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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Week 1: Helsinki, world design capital of 2012

My first weekend in Sweden there was a scheduled trip to Helsinki. What this means is that at about 10 days into my trip to Sweden I had actually seen much more of Finland than I had of Sweden.

Helsinki has a lot to offer for the historically minded. However, it is the design capital of the world this year. In many ways I struggled to see evidence of this while I was here. Not that I didn't see interesting architecture and the simple and elegant designs that I always see in Sweden, but because my tourism focuses more on history than design I struggled to appreciate that aspect of the city. There was an exhibit at the Kiasma, or modern art museum,which tried to expand what we think about when we think of design, but not having a real base in design basics I think I wasn't the exhibits target audience. It was entitled Camouflage and it explored how design can be hidden in other things. I thought the exhibit about the traditional Russian tourist kiosk incorporating elements of design was the most interesting portion, but I am interested in historical tourism which is why this piece spoke to me more than any other.

But for the historically minded, here is an example of a possible weekend trip to Helsinki. To get to there Stockholm you can take one of the ferries through the archipelago. That is worth doing on it's own. We took the Viking Line cruise ship. It is a fully fledged cruise, complete with Scandinavian style smorgasbord. The boat is often very cheap because they want you to come on-board and drink or go to the smorgasbord.The archipelago is extremely beautiful. It is absolutely unique and special in it's own way, but it did remind me a lot of the Georgian Bay 1000 Islands, just as much of the wilderness in Sweden (what I have seen so far) does rather remind me of Canadian wilderness. I think it is something about similar latitudes.

We arrived in Helsinki after a fitful night sleeping on the boat below sea level. A few of us wasted no time. We checked into the hotel and headed right for Unesco world heritage site Sveaborg/Suomenlinna. You have to take the ferry from the Open Market, but the ferries are frequent. We spent from 12:30 - 4:00 at Sveaborg and then returned to the mainland. We ate food in the Open Market (a good bet because Finland is expensive), wandered along the Esplanade and turned in for an early night.

After breakfast the next morning (another smorgasbord provided by the Grand Marina Skandic hotel) I walked along the harbour to the Mannerheim Museum. A little hard to find, but if you walk along the harbour past the Olympia terminal and keep your eyes out for signs you will find a path up the hill. When you get to the top of the path turn right to get to Mannerheim. They provide a guide and it was for me one of the highlights of the trip. So very interesting, and I learned so much more about Finnish history. They open at 10:00. I took a tour almost right at 10:30 and was finished in about an hour. From there I walked back up the Esplanade. At the end of the Esplanade, right behind the Swedish theatre there is a bus stop that leads to Folison.

At about 1:00 we took bus 22 to Folison/Seuresaari, the open-air museum in Helsinki. It is the last stop on the bus route. We wandered a little and took the guided tour in English at 3:00. After that we took the bus back at 5:00 to the main square and had dinner one street back from the main street so as to avoid high prices.

In the evening I wandered a bit around the city. I went to the Helsinki Cathedral, which is open until midnight on most days in the summer. I walked to the outside of the Uspenski cathedral, which was not open. Those are the two cathedrals that decorate the city skyline when you come into the harbour. From there I wandered around the point by the Viking Line terminal. Probably best not to wander at night too much, but as the sun hardly goes down it doesn't seem like a problem.

The next morning I caught the guided bus tour in Swedish and English at 10:30 from the Olympia terminal. I found the bus smelly and the large guided tour rather impersonal, but if I hadn't done that tour I wouldn't have had such a good sense of the city and I also wouldn't have seen two of Helsinki's real treasures, the Rock Church or Temppeliaukia Church and the Sibelius monument in Sibelius park. Those are the two stops the bus makes. After that, at around 12:00 I did go into Uppenski Orthodox Cathedral. I then took the bus to the Finnish National Museum, located on Mannerheim Rd. beside the Finnish parliament. I spent about an hour and a half in the museum, but could easily have spent a bit more time. I then went to the Kiasma Modern Art museum and spent maybe 1/2 hour. There I couldn't have spent more time. I do like art, but historical context can be as important for me as actual content. Essentially, I prefer a museum.

In the Finnish national Museum is where I found these Viking Age artefacts on display. Viking Age artefacts found in Finland largely demonstrate trade routes between Sweden and the East. A tendency to trade with the east can also be demonstrated in the high Viking Age finds in Sweden.

At 4:00 pm the group caught the boat back to Stockholm.

If you are in Helsinki for a few days there are a lot of good things to be said about getting the Helsinki Card. I did get one for three days for 56 euros and found it was entirely worth it. At the same time, as you can tell I worked really hard to make sure that it was worth it and tried to take in as much as possible. With the exception of food, everything was covered under the card, including admission to all these sites and public transportation. If you like to take in a city in a more passive (perhaps saner) way then the Helsinki card is not really for you.

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