May 11, 2016: Helsinki, Finland
After two full days of touring in St. Petersburg, we wanted to dial it back just a bit for today’s port stop, Helsinki, Finland. As the capital of this country (and a new country for all of us), we investigated the many available options and selected a fun tour with Helsinki Happy Tours, which offered a private 4 hour tour that took advantage of the extensive public transit system in the city. We would receive a 24 hour public transit pass, our guide, and together, we would bounce around the tram system of Helsinki to see many of its major attractions!
Promptly at 9am, we walked through the Cruise Terminal in Helsinki at West Harbor and met up with Dani, our guide for the day. Dani was in her 3rd season with Happy Helsinki and when she isn’t touring, she is a Kindergarten teacher at a German school. Originally from Austria, she came for a short visit several years ago, and has been here ever since.
As we walked with Dani out of the port, we walked through a massive construction project in the West Harbor area, one that she identified as a major expansion of residential units being built as Helsinki continues to grow at a rapid pace. One of richest capital cities in Europe, prices are steadily rising and the need for new places to live outpaces the supply.
We jumped onto the #9 tram and Dani walked us through the simple rules of using our ride card (and the unique rule that as long as Natalie is in possession of the stroller with R in it, both she and him are free under the system’s rules), and we took off.
Some rides were just a stop or two to transfer, others took us clear across town, but all incorporated Dani’s knowledge of the city, fun stories, and made us all feel at ease. She was a lot of fun, and with another day of nice, but cooler weather, it was a great day to explore.
We started with a trip to the Central Train Station (Eliel Saarinen), admired for both its building and architecture, but also for its ability to connect the entire city and country through an extensive bus, train, and tram network that all expands outwards from this point.
From here we went to Senate Square, where the Lutheran church sits high atop the hill next to the Senate Building and Helsinki University and continued just a few blocks to the waterfront to see the daily market selling fresh fruits and vegetables and the Uspenski, the largest Orthodox church (Finnish Orthodox) is located. Helsinki is working diligently to advance their green/local/sustainable stance and this was evident throughout the city.
Once finished on the waterfront, we dropped back on the tram and headed to the Toolo area, where Dani currently lives and we walked through a traditional market hall (Hakaniemen) where we stopped for a snack of cardamom pastries with blueberry, cream cheese, and apple donuts… YUM!
We headed back outside and passed by the Sauna Arla, one of the oldest public saunas in the city, dating back to the 1920s. Dani explained the love affair that all Finns have with sauna (it is both a noun and a verb) and how everyone saunas regularly – so much so that most apartments in Helsinki have them built into the units or there are multiple in a single building, where residents schedule their appointments to use them. The theraputic benefits are clear and made Darin and Natalie think long and hard about getting theirs back online at the house!
Back on the tram and headed to the Opera house and Olympic stadium, home of the Helsinki olympics in the 1950s. Originally scheduled for an earlier date, war had pushed this back by over a decade. All the facilities from the olympics are still in use within the city as public facilities and many continue to undergo renovations as Finland prepares for a grand celebration in 2017 to celebrate their 100th anniversary of independence.
Next up on the tour was a tram ride and a short walk to the Temppeliaukio Church or “Church of the Rock” (Note: Finnish is a challenging language to learn for new learners, so much so that Swedish is also an official language for the country, and all signs are presented with both languages!)
The church of the Rock story is a great one – a design contest was held in the 1930s and a massively tall, traditional church was planned to rise from the granite that sits just a few feet under all Helsinki. The design was selected and war stopped all progress and funding. When the church was reconsidered again, in 1969, the selected design (actually the 3rd for this site), was what was constructed today. It is something special. The church essentially is a simple Lutheran church that was literally blown out of the granite. The altar, pews, and a small loft sit within the rock itself, and 13 miles of copper ribbon was made into concentric circles on the ceiling. It is a sight to behold.
One more tram ride brought us to the Kamppi shopping mall/bus station/metro station and square, which seems to be just a massive space of noise, controlled chaos, people, and activity. Off to the side, in an assuming corner, is a towering wood structure that some say looks like Noah’s Ark, others like a teacup… Inside of this 38 foot tall structure is a chapel, a chapel of silence. Wooden pews inside the light wood colored interior include big comfy cushions and pillows in blacks, grays, and navy colors. Here, anyone is welcome to pray, meditate, or just be with their thoughts while the outside world explodes and no one on the inside will barely notice. While not completely soundproof, it certainly is a cool space to clear one’s mind and we certainly enjoyed the short stay.
From here, Dani escorted us to a local book shop where we were able to find two books (one in Finnish and one in Swedish) for R, and at this point we said our goodbyes. Dani was very knowledgeable, a lot of fun and would welcome the chance to tour with Helsinki Happy Tours again in the future! She gave us instructions to get back to the tram that would get us back to the cruise ship and we were free to explore on our own for the rest of the day. We headed back to the ship for a late lunch and called it a day. A wonderful day in Helsinki!