In other posts I’ve mentioned that I have given Mike states for his birthday. I still haven’t come through on his most important one, his 50th state of Hawaii. Much to my chagrin, this is something that he reminds me of quite often. One day he will get his 50th state but I think it’s offset by all of the countries I have given him. When we met he had only been to Canada and that’s because he lived in the Detroit area and his sister lives across the border in the neighbor state of Windsor, Ontario.
Now he’s almost as country hungry as I am. He’s the one who wanted to push the limits of this trip and add a fourth country. After lots of research and playing with schedules, I was able to add Finland to the itinerary. What’s better is that the way it worked out, it fell on his birthday. The gift of Finland gives him a total of 37 countries instead of my original plan of 36, according to the Traveler’s Century Club country list.
It’s a quickie visit. We have just under 24 hours in Helsinki, the city of Sibelius. This excites my classical music geek of a husband. Me, not so much. Mike is well aware of my aversion to classical music. That’s how we met.
I was a ski reporter and did reports for 50 radio stations in the northeastern U.S. Mike was at one of the stations that took a generic network feed as opposed to a report tailored to his station, so I never knew he existed. When he called and asked me to be a guest on his classical music show I tried my hardest to say no. Obviously I failed. When I said that I didn’t like classical music, he said he would pick the tunes. I told him that my alarm clock went off at 2:45 am and couldn’t drive to Boston from Vermont for his weeknight show. No problem, he says, we can record it on the weekend. This went on and on until I relented. As it turns out, we had a lot of fun even though I suck as a classic music announcer. I’m happy he was so persistent!
Today will be an immersion into as much Sibelius as we can handle. I barely know he’s a composer and Mike is humming Finlandia. Yippee for me. But really, if he’s happy, I’m happy. That’s one of the reasons I woke up (and I use that term loosely since I barely slept) at 4:30 am in Stockholm for a 6:40 am Norwegian Airlines flight. The other is that I get country number 43. THAT is something to cheer about!
It took 40 minutes and a time zone to fly from Stockholm to Helsinki. We didn’t have to go through customs or immigration and because we are doing this voyage with one carry-on apiece we hit the ground running…well, not quite. We were moving more like zombies.
We made a quick stop to get some Euros out of an ATM. This was where we first encountered the credit card chip. The machine wanted us to press ‘chip’ or ‘no chip’. In our dazed state we were paralyzed. We didn’t understand. Luckily a girl nearby showed us that most European credit cards now have a visible chip in them. We pressed ‘no chip’ and quickly received enough Euros for our stay there. At the time, we didn’t realize how problematic that chip would become in our later travels.
One really exciting thing we were looking forward to was that for the first time in 6 days we know where we are going to sleep. I have booked a room at the Hilton Helsinki-Vantaa Airport hotel because we have another 6:40 am flight tomorrow and we need to be at the airport really early once again. After a short walk from the terminal we were in the lobby.
What I love about hotels in other countries is that when you show up at 9:00 in the morning to check in to a hotel, they usually accommodate you. This Hilton was no different. It could be that we usually travel in the off season but I like to think that hotels are used to people arriving on overnight, overseas flights so this is the norm.
As the front desk checked to make sure our room was ready we wandered over to the colossal dining room on one side of the lobby. Seduced by the smell of breakfast, we left our luggage at the front desk and dug in to the smorgasbord. Long counter after counter held everything from the normal American breakfast choices to meats, cheeses and an assortment of breads for sandwiches for typical Scandinavian fare. Satiated, we collected our luggage, key cards, a complimentary copy of the International Herald Tribune and were whisked up to our room in a glass elevator overlooking the runways.
We opened the door to room 432 and beamed at the king size bed, flat screen TV and the chic bathroom with a glass door.
It also had frosted glass on the bedroom wall so the bathroom got natural light.
There was a deep soaking tub and a powerful-looking glass enclosed shower.
Dreamy visions of a day in bed with room service danced through my head. I immediately lie down on the bed for just to test it out. Really.
Snap out of it Jill! It’s Mike’s birthday and we’re going to celebrate that he’s on the planet. I have found the best classical music store in Helsinki. Besides giving him Finland, I am buying him the boxed set of Sibelius’ complete symphonies by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Nothing like the hometown band playing the hometown boy’s music. Or so I’m told. After we pick up the CDs, we are going to the Jean Sibelius monument on the other side of town.
We barely resist the enticing bed and shake off the sleep deprived coma. We’re in Finland! After a quick walk we are back at the airport to catch a bus to the central station. It was a grey day and there were a few raindrops but that did not deter us.
We skipped the €31 (about $43 US) Helsinki Card because the places we wanted to go to were free and wouldn’t use any of the free admission to museums and attractions. It didn’t make sense for us. We just needed transportation. Instead we paid €12 ($16) for a 24 hour pass that is good on buses, trams, trains and certain ferries. This pass covered the ride on bus #615 that runs between the airport and the central station. It’s about 30 minute to central Helsinki.
Unlike the ride from Stockholm’s airport that was mostly on the freeway, the bus here wound through neighborhoods on city streets. Our first impression was that it was the end of September and the leaves had not started changing. Helsinki is on approximately the same latitude as our former hometown of Anchorage, Alaska and we expected an explosion of color but it was still really green.
Arriving at the central station, there were many buses and trams in a big circular area on one side of the train station. The clouds lifted a bit and the rain stopped.
We were dropped off on the same street as the music store. All we had to do is find Kaisaniemenkatu 7. It turns out that Fuga Music Shop is located inside F-Music so we went about a half a block too far. No problem. We backtracked, found the correct address and walked into the store past an assortment of instruments and a guy tuning a piano.
Fuga is tucked into the back right hand corner of the store. This is where all of the CDs are. The birthday boy was very happy. This is not the U.S. where a music lover might find a store offering four different recordings of the Sibelius symphonies. In this store that same little bin was filled with 4 inches of plastic sleeves with different CD covers in them because the plethora of CDs is kept in a storeroom behind the counter. That’s what you call a choice. The selection in Helsinki is pretty typical in Europe because, as in everything else, there is a much greater interest in the classic arts and so much of its history is here. There are all kinds of recordings that would be obscure in the US.
With the Sibelius symphonies, violin concerto and Finlandia – all in one small box – tucked safely into our day pack, we wandered towards the train station.
In Helsinki there are two trams, numbered 3T and 3B that I recommend as an inexpensive way for tourists to see the sights. This is included in the 24 hour pass we bought at the airport. Each tram does a figure eight throughout the city in opposite directions. You can hit most of the city highlights this way. There’s even a pamphlet available on the tram that describes the sights at each stop. We were looking for stop number 13 because that’s the one for the Sibelius monument.
For all of the effort that went into the tram tourist guide, it falls short. They went through the trouble to describe what is at each stop but you have to figure out what number stop you are at. This could be easily fixed by adding the corresponding stop number to the electronic sign on the tram that tells the stop or by putting a sign at the stop itself. We’re savvy travelers so we figured out where we were by matching streets we passed to the map and got off at stop 13. We knew the general direction that we needed to walk to get the park but again, no signs to guide us. We were extremely thirsty so we stopped in a gas station to get a couple of bottles of water and directions. Unfortunately this is the one and only place in all of Scandinavia where we ran into someone who did not speak English.
We found the place that corresponded with the big green spots on the map that seemed to indicate the park where the monument should be. We must have really looked lost because a woman stopped to see if we needed directions. Or, she was used to seeing people looking bewildered. She pointed us across the street and down the hill.
This location did not show up on any map we consulted. It was a nice walk past a playground full of parents and kids enjoying a fall day. A couple minutes later we knew we were on the right path.
The Sibelius Monument is a piece of abstract art by the sculptor Eila Hiltunen. It’s made of more than 600 steel tubes in a wave pattern. Atop a nearby wall is the likeness of Jean Sibelius’ head floating on a metallic wave.
Mike and Jean put their heads together for a collaborative moment while I took some pictures.
600 steel tubes welded together may not sound like much but up close it’s pretty cool.
Mike insists its “somewhat disheveled symmetry” reminds him of “much of Sibelius’s grander musical efforts.” Not being able to pick out one piece of his music, I only related to the tubes. I really wanted to see if they made music when the wind blows. After thoroughly immersing ourselves in tube land we walked back to the tram to finish our tour of the city and continue our search for practical souvenirs.
We are past the point of buying a bunch of junk when we travel. Now we look for quality or something useful. On this trip, all we wanted was a nice hooded windbreaker with a tasteful Finland embossment. We would settle for a sweatshirt. Just a little memento. Is that too much to ask? Evidently, the answer to that question is yes. We failed to find any qualified Swedish souvenirs, so now the hunt was intensified.
We hopped off the tram at stop number 29 to look for some coffee to lift our sagging eyelids. Across from the stop is Café Ekberg, the oldest café in Helsinki.
We downed another delicious latte, nibbled on a pastry and set off to shop. Not finding anything in this neighborhood we decided that surely there would be something near the train station. We wandered the streets and ended up in H&M Department Store. This place had everything from clothing to groceries. They had to have something. After going from floor to floor – they even had half floors – we found a small area hidden around a corner that had some souvenirs.
The Finnish word for Finland is Suomi. That’s what adorned the limited selection of sweatshirts. I wanted something that said Finland in English or had a small Finnish flag. No jackets in sight. Other than yet another refrigerator magnet (which is useful and easily portable), our souvenir search was a failure in Finland. Maybe we’ll find something in Copenhagen.
We were exhausted. Realizing that we had skipped lunch and too tired to make a restaurant choice, the only decision we could make was to go back to the hotel. We would take a chance on dinner in the restaurant there and toddle off to our beckoning bed for a good night’s sleep.
A good waiter can make or break a dinner out. On this night, ours was excellent. In Europe it’s a respectable career rather than a way to make money while you go to school or look for something “better”. These dedicated people know their stuff. Our waiter in the hotel restaurant was helpful, pleasant and attentive. At one point a chef burned something in the open kitchen creating a smoky haze. We made a comment to the waiter. He immediately spoke to the kitchen staff and the smoke cleared. Problem handled.
Our dinner started with thick white asparagus spears and a mixture of mushrooms with balsamic vinegar sauce. Delish! We had to order a second round of that!
Two portions of white fish over lobster risotto were next. The fish was a bit salty but the risotto was scrumptious – al dente with a couple of small chunks of lobster.
For dessert we plowed through crème brulée with fresh berries and a chocolate cake with drizzles of chocolate and raspberry sauces topped with vanilla ice cream and milk and white chocolate straws stuck in for good measure.
We topped everything off with a nice bottle of wine to toast my wonderful husband.
With happy bellies, it was definitely past our bedtime. We slept like the dead while jets landed and took off outside of our window. Finally a decent night’s sleep! We were refreshed. At 5:00 am we wandered to the airport for our 6:40 Blue 1 flight to Copenhagen.
Sandwiched into seats with no legroom, country 44 for me and 37 for Mike is less than two hours away.