Fun and fungus in Finland
It has been great to 'hit the ground running', though in this case it's been more like hitting the ground walking...and walking!
The first afternoon of my arrival - Saturday, I stuffed a little map in my back pocket and headed off walking and exploring Helsinki. I headed down the street I am staying on until I got to the waterfront and followed the waterfront for many kilometers, in and out of harbours, as the bays weaved around the city. Helsinki is on a penninsula surrounded by an archipelago, so waterfrontage is not in short supply. I discovered many intersting things and got a nice feel from this city. Perhaps it was because I found a garden full of tulips, my favourite flowers or perhaps it was because the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
'Architecture in Helsinki' is the unusual name for an Australian band, and it was they who inspired me to check out Helsinki and it's architecture. What a treat it's been. Food and photography, not architecture are passions of mine, but here in Helsinki, I have really enjoyed the variety of buildings around the city centre.
On arrival in Helsinki, I had a special moment at the central station in the city centre. I was exhausted, after a 24+ hour flights from Perth, having caught my airport bus into town, but yet to locate my accommodation. As I stood there with my backpack, I reflected that this trip, so long in the research and planning, was actually happening and here I was in FINLAND with nothing but my backpack for the next 3 months. I had a sense of freedom and exhilaration as I looked forward to the adventures that will unfold over these coming months and carrying only a backpack of goodies, I was reminded how little we really need to get by, despite the quantities of possessions we often think of as necessary. I asked a passerby to take my picture there at the station, and they ran off with my camera! Just kidding!
My accommodation is fantastic. Right in the city centre, everything is just a short walk away. As a bonus they bring me breakfast to my room.
Wandering around Helsinki that first afternoon, the sun was shining and Finns were out and about enjoying some of their first rays of sunshine in awhile I'm told. After wandering for several kilometres, I took the hint and stopped at a waterside cafe for a coffee and my first Finnish 'meal', a smoked salmon on rye roll. How Scandinavian is that? Scandinavians do make the best rye bread.
I continued exploring the city on foot and discovered all sorts of things, one of the most memorable being the Russian Orthodox cathederal. Amazing architecture and artwork, but it was the 4 person choir singing mass that had me stuck respectfully to my seat as I listened in quiet appreciation to their voices. No photos allowed, this experience is in my memory only.
Sunday - Thought I'd start with an 'official' bus tour of the city to get a feel for things. Turns out I did a pretty good job of it yesterday on foot. Many of the places were repeated, only this time I knew what they were.
After a lunch of pickled herrings on rye, I caught a ferry to a centuries-old island fortress not far from the city centre. It's called Suomenlinna and is UNESCO heritage listed. The island is chock-full of battlements and all sorts of intersting nooks and crannies to explore. I took many photos once the weather behaved. Weather? It started the day cloudy, then chilled right off, went really grey and actually snowed! That elusive snow you can see falling, but everything is just that little bit too warm for it to settle anywhere. An hour later the clouds cleared, the sun came out, and I had a pleasant afternoon exploring Suomenlinna. I had wanted to rest my feet after yesterday but I have now walked in excess on 20 kilometres in two days!
Monday - time to relax a little and enjoy being on holidays. I explored the city centre some more, and then later in the afternoon I had a pleasant time sipping beers in the sun outside a bar in the central square watching the world (or at least Helsinki) go by. The sun was warm, the beer was cold and I was happy! As I sat basking in the sun, I wondered if perhaps just a part of me is reptilian? But unlike a lizard, I got more lethargic the longer I sat.
Tonight I had a very special dinner. A huge steak of dill-rubbed smoked salmon, served with baby pototoes in mango chilli creme fraiche, with fresh Italian fennel sauteed in butter, on the side. Fine dining? Yep! It was my favourite restaurant. I had access to a kitchen, so, inspired by the local produce in the markets (I love fresh food markets!), I cooked a gourmet meal for one. Unique meal, happy customer and the price was good too.
On Tuesday I did a day trip to Porvoo, a town near Helsinki that claims to be the 'second-oldest town in Finland'. (I still can't find out which is the oldest!) I travelled there by boat, giving me an enjoyable three and a half hour journey through the Finnish archipelago surrounding Helsinki. Bridges across narrow channels between islands swung to let us past, and people's cottages on forested islands were some of the sights that drifted lazily by our slow boat. The sun was shining and I warmed myself on the top deck of the small boat reading my book. I stopped for a moment and thought, 'for someone on holiday who runs around a lot and checks out as much as he can, I sure do still find time to relax.' A little slower pace than usual for me, this trip has been a happy blend of both so far.
On arrival in Porvoo in the early afternoon, I was starving and set out in search of food. I passed a few places selling pizza and the like, but despite being in Scandinavia, I had this silly idea in my head, "I'd LOVE a Thai meal." As if it was meant to be, before I could say, "Died and gone to heaven." There I was sitting in the sun with a delicious Thai meal in front of me, beautiful Scandinavian women around me, Perth-like weather sunning me, and a cold beer in my hand. The 4 things I know are in heaven. I had to pinch myself to check I wasn't there already. Seems I'm still alive, but I do have a silly grin.
Bad timing moment - Amazing that for a town so old, the five-centuries-old church burnt down only yesterday! (It smelled like smoked salmon, only without the fish smell.) If they'd let me know I would have visited the day before! All the Finns are a bit upset. Seems they liked their old church. They are on the hunt for an arsonist, so perhaps it's good to have an alibi, as I was in Helsinki. Living up to my blog name of TheWandera, I enjoyed a pleasant afternoon exploring - wandering around Porvoo with no map, just a sense of wonder about what might be in the next street or around the next corner. I also wondered if people from Porvoo are called Porvooians, or Poos?? Steep cobbled streets and old buildings around a centerpiece of riverfrontage, make this a nice place to spend a few hours.
Tonight I had a fun evening that only travel and learning another language can bring. In the common room back at my digs, I conversed until late with a Spanish girl. Her English was as bad as my Spanish, but together we had some fun, coaching each other as we went. We switched seamlessly from one language to the other when one of us got stuck on a word. Once I got into it, I was surprised how much Spanish I remembered from South America in 2004 and Elisa and I had a fun time that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Recordo mucho Espanole.
Wednesday - my last full day in Helsinki. Wanting to purchase some food to cook myself a meal at dinner tonight, I went to the fresh produce markets by the harbour waterfornt in the middle of Helsinki. On a mission, I wandered around inspecting foods like a French lady at the Paris markets, only I'm not French, or a lady and I'm in Helsinki, but you get the idea.
On my first afternoon in Helsinki I'd bought a chunk of smoked cod for an afternoon snack from a fishmonger in the market.Over the following days, I had wandered past his stall several times and bought things to taste, or just looked, and he'd fed me all sorts of flavoursome goodies. Today he sold me some fresh salmon, then rubbed it with fresh dill and rock salt. Mmm! In addition to the range of spring vegetables, the vegie stalls were all selling a wild Finnish fungus called "False Morels". I should have heeded the warning labels on the display, but curiosity got the better of me, and armed with elaborate cooking instructions so as not to poison myself, I purchased some False Morel mushrooms to go with dinner. New season asparagus and marble-sized potatoes finished my shopping, which I then stashed back at my accommodation.
Today it is time to explore this city a different way, and again, let's not be a cliche tourist. Let's go "tram-hopping" - a Malcolm speciality. I bought an all-day ticket and during the course of the day, travelled every metre of Helsinki's seven tram lines. For no extra charge, I experienced my first ever tram smash. The tram's horn was followed by a satisfying 'crunch' as many thousands of Euros damage was done to the front end of a BMW that thought it could beat us. Everyone knows it was Socrates who said, "He who fights with a tram, usually end up second best."
I travelled to the suburbs of Helsinki right to the end of each tram line, getting off any time I saw something that piqued my interest. Wow! I certainly found things that aren't in the tourist guides. Quaint housing groups, suburban statues and quiet waterside parks all to myself. The best though, came last. I noticed some little garden plots with very tiny houses on them. Upmarket slums? I decided this warranted further investigation, and did. Beautifully manicured gardens but such small dwellings? People were on the plots and I got chatting with someone, as I do. Turns out these are places people come to to garden, but not live. The litte houses are stayed in occasionally but that is not their purpose. They don't get tourists, so I was a novelty for them. I was intorduced to a lady who showed me their 'museum' an original cottage from 1930, then she took me to her cottage and showed me around it and her garden. She was justifiably proud of it and we conversed as two people with a shared passion for gardening. As for her cottage, it could have come straight out of a Vogue Living mag and turns out she is the editor-in-chief for Finland's equivalent. For me, it was one of those special travel moments that I get because I follow my curiosity instead of a guide book. I jumped back on the tram and continued to explore Helsinki.
The salmon had just started to cure and dinner was absolutely delicious. I thanked the chef personally for a job well done.
I'm still getting used to the light in these northern latitudes. The sun doesn't set until after 10 and it only gets twilight dark for an hour or so before getting light again. Wandering the city late at 'night' in sunlight is a strange sensation. Sleeping? I have my trusty eye mask at the ready.
The light however was not the reason I awoke in the small hours of Thursday morning. The abdominal cramps and pains warned me all was not well inside. Before long I'd lost weight the quick way.
How about this as a promotion line for selling False Morel mushrooms - "Cheaper than Jenny Craig and quicker too". Or perhaps, "False Morels - tastier than a suppository!" I'm not sure which part of the cooking process I got wrong, but I think I will stick to the real Morels in future, not these false ones.
Is that a metal staircase or a broken escalator?
The Gastronomic Gallivanter is off and galloping! Tasting anything that comes my way is one of my favourite things about travelling. Some of the fun foods I have tried already include:
-pickled herring in mustard sauce
-cured salmon gravadlax
-crispy fried bluebait
-cold barbecued sardines, crunchy but tasty
-pickled herrings in creme fraiche on rye bread
-smoked beef tongue
-reindeer - sorry kiddies, behave, or Santa's next! (I AM going near the North Pole and I figure a red suit will stand out against a while background. There's only so many places he can hide).
Helsinki with its wide cobbled streets is a people-friendly city, and a city of friendly people.
I've had a great time here, but that's Helsinki for me for now. I will stay here again for one night on my way travelling from Russia to Sweden by train, but that will be a story for another day and another blog.
I am off to Estonia next................by helicopter.