Monday, March 05, 2007

Helsinki, daughter of the Baltic

A new day, a new city. And today the city was Helsinki.

And a new city means a new hotel and a new breakfast buffet! This one was nothing special. The only noteworthy items were the delicious smoked salmon steaks (heavily smoked, like braden rost) and some little orange flavoured madeleine style cakes.

Suitably fortified we then went on to make our most important discovery of the day. Museums and art galleries in Helsinki are closed on Mondays during winter. At least that made choosing what to do a lot easier! A guide book helpfully provided by the Hotel made the excellent suggestion of catching the 3T tram. This tram takes the "tourist route" around the city and so for 2 Euros you get a drive by of all the major attractions - the Olympic stadium (built for the 1938 games but not used until the 50s due to the war), the train station (a wonderful art nouveau structure), a church built in to the solid rock (we only saw a bit of the roof, but we still saw it!) and the city's two imposing cathedrals (one Lutheran and one Orthodox).

After an hour and a bit's round trip we got off the tram at the dockside market place. The wares on sale left us a little disappointed, but we spotted the ferry to Suomenlinna (the fortress isle off the coast of Helsinki) and decided to jump on.

The ferry set off, carving it's way through the heavily frozen Baltic waters. Lumps of ice the size of a dining table and up to a metre thick were thrust under the ferry and bobbed up to the surface again in its wake. It was a bit like sailing through a giant slush-puppy. The journey took around 15 minutes and at the end we arrived at the main quay of Suomenlinna.



We headed straight for the tourist information kiosk, where a very kind lady told us that although the museum _was_ open today, it would be closing in just over an hour's time. Everything else was already closed. Apart from Chapman's Cafe, which was closing in 15 minutes. A quick dash to the cafe brought us a hearty (if somewhat speedily dispatched) buffet meal of puttipanya, seafood pasta, meat "soup" (huge chunks of meat in a thick sauce) and a selection of really nice salads. We also had a nice coffee that tasted somewhat of caramel. It reminded me of some Arabic or Turkish coffee I have tried recently.

After lunch we literally ran back to the Museum to catch the final showing of the Suomenlinna video presentation. This discussed the history of the fortress, from it's construction as a Swedish strong-hold through its capture by the Russians, reclamation by the Finns and its modern status as a UNESCO world heritage site (due to it being a unique example of military architecture). See more here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suomenlinna .

After the video we had a quick look around the rather text-heavy museum (all in Finnish and Swedish, although English translations were available as a leaflet) and we set off to explore the islands that make up the fortress.



As it turned out this meant taking more photos than is strictly speaking necessary and risking life and limb on treacherously slippery slopes and steps. Snow has melted in Helsinki and re-frozen a couple of times, so what looks like soft snow can in fact be a solid mass of frictionless tourist killing ice. Especially helped by the friendly 20 foot drop to the frozen waters below. Somehow we managed to survive this trial of balance and our reward was the most amazing views of the late afternoon sun, glistening over the frozen Baltic. Just stunning, and we have some photos to prove it!



We caught the 18:10 ferry back to Helsinki and once I had confirmed that I didn't have frost bite in my face, we did a quick walking tour of the city, checking out the cathedrals and the train station. We also visited the underground shopping precinct in the tunnels beneath the train station and picked up some edible souvenirs. Naturally our thoughts then turned to dinner, and we were determined to avoid the multitude of Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Indian and other international restaurants and to seek out some genuine Finnish food. It was a plan that once started we intended to Finnish! We found amazing little place on the way back to the hotel. I just Lapped up the atmosphere. I Finnished every bit on my plate (Holly: Stop that right now!). Sorry. The meal was delicious. We started with some aperitifs (as has now become our custom) blueberry liqueur with sparkling white wine for Mrs Kilner, and cloudberry liqueur with whisky and crushed ice for Mr Kilner. We were then presented with a delicious "amuse bouche" of smoked salmon tartare and a selection of really nice home made breads. Cep soup was the starter of choice for Holly, while I partook of a selection of Finnish fish. For main course we both had grilled lamb ribs with a goats-cheese and potato rosti. For pudding we shared a blueberry parfait with baked apple ice cream and waffles - rounded off with an arctic bramble flavoured vodka. The bill came with fresh chocolate truffles. Delicious. Finland has certainly not disappointed in the food stakes so far.

We walked back to the Hotel, passing some really stylish home-wares shops. Why can't you get this stuff in dear old Blighty (or at least not without spending an arm and a leg)? Taxi for the airport is now booked for tomorrow, luggage labels updated, and the Kilners, globe-trotters extraordinaire, are preparing to enter the final leg of their arctic expedition - the frozen north (again).

Not sure what the internet access will be like up there. We will attempt to keep the blog updated, so you can at least know what we have to eat! Just in case there is no way for us to provide you with the quality coverage you have come to expect from us, we will let you know that we plan; Husky sledging, snowmobile expeditions, northern light seeing (please), cross country skiing, sauna taking, cold water bathing and more snow filled fun.

See you soon,

Kilners - over and out.

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