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Monday, February 27, 2017

Hell yeah Helsinki

Uspenskin Katedraali

Our second full day in Helsinki wasn't as sunny as the first one, but it would turn out to be the only day of our trip to Finland and Estonia where the temperature climbed above the freezing point. The documentary on life in the Arctic Circle that was on TV in our apartment as we were getting to ready to go out set an appropriately Finnish tone:


Back on the streets of central Helsinki:


The Tuomiokirkko (Luthern Cathedral) was designed by the German architect CL Engel and completed in 1852. It dominates the Senaatintori (Senate Square):



The interior is suitably spartan as the likes of Martin Luther keep a stern watch over visitors:



In contrast to the Lutheran church stands the red-brick Uspenskin Katedraali (Uspenski Cathedral), standing on nearby Katajanokka island. It was built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1868, and now serves as a Finnish Orthodox house of worship:


The interior is suitably Orthodox:




The Tuomiokirkko is visible from the Uspenskin Katedraali:


We returned to Senaatintori for Sunday brunch at Ravintola Sunn, somehow managing to get a table without a reservation:


Next on the Helsinki sightseeing itinerary was Finland's premier art gallery, the Ateneum:


I don't claim to know much about art, but I was completely ignorant on the topic of Finnish painting and sculpture. I'm still largely ignorant, but some of the nation's art is impressive, such as Pioneers in Karelia (1900) by Pekka Halonen, a celebration of the Finnish landscape and people:


The Fighting Capercaillies (1886) by Ferdinand von Wright, one of the country's most famous paintings. His brothers Magnus and Wilhelm were also famous painters:


The touching Old Man and Child (1913) by Hugo Simberg:


Pride of place in the museum's collection goes to Aino-taru (1891), a triptych by Akseli Gallen-Kallela depicting a scene from the Finnish national epic Kalevala, in which the central character Väinämöinen pursues the maiden Aino (who drowns herself instead of marrying him):





It isn't all Finland all the time at the Ateneum. The museum also boasts a small but interesting collection of 19th- and early 20th-century foreign art such as van Gogh's Street in Auvers-sur-Oise (1890):


Le Corbusier's Two Women (1939):


Gauguin's Landscape with a Pig and a Horse (Hiva Oa) (1903) and Degas' Woman Caught Unawares (1919):


Warhol's Electric Chair (1971):


Back into the real world, and an ice-skating rink across the road from the Ateneum:


A gathering by the rink (with the Ateneum building in the background). The sign reads "Refugee in not your enemy. Enemy is who make them refugees". Finland, unfortunately, hasn't been immune from the growth of nationalistic, populist anti-immigrant parties:


Beer in Finland tends toward lagers, but there are also brewpubs like Teerenpeli to provide much-needed alternatives:



We ended our day with dinner at a Japanese noodle restaurant, where the old cliche about it being a small world played out: the woman sitting at the table behind my wife and daughter turned out to be a colleague who had been in the same Mandarin program with me at the Foreign Service Institute four years ago (she went to Beijing while I was posted to Shanghai).

Amber strikes a pose outside the natural history museum

Due to its relatively short history (it didn't start developing as a major city until after Finland was annexed by Russia following the latter's victory over Sweden in the Finnish War in 1809), Helsinki doesn't have many historic sights. What it does have is a lifestyle rich in cultural attractions (with several museums and concert halls located in the center of the city) and international restaurants (though going out to eat can be expensive). It wouldn't be a bad place to be posted someday - I'm already used to long, dark winters!

It should come as no surprise that hockey is the national sport




Sunday, February 26, 2017

Getting fortified in Finland

Helsinki waterfront

It wasn't the most auspicious of starts to a vacation. We were getting ready to board our airBaltic flight from Vilnius to Riga, where we were to connect to another airBaltic plane going to Helsinki, when the announcement was made that the flight was canceled due to the closure of the airport in Latvia for unknown reasons. The good news was that we were rerouted onto a direct Finnair flight to Helsinki Airport for later that same day; the bad news was that we had to wait more than four hours in a small airport without much in the way of facilities. At least there was beer:


The plane to Helsinki turned out to be only 2/3 full and in a further positive development we actually arrived in Finland forty minutes ahead of schedule. It was a thirty-minute train ride from the airport into the center of Helsinki, and another fifteen minutes on foot from the train station to our accommodations, the Hellsten Helsinki Parliament. As we would do in Rovaniemi and Tallinn, we stayed in a furnished apartment with a kitchenette. The building in Finland's capital dates from 1912, but the apartment itself had been modernized. The neighborhood where it's located felt more like New York than Helsinki:



We set out on our first morning in Helsinki by heading toward the waterfront on a chilly but sunny day, passing by a statue of Finnish military leader, statesman and national hero Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim:


My daughter in Esplanadin Puisto (Esplanade Park):


We first visited Vanha Kauppahalli, Helsinki's most famous market hall, dating from 1889 and home to a traditional Finnish market. If you're running low on reindeer meat, this is the place to go to replenish your supplies:




Adjacent to the covered market is an open-air one in the kauppatori (market square), where a few sellers and shoppers were braving the sub-zero temperature:


From the kauppatori, it's a fifteen-minute ferry ride to Suomenlinnna, the "fortress of Finland", a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and the one must-see sightseeing attraction in Helsinki. The ice clogging the surface of the water proved no obstacle for the ferry:


One of the massive ferries plying Finland's waterways, this one probably on its way to either Stockholm or Tallinn:


Suomenlinna was originally built by the Swedes as Sveaborg in the mid-18th century, before surrendering to Russian forces in 1808, and then becoming part of independent Finland in 1917, following the Russian Revolution. Visitors like us begin our explorations by passing through the pink Rantakasarmi (Jetty Barracks) building from the main quay:


The fortress is spread out on a tight cluster of islands. The distinctive church also serves as a lighthouse:



The Suomenlinna-museo provides a good overview of the history of the fortress:



On the bridge connecting Ito Mustasaari (where the church and museum are located) with the main island, Susisaari-Kustaanmiekka. The girls were fascinated by the sight of all that ice in the water:


Winter being the off-season, some of the attractions, such as the Ehrensvärd-museo (pictured below) and the World War II-era Finnish submarine Vesikko weren't open:


Still, there was plenty to explore among the old bunkers, cannons and fortress walls:





The grave of Augustin Ehrensvärd, designer of the Suomenlinna fortress:


The King's Gate (1753-4) at the end of Kustaanmiekka, one of the six islands making up the fortress:



Enjoying a house brew and some smoked reindeer calf roast at the Suomenlinna Brewery:



After our late lunch, it was time to return to the city:


The ferry breaks through the ice as we return to Helsinki:


Approaching the waterfront. Visible are the Uspenskin Katedraali church and the Finnair Sky Wheel:


Naturally, Amber wanted to go on the ferris wheel (Shu-E stayed at ground-level, relaxing with a cup of coffee). We passed on the €195 VIP gondola (the one with the glass floor, leather seats and bottle of champagne), and went economy class:


Taking in the views through the blue-tinted glass of Tuomiokirko (top) and Uspenskin Katedraali (bottom), both of which we would visit the next day:



We ended our first full day in Helsinki with dinner at an Indian restaurant, located inside the Forum shopping center on Mannerheimintie. This would be turn out to be the only consistently sunny day of our eight-day visit to Finland and Estonia (and one of only two days without snow), but that was fine with us. This was my daughter's "ski break" from school, after all, and the main reason for coming to Finland in the first place was to see the northern lights, a mission which would be accomplished. Stay tuned...

In case there was any doubt as to where we were...