I didn't see a trip review for Finland... so here we go. In the past year, I've now visited 3 of the 4 Nordic capitals (all except Stockholm). To my surprise, Helsinki is the most "Grand" of them all. The architecture in Helsinki is simply stunning. Imagine a mixture of Imperial Russian, French Second Empire style, with a heavy overlay of Art Noveau, Art Deco and various types of modern. I've never seen a comparable city, but it does have all the things that make the other Nordic capitals so enjoyable- efficiency, cleanliness, relative quiet, green spaces, etc. OK, down to what I've seen/done/eaten. My hotel is Hotel Anna. Nothing too extraordinary, but comfortable enough. I would rank the breakfast spread as below average. On my first day here, I checked out the former naval island fortress of Suomenlinna. Nice views of the harbor and Baltic Sea, but kind of underwhelming otherwise. I had a fish lunch at one of the food tents on the market. The small fried fish that you eat whole (anyone else remember the name? It starts with a "v"?) was interesting, to say the least. Next, I checked out the cathedral, then took the boat to the zoo. Great collection of big cats here (cont)
I really enjoyed your report. So many people skip the Nordics. It is great to see them highlighted. I read an article once that highlighted the large number of talented Swedish chefs working in other cities. The article talked about the fact that Sweden had a long history of having to make do with a short growing season and limited variety. They had to be resourceful to make that food last through the whole year and creative to make the best of what they had. The article surmised that heritage contributed to the rise of Swedish chefs in the culinary world. I know that when I was living in Stockholm, I generally found the quality of food in restaurants to be very high. I don't get the "authentic" thing either. I'm guilty of taking pictures of food. I like to think that I'm a bit of a "foodie" ... shop at the farmer's market weekly, read food blogs, take lots of cooking classes, love trying new things. Since food is a big interest for me, I love visiting markets when I travel and will sometimes snap a picture when I see an interesting variety. However, I never tell people to get out of the way of my photos.
I had dinner at a great Finnish seafood joint called Havis. The highlight was the lax fillet with tar seasoning. I don't think Red Lobster offers that dish... Speaking of food, I understand that in the foody blogosphere, Nordic food is currently in the ascendency. After 3 days of eating here, I can see why. Next day, I visited the the national gallery. I particularly liked the darkly themed 19th century paintings in the national galleries in Copenhagen and Oslo, so I was looking forward to checking out what Finland produced in the same era. Unfortunately, most of the museums was dedicated to a temporary exhibit of the Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck, who apparently specialized in abstract portraits. I just couldn't get into her work. Still, there were enough of the bleak-Nordic-landscape-with-struggling/dying-peasant genre stuff I like to keep me satisfied. Later in the day, I checked the outdoor Finnish folk museum on Seurassari island. It started to rain while I was there and most of the buildings were closed. Not the best of these sort of museums I have visited, but not the worst either. (cont)
Dinner that night was at a Lap-themed restaurant called Saaga. I had my doubts when I walked in... the decor was all reindeer and Arctic kitsch. But the food was outstanding. Lots of reindeer and various types of preserved fish. Today, I ventured outside the city to the historic town of Porvoo. Lots of "higgledy-piggledy" (as Mr. Steves would say) wooden buildings that kind of reminded me of Cape Cod. And the usual art galleries and souvenir stores. Porvoo cathedral (where Alexander I of Russia signed the treaty that created the Grand Duchy of Finland) was closed when I tried to visit, but it looked interesting from the outside. Not elaborate, but simple and folksy. There is also a steam locomotive heritage railway (wasn't running today). I wanted to take the boat from Helsinki, but this only runs from June to August, so I took the bus. This allowed me to see the Finnish countryside, which to me, looks like a lot like rural Maine with more birch trees. Back in Helsinki, I took in the National Museum. I was a little disappointed in the Norwegian national museum in Oslo, but pleasantly surprised by Finland's. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to medieval Finnish religious wood carvings. I leave tomorrow morning, but I am very glad I decided to visit Finland. I've developed kind of a love affair with the low-key, cold charm of the Nordic countries as of lately, and Finland helped me continue. I would love to come back to explore the vast lake territories further north, but that will have to wait for now. For now... Sweden beckons!
Finally, two (somewhat bitchy) complaints... First of all, when did people start taking pictures of food? I wouldn't mind otherwise, but yesterday in the market stalls, some guy verbally complained when I was blocking his camera's view of the fish... even though I was buying some! Second, what exactly does the word "authentic" mean to people? If you've visited Helsinki, you have surely seen the food tents at the harbor market? Looks delicious, right? And as I can report, tastes pretty damn good too! Well, I was sitting there eating a plate of fish and vegetables with all the other tourists. There was an American women (with her Blue Book prominently protruding from her bag) who loudly declared to her husband that she didn't want to eat at the harbor market because it "wasn't authentic". Yes, I'm pretty sure that everyone eating there with me was a foreign tourist. But why should that matter? Here we are in a wonderful setting, eating delicious food, enjoying the scenery and the cool salt breeze coming off he Baltic, but this women couldn't enjoy it because most of the people there weren't Finnish? What am I missing here?
Addendum #2... I just watched a match of the Finnish game of Pesäpallo. Imagine baseball but... well, exciting.
I enjoyed your report, Tom. Regarding your complaints: 1) I love to take pictures of food in the markets. It's so colorful and interesting. (I don't get in the way of people who are buying it, though.) One thing I don't get is taking pictures of food in restaurants. To each his own, I guess. 2) I have trouble with the word authentic too. How does someone from the U.S. know what is authentic in Finland anyway? Sounds like a great meal to me.
I can't help picturing a Monty Python skit-you and the missus at a museum, "Oooh, look, dear, more of the lovely bleak-Nordic-landscape-with-struggling/dying-peasant genre stuff you love!" Enjoyed the report. Thanks.
Speaking of "Authentic"; Your trip report reminded me of something I was puzzled to see in Helsinki when we were there in 2008; A restaurant hawking "southern fried chicken" with a sign in the window. Apparently they fry their chickens in southern Finland differently... Otherwise, a lovely city I really enjoyed. Did you do the pilgrimage to the "Chirch in the rock"? It was literally the most spiritual-feeling church I have ever been in.
" I was puzzled to see in Helsinki when we were there in 2008; A restaurant hawking "southern fried chicken" with a sign in the window." Yes, I noticed that too. Apparently, they also call themselves "SFC", I guess just barely avoiding copyright issues. No, I didn't get around to the rock church.... although I have a few hours this morning before my plane leaves, so maybe...
"I can't help picturing a Monty Python skit-you and the missus at a museum, "Oooh, look, dear, more of the lovely bleak-Nordic-landscape-with-struggling/dying-peasant genre stuff you love!" Yes, I find them delicious. "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imxb8IShtoc
"The small fried fish that you eat whole" Vendace?
Ah, yes, that would be it.