Monday, July 14, 2008


StreakFinland is a land of lakes, mobile phones and M. A. Numminen. And don't forget the Kaurismäki brothers, film writers and directors, including Leningrad Cowboys go to America which is one of my all-time favourite movies (here's a musical number form the movie). Oh, and lately some rather entertaining political scandals, including one involving a foreign minister, a stripper and - appropriately - several hundred mobile phone text messages. The capital, Helsinki, is a small, charming city that has retained the somewhat sleepy feeling of a large town. Most of the center was built at around the same time, in the mid-1800's, and so the city has a more consistent aesthetic than many other european cities (to say nothing of a place like Osaka).

Finnair, the Finnish flag carrier, flies direct routes between Finland and several Asian destinations, including Osaka. It's surprisingly convenient; Helsinki is the easternmost hub in Europe and right on the typical route between east Asia and Europe, so the flying time is short at only nine hours or so. If you're going anywhere in northern Europe you save a lot of time and pain compared to Frankfurt, or (horror!) Heathrow. We stayed in Helsinki for three nights to see the town and to meet up with a couple of friends. Ritsuko and I both like the movie Kamome Shokudo, set in Helsinki, giving us an additional reason to visit.

Helka Hotel Relaxing in the Bar
The hotel, Helka, was pleasant, with a small but fresh room in a modern Scandinavian style. The hotel restaurant was good (we ate there the first night), and breakfast was plentiful. The hotel bar and cafe is unusally good too, with plush chairs and sofas, coffee and beer at reasonable prices and freely available Wifi. Good place to stay.

Much of the time we spent walking around town. It is a fairly compact city, and you can easily get around by foot. If you do get tired, or you want to get around a little faster, Helsinki is farsighted enough to have kept their tram system intact. We did do some shopping - mostly some Scandinavian-style kitchen ware - but the Euro (and the Swedish crown) is very expensive so we didn't buy a lot. Some things (Arabica porcelain for instance) is actually cheaper in Osaka than in Finland.

Tram, cropped
A Helsinki tram.

Harbour market Paid
The harbour is an integral part of the city, and there's outdoor and indoor markets right on the pier. The outdoor market is a victim of its own fame; it's sadly rather touristy nowadays with most stalls hawking trashy souvernirs and t-shirts, while the fruit and fish stalls have been pushed to the edges or disappeared completely. The indoor market is more upscale and still feels reasonably interesting.

Cathedral Asleep in the sun
The cathedral is right in the center, up on a hill north of the harbour. This is as far as we got, though. A lot of the architecture really is mirroring St. Petersburg in Russia, east of here, which in turn was adapting central European building styles when it was founded.

Like everywhere in Scandinavia, any sun in early summer is a signal for everybody to spend as much time as humanly possible basking in its light. Sun worship was the original religion in this part of the world, and sometimes I wonder if that just never really went away, culturally.

The full set of Helsinki images is collected here.

Hvitträsk and Borgå

We spent Sunday outside Helsinki - the small town feel is reflected in the lack of open places on a Sunday - in Hvitträsk and then in Borgå, with a couple of friends as guides. Hvitträsk is an early 20th century building complex created by three of the most reknowned Finnish architects of the time, to use as their studio and summer home. After some internal unpleasantness (wife-swapping included) they abandoned the idea of a common place; after a series of ownership changes it was eventually bought by the state and turned into a public museum. The design is very nationalistic (this was around 1900 after all) and framkly rather heavier on the symbolism that I really like, but it's a very cool place nevertheless. The people designing it were consummate professionals and it shows (all images hare collected here.).

Vitträsk Estate
Hvitträsk main building. All that thatched wood is a little overdone, but a cool building nevertheless.

Salon The Lake
The downstairs salon, and the lakeside pier in front of the sauna.

Borgå/Porvoo is a small town east of Helsinki with a fairly large partly medieval Old Town. It's a really pleasant place to walk around for half a day or so when the weather is good. The streets are cobblestoned and the buildings are wooden, in a style distinct from the wooden houses of Sweden and Norway, influenced as it is by east-European and Russian building styles. Photoset here.

Borgå, from across the river.

Next up (well, eventually), Stockholm.

1 comment:

  1. Nice pictures from Helsinki. Great colors.


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