The D&O Diary’s current European assignment continued this past weekend with a visit to Finland’s capital city, Helsinki. With a urban area population of about 1.4 million, Helsinki is a little larger than Oslo, and at about 61 degrees northern latitude, it is a bit further north as well – which means that the sun sets even later this time of year in Helsinki than in Oslo. Also, Helsinki was a bit cooler than Oslo, as much as ten to fifteen degrees cooler each day.
Helsinki is of course a Baltic city, with its city center oriented around the harbor. The city was built almost entirely in the 19th century, after the Russians (who controlled Finland then) chose to move the country’s capital to Helsinki. As a result, the city historic central district, all built at once, has a uniform feel of the European Belle Époque (as reflected in the first picture below). Owing to its relatively late development, Helsinki, unusually among European capital cities, lacks any remnants from a medieval past, for the simple reason that it has no medieval past. The city’s distinctive cathedral rises above the harbor front, as shown in the first picture above. Perpendicular to and uphill from waterfront market area is a tree lined park area known as the Esplanadi, which leads to the central shopping district (second picture below).
The city also includes a host of small islands along the shoreline, including most notably the island fortress of Suomenlinna, which was built by the Swedish (who at the time controlled Finland) in the 18th century. We were fortunate to have had a spectacularly beautiful day to take a ferry out to the fortress. The ferry ride takes only about ten minutes or so, but journey provides terrific views back toward the city’s harbor area.
Finland’s military still uses parts of the fortress island, and many of the fort’s ramparts are intact. The island’s cannon-lined southern shore faces out into the Gulf of Finland, and beyond that, out into the Baltic. On the day of our visit, many picnickers had set themselves up on the grass covered tops of cannon bunkers, facing out to sea. The views and the sunshine were just about perfect, as the sea breezes kept things cool.
As transfixed as we were gazing out to sea, eventually we moved on, to explore more of the island. In one of those chance developments that can make travel so rewarding, as we headed up the island’s east side, we came upon a small hillside gathering, in which a group of music students were performing for an audience of family and friends. When we first arrived, there was a brass octet playing. They were followed by a reed instrument quartet, and then by a flute trio. We sat listening to the music for over an hour. I have to say sitting on the grass in the late May sunshine on an island park in Helsinki listening to beautiful music is about as enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon as I can think of.
Later, we returned to the harbor on the ferry, and then we walked along the peninsula (near our hotel) that heads to the southeast from the harbor. We climbed a hillside in a park overlooking the harbor, which also had some nice views back towards the harbor and to the cathedral.
On Sunday morning, we took a tram to one of the more unusual church structures – or indeed structures of any kind – that I have ever encountered. Temppeliaukio Church (also known as the Church in the Rock) was built in the 60s by drilling directly into solid rock at the top of a hill in one of the city’s residential districts. A small copper dome covers the interior and allows light to enter through surface level windows. The result is a unique circular structure with splendid acoustics. The church service began with a solo violin performance, followed by a short organ recital. The Lutheran church service itself was in Finnish, but despite the language gap, the service had its own charm (although confess that we finally left after about an hour of straining to follow the proceedings).
We then took a city bus to the Seurassari Open-Air Museum. The museum, which preserves traditional Finnish structures collected and brought to the island from around the country — including even from East Karelia, the former part of Finland that Russia absorbed after World War II. The museum is located on an island reached by a small footbridge. The museum takes up only about a third of the island. The rest of the island is parkland. The museum was interesting. One of the highlights was the 17th century Karuna Church. It turned out that because we visited relatively early in the season, many of the buildings were not yet open to visitors. However, it turned out that the more interesting part of the visit involved strolling around park covering the rest of the island. We had other elaborate plans about how we were going to spend the rest of the afternoon, but once we started strolling along the shoreline, we abandoned our other ideas and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the island. Many of the spring wildflowers were in bloom, including wild purple pansies and marsh marigolds.
While we were walking, I spotted a very large hare (who, it must be noted, has a very distinctive facial expression in the photograph below). I tried to swing around him to photograph him from a better angle, but he proved to be camera shy, and he bolted for the bushes. While I was trying to find him again, I stumbled on this amazing Finnish pheasant. Later, I spotted an impressive barnacle goose sitting on the roof top of a wooden boathouse. We also saw some other adult barnacle geese with their young offspring.
After thoroughly exploring the island, we caught a bus back into the central city, where, before heading back to our hotel, we visited the Orthodox cathedral, which sits on a prominent hilltop just east of the harbor.
One of the interesting things we learned during our visit is that Finland is a bilingual country. The streets signs, menus, maps, and other publications almost always appeared in both Finnish and Swedish (as shown on the street sign below). Though I do not speak either of these languages, communication was not an issue – just about everyone in Helsinki speaks perfect English. Just the same, by moving around the city, we were brought into regular contact with the Finnish language. There are some interesting things to know about the Finnish language. The first is that people in the country we call Finland refer to their country and their language as Suomi. The Finnish (or Suomi) language is unlike just about any other language you have heard. As one of Uralic languages, it is unrelated to most other European languages, other than Estonian and Hungarian. As a consequence, there few cognates, making it a particularly challenging language to encounter. For example, it is fair to say that during the lengthy sermon at Sunday morning’s church service, we did not understand a single word the pastor spoke. Written Finnish is also interesting; the language makes unusually profligate use of the letters k, j and y, and also features heavy use of vowels with a wide variety of typographical indicators. Clearly, an entirely different set of tiles would be required to play Scrabble in Finnish.
We were pleased to learn that the Finnish people are remarkably open and friendly. The Finns seem to embody the feeling and spirit of their distinctive national song, the Finlandia Hymn, the tune for which was written by the country’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. It is kind of funny; the first couple of days we were in Finland, I caught myself unconsciously humming the song’s melody. The version of the hymn’s lyrics known as “This is My Song” or as “The Song of Peace” seem to me to be particularly appropriate in the global set of circumstances in which we find ourselves today. Because it captures Finland’s spirit so well I have included (following the last set of pictures below) a link to a music video of a vocal performance of the song. I encourage everyone to enjoy the video and in particular to listen to the song’s stirring lyrics.
More Pictures of Helsinki: