As the third of three destinations on a recent trip, Finland got short shrift, I’m afraid. Russia had worked its mysterious way into our souls, and Tallinn had maxed out the quaintness quotient by the time we boarded a ferry to take us to rainy, cold Finland. We spent most of our time in and around Helsinki, and some sleety gray days and an uncomfortable encounter with a cranky local tainted our visit a bit.
Nevertheless, it was easy to see that Helsinki is a lovely city, and its outskirts, too, were a very enjoyable diversion on several occasions. Even in inclement weather, the Esplanadi and nearby streets sparkled in their winter finery; in the heart of the capital, post-Christmas lights still flickered overhead, and storefronts offered a glowing welcome to passersby on this central boulevard with its greensward down the middle. We were quite happy to poke into many shops and returned to this popular area multiple times during our stay in the city.
As an introduction to the rest of the city, we bought a 24-hour public transit pass and hopped aboard the No. 2/3 tram for an on-off excursion around town. We spent much of the first day in the northern part of the city, mainly exploring the Töölö neighborhood.
Our first stop was the Temppeliaukio Church, a worship space built right into a huge block of natural granite that rises above street level. The interior was blasted out from the rock and topped with a dome made of copper wire. Vertical glass panes connect the dome and the rock walls, and the building is largely illuminated by the natural light that pours in from above.
We got off the tram again at the site of the 1952 Olympics and walked the grounds for a short time. We skipped a viewing tower because of the dismal day and its low-hanging mist, and instead of getting back on the tram, we got out our map and walked to Sibelius Park. Back in nature right outside the central city, we ambled happily through the frozen paths and haphazardly found our way to the Jean Sibelius Monument. This magnificent sculpture consists of hundreds of hollow steel pipes; the etched pieces are arranged to suggest organ pipes and honor the Finnish composer. An effigy of Sibelius watches over the scene from a nearby hunk of rock.
Chilled to the bone by now, we slipped and slid down an icy trail to the waterfront and approached the cozy Café Regatta. Never have I been so enraptured with a coffeehouse! I’m sure it’s considered cute by anyone, anytime, but its mere existence at that place and time catapulted it to the top of my list of favorites. The coffee was rich and strong, and the cinnamon rolls were a much-needed and delicious sugar boost, but the cozy hut also just enveloped us like a warm blanket, and we were in no rush to leave our tiny corner table anchored on birch legs and surrounded by flowered curtains and a wild collection of wedding photos, teapots, and oars, among other odds and ends, all softened by golden lamplight.
Suitably warmed and relaxed, we ventured back into town on the tram, passing the imposing Rautatieasema train station, Helsinki Cathedral, and a number of other prominent sights.
Another day started with a 15-minute ferry ride out to Suomenlinna island where, in the mid-1700s, Sweden began building a fortress in the entrance to Helsinki’s harbor to fend off Russia’s advances. Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, Suomenlinna is still inhabited and much of the stronghold still exists. Helsinki residents use the island for hiking, picnics, and other outdoor activities; on the day we visited, the windswept land felt bleak and empty, but we still enjoyed the walk across the two biggest islands and relished another crisp day outdoors on the rocky Finnish ground today.
Now, about that fussy Finn. One of our most anticipated adventures in Helsinki was ice hole swimming. We did research online, read forum posts, and discussed the idea with the front desk people at our hotel, all because we are (let’s get this out of the way right here, so no one needs to point this out later!) uptight, prudish Americans who wanted to wear swim suits. All signs pointed to a sauna close to the city where, we were assured, the people were friendly and accommodating, and suits were at least tolerated if not encouraged. Sufficiently psyched for the freezing escapade to come, we gathered our things and hired a fairly expensive cab to get us there. We entered the spare and peaceful building and paid our money at the front desk. Then, looking over his glasses admonishingly, the attendant said “You will not wear any clothing in the sauna; here is a towel to sit on.” Before we could finish stammering out a “B-b-b-but we were told …,” he sternly replied “You were told wrong” and coldly stared us down. And that, unfortunately, was that – the end of our ice hole swimming plan. Many readers may scoff at our modesty and stubbornness, but we felt frustrated by the misinformation and the fact that this particular Finnish fellow was unable to relay his bad news a little more nicely. Steamed more than if we’d done the sauna, we stalked out and stomped the whole way back, barely dressed for the weather and through heaven knows what parts of the city.
We would love to finish with Finland the right way someday, finding a sauna that can deal with foreign attitudes and/or seeing the beautiful countryside on a warm, sunny summer’s day. I want to head farther north – I’m thinking Lapland in June next time! – and I look forward to more time in the Nordic natural world.