Sunday, April 3

I escape Russia for the first time in seven months! (AKA Helsinki trip)

So, my long-awaited trip to visit my dad in Helsinki finally arrived. I've actually been back in Petersburg since Wednesday night, but have only just mustered up the motivation and energy to write about our trip! Expect this to be a long and excruciatingly comprehensive post...

Last Saturday I woke up feeling both excited and nervous: excited that I was going to see my dad for the first time in seven months that evening, and nervous that in order to do so, I had chosen to fly with budget Russian airline Россия (Rossiya - Russia). I'd decided upon booking said flight that it was worth the risk, as the ticket was almost half the price of the fast train, for some reason. Luckily, my flatmate and our mutual friend had also travelled to Helsinki two weeks earlier using the same company and were still alive, so at least I knew I'd probably survive the flight, if nothing else.

My flight wasn't until 6.50pm on Saturday, so I spent the day packing my things and watching trashy television, before leaving my flat at the ridiculously (in hindsight) early time of 3.30pm. After struggling with my rucksack on the metro and машрутка (Mashrutka - a cross between a bus and a taxi), I arrived at Petersburg's Пулково-2 (Pulkovo-2) international airport around 45 minutes before I could even check in for my flight. It's easy to say that it's better to be safe than sorry, but once I was through the first two security checks (there were four in total!) it felt like I was waiting for an age, staring blankly at the relevant empty check-in desk. Finally 5.10pm arrived and I was able to check in. Cue the first of several strange looks from airport staff as I present my British passport for a flight between Russia and Finland, combined with a nervous look on my face as they proceed to examine all of my documents. Luckily everything was in order, and I was told to proceed through the third security check of the day - this one involved several noisily-delivered stamps being placed in my passport and visa.

Once everything was stamped (and I felt like I'd already been scrutinised to death), I was presented with the fourth and final security check of my outbound trip. Here I had a choice: I could either go up to the 'Departures' area of the airport, which had shops, bars and restaurants, or continue through to my gate, which my dehydrated self assumed would have a shop, cafe or at the very least a vending machine. I decided it would be best to get to my gate as early as possible, so proceeded through the final security check. There were no cafes, shops or vending machines, and I plonked myself down on a seat to wait some more, thirsty and bored. After a few more minutes of boredom (I'd become quite used to it by now), the bus finally showed up to take us to our plane. The flight itself was actually problem-free, and they even provided us with a free drink and chocolate bar, something I would never expect on a 45-minute flight in the UK. One thing that struck me as odd about my outbound flight, though, was the significant lack of passengers. There must have been about 25 people on the plane in total, and I was surprised that such unpopular flights even run, let alone for the extremely low price we must have all paid...

I arrived in Helsinki about 25 minutes before I'd taken off, due to the time difference and a quicker-than-scheduled flight. I happily swanned past all of the Russian passengers and through the EU passport checkpoint, before strolling through baggage reclaim with my hand luggage. I was expecting my dad to be waiting for me as his flight was due to land earlier, so when I couldn't see him I panicked and wandered around the Arrivals area trying to find him, only to realise my flight had landed ahead of schedule and that actually I'd have to wait for him! Sure enough, he showed up around 5 minutes later, looking a little confused as to why I wasn't still in the air. We exchanged greetings and went outside to find the bus to the city centre, which was luckily already waiting just outside the exit. We boarded and made our way to the city, whilst catching up on recent happenings.

Once off the bus, we got our bearings with the map and managed to find our hotel with relative ease, as it was a mere 5 minute walk away from the train station where the bus had dropped us off. We checked in, found our room, dumped our belongings, got refreshed and went out for a walk and dinner. After a little hunting around the local area, we found a Chinese restaurant and decided to eat there. I excitedly ate tofu in sweet and sour sauce for the first time in what felt like an age, and quickly realised how much I must have adjusted to the vegetarian-unfriendly bubble that is Russia. After our yummy meal, we wandered back to the hotel via the city centre streets of Helsinki - here are a couple of pictures of night-time Helsinki:

(Top: Some lovely coloured lights; Bottom: Main entrance of Stockmann - a famous Finnish department store, a lot like Selfridges in the UK)

The next day, after our extremely filling and tasty buffet breakfast, we decided to buy two 'Helsinki cards'. These cards are a clever idea for tourists, as they allow you to get in free to almost all of the museums, travel on all public transport for free, and also give you a free bus tour of the city. We took up the offer of the free bus tour on that very day, as it was our first real day there and we hadn't seen most of the sights yet. The tour was actually really good, because you got a set of headphones and could choose the language to hear all about the stuff you were seeing. It was surprisingly busy on the bus, and the tour lasted about an hour and a half, taking us around the central sights as well as those further afield, such as the Olympic Stadium and the Sibelius Monument in Sibelius Park. Here are some photos from our bus tour - as you can tell the weather was lovely on Sunday:


(Top Left: Sibelius Monument; Top Right: Monument again; Top Middle: Arty farty picture of the monument; Bottom Middle: Sibelius Park; Bottom Left: Arty farty picture of a nice building out of the bus window; Bottom Right: An orthodox church in the city centre)

After our bus tour had finished, we headed for Senate Square, a place we'd been through on the bus and wanted to explore some more. Senate Square is home to Helsinki Cathedral, a big statue of Tsar Alexander II and a host of other pretty buildings. I don't know why, but we didn't go inside the cathedral, though I'm not too worried as it leaves something to do next time I visit Helsinki (we did pretty much everything else!). After taking several photographs, we consulted our guide book and saw that Helsinki City Museum was nearby, so we decided to visit. The museum was quite interesting, and gave a broad overview of Helsinki's history - I found the exhibition about Helsinki (and all of Finland for that matter) being under Russian rule the most interesting, for obvious reasons. Here are some of my photos from Senate Square and Helsinki City Museum:

(Top Middle: Helsinki Cathedral; Top Left: Me in front of the cathedral and statue of Alexander II; Top Right: Close up of the statue of Alexander II; Bottom Middle: Helsinki City Museum; Bottom Left: Some models of boats in the museum; Bottom Right: Display of retro things in the museum)

After the Helsinki City Museum, we decided to head for the national gallery of Finland (called Ateneum). Our Helsinki Cards got us in free to everywhere, so as you'll see in this post we went to quite a lot of museums... The Finnish national gallery was in an absolutely lovely building, and since we didn't know any of the art it was a learning experience. The gallery was really well laid out and the paintings were displayed so nicely, it was really unlike visiting many museums and galleries in Petersburg, which often feel a little neglected and out of date. You can see a couple of pictures of the outside and inside of the lovely Ateneum building here:

The Ateneum is on one of the main squares in central Helsinki, which has many other lovely buildings. Before heading back to the hotel via one of the big shopping centres (involving a trip to my beloved LIDL!), we walked around this square and I took some photos of the main sights:

(Top Left: I think this building was a casino of some kind, not sure though, I just thought it was pretty; Top Right: Finnish National Theatre, complete with statue of someone I've never heard of called Aleksis Kivi; Middle: Helsinki train station, a lovely building; Bottom: Clock tower of Helsinki train station)

That night we decided to eat in a restaurant we'd spotted the night before - an all you can eat pizza buffet. It wasn't that expensive and you could eat as much pizza, pasta and salad as you wanted, as well as have unlimited soft drinks... My kind of restaurant!

The next day we went to a nearby island fortress called Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg in Swedish). We had to take the ferry to get there, but that was free with our Helsinki Cards - handy! They never came round asking for tickets anyway though, so I guess it wouldn't have made a lot of difference. I was surprised at how easily the relatively small ferry cut its way through the thousands of chunks of ice floating in the bay, and after just a 15 minute trip we reached the island. We walked across the snow, which was much more slippery than any on the mainland, presumably because they don't clear it as often, to the Suomenlinna Museum. The island has several museums, but almost all of them are closed during winter, so we didn't have much choice but to visit the main museum about the history of the island. The museum building was really nice, as it was obviously some sort of old storage building that had been restored in a modern style, but it hadn't been spoiled. We watched a film about the history of the fortress and read about all of the exhibits, then went back outside to walk around the island for a little bit. It would have been completely different had we gone there in summertime, as all of the museums would have been open and we could have walked around a bit more easily, so if I ever do go back to Helsinki in summer I'll be sure to visit again. Here are my photos from our trip to Suomenlinna:



(Top 2: Views from the ferry on the way to Suomenlinna; Top Left: Pink tower on Suomenlinna; Top Right: Church which was once Orthodox and is now Lutheran; Middle: Cute old pink house on Suomenlinna; Middle Left: View from a window in the museum; Middle Right: Flags outside the museum; Middle: Amazingly shaped icebergs on Suomenlinna; Bottom Middle: Submarine which you can go on in the summer; Bottom Left: Some of the actual fortress; Bottom Right: My dad! Yay!)

As the weather wasn't so good on the Monday, we didn't walk around too much on Suomenlinna and decided to head back to the mainland instead. Once we got off the ferry, we went to have a closer look at the Uspensk Cathedral, a beautiful old Orthodox cathedral left over from the Russian rule. Though only a very small percentage of Finns are now Orthodox, there still seem to be quite a few Orthodox churches and cathedrals about, and it's nice that they haven't been destroyed just because of the changeover of religions. We didn't go inside though, instead choosing to walk back to the city centre, to the Amos Anderson Art Museum to be precise. We didn't really know who Amos Anderson was, or what was in the museum, but it was in our guidebook and it sounded nice, plus almost all of the other museums were closed on Mondays. It was quite a nice museum, with a few lovely paintings and a private chapel on the top floor. I still don't know who Amos Anderson actually was though, as there wasn't any information about him, but we did find out that Tove Jansson (author of the Moomin books) was actually a woman, and that she painted lots of lovely paintings totally unrelated to Moomins. Here are my photos of Uspensk Cathedral and the Amos Anderson Art Museum:

(Top Left: Uspensk Cathedral; Top Right: Flags outside the Amos Anderson Art Museum; Middle: One of the rooms inside the museum; Bottom Left: A lovely painted organ in the private chapel of the museum; Bottom Right: The ancient lift in the museum, rather scary to use!)

I also tested out the panoramic feature on my camera, a feature I always forget exists and so never use when it's sunny or I actually have a nice view to photograph. So here is a cloudy picture of the harbour in Helsinki, merely because it's the only panoramic picture I took:

That night we had dinner in a place called 'Morrison's'. I think it was attempting to seem English, with a name like that, and they also served an array of beers and ciders, including Strongbow. The portions were absolutely humongous, much bigger than I was expecting, and I had a double veggie burger with halloumi cheese. This was incredible, as I hadn't eaten a veggie burger in months (excluding the powdered mixes my mum brought over and sends in the post!), let alone halloumi! There really is a lot less choice in Russia than the West when it comes to food, though that might just be highlighted because I'm a vegetarian and a fussy one at that...

On Tuesday we attempted to go to Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art. Unfortunately, nobody had thought to put a sign up saying that all of the exhibitions were closed until late April, so that plan was scuppered rather quickly. We had planned to go to the National Museum of Finland afterwards, so decided we may as well just head there, though via the park and Finlandia Hall as it wasn't due to open for another 45 minutes or so. The photos from our short-lived trip to Kiasma and the following time-wasting walk follow:

(Top Left: In the lobby of Kiasma, before we realised it was all closed; Top Right: Statue of Mannerheim on his horse; Top Middle: The outside of Kiasma; Top Bottom: Finnish Parliament building - really weird but quite cool; Middle Left: View of Linnanmaki amusement park across a huge frozen lake; Middle Right: Finlandia Hall, a concert/conference hall; Bottom Top: Finlandia Hall sign; Bottom: Me with a wooden Moomin outside a souvenir shop, taken on dad's phone)

Once we'd wasted enough time and the museum was open, we went inside. We learnt even more about Finnish history than we'd already found out, and the museum was in yet another gorgeous building. It was quite a big museum, but unfortunately the temporary exhibition area was in between exhibitions, so was closed. We looked around the rest of the museum though, partly accompanied by a rather talkative guide who told us all about the exhibits. Here are some of my photos of the inside and outside of the National Museum of Finland:

After leaving the museum, we realised we were actually quite near the Olympic Stadium, so decided to go and have a look at it. Since we were going to be there anyway, we thought we should go to the National Sport Museum of Finland, despite the fact it sounded like it could be a bit rubbish. It was actually quite good, as they had a lot of memorabilia from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, as well as lots of Olympic medals from other Olympic games. Since it was free for us to get in with our Helsinki Cards (I sound like I work for them, don't i?!) I thought it was pretty worth it, plus it was further from the city so we were able to take the tram back to the city centre, which was an experience in itself. Here are my photos of Opera House en route to the Olympic Stadium, the stadium itself and the Sports Museum:


(Top Middle: Helsinki Opera House; Top Left: Statue of Paavo Nurmi in front of the Olympic Stadium; Top Right: Observation tower of the Olympic Stadium - unfortunately currently closed for renovation; Middle: The Olympic Stadium; Bottom Left: Mika Hakkinen's racing suit; Bottom Right: Posters in several languages for the 1952 Olympics; Bottom: Olympic flag)

Once we were off the tram in the city centre, we decided to cram one more museum in and visit the Helsinki Design Museum, which I'd been told was good by a couple of people. Though it was good, it was a lot smaller than I was expecting, and was nothing compared to the V&A in London. It was nice though, and I learnt a bit more about Finnish design than I'd previously known. The building itself was lovely as well, as you can see here:

As I said at the beginning of the post, because we had free entry to all the museums, we went to quite a few museums we otherwise wouldn't have - I suppose this is the aim of the Helsinki Card, really. It's a shame when people visit places and learn absolutely nothing about the culture and history of that country/city, so I'm quite glad we did all the cultural things we did.

On the Tuesday night, we decided to get our glad rags on (sort of) for our last night in Helsinki and visit the hotel restaurant. We could even wear normal shoes and no coats, as we didn't need to go outside :) It was a Spanish restaurant and proved to be very tasty. 

Wednesday was another sunny day, like the Sunday, and we decided to get the train to the area of the city known as Vantaa. This area is the part of the city nearest to the airport, and it sounded quite good from the internet, so we thought we'd kill two birds with one stone and see a nice part of the city on our way to the airport. We got our train tickets but due to our confusion with the Finnish railway system we thought they weren't valid until 12:25pm, so we had time to waste. We wandered around the city for an hour or so in the sunshine, and then realised upon returning to the station that the tickets were valid until 12:25pm, not from. Luckily we had time to spare and could still get a train to Vantaa before they expired. I did get some nice photos of the city in the sunshine though, which made up for some of the grey ones on the other days:

(Top: Our hotel bathed in sunlight. Quite an ugly building from the outside, but lovely inside; Top Bottom: Kiasma art gallery in the sun; Middle: The main post office, also housing Finland's post museum; Bottom Left: One of the main shopping streets of Helsinki; Bottom Right: Arty farty photo taken in a courtyard)

Unfortunately, Vantaa turned out to be pretty rubbish. There was little more there than one shopping centre and a small shopping street. We exhausted the shops after not long at all, and sat down to have a drink and a cake. After mulling over our options, we decided it would be better to just get the bus to the airport and waste time there than to go back to the city. This was somewhat of a mistake, since upon arrival at the airport I realised I couldn't even check in for another 2 hours, so we were stuck on the wrong side of security with nothing to do. The time passed fairly quickly though, and eventually I was able to check in and we passed security with no problems. We had a quick look around a couple of the airport shops before eating dinner at a nice restaurant, where I ate tasty tofu with stir fry noodles. 

By the time we'd finished eating it was almost time for me to board my plane, and I had to leave my dad to sit for 2 hours by himself waiting for his later flight. It was sad saying goodbye to my dad for another couple of months, but it was really nice to see him again after so long and explore such a lovely city with him, and I'm really grateful for everything he did for me over those few days :) Only another 2 months until I'll be back in England, where I'll be able to catch up with him again along with the rest of my family and friends. Sad as I'll be to leave Russia, deep down I cannot wait for normality again!

1 comment:

  1. Lovely blog, don't think you missed much at all and the grammar was pretty good too :). Hope all your readers enjoy it. Dad X