Half Day in Helsinki

August 13, 2015

Our ship arrived at the port of Helsinki early this morning. I was tired when I got up, but our tour today was fairly relaxed.

View of Helsinki as we approach the port
View of Helsinki as we approach the port
Modern apartment buildings in Helsinki
Modern apartment buildings in Helsinki

Port of Helsinki signOur guide’s name was Mary, an older woman, compared to our young guides the past few days. When she was talking about World War II, she said she was a small child then but has memories of having to flee the city with her parents.
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She told us about the history of Finland as we were traveling on the bus.

Finns are bilingual, or more accurately multilingual: there are two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, which are mandatory subjects in school. A family can choose to have their child go to a Swedish-speaking school, but they still study Finnish as well. In school, students are to choose an additional two languages to study as well, and most people speak good English.
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In fact, shortly after we got into town, the bus passed a school – the schoolyard was filled with children playing and I saw moms accompanying their son or daughter to school; the children’s faces were expectant and happy, their backpacks clean and new. It seemed to be the first day of school – our guide and the Sweets’ guide confirmed that school started this week.
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Their school year is about the same length as ours, and Mary said the school day can be 5, 6 or 7 hours, depending on the school. I wish I’d asked more about education, as Finland is known to have one of the best educational systems in the world, and it is often promoted as a model for education reform.
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A little history: In 1812, Tsar Alexander I of Russia declared Helsinki to be the capital of Finland, which was a possession of Russia at the time. What the Finns call the “Freedom War” was a civil war fought in 1918, lasting 4-5 months. It was a civil war between supporters of a socialist revolution in Finland (the Reds) and the bourgeois government (the Whites). Although Mary told us that the Reds favored remaining part of Soviet Russia, according to information I found online, they actually wanted to establish an independent socialist state in Finland. This was a brutal war, as are most civil wars, and the victors get to write history. After the Whites had won the war in May 1918, thousand s of defeated Reds were imprisoned in camps, where they died of hunger and the Spanish flu. In the end, 36,000 combatants died, 27,000 of them Reds. This was in a country with a total population of 3.2 million. (Source)
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After the Civil War, many of the White soldiers were brought home to be buried in their local cemeteries. This practice was continued during World War II – whenever possible, they would bring home their fallen soldiers to be buried in “hero cemeteries”. There are about 600 of these hero cemeteries – most Finnish communities have one.
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Since gaining independence from the Russian empire in 1917, Finland has had 12 presidents. The first female president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, was elected in 2000 and served until 2012. The current president is Sauli Niinistö.
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In the past, Finnish houses were mostly made of wood, but there have been many big fires, including a fire in 1808 that burned ¼ of the buildings in Helsinki, and in 1827, 75% of the city of Turku was destroyed by fire. After that, a law was passed prohibiting the construction of wooden houses.
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We arrived at Senate Square, where many government buildings are located, including the presidential palace (yellow building on the square) and a statue of Tsar Alexander II, well-loved by Finns. He declared that Finnish would be the official language within 10 years.

Senate SquareDSC_0850 We had the option of going into the Helsinki (Lutheran) Cathedral facing the square (completed in 1852) or to Market Square, adjacent to Senate Square – or both, but we had to be back in ½ hour. I wanted to see the cathedral, but agreed to go to Market Square first, and enjoyed it to the point of no longer caring about seeing the cathedral.

Lutheran cathedral, built in 1852The market stalls sell a lot of produce – mouth-watering berries of various kinds, and many vegetables.

Berries in the market
Berries in the market

Lots of people come to the market to have breakfast before going to work, and we saw some sitting at small cafes within the market having a cup of coffee accompanied by a pastry or some other food item purchased there.

DSC_0848 It’s not surprising that Finns drink more coffee per person than anywhere else in the world, considering their harsh winter climate. One booth had a sign saying “Lapland Food”. On the menu were two different preparations of reindeer and other unusual things, with each menu item listed in five languages!

KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still Camera

At another stand, a girl was selling a variety of pastries, mostly wrapped in packages of 2 or 4. They were all homemade at the family’s bakery, she said. Dale wanted to get only one of a few different kinds but she said she couldn’t do that. So he bought two cheesecake and two blueberry filled pastries (both non-fat and made with only natural sugar, according to the vendor). I also chose a box of cinnamon cookies (NOT sugar free!) we had sampled – they were light and wonderful! We intended to share these goodies with the Sweets later. Dale calls them “Finnish danish”!
We bought pastries at this stand.Many other items are sold in Market Square, including T-shirts, hats and a variety of craft items, including antlers and things made out of them.
KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still CameraOur guide pointed out a main shopping street nearby which is heated in the winter, so it always remains dry for consumers’ shopping convenience! Also, in Helsinki’s downtown shopping area, there is free day care – they take the kids to the park while the parents take time for shopping.
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Our second stop was the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Church). It was in a square called Temple Square because it was intended that a church be built there. The result was the Temppeliaukio, completed in 1969, carved out of a natural bedrock formation with stones placed together to complete the round walls. Overhead was a circle of tightly wound copper threads, almost like a flattened coil with no center hole. Light filtered in via high windows separated by vertical slats beneath the copper ceiling.

DSC_0871DSC_0873There were no statues or icons and the altar couldn’t be simpler in this Evangelical Lutheran church. It was kind of refreshing after the luxury of other churches we’d seen. It might have even been peaceful and spiritual if it weren’t flooded with tourists.

The altar
The altar
In this picture you can see the windows encircling the ceiling, the balcony and the main floor below.
In this picture you can see the windows encircling the ceiling, the balcony and the main floor below.

At first, the Finns disliked both the Rock Church and the Sibelius monument (see below) – it was the time of the Biafra famine in Africa, and the people felt the money would have been better spent to help others. But now these attractions are visited by half a million people per year, so the locals no longer feel that way!
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Finland’s people are about 84% Lutheran, 2% Orthodox, and there are approximately 14,000 Roman Catholics, 16-17,000 Muslims, and a smaller number of Jews.
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We passed the Olympic stadium and Village. In 1939, the Olympic Stadium and Village were built in Helsinki in preparation for the 1940 summer games. Although the Olympic games were cancelled when World War II broke out, they were finally held here in 1952. There is a statue near the stadium of a Finnish runner, Paavo Nurmi, who broke many records and won nine gold medals during the Olympic games of 1920-1928. He dominated distance running in the 1920s and was dubbed the “Flying Finn.”
DSC_0976Mary told us that 50% of Finland is forested. The country has 188,000 lakes and many islands (Helsinki is built on a series of islands, as are Copenhagen, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg). There are 5,100 rapids on the rivers.
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June 21-23 is called midsummer, when the sun never sets. Midsummer Eve is a national holiday, when people eat special food, get together to socialize, go into the sauna, then swim in cold lake water! On Midsummer Day (June 22), Helsinki empties out – Finns go to summer cottages with family or friends. Only 5-6,000 people remain in the city.
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Our last major stop in Helsinki was at the monument to honor national composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). To me, the main structure looked like a series of organ pipes, but that wasn’t what the artist intended. Sibelius never composed organ music.

KODAK Digital Still CameraThe monument was the result of a fundraising effort and a competition was held. Eila Hiltunen was declared the winner, but she was only commissioned to finish the project after some months of debate. A compromise was reached in the addition of a realistic element alongside the abstract one. In shaping Sibelius’s face the sculptor depicted him in his creative age, although many Finns are more familiar with him as an old man.

DSC_0979Hiltunen used stainless steel for the project, which is fortunate, because 35 years later the monument shows no sign of aging or corrosion. The monument was completed in 1967, ten years after the composer’s death.
KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still CameraFor more information about the fascinating artist that designed the Sibelius monument, click on this link.
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I started humming the famous melody from Finlandia to myself. It was a favorite of Mary’s and I told her we had recently had a memorial service for my mother, who had requested it be played at her funeral.
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When we returned to the ship later that afternoon, we went out to the front of Deck 5 to watch as we pulled away from the dock in Helsinki. We listened to some of Ian’s commentary about the things we passed, and Dale, especially, took many pictures!

KODAK Digital Still Camera 20150812_213813NEXT:  MORE FINLAND – THE TOWN OF PORVOO AND SAVIJARVI FARM

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