29th April, 17:21 (Swedish time)
Oliven kaffe, Gothenburg
Oops, I’m quite far behind. This can be the Helsinki episode.
The ferry from Tallinn took 2 1/2 hours and was a revelation to me, as I’ve never been on a proper ferry before. I imagined a relatively small boat with maybe 3 levels if I were being outrageous; my imagination was thoroughly wrong. It was an absolute monster with about 9 levels, several of which were for vehicle storage, and multiple bars, restaurants, a whole duty free shop with food and perfume, cabins… basically, significant provisions for a several-hour ride. Hungry, I bought some Estonian chocolate (as well as a bar for my dad as his present) and the Finnish equivalent of Pringles, and spent the whole time sitting in one of the bars, reading or on the WiFi, with a window view armchair. Mint. All of this for the equivalent of £16.
As I disembarked, a pair of youths in front of me caught my attention; one was ruinously drunk and virtually incapable of staying vertical without the help of his friend. I made judgemental eye contact with the people around me as the boy (who had stupid half-short, half-long blond hair and was clearly very happy in his indignity) stumbled and slid along the walkways, eventually toppling to the ground near the exit despite his friend’s intervention a few minutes earlier when he’d given him a vigorous slapping on the Travelator. I dread to think how his day ended, but I left him to it so I could get stuck into Helsinki’s tram network, one of the oldest in the world.
The tram to the central station was easy, but finding the nearby tram stop for Mannerheimintie – which I knew was east, but could not find on the tram map – was not. The tram map was an absolute catastrophe of unintuitive design, attempting to combine street map with tram map while highlighting the names of neither stops nor streets. This meant it was virtually impossible to work out which tram line to get, let alone where to get off – I could quite happily rant about what an awful, useless, confusing map it was for hours, but just let it be known: it’s a crap map. As a result I went in the wrong direction, taking half an hour to find a stop that was minutes away, seeing only a Chelsea FC-themed sports pub on my route to make it worthwhile.
Realising my error I returned, amid wild winds, passing a woman handing out the Finnish equivalent of the Big Issue in the Rautatientori (Railway Square). As I dismissed her with my hand – the hand that was holding my list of instructions explaining how to get to the hostel – loosened its grip on said piece of paper, and a howling wind drove it away from me. “FUCK,” I shouted very loudly and very publicly, and began to chase it, back strained by my towering backpack. Getting a foot to it and halting its progress, I went to pick it up but lifted my foot as I did so, and of course it sped away from me once more. After another wild chase I got hold of it, nearly falling flat on my face as in my desperation to grab it, my rucksack lurched onto my head and nearly toppled me. This farce put me in a foul mood for the rest of the day, as did confusion on the tram – I missed my stop as it wasn’t clearly named, and was fortunate that it was near the end of the line so I could hop back on and get off just minutes after reaching the final destination.
The hostel – Eurohostel, in the Katajanokka neighbourhood – wasn’t too far from the centre of the city and was relatively cheap considering how expensive Scandinavia is, but it was the most industrial, impersonal complex I’ve been to since my first Eurotrip in summer 2013; huge and sterile, with no carefully hand-annotated maps or personal recommendations from staff. That said, I have no complaints about the room – while a two person dorm was a new experience for me, and a slightly weird one at first if you’re sharing with a stranger, it means two single beds (NO BUNK BEDS! Rejoice!), plenty of storage space, a table and chairs, and two separate cupboards. You had to make your own bed, but in the world of hostels, this relative privacy was practically luxurious. My room-mate was a friendly girl from Hong Kong who was happy to let me watch Masterchef on my phone without headphones, which was friendship enough for me. Bizarrely, the kitchen – at the other end of what seemed like a never-ending corridor – required your room key card to enter, and locked at 11pm. Although stocked with hob and some crockery/cutlery, there were no drinking receptacles (meaning I could only have water if I bought a bottle), and the fridge was full of tiny storage units that required a deposit be paid before you could use it. Even more weirdly, the communal bathroom had piped birdsong playing at all times.
I’d planned to cook for myself but these provisions were lacking and besides, I was too grumpy to venture outdoors into the winds. Fortunately there was a restaurant on the ground floor called Katajanmarja, among whose dishes was a hearty dish of Finnish meatballs, mashed potato and lingonberry jam with thick gravy. €11 seemed reasonable for Finnish prices, and it tasted divine. The thought of jam and meat is not a pleasant one, but the sharp jam complemented the gravy-soaked meatballs. I’m dribbling a bit thinking about it. Mmmmm. Ikea meatballs, eat your heart out!
Hoping the weather would be less relentless, I headed out on the morning of my second day ready to see all the sights and do all the things. Unfortunately it was even windier than the day before, and mixed with the still-baffling tram map – not to mention a lack of ticket machines at the hostel’s tram stop – I was quickly confused and annoyed again. Although I later discovered you were meant to buy a ticket on the tram if there were no machine, from this point onwards I purposefully neglected to buy any tram tickets. Trams really are the most confusing mode of transport abroad (see Krakow, Budapest, Sofia entries).
I got off at the Senate Square, crowned by Helsinki Cathedral, which was a mix of Russian Orthodox domes and Neoclassical pillars – so basically, a less impressive version of St Paul’s Cathedral. It turns out that this is also the location at the beginning of the video for Internet meme and uber-catchy song Sandstorm, by Finnish DJ Darude. There wasn’t really much to see thoug, so I moved westwards in search of museums and more sights. Unfortunately my free map – the only one provided by the hostel – was nearly as crap as the tram map, and I struggled to work out where anything was. Being blown around all over the place, I took refuge in a nearby McDonalds, irritated and suddenly cripplingly lonely.
The city museum, which was free, turned out to be closed until 2016. The Sibelius monument was nowhere near a tram stop. The theme park was expensive, and I was saving up to go to the superior Liseberg amusement park in Gothenburg later on in my trip. At a loss for what to do, I found the distinctive Kamppi Chapel building in the centre of the city and, having been advised that it was a place for quiet contemplation away from the hustle and bustle of the city, sought shelter from the gusts outside.
Although a staunch atheist, I love looking at churches and chapels for their architecture, design, and the reticent pensiveness of those inside. Kamppi was particularly beautiful – built entirely from wood, its aesthetics were unlike any chapel I’ve been to before. When it was truly silent, I could have stayed there for hours just thinking. Sadly my fellow tourists came and went with less care to mute their footsteps, or to keep their bags from rustling, and the magic wore off eventually. However, it remains by far my favourite place in a city I never quite took to.
A walk to the seafront had a nicer view than the vice-versa view I’d seen the previous day as the ferry had docked, with wild, forested islands pocketed around the coast. There were also some charming tortoise-shaped concrete sign-holders lined up near the water’s edge, not only ready to bear some signs and keep them from tumbling over in the never-ending bluster, but also to keep cars from parking too close to the water or trams. This was also the location of one of the ports for the Suomenlinna ferry, but I’d vowed to spend my last day there to give me some kind of a concrete plan for a day.
Still feeling empty, alone and at a loss of what to do with myself, I took my not-buying-a-tram-ticket criminality to the next level and sat on the tram equivalent of the Circle Line (lines 2/3, I believe) for an hour, as a less than satisfying DIY sightseeing tour. I planned to disembark to find the Olympic Stadium but again the poorly-named stops floored me, as I never knew where to get off, and just ended up staying on it for an hour before finally giving up, getting off back in the city centre, having a nice (but expensive) slice of cheesecake and smoothie at Cafe Lasipalatsi by Mannerheimintie tram stop, and hopping right back on the tram to go back to the hostel.
As I waited for the tram, a man started yabbering at me in Finnish. I did my usual “Sorry, I don’t speak Finnish. Do you speak English?” schtick, but unlike most – who just replied “Yes” and translated themselves – this man looked at me curiously, in a way that made me feel quite uncomfortable, and switched to English to question me about my language skills. “Do you speak any language except English?” Now, technically I speak some basic French, but my pronunciation and accent are both so appalling I shy away at any attempt to do so. My reading skills are much better, and I read Latin too. But speak? Not really. So I said no.
This was the wrong answer. He began to rant about how unfair it was that English speakers never had to bother learning any other languages, continuing on the tram as he was getting the same one as me, and complaining that he – as an Estonian – had to know Estonian, Finnish, Russian and English to improve his job prospects. He effectively suggested that I shouldn’t go to Finland if I had no intention of trying to learn the language. “If I had to learn the language of every country I’d been to, I’d have to learn about 20 languages,” I snapped. He was undeterred. While he had a point, the failing is really with both the UK education system for putting no emphasis on learning foreign languages, but even then it’s not that simple – English, as the lingua franca of the world, is an obvious choice for non-native speakers to learn first. What’s the obvious choice for English speakers? Mandarin? Spanish? German? I was relieved to get away from the confrontation when I got to my tram stop.
After some calming down in my room, I went to find an ATM so I could have dinner at a nearby Nepalese restaurant, having never had Nepalese food before. I ended up on a detour having found the beautiful cathedral I’d noticed from the tram window, Uspenski cathedral, pictured at the top of this post. Although I didn’t go inside, it was satisfying enough to get a picture that did its outside justice, surrounded by newly-grown bluebells all the while.
That Nepalese restaurant was called Mount Everest – of which there are several other branches throughout the city – and I can recommend it for its polite, friendly staff, swift service and, of course, the food! My saag bhendo looked somewhat unappetising, mainly because of the sludgy appearance of the spinach sauce, but was in the words of Masterchef blessed with BIG FLAVA and was a fairly reasonable €15.50.
Day 3 began with me taking advantage of Eurohostel’s free morning sauna option, before packing my bag for my flight to Copenhagen the next morning, dumping it in the luggage room, and tentatively going outside to find the Katajanokka port. Success! For the first time, it wasn’t heinously blowy, and it put me in a cautiously good mood. A 12-hour return ticket to Suomenlinna – the national fortress of Finland – was just €5 and took only 20 minutes each way, and the islands themselves were free to roam on. The museum, located at the Visitor Centre, was €6.50 entry and was pretty small, but came with maps and an informative movie about the history of the fortress, which in turn implied a lot of national history (Swedish rule, Russian rule, independence). Most surprising of all was learning that Helsinki, until Suomenlinna’s construction in the mid-18th century (then known as Sveaborg – ‘the Swedish fortress’), was a poor town of 1500 people.
Although no longer a military base, it’s still inhabited by around a thousand citizens. It must be a strange place to live, with hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting every year, and dense stony strongholds imperiously dotted about between wild grassy plains. To the tourist’s eye, however, it’s a pretty beautiful place, much more so than the city. [Photoblog to come.]
I walked around for a few hours on the recommended route, up to the King’s Gate, and then back to near the visitor centre to a cafe called Jääkellari to have a warm tomatoey soup. Then it was back to the mainland, invigorated, and ready to spend my last few hours at the tourist sites I’d meant to see the day before – the Olympiastadion, an underwhelming building from the outside indeed, with only the cloud-tickling tower to distinguish it, and the Sibelius monument, quite pretty, but not as much as the beautiful parkland in which it was located. The evening approaching, I high-tailed it back to the hostel to have more meatballs – only this time I was served just two meatballs #PrayForMyStomach – grab my bag, and prepare for the looooong night ahead.
Overall, while Helsinki has a few truly lovely buildings – especially Uspenski cathedral and Kamppi Chapel – and indisputable natural beauty, the central areas just left me cold. (Quite literally, with the wind.) Sorry, Helsinki – it’s not you, it’s me.