HELSINKI- THE WHITE DAUGHTER OF THE BALTIC

The brick built Uspensky Cathedral

The brick built Uspensky Cathedral

Ask anyone who has visited Helsinki, and they will almost certainly tell you that it’s one of the most beautiful and under rated cities on the Baltic cruise circuit. At once cool, chic and edgy, Helsinki is also a gorgeous confection of art nouveau architecture and broad, tree lined boulevards that make it more than a little reminiscent of Paris.

That said, Helsinki is a city deeply suffused with a sense of unique, Scandinavian flair and finesse. There are nods to outside influences, most notably in the enormous Uspensky Cathedral. Constructed entirely of red brick and topped by a set of ornate golden onion shaped domes, it would sit just as easily in the centre of Moscow’s Red Square as it does here, looming above a small inner harbour full of yachts.

The original, 1850’s built Lutheran Cathedral still dominates Senate Square; it’s a cool, neo classical kind of structure, with elegant, fluted white columns that lead up to a soaring, simple cupola, visible from anywhere in the city.  Set atop a run of broad steps that are invariably packed with sightseers, it offers a soul inspiring vista out over one of the most beautiful harbours anywhere in the summertime Baltic.

The harbour is broad, sweeping, and speckled with small, pine clad islands. The old fortress of Suomelinna looms across the entrance; a craggy old brute festooned with fearsome battlements, it was constructed as early as 1748. Today, this petrified colossus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can take a ferry directly from the harbour quayside; it’s a jaunt worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

Quayside market produce

Quayside market produce

That quayside itself is worth strolling around, because the local traders set up a fantastic, eclectically vibrant market here every day. From exotic spices to fur hats, via matryoshka dolls to cheap and delicious eateries full of local delicacies such as fresh herring, it’s a scintillating and entertaining stroll. You might just as likely see a gang of bikers cruising past on their Harley Davidsons as you will see some stunt walkers on stilts. There’s always live music; you’d expect nothing else in the home city of Sibelius.  The place is a constant, mesmerising throng of humanity from all walks of life, refreshed at intervals as large ferries from Tallinn arrive to disgorge a new tidal wave of curiosity into this lively, beguiling morass.

Helsinki is compact, and relatively easy to walk. It has some rolling, graceful parklands near the waterfront, speckled with the black and copper tainted spires of ancient gothic churches here and there. The city boulevards open out onto some truly spectacular fountains and, here again, the similarities with Paris are all too obvious. Bars, restaurants and open air cafes flood the pavements under grey stone, art nouveau buildings graced with delicate, laced wrought iron balconies.

This is a city brimming with light, life, and cutting edge Scandinavian design. Check out some of the art and furniture shops on the streets that lead up to the central station, and you’ll see what I mean. That station itself is something of an aberration; a vast edifice that looks like a mish mash, where Stalinism meets Mussolini modern; the four huge, human styled figures at the entrance are simply mind blowing, but when I was last there (August 2013) this lurid, compelling facade was undergoing renovation.

The harbour and Lutheran Cathedral

The harbour and Lutheran Cathedral

Of course, Helsinki looks- and feels- at its best during the long, hot days of summer, when the almost restless Baltic twilight means that it never gets totally dark here. The city is an alluring, compelling draw under such surreal, serenely beautiful conditions. But I have a hunch that it might also look wonderfully atmospheric and inviting under a coating of glistening white frost and clear, crisp winter snow.

I would hesitate to say that Helsinki is a city for all seasons; not having experienced it in the depths of a deep, dark Finnish winter, I’m just not qualified to judge. That said, what I have seen and sampled of this roisterous, cool and fun Baltic capital has certainly fired my curiosity to maybe return for a long weekend in winter, and get a cold (very cold) hard look at how it stacks up.

Given time I will do it. And I have the feeling that the ‘White Daughter of The Baltic’ might just have a few heartwarming surprises in store. Lovely city, highly recommended.

Surprises at every turn in Helsinki

Surprises at every turn in Helsinki

HELSINKI’S LUTHERAN CATHEDRAL

CNV00130I have a confession to make; I don’t normally ‘do’ cathedrals as a rule. It’s not that I don’t gaze in awe at the amazing architecture- I do- but, I tend to find that after a week or twelve days of cruising round the almost indigestible glut of cake rich, classical architecture that dominates the shorelines of both Scandinavia and the Mediterranean, a kind of glassy eyed stupor always seems to come at me with a cosh.

For want of a better phrase, I call it ‘cathedral fatigue’, although the same phrase can just as easily be ascribed to the plethora of castles, towers, turrets, keeps, spires and campaniles that are the stuff of legend. History is a rich, endless banquet of such treasures, but sometimes, just sitting down and having a coffee and a croissant at some pavement cafe is every bit  as rewarding in its own way.

CNV00129But Helsinki cathedral has always really got to me. I think it’s one of the most simple and yet beautifully expressive examples of cool, neo- classical construction anywhere in Europe. It has grace, poise and beautiful proportions and- perhaps most importantly- a matchless location in the heart of Helsinki’s showpiece Senate Square.

The fact that both square and cathedral were designed by the same architect doubtless comes into play here. A German, Carl Engel, was responsible for construction that started in 1830, and concluded in 1852. Engel himself died in 1840. This makes the building much younger than most of the Gothic confections that flowered around most of mainland Europe.

CNV00127Like many buildings in Scandinavia, it is topped by a green copper dome, surrounded by four smaller domes. The cathedral was built out in the shape of a Greek cross, with each side featuring a cool, classical colonnade. Some say the entire concept is modelled on the monumental St. Isaac’s cathedral in Saint Petersburg. As Finland was a Russian vassal state at that time, this would make some common sense.

Later, post-Engel additions included the pair of free standing bell towers, but the original, harmonious exterior was enhanced rather than compromised by these. The cathedral today attracts an estimated 350,000 sightseers each year, and is still very much an active place of worship. The simple, clean interiors can seat up to 1,300 worshippers at a time.

Also worth knowing is that the brooding, typically gloomy crypt is now used primarily as a cafe. On second thoughts, maybe I’ll pass on that coffee and croissants….