Day 4, Friday 8th July – Helsinki
Moose = 1 bronze moose, 1 stuffed moose, 0 live moose
The ferry disembarcation was quick and efficient and after a drive into the city that had us wondering where everyone was, we were in Helsinki and parking up by the hotel within 30 minutes, a fact much appreciated by both of usas it meant we’d have plenty of time for orienting ourselves and doing some sightseeing. We hauled our considerable amount of luggage up to the reception of the Klaus K and left it in their care as it was far too early to check in, and headed off for a coffee. On the advice of the hotel receptionist we turned towards the harbour, strolling down the wonderfully central Esplanade as far as the Kappeli cafe, a stunningly pretty art nouveau confection, all glass and fine detail where we stopped for coffee and a planning session.
Several Euros lighter (with lattes at somewhere north of London prices), but having managed to resist the lovely looking cakes on the grounds that dinner would be worth saving ourselves for, we decided that the “City Highlights” walk in the Lonely Planet guide for Finland would be a good way to start. It claimed to cover much of the architectural history of Helsinki and quite a lot of the main sights.
Fortified by caffeine we set off, calling in at the tourist information office nearby for some useful leaflets, and then starting at the kauppatori on the harbour side, a place we would come back to repeatedly. We also noted the Havis Amanda statue, the spirit of Helsinki apparently. She had a seagull on her head, to no one’s great surprise. However it seemed that any statue we encountered would have a seagull on its head from then on. At least it would after 10am. The seagulls didn’t seem keen on early starts.
The first sight of the market there gave us our first look at the food culture we could expect to encounter repeatedly during our stay, but more of that another day. The area around the end of the Esplanade and around the water front threw up more of the Jugendstil buildings that would become a familiar sight over the next two weeks.
Some of the detail is breathtaking and, as with Vienna, you should look up as well as ahead to appreciate the beauty of the buildings. We had been aware of the Lutheran cathedral in Helsinki, really the iconic Helskinki sight, but not of the orthodox alternative, the Uspenski Cathedral, sitting slightly north-east of the shiny white competition.
A slight detour round a park and up a hill lead us to this rather unexpected (to us anyway) treasure, and we arrived, slightly out of breath, at the top of the steps just ahead of a gaggle of coach tours. Inside was more restrained than I’d expected though there were enough icons to please most visitors I’m sure.
There is also a lovely dome, which turned out to be unusual. Most of the cathedrals we encountered after that went in for vaulting, not domes.
The atmosphere was slightly spoiled by the coach tour people who seemed unable to comply with the notices requesting silence, or for that matter with the ones asking them not to use flash photography, and there was a marked lack of any useful information, not a problem we would encounter anywhere else. We cut the visit slightly short and made our way across to the Lutheran opposition only to find the coach party arriving as we climbed the steps.
The inside is quite plain but beautiful with soaring central spaces and lots of light. It’s relatively recent, some of its predecessors having burned down (a common problem and pretty much everywhere we went the guide books would talk of the great fire of whatever year, obvious when you think about it of course when wood is the predominant building material). However, for me it was the outside. It really is every bit as stunning as the postcards. And with the spectacular cloud formations going on it looked unreal. The square outside was buzzing with tourists but not in that London way where you can hardly breathe and get dragged along in the undertow if you’re not careful. And there was of course a statue with a seagull on its head, this time of Alexander II.
From there we headed up towards the outer reaches of the city, but it was getting towards lunchtime, and it was clouding over. We’d investigated the statue of Mannerheim (it’s a very handsome statue even with a seagull on its head), and now found ourselves outside the Kiasma contemporary art museum.
It had a café! What more excuse did we need? Actually we first decided we’d go round the exhibits, especially the Ernesto Neto sculptures, which are wonderful! I’m not that keen on modern art, but the sheer tactile nature of them, and the fact that you could get inside things like the serpent and lie down and just let your mind wander seemed such a brilliant idea. I loved it!
A sandwich and a coffee in the café and we were on our way again, passing the Alvar Aalto-designed concert hall and heading towards the Olympic stadium.
As a runner I had an urge to visit the statue of Paavo Nurmi, one of the all time greats of distance running by anyone’s standards. We located the stadium, but it was closed for renovation, and we couldn’t see the statue (he’d probably have had a seagull on his head, which would have slowed most runners down) to my mild frustration.
We had seen a moose (bronze statue, outside the natural history museum, no seagull for once) and a rather odd moose figure made out of cloth outside a second hand shop on the way so it wasn’t a wasted trek.
We’d also passed a number of other museums which were now on our radar – whether we’d make it to them remained to be seen of course. At least we were now at the end of town where the wonderful Sibelius monument was close at hand. We headed over to it only to trip over the same coach party again. We were walking, they were whizzing round and leaping back on the bus before moving on. Where had they been in between the cathedrals and the monument? Why were they apparently following us around? The monument itself is quite wonderful, and although I wasn’t sure what the artist/sculptor intended to me it looks like a church organ abstracted into metal to represent notes soaring up into a cloud-dotted sky. Lovely.
By now it was mid-afternoon and it’s fair to say we were starting to flag a bit. We debated the merits of getting a bus or tram back to the hotel, but then decided we would keep walking. We still had the Temppeliaukio church, built into the rock, with an amazing copper roof. We made it just ahead of the coach party that had been haunting us all day. Again they seemed incapable of the requested silence, which was annoying though it didn’t stop us appreciating the sheer unlikeliness of the place, to say nothing of the technical challenge it must have posed. It was about now that I was starting to realise that most attractions and tourist sights in Finland are run by people who are happy for you to take photos all you like, just so long as you switch off the flash. Sadly I didn’t have the right lens for the job when it came to photographing the wonderful roof so I had to settle for a postcard and a guidebook (again, a theme would start to emerge with guidebooks often costing around €1-2, a welcome change from London).
And now we were on the home straight. We debated one more museum or church but decided that was about enough for the day. It was time to return to the hotel and get unpacked/reorganised so that only the things we needed for the three nights in Helsinki were unpacked and everything else was back in the big suitcases ready to be shifted out as and when needed.
The room we were allocated was on the small side but well enough equipped, and certainly both quiet and comfortable. We unpacked, showered, changed and then headed down to the hotel bar to see what they had in the way of a pre-dinner drink.
Some very colourful cocktails later (mine was called the Maid of Ostrobothnia and featured lingonberries) we headed back down the Esplanade for what we anticipated might be the culinary highlight of the trip, dinner at Olo, reputedly the best restaurant in Finland (Michelin and the White Guide both seem to think so anyway).
We’d debated in advance whether to give it a try given the cost (€109 for dinner, no choice, the tasting menu was what everyone would be served) and had caved about two weeks before, booking a table with no trouble at all. In the UK we’d have been lucky to ever get a table in a place as high end as that, never mind less than a fortnight in advance. It might have been because it was the holiday season and the Finns were all off in their summer cottages, on the other hand it might just be normal for Helsinki.
Whatever the reasons, we had a table, and we were going to make the most of it. It was one of the more amazing dinners I’ve had, starting with the bread that greeted us on arrival, sitting in a small metal container, uncooked at that stage but proved, risen and ready to go in the oven to bake.
We opted to take the wine package too as it saved on the decision making process, which was how we found ourselves drinking an India Pale ale at one point!
There followed a series of small but intricate plates, the full details of which are beyond me to recall in detail. Some things in particular stood out above the rest, including a chicken parfait formed into tiny balls, some sourdough parcels of incredible delicacy and fragility and packing way more flavour than you might expect, a barley porridge with bacon which I could have happily eaten in massive quantities, the pike-perch formed into a slice of perfect edible fishiness, the bread returned to us freshly baked with a selection of butters to spread over it (and the IPA to go with it), the whole thing was a delight from start to finish and the service was knowledgeable, attentive and utterly charming.
It was going to be impossible to top that in culinary terms as the holiday went on, but that didn’t matter. We were significantly lighter in pocket but the sum of human happiness had certainly increased just from the two of us! Oh, and I was also in possession of a recipe book, not because I expect to be able to get anywhere close to what they were producing, but simply because it’s a beautiful object and it contains a lot of thoughts on cooking technique that I’m interested in studying further. All in all a great success!
Eventually, after something like 18 different dishes, we slipped quietly out and strolled back to the hotel in the late evening daylight.
We were slowed by the need to gaze in the design quarter shop windows as we went (probably the safest time to do this).
We needed a relatively early start in the morning, We had a walking tour booked and didn’t want to be late.