Destination: Helsinki

  • Mission 1: Take a local ferry out to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site and sea fortress, Suomenlinna (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 2: Spot the unusual churches (including the underground rock church and a chapel shaped like a ceramic bowl);  (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 3: Seek out one of the many metal bars and sing metal karaoke  (SEMI-ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 4: Experience a traditional Finnish sauna (i.e. confidently in the buff) (DEFERRED).
  • Mission 5: Visit the nearby picturesque city of Porvoo (DEFERRED).

Highlight: Finding blue hair, septum piercings and neck tattoos to be quite socially acceptable.

Lowlight: The Finns’ favourite pastime is a pricey endeavour. No wonder it’s worth the daytrip to Estonia to stock-up on booze.

Feat of Architecture: Finlandia Hall; a modernist congress/events venue designed by Alvar Aalto seems like the obvious choice, but the Central Railway Station (Helsingin päärautatieasema) is certainly more interesting with its godlike guardians minding the door.

Recce fact: Finland allegedly has the greatest number of metal bands per capita of any country in Europe- with 630 bands per million of the population.


Metal mania, whipping one’s naked self with birch leaves in an 80°C sauna, Lapland & Santa Claus, ridiculously good rally drivers whose names always seem to end in “-äinenen…nen”, copious amounts of alcohol and Nokia. That’s what immediately springs to mind when we think of Finland, is it not?
Helsinki Harbour
Helsinki Harbour

First Impressions

I made the error of watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in Finland a few weeks before setting off. He painted a picture of a dark, morbid city (Helsinki) and a cold and miserable country, where everybody exists in a semi-permanent state of intoxication and saunas can turn into bloodbaths. In contrast, I found it rather pleasant. Having said that, had I chosen to visit during the winter when it’s as low as -10°C in the capital, I expect I wouldn’t have any ventured further than the pub/sauna myself.

Helsinki just felt accepting. It seems that if you want to work in the public eye but you happen to have green hair and matching demons tattooed on each of your cheekbones, nobody would even bat an eyelid. Exaggeration perhaps, but this dog in a beanie hat could not work out why I was so amused by his attire, chastising me with a glare. That’ll teach me to get a grip of my unconscious bias. Although keen to banish the intoxicated stereotype, I saw more than one chap zig-zagging along the street, witnessed one teen in a drunken coma slouched against the tram stop and a fellow stagger head-first into a glass door- all before 3pm on a Thursday afternoon. No drunken stereotypes dispelled on this particular occasion.


The Booze Cruise (Tallinn-Helsinki Ferry)

I had been reading that Tallinn is popular with Finns purely for the purposes of a cost-effective all-day pub crawl, or alternatively to stock-up on alcoholic supplies. True enough, there they were, all were lined up at the boarding gate with beer-laden trolleys in tow.

There are several companies which operate frequent sailings between Helsinki and Tallinn. In this case, it was the Eckerö Line. The ship itself (M/s Finlandia) was excessively luxurious for a mere two and a half hour trip, boasting a full-sized supermarket and five bars, two of which had live music. A Joe Satriani style guitarist played away to a virtually empty bar on this mid-day sailing while a four-piece band occupied the main stage on the panoramic 8th deck, with nostalgic Finnish classics playing in between sets. Not just any old musicians were selected for this route, but a poster stated that famous Finnish baby-voiced pop star, Chisu would appear on next week’s line-up.


The Russia v Sweden Tug-o’-war & Sea Fortress Sumomenlinna

After disembarking one ferry, it was time to board another; the local ferry out to UNESCO World Heritage Site and sea fortress, Suomenlinna. Formerly known as Sveaborg (and subsequently Viapori ), it was constructed for the Swedish fleet in the mid-1700s during the ongoing tug-o’-war with Russia over Finnish territory, before being fully claimed by Russia in 1809. Finland received a sort of special status as a grand duchy until 1917 and was not made an official part of Russia. The Russians continued to use the fortress to safeguard St. Petersburg in the lead up to WWI.

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I was aware of the close relations between Finland and neighbouring Sweden due to influence while part of the Swedish Realm, which has resulted in a significant number of Swedish-speaking Finns today. However, I wasn’t expecting to see every public sign and place name in both Finnish and Swedish. Helsinki in Swedish is Helsingfors, for the record.

Despite Finland initially being granted a fair amount of autonomy in the 1800s, the tsar decided that it was time to bring it back under Russian imperial control by imposing Russification. What did that mean for the Finns? It meant making Russian the official administrative language, the conscription of Finns into the Imperial Russian Army, permitting Russian currency only, appointing the Orthodox Russian Church as the state religion, as well as enforcing censorship and all the other usual Russian state tools of the trade. After a bit of backtracking the early 1900s, Finnish and Swedish were once again restored as the official national languages and the Russification policy was eased off whilst Russia had bigger fish to fry.

When approached by the Soviet government in 1939 about establishing a pact to establish military bases in Finland and the other Baltic states, Finland said “no deal”. How did the Soviet Union respond? With a three month Winter War. Participating in this war was the “world’s greatest sniper”, holding the record number of reported kills from any war, known (affectionately) as “White Death”. He even had his cheek blown off and went on to live until a ripe old age of 96. In the end, Finland had to hand over 11% of it’s easterly territory which the Soviets would use as a buffer to protect Leningrad. In exchange the Finns were allowed to retain their sovereignty and hence avoid Soviet control, mass deportations and genocide supported by a puppet state government (which was the fate of the other Baltic states who accepted the pact). Finland eventually lost the regions of Karelia, Salla and the nickel-rich Petsamo.

Seizing the opportunity and confirming Stalin’s worst fears, they teamed up with the Nazis to reclaim their territory from the Soviet Union in 1941 (Continuation War). That was until Britain declared war on Finland in 1943, then they realised they had bitten off more than they could chew. After the Moscow Armistice, 86,000 lives had been lost, more land had to be ceded to Russia, and they also had to pay war reparations to add insult to injury, and their only agenda was to retain their sovereignty and neutrality all along. And so Finland was never annexed by the Soviet Union. They had already claimed the vital territory they wanted, were confident that Finland would strive to maintain neutrality at all costs and needed troops for other more pressing priorities. Instead they opted for mutually amicable (albeit distrusting) relations as far as possible, even if that means abstaining from NATO membership until today to keep the peace. Finland do, however, still maintain a policy of conscription for all males over the age of 18 within its 5.5 million population, as a cost-effective means of protecting the country, should any threats arise.

Oh yes…Suomenllinna.

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Strolling around the island, one can encounter a range of cafes, museums (you’ll have to fork-out for entrance), the 1930s submarine- Vesikko (which played it’s part in both the Winter and Continuation Wars) and other old military gear, picnic areas, piers and…an open prison colony. Up to 95 inmates nearing the end of their sentences enjoy the relative freedom of a minimum security environment, working on the maintenance/reconstruction of the fortification, having increased contact with society for gradual reintegration. The prisoners still don’t like it much, but compared to Alcatraz it sounds like a working holiday. Do not be tempted to peer in the windows of the charming little houses like a nosey parker- 900 people are dwelling there. Suomenlinna was pleasant, but quite uneventful. Better suited to a triple generation style family day out than a quick jaunt.


Forging Steel
It may be extremely difficult to find the silver lining in having to pay war reparations to the Soviet Union, but it did directly lead to a significant push towards industrialisation (steelwork, electronics, engineering etc.) after WWII. A major industry was shipbuilding, with Finland delivering a whopping 619 vessels to Russia towards repayment. In fact, the world’s largest cruise ships (Royal Caribbean International Oasis Class) were built in STX Europe Turku Shipyard. Besides this, Finland export paper/pulp and timber and their economy has been on the rise since joining the EU in 1995, bouncing back from the major blow of the 2009 recession.

Speaking of steel, a must-see is the highly unusual Sibelius Monument in Sibelius Park, Töölö, in honour of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. 600 hollow steel pipes with corrugated edges appear to float mid-air like a 24 tonne mechanical stormcloud. But up close to the menacing sculpture, each individual pipe exhibits either an intricate metallic textured finish or a contrasting smooth, gleaming finish. It’s not the only unusual sculpture around. Look out for the Bad Bad Boy taking a whizz beside the port (pictured at the bottom of this post) and a few other oddities.


Finnish Functional Architecture

Finnish architecture is a blend of Russian and Nordic inspired styles including neoclassicism, Nordic classicism, minimalism, postmodernism, and perhaps most prevalent of all, functionalism. The characteristics of functionalism are typically bold, geometrically regular buildings with little ornamentation or decorative features, often leaving raw construction materials exposed. They are designed to serve their purpose (hence- functional), but are not so much a result of austerity than of a design concept. Alvar Aalto was one such Finnish architect who took much inspiration from modernist pioneer, Le Corbussier (remember Unité d’Habitation in Mission Germany?). Aalto designed the marvel that is Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall. Several attempts have been made to repair its warping exterior marble cladding panels that may one day need a very significant overhaul; but they are buying time. It’s almost impossible to get the entire building into wide-lens view from the main road but this wintery angle of it is fairly representative.

Another prime example of functional design was the competition-winning Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Usually, it is possible to climb the tower but it is current;y closed until 2019, when it will be re-opened as a multi-purpose venue. How disappointing it must have been to push to have the venue completed in time for the 1940 Olympics, only to have it cancelled on account of the war. Finland had to wait another 12 years to host the Summer Olympics in the country’s biggest and most impressive stadium.

Yet, the boldest statement of all must surely be the Helsinki Central Railway Station (Helsingin päärautatieasema) with its granite exterior and green-hued cooper roof and clock tower. The four strapping chaps guarding the entrance look a bit menacing, but at night time their globes light up and illuminate access/egress. I half expected them to bellow down with a riddle to permit passage, but as it so happens, they were off-duty.

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If you’re more of a fan of that typical quint Nordic landscape, then Porvoo (situated 30 miles away from Helsinki) is an ideal choice. Here in “Finland’s second oldest city” you’ll find the more traditional coloured and wooden houses (shore houses) and cobbled streets with that olde-worlde medieval feel.


Metal for the Masses and Metal Mass

It’s a normal occurrence to switch on the radio in Finland and hear metal music as a refreshing change from 90% mainstream pop. You don’t have to stray too far to find a metal bar in Helsinki city centre. Among the most popular are PRKL Club (that’s a bit of an obscene abbreviation) and Bar Bäkkäri which host regular live bands and DJ nights. According to my best friend who visits the city regularly, it’s highly likely that you’ll encounter one of Finland’s famous musicians if you sit there for long enough as they frequent these watering holes whenever they are in town. I get the impression that there is some kind of elitist metaller + groupie/follower movement on the scene, when half of the bar would be suddenly vacated as soon as someone like Alexi Laiho weighs up with an entourage. Yet you could find a famous band’s bass player sitting quietly in the corner by himself hoping nobody will recognise him.

Bars conveniently have outdoor beer pumps for when it’s warm enough to sit outside. It’s good idea so there isn’t constantly a grand queue at the bar and most folk seemed to be drinking beer in the pubs at any rate (presumably due to the price of anything else). I dreamt of the Finnish phenomenon of metal karaoke, but couldn’t find any during the week, much to my disappointment. I used to be in a Nightwish-like symphonic metal band myself and fondly remember the days when we dreamed of touring Scandinavia. Perhaps I’ll come back for Tuska Open Air or one of the other big headbangers’ festivals for old time’s sake.

As the European country with the greatest number of metal bands per capita, Finland are also inventors of the controversial Metal Mass. That’s a metal style church service, first held in Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church) in 2006. It’s not known as the Rock Church akin to Jack Black’s Rock School or because of its Metal Mass association, but because it is physically underground, constructed within the rocks. Perhaps this inspired Lordi’sRock Hallelujah“, hmm?

After you stumble out of the pubs, you may find yourself gravitating towards the nearest fast food trailer (grilli), where an assortment of very saucy, mishmash type offerings are available. You might choose from 20 varieties of hotdog (which is a lot of information to process in a state of drunken stupor), but the best policy seems to be to choose a generic meat patty with absolutely-everything-under-the-sun in between a soggy bun laden with multiple types of sauce dispensed from “udders”. I enjoyed my post-pub supper whilst sitting next to the monument of Finnish writer, Aleksis Kivi, watching the rats racing around below and disappearing into pavement cracks.


Holy Spots

Out of the pub and into the church to clear one’s conscience. Worship must be far from a sombre occasion with all of these weird and wonderful types of churches and chapels to choose from. I have already mentioned the famous “Metal Mass” concept where the congregation can headbang to hymns in the underground Rock Church. But for those who find that rather distasteful, there’s the tranquil Kamppi Chapel (Kampin kappeli), a.k.a. “the Chapel of Silence“, shaped like a deep burnt orange bowl or eggcup. Actually, it put me in mind of Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore’s creation in the clay scene of Ghost with Unchained Melody.

Senate

In terms of cathedrals, the Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali) is said to be the largest Eastern Orthodox church in Western Europe and is atypical of the golden-domed Orthodox style that we see so often. Senate Square is the oldest part of the city, landmarked by the massive white neoclassical style Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko); an Evangelical Lutheran church, originally built in the 1800s as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. It’s undergoing a bit of exterior renovation at the moment (2016), with the scaffolding spoiling my imagery. Bizarrely during my visit, a gargantuan bright green octopus made from recyclables (pictured at the bottom of the page) had taken over the square with its far-reaching tentacles as part of the Night of the Arts exhibition, providing a unique photo opportunity.


“Less is More” (More or Less)

What I like about the Finns is that they don’t take themselves all-too-seriously. Besides erecting the aforementioned giant green octopus in the regal Senate Square, they are obsessed with the plump little featureless white hippo creatures of their own invention, the Moomins. Over 70 years after the first book was published by Finnish writer,  Tove Jansson, and over 50 years since they were first aired on television, their popularity has not diminished. At least not in Scandinavia and the Baltics.  Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport has a permanent Moomin exhibition in Departures and pricey Moomins merchandise is available in specialist shops. For the ultimate fans, visiting Moomin World theme park in Naantali is a must. The rest of us shall remain perplexed by the obsession with this pudgy little nuclear family of mammalians.

Moomins

Just like the minimal facial features on a Moomin, the Finns apply a philosophy of “less is more” to all aspects of life. Functional architecture without intricate features, adequate sized-housing, a low incidence of obesity and in spite of having an education system ranking in the top #5 or so by global ratings, children start school at the age of seven; later than the vast majority of their European peers. They believe that fewer class hours, topics, exams and restrictions on the teaching curriculum, along with a greater emphasis on creativity, depth of knowledge and taking regular breaks constitutes the ideal educational environment. Statistics say they could be right, and better still; it’s free.


A Cautionary Word on Saunas

Contrary to my prior belief, public saunas are not found on every street corner, with many opting for more private ones. In fact, there are only a few scattered around the city centre, usually opening between mid-afternoon and early evening. The tradition has been long established and Finnish saunas are characteristically gender-separated, nude, very hot due to the steam and low humidity, encourage the personal use of birch leaves (vihta) and are a tad expensive. The Finns didn’t actually ban Donald Duck in the 70s for not wearing underwear. That was a case of Chinese whispers in the media and rest assured that in saunas, the Finnish have no such qualms about leaving their pants in the locker rooms. Just like Anthony Bourdain in “No Reservations“, you can complement your sauna experience with a peculiar ritual of cupping mixed with blood-letting at Sauna Arla; a grotty-looking but local favourite established in 1929. Personally, I don’t see the appeal and would have much preferred the sleek new modern sauna by the waterfront at Löyly. At €19 per pop it’s a bit steep, but I’d pay that just for the comfort in their policy of keeping one’s drawers on in its mixed environment.

Heck, even Burger King has opened its very own sauna in Helsinki for private hire. That’s how popular it is.


Food of Finland

So far in this Mission Finland article, only dodgy fast food has been mentioned. The market stalls by the harbour sell a plethora of street food and fish (the smell is quite strong indeed). Instead of a hotdog or sloppy burger-type feast with gallons of sauce, I opted for something called pyttipannu (pyttipanna in Swedish); literally translating to “small pieces in pan”. It is a hodge-podge of diced potatoes, onions, pork, gherkins and capers with an egg on top, drizzled with mustard. Apart from the grease-factor it was a hit. Another Finnish delight is the Karelian pie/pasty/pirog (karjalanpiiras) from the region now belonging to Russia. I can only describe it as unsweetened rice pudding baked into a rye-based casing, served warm with a butter glaze.

The Finnish are also big into their soups (e.g. Finnish Summer Soup or fish-based soups/broths) which wouldn’t really be to my taste. What IS to my taste is Finland’s finest classic chocolate by Karl Fazer. Who could resist temptations such as salty popcorn or red berries in milk chocolate? I strongly recommend visiting the Karl Fazer café on Kluuvikatu street.


Sounds of Finland.

Let’s talk metal. Specifically- folk metal (Korpiklaani, Ensiferum and Finntroll), battle metal (Turisas), symphonic metal (Nightwish and Apocalyptica), melodic death metal (Wintersun, Children of Bodom, Amorphis) power metal (Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius) and all the rest.

For those who prefer less distortion and artists who are easier on the eye, there are the Finnish pop singers Jenni Vartiainen (formerly a figure skater), Chisu, Janna Hurmerinta and ex-Nightwish lyrical sensation, Tarja Turunen who went solo upon her departure. Her Christmas album isn’t half bad. Don’t forget the once internationally famous bands- HIM and the Rasmus: “I’ve been watching, I’ve been waitiiiing in the shadows… for my tiiime”; yeah, that old chestnut from back in 2003.

See Finland in Euro Jukebox for the best picks from the above!


Mission Finland Summary

Major construction is always a good sign and Helsinki seems to be undergoing exactly that, particularly around the docklands. Our indestructible Nokia 3210s may be but a distant memory, but we hope that Finland shall continue cranking out more of its colossal cruiseliners and other exports.  I shall remember Finland for its funny little bidet showers beside the toilet (which should come with a set of instructions) and for its cute-sounding musical language. Despite the many trials and dominant influences, they have preserved their culture through national pride and persistence. For one, they managed to keep the Soviet Union at bay which is no small achievement. Sure, they had to cede some of their precious territory to keep the peace, but so far their policy of neutrality and peaceful coexistence with the rest of the EU and Russia at the same time is working out rather well.

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