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Nordic Countries en-route to Hurtigruten Cruise in Norway

USA | Tuesday, 11 June 2013 | Views [333]

Helsinki on May Day.
By counting backwards from the date we start our “Bike & Barge” trip down the Danube and fitting in the other things we wanted to achieve; we ended up having May Day as our first day in Helsinki. What luck that was! It’s a public holiday (as it is in most European countries) but more than that, it’s the one day of the year when those who have graduated from high school wear their caps (which resemble a Greek fishing cap - but with a much smaller peak)]. We followed the crowd to a park with a dominant hill - complete with a brass band which had set itself up with two large vans to establish a boundary for the crowds and to supply a stage for the drummers on the roof of one and other percussion on top of the other. This was the site of multitudinous picnics, food stalls and balloon vendors. One group had even brought a three-seater lounge; yet another a sauna and hot tub spa bath about 2 metres square, both on trailers. On this hill, it’s party town with a sea of graduation caps ranging in colour from the brand new pristine white through various shades of yellow and fawn to almost brown with age (they all start out as white). Not all Finns complete high school as a number attend vocation schools and therefore do not get a cap. We were advised that those who graduate to Engineering get a black silk tassel which hangs down the right side of the head. Because of the rise in the technical and ‘bio’ subjects, these are now included among the tasselled-capped persons. There were some slight variations but basically they all look the same from a distance.
To add even more colour to the spectacle. No to add colour and even more variety to the spectacle, the various faculties, groups and groups within universities and polytechnic institutions have distinctive coverall / overall costumes covered in the logos of local firms and sponsors as well as patches from wherever! It doesn’t seem to matter where one gets the patches provided that they add colour and variety to the basic overalls. I saw an Aussie Aboriginal flag on one chap and a patch for an all-male voice choir on a young lady. As well, the kids (and some adults) get to dress in fancy dress with amazing wigs. Balloon vendors are ubiquitous and quite a few helium filled animals escape and drift off to balloon heaven.
Because we had bratwurst and hot chips and white bait and pancakes and coffees during the day we opted for a panini each at the bar in our quirky hotel for dinner. The place was packed with folk wearing their caps. Because a large proportion of those present were wearing white jackets, I asked one chap if the jacket was exclusively for the band personnel only to find that he was the conductor and yes the jacket is just for the band but it is the traditional jacket for the fire brigade and except for May Day they would also wear the fire brigade helmets (even though they are not fire fighters). This young man filled us in on the variation from straight ‘engineering’ students and on the overalls and the colours pertaining to each faculty. It was only after I asked which instrument he played that we found that he is the conductor and that he is actually studying conducting at uni. He plays clarinet, trombone, viola and side (snare) drum when not required as the conductor. He also gave us a rundown on why the caps are worn – Finland was a peasant society and as the children began to gain a full education, the parents in particular (and the students) were especially proud of this step towards a better life and the caps became a symbol of the movement from serfdom and labour to a new beginning.
Our afternoon was spent taking a scenic cruise of the harbour (and a canal) which was spectacular and informative. In the 1500s when Finland was still part of Sweden, the king decided that this area needed to be populated and the fine natural harbour needed to be exploited so a series of fortifications were established and the occupants of nearby fishing villages were forcibly relocated to make up the residents of the port town. Nobody needs to be forced to live here now as it is a delightful, compact small city, but, like Sydney its streets have ‘just growed’. They probably wound around large rocks or boggy places or large trees or whatever, and had buildings placed along them. As the city developed, these streets were paved with cobble stones and remain now as narrow and twisted as they were when they were first trodden all those
years ago. There are trams as well as buses and a metro for public transport which is just as well as the cars seem to be in constant gridlock to make way for pedestrians and bicycles as well as the buses & trams. Taxis are just as caught up as private cars so walking suited us well (except for our circuit route on the #3 tram).
Day 2 in Helsinki and as cold as a fridge – but with wind.
2 May dawned bright and clear with a beautiful blue sky! It also dawned with a bitter polar wind which was too lazy to go around so it just blew straight through us as we made our way through the fortress Suomenlinna which was the erstwhile guardian of the entrance to Helsinki Harbour. There is a tiny passage through which the massive ‘Roll-on/Roll-off” (RORO) ferries and all other shipping must make their way. It was once controlled by a massive chain which was strung across the space between the two islands and could be lowered to all access. That chain and a number of the cannons now make the fence /decoration around the church. There was a shipbuilding facility in the fortress which built a special design of ships for the archipelago with shallow draft to negotiate the channels between the islands. The old dry dock is still in use – mainly for repairs to historic and traditional wooden ships and boats and as a storage area for wooden boats for the winter. Because of the high volume of shipping now using the harbour, the harbour board has banned the making of and the using of a road across the frozen harbour to the fort – spoilsports!
Many of the former barracks which housed the garrison now have very different uses such as B&B accommodation, cafes & restaurants as well as museums but they remain utilitarian in construction and design. After this we visited ‘Kiasma’ which is an avant-garde art gallery where “You had to be there” seems the main rule for the “artists”. One asks oneself over & over “This is ART??????” At least the architecture was not utilitarian.
Our Helsinki hotel was called “Hotel Glo Art” and it spans two buildings with a lane between which is the entrance to the parking. When the lane is being used, the sliding doors on each side will not open which is a good safety feature but once they do open, they surely let in the outside temperature – and the wind!!!!!!!!. We had to cross the lane to access the breakfast room in the basement of the other building from our room and to get a coffee (which was from a dispenser machine on the third floor of the other building) as well. To get a coffee took two lifts and over 350 paces in each direction!!!! Even Ian cut down on coffee consumption. None of our Nordic hotels has had any form of tea or coffee making facilities in the room which we miss.
The Ferry to Tallinn.
Although it was only about 1.7 Km from the hotel to the port, we took a taxi as we didn’t fancy trundling our bags over that many cobblestones. Once the gates opened for entry to the ship we found why some folk crowded on the outside of the waiting area: there is a 900m – 1 Km walk along various elevated walkways and gangways to get to the one entrance to the ship for those not in vehicles. And it’s “first in/first served” for seating. This became VERY obvious as the many junior ice hockey teams and their support staff took over vast sections. We were exceedingly lucky to find a chap sitting at a table for three but he was solo so we got the other seats. We had only to contend with overly energetic 10 – 12 year old boys chasing each other around through the seating and burning off excess fervour and enthusiasm. It took a staff member to quell them as their coaches etc. ignored their antics. The ferry port is quite near to the old town of Tallinn and as our hotel was right at one of the entrances to the old town we were soon ensconced and out exploring. Tallinn was a medieval fortified Hanseatic port town of great import. It was the gateway to the Baltic for great tracts of land and the produce therefrom. The town wall and the defensive towers all form part of the town which has a distinctive profile with many towers and fine spires reaching skywards to proclaim their might and importance to all. Again, narrow twisting lanes and streets meander the contours of this ‘city’ which reminded me of Provence towns – not least because of the ‘tourist trap’ souvenir shops and stalls.
There are some beautiful woollen goods for sale here and seeing the average December temperature is -7C with the average July being just 20C, one can see why. Amber is also one of the staple souvenir materials. We resisted admirably. As well as the twisting, narrow thoroughfares, there is a set of steps joining the upper and lower sections of the old town (which were two separate entities in days of yore). There were some artists displaying their works along the cliff and this town offers many truly beautiful vistas for them. We found a chocolateria and they make wonderful hot chocolate drinks (even if not as hot as Leonie would prefer). We just had to go back for a second opinion (as well as some of their cakes). We did the touristy train & open top bus rides as well as seeing the oldest seaplane hangar (made of concrete) in the world. It was built in 1916 and houses a maritime museum (incl. a submarine and I am NOT going to be a submariner when I grow up). We also spent a morning in their open air museum. We’re suckers for open air museums after we became addicted in Arnhem in 1976. Tallinn has no real skyscrapers as there is a law banning any building higher than St Peter’s Church spire which is one of those which gives the old town its wonderful skyline.
Stockholm & the World’s First Ever Open Air Museum
Our flight from Tallinn to Stockholm got in before we left! Well with the time zone change that’s what happened. We had a 50 minute flight and arrived five minutes before we left. Our cheap(ish) hotel is some 16Km out of town and the taxi fare from Central was more expensive than the 40Km bus ride from the airport. BUT, it is very close to the World’s largest IKEA store! And, there is an excellent public transport connection which we used. London has the ”Oyster” Card; Melbourne has the “Myki” and Stockholm has its SL Card which one buys (for 20SEK – about $3) and then adds funds to enable one to to travel on trains, buses, trams and public ferries. We got a 72 hour package which suited perfectly for us to do our thing for two days & then get public transport to connect with our train to Oslo. Winner!
Stockholm is built on a series of islands. Some are in a lake and some in the Baltic Sea. These are now joined and connected by locks to enable shipping to get further inland. There are ferries which are part of the public transport system and there are cruise ferries all criss-crossing the waterways along with cruise liners and RORO ferries and cargo ships. It’s a busy scene and the harbour is fronted by beautiful old buildings some of which are being affected by being built on piles driven into the mud & silt. This was done to try to avoid the Granite outcrops further back from the shore. Some of them are starting to list as the mud etc. shifts beneath them. The Stockholm ‘Old Town’ or Gamla Stan has some of the narrowest lanes we’ve ever seen. Halfway up the steps of one, Merran’s elbows could touch the walls on each side. We had to bide our time to get up the steps though as the tour group ahead of us was from the “Young at Heart but Waiting for God” brigade some of whom don’t move as quickly as they did not all that long ago. But we waited. There are a couple of statues of St George slaying the dragon – one in the church beside the 600+ room royal palace and one in a small ‘place ‘ among the narrow gangs as lanes are known in Swedish. We stumbled upon the ‘Changing of the Guard’ in a courtyard outside the Palace. The Swedish dress uniform looks like something out of the musical “Chocolate Soldier”. The band for the ceremony was horse mounted with the drum horse being of draught horse (almost ‘Shire’ or Clydesdale in size) proportions. We then followed the band down the hill to the waterfront – preceded by two mounted police.
The commentary on the hop-on/hop-off bus gives a good rundown on the history and geography as we progressed around the city. It is a city of museums and we only visited two; the Vasa Museum and Skansen, the first ever outdoor museum (which also just happens to contain a small zoo). Our cruise “Under the Bridges of Stockholm” gave a wonderful view of the way that the city celebrates its watery setting. There is a new suburb on reclaimed industrial land (where Electrolux used to manufacture their products actually) and they have tried to maximize the water views and public space along the water’s edge.
I now understand why Nobel invented Dynamite! Stockholm is built upon and surrounded by granite!

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