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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, Finland
COUNTRY FACTS Pop: 5,231,372 Area: 338,145 km2 Gov't: Republic Religion: 84.2% Lutheran National Church, 1.1% Greek Orthodox, 1.1% Other Christian View Map
Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helskinki, Sept 9, 2003  

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September 9. HELSINKI "Daytrip Across the Baltic Sea"  A single day in any city can barely scratch the surface of what the place is about but we gave Helskinki a marathon effort anyway.  In a mad morning rush we caught the first ferry across the Baltic Sea, 80 km north, to  Finland.   The views of Tallin from the sea were already worth the ride.  Fortunately the ferry had some tourist info on board since our guidebook didn't extend that far.  In the two hour cruise we were able to plan out a full day of sightseeing.  From the ferry dock we grabbed a bus to the subway and came up in the middle of the city.  We planted ourselves in the first appealing cafe we saw on Alexsanterinkatu, Helskinki's fashionable shopping street.  With an action packed day ahead of us we needed to gas up and with lattes the size of swimming pools we did just that.  The Danishes were even bigger than the lattes and it all cost a fortune as well.  We were no longer in the developing world and the harsh financial reality of Scandinavian Europe was already upon us.

Alexsanterinkatu was a fantastic mix of historical buildings, many from the early 20th century and 19th century.  The skyline of Helsinki was not tall but the northern latitude made the streets shady during much of the day.  Walking down Alexsanterinkatu we came to Senate Square with the imposing neoclassic Lutheran Cathedral (1778-1852) and statue of Tsar Alexander II.  The steep steps leading up to the cathedral were a popular place for people to rest, chat, or eat lunch and peer out over the rooftops of Helsinki. 

With only a day to take in the city we moved quickly to the tourist information center near the waterfront, just in time to learn about the next boat leaving for Suomenlinna, a fortress island in the middle of the bay and Helsinki's one UNESCO heritage site.  From the tourist office we passed through the market square where an old market hall and the Presidential Palace looked out towards the bay.  Right along the ferry docks we found a colorful market full of fresh vegetables and other odds and ends.  We didn't have long to peruse before jumping on our small ferry and securing a seat on the top deck. 

Our beautiful weather was holding up nicely and the ferry sped smoothly towards Suomenlinna.  An enormous cruise ship was entering the bay as we departed, dwarfing our existence.  We counted as many as five large cruise ships lined up around the bay, making them the most visible structures across the Helsinki skyline.  In about a half hour we arrived at the island fortress and carefully noted the time on our watch so we didn't miss our ride back.  If we missed the 2:00 ferry we were staying until 4:00 and losing time to see much of anything else.  Unfortunately, that made our visit to Suomenlinna fairly rushed.  It gave us time to visit the museum and take in the Sveaborg experience, a detailed video on the history of the fortress, a strategic military position and lively social community of military men and their families.  Its original name, Sveaborg, came from its Swedish builders in  1748, Sweden controlled Finland for 650 years starting in 1155 and the market town of Helskinki was founded in 1550.  It was one of the biggest sea fortresses in the world in its day.  It was taken by the Russians in 1809 but was finally left in the hand of the Finns as the Grand Duchy of Finland secured independence from Russia in 1917.    

After our educational experience we had to rush around to see some of the island.  It was a vast area and we were only able to cover a small part but enough to recognize that Suomenlinna was still active community.   The old buildings still housed families, restaurants and shops, just as they once did in its fortress days.  A submarine, cannons, and other historic military items were still found scattered around the island but most of the space was open and grass covered.  The islands UNESCO heritage status has kept further development away and made sure that Suomenlinna retained its historical atmosphere, even if today's residents are not of the military persuasion. 

Rushing back to catch our ferry we made it will little time to spare.  The sun was getting lower and the glare of light across the bay illuminated the sale boats striding along the water.   From the ferry dock we swooped past the red Uspenski Cathedral (1868) in its Byzantine-Slavonic style, the largest Orthodox cathedral in western Europe.  Turning up Alexsanterinkatu once again we entered Senate Square from the opposite side and found our way down a side street to the Helsinki money museum.  Having become part of the Euro in 2002 it was a new museum that covered everything from the minting of the new currency to the workings of the Euro banking system.  It was surprisingly interactive and educational. From the money museum we took a peek inside the beautiful Lutheran Cathedral, whose stark exterior was matched by an equally stark but attractive interior.  Ornate gold accents softened the mostly white on white design.

Departing from our history tour we caught a trolley directly to the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (1998) which housed art created since the 1960's.  It was a fantastic modern building with an austere glass and metal exterior and an open white interior that made beautiful use of space with flowing ramps, curved walls, and hidden doors.  The main exhibit was called night train and using various art forms represented four different ideas of dream states titled, summer night, a ghost at noon, mad love, and un chien andalou.  Some of works were abstract beyond my understanding but others were wildly creative and engaging, if occasionally disturbing.  The top floor housed an interactive exhibit on the effects of light and media.  If we weren't pushed for time we could have spent hours at this museum.

In front of Kiasma a tank was parked on the sidewalk with military fatigue clad soldiers asking for donations.  We were told that they were raising funds for charity causes, a good strategy since soldiers asking for money can be a bit intimidating.

With time rapidly running out we grabbed the trolley another couple of stops to visit the rock church, Temppeliaukio Church (1969).  Built into the side of a rock area in the middle of central Helsinki it was capped with a copper roof surrounded by windows that extended from the copper circle to the stone sides of the church.  The front of the church opened up onto the street level but the sides were entirely embedded in the rock landscape.  I expected a dark interior but the pinwheel of windows around the copper roof illuminated the altar beautifully.  They played soft music as tourists quietly meandered in and out.

Rushing back to the trolley we carefully evaluated our remaining time and had to scratch our plans to ride the trolley around the city. The T3 trolley is meant to be a cheap way to get a city tour but our day wouldn't allow enough time.  We made our way back to the same cafe we had eaten at for breakfast to grab some sandwiches.  Our plans to take in an authentic meal were also toss out since we had to catch the last ferry back or spend the night in Helsinki.  All in all it had been a full day, even if we didn't accomplish everything we had set out to do.  We lounged our last bit of time in the park that stretched out to the waterfront.  Some women dressed in yellow garbage bags paraded through and when asked what their costume meant they explained that they were first year medical students.  It was time for hazing the freshmen.

As our ferry pulled out of Helsinki we were sorry to be leaving.  In a short time the city had made a good impression on us.  The people had been friendly and kind, except for one weird fellow we met on the trolley who looking like a blonde version of Dracula and snickered at us during our entire ride.  We knew little more than it was the land of Nokia but we had gotten a good taste of what Helsinki had to offer and hoped we would find our way back one day - with a bit more money to spend (the Land of Nokia ATMs let us down in the end). 

LITHUANIA Vilnius Aug 30 Aug 31 Sept 1-2 Sept 3 Sept 4-5

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 6-8

FINLAND Helsinki Sept 9

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 10-11

LATVIA Riga Sept 12-13

LITHUANIA Vilnius Sept 14-15