinki is under rated , under visited, a northern gem.
What I liked most about Finland and Finnish people was the experience of visiting a country and interacting with a people who are both so absolutely understated. Finland is a place for experienced and sophisticated travelers to enjoy. The fact that none of the usual tourist hype is evident is truly refreshing.
There is no Disneyland atmosphere . There are no crowds, no streets lined with multinational food franchises. There is no mind numbing list of ‘must see before you die’ hot spots with hours long line ups of desperate ‘bucketeers’. Helsinki has it’s own distinct vibe, self assured, that’s cool, as cool as the weather.
You’re not going to Helsinki to sun tan. They have a brief summer in late July but it’s generally chilly and windblown. Pack sweaters and windbreakers. I’ve had enough beach vacations to appreciate the weather in Scandinavia as equally inviting. Arriving in Helsinki airport was my first introduction to a people who are referred to as ‘ Silent Finn’s’ . The immigration officers were stereotypically stoic, but that’s where it ended. We weren’t met with any ‘attitude’ after hopping into our taxi or checking into our hotel. The ‘Silent Finn’ is a myth.
Everyone we met was delighted we’d chosen Finland as a tourist destination We’re a rare breed apparently. Most visitors fall into the category of commercial travelers. People we met were proud to regale us with stories about the homeland. Fins are proud in the quintessentially understated Finnish way . I found it charming that conversation was about home and family rather than possessions and positions.
I was an instant fan of the Finnish breakfast. I woke up to tables laden with fresh and prepared fish, salted, smoked, baked, fried, pickled, rolled , pasted and marinated . It must be the Scandinavian in me but I love fish for breakfast. There were baskets of fresh breads and rolls, pastries and crackers. The kitchen presented a fantastic selection of gluten free breads .
I loved the offerings of cheeses, yogurt and nuts. The ‘piece de resistance’ were the wild berries and forest mushrooms , an obsession in Finland . Where else could someone breakfast on ‘cloud berries’? I found I had to cut back on the Finnish coffee. They brew it strong , a caffeine sensitive novice wouldn’t sleep for days after two cups .
Well fortified, Patricia and I walked out of our ex-dairy hotel on the lower harbour and headed ‘up town’. A stiff wind was in our face , we muffled into scarves and pushed uphill towards the Esplanadi . ‘Kave’ or coffee shops dot each block as you progress through the quaint city. People had developed the custom of ‘popping in’ to warm nooks during the coldest months to count their fingers and toes. Helsinki’s Russian designers chose to lay out the city streets on a grid.
We walked across town in twenty minutes, from lower commercial harbour to the older harbour, on which the city was originally founded . Boulevardi Street takes a walker through the ‘design district’ where city fathers group business licenses to display art, clothing, furniture, photography and other artistic endeavors in one area. There are plenty of hair dressing salons, ubiquitous throughout the city. Finns enjoy having their hair cut by the look of it.
We came across a flea market and couldn’t resist joining the crowd. Tables and chairs snugged around a wooden building called a ‘Kaupahalli’ which in Finland is a covered market place to shop during the bitter days of winter. Trinkets , baubles, dishes , clothing and Soviet era posters were in abundance ; souvenirs unique to this part of the world. Polite bargaining was allowed, we purchased keepsakes fit for carry on luggage.
Finns are fluent in English . It’s easy to interact with people , Finnish is a challenge. Learn to say good morning ‘ Paiva’, and thank you ‘Kiito’s,’ people will love you. We engaged in conversation, mostly about the weather. Finns have a thousand expressions for ‘inclement’.
It began to get chilly after a couple of hours , we decided to do the Finnish thing and ‘pop inside’ to ‘count our fingers and toes’. By good fortune we chose the most interesting cafe in Helsinki, the Fazer Cafe, flagship shop of the Fazer Company, makers of the delicious chocolate Finland is famous for
The interior was dreamy, stacked with chocolate boxes, pastries under glass and cakes on revolving pedestals. I thought I had taken a step into Willie Wonka factory. We were welcomed with impeccable manners and service. The hot chocolate was to die for. European cafe’s have an understated vibe about them, places of ambient calm, conversation , unhurried, homey.
Out the door we spied the imposing Lutheran Cathedral, a vision in white atop the highest point in the city. Helsinki is not a city of skyscrapers. The tallest building is the Torni Hotel at fourteen stories, built in 1931 and never bested. We chanced upon several small museums and galleries that caught our interest , free to enter.
Craft furniture galleries show a creative drive among Fins. The picture galleries present interpretive art and express a love of colour that one doesn’t immediately match to the inconstant weather. Travel agencies are popular fixtures. Apparently Finns love to flee a dull winter as much as anyone.
The war history of Finland is represented in stark terms at the museum. The territory was historically coveted by two competing empires , autocratic Swedes and czarist Russians. Finnish life was unenviable in the early days. The villages and towns were sacked and burned, crops razed , people slaughtered or enslaved. The history of the country’s Medieval period was wiped out by bitter rivalry .
That doe’s not mean that Finland is devoid of Finnish architecture, you just won’t find it in Helsinki. The capital more resembles St.Petersburg than Espoo, Tempere , Turku or Oulu, cities too far removed from trade routes and the Baltic to be of any interest to the imperialists. An interesting legacy is the polyglot nature of Finnish people. No matter which store you go into, clerks wear flag pins identifying which languages they speak, Russian and Swedish figure prominently.
Helsinki harbour is steps away from the shopping concourse of Esplanadi which ends at the entrance to the Lutheran Cathedral Square, the nexus of tourism, such as it is, in Helsinki. This intimate pocket of water is large enough for only one cruise ship at a time. Cruise lines stop in Helsinki, part of the Scandinavian tour which includes Tallinn, and St. Petersburg . While I was there the National Geographic research vessel was docked. Had I been younger I may have stowed away for an adventure.
The weather is challenging in Helsinki, few cruise tourists venture far from the dock. The icy wind can set you back on your heels unless you’re dressed for the assault. A group of hardy dockside vendors wait patiently for trade, local and foreign, in the cold and rain, along seawall . They sell uniquely Finnish handicrafts of woven wool and leather , fresh fruits, vegetables and fish of great variety. Salt herring is popular. A short walk away there are masted wooden sailing vessels tied to the dock that work the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.
I took a seat under a tarpaulin fitted with gas heaters for a cup of thick steaming coffee ( to heck with sleep, the arctic sun doesn’t set this time of year) and get out of the incessant wind. On the other side of the pier , I spied another antique Kaupahalli and realized it might be more comfortable to go inside. The Finns may be weatherproof and hardy but I am not. We made a dash.
This Kaupahalli was different from the last. This was a cornucopia of fabulous foods. I compare it to a deli counter with eighty individual vendors selling unique Finnish favorites and specialty regional foods. These Kaupahalli’s are reminiscent of a time in Finland before supermarkets , they have a boutique atmosphere.
People crowd under the turn of the century arches to get in touch with themselves. The seating in a Kaupahalli is quite un-Finnish, who can be sticklers for line ups and appointment times, instead the festival seating of egalitarianism predominates. This is something I observed traveling around the country; rules pertaining to personal time are different from those of the workplace. When it’s time to relax, Finn’s relax. As I entered the market through the heavy iron clad double doors I was met with thick slabs of fresh and cured Atlantic salmon prominently on display.
Cheese , coffee , candy, pickles , baked breads, cafeteria nooks , charcuterie style meats , butchers, canned or jarred, were all in a line on two parallel concourses of this foodie’s paradise. I sat for a delicious bowl of hearty soup with thick dark bread smothered in creamy butter, just the thing after hours in the cold. For dessert I tried a piece of Finland’s famous black liquorish , Salmiakki, actually not candy but salt ammonium chloride coloured with liquorice syrup for a ‘tougher image’. Salmiakki is an acquired taste and hard acidic agent on tooth enamel. It is popular among Scandinavians. The heartland of this bitter tasting cult is Finland.
Once warmed, Patricia and I performed what we call a ‘wander’. We walked the city, found little lanes leading to surprises and nothing. We ‘popped in’ and engaged in conversation with locals and immigrants, asked their stories , told them ours. In department stores we discovered ‘blondering . Finnish women are fanatic about blond. We chanced on a book shop giving away pieces of poster art to passers by. The more we ‘wandered’, the more we were intrigued about this under rated city and it’s inhabitants.
I enjoyed the sedate security implied by peoples active stoicism towards the quirks of living in this northern latitude and rugged geography. My last night in Helsinki was spent in a local restaurant we were assured we would find Lappi foods. Lappi are the indigenous peoples of Finland’s arctic. We took a ‘when in Rome’ approach to the ‘new to us’ cuisine and ordered reindeer steak prepared with red onion and blueberry sauce settled on a mountain of mashed potato’s. The flavours were unique, unexpected , delicious.
During our meal a delightfully inebriated older gentleman, , insisted on telling us a story in Finnish , of which we couldn’t understand a word . I surmised that the sudden appearance of foreigners in a local establishment inspired him . He spoke sincerely , as if we were long lost friends.
The Finns are famous for their love of drinking vodka, this man was far from objectionable . I’m a story teller myself, I’ve listened to stories in tongues and gestures I didn’t understand. Sometimes it’s the presentation of a story where the true impart of the tale is projected . I saw the waiter coming over , perhaps to ‘shoo’ the old man away, I waved him off and let the guy speak. He was certainly animated while in full flight.
When I thought it appropriate I applauded the tipsy mans efforts . I broke the alcoholic trance as I knew I could, with a simple gesture. He laughed and winked , sauntered back to his seat and plate of herring. He’d given me a glimpse into the heart of Finnish people . I caught the eye of several patrons , they nodded and smiled, I suppose for the respectful patience shown to an old man out for a lonely meal. I felt as if I had done something a Finn would do . The storyteller had become lost in his plate of fish.
Helsinki is quiet and reserved. It doesn’t bombast with bellicose jingoism. People go about their busy lives with a sense of self confidence. I found Helsinki to be worth the effort it took to go there. The city of Helsinki is charming. It took patience to unlock a few of the hidden secrets of this pleasant city. Patricia and I were convinced by this first trip to Helsinki to revisit and travel inland to discover more of the country. We have subsequently returned to Finland several times .