Thursday, July 31, 2008

Helsinki in a Hurry

Continued from Part 1
JoeHaving stayed on deck until we were actually docked, we then headed back to our cabin to pack up for the day, and so doing missed the initial rush of disembarkation. So we instead had a leisurely stroll down the long gangway to the Katajanokka Terminal, a reasonable modern if still somewhat under construction terminal building which serves not just Viking Line but a couple of smaller ferries as well. We had hoped to arrive at the Makasiini Terminal, which is on the other side of the harbor and thus only a couple of blocks from the Tourist Info center, where you can purchase a day pass for the busses and trams. It turns out we needn't have worried, though, as there was a ticket machine just outside the Viking Terminal which had English instructions. Two minutes later, and 12 EUR lighter in the pocket, we were armed with a pair of 24 hour bus passes and on our way to the nearest tram stop.

While you have to show your ticket when boarding a bus, the trams work solely on the enforced honor system: usually no one asks for your ticket, but if you can't produce one when asked you're liable for an 80€ fine. It certainly makes boarding easier, as you can just climb on through any of the doors instead of waiting in line at the front to pay the driver or show a pass. We hopped the number 4T, which headed back towards downtown through a neighborhood of lovely Art Nouveau apartment blocks. Just after the Lutheran Cathedral, we came to our stop, and this is when we learned first hand something that I had read online and then forgotten: if you're going to be a little slow getting off the tram in Helsinki, make sure you sit in the front. The driver opens and closes the front doors, but the rest of the doors close automatically, so if you hesitate they'll slam right in your face. After some help from the locals, though, we managed to get off the tram without further incident.

In retrospect, the Tourist Info place was, perhaps, not entirely necessary as a first stop. After all, we already had our bus passes, and a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do with the 6 hours or so until we needed to be back on board. We picked up a little bit of literature for things we wouldn't be seeing this time, as well as one useful item: a map of the tram routes. Then we headed off to hop the 3T tram, which makes a big figure 8 past most of the major tourist sights in the city.

Our destination of choice was Temppeliaukio, the Church in the Rocks, a large domed church built right into the native bedrock. Sure, it's the most popular tourist destination in Helsinki, as evidenced by the stream of busses coming and going during our brief visit, but it's just too cool to miss. The raw rock walls are topped with a massive copper dome (made of 22 km of copper stripping), and the combination gives it excellent acoustics. There was a young woman alternately playing the violin and piano while we were there, and there really didn't seem to be a bad seat in the place.

After the church we decided to ride the tram the long way around to get a view of the city before heading back into the center for lunch. We missed the next tram by a minute, but fortunately they run every ten minutes or so. Helsinki public transit really pushes the 3T as the tourist tram, a cheap way to see the sights, and it does run an interesting route; the problem is that it's jam packed with locals all day, and it's hard to enjoy the scenery when the tram is standing room only and whipping around tight corners. It did take us past the Olympic stadium and pool before plunging back into the downtown area, but I didn't manage to see much else that has really stuck with me.

By this time it was probably 1:00 or so, and time to get some food. Of course, by just backtracking a block we could check out the cool Workers Commemoration Statue, and then another block back to snap a shot of a cool facade, and by then we had walked back and forth in front of the windows of Stockmann, Helsinki's most famous department store, enough times that we felt the need to go in for a quick look. This is apparently the place to shop for everything from high-end Finnish ceramics to a good axe. An hour later, weighed down by the smallest possible collection of souvenirs as well as the knowledge that cool Finnish ceramics and glass like iitala are just way expensive, it was definitely time for lunch.
We set off down the esplanade, a broad tree lined boulevard surrounded by luxury shopping of all sorts. At the far end was the eatery Jennifer had picked out, Kappeli, which has a bar, a cafe, and a restaurant all housed in a Nouveau conservatory in the middle of the park, with a large and extremely popular terrace that fronts a band shell. The terrace was crazy busy, so we opted for the cafe, a much quieter and cooler affair where we got a tuna sandwich, chef's salad, bread, a couple of coffees and a slice of apple cake for the low, low price of €16.
By the time we were done soaking in Kappeli's atmosphere, it was past 3:00, and time to start thinking about final stops before heading back to the ship. We wandered over to the Lutheran Cathedral (by way of a fountain of seals spitting at a woman rising out of a school of fish), and admired both it and the statue of Tsar Alexander II outside it, but opted not to climb the many steps just to see its reportedly spare interior. Instead, we caught a tram back to Katajanokka, where we wandered the interesting buildings for an hour or so (finding one door watched over by a parliament of owls and another by a helmeted chappie, not to mention the coolest drug store sign ever) until it was time to get back on board.

Not a lot of time in Helsinki, but enough to see that we could happily come back and spend a few days wandering around.

Conclusion: Goodbye Helsinki

1 comment:

  1. J2,
    I just want to say how much I enjoy reading your blog, ideas, thoughts, travelogues pix, histories, and such.

    I have put your blog tab in the middle of some few dozen political blogs I follow closely, and by the time I get to the tab for your blog I really do need some fresh air. You furnish it very handsomely.

    Brandon has turned a nice shade of tan from working on their South Haven mural project.
    Sunny Days-