Helsinki was a snap decision following vague conversations about going for a quick little jaunt over Easter which had never morphed into more concrete plans. With a week to go, and constrained by the handful of days that medical school considers to be the appropriate length for a holiday, we decided against the usual southern European city break destinations and booked a flight northwards. Neither of us knew a huge amount about Finland, but we were intrigued by this country of endless, gorgeous forests and lakes, and this clip from the Jimmy Kimmel show which inadvertently sums up most clichés about Finnish people in a hilarious handful of minutes :
The Finnish language leaves most people shaking their heads in exasperation as they try to decipher, let alone pronounce, the many double umlauts and strange letter combos. As a Hungarian speaker, I never tired of trying to read signs, smug in the knowledge that this was probably the one time in life when my Hungarian skills would come in handy outside of Hungary.
Our last-minute booking on airbnb in place, we found ourselves wandering down the streets of Kallio: the Helsinki equivalent of Shoreditch. We had gone with an unreviewed, new listing here which looked pleasant and, more importantly, was really cheap. Fortunately, the flat was cosy and perfect for our needs: it was great living in a part of town where people actually live, rather than in an identi-kit hotel in the middle of the business district. That said, on our first day, we found ourselves in a completely deserted city: they take Good Friday seriously on the continent, even in super-secular countries!
So while everything – EVERYTHING – was closed, this beat the perpetual crowds of Oxford Street by a country mile! In a lot of ways, Helsinki is a melting pot of Soviet, European and Scandinavian styles. Temppeliaukio Church in particular deserves an honourable mention. It looks a little out of place in an inner-city square – in fact, it looks nothing like a church from the outside; you would be forgiven for mistaking it for some sort of artwork.
It’s only inside that the real beauty of this church becomes apparent: it is built into the bedrock and supplemented with dry-stone walls. Growing from these organic-looking structures, thin concrete spires rise up to support a burnished copper roof and allow the space to be flooded with light during the day. Coupled with the asymmetry of the whole space and the purple pews, this has to be one of the coolest churches I’ve been in without seeming tacky or trying to pander to a younger generation. Bravo!
It being Good Friday, we decided on a whim to watch Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Helsinki Cathedral, which was just a few minutes’ walk from our flat. Having never heard choral music before, I was impressed – being able to follow the German lyrics helped – but MAN, it was long! The piece was timed so that the cathedral bells tolled 9pm during the mournful, incredibly loud silence after the verse reciting Jesus’ death; rarely have I ever witnessed anything more atmospheric.
There is none of the grandeur here that we have come to expect from baroque and even gothic churches and cathedrals around Europe (Sorry, architects/art historians…that’s about the extent of my vocabulary in this field!). Stark simplicity dominates inside and out, and only behind the altar is there a single painting or gold decoration. This went quite well with a piece about Jesus’ life in what were presumably simpler times.
Stay tuned for Helsinki part 2, where we head out to a sea fort covering several islands just a short boat ride from the city centre!