By the light of the Northern Star: Helsinki, Part 2

A gloriously sunny and unseasonally toasty Saturday made for the perfect day to explore another of Helsinki’s highlights. Suomenlinna is a sea fortress on a series of islands some 15 minutes offshore by ferry. It was built in the mid-1700s to protect against Russian expansionism – clearly this is what Crimea would have needed! As in Japan, the well-trodden PATH was in evidence at this popular tourist site, but fortunately the place is practically an open invitation to stray from it and explore. Indeed, a fort proved to be far from all this miniature archipelago has to offer!

En route to Suomenlinna. The tourist market is strategically located at the pier where tourists wait for the half-hourly ferry...

Traditional-style houses contrast with a massive ferry bound for Estonia. The tourist market is strategically located at the pier where one waits for the half-hourly transfer to Suomenlinna.

Disembarking on the first island, we left behind the boatload of people obediently shuffling along the PATH and followed the coastline. The many benches installed here gave the fort a distinctly unwarlike appearance, and soon we found ourselves in what felt a lot like a series of holiday apartments. It turns out that Suomenlinna only takes up a part of the islands – the rest consists of a haphazard mixture of houses painted in bright but fading colours and, at one end, even some light industry. This made the place feel less like a clinically maintained tourist hotspot and more like somewhere Helsinkians actually use for recreation, holidays and, well, life more generally – a surprisingly pleasant experience.

Bikes in various states of disrepair litter the yards of what looks a bit like a cross between holiday homes and council estates.

Bikes in various states of disrepair litter the yards of what looks a bit like a cross between holiday homes and council estates.

We even came across one of Fennoscandia’s famously laid-back prisons. It was guarded by a waist-height, whitewashed wooden picket fence and people were sat around little garden tables drinking tea, and I couldn’t help but remember this brilliant news snippet I read a while back. I decided that photos might be inappropriate here (although I’m sure they would have posed quite happily), and we returned to potter among the buildings of the fort and nearby houses instead before returning to the mainland with grumbling stomachs.

An excellent outbuilding - now a brewery, I believe - near the Suomenlinna pier.

An excellent outbuilding – now a brewery, I believe – near the Suomenlinna pier.

Fortress and houses transition seamlessly along the gorgeous waterfront...

Fortress and houses transition seamlessly along the gorgeous waterfront.Best adventure playground ever?! I think so…

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A more imposing part of the fortress.

Despite all this, the undisputable highlight of Helsinki was the sauna. The culture surrounding the sauna here is so refreshing and different, I absolutely loved it. I visited a small, working-class sauna in Kallio, just a minute’s walk from our flat. Here’s what I loved about it:

  • Right by the entrance is a big freezer to chill the drinks customers bring.
  • The changing room features a big open area with tables where people chat or read the paper or a book from the top of the row of wooden lockers, where a small “take one, leave one” library has popped up.
  • There is no plunge pool; instead, after just a quick lukewarm rinse, saunagoers head outside to sit in plastic chairs with a beverage of their choice; for the 10-15 minutes it takes the body to cool down, it feels as though it were summer even in the deepest Finnish winter. It’s pretty obvious why this is the homeland of the sauna!
I wish this sauna was around the corner here in London...

I wish this sauna was around the corner here in London…

So, if half-naked men in towels in the street are your kettle of fish…Helsinki should be your next destination! Then again, it should be even if they are not – it’s a great city.

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