Exploring Helsinki…Day 1
Helsinki is the home to a great airline, Finnair, so often travellers arrive in Helsinki on their way to some where else in Europe. Maybe they are catching a ferry to Tallinn in Estonia or overnight ferries to St Petersburg in Russia or Stockholm in Sweden. Possibly they are merely having a layover before they head off to Paris or Berlin. If you find yourself in this situation, why not spend a few days in Helsinki, it will be worth it.
We arrived in Helsinki very early in the morning after our long flight from Brisbane, Australia. The train trip into the centre of Helsinki was very simple but it was Sunday and the idea that we could find a café open at 7am for the badly needed coffee was laughable. After a bit of wandering in the streets around the main station we checked out a hotel that was happy for us to join the throng in their breakfast room. Fed, watered and restored we headed out for a walk around the city, generally in the direction of the ferry terminals as we were due to catch one to Tallinn, Estonia later that afternoon. Our first target was the White Cathedral with the green domes (that apparently replaced the ‘onion’ domes after Independence) that dominates the Helsinki skyline.
The white Cathedral is a ‘Finnish Evangelical Lutheran’ Church built in the first half of the 19th Century. It was originally called St Nicholas after the Grand Duke of Finland who was also Tsar Nicholas I of Russia (1825-1855). The cathedral looks down upon the Senate Square where the magnificent statue (above) of his successor, Alexander II, stands at the centre. The whole area of Senate Square was very impressive for our early morning stroll and a normal tourist stroll would then have taken us to the Red Church down the hill overlooking the Sodra Hamnen (South Harbour) of Helsinki. The Uspenski Cathedral as the red Church is called represents the contrasting histories of Finland. Hailing from the other end of the spectrum of Christian religious traditions, the Red Cathedral is an ‘Eastern Orthodox’ cathedral built during the reign of Tsar Alexander II and represents the height of Russian power over Finland in the nineteenth century.
Finland’s history is based on its geography; Sweden on one side and Russia on the other. From the thirteenth century, the region that became Finland was dominated by the Swedes. Due to the wars between Russia and Sweden in the late 18th Century, Finland came under the control of the Russian Empire and remained so until the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. This history of neighbourly conflict is part of Helsinki’s fabric, particularly in the harbour where the Island fortress of Suomenlinna (built by the Swedes in 1748 as protection against Russian invasions) is the top tourist attraction in the city.
Rather than heading down the side of South Harbour to the Ferry Terminal, we decided to examine the wonderful waterfront of central Helsinki that is called the Market Square. With the harbour on our left, we walked past the Presidential Palace on our right. Its history is one of the many examples of the links with Russia as it was built by the Nicholas I, mentioned above, as his palace for those rare occasions when he or his relatives visited his subjects in the Duchy of Finland. After independence in 1917, it became the Presidential Palace of Finland and remains the official residence and office of the President of the nation. It has seen many famous visitors over the years including three former US presidents, Ford, Reagan and Bush. In July 2018, given the proximity and lengthy historical ties with its neighbour Russia, the Presidential Palace became the venue for a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Presidents of two of the most powerful nations in the world. Entirely disconnected with the venue, the meeting was highly controversial; the criticism from all sides of the event can be seen in the following quote by a former Republican Presidential ‘hopeful’ who opined…. “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”
We were visiting Helsinki in June of the same year so we missed the chaos in the Market Square and the presence of the world leaders, their security forces and the world press. On the day we wandered through the markets over the road from the palace, the sun was shining and we couldn’t believe the quality of freshly cooked seafood that was available for our early lunch.
After lunch we were able to stroll along the boulevard that heads directly away from the Market Square up towards the Swedish Theatre. The park that runs the length of these two main streets (The Esplanadi) was a busy venue for local Fins out to enjoy the sunshine, the ice-creams and the live music provided by an entertaining group of local buskers. By this stage of the afternoon it was time to head for our ferry terminal, and sail for Tallinn. The other half of our tour of Helsinki we could leave for our time at the end of our vacation when we would return to Helsinki as our departure point for our flight home. But it is not just the centre of the city of Helsinki that is gorgeous, the beauty of its harbour and Islands was on full display as we sailed out into the Baltic Sea headed for Stockholm.