Friday, July 13, 2012

Europe2012: Helsinki

I landed in Helsinki on the 26th of June from a connecting flight via Frankfurt. As you’ll see in the rest of the journey, food is a very integral part of my life, and I can’t resist describing airplane food either. So in Lufthansa, on the BOM-FRA flight, they served this decent croissant and omelette with spinach and chicken for ‘breakfast’. Fruits in planes are always shit, and this was no exception.

This was my first time at Frankfurt as a transit point. They make you wander a lot to get to passport control. For a second I thought passport control wasn’t going to happen at port of entry. Then the immigration officer gave me another scare by being very scrutinizing, checking all my credit/debit cards and my dad’s permission letter. Yay! for having all my documents in order.

Finally being let through, the FRA-HEL flight was again Lufthansa. I love day flights for their take-offs and landings where you get amazing views of the land. This was no different with the plane descending as it left the shores of the north sea near Germany and then approached Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport.

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In flight meal was a delicious ‘American club sandwich’ which was bacon and chicken with mayo in rye bread. I’ve had rye bread every time I’ve been to Europe since 2010, and I love that stuff. It has great texture, a sweetness that develops in the mouth and complements meat very well.

HEL is located quite some distance from the main city as it serves the greater Helsinki region. The first thing I do when I land in a European city is to buy a pass for public transport for the number of days I am going to be staying. A citizen of Mumbai, I love public transport and passes turn out to be very cheap all over Europe. So just blindly buy one if you plan to explore cities. In this case the machine didn’t have change so I bought a one day pass then bought another one the next day. Passes printed by a machine are on paper. You can buy travel cards or seasonal passes from major terminals, tourist points and most conveniently from R-kioski general stores. These green cards are very useful and easy to use. They are available in single region (Helsinki only), or 2 and 3 region varieties, although the price difference isn’t much. Overall, I ended up paying EUR 36 for 4 days of unlimited travel in 3 regions. If you think that is a lot, consider this. The pass allows travel on the entire HRT network, bus, tram, metro and rail. In addition, the Suomenlinna ferry operated by HRT is included. In EUR 36 I roamed about the city, visited a major tourist attraction and went all the way to Nuuksio national park in Espoo! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the airport. The regional bus 615 leaves every 15 minutes and will take you to Helsinki Central Station from where transport lines go all over the city.

Bicycles are common in Helsinki and bike lanes exist but aren’t sharply delineated, so make sure you don’t treat a bike path as the pavement. While riding bikes on the pavement is frowned upon in San Francisco, it is fairly common in Europe to ride on the pavement when a bike path does not exist. It also isn’t so much of a hindrance with the super-wide pavements that are so common in Europe.

I stayed in Hostel Erottajanpuisto, which is on Uudenmankatu (katu is Finnish for street). Take the 3B tram from Helsinki Central Station and get down at Frederikinkatu or Iso Roobertinkatu and walk to the hostel. It is a nice, clean place. There are 4 toilets and 4 showers on the hostel floor. My room was a 6-bed dorm. Everything was clean and the staff were very helpful. Prices were EUR 27 + 30 + 30 due to the European Athletics Championships which began from June 27th.

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That evening I was pretty tired and just wandered the city. First I went to Verkkokauppa, which is one of Europe’s largest electronics store. I didn’t find much there that I could afford :P, so I just went upstairs to the viewing gallery on the 7th storey which gives great views of Helsinki, especially the West harbour. It also has a real MIG-21 plane on display.

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From there I came back to the city centre, and wandered down Esplanadi, which is the cities main promenade. Halfway down Esplanadi is a cafe and the area across it has a stage for performances. A seniors band was performing that day though I only stopped for one song. At the end of Esplanadi is Kauppatori, an open air market which would be the source of culinary delights. Sadly I arrived late (it closes at 18:00) and missed it the first day. Slightly disappointed, I wandered around Keskuskatu which is the central square. The area around Helsinki Central Station is full of high-end shops and departmental stores and is fun to walk about. I ended up eating at some place called Chilly’s (salmon and fries with salad) near the station (I can’t find it on Google Maps now) when I got really hungry and couldn’t find something nice. Tired from the flying and walking, I came back to the room and crashed. Well after the daily routine of backing up the photos.

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On day 2, I was all eager, it was time to go to Suomenlinna! But before that I needed breakfast and a 3-day pass. R-kioski sells both. I had a nice chicken and bacon sandwich and mint-flavoured coffee sitting on a bench at South Harbour.

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It isn’t everyday that you get to have such a beautiful view in the morning. Now the day pass (You can get multiple days too). The HRT has a green colour card for tickets. The card is coded with information, and gray readers on all modes of transport do their job. Each reader has a quadrant, with 0/L, 1, 2, 3 marking each quadrant. Now, the numbers represent how many regions you want a ticket to be valid in. If you are a resident who has a balance on the card you have to do some button pressing for zone selection. But with a day pass we don’t need to bother with that. If you bought a 3-day, 3-region pass, then you can go anywhere in 3 days. All you’ve to do is hold the card to the reader when you get in. If everything is fine, the green light will switch on, accompanied by a beep. If things are not right, well I guess you’ll have to find out. Its very simple, so don’t get confused by the numbers. But make sure you aren’t travelling in a zone where the ticket is invalid. If you just want to see Helsinki, a 1-region pass is enough, it covers Suomenlinna too. But it does not cover the airport, so you should buy a separate ticket for that. I bought a 3-region pass as I would be visiting Nuuksio.

Suomenlinna, literally the ‘Castle of Finland’, is a island to 2km to the south of Helsinki, part of the large Finnish archipelago. The Suomenlinna ferry leaves from South Harbour every 20 minutes. On the way there are several smaller islands on which lucky people have houses.

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You can see the attractive but short skyline of Helsinki as you leave the mainland and be amazed by Scandinavian cleanliness and efficiency. On Suomenlinna there are a few cafes, a few points of interest and the fort at the end. On the way to the visitor centre at the middle of the island you’ll already pass the church and its gardens. The blue path on the map (get one from the Visitor’s centre, or follow the blue sign boards) is the ‘suggested path’, but I wandered of in 2 directions not suggested. If you take a right as soon as you cross the bridge near the visitor’s centre you’ll reach a building in which they are building a wooden gunboat using traditional tools and techniques. It’s not open yet but you can go in through the door, just don’t creep out the workers by taking too many pictures. Continue on and you’ll reach the marina, which has a very nice collection of small boats, and the church in the background. On a sunny day it is a very nice sight. Which is why the Finns have put a cafe there as well, because in the summer you can enjoy that sight all day. Return to the blue path, but stick to the right after leaving the tomb, and take the route between points 6 and 22 on the map (the little gate in the wide building) and go towards 4. Here you’ll see the cannon emplacements, ducks swimming in the pools and a small (about the size of a big truck) artificial beach tucked away. I was lucky to also spot a lone paraglider riding the nice updrafts generated by the sea breeze.

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By this time you’ll have walked a lot and must be pretty hungry. But, with a budget of EUR 20 for a day we aren’t going to be dining at any of these sit down cafes. So I just went to the restroom (probably shouldn’t be going into this much detail), then sat for a while at the King’s gate.

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There is some very nice fort design at work near the Gate to ambush ships. On the way back you can explore the little park, or not. All the good planning of Suomenlinna was due to its architect, Augustin Ehrensv√§rd, who cared about his soldiers. You’ll learn this if you watch the short movie screened in the visitor centre (English at 12:30). That and the museum together will set you back EUR 6.50. There is also Wi-Fi in the visitors centre and some nice souvenirs though I don’t buy any. This is because most souvenirs are just Made in China these days.

So… keeping the idealogy aside, I’ve managed to give a run down of the place in one paragraph! What do I do now!? Well, the bid to save money does not stop me from being able to pass up lemon-liquorice icecream. So I had one at the shop near the church and got a huge scoop for 2.80. Now I could hold on till I made it to the mainland.

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A note about liquorice. Liquorice is like, well, something. You either love it or hate it. I first had it in 2001 and I’ve loved it. In 2010 I was unfortunate to try salmiakki, since then I stick to the less salty variants :) The Finns (call it Lakritsi) and the Dutch (call it Drop) love liquorice and you can find it in every decent general store. Buy some, try some. My favourite is the plain black unflavoured, slightly sweetened cylinders. I got mine in some yellow packet (400g for EUR 3 or so), but there are a lot of brands and flavours.

While you were thinking of liquorice, I finished my icecream and the ferry was back to South Harbour. Behold the wonderland that is Kauppatori.

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Kauppatori is an open market similar to most European cities, with local food stalls. In Finland that means Salmon, Vendaces, Calamari, Reindeer sausages and Moose sausages. Kauppatori was to become my lunch spot all three days. On the first day I had salmon with blue cheese, with a side of vendaces, calamari and veggies (EUR 15).

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I thought that was expensive, but it was so huge that I kept half of it and had it for dinner. I also got half a litre of cherries for EUR 3. They were the best cherries I’ve ever eaten, much bigger than the cherries in India. They were also extremely sweet and I had great fun munching on them while walking the streets.

After lunch I went to Linnanmaki amusement park. Going to a amusement park is not something you may do in a foreign country, except perhaps Disneyland. But, India has no decent amusement parks, and this one looked good. To reach there take the 3B tram to Alppila stop and walk about 500m in the direction the tram will go. A day pass is EUR 37 and gets you on all the rides as many times as you want. I just went to the 6-7 most extreme rides. Rain prevented me from going on the best one - Ukko - so I paid EUR 5 to extend my pass to the next day. Completely bushed by now, it was time to take the 3B back to my room.

On day 3 it was time for something completely off the tourist map. On the outskirts of Espoo is Nuuksio National Park. It has some nice trails through the wilderness of conifer forests and Finnish lakes. With a 3 region pass, you can go all the way to Nuuksio for ‘free’. You can take the S, U, L or E trains to Espoo then take bus number 85. Get down at Nuuksionpaa or Kattila (last stop). Once in the countryside the stops don’t have their names written on them, so it’s best to just get down at Kattila. From there you can see the trail marked. There are two, red and blue. Red is about 4km and goes to the main park entrance at Haukkalammentie. The blue one is 8km and I don’t know where it ends up because I didn’t take it. I had fun traipsing through the park for about 2 hours.

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Finland is a pretty flat country so there aren’t any hikes, just walking. There’s silver birch, spruce, alder, aspen and lime trees and two lakes on the trail. Three-fourth of the way through, you’ll come to a fork, one going left and the other right over a wooden bridge. The signs here have fallen into the lake and the trail is unmarked for a while. So take a left to stay on the red trail. At Haukkalamppi there is a info cabin with details about the indigenous wildlife and vegetation if you are so inclined. There is also drinking water and, surprisingly, a gift shop. Walk 2 km along the paved road to reach Nuuksionpaa from where you can catch the 85 back.

From Helsinki Central Station it was back to Kauppatori. This time I tried the sausage mix (EUR 8).

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I particularly loved the reindeer, which is dense and similar to beef. This was topped off by fresh blueberries (EUR 5). From there I went to Linnanmaki to ride the best roller coaster and try the other rides again. The Ukko takes you up five storeys, then sends you straight down vertically, to go all the way up the opposite face, then go back down in reverse and up five storeys again (in reverse!) then down again and up again where the hydraulics kick in and slowly lower you to ground level. It is super and there are correspondingly large lines, but it is well worth the wait and the rain.

The final day was a bit tempered. I had seen everything I wanted to see (or so I thought) so I just wandered around Kauppatori, Kauppahalle (the gourmet product hall south of Kauppatori), Stockmann and co. Picked up some gooseberry jam, some Fazer chocolate and a pack of plain liqourice. I accidentally wandered onto Sofiakatu and Helsinki’s main square.

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Just before that is the museum which had a Finnish films exhibition. It was free so I saw some of it then took some photos of the main square. It was surprising that I forgot about this, of course there is nothing very interesting, they are just nice buildings. Then I went into Asematunneli complex but there wasn’t much there and I left soon. After this I was really but had a while to go for my ferry, so I just spent some time sitting on a bench at Esplanadi, nibbling on chocolate, had reindeer meatball lunch and then went back to the hostel, took the bags and walked to Makasiiniterminaali where the Linda Line runs to Tallinn in 1.5 hours. Ferries run regularly, with fares being in the range of EUR 25-45 depending on season, day and time. My ferry on a Friday at 14:00 was EUR 44. Book online since on the spot booking has a EUR 5 surcharge.

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Helsinki had been amazing, it was the first stop on my tour and Scandinavia was well worth it! Next stop Tallinn, Estonia to attend two days of Akademy 2012…

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