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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)


On one of Suomenlinna Island's rocky beaches.

FINLAND - Helsinki (1 week)
Week 8 of World Tour

1. Helsinki Haven

City of Islands
There are 315 islands in Helsinki. No, I don�t mean in Finland, I definitely mean Helsinki. They are everywhere! Nearly 300 of them are so tiny you couldn�t kick a football on them without it going into the sea every single time. But there are a handful of larger islands, and one of these is Suomenlinna island.

Finland�s Fortress
I caught a ferry to Suomenlinna Island on my second day in Helsinki, and arrived on the island 15 minutes later. I had purchased a bus ticket from Espoo to Helsinki for 3 euros (AUD$5.50), then caught the tram for the 3 minute ride to the port of Helsinki. And because these transport tickets are valid for 80 minutes, the bus, tram and ferry rides were all included!

The ferry was packed with hundreds of locals and tourists (all on summer holidays), and the first ones aboard moved straight to the top of the boat to get the best views of the islands scattered in the bay.

Suomenlinna literally translates to Finland�s Castle, but it�s one of Finland�s most historic fortresses. Built in 1748, its fame came about due to the fact that when it was invaded by the Russians in 1808, it simply surrendered without a fight! So much for this massive construction of high walls, underground bunkers and huge cannons on every corner. At that time Finland was occupied by the Swedish, and my theory is that the Finns didn�t see much difference between being occupied by the Swedes or the Russians, so they weren�t too keen to lose their lives for either one of them. And now, 250 years later, the Finns (who finally got their independence in 1917) still have a dislike for both these nationalities. Hopefully this will change by the next generation.

Suomenlinna Island is actually a cluster of 4 larger island all connected to each other with short foot bridges. It was unusual to see so many people sun-baking on the hard rocks which curve gently into the sea shore. Such a contrast to Australia�s seashores where we have miles and miles of yellow sandy beaches, and hardly anyone to share them with.


Inside one of the prison camp dungeons.

After the civil war in 1918, the fortress was converted into a prison camp. And in 1991 Suomenlinna Island was admitted to the World Heritage list. I found the small dungeons were neatly preserved along long, dimly lit passages, with some of the arched doorways making ideal photographic locations. A walk to Kingsgate, another popular tourist attraction, marked the end of my island tour, so I made my way back to the ferry which had very few tourists making the return trip to Helsinki. After all, it was only about 3.30pm.

The Finns
Finnish people are very neat, clean and orderly. They are a very proud nation who keep their streets spotless and their public gardens looking like show pieces, even though the gardeners get all the attention when you�re fortunate enough to see them at work. These gardeners look like they�ve just come out of modelling school and even though they wear heavy work boots, these slim young ladies are still such a pleasant sight in their small, tight shorts and sleeveless tops.

Typically, the Finns are mostly blonde and blue eyed, like all the Nordic (Scandinavian) people. They are mostly of a slim or athletic build and take exercise and fitness very seriously, going to gyms and saunas regularly (many homes even having their own sauna!).

They drive newish and roadworthy cars, and the taxis are mostly Mercedes and Volvos. The buildings are well designed and there are numerous art centres and museums throughout the entire city. They�ve even heated the ground of their largest city mall so that it remains ice and snow-free all year round!

Crowned Glory
The statues in the city are very easy to find. All you have to do is look for a perched bird and more often than not, there�ll be a statue under it. Helsinki has so many trees and gardens it�s a wonder why these feathered creatures prefer to sit on statues. But they do. The main culprits are seagulls and pigeons and the only good thing about this practice is that they add a fresh white crown on the heads of these works of art to add some contrast to the black and green coating of the weathered bronze statues.

The Havis Amanda Fountain has an interesting story. The statue in the centre of the fountain caused a stir when it was unveiled in 1908 because it was of a naked lady. But the story gets better. The artist who designed it (Ville Vallgren) insisted that his statue be positioned with her backside pointing towards an adjacent building which was occupied by a man he despised! Nowadays the Havis Amanda gets regular attention from student revellers on the eve of Labour Day (April 30) when they don a white student�s cap (like a sailors cap) on her head and go splashing in the fountain�s waters, filled continuously by 4 large, long-whiskered sea-lions around its perimeter.

Contrasting Churches
The Cathedral (1852), formally known as St. Nicholas� Church, is a Lutheran church (Finland�s main religion) and dominates the skyline of Helsinki. Built on the highest spot in Helsinki�s Senate Square, it definitely sits on the most expensive real estate in all of Finland. This brilliant white building with beautiful green domes is strikingly different from anything else in the city. But the grandeur and beauty of its exterior is nothing like the simplicity and sparseness of its interior. Other than the magnificent and intricately designed organ on the first floor, the Cathedral resembles an empty shell filled with privately numbered pews which have doors blocking each side of them.

As a stark contrast there is the Uspenski Cathedral (1868). This is a Russian Orthodox church and has a very dark and gloomy appearance. The external structure is of red brick and very grand looking, somewhat like a castle, and its green-tarnished copper steeple also features well on the Helsinki skyline. But its interior compliments its intimidating exterior perfectly. As you walk inside, the dark walls and numerous icons of the saints make you feel somewhat uncomfortable. There�s quiet choir music playing in the background and 2 glass-enclosed tombs (caskets) in the main hall. Whereas the Cathedral made their books, brochures and candles available to visitors on a trust system (unmanned tables with slotted boxes for payment), the Orthodox Cathedral was heavily manned and their candles were twice as expensive as their trusting opposition, at 1 euro each! Ah, the price of faith.

Street Performers
When I travel, I�m always impressed by the courage and determination of street performers. To me, these are people who are willing to risk being publicly ridiculed in the attempt to earn some money and/or practice their skills.

But one of my first encounters wasn�t very encouraging. A young and obviously inexperienced street performer had enticed a member of his huge audience to come and help him with his flamed torch act. But when he asked the volunteer to participate, he refused! This left him a little bewildered, but soon allowed the expressionless volunteer to return to his place in the group unscathed. Then he meekly chose another man to come and assist, but was rejected immediately. His eyes scanned the rest of the crowd desperately but no-one jumped out to help him. So he had a hundred eyes on him and no act to perform. Very intimidating. Yet the crowd still lingered, either hoping that this guy would eventually get his act together, or otherwise get to see a healthy young man fall to pieces in front of them. Luckily his plea for them all to leave was eventually accepted and they quickly dispersed. And I always thought that getting an audience was the biggest problem!

Almost every corner of Helsinki seemed to have a piano accordion in full swing. But if there wasn�t a piano accordion, then there�d inevitably be a violinist or even a 3-piece orchestra. These all looked like locals, but there was one guy I�m sure was an outsider. He had dreadlocks and was black as the ace of spades with only his bright shining teeth adding some colour as he smiled broadly while playing his bongo drums.

The Esplanade Bandstand (in Helsinki�s distinctive Esplanade Park) gives free musical performances to the public during the summer months. This is where you can sit comfortably near some of the most expensive restaurants in Helsinki and hear 2 shows every day. On this particular day the Police Band were thumping away with boppy jazz tunes, and looking like anything BUT policemen!

In fact, I learned that it�s popular for street performers in Ireland to use poetry readings to earn their keep. And it was suggested that maybe I should try it when I get there in December. I�ve never imagined reading my poems so publicly, but maybe it would make an interesting story. For example, �My first attempt at street poetry � 4 hours of reading and collected tuppence halfpenny!�

Outdoor Summer Sports
As I passed by a park, I noticed a few groups of young adults playing a match. It was a Frisbee match. There were 2 teams of 5 players each using a Frisbee pretty much as you�d use a ball. I didn�t notice any obvious goals, so I guess the point of the game was for each team to try to keep possession of the Frisbee within the marked court. It was a very active game but all the players seemed fit enough to keep running after the Frisbee which curved deceitfully as it flew through the air like a boomerang.

Another game nearby was a mini-soccer match. And when I say mini, I really mean MINI! This time there were 2 teams of only 3 players each and the goals were set only about 25 metres (80 ft) apart. And these goals were made of flimsy skinny poles stuck into the ground so that the goal area was only 1.5 metres (5 ft) across and a horizontal pole going across the top of each post making it 1 metre (3 ft) high. I followed the game for a while and cringed every time the soccer ball hit one of the posts, almost making it collapse. But they didn�t seem to mind. They just grabbed the dazed post and casually gave it a hefty push once they got it upright again, and all this while the game kept going on!

Public Rug Washing
Finnish apartments don�t have carpets, they have polished floors, tiles or lino. But they have lots of hall runners (or rugs) covering their floors. And there�s no way they can clean these long rugs in their small apartments. So this is where the Public Rug Washing facilities come to the rescue. There are about a dozen of these facilities in seaside locations all over Helsinki which have floating pontoons only a metre (3 ft) off shore with many wooden washing tables on them. The one I saw had 3 pontoons side-by-side each with 6 tables on them. A man had just draped a long rug over one table, then scooped a bucket of seawater from the side of the pontoon and splashed it over the rug. Then using a scrubbing brush and an aromatic but biodegradable pine soap, scrubbed that section before rinsing it off again with the almost salt-free seawater. Once washed, these rugs are carried back to shore and put through a 3 metre (10 ft) wide squeegee, then hung over one of the many adjacent wooden drying racks. They are left there to dry in the sun and collected at the end of the day or on the following day (provided that no-one else has helped themselves to them!).


Most of Espoo is a lush green. The "flying saucer in the background is actually
a lookout tower."

2. Espoo Walk

Espoo is only about a 15 minutes car drive from Helsinki, and is Finland�s second largest city. And this is where Nokia, Finland�s largest organization, has its world headquarters (I always thought Nokia was Japanese!) But apart from that, Espoo (pronounced Espor) is really like a large quiet country town. In fact, many of its inhabitants have come from the countryside. And these people have been attracted to the benefits of living in such a �green city� which doesn�t have many of the drawbacks that the larger city of Helsinki brings with it.

A short 90 minute walk through Espoo brought many of this city�s attractions to my attention.

Espoo is very green, which is typical of all of Finland. Something that amazed me was that 59% of Finland is forest, and this is the highest percentage of any country in Europe. And what�s more, Finland has over 56,000 lakes greater than one hectare in size! No wonder that fishing is such a popular pastime in this country. And the fishermen of Espoo were also out on this unusually warm summer�s day. Maybe they belonged to the nearby Yacht Club with the small marina in front of it.

Like Helsinki, Espoo is also situated on the southern coast of Finland, and the seascape is unbelievable. Lots of tiny islands litter the bay, but they are pretty little islands. Their shores are of a smooth but solid volcanic rock, yet they all inevitably have trees and other vegetation growing on them. And even though it was the middle of summer, these plants were a healthy deep dark green in colour.

Many Finns were in the water. I usually like to wait for much warmer weather before I venture into the cool waters, but for these people it may be about as warm as it�ll ever get!

Something that seemed unusual were the plants growing out of the seawater. Very tall reed-like plants with long sword shaped leaves grew in huge clusters along the shore and even further into the water. I couldn�t understand how such greenery could survive the salty seawater � until I tasted the water. The water was almost salt free. And yet, it was certainly sea water! Maybe the water this far north is constantly watered down by the melting ice in the North Pole?

But I should�ve realized that the water was very �fresh� because of all the ducks swimming and feeding in it. Have you ever seen ducks on seawater? I haven�t. Yet there they were amongst the seagulls and terns which swooped repeatedly into the waters feeding on small fish swimming near the water�s surface.

Going inland, I walked through the Espoo Forest (yep, a forest!). Most of the trees were birch trees (Finland�s national tree) and I also passed by many beds of brilliant purple Maitohorsma flowers in bell-shaped clusters. Yellow complements purple perfectly, so it was pleasing to see many pale yellow Midsummer flowers amongst them in the forest as well.

Each time I came to a road, I walked under it! It was just as if these concrete nuisances didn�t really exist. And the cars driving over them were so slow and unhurried. This was a weekday, albeit during the summer holidays, and yet I felt I was about as far from a city as I could manage to get.

People walked their dogs, joggers ran past, and walkers powered their way through the forest. But then there were the �preying mantises�. Not the insect variety, the homo-sapien variety. Dressed in bicycle-shorts, T-shirts and knee pads, these guys (didn�t see any women) wore roller blades (in-line skates) and held 2 long sticks much like snow sticks. And these 2 metre long sticks gave them the appearance of preying mantises. Most of these guys just stood by the roadside and chatted but I did get to see one in action. He came flying downhill and then as he came to the bottom of the slope he used his massive long sticks to propel himself uphill, digging them simultaneously into the ground and skating forward at the same time.

About the only thing that I found bothersome in Espoo were the field insects. These are those minute flying insects which are most common on grassy fields and swarm around you in the thousands, following you wherever you go. But at least I was travelling amongst them at a safe walking speed, because I�m told that ploughing through these swarms on a bicycle usually results in a few of them ending up in your eyes or up your nose. Immediately I began to feel sorry for those preying mantises.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

About the book


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