Helsinki

Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck enjoy a few days in Finland’s fascinating capital

Market Square

Market Square

Craft seller at Market Square

Craft seller at Market Square

Helsinki Quayside potato seller

Helsinki Quayside potato seller

Old Market Hall interior

Old Market Hall interior

Inside Old Market Hall

Inside Old Market Hall

Carrot

Juuri Sapas of Organic Carrot.

Lutheran Cathedral

Lutheran Cathedral

Helsinki is an ideal city for a short break. It isn’t a particularly cheap destination but we discovered that with a little care it can be enjoyed without breaking the bank. Norwegian Airlines offer reasonably-priced direct flights from the UK. Our small hotel, the Rivoli Jardin was ideally situated in Kartinkaupunki, a quiet bourgeois area of cobbled streets (Jove Jannsson of Moomin fame was born around the corner) within in easy walking distance of the Cathedral(s), the Harbour, the Market Square, the Design Museum, the Museum of Architecture and many other important sights. There was even a supermarket opposite – always useful for water and cheaper-than-mini-bar items. Our room was small but contained all we could need, the breakfast was excellent and the manager Merja Koski and her staff were unfailingly helpful.

The sun was shining and we set off to explore up the Esplanadi, a leafy park which is sandwiched between two busy thoroughfares. Throughout Finland water draws one like a magnet and we made our way immediately towards the sea and found somewhere no visitor should miss– Market Square. There, at the water’s edge were stalls selling with fur hats and gloves, unnecessary on this fine day but reminding us that in the winters even this stretch of sea is frozen over. There were also stalls laden with attractive, well designed craft items – Finland doesn’t seem to do tat. We were also at just the right moment to catch all the new season’s produce and enjoyed strolling amongst the stalls laden with great heaps of fresh green peas – which people were buying to eat straight from the pod – also luscious ripe cherries, blueberries, strawberries, many sorts of fish and seafood and masses of herbs, flowers and vegetables. There was even a man selling potatoes from a boat moored at the quay.

We crossed a little bridge at the far end of Market Square and were soon beside the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral. This was built by the Russians when the Grand Duchy of Finland belonged to them and was the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the Western World. With its 13 onion domes outside and blue domed ceiling inside it was darkly impressive.

From here it was not far to Senate Square where we stood for a while listening to a busker singing operatic arias so well we thought he must be moonlighting from the opera. This square is the huge hub of Helsinki’s university, banking and governmental buildings, and is dominated by the massive white Lutheran Cathedral with its tall columns and huge green dome.

We’ve always found a good way to get to grips with a new city is to take a city bus tour. Here an even cheaper option, so the helpful green-clad tourist girls informed us while providing us with a brochure and map, is to take the Rundtur, a circular tram ride which starts from Market Square on tram 2 – which at a certain stage in the loop becomes tram 3 before bringing you back to the square again. This not only goes all over the city passing the main shopping centre Mannerheiminte and the wonderful Central Railway Station with its ornate entrance before heading towards the Finnish National Opera House, the Olympic Stadium, lakes and parks and the university Botanical Gardens and then turning back passing the Swedish Theatre, an area of cafes and boutiques in a district called Bulevardi which looked worthy of further investigation and down past another Cathedral, St Henry’s, to the Olympia Ferry Terminal and then up again past an Observatory perched on a hill and back to Market Square. Not only had we seen many areas tourists usually miss but we’d done it in the company of locals who use this tram as a their daily means of transport – and all for the princely sum of €2.50 each!

Having worked up an appetite we set off for dinner at a restaurant near our hotel which we’d heard was doing something innovative – serving Sapas, the Finnish take on tapas. The interior of Ravintola Juuri was warmly rustic and the diners a mixed crowd of youngish couples and families all enjoying themselves. The cheerful waitress explained that the dishes ‘had their roots in hand-made cooking and Finnish food traditions’ and that of the 12 sapas on offer ( at €4.60 each) most people ordered a maximum of 6, so as we were feeling hungry, we ordered the dozen to share.

Every one was attractively served, some on little slate plates. As it was the beginning of summer we began with the traditional summer fish, perch, cured and served with potato mayonnaise and red onion; then came char grilled rainbow trout with spruce sprouts and malt with a scattering of lingen seeds and decorated wild onion flowers – all deliciously tasty and prettily presented. Next came herring à la Lindström ( ie .with beetroot, in tiny cubes) and baked porridge with smoked Baltic herring and cucumber ( much better than it sounds) and then an egg cheese with lemon, thyme and birch sap; next tiny vivid balls of carrots with tarragon served with one long carrot. At this stage we are half way through and although I usually dread tasting menus because by course four I’ve had enough, this was different – each dish was so light and so well put together with contrasts of creamy and crunchy textures and no loss of flavour that we were quite happy to see the next serving; a tiny ploughman’s omelette with spring cabbage which was followed by a false morel with goat’s cheese cake, then by a lamb sausage Tunisienne (nice enough, but I felt rather out of place here) and next a piece of organic ox tongue with pickles and roasted onions which was full of flavour as were the spring chicken with celery and the final course, Finn beef on a stick of fennel.

We had begun with fish and finished with meat but of course these sapas can be eaten in any order. Having thoroughly enjoyed our introduction to modern Finnish food in a restaurant with a warm and pleasant ambience and friendly service we went happily back to out cosy bed just round the corner.

The city of Helsinki almost forms a peninsula jutting into the Baltic and is surrounded by an archipelago of little islands and so the next morning we felt a boat ride would be in order. Leaving from the harbour next to Market Square, our 1½ cruise trip which cost €22.00 each, was well worth it. The boat was comfortable with a little café and the trip described as a ‘The Beautiful Canal Route,’ in fact wound its way amongst the islands combining an account of the history of ‘Helsinki, daughter of the Mother Baltic founded 1550 by Gustaf Vasa, King of Sweden,’ with spectacular vistas of sea, sky and islands.

We passed the famous Sommenlina Fortress and islands with Viking remains and we saw stretches of sandy beach and islands containing houses to which Helsinki residents decamp for the summer holidays – each equipped with that essential to Finnish life – a water-side sauna.. As we passed one spot our captain reported having seen a whole family of elks swimming between the islands. After going through the narrow Degerö Canal we passed the Helsinki Zoo and shortly afterwards the impressive fleet of 24,000 horsepower ice-breakers which can shift ice up to 5m thick, now enjoying a summer break from their duties of keeping these waters navigable in winter. A thoroughly enjoyable trip.

As we disembarked and prepared to walk back to the hotel we noticed a large building which simply bore a sign saying ‘1888.’ .At first we thought it might be a metro station but on following some people in, we found ourselves in a veritable gastronomic paradise.

We were lucky as this, the Old Market Hall (founded in 1888,) had apparently just re-opened after extensive restoration and within were fantastic displays of fish including the ever-popular gravalax. There were quantities of caviar and foods you wouldn’t find in many other delis: reindeer meat and also bear meat and strange specialities from Lapland. All this as well as colourful and tempting displays of shell fish, freshly baked bread, fruit, vegetables and souvenirs, all sold from elegant wooden booths, restored to the original nineteenth century design. Further as a number of the stalls are were in fact cafes, it is a great place in Helsinki for a lunch or snack.

There were many more things to do and see and our few days passed very quickly. For this short visit we concentrated on walking rather than museum visiting – although if this is your priority the Helsinki Card at €39 for 24 hours , €51 for 48 hours and €61 for 72 for hours offers you free admission to museums and attractions, free transport ( including our boat trip) as well as discounts to restaurants. We however found that our Insight Pocket Guide to Helsinki with its maps and clear instructions set out clearly several walks which provided a very good sense of the city. A city which we left hoping to return – always a sign of a successful short stay.

Useful Links
General Helsinki – www.visithelsinki.fi/en
 
Hotel Rivoli Jardin – www.rivoli.fi
 
Ravintola Juuri – www.juuri.fi/en
 
Helsinki Card – www.helsinkicard.com
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