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Monday, February 27, 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...

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