I never thought I would set foot in either Finland or Estonia. However, it turned out to be the best trip out of the Czech Republic so far. Heather, Katharine and I stayed in Helsinki and took a quick two hour boat trip to Tallinn for a day (see the next blog post). The cultures of each city were completely different from each other and Prague.
We flew into Helsinki and were graciously picked up by Heather’s friend from the Marines. On our way, we debated on whether the sun was rising or setting. We learned that since Finland is so far north the sun mostly sits on the horizon rather than high in the sky, giving the day about 5 hours of sunlight. We dropped our stuff off in the hotel and immediately went out to start our adventures. We walked to Kauppatori Market Square which was right on the bay. There we browsed a street market filled with furs, knit goods, and reindeer antler objects. We immediately bought gloves and hats to help us through the mid-20’s weather.
Typical market stand
We then headed to Senate Square, surrounded by Helsinki University and Valtionneuvosto, the Council of State from 1822. At the top of the square is the huge white and green domed Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral, built in 1830. The cathedral is lit with pale yellow lighting, matching the yellow buildings surrounding Senate Square. The cathedral is still used today, rising high above the center of the city.
Heather, Katharine and I
Across from the cathedral we found the best meal of the day. The restaurant was designed like a historical Finnish lumberjack lodge and completed with costumed waitresses and folk-singing waiters. We each had a typical Finnish dish. Katharine had creamy elk soup, Heather had reindeer steak and roasted mashed potatoes, and I had fried vendace, about 15 finger-sized fish that you eat whole – heads, tails, everything. Though I felt bad eating them, they were delicious.
Awesome meal of vendace
Stuffed full, we wandered around the city and up to Hakaniemi Market Hall, an indoor food and goods market that opened in 1914. The market was huge, with fresh fish, meat, chocolate, and pastries for sale in stands lining both sides of the small aisles. Though we were too full to eat anything, I would certainly do my shopping there any other day.
After traveling all day and walking around, we wanted a relaxing night and decided to partake in an original Finnish tradition – the sauna. The sauna has been an integral part of Finnish culture since before written records were discovered. Proof lies in the numbers - there are about two million saunas in Finland compared to the population of about five million. While now the sauna is used for relaxation and social gatherings, it was originally also used for heath care, important meetings, and a place to give birth. We went to a public sauna called Kotiharju, expecting a normal American sauna. However, we were in for a huge culture shock. When we walked up to the building, we were greeted by about ten old fat men naked except for a towel. They were smoking and drinking, and seemed to be having a good time. We navigated our way in upstairs to the women’s sauna were we entered a locker room with women wrapped in towels. There were also tables in the room, and groups were eating what was essentially a picnic, drinking and talking. We felt somewhat out of place, but the women were really nice. We changed into our bathing suits and went through a door to a shower room. As soon as we walked in, we were immediately the center of attention, looking incredibly out of place with bathing suits on. The naked women all around us looked at us smiling and said, ‘you don’t need those!’. So immersing ourselves deeper into the culture, we stripped down and joined the women, young and old, in the sauna. The temperature is controlled by whoever is sitting at on the very top row, the hottest part of the sauna. They are allowed to add wood to the stove whenever they feel necessary. I stayed on the bottom row, as far from the heat as possible and I was still schvitzing more than I have in my life. Afterwards we took a cold shower, and decided against going in for a second time. However, we were completely relaxed by the end of the night. The sauna definitely a unique highlight of my cultural experiences abroad this semester that I ended up enjoying a lot more than I though I would.
Outside the sauna
We had the majority of the day on Sunday to explore the rest of Helsinki. We started off in the morning by taking a ferry to a series of six bridged islands off the coast of Finland. The islands are home to the UNESCO heritage site Suomenlinna, a sea fortress built in 1748 that is now home to the Finnish Naval Academy. Though some buildings are in use, the oldest part of the fortress is completely open to the public to explore on their own. We looked at cannons and guns, a submarine, and explored the little dark hallways and rooms of the barracks. There, we also saw the oldest working dry dock in Europe, still in use today. I could have taken an entire day to explore all the islands and buildings, but time was against me. We made it back just in time to catch the ferry to the mainland, and grabbed lunch with a couple of Heather’s friends from the Marines.
Near the King's Gate on Suomenlinna
Afterwards, we took a quick tram ride to Temppeliaukio, a 1969 Lutheran Church built into a giant rock. The circular architecture was really unique, and the wood and glass ceiling let the sunlight in. You could see where sticks of dynamite were drilled into the rocks to blow up and make the walls of the Church.
One more tram stop and a walk through a park brought us to the Sibelius Monument, in recognition of Jean Sibelius, a famous Finnish composer. The monument was huge and silver, and looked like many organ pipes floating off the ground. When it is very windy, the pipes make music. Unfortunately there was only a slight breeze, but I could stick my head up a pipe and hear a very low tone. It was a creative and beautiful monument, and a great note to head to the airport on.
Helsinki was a great city and much more modern looking than Prague. The Finnish people were incredibly nice, always wanting to help out and point us in the right direction. It seemed like they really enjoyed tourists coming to their city, which was very welcoming.
Helsinki from the Bay