Trip to the Baltics, Part VI (Helsinki)

When I was in college, I had my initial experiences on European ferries. Firstwas the overnight boat from Dover to, as I remember it, Dieppe. What a disappointment! The boat was old, and dirty, and uncomfortable, with nowhere nearly enough place for the passengers to sit, much less stretch out. The choppy waters and heavy rains, and consequent increasing smell, didn’t help much either.

So I had little to look forward to when we took an afternoon car ferry from northern Germany to Copenhagen on that same trip. To my surprise, however, the boat was mammoth, clean, very comfortable, and a virtual floating restaurant, with every imaginable Danish open top treat

So what to expect as we drove to the port of Tallinn for the two or three hour ride to Helsinki. Yes, that is how quick it is to travel from these two closely related ports.

As we walked onto the boat, I was clearly expecting a repeat of the Danish ferry experience. And disappointed I was, as the ferry was simply a step or two up from the boat that takes you from Lewes to Cape May, or perhaps the ship we took two years ago from Portland, ME, to Nova Scotia.

Our Helsinki experience was limited to one afternoon and night this time, and another similar overnight stay on our return from St. Petersburg on our way home.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The short taxi rid from the port to our downtown hotel showed us we were in a clean, modern city. There were people on all of the streets enjoying the weather and the weekend.

Our hotel, the Kamp, is located On an odd, two block long dead end street in the heart of downtown Helsinki. Taxis and other vehicles taking people to the hotel, after they let you off, must make a U-Turn, causing continual confusion on what is otherwise pedestrian friendly spot. The hotel itself is part of the Starwood Group, and the latest iteration of a hotel first opened in the 1880s. The rooms and the hotel amenities were first class; the restaurant, based on our experience, was lacking.

Finland, like its three Baltic neighbors to the south, does not have a long history of independence. For most of its history, until the twentieth century, it was either part of the Swedish or Russian empires, although for some reason it was always allowed a great deal of autonomy by both. Although the Finns try hard to forget about the Russian occupation (Russia and Finland had their own war while World War II was pending and their treaty ceded parts of historic Finland to the Soviet Union), it constantly reminds itself of its Swedish years. In fact, Swedish as well as Finnish are official languages of Sweden (every street is named, often quite differently, in the two languages, leading to street signs with enough letters to make a Welshman blush), Finns learn Swedish and there are apparently parallel schools in the two languages, all the way through higher education. All for about 10% of the population, although as I understand it, the Swedish population in Finland is an important population in the country’s economy.

All of which brings me back to the Hotel Kamp. Keeping with my goal of drinking local vodkas throughout the trip, I asked for a Finnish vodka (hoping that there were options to Finlandia, which I can get up the street from my house), only to be told by the waitress: “We don’t have Finnish vodkas. How about an Absolut?” (I settled for a Gray Goose.)

This remained a mystery to me until I talked to a Finn about a week later who said: “I think that the Hotel Kamp has a Swedish history. For Swedes in Finland, it would not be surprising that they would push Swedish, not Finnish, vodka.” If so, I say: “Wow”.

A few more thoughts about Helsinki:

1. Across from the hotel is an establishment called “Fazer”, a combination high-end cafeteria lunch spot, bakery, chocolate store, ice cream parlor. It is large, it is attractive, everything looks delicious, and on this particular Sunday it was jammed. Oh, if we only had a Fazer at home.

2. The Esplanade is a swath of green that runs through downtown Helsinki. On this Sunday, it was filled with strollers, lovers, and entertainers. Just what a city should have.

3. We took a double decker bus ride to see as much of the city that we could on our one day – we did see a lot, including the cathedral, the port, the parks and more, although I must admit that none of the individual sites have stuck in my mind. When we got off the bus, we went into a cafe and I ordered a simple small bottle of sparkling water, being surprised when the clerk told me I would have to pay 3 euros (it was like I was at Verizon Center or Nationals Stadium). When I questioned the price, she said to me: “3 euros. Finland is a VERY expensive country. But we also have the world’s best tap water, and it’s FREE. Next time, you’ll know.” So be it.

4. I didn’t get a chance to go into the art museum, but they were in the last days of a large exhibit on Lapland, the northern most parts of Finland and Sweden, sparsely inhabited by ethnically distinct groups with their own culture and history. Across the street from the museum, there was a large, outdoor food festival, celebrating food from Lapland. I had a great time looking at (and smelling) the foods, and talking to some of the many vendors, all of whom were fluent in English. I bought a few things to bring back home – a type of mustard, and two jams, cloudberry and sea buckthorn – and I looked at the reindeer meat, the elk, the moose, the candies and the honey. I also watched them smoking the fresh salmon, which they were selling to eat on the spot. (I didn’t taste anything at the festival, but at the airport before we flew home the following week, I did try a piece of reindeer salami and must admit: it was very good.)

We returned to Helsinki for one night on our way home, one week later. We did not stay at the Kamp, but rather at a new and extremely nice (highly recommended) boutique hotel, the Fabian, located about four blocks from the Kamp, on the other side of the Esplanade. The rooms are very modern and comfortable, and the lobby and staff excellent. We had dinner that night with a friend of our daughter, who lives in Helsinki at a restaurant called “Elite”, which turned out to be very nice – it is not within walking distance of the hotels, but easily accessible by tram (the tram in Helsinki costs 2.5 Euros, another example of an expensive country).

On our second trip to Helsinki (we arrived from St. Petersburg about 4 p.m. and left the next day at about 1 p.m.), I was surprised to find out that we were no longer in what looked to be a city on perpetual holiday. Because it was not Sunday afternoon, I found the town very quiet, the Esplanade pretty empty – it was like another place. Made you stop and think: if we had not seen quiet Helsinki, what would our impression of the city been? And if we had not seen festive, Helsinki, then what?

So, on short visits, a lot of things – weather, day of the week, time of the year – all exert their influence in creating life-long impressions.


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