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Crossing The Finnish Line

Jonathan van Bilsen



September 4, 2011

Crossing The Finnish Line

Helsinki may not be considered a popular tourist destination, but after my recent visit I am happy to report there is a great deal more to the city then first expected. As the capital of Finland it boasts a population of half a million and is situated on the picturesque Gulf of Finland.

I was fortunate to stay right downtown, within walking distance of everything I wanted to see. The famous Helsinki Cathedral, with its pristine white exterior, topped with gold crosses, can be seen from everywhere and acts as a central reference place. The square in front of the cathedral plays host to tourists and concerts, but the true value of the visit is a climb up the 46 steps to visit the church itself. The interior is plain, in typical Lutheran tradition and the most ornate element is the pulpit, with its detailed dome.

Three blocks away lies the Gulf of Finland, part of the Baltic Sea. There are 330 small islands just off the shore, accessible by many tour boats, which leave regularly from the harbour. One such island is home to Suomenlinna Fortress, a large navel complex built two hundred and fifty years ago by the Swedish army to help defend the area against Russian attack.

Finland is a relatively new democracy and was constantly occupied by Russia or Sweden, during the ongoing wars between those countries. When Russia invaded Finland in 1939 the only country to come to her rescue was Germany, who helped hold the Russians back. After the war Finland negotiated peace with the Soviets, asked the Germans to leave and now enjoys good relations with Russia, as well as the rest of Europe.

Finland with its 5 million inhabitants has its own unique language, the roots of which are Estonian and Hungarian, making it difficult to understand by anyone outside of the country. Fortunately every Finn I encountered spoke excellent English and although traditionally people keep to themselves, everyone seemed friendly. The currency is the Euro, but be prepared to bring lots, as most items are much pricier than here at home. 

Helsinki was heavily bombed during the war and most buildings are less than 70 years old. Pedestrian promenades are abundant in the downtown core and outdoor cafés are found everywhere. The fact that the sun is up for 22 hours in summer probably adds to the experience of patio dining. The Finns make the most of it, for once October arrives it is back to shorter days; the shortest being around Christmas when sunrise is at 11 in the morning and sets by 3:30 in the afternoon.

A wonderful market with souvenir stalls caters to cruise ship passengers. Fruit and vegetable stands, which supply mounds of fresh strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries and more, appeals to locals and visitors alike. A most enjoyable way to pass an hour or two is to simply sit and people-watch while sipping a coffee (claimed to be the best in the world) and enjoying an ice-cream. I wandered past a McDonald's and from the corner of my eye, saw a big sign advertising liquorice sundae. Having been born in the Netherlands, I have a natural affection for liquorice, so this was an opportunity I could not pass up; and it was delicious. I can only hope the experience finds its way to Canada. Liquorice is in fact a common treat in Finland, and is seen in many stores in a vast variety of shapes.

I had the pleasure of spending a day in the small town of Porvoo, about an hour outside of Helsinki. Porvoo boasts being the second oldest city in Finland, dating back to the thirteenth century. The wooden houses are quaint and painted many different colours. Some have private gardens while most share a patch of green. Many have been converted into shops, specializing in local art and crafts.

Walking can be difficult, as every street is made up of uneven cobblestones and there are many hills, but the unique shops make window shopping a pleasurable pastime. If you have a camera your shutter will be working overtime.

The small, red houses along the riverbank were originally built as warehouses for goods brought by the many ships when they came into port. Naturally tinted clay was used to paint them red and the tradition still continues today.

Many cruise lines add Helsinki to their itinerary when visiting St. Petersburg, but one day is not enough to see this unique, historical city and its surrounding countryside. If you have the opportunity to visit this part of the world give Helsinki a try. You will not be disappointed.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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