Saturday, May 10

Helsinki


Many people told us Helsinki wasn't much of a tourist destination. "It's a sleepy town," they warned. After last weekend's excursion I have to agree. It's not especially pretty and has few sights of note. All in all it's the perfect place to simply kick back and relax.


The locals clearly have the same idea. After a lazy morning in our hotel we ventured out into a sea of people, all intent on enjoying the unusually warm spring weather. Every outdoor cafe table and park bench was occupied. Even the grassy expanses of the city's central park were smothered by picnic blankets and sun-soaking locals. The scene was delightfully simple and wonderfully relaxing.


The centre of Helsinki is dominated by Esplanadi Park; a narrow, tree-lined park stretching several city blocks. It leads to the harbour and a large cobble-stone plaza. On Saturday the plaza was home to a colourful temporary market. It's also home to Havis Amanda, a fountain erected in 1908 to symbolise the city's youthful spirit.


The fountain's centrepiece is a brass woman perched on rocks, surrounding by dolphins. On Saturday it's water was filled with foam. We assumed this was the aftermath of a juvenile prank until we later learnt of a popular tradition. On May 1, local students celebrate the end of their university year by washing the naked maiden and crowning her with a white cap.


The remainder of the afternoon was spent wandering along the city's waterfront and back streets. Two buildings stood out. The first was Helsinki Cathedral, a Lutheran building of majestic white marble that sits atop a broad, stone pedestal. The second venue of note was Uspenski Cathedral. This is an ornate Russian Orthodox building situated on a bare rocky outcrop overlooking red-brick warehouses the line the waterfront.


Helsinki's top tourist attraction is the sea fortress of Suomenlinna. Like much of the city, this is a relaxed, low-key affair. Its a former military base covering four islands, offering relaxing walks and refreshing sea views. The site is defended by towering stone walls and largely squat, functional 18th Century buildings (as well as a pretty white church whose bell tower doubles as a lighthouse).


All in all Suomenlinna offered a pleasant afternoon outdoors and so it was here that we spend much of our last day. For several hours we wandered along old stone paths, past a restored WWII submarine, a working dry dock and several rows of canons guarding the entrance to Helsinki harbour.


Perhaps the city's most surprising highlight were it restaurants. We dined at several memorable establishments, some formal and others decidedly so less. Yet every where the food was universally good. I loved Kappeli; a restaurant located in a Victorian-style, cast-iron pavillion on the edge of Esplanadi Park. I enjoyed a plate of tasty peppered Reindeer, much to Garry's horror. Rudolph never tasted better.


Click here for our day trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

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