Saturday, January 09, 2010

Brgggggh...from Helsinki

A few months before his unexpected death in 2006, R.W. Apple Jr., the globe-trotter and political journalist for the NY Times, wrote a glowing article of Finnish capital, Helsinki. Of course, he wrote this article during the height of summer when the sun never sets over Scandinavia, and the city enjoys endless hours of sunbathing along the Esplanade, or at one of Helsinki’s 400 city parks. Against his advice: “Don’t try Helsinki in the off season, no matter what the brochures say,” we sojourned to Helsinki on the last leg of our winter adventure.

Perhaps we should have listened to R.W. Apple --- we arrived to freezing temperature of a cool -18C. To our Californian friends, you don't want to know what -1F feels like. Brgghhh… And, for the record, I will never complain about the weather in London again. It was so cold that a thin layer of frost covered my scarf from the condensation forming from my breathe, my face felt like shattering glass, and as my loveable husband pointed out, I had icicles in my nostrils (thanks love). Despite the Arctic chill, it was a beautiful sunny day in Helsinki, giving the city a gentle pink glow against the soft snow. Dreamy indeed; it was exactly what we imagined Scandinavia to be in the dead of winter.

The FinnAir City Bus dropped us off at the city’s main train station, located adjacent to the ultra-modern Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (kind of looks like the Nike swoosh if you asked me). We quickly made our way to our hotel, The Radisson SAS, to strategize our sightseeing plan for the day and add yet another layer of clothes to cope with the freezing cold. Our trip to Finland would be a new experience for us since neither of us have been to the Nordic countries before. Maybe this will be prelude to future visits to Stockholm, Oslo, or Copenhagen? I hope so! But maybe not during the winter season.

Founded in the 16th century by King Gustav of Sweden and later conquered by the Russian Czar Alexander I, Helsinki’s architecture is strongly influenced by both its former rulers. The city is sprinkled with a mixture of neo-classical design by German architect Carl Engel, Art Nouveau of Eliel Saarinen, and functionalist architecture by Finland’s most famous architect Alvar Aalto, the 'Father of Modernism,' who designed the Finlandia Hall, among other über-cool buildings throughout Scandinavia. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition between old and new, classical and modern, and the unique blend of different architectural styles.

Our walking tour of Helsinki was cut short due to bitter cold (again), but we manage to take in the sights as the city center is fairly compact. We walked along the Esplanade, the city’s main commercial road filled with cute boutiques, cafes, and restaurants to the frozen harbour. No joke, frozen! I was disappointed to find both the Kauppatori (Market Square) and the Kauppahalli Market closed for New Years as I was set on trying Finnish culinary delights of herring and salmon, or maybe even reindeer?

Continuing on, we visited the 19th century Finnish Orthodox Church, the Uspenski Cathedral, on top of a small hill. By this time my feet were beyond numb, and I desperately needed to seek refuge in a café along the Esplanade for an afternoon cup of coffee and biscuits.

We then visited Senate Square, adorned with pastel blue Italianate buildings and a statue commemorating Czar Alexander I, a legacy from the then Russian Empire. While Finland was under the control of the Russian Czar during the 19th century, the Finns identify more with its Scandinavian roots than with Russian culture.

We finally made our way back to the hotel where we indulged in an hour-long session of the sauna, a health practice perfected by the Finns of sitting in 80C (176F) temperatures on wooden benches to induce relaxation whilst sweating out the toxins from your body (Well at least for us, toxin meant the large amounts of vodka we consumed while in Russia). It was a welcoming relief from the cold, blistering weather.

We were sad that our winter adventure was coming to an end, but eager to get back to London where I thought would be a lot warmer, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, we brought the Arctic freeze with us to London. Sorry! Next year, we'll head somewhere warm and bring back plenty of sunshine...promise.

Happy New Year!

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