IMG_3710
Along the Esplanadi (August 2012).

Contrary to popular belief, Finland is not considered a Scandinavian country. While it might be geographically close to Norway and Sweden, it’s actually classified as Nordic, or at least, merely an “observing” Scandinavian one. Because of its strange status among the northern European countries, Finland is somewhat of an enigma, and it was a pleasure unpacking its culture and life while in the country for a day.

Despite being under Swedish rule for over 700 years, as well as the Russian Empire for another 100 years, Finland has still retained much of its distinctive identity. One thing that has made the country so steadfast is its language (“suomi,” as it’s called in Finnish), which has no close ties with any other of its neighbors’ speech, with the exception of Estonian and, interestingly enough, Hungarian. It can be said that the Finnish language has helped the Finns persevere throughout history, all the while stay true to their national core.

There is the idea of Finns being tough and resilient people, even more so than their Nordic neighbors. In fact, they have the word “sisu,” which translates along the lines to “stoic determination” in the face of hardship and multiple failures. The Finns pride themselves on this character, which has become a form of their national identity especially after centuries under foreign rule and wars. One can even say that saunas, originally invented by the Finns, are a testament to their tenacity under pressure!

I had limited knowledge about Finland before visiting, aside from saunas and a childhood friend who has family there. Similar to the other Nordic countries I’d already seen, I went in without expectations and found myself enjoying a day in and around Helsinki, the country’s capital. At least compared to our packed itinerary in Saint Petersburg just before, Helsinki was a notable contrast in being more peaceful and relaxed in sightseeing.

My family and I disembarked from our cruise ship and headed to our first stop of the day in town. We started off at the Sibelius Monument in the Töölö district, located west of the city. Dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, it’s a conglomeration of 600 or so steel pipes that appear to float in the air, which are made to represent organ pipes. It’s an abstract homage to Sibelius, who had composed many pieces that developed Finnish national identity during Russian occupation in the 20th century. I’d actually listened to a few of his symphonies before, and I was blown away by the depth and power in each movement. It made for a lovely treat, then, to step foot on the soil of the composer’s home country, all the while see the monument dedicated to him.

Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument.

Besides Helsinki, we also spent a couple of hours in Porvoo, a small medieval town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of the capital. It was about a 40 to 50-minute drive over, and we soon reached the small town for a brief visit. We had some free time to stroll through the Old Town along the Porvoo River, admiring the rustic-red long houses and checking out the 15th-century Porvoo Cathedral. While not extravagant-looking like the Catholic churches of Spain or Italy, this Lutheran-style building has an air of austerity that shows the people’s simple, but wholesome dedication to God.

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Along the Porvoo River.
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Porvoo Cathedral.
Finland Porvoo
Along the banks.

One of the highlights of Porvoo would have to be Brunberg, a family-run chocolate shop that’s local to the town itself. Our tour guide told us that, in general, Finns don’t use a lot of cacao (no more than 60%), thus resulting in a lighter-tasting chocolate. We sampled a few flavors, including mocha, mint, even orange before purchasing a block of the mocha as a souvenir. You could say that it was a sweet way to conclude our time in town!

Our tour took us to a 19th-century farmhouse in the countryside, where we had lunch prepared by the family who owned the estate. The three-course meal was extremely fresh, as I could taste the potatoes and berries just harvested and picked just hours before. From the rye bread to the meatloaf and berry tart at the end, the food wasn’t anything fancy, but it was hearty and delicious all the same.

We returned to Helsinki in the early afternoon, and we started off at the Temppeliaukio Church. Translated as “Rock Church,” it’s built inside of a rock, housing a grand organ that sweeps horizontally across the church’s jagged walls, as if a masterpiece in itself. It’s one of Helsinki’s notable landmarks, and I found the rock-based church to be ingenious it structure and creativity. Certainly one of the cooler-looking churches I’ve come across in Europe!

Finland Rock Church
Inside the Temppeliaukio Church.

Aside from Temppeliaukio Church, there was also the Helsinki Cathedral. Built in the mid-19th century, it’s a towering, blue-domed building modeled after the Greek Orthodox style, but in fact is Lutheran-based in faith. We didn’t enter the building, but we saw it from the outside, snapping a photo or two before we continued to the Esplanadi, aka “the esplanade” which extends from the Market Square to Erottaja Square. Our tour group stayed within the former square, which happened to have dozens of stalls set up for selling freshly-picked berries, homemade crafts, fish, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Finland Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki Cathedral.

Our day in Helsinki concluded afterwards, and we returned to our cruise ship by mid-afternoon. Although it was a short six hours in Finland, I was happy to have gotten a taste of the country. Not only did I get to visit the capital, but I also enjoyed going a bit outside to Porvoo to see more of Finland. My impressions are that it’s a sleepy, but peaceful country, with incredibly-fresh air and plenty of nature to go around. History aside, Finland has come a long way since the early 20th century, now a prospering place with a strong sense of national identity.

More of my time in the Nordic countries soon!

 

— Rebecca

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12 thoughts on “Destination: Helsinki, Finland

  1. Hello Rebecca.

    You made excellent post! Congratulations. I comment some points of Your text. Hungarian language. Yes, wise men say that it is related to Finnish. Okay, they who say so are wise, but I am not apparently, because I do not understand not a word of Hungarian language.

    I am glad that You visited Porvoo! Its church is absolutely worth for visit. in 2006, it suffered from arson! Inside, if You visited it is a very beautiful
    Votive ships. Votive ships are around in Finland and they are the pride of Finland, I say.

    Churches in Helsinki are beautiful and interesting, but they do not represent our gorgeous wooden churches on our countryside. Most beautiful churches are on countryside. One peculiarity is that bell towers are separated from churches themselves. This has of course meaning, but those bell towers are colorful and their architecture differs from each other. These Bell towers can be find around Finland in small villages.

    I will tell one more thing about one specialty of Finland. We have about 180 poor-man statues. What they are and how they are looking like. I have presented them more than 60, but this shows them nicely in the world’s biggest wooden church. Link to first post:

    Statues of Paupers1

    Bonne journée à vus Rebecca,
    Matti

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for all of that information! Especially since you live in Finland…I barely scratched the surface of my time in the country, but suffice it is to say that there’s so much more to it than just Helsinki. I had no idea about the poor-man statues, but after looking over your photos, they’re fascinating and quirky! Hope to revisit Finland some day and see more of what it has to offer. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good Morning Rebecca.

        Good morning Rebecca.

        Thank You leaving so kind answer to my comment. I know my country from the south to the north and I have visited nearly everywhere. My favorite part of Finland is Lapland in the north. It is winter wonderland which offers visitor experiences. One of the most popular places is the Arctic Circle. It is near to the town of Roavaniemi. There You can meet Santa, in summer also, and have reindeer rides. There is also first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s log cabin. In summer it is worth for a visit. Here is my latest post:

        Reindeer rides and Santa

        The town of Oulu, south of Rovaniemi, arranges once in winter a unique adventure. It is participating in a reindeer race. Participating in it is free and open for everybody. It is once in the life time experience. Participants come all over the world Last winter I participated in is also. I have made 3 posts about this race I have links to the previous posts and in the first there some French participating in this race. here is my latest:

        Reindeer race 3

        Crowning Arctic experience is visiting the world’s biggest snow castle. It is much more than snow castle. There is inside for example, snow and ice carvings, snow chapel, ice bar, ice restaurant and possibility to spend a night inside. Here my collection of photos:

        2. Best Snow Castle photos

        Welcome any time! I do not tell about nightless nights in mid-summer, because it is something which one has himself / herself to experience. Most awesome way to spend it is participating in it is by cruises on some of our lakes. Welcome to have experiences!

        Happy and safe travels,
        Matti

        Like

      2. I really appreciate your detailed suggestions on Finland! Sounds like visiting in the winter would be a magical moment, even in cold weather. I’ve experienced a little bit of the “nightless nights” in the near-summer when I went to Iceland, but to see it full-force in northern Europe would truly be a unique experience. Thanks again for your travel advice, Matti!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful place and equally beautiful pictures..
    The picture of the Cathedral reminded me of the structure of houses in the Lapland Region.. The region exists, almost continuously, from Norway and extending well within Russia.. I saw many of such beautifully similar houses in Russian Lapland..
    Thank you for sharing..!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. A part of Lapland can be found in Finland as well.. You may visit Rovaniemi in Finland to get an experience of the mythical Lapland.. 😊
        And yes, it is indeed magical.. Especially during Winters.. 😍

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand about the Hungarian language. The language is not the same. Hungary is sometimes called the ‘cousin’ to the Finns. Don’t forget if you listen to a true Scotsman, you will not understand them, even though they live on the same island as the Brits. There is probably a historic link with these three countries Estonia, Finland and Hungary.

    Like

    1. Aside from the technical linguistic roots, I’m not sure just how Hungary is connected to Finland. Concerning Scotland and England, it’s incredible that despite being on the same island, there’s a huge distinction in language and tradition. Goes to show that close geography doesn’t necessarily make countries or people similar!

      Like

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