After two weeks in Scandinavia, René and I made it to every capital city in the region! Our cruise from Stockholm docked in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, early in the morning. We got settled in at our lodgings and then started exploring the city!
Finland is different from the other Scandinavian countries – in fact, when talking to some locals, they didn’t think that Finland should really be called Scandinavian at all. This is due, in part, to ancient Finnish heritage and a huge influence from Finland’s neighbor, Russia, who at one point controlled Finland. What we see today is a very different city from the other capitals we visited, with old Russian Orthodox churches and pastel colors on the shoreline paired with modern Scandinavian architecture and a unique Finnish twist.
Our first stops were the churches in the area. Two dominate the skyline: the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and the Tuomiokirkko, a huge white Lutheran cathedral. Both stand high above the city, dominating the skyline from a distance.
Then, we stopped by the modern architecture section. A large arts district houses a modern art museum, an incredible concert hall, and some other modern buildings. We enjoyed the art and architecture of this section, something that we don’t see very often back home.
The next day, we hopped on a ferry (you can tell, these countries love their boats and little coastal islands!) to an old, 18th century island fortress. René and I explored around this sea citadel, whose huge rock walls have stood for centuries and through various wars, including WWII.
That afternoon, we did one of the coolest and most cultural things we have done: the Finnish sauna. Saunas were invented in Finland, and the Finnish people love to relax for hours here. It is even said that more business is conducted in saunas than in meeting rooms in Finland! How does it work? You shower, then sit in hot steamy rooms for 10-15 minutes, and then leave, jumping in a cold shower (or traditionally into a freezing river or lake) to cool off. After resting for some time, drinking, and eating, you go back in and repeat as many times as you’d like. The sauna we went to was full of Finns and Russians, who were kind, funny, and apt to share their stories with us. René and I had a blast, relaxing and soaking in the Finnish culture! And, to end the day, an outdoor jazz concert under the white night sky!
As crazy as it sounds, the next day, René and I went to Estonia. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is about 70 km away by boat from Helsinki, so it makes for a good day trip. We were very excited to go to an old Soviet nation, and we were taken aback by the magic of Tallinn! The city center still retains its medieval style, full of narrow cobblestone streets, big fortress walls, a myriad of towers and church spires dotting the sky, and red roofs against the blue sea. René and I got there and walked around, exploring old churches and neighborhoods, climbing up towers, and enjoying real Estonian cuisine! In fact, we climbed up the tower of St. Olaf’s Church, whose spire, when finished in 1549, was most likely the tallest structure in the world! It turned out to be an incredible day trip, a step back in time, and a glimpse into the amazing revitalized Estonian life.
So… What was on the menu this time? I had reindeer (absolutely delicious!) and salmon soup with rye bread, which are both traditional Finnish cuisine. In Estonia, I had bear, elk, and boar sausage with a spiced black ale for lunch, and Estonian quail with a dessert of yogurt and cherry sorbet topped with dried egg yolk. And, not to forget, an amazing dark bread called leib, which is traditional to Estonia!
All I can say, after two weeks here, is that René and I have been stunned by the incredible culture in this part of the world. Each country is unique, yet they all share this geographical region and historical connections with each other. The cities have been stunning, the food delicious, the people friendly and happy, and the experiences unforgettable. Back to Norway for the last leg of the trip! Until next time Helsinki!