***  FINLAND  2015   ~  WEEK 3 - HELSINKI  ***

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CAMPING IN FINLAND 2015 - Finland's capital city Helsinki:

An unscheduled stop-over:  returning along the ferry-connected islands of Turku's southern archipelago to Pargas, we set the sat-nav for Helsinki expecting a 2 hour straightforward drive to Finland's capital city for our 3 day stay. But part-way along the E18 motorway, the camper's battery warning light came on. We limped along 500m to the next exit and parked at a glass-ware shop to phone Safeguard's AA break-down recovery service. After a couple of hours' wait, the recovery truck arrived and the suspected failed alternator was confirmed. George was ignominiously loaded up onto the back of the truck (see left) (Photo 1 - George on breakdown-truck) to take us to the VW garage in the nearby town of Salo. The garage was now closed for the evening, but the breakdown man assured us he would phone them with details our problem, and we could 'camp' overnight at the rear of their car park. When the garage opened at 7-00am the following morning, the workshop supervisor was indeed expecting us, and a mechanic was stood by to fit a replacement alternator which they had in stock. If this had to happen, at least Salo had a VW garage, Tractoauto Oy with a place to camp, albeit a bizarre one; and after 1½ hours wait and coffee in the customer sitting area, George was all ready with a new alternator fitted with characteristic VW first class service and efficiency. With profuse thanks to the garage staff, we could resume our journey to Helsinki and the next phase of the trip.

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Helsinki

Rastila Camping, Helsinki:  the E18 motorway was almost traffic-free, passing through beautiful pine and birch forested terrain, and by 11-00am we were approaching the city outskirts. The route via Ring #1 was straightforward, and in light traffic we passed around the northern side of the city; beyond the eastern end of the conurbation, we turned off to reach the familiar Rastila Metro station and the campsite. As in 2012 the site looked crowded, but we were booked in with thorough and helpful efficiency and in fluent English by the young reception staff who provided site layout, city maps and Metro details. Inevitably the price for a city site was expensive - €25 without electricity and including a Camping Card discount, but the huge site's multitude of tarmaced pitches, set out in herring-bone layout along roadways, were well-space and screened by intervening hedges. We re-filled with fresh water and quickly settled in. In spite of our unexpected delay, by 12-00 noon with the sky clear and weather warm and sunny, we set off for our first day in Helsinki, without doubt our favourite European city.

Helsinki's Art Nouveau Central Railway Station:  around to the Metro station, we bought our tickets at the machine and with the sun streaming down through the glazed roof, waited on the platform for the next train into the city (Photo 2 - Rastila Metro station). Counting off the stations on the Metro plan for the 20 minute journey, we got off at Central Station (Rautatieasema), an imposing Art Nouveau monument in its own right built with red granite in 1919 just after Finnish independence. Up from the Metro into the station's grandiose concourse, we photographed the magnificent Art Deco booking hall (Photo 3 - Art Deco station booking hall), and out onto the forecourt the stately Art Nouveau main façade and arched entrance-way with its iconic Stone Men Lantern Bearers, 2 pairs of muscular male figures sculpted from red granite each holding a large spherical glass lantern (see above left) (Photo 4 - Lantern Bearers).

The Finnish Parliament building (Eduskunta):  we made our way along to the busy main shopping street of Mannerheimintie, named after Finland's legendary war-time leader Marshall Carl Gustaf Mannerheim whose equestrian statue stands (see left) with its back turned contemptuously on the graceless Kiasma modern art gallery (referred to by us as Miasma). Across the busy main road, we photographed the stark block-form Eduskunta (Parliament building), closed now for a 3 year programme of renovation, the building now shrouded with scaffolding (Photo 5 - Eduskunta under renovation) (see right). We were grateful to have had the opportunity in 2012 to visit the Eduskunta (see our 2012 log). During the reconstruction, Parliament is now meeting in the nearby Sibelius Academy and we enquired there about attending a plenary session since the newly elected Parliament was now sitting; we were told there was a debate tomorrow afternoon which was open to the public. Across the road from Parliament, we could look across open parkland to the state-of-the-art Music Centre concert hall (Musiikkitalo) completed in 2011, and now home to the Helsinki Philharmonic and Finnish Radio Orchestras and Sibelius Academy Orchestra (Photo 6 - Music Centre (Musiikkitalo)). The opening of the new Music Centre had fortuitously made the former Sibelius Academy available as a temporary meeting hall for Parliament. From the Music Centre's interior gallery we were able to look down into the 1,700 seat amphitheatre auditorium where members of an orchestra were rehearsing.

The National Theatre:  back through the parkland, where young students lazed on the grass in the sunshine, and past the rear of Kiasma (see left) (which looked as gracelessly unappealing as its front!), we walked through to the railway station to emerge at the bus station on the far side to find the Jugendstil National Theatre, home of Finnish drama since 1872. Under Swedish rule 'Finnish culture' was considered something of a misnomer, and later under the Tsars Finnish theatre was banned as a nationalistic anti-Russian threat. The leading Finnish dramatist of these early days had been Alexis Kivi (1834~72) who died impoverished and insane before his work received acknowledgement. His statue now sits enthroned outside the National Theatre, although when it was created in 1939, no one would recall his true appearance (see right) (Photo 7 - National Theatre).

Engel's ensemble of public buildings and the Lutheran Cathedral and Senate Square:  along Yliopistonkatu (University Street) through the University area, we reached Helsinki's stately Lutheran Cathedral which stands like an iced wedding cake on a high terrace atop monumental stone steps overlooking Senate Square (Photo 8 - Lutheran Cathedral). Just opposite the Cathedral outside the University Library, a wall-plaque commemorates the German born architect Carl Ludwig Engel (1778~1840) who was commissioned by the Tsarist authorities to design an appropriately grand assemblage of public buildings to grace the 1817 reconstruction of Helsinki when the capital of the new Russian Grand Duchy of Finland was moved here from Turku in 1812. His neo-Classical Empire style based on the grandiose buildings of St Petersburg still embellish Finland's capital city. Emerging from Yliopistonkatu, suddenly the imposing open space of Senate Square opens out before you, surrounded by the graceful symmetry of Engel's magnificent array of neo-Classical public buildings: Government Palace encloses the eastern side and the western end is graced by the imposing splendour of the University Main Building (Photo 9 - Government Palace). We should return here several times to what is now the heart of the city during our 3 day stay in Helsinki.

The Kauppatori waterfront, Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral and Presidential Palace:  down to the harbour and waterfront Kauppatori (market square), we photographed the Havis Amanda mermaid statue, its fountains sparkling in the bright afternoon sunshine against a backdrop of passing trams curving around the square (see below left) (Photo 10 - Havis Amanda mermaid statue). Such a sunny afternoon was the perfect time to take a ferry boat around the harbour and off-shore archipelago of islands for the quintessential view of Helsinki's White City skyline. The next cruise was at 4-30pm giving us time to amble past the tat souvenir stalls of Kauppatori and across to the Uspenski Russian Orthodox Cathedral set up on its rocky knoll on the islet of Katajanokka. This magnificent structure with its gilded bauble-topped domes was consecrated in 1868 during the period of Russian rule (see above right) (Photo 11 - Uspenski Russian Orthodox Cathedral). As the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, the icon be-decked interior (Photo 12 - Uspenski's icon-bedecked interior) poses a stately contrast with the starkly plain interior of the Lutheran Cathedral which stands out across the rooftops of the Presidential Palace when viewed from Uspenski's terrace (Photo 13 - Lutheran Cathedral over rooftops of the Presidential Palace). Passing the young soldiers standing formal guard-duty outside the Presidential Palace, which had originally been converted by Engel in 1837 as an imperial palace for the Tsar, we returned to the waterfront.

An afternoon cruise around Helsinki Harbour:  at the Eteläsatama ferry dock we bought our tickets for the harbour cruise and secured seats on the upper outer deck for the best of the seaward views of the capital city. The ferry-boat Doris swung out around the inner harbour enabling us to photograph what we think is Helsinki's finest view from across the water, earning it the apt soubriquet of the White City from the magnificent waterfront skyline of Engel's classic buildings of City Hall and the Presidential Palace backed by the over-towering domes of his Lutheran Cathedral (Photo 14 - Helsinki's 'White City' skyline) (see below left and right). As Doris sailed out across the harbour dwarfed by the over-towering bulk of the Tallinn ferry moored at the Silja Line terminal, we continued taking photographs looking back across the busy harbour with imposing city panoramic backdrop and the Orthodox Cathedral (see below right) (Photo 15 - Orthodox Cathedral from across harbour). The little boat rounded the parkland, marina and waterside cafés on Helsinki's southern peninsula. and picked up speed out across open water towards Suomenlinna Island which had for centuries guarded the entrance to Helsinki harbour. Still we took photographs of the now distant city skyline with the Viking Line ferry at its mooring (see below left), as the Silja ferry moved from the terminal to begin the crossing to Estonia (Photo 16 - Ferry departing Helsinki). The wind was chill as we rounded Suomenlinna with the cruise-boat's multi-lingual commentary detailing the fortified island's history through the years of Swedish and Russian rule. What was not mentioned however was Suomenlinna's notorious role during the 1918 Finnish Civil War fought between left and right wing factions following the country's gaining independence in 1917: the island was the site of a prison camp where 1000s of Red Guards died from malnutrition, disease and brutality at the hands of the White Guard victors. This unsavoury piece of Finland's early 20th century history is conveniently air-brushed out of the tourist literature. The boat rounded Suomenlinna Island and turned past another of the islands still occupied by the Finnish military, to return across the open waters of the outer harbour, the chill wind giving full scope for a kite-surfer to show off his skills. Looping into the inner harbour, the boat passed the summer moorings of Helsinki's fleet of five ice-breakers which keep the city's ice-bound harbour open during winter months (Photo 17 - Helsinki's ice-breaker fleet).

A stroll back along Esplanadi:  with the boat's return past the Viking Line ferry terminal and the Orthodox Cathedral to its moorings by the dockside market, we ambled back along the delightful boulevard-gardens of Esplanadi, pausing to appreciate a small orchestra playing light music at the bandstand, one of Eslanadi's free promenade presentations (see below left); both the orchestra and members of their audience were in early 20th century period dress. Strolling or sitting on the benches along Esplanadi gardens is a favourite late afternoon pastime for Helsinki folk, and walking back along into the western sun, we could understand why (Photo 18 - City strollers along Esplanadi) (see below right). Back around to the station, we treated ourselves to a beer at the terrace-bar, sharing a table with a girl from Kuopio with whom we were soon in conversation; she was waiting for her train and was amazed to learn that we knew her home town. She left for her train and we also descended into Tunneli to catch the Metro back out to the campsite. What a day it had been, starting with securing the camper's replacement alternator, driving to Helsinki, and fitting in a fulsome afternoon in the capital.

Our second day in Helsinki - a student lunch: Helsinki's Metro line, clean, fast and efficient with trains running every ten minutes, is certainly a convenient means of transport into the city from Rastila Camping; tickets are an expensive €2.50 each but are valid for 1 hour on all forms of city public transport. This morning we got off at Helsingin Yliopisto (Helsinki University) where we planned to have lunch; the student cafeteria (mensa) is open to the public and provides the best value lunch in Helsinki. The long subway connecting through from the Metro station to Yliopistonkatu (University Street) had an appropriately civilised air, the walls decorated with rock-paintings images and a small ensemble in evening dress busking. We emerged into the heart of the university area, the sky now ominously grey. Along again to the Lutheran Cathedral and Senate Square, the dark sky made an effective backdrop to Engel's starkly white and domed Cathedral on its pedestal atop the flight of stone steps overlooking the square (Photo 19 - Engel's Lutheran Cathedral and stormy sky). We had planned to visit Sederholm House, Helsinki's oldest stone building dating from 1757; it was commissioned as a town house by the city's most prominent shipping magnate, the wealthy industrialist and member of parliament Johan Sederholm. The two-storey building topped with balustraded upper windows and mansard roof now houses a small museum illustrating 18th century Helsinki life - and is free entry (see below left). But not today: the place was closed for renovation. There was no time now for the alternative City Museum just around the corner if we were to get our student lunch before heading over to Parliament to attend this afternoon's plenary session. At the University main building in Fabianinkatu, we queued along with young undergraduates for our good value lunch at the student union cafeteria. In the entrance-hall, a poster advertised a demo against the new government's proposed introduction of student fees for overseas students as an economy measure.

Attending the Eduskunta (Parliament) as MPs vote on the new Speaker:  with the dark sky threatening rain, we hot-footed it across the city to the temporary parliament building in the Sibelius Academy; the presence of TV cameras, smart cars and a small crowd indicated that something was happening today. The entrance to the public gallery was open and inside we faced the usual rigmarole of emptying pockets for the security scanner. We explained our wish to attend this afternoon's debate, and the official (Harri according to his name badge) expressed surprise at our knowledge as English visitors of Finland's political affairs and recent general election. He gave us details of the final distribution of seats in the new Eduskunta (Parliament), and explained that this morning the formation of the new Government Coalition had been announced between Juha Sipilä's Centre Party (49 seats), the Finns Party (38 seats) and National Coalition Party (37 seats). Of the 14 ministerial portfolios, the Centre Party would have 6 ministers with Mr Sipilä as Prime Minister, the Finns Party 4 ministers including Foreign Affairs for the radical leader Tino Soini, and the National Coalition Party 4 ministers including Finance for the NCP leader and former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb. The newly elected Members had assembled this afternoon for the first formal business of the new session, to elect the Speaker and 2 Deputy Speakers for the new Parliament from nominations among its 200 Members. Normal business of parliament used the Eduskunta's modern electronic voting system with every member's vote displayed on the large screen in the front of the hall. But for election of the Speaker, traditional secret ballot using voting slips was used. It was a fortunate that our attendance this afternoon coincided with this important event, since with with background briefing from Harri, we should at least understand what was happening despite the language difficulty.

We took our seats in the public gallery, and although the view was restricted to the Speaker's podium, the lectern from which ministers addressed the Chamber, and the front rows of principal Members, crystal clear TV monitors relayed the view from the front of the Chamber showing the full House of seated Members (Photo 20 - Full House of newly elected Eduskunta) (see above right). TV cameras and press photographers lined the sides of the press gallery below. To our astonishment, not only had we been allowed to take in cameras but as the ballot was being conducted, we were free to take photographs of the proceedings and even of the front benches clustered in conversation as the ballot took place; one of those photographed was Mauri Pekkarinen of the Centre Party who was voted later that day as First Deputy Speaker (Photo 21 - Mauri Pekkarinen).

One of the last Parliament's Deputy Speakers called the Chamber to order, and invited the former Speaker to conduct the secret ballot for the new Eduskunta's Speaker. At the lectern he held up the ballot urn to show it was empty, and called out the list of all the newly elected Members in alphabetical order to come forward in turn and place their ballot slips in the urn (see above left) (Photo 22 - Members voting in turn). As the Members came up one by one to vote, we were able to take their photos from our position in the gallery. From the forward facing view on the TV monitor, we were able to recognise Juha Sipilä the new Prime Minister as he came forward in turn to record his vote (Photo 23 - Juha Sipilä casting his ballot).

When all the Members had cast their ballot, the full urn was taken over to a table in the corner of the hall, member-scrutineers nominated by the Parties came forward, voting slips tipped out, and the count began. While this was taking place, there was a buzz of conversation among the Members. During this pause we were able to get another photograph of the new Prime Minister Juha Sipilä shaking hands with the Centre Party's candidate for Speaker Mauri Pekkarinen (Photo 24 - Prime Minister Juha Sipilä) (see above right). The Acting Speaker called the Chamber to order and the ballot results were announced. We expected this to be greeted by clamorous reaction from Members as at Westminster, but the Chamber received the formal announcement in silence; perhaps the result was a foregone conclusion. The newly elected Speaker, Maria Lohela aged 36, Member for South Turku since 2011 and one of the youngest Finnish MPs ever to hold the Office of Speaker, quietly came to the podium to make her opening address (see below left), shook hands with her predecessors and took the Chair (Photo 25 - Maria Lohela, takes the Eduskunta's Chair). A member of the Finns Party Ms Lohela is a prominent supporter of tighter immigration control.

After the new Speaker's opening address (which of course we were unable to follow), there was a pause in business before the next round of ballots began to elect the 2 Deputy Speakers. Having seen, and been able to photograph the principal business of the day, we withdrew. Harri had prepared for us a copy of the new government's outline policy statements, though reading them later, they were written in such clichéistic consultant-speak as to be almost meaningless, committing the government to everything and nothing - sounds familiar? More important, the pack included details of the 14 new ministerial appointments and those of the newly elected Speaker. It had been a really privileged opportunity for us to see the Eduskunta at work and to witness the election of the new, young Speaker (see right). Past former speakers of the Eduskunta had later in their political life gone on to be elected President; who knows, perhaps this afternoon we had seen a future President of Finland at the start of her rise up the political ladder. Remember you read it here first!

The Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall) and City Museum:  by the time we emerged from the Eduskunta, the rain had stopped and sky beginning to brighten. We walked along Mannerheimintie past all the shops and Stockmans, Scandinavia's largest department stores, and ambled along Esplanadi just as the sun broke through. Along to the waterfront to the elegant building of the Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall) dating from 1888, we browsed among the stalls of its restored interior with all its mahogany woodwork. Temptingly attractive as all the foodstuffs were, it was all too expensive and we confined ourselves to photographs (Photo 26 - Vanha Kauppahalli). Up to Sofiankatu for a brief glimpse around the City Museum whose displays give a historical record of Helsinki's development from its origins as a country village in 1550 up to the present day through the lives of famous citizens and places of interest within the city. But it was all rather low key and clear why the museum was free entry. After a stroll back along Esplanadi, it was time for the Metro from Central Station back to Rastila Camping. It had been another fulfilling day, and we still felt thrilled at the opportunity to attend the Finnish Parliament on such a significant occasion.

Hakaniemi Kauppaahalli (Market Hall):  for our 3rd day in the city, we got off the Metro this morning at Hakaniemi, a district not normally frequented by tourists. Our intention was to visit the Kauppahalli (Market Hall) next to the Hakaniementori market square. Emerging from the Metro station, we followed locals carrying bags of shopping and hanging baskets of flowers along to the market. It was sheer delight on such a bright, sunny Saturday morning to mingle with locals in the open market, browsing the stalls laden with fruit, vegetables and flowers (Photo 27 - Hakaniementori market) (see left). The Kappahalli building occupied a corner of the square (see right) (Photo 28 - Hakaniemi Kauppaahalli (Market Hall)). At its opening in 1914, at a time when Helsinki's working class suburbs were expanding, the Hakaniemi market-hall was described as the biggest and most modern in the whole of Europe. It certainly still lives up to this description, and we spent a happy hour browsing the lanes of stalls laden with meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, bread. cakes and cheese (Photo 29 - Hakaniemi Kauppaahalli market stalls) (see below left), and treated ourselves to muikki (smoked whitebait) and savu silakka (smoked Baltic herring) for this evening's supper. The market's small café provided a good value lunch; it was a wonderful start to the day.

A Finnish pre-wedding tradition: as we crossed from the tram station by the market, we were accosted by a group of young teenage girls, speaking in Americanese; could we help? they asked. We assumed it was money or sponsorship they wanted, but no. It was a hen party, in Helsinki for the day before one of their number's wedding. Apparently it was a Finnish tradition on such occasions to stop a random older couple in the street, hand them a pre-addressed and stamped envelope and letter headed with the bride and groom's names, asking for written advice for a successful and lasting marriage. When they heard we were English, Oh that's perfect, they exclaimed. We were charmed by the request and readily undertook to write with our advice to Anna and Erik in Vaasa. They all ran off giggling to enjoy their day of fun in the capital!

Kaisaniemi University Botanical Gardens:  along Siltasaarenkatu, grateful to be away from tourists in an everyday Helsinki street, we crossed the bridge spanning an inlet of the Gulf to reach the Kaisaniemi University Botanical Gardens. The gardens were originally laid out by Engel (he turned his hand to everything!), and we followed one of the paths past labelled trees and shrubs around to the large and elegant wrought iron, glazed Palm House built in 1889 (Photo 30 - University Botanical Gardens). The Botanical Gardens and Museum suffered severe bomb damage during the Continuation War in 1944, and most of the plants were destroyed. Further along the street, we entered the neighbouring Kaisaniemi Park where a pathway led through to bring us out by the National Theatre.

Natural History Museum:  the Natural History Museum, housed in a grandiose Neo-Baroque building originally constructed as a Russian boys' school in the latter days of the Grand Duchy, was something of a disappointment given its standing as the country's premier natural history museum. The displays on Finnish Nature might have been interesting had the batteries of the audio-guides not run out; and the History of Life exhibition illustrating the evolution of life on earth from the earliest single-cell life forms, through the Age of Dinosaurs, the evolution of mammals, ending with the Ice Age, was well laid out but over-ambitious. The Story of Bones displaying the skeletons of different animals and birds gave one particular exhibit of interest to us. In Lapland we should see many reindeer, and here we could examine the skeletal features of reindeer which enabled these gentle animals to survive Arctic winters: the curiously evolved foot structure which helped to support the reindeer's weight on snow (see above right), and their nasal bone structure enabling the pre-heating of inhaled freezing air (see left). Esoteric you might say, but we found it interesting!

Finlandia Hall designed by Alvar Aalto:  back across to the Music Centre, we walked on to find the Finlandia Hall, designed as the capital's major concert hall by Finland's leading 20th century modernist architect Alvar Aalto just before his death in 1976. The long, low, asymmetrical and white marble-faced building is said to incorporate Aalto's characteristic wave-pattern into its design (Photo 31 - Finlandia Hall). We had seen much of Aalto's work throughout Finland and particularly in his home city of Jyväskylä during our 2012 visit (see our 2012 log on the work of Alvar Aalto), and heretically had found his designs uninspiring and over-rated. The same could be said for the Finlandia Hall, but determined to be objective, we went inside to try to see the auditorium. Paul tried his entire repertoire of persuasion: we are aficionados of Alvar Aalto's work, we claimed, come all the way from England, and have seen his other works throughout Finland. But to no avail; no form of argument could shift the security attendant in his rejection of our request. It could be said therefore to be partly his fault that our views on Alto's work remain unchanged!

House of Estates and final stroll along Esplanadi:  our time in Helsinki was drawing to a close. Past the Kiasma art gallery, only marginally less ungainly than the neighbouring glass-box newspaper offices (see above right), we walked for one last time over to Senate Square for final nostalgic photos of the Cathedral (see left), and sat at the top of the monumental flight of stone steps to gaze across Senate Square and Engel's splendid array of public buildings (Photo 32 - Senate Square). Just around the corner, the grandly Neo-Classical 19th century House of Estates still looked as magnificent as when we had first seen it in 2012; this was the building where the Diet of clergy, burgesses and peasantry met to govern the country before the Estates were abolished in 1906 in favour of the unicameral Parliament, elected by universal suffrage (Photo 33 - House of Estates). Back across Senate Square, we ambled back through the promenading crowds down Esplanadi in the late afternoon sunlight (Photo 34 - Esplanadi) (see below right), and made our way through the Saturday afternoon crowds along Mannerheimintie, pausing by the Three Smiths statue of 3 nude male workers hammering away in unison at an anvil; this bizarre memorial commemorates the craftsmen who raised funds for the Vanha Ylioppistalo, the Old Students' House, now the Finnish Students' Union which stands at this prestigious location (Photo 35 - Three Smiths statue).

Back at Central Station and final photographs of its imposing Art Nouveau frontage (Photo 36 - Central Station), after 3 long but rewarding days of walking the city streets (it felt as though we now knew the centre of Helsinki better than we did London), we again treated ourselves to drinks at the terrace-bar; and Sheila discovered Lonkero, literally ' tentacle', a popular Finnish long drink of gin and grapefruit soda. The sun declined behind the building casting us into cool shadow; it was time for our final Metro ride back out to Rastila. Tomorrow we should begin our journey out to the south-eastern corner of the country at Vaalimaa and from there begin the 1,200 km journey up the Via Karelia back roads of Eastern Finland's borderlands with Russia. Join us again shortly for further episodes of our travels through Finland.

Next edition to be published quite soon

Sheila and Paul

Published:  29 July 2015 at Jokitörmä Camping, Kaamanen, Finland

 

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