Tuesday, August 16 – rainy
Though it’s still rainy and in the low 60s (same weather as St. Petersburg), the feeling of the place is so much lighter. We climb upon another tour bus and drive past Embassy Park and the city harbor, stopping for a photo at Senate Square, where there is the Government Palace and Lutheran Cathedral.
As we drive to the city center from the cruiseport, there is lots of construction going on, our guide tells us there are only two seasons in Helsinki, summer and road construction. I don’t see any graffiti, the new buildings that are going up everywhere are modern and stylish . This is such a contrast to the massive blocks of institutional looking housing that we saw in Russia just yesterday. There is a large sculpture called, A Very Bad Boy, it is a couple of stories tall, the subject is a frowning boy peeing on the sidewalk, very funny. We also pass more whimsical public art, a bronze lounging cow on a park bench, two cows made of old cars on a green belt. I love this place already.
Ok, very touristy, but fun, we stop at a “winter wonderland experience” with one of the “world’s largest” ice bars. Upon arrival, they outfit us with snow suits, boots and gloves. They have built igloos and a very small hill for sledding, a track for a sled pulled by huskies and the ice bar. The walls, tables, and drinking glass are carved from ice. They have made tables, benches, chairs of of ice. The chairs have furs on them and they have candle light everywhere. It really is lovely when you enter. After we try out the tandem skis, sledding and kick sledding, we have our shot of cranberry vodka. We got some laughs and all decided that we do want to stay on a real ice hotel to try that out some day. (There’s an ice bar in Bergen that we will try out in a couple of weeks too. It will be fun to compare.)
Back on the bus, we drive to Mannerheim Street, which is Helsinki’s main street. We see the Opera House, Parliament House, the National Museum and Finlandia Hall, the concert and convention center designed by renowned architect Alvar Aalto. We also also pass Kiasma, where we must return on the next trip. It is a very stunning Contemporary Art museum designed by the American architect Steven Holl, which contains the contemporary art collection of the Finnish National Gallery.
We passed a beautiful residential area with a long green belt. A small park had an area of tall tables, too high for picnic tables. Our guide explained that people wash their area rugs there in the spring. She explained that this nation of mostly Lutherans have THAT work ethic which allows them to enjoy getting a tan out in the sun only if they are doing something productive, such as washing rugs. She said that they feel guilty to just lay in the sun to get a tan. She also dreamily said that the smell of the soap and the washing the rugs was the harbinger of summer.
Regarding their treasured summers, she said, “In the summer we go fishing and we make love, in the winter we fish less.” With thousands and thousands of lakes and tremendous coastal shorelines, they are sailors and swimmers during the summers. Winters are so long and cold that they feel they must spend every minute outside and the when autumn comes they aren’t too upset, because then they enjoy a fire and a book.
There are lots of opportunities for activity all year long. They are currently building floating swimming pools in the harbor which are to be heated all year long. One is sea water and one is and fresh water. We saw one of their ice breaker ships in the harbor. I was surprised to learn that they smash ice with weight of ship not sharp edges on the bow. There is actually a cruise that you can take out on an ice breaker from a town to the north called Kemme? In this cruise you can not only see the ice breaker in action, but you can suit up and go swimming among the broken ice blocks! Geez! These quiet folks are also a little crazy. Our guide mentioned other winter fun activities such as a wife carrying race, and suggested that we check it out on you tube. (Which I will as soon as I have decent wifi.) Helsinki has extensive bike paths too. An unused underground train line was made into a very functional bike and walking path with no cars allowed. People ride bikes all year long, even in their frigid winter.
Most signs in Helsinki are in Swedish as well as in Finnish. The two languages are very different from each other and I am told that Suomi (Finnish) is a very difficult language to learn. It has no prepositions, speakers talk in a continuous stream as they breath in and out and the inflection is always the first syllable of each word. This makes it especially difficult for non speakers to get clues as to questions or statements. On the other hand Swedish is supposedly easier to understand and is similar to Danish. Our guide tells us that if you “Speak Swedish like you have a hot potato on your mouth, it sounds like Danish.”
Our last stop was at the very unique and extraordinarily beautiful Temppeliaukio Rock Church. This Lutheran church is also known as the Church of the Rock because it is quite literally excavated out of and built from solid rock. The dome rises up, but not very high above start level. It is unassuming from the outside, but the sense of calm and grace upon entering is so very moving. People are asked to remain silent when they enter and soft music soothes. The church’s exposed rock surfaces of the interior walls give it excellent acoustics and it is often used as a concert venue. Candles flicker against rough and exposed rock and the copper roof, covered with miles of copper cables in a circular pattern, glistens. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a drink of pure, icy water after consuming rich, highly sugared Russian palaces.
Barry, Jon, Kathryn and I had a few hours in the rainy city before the way too early ship departure. We found a restaurant which Rick Steves recommended, Zector. It has a rustic interior and features traditional Nordic food such as reindeer, dark bread, fish pie, and beer (of course). Though the place was a touch hokey, with tractors and cows to give it a farm atmosphere, and weird, since it was in a modern building – it was fun. We then had just a short time to look through a farmers market before we got a taxi to the ship.