Friday, August 30, 2013

Norse saga. Part III - Far from Finnished

Saturday 10 August

Suomenlinna: The Fortress of Finland.
Upon arrival at Helsinki, it transpired that the ferry port and our hotel were at opposite ends of town. A €20 taxi ride sorted that out, and we also learned that the tram would take us directly from the hotel to our return ferry on Monday.

The tram trip into town cost €2.60 each. Then we bought day passes, which would be valid for 24 hours of unlimited public transport, except for the ferry we took to Suomenlinna (The Fortress of Finland). Having got there, we discovered that a different ferry service would have accepted our day passes, although it went to and from different quays.

I was actually glad I’d decided to wear my new Vibram® hobbit feet today. Every surfaced area on Suomenlinna was either sharp gravel of massive rounded cobbles, except for one grassed area that was covered in goose poo.

Suomenlinna: The King's Gate
Suomenlinna church is used as a lighthouse.
You can just see our ferry over there in the far right background.
Suoemlinna is a group of small islands covered with fortifications dating originally from the mid 1700s, and also various wooden and brick-built buildings. The church has a dome that includes an extant lighthouse some 52m above sea level. Wandering around the islands, we discovered the First Helsinki Classic Boat Rally, so the yacht harbour was chockablock with glorious wooden yachts and motor boats.

Yachts, yachts everywhere

Wood or Tupperware? What would you choose?

I think this motor cruiser looks wonderful.

Is this a Riva?
Another boat worth a look was a 1933 submarine with its three torpedoes, two engines, and two enormous doorways now cut into the hull to provide access and egress. I chatted to an American who was busy telling his small son how Grandad used to sail in a larger version of this vessel. Grandad never got to launch a Trident missile in anger, for which we are probably all grateful, but having retired from the US Navy, it seems he got a more satisfying job at Cape Canaveral putting space shuttles into orbit.


Submarine stern gear.

Engine room: the electric bit, for use when submerged.

Torpedo tube.
We returned to Helsinki’s mainland and sought food. The guide book mentioned that Café Kappeli was a good place for traditional Finnish fare. The bouncer on the door looked us up and down. A kilt is National Costume (just not mine, but I wasn’t going to say so) and anyway there’s a long and auspicious tradition of Kilted Warriors this far north. Vibram® hobbit feet don’t violate any No Shoes: No Service rule, and they’re not sandals either.

I had the reindeer tongue starter, on a bed of reindeer mousse, and that was followed by medium-rare roasted reindeer with vegetables and a delicious rowanberry sauce. The whole thing was delicious, actually, for someone who enjoys meat that’s slightly gamey. Beloved Wife had the beef, but because she’d not had a starter, a dessert was justified. Blueberry cheesecake with blueberry ice-cream and drizzled with blueberry juice. Mmmmm!

Only for people who like blueberries.
All the shops were shut by the time we emerged from the restaurant, so we wandered around and resisted the dubious allure of buskers, caricature artists, and a religious orator. We checked out some of the architecture and then rode the tram to the end of the line and back again to our hotel. Plans to alight at the end and look at the sea were abandoned when it became obvious that there was no entertainment to be had in the residential suburbs. Our day passes would expire at 2000 on Sunday, so some exploration of Helsinki was planned. We both hoped that the place wouldn’t be shut on Sunday.

Sunday 11 August

According to the guide books, the Finns are avid coffee drinkers. This seems to be confirmed by the kitchen area of a downtown department store that was mostly devoted to coffee machines. I suspect Mellow Birds may be a prohibited substance in Finland. This keenness to make decent coffee didn’t stop me experiencing a particularly revolting cup this morning at breakfast. I don’t care that it was from a machine: a device that grinds beans and pours liquid should be capable of making a decent cup. The other apparently identical machine was much better, so I suspect dirty filters or some such. The hotel staff were hugely apologetic, and the following morning the errant machine had been fixed.

Our first port of call was a spectacular modern church hewn out of solid granite. Temppeliaukion kirkko, the Church in the Rock is basically a circular hole in the ground covered by a huge copper dome that’s supported by concrete flying buttresses. The place was packed with tourists. Now, I’m not in any way religious, but even I know that it’s considered bad form to wear a hat in church. Tell that to Indiana Jones’ grandson and the host of back-to-front baseball caps.

Church in the Rock interior.
Church in the Rock exterior.
Other churches we visited today were Uspenskin katedraali, the Russian Orthodox brick edifice near the port and the largest in Europe, and the Helsingia tuomiokirkko, a huge white Lutheran cathedral atop an enormous flight of steps. It’s surprisingly plain inside, except for the organ whose pipes are decorated in Baroque on Speed.

Russian Orthodox church.
Plenty of ornamentation in the Russian Orthodox style.
A classic onion dome.
Helsingia tuomiokirkko.
Inside, the church is surprisingly plain...
...except for this vast musical instrument.
A little shopping and photos, then back to the hotel to drop of purchases before heading out for something to eat and drink. Isn’t a day ticket of unlimited public transport great?

St Peter. He with the keys to the Pearly Gates.
Trolls guard one of Helsinki's department stores.
A rather disturbing lack of PPE whilst metal bashing.

I can't work out if this Viking has an agricultural implement or a musical instrument.
An exomis probably doesn't count as Personal Protection Equipment.
Love the Art Deco.
Zacharis Topelius, lyric poet, writer of historical romances, professor of Finnish, Russian, and Nordic history, and editor-in-chief of the Helsingfors Gazette.
Atlantes, which is the correct term for male caryatids I hear.
After ‘deer’ [sic] pizza - another first - and a beer brewed in Bergen, (Beloved Wife had ham and pepperoni and a Blueberry Collins), we took the scenic route by tram back to the hotel.

The pool and sauna was still open for an hour. I managed fifteen minutes at 100°C and 70% humidity. Then a couple of Chinese guys joined me and poured water on the hot coals. None of us could breathe superheated steam, and they ran howling from the sauna. I bent double until the steam evaporated. I’m not used to saunas, and the one at Fitness First in Dubai is set at a mere 80°C.

Monday 12 August

Our last day in Helsinki. We checked out of the hotel and then took the tram into town, leaving our bags for collection later. It was raining really quite hard, but after the squall had passed we found our way to St John’s church. But first we visited the Design Museum. This one was rather better than the one in Copenhagen, not least because it wasn’t half closed for refurbishment. There were plenty of IKEA chairs, of course, and blasts from the past that included Rukka motorcycle gear and a 1985 mobile phone stuck to a car battery. Odd, isn’t it, that state-of-the-art furniture from 1940s Scandinavia still looks modern? Compare with the furniture we grew up with.

St John’s is a huge church that includes rows and rows of pews in a Circle as well as the Stalls. It’s possible to walk right around the church on the upper level and look down at the congregation from behind the altar. Apparently the church is used for concerts as well as for worship, and can’t half pack them in.

St John's church. The twin spires are visible from most of Helsinki.
The nave of St John's church
Carving detail on the screen behind the altar.
Looking down the nave from the upper storey. An angel's point of view, perhaps.
 As rain was still threatening, Beloved Wife decreed that we go into town and buy a new umbrella. The new device is magnificent. Push a button on the handle to deploy, and then push the same button to collapse. I’m officially impressed.

We retrieved our luggage from the hotel and found our way to the ferry terminal in good time. It transpired that no cabins were available, and so once on board, Beloved Wife and I found a quietish corner and set up camp. Immediately after casting off, she tried again, and by some miracle a cabin was now available, and we wouldn’t have to spend all night listening to the Whack-a-Mole and the pinball machines in the next room.

The moral of the story is to ensure that cabins are booked both ways at the same time as the ferry tickets.

Beloved Wife collapsed for an early night. I discovered Finnish kåråøkë, that wasn’t bad on the whole. I tried to sing along under my breath but was continually thwarted by all the diäcrïticål marks in the Finnish sübtitlës. After a snack at the tapas bar and some Jägermeister, I went back, but by now the kåråøkë had been replaced by a disastrous Finnish püb sïngër. I can tell when an early night is called for.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Norse saga. Part II - Stockholm Syndrome

Wednesday 07 August

Church, after the rain.
We pretty much blew the entire day on rail travel. After a leisurely breakfast and post-breakfast siesta, we packed and got ourselves to the station in time for the InterCity High-Speed train departing Copenhagen at 1229. The Øresund bridge crossing into Sweden is spectacular. I think the rail runs below the road deck. The train got to Malmö on time, and then stood in the underground station for an hour and a half.

Subsequent delays, including protracted unexplained waits in rural Sweden and on one occasion actually travelling backwards for several miles, meant that the five hour journey ended up taking almost nine hours. At least, when we eventually rolled into Stockholm, the hotel was close to the station and easy to find.

We crawled into our room and then set off in search of food, eschewing Pizza Hut in favour a local steakhouse chain. The first ATM we tried didn’t want to talk to my card, and as the buttons didn’t respond, I concluded that the machine was FUBAR. Another machine in the railway station was much more sensible: it dispensed cash.

Thursday 08 August

First job after a splendid continental breakfast that included bacon, pork sausages, paté, plus the usual cold cuts, fruit, bread and coffee, was to head to the railway station. Having secured our booking for next Wednesday’s trip to Oslo and paid the booking fee, we headed to the bus station (of all places) to confirm our ferry to and from Helsinki, plus shuttle buses to and from the ferry port.

The bus to Skansen, a kind of outdoor theme park of old buildings, living history, and petting zoo, was parked up outside the bus terminal. Beloved Wife made her Fast Talk when conversing with the bus driver, and we were delivered for free outside Skansen about twenty minutes later.

After admission, we checked out the Tobacco and Matches museum that, curiously, made no mention of the negative health effects of tobacco. There was a video on a loop telling the salutory tale of one Ivar Kreuger who basically created a world monopoly of match manufacturing by buying out all his competitors with other people’s money. It all went wrong with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, but to this day almost all of the world’s matches are from Sweden.

Cigarette-making machines.
Guess one of my favourite brands.
 There were some extremely rare goats at the petting zoo. They looked to me like shaggy Toggenburgs, but are a once common but now an endangered breed, apparently. The adults had proper horns and beards, which was splendid.

Lovely beard you have there, ma'aaam!

Sheltering from the rain. Clearly this goat has more sense than the photographer.

Nineteenth-century Swedish farm cottage.

Nineteenth-century schoolhouse and bell tower.
 The weather deteriorated, and we were glad to be able to hide in various buildings and avail ourselves of Living History and shelter. As the woman spinning wool into yarn confirmed, Sleeping Beauty couldn’t have pricked her finger on a spinning wheel: there’s nothing sharp on the device. In Swedish, ‘spinning’ on a wheel and ‘spinning’ using a drop-spindle have different words and the illustrations in books of fairy tales and cartoons by Walt Disney of the spinning wheel are all wrong. It’s a drop-spindle that has a pointy bit that can put you to sleep for a hundred years. Beloved Wife informs me that a ‘Great Wheel’ spinning wheel does have a finger-pricking spindle, but this looks nothing like the now traditional machine.

No sharp things in evidence.
Wooden church - interior.
All the Living History stuff shut down at 1700, just as the heavens opened. It had been trying to rain on and off all day, but was now persisting down. We took a tram back to town. To my surprise, the conductor simply stood near one of the doors, but made no effort to collect any fares from the heaving multitude packed in like sardines.

Hurling down in stair-rods.
When the tram stopped, we headed into a shopping mall for excellent pizza, and then dodged the rain (which had failed to stop) by hiding under shop canopies all the way back to the hotel. Beneath one of the larger canopies, we encountered “Hoola Schoola UK,” which was representing all things British at a local Arts fair.

A small excerpt from the Hoola Schoola.
An early night, then, and plans for an early breakfast and some more sightseeing before the ferry trip. What we actually did was going to depend on the weather.

Friday 09 August

First task after two Breakfasts of Podium Finish was to check out of our room and drop our bags off at reception. Then we headed out in the general direction of the old town. I spotted a shop selling athletics goods and – long story short – managed to find some Vibram® FiveFinger® hobbit feet that fitted me, an exercise that has proved impossible in Dubai. When I wear them it looks like I’ve got toes and not hooves. An interesting feature of the shop was a treadmill with a video camera, so that the customer could capture his walking or running gait and have a suitable shoe recommended.

We dropped my purchase with the rest of our luggage back at the hotel, all of two doors away, and found our way to the originally medieval church where the Swedish royal family is interred. 

Riddarholmen church. A cast-iron spire replaced the wooden one that was struck by lightning in 1835 and burned.

Dress it up with as much gold as you like; an infant's sarcophagus represents something desperately sad.
And then we ran into the Changing of the Guard. The latter took over an hour, and involved a lot of horses and shiny pickelhelms. The Lifeguards include one of the few mounted military bands, apparently.

Someone's been polishing his helmet.

Enter the mounted Lifeguards' military band.

Everything was going so well, then the horse on our far right unexpectedly spooked, and the entire formation collapsed like a card table during an enthusiastic game of Snap.

Having removed the equine mess, order was quickly restored.

The timpanist has to control his mount without using his hands. And the horse has to be very used to loud drumming just behind its ears.
There was now insufficient time to visit a museum, so we satisfied ourselves with the old town streets. I discovered an ingenious book: ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ as it might have been written by William Shakespeare.

Then it was beer o’clock, and just time to catch the fun bus from the terminal to the ferry port.

Having got on board the ferry, we discovered a disturbing absence of aircraft-style seats: we were going to have to pay extra for a cabin. At least the tiny, windowless cabin in the orlop was private, and was somewhere to drop off our luggage. I tried to book a cabin for the return trip, but was told this wasn’t possible and I’d have to deal with it at the Helsinki terminal.

The first few hours of the voyage took us past numerous tiny islands comprising part of the Stockholm archipelago. The ferry went disturbingly close to a lot of them. Presumably the navigation channel was originally glacial: vertical sided and deep. The approach to Helsinki was geographically very similar.

View of Skansen from the ferry.

Pendulous, stormy clouds over the Stockholm archipelago.

Waterside residence.
The ferry was crowded, in particular by excessive numbers of boisterous and girlsterous brats. We booked places for the buffet on the third and latest sitting, but still ended up right next to a horde of screaming rugrats. However, the food was plentiful and generally excellent, and beverages including beer and wine were included in the price, so that was a bonus.

We spent the weekend in Helsinki, and caught the overnight ferry back to Stockholm on Monday afternoon.

Tuesday 13 August

The ferry docked on time at around 10am in Stockholm. The fun bus transported us back to the terminal, and we located and checked into our hotel. Then we were off for some Culture.

Palace guard.

No idea who this is, loitering just outside the No Pictures zone.
The Royal Palace admission allows access to four separate exhibitions. Just don’t show up at noon, because that’s when they’ll be Changing the Guard and access to the Palaces will be blocked by horses.

The Treasury is in a dungeon, and contains the Swedish crown jewels. The Royal Apartments are where the Royals used to live, and where they now have banquets and accommodate other Royals who may be visiting. I was completely Baroqued out at the end of that part of the tour, and so it was immediately on to the Three Crowns museum, a tour around the fifteenth-century cellars, two floors below present ground level. This part of the exhibition showed how the royal palace developed from about 1100AD until it burned down in 1697 and was rebuilt to the current layout. The old vaulted arches remain below the new stuff. There are alarming cracks in some of the brickwork.

A final exhibition, King Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities, houses Roman statues, nicked from Italy in about 1750. This is, apparently, one of the oldest museums in Europe that is open to the public: quite a revolutionary idea when it was introduced in the eighteenth century.

One huge disappointment with the Royal Palace was that photography – not just tripods or flash – was forbidden.

Le déluge
Dodging the heavy rain showers, we made our way back into town. It was well past beer o’clock by the time I spotted The Bishop’s Arms. This is a fake English pub, replete with fake exposed beams and plastered with too many horse brasses, but contained a choice of real English ale on handpull as well as the normal enormous choice of lager, and a massive choice of whiskies. So we stayed for food too. Three 500ml ‘pints’ of Charles Wells Bombardier. Ahhh! And not very much more expensive than a bar in Dubai. I was later assured by a friend on Facebook that I could have done a lot better than Bombardier, had I only looked. Oh well; too late.

Après le déluge

Beer o'clock.

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