Whenever possible we avoided air travel during our trip. Consequently to get to Estonia from the Czech Republic we took a train to Germany where we caught 2-night ferry to Finland where we transferred to another ferry for the short 3-hr hop to Estonia.
The ferry from Germany arrives in Helsinki at 8:30 in the morning and the boat to Estonia didn’t leave until 6pm – which is how we got to spend 9 hours in Finland.
Getting off the ferry we caught a shuttle to the outskirts of town where we were able to catch the metro.
The first thing we noticed was how amazingly clean the city seemed. Also amazing was the stark mixing of new and old designs.
Helsinki was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550. It was intended to rival the city of Tallinn (now the capital of Estonia, then the Hanseatic city of Reval) which lies 50 miles to the south, across the Baltic sea.
Gustav was ultimately to be disappointed as Helsinki remained a small town plagued by poverty, wars and disease. In 1710 plague killed most of the inhabitants and that’s about how things sat for the next hundred years.
What happened next sounds a little absurd when looked at by the geopolitical structure of today. In 1809, having defeated Sweden in the Finnish War, Russia annexed Finland as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Czar Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turko to Helsinki to reduce Swedish influence in Finland and the town was rebuilt in a neoclassical style to resemble St. Petersburg (which was the capital of Russia at the time, located less than 200 miles to the east).
The capital still has a number of amazing architectural features – including the very dramatic train station:
with these guys out front.
Because we only had a few hours, our first stop was the tourist office, which turned out to be amazingly helpful and well laid out.
We were told that we had actually arrived on a very lucky day (der Gluckspilz as it were) as it was the start of the Christmas festivities. That afternoon there was going to be a large Christmas pageant followed by the lighting of all the town holiday lights.
In the meantime, we set off to explore the city.
Helsinki is home to the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary).
The cathedral was completed in 1868 and is quite stunning on the inside, though unfortunately photography isn’t allowed.
Helsinki is also home to the Helsinki Cathedral, an Evangelical Lutheran church. Completed in 1852, it was built as a tribute to Nicholas I of Russia and originally called St. Nicholas’ Church. The interior is gorgeous, feeling more like an ornate government building or old library when compared to the ornate and iconography-heavy Orthodox or Catholic cathedrals.
The cathedral is situated as the focal point of Senate Square, a large public square in the middle of the downtown area. It was here that the Christmas festivities were held.
There were singing children, traditional Finnish Christmas songs, and (photo below) a staged recreation of some well known event that eluded us.
One of the young actors did seem to be in blackface, alongside an unknown King, a Roman(?) and someone else dressed in blue. So if that sheds any light on the story… you’re welcome.
That was about it for the day. Light fell quickly and we boarded the ferry, which turned out to be quite the party. Apparently alcohol is so much more expensive in Finland, that it’s common for people to travel over to Estonia to party and purchase it. Other than a large party of English tourists that were so stereotypically English that it was almost offensive, it was an uneventful ride that I mostly slept through.
To close, a few other shots from around the city.
Up this far north, the angle of the sun really does look different.
“Wau! MiKä DiiLi!” is right! Welcome to a Finnish McDonalds. (Also, Google translates that expression (incorrectly?) as “Wow! What’s The Apprentice!”)