Making Helsinki Great Again!
Heck, I might travel almost anywhere if a meeting of Trump and Putin can clear the streets of tourists…
At 0600 I left my apartment and walked the 20 minutes or so to the ferry terminal. “Tallinn is quite pretty in the early morning, when the streets are empty,” I mused, and made a mental note to consider waking early again to photograph the city.
My ticket was on the Tallink Megastar, a floating cruise ship-type shuttle that can carry 2800 passengers and many vehicles. Several restaurants, a business class lounge (which spans the entire forward view), sleep cabins, and a two-level duty free shop rounded out the amenities. Knowing deep down the salmon smörgåsbord would not happen, though I am very much a morning person I had also purchased the breakfast buffet, the rationale being that I would settle in to a comfy window seat with coffee and a big plate of Ebelskiver and stare at the water for the two hour crossing. Alas, my rookie mistake was not placing my bag at said lovely table before queueing at the breakfast buffet, and thus I had to settle for a regular inside table. Live and learn.
To be honest, the two hour transit was about one hour and ninety minutes too long for me, and the trip confirmed that I am not a cruise ship poster gal. For the entirety after breakfast (which was exceptional) I walked around to the various lounges and viewing points (spoiler: the Bay of Finland looks the same in all directions), past sleeping backpackers in corners and under stairwells, ewww; read and reread the information about Helsinki to maximize my time in the city; and otherwise watched the water swish by. Perhaps I saw a mermaid. Perhaps I did not.
An unexpected combination of American products in the ship’s store.
There was also Reindeer…
Not surprisingly I was one of the first queued to disembark. The security officer who opened the doors to the gangway resembled what I imagined to be a brawny Soviet bouncer, and his accented, “Welcome to Finland” made me laugh.
The plan for Helsinki was not ideal because I would like to have toured the harbour and enjoyed the popular Helsinki Central Market, both of which were shut down to tourism because the presidential palace, where Trump and Putin met, is also near that location. BUT, because so many tourist gloms were entertained by the street closures, popular sights were delightfully accessible! From the ferry terminal I caught a tram to the Central Station (watched over by Finnish granite men that looked suspiciously like the Tallink Bouncer, just saying), and then Metro-ed to the Hakaniemi Market, where I learned that sea urchin is not only edible (it tastes like oysters!) but that the spiny shell can also be dried and used as a decorative piece.
Everything about this display at the market frightened me.
I also discovered that Finnish design really is as striking as it is made out to be; but for as much as I loved everything from the cork slippers to the crocheted egg cozies to artistic cheese graters, only a set of sauna towels and eucalyptus branches came home with me to use in our own sauna. And, bonus! There were scant tourists underfoot!
Everything you need for your Finnish sauna experience, including…a Viking helmet?
From the market I made my return toward Summit Central, en route to the Uspenski Cathedral. The “always-crowded” Senate Square was brilliantly quiet; those tourists who were not hanging out along the police barriers were seeking shade inside the open shops, leaving the sidewalk free for me and others of my ilk. (We lived in D.C. in 2001 and suffered through soul-crushing motorcade delays; terrorist attacks; anthrax threats; and the snipers. A presidential summit? Yawn…)
Uspenski Cathedral delighted; though Orthodox, its exterior structure reminded me of the Church of the Visitation in the little border town of Břeclav, CZ that we pass on our outings to the northern neighbors. From the cathedral I backtracked past a “Jesus Loves Trump and Putin” hippie van in order to see the Helsinki Cathedral, sparkling on a beautiful blue sky day, its steps barely filled with lounging visitors.
Walking back along the Esplanade I observed a number of protests, and marveled at how respectful the protesters were to the counter-protesters (a MAGA group in particular), and especially how everyone respected the authorities. At least from my observations the protests were as equally anti-Trump as they were anti-Putin. A good many people milled about, listening to speakers and reading banners, all in an anti-violent and chilled manner, like a civilized society.
Handmaids in Birkenstocks checking out naked statues.
I grabbed an ice cream (licorice, delish) and continued toward Stockmann, the Finnish department store noted for its high-end delicatessen. The clerks at the Service Desk seemed delighted that someone needed their assistance, and so I had a brief and informative tour of the sweets, smoked meats, and tinned sea life before making selections to bring home. Oh, and I could not resist adding a set of reindeer bells on a hand-embroidered collar to my basket; they will hang nicely in our library next to the alpine cow bells I have been collecting and perhaps inspire me to visit Lapland some day.
Exiting the department store I noted that the crowds had increased along the now-barricaded Esplande and wandered over to see what I could see. I overheard an American-English speaking tourist becoming irate with Finnish authority because he would not divulge the time of the motorcade to her, and she was quite furious with him for having been “standing here for an hour” without information. Imagine.
This woman had convinced the poor dupe that she knew the motorcade schedule and timing.
With about three hours remaining before I absolutely had to check-in for my return ferry I decided to explore the city’s design district, as it was in the general direction of the ship.
At some point in my walking I noticed an uptick in police activity and the presence of helicopters overhead: the clue that Something Was Happening. I admonished myself and sought a shaded spot on the street, but allowed myself to waste 5 minutes in the event Something Happened. Moments later, President Putin’s motorcade passed. “Big black car” is how I described it to Tony on iMessage. (For those who wonder, the Russian presidential car is an Aurus Senat limousine powered in part by Porsche engine designs.)
Roughly 3 minutes or so having been wasted, I attempted to take public to the design district, but my efforts were thwarted by some sort of sanctioned catch-all march that had shut down the tram lines temporarily. There were handmaids and hookers; open border and closed border advocates; Stars and Bars and the Hammer and Sickle flags waving; “Vote in the Midterms” alongside “Capitalism will Kill Us,” the latter sign being carried by someone SnapChatting their experience on an iPhone; and basically anyone who had something to say. The dude carrying a blank cardboard sign was my personal favorite. What impressed me again was the peaceful nature of this march.
The tram lines reopened and I was soon on my way. And again, (almost) no tourists! Finnish design is to Helsinki like the Hapsburgs are to Vienna, and the Punavuori neighborhood was a visual feast. Some Jugendstil architecture and plenty of Finnish design treats for the eyes (and the pocketbook!) I am almost not regretting missing the harbour front.
So. All things considered, the day went remarkably well. I caught my return ferry, settled into a comfy table with a salad and a glass of wine from a spigot (do not judge me) and returned to Tallinn. I plated my breakfast as dinner, and made great plans to rise at 0345 to photograph the city at sunrise.
Nope. Didn’t happen.