Two years ago, the Allegro high-speed train started running between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, cutting the travelling time between the two cities down to under 4 hours. Having bought my ticket already, boarding the train was remarkably easy – once I had located the correct entrance to the Finlandskii station, which was not the main entrance, nor even an obvious side entrance, and there being no signs on display which I could see. I found it by wandering into every doorway and interpretting the grunts and gestures which greeted me.
The train was extremely comfortable, very modern, with individual power sockets, a smooth ride, and plenty of leg room. The train also featured free wi-fi throughout, although – perhaps unsurprisingly – this only started working once we’d crossed the border into Finland. Russian border guards examined passports very shortly after leaving the station, using hand-held scanners and a stamp kept in a little pouch on their belts. A few routine questions and the clonk of a stamp later, and I was out of Russia without even leaving my seat. It was all very efficient.
Disappointingly, there wasn’t much to see from the windows. Russia countryside in winter consists of snow, trees with snow on them, frozen rivers and lakes and not much else. And being this far north, it wasn’t too long before it was dark outside anyway. We passed through a few towns which (as I was to learn later on) had been Finnish until the early 1940s, but there wasn’t much of interest. When we got to the Finnish border, two officals entered the carriage, one of whom was a lady about 6′ tall and looked like Roxette. They asked me a lot of questions: Where was I going? Why? Where was from? Had I been to Finland before? How long would I be staying? Did I have any alcohol with me? Was I carrying medicines? I wasn’t sure they believed any of my answers. I probably looked all the world like somebody who brings cheaper Russian alcohol into the more expensive Finland (God knows, there’s a market for it) rather than a British tourist living in Nigeria implausibly on holiday in the Baltics in December. It probably didn’t help that I was grinning like a Cheshire cat when I was answering.
They then proceeded to search my luggage very thoroughly. Every zip and compartment was opened, including in my wash bag, camera case, everything. He even rummaged about in my dirty laundry bag which I would have advised against had he not been armed. When people have guns, its best to let them do as they please, even if this means them rummaging around in your dirty grundies. They were both wisely wearing rubber gloves. Finding nothing of interest in my bags, they gave me big grins and wished me on my way. Thorough, polite, and highly professional, these Finnish border guards.
It was on this train that I first heard a noise like smashing crockery, which turned out to be the Finnish language. Finnish is a member of the Uralic language family, loosely related to Hungarian, somewhat similar to Estonian, and otherwise completely and utterly different from any other language you would have heard of. It was a very strange experience to be in a European country where you recognise absolutely none of the words being spoken or displayed. Almost everywhere else I have been has either Slavic or Latin roots, so you get the gist of simple signage. Not so in Finland.
I arrived in Helsinki’s main railway station in the early evening, but it had already been dark for hours. And it was cold outside, with a strong wind blowing. Strange, for the Baltic coast in winter. I had booked a hotel nearby but my sense of direction – appalling at the best of times – deserted me completely and I walked around in circles for quite some time before I got my bearings (hooray for iPhones!) and covered the 500m or so to my hotel. One of the first things I noticed was that the streets of Helsinki are covered with a coarse grit which makes walking across the snow and ice so much easier. I didn’t see much of this in St. Petersburg.
Checking into my hotel – the Hotel Arthur – was easy enough, but I was very disappointed with the room. I’d found it on Tripadvisor and picked it for its location, price, and high rating. But on reflection, I think most people rated it highly because it represented very good value for money being reasonably priced and bang in the centre of town, and for anyone on a budget it would have been excellent. But for me, I’d rather have paid more for a better room. The twin beds were very narrow and pretty crap, the room was old and shabby, and the bathroom was turned into a wet room by virtue of the shower curtain being half the length it should be. This was compensated for by provision of a squeegee which allowed you to clear up the two inches of water left on the floor after you’d had a shower (actually, it worked pretty well). So I wasn’t too impressed, but I’ll concede that if you’re on a budget and location is important, then it undoubtedly represents good value.
The breakfast was included, and was good, offering a decent selection of anything you’d want. The problem was that it was very busy (the hotel is a popular one), and you normally have to share a table if you’re by yourself and queue up for stuff. The other guests were either Russians or people who I couldn’t identify, but I suspect were either Swedes or perhaps Finns. One chap intrigued me. He was in his late 60s, had a grey scraggly beard the type of which a biology professor would wear, and a tweed jacket with elbow patches which added to the academic look. But he was wearing a pair of shiny leather trousers, all baggy around the arse, the type of which I never saw on a professor during my four years in Manchester University’s engineering school. It was a most odd combination. My best guess is that he was German. If you see anybody wearing inappropriate or odd leather apparel, chances are he is German. Although I didn’t see him drinking beer for breakfast, so perhaps he wasn’t?
The other problem I had with the hotel was the noise from the street. The snow had been falling quite heavily when I arrived, and at 3am somebody was tearing about in the street below my window with a Bobcat clearing the stuff away, slamming the bucket down every few seconds, revving the engine, and emitting a loud beeping noise every time he went into reverse. This went on for at least an hour. Then a delivery lorry with a very noisy refrigerator parked itself outside the hotel for half an hour, all of which pissed me off considerably.
But that aside, I liked Helsinki. Like a smaller, smarter, but less impressive version of St. Petersburg, the streets were very well kept, as were the buildings, public areas, and everything else. Nothing looked decrepit or in need of maintenance. The streets felt safer than I have walked anywhere, I was quite happily wandering around at night (i.e. after 4pm) flashing my expensive camera about, even by the deserted docksides, without any feeling that somebody dodgy might be lurking around a corner, waiting to jump an unsuspecting tourist. Finland has a small, well-educated population, and I’d imagine street crime is probably amongst the lowest in the world in Helsinki. Besides, who wants to be standing around in the snow all night waiting to mug somebody? The city was very civilised (by any standards, not just in contrast with Lagos) and two or three times I walked past a coffee shop which was holding some kind of book reading. And free wi-fi was the norm in most bars and cafes.
Walking around Helsinki taking photos is very pleasant. I especially like the stone chaps guarding the main railway station: they look exactly like my Norwegian friend Martin!
The strange blue light you see in the third picture above is a laser which shines from the city observatory in commemoration of the 200 years of Helsinki being the capital. I first assumed it had been a permanent feature of the city, but it turned out it was only switched on the day I arrived.
I saw similar lock-filled railings in Holland, only I think they were merely places where people liked to chain their bikes up. I’m not sure the Dutch could dream up anything quite as romantic as a Bridge of Love. Too practical for that sort of nonsense, I think. You’d have people asking “But what’s it for?” and confused looks all ’round. Then they’d chain their bikes to it anyway.
One of the things which struck me was something I also thought about Korea and Japan: Helsinki is very homogenous. Almost everybody is Finnish, and you see very few non-Finns about. I suspect the unusual language is one reason why people don’t emigrate to Finland, and they seem to have avoided doing what the Swedes and Norwegians have done and invite in folk from half the world’s trouble spots in some misguided gesture of humanitarianism. And it wasn’t just the people. Again as I found in Japan, almost all the businesses, services, products were Finnish and aimed at Finns and therefore there was barely a single logo which I recognised. It is very unusual to go to a European (or indeed any) capital city and not be bombarded with the logos of global corporations, but in Finland all the logos on shops, buildings, and advertising boards – and there were a lot of them – were Finnish and completely new to me. And again as in Japan, finding an ATM was not straightforward. For whatever reason, Helsinki doesn’t have a bank on every corner like most modern cities, and the ATM I eventually found had no Visa, Mastercard, or Maestro symbol on it, and I couldn’t readily figure out which bank it belonged to. Fortunately, my Credit Suisse card – known for working in any ATM on the planet without some dickhead blocking the transaction – worked fine. I did a spot of clothes shopping in the Stockmann shopping centre (this Finnish company has shopping centres all over the Baltic region) and found all the usual brands there, but also a lot of Finnish branded clothes as well. However, all of this was offset by the fact that everybody spoke impeccable English, which is of enormous help to a visitor.
The Finns themselves gave the impression they are an odd bunch, and this is generally the concensus amongst their Scandinavian neighbours. Sitting somewhere between Swedes and Russians, the Finns look and act as such. They are a sombre folk, possessing none of the happy-go-lucky attitude of the Swedes, but retaining the ability to cooperate and organise stuff. Their womenfolk are often very attractive, either blonde and Scandinavian looking, or tall, slim with pale skin, high cheekbones, and very dark hair. The men vary, but a common look is short, stocky, with a viking beard.
One thing they share with the Russians was their drinking habits. I had been told Finns like to drink, and that the national pastime is to sit indoors and drink heavily, and the stereotype has not been formed without reason. There were bars everywhere, and from the time the offices close – regardless of the day of the week – the bars fill up with people of all ages who settle themselves at a table in groups of 5 or more, and proceed to drink lots. Beer is a clear favourite, and I found at least one German-style beer house (which served Krombacher, the beer of the Gods, which I had consumed in industrial quantities during my trip to Germany in June). Some of these bars were very large, but finding a seat could still be a challenge. I had installed myself in one when an enormous group of Finns came in, both men and women varying in age from 25 to 65, several of whom were carrying cello cases on their backs. Cellos are not the most practical item to bring to a packed bar, especially as the Finns haven’t done what the Russians excel at: providing a cloakroom for your bulky winter coats, bags, and any large string instruments you happen to be carting about with you. In fact, few of the bars in the Baltic states provided cloakrooms to dump your jacket, which became a major gripe of mine. It is pretty difficult to get a drink in a crowded bar or fit a group into a small space if everybody is either wearing a bulky down jacket or has it rolled up under his arm like a tramp with a bedroll. Half the seating space gets taken up by jackets. As I said, the Russians have this nailed down, you couldn’t open a bar there without providing a cloakroom. All I saw in Finland and the other Baltic states were inadequate hat stands or a few pegs on the wall.
Anyway, the atmosphere in the bars was pretty friendly, although I had been told that Finnish men, when they get tanked up on vodka, like to fight. But there wasn’t anybody drinking vodka where I was, these were after work beer drinking holes, and I expect the vodka consumption takes place at the weekend in different places, in clubs perhaps. One other thing though. The service was, in general, pretty crap. The bars in Helsinki seem to be staffed mainly by students, and they took a bit of cajoling into noticing you, i.e. you had to not only stand like a lemon in front of them, but actually ask them to serve you. If you walked into a place and just sat at a table, you’d be there all day without getting served. Like an English pub, I suppose.
But whatever can be said about Finnish bars – and they were pretty good – the same can’t be said about the food. The food in Helsinki was bloody awful. I don’t know what Finnish food is, but the restaurants in Helsinki serve foreign food cooked incredibly badly. They even managed to make a mess of the German dishes, which are a mess even when done properly. Even a burger seemed beyond their abilities. It really was terrible. But I did have one decent meal in Helsinki. I was walking past a very small Italian restaurant when I saw inside a swarthy chap who needed a shave and was waving his arms around in an agitated fashion. He was definitely not Finnish. I got a superb spaghetti carbonara in there at a very reasonable price, probably because no Finn was allowed anywhere near the kitchen.
On my last day I happened to walk past the Winter War museum, dedicated to the short but nasty war between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939-40 in which Finland dished out a seriously bloody nose to the Soviets, winning several engagements and inflicting heavy losses, but ultimately leading to an enforced treaty in which the USSR helped itself to 10% of Finnish territory. Before I visited the museum, I was not aware that half of Lake Lagoda and the Karelia region belonged to Finland, but now remains firmly Russian. The museum was worth visiting, and kept me occupied for at least two hours.
On my last evening in Helsinki, I crossed the street from my hotel and went into an Aussie bar for no other reason than it was close by. When I got there a karaoke competition was in full swing, with the contestants being a mix of middle aged Finns, student types including what looked like two Thais, and some Americans. The standard of singing varied from good to bloody awful. I was sensible enough to keep my arse on my seat and my trap shut, getting up only to buy more beer from the Aussie bar staff. But there were some good efforts. Throughout the contest, there was a young New Yorker sat nearby me who, in a loud conversation with the person next to her, revealed that she was 20 years old, was very much “into music”, and made a big deal of it with no small amount of pretentiousness. She was pretty, but already losing what would otherwise have been a good figure, I’m guessing by drinking too much beer and loafing about all day talking rubbish about music. Judging by what she was rabbitting on about, she didn’t seem to be doing much with her life, which I suppose is fair enough if you’re 20. She reminded me a lot of an American girl I very briefly dated who was also “into music” in a manner which consisted of listening to essentially mainstream stuff and speaking about it as though it was really edgy. Just as I was getting up to leave, this girl took the stage and belted out Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and did an exceptionally good job of it. Whatever else you could say about this girl, she could sing. I didn’t stick around to find out, but my guess is she carried off first prize.
I liked Helsinki. I saw only a tiny fraction of it, not even venturing out of the main streets of the city centre except for an afternoon’s walk down by the waterfront, and there is clearly a lot more to see. But – and this will become a common theme in subsequent posts – it would be much better to do the next visit in summer. Helsinki is definitely worth coming back to.