FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Farewell to Finland

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 11, 2017

The end to our week away in Stockholm and Helsinki came with a horribly early wake up call and check out that saw us heading out of our hotel at 4.30am and into the bright morning light (at this time of year sunrise hovers around 4am). It was also remarkably busy on the streets around Eliel Square with lots of young folk heading home after a good night out. A smooth ride on the Finnair bus delivered us to Termninal 2 at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport within the half hour.

Our plane for the flight home – Finnair A350-XWB (OH-LWF)

A quirk of the timetable means that the early morning Finnair flight from Helsinki to London Heathrow is operated by an A350-XWB, a plane normally reserved for long haul flights. In our case, it was to be OH-LWF, the exact same plane we had seen in the airshow a couple of days ago. Since we saw it display the plane has been to Hong Kong and back again. It is scheduled to head out to Beijing on its return to Helsinki.

A fair few years of saving air miles allowed us to sample the experience of business class travel on a long-haul plane, even if we would never be able to afford to do that on a genuine long haul flight. It was strange turning left at the plane door and quite something else to take up one of the spacious seating booths on these ultra-modern planes. The service on board was as wonderful as you might expect with the added novelty of real cutlery and drinks in iittala glassware. It was a lovely way to round off an excellent adventure.

The weather for our flight back was also as perfect as you could hope for, offering superb views of the Finnish archipelago over Porkala as we headed away from the Finnish capital. I had no idea of the vastness of the archipelago in 1984 but up here now it was really striking to see.

Thirty three years ago my family enjoyed a rather marvelous day out here at the summer house of a friend – exploring the forest, taking a motor-boat out to a small island and enjoying a traditional Finnish sauna. We caught up with the same family friend on this trip and she told us that you got to know the timetable of flights over the archipelago well enough to know when the London, Paris or Zurich flights were passing overhead!

The beautifully curved A350-XWB sharklet over the Finnish archipelago beyond Porkala

Closer to home, we got equally beautifully sunlit views of the Olympic Park, Hyde Park, Kew and Syon Park as we came in to land at 9am. The on-time arrival was much appreciated, but it still amuses me that it took longer to navigate our way home across London than to fly from Helsinki to London (the cross London trip took some 3 hours door-to-door). Anyway, the important thing was that we made it back in time for a home-cooked Sunday roast!

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Architectural treats in Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 10, 2017

The architectural delights of Helsinki are many, with something to appeal to everyone from wonderful art nouveau apartments to modernist public buildings. One of the pleasures of a wander through the city was the frequency with which you could stumble across surprising architectural features, whether that be a stone owl (at the Finnish National Theatre) or a tree full of bears (at the Pohjola Insurance building).

One of the most delightful artistic flourishes I came across was a quintet of eagles guarding the doorway at the ‘Navigator’ building at Unioninkatu 12. The building was the work of Harald Leonard Neovius (1863-1930) an architect from Orel, Russia, who studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Helsinki. It was originally constructed in 1903-1905 and renovated in 1999.

Side view of one of the eagles incorporated into the design of the building at Unioninkatu 12

Front on view of one of the eagles guarding the doorway at Unioninkatu 12

There are many more to be seen across the city with over 600 buildings from the short lived era of art nouveau. It’s worth picking up the free art-nouveau map-guide from the Helsinki Tourist Office to help pin-point the best examples in the city. A trip to the Museum of Architecture also helped us to get an overview of the nordic architectural movements in Finland that give the city such a distinctive look.

It turned out to be a good time to be in Helsinki with a free exhibition ‘Helsinki has become a metropolis!‘ celebrating the life and works of Eliel Saarinen at Laituri, the Helsinki City Planning Department’s information and exhibition space on Narinkka Square. The exhibition runs from 1st June 2017 to 16th September 2017 and explores his legacy in Helsinki.

I can’t think of many buildings that capture Helsinki more than the central railway station, but the exhibition at Laituri was a great way to discover more of his creations and the designs that were to remain unrealised. The City Planning Department have also produced a rather splendid map-guide to help trace his work across Helsinki and we managed to tick off a few of these (including the Pohjola Insurance building and the National Museum).

Our wanders also took us inside the Academic Bookshop at Pohjoisesplanadi 39 which was the creation of Finland’s most famous architect, Alvar Aalto. It’s simply one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world.

Allas Sea Pool

As tempting as it is to focus on the past creations, there are some terrific new buildings going up around the city that deserve as much admiration. One of the most striking new additions is the Allas Sea Pool in the South Harbour which you really can’t miss on a wander down to the Market Square. I half regret not going for a swim there.

Helsinki is a city that rewards the eagle-eyed wanderer, ever alert for wonderful artistic details in the most surprising places. Nevertheless, I am sure that I still missed plenty and will have to come back to have a better go at this (in particular I need to get a look at the buildings around Katajanokka which I didn’t get a chance to wander on this occasion).

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Harbouring in Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 10, 2017

I may never have escaped my childhood delight in a harbour full of ships and Helsinki didn’t disappoint on this trip. The sight of a couple of Viking Line ships on one side of the harbour and a Silja line ship on the other is still as wonderful now as it was back then. However, there were a couple of more interesting visitors this week – a minelayer from the Finnish Navy and an offshore patrol vessel of the Finnish Border Guard.

The Uusimaa, one of two vessels in the Hämeenmaa class of minelayers

Viking XPRS passes the Uusimaa on her way in to Helsinki

The Uusimaa, one of two vessels in the Hämeenmaa class, was commissioned on 2nd December 1992 and subsequently modernized in 2007. She has been involved in a number of international exercises that have brought her into British waters, such as Exercise Joint Warrior 16-2 and Exercise Noble Mariner, though this was the first time I had seen her.

The OPV Turva is a relatively new addition to the waters of the Baltic, having started her border security duties in earnest on 24th June 2014. She is the first patrol vessel in Finland to be powered by liquid natural gas (LNG) and replaces three smaller ships from the fleet. I have to say that she looked rather wonderful sitting in the harbour painted up in the colours of the Finnish flag.

The Finnish offshore patrol vessel Turva

At the end of the day though it was the super-ferries that I loved the most, aided by a fair degree of nostalgia. The years might have flown by but you can still walk down to the South Harbour and see a Viking Line ship on one side and a Silja line ship on the other. On many occasions there were two Viking Line vessels as the ships on the Tallinn run also dock at Katajanokka (Viking XPRS and Viking FSTR).

I haven’t tired of seeing these giants of the ferry world come and go just yet. Something tells me that I will be back to try another Viking Line ferry ride long before another 33 years elapses!

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The green paradise of Vallisaari

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 10, 2017

The connected islands of Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari are two of the newest attractions in Helsinki, easily accessed with a 20 minute long ride on a JT-Line water-bus from Market Square.

Until recently the islands housed an arms depot and training grounds for the Finnish military and were closed to the public, but a new initiative saw the islands opened to visitors in May 2016. The opportunity to take a peek at what has been happening here was one of the reasons that persuaded me that now was the time to come back to Finland.

The beautiful combination of nature and history is everywhere you walk on Vallisaari

Although Vallasaari is only separated from Suomenlinna by a narrow channel the two destinations are strikingly different. Nature has been allowed to reclaim the islands following the departure of the last inhabitants in the mid 1990s and this saw the transformation from an open landscape to a forest. The Russian fortifications on the island gradually disappeared beneath the green tide and would have remained hidden had it not been for works in 2015 that have helped make these more visible. I like the fact that they won’t alter this, as I think it is part of what makes this place special.

The 113 hectares of territory on the two islands have some of the highest levels of bio-diversity in the Helsinki region, including 450 vascular plant species including some that have been designated as vulnerable. Around 60 bird species have been found, including many threatened and near threatened species such as the red-backed shrike, and a pair of protected Eurasian eagle-owls has chosen the island for their nest. Nearly 700 different species of butterfly have been spotted and this again includes many that are under threat. It’s a green paradise.

All of this, combined with the fortifications, reminds me a little of places like Somes Island in New Zealand – although this doesn’t have the stringent environmental protections for visitor-arrivals and there are more facilities. There are dry-toilets located at various spots on the circular walks around the islands and there are some delightful cafes. We stopped off at Paja, a cafe located 100m south of Torpedolahti, which serves wonderful ice cream and coffee roasted on Lauttasaari. Everywhere on the island had a friendly and welcoming vibe.

A view of Suomenlinna from the shore of Vallisaari

It seems strange now to think that the architects of the Swedish military fortress of Sveaborg (Suomenlinna) did not appreciate that leaving Vallasaari virtually undefended (save for a small redoubt) left a pretty significant weak link in the defensive line. In 1808 this weakness was brutally exposed when the Russian forces brought in their artillery and proceeded to bombard Sveaborg from Vallasaari. The fortress was surrendered on 3rd May 1808 after a siege lasting two months.

The Russians began to fortify the island, now renamed Aleksanterinsaari in honour of Tsar Alexander I, to fill the gap in the defence of Sveaborg (and, by extension, St Petersburg). The development of the fortifications continued over the course of the century, notably with the construction of the Alexander Battery (now a key attraction on the island, augmented by a viewing platform) which Tsar Alexander II named after his son. None of this stopped Sveaborg from being bombarded from the islands once again when the forces on the island unsuccessfully mutinied in 1906.

The view from the walkway at the top of the Alexander Battery

The beauty of the islands today masks an often tragic history, not least with a massive explosion in 1937 that claimed 12 lives and destroyed 16 buildings. The place where the tragic accident occurred is now known as the valley of death. One of the display boards here shows a dramatic photograph of the tall column of smoke from the explosion seen from the Market Square.

I loved every minute of our time on Vallasaari and over the causeway to Kuninkaansaari. The display boards (In Finnish, Swedish, Russian and English) around the islands are terrific at serving up the potted history, photographs and maps that help make sense of what is front of you (we would have loved a guided tour in English but these were not running during our stay).

Thank you all the volunteers whose work has gone into making a walk around Vallasaari and Kuninkaansaari such an enjoyable experience. It has been the sightseeing highlight of our trip to Helsinki.

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The Kaivopuisto Air Show

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 9, 2017

Throughout the year Finland has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of independence and we were lucky enough that our visit coincided with one of the highlights – the Kaivopuisto Air Show.

Air shows have been held in central Helsinki sporadically through the twentieth century, many of which took place over the waters of Katajanokka and Kaivopuisto. The location is more appropriate than it might seem at first. The first Finnish airlines operated from the islands off Helsinki and Finnair can trace its origins, through its original name of Aero Ltd, to Katajanokka Seaplane Harbour in 1924. The air force founded a factory in Suomenlinna in 1920 which is still visible to this day.

The Finnish Air Force F/A-18 Hornet lights up the skies above Helsinki

The idea of reviving a free air show over the shoreline of Helsinki was inspired, particularly as the display line from Katajanokka to Pihlajasaari ensured that the largest possible number could enjoy the spectacle. The lead performers were to be the Red Arrows, who were the last foreign display team to have performed a full show at Kaivopuisto (in 1970).

It was a little hard to imagine that the conditions would be fit for flying as a combination of heavy rain, low cloud and sea fog had lingered in Helsinki for the entirety of yesterday. Although the evening had been set aside for rehearsals the most we had seen was a single helicopter so it was a relief when the roar of jets above us this morning signalled a re-arranged session. The weather was quite superb with clear blue skies and sun dominating (ignoring the short-lived threat of some sea mist that rolled in over the islands in mid-morning).

Finnair A350 XWB OH-LWF flies over Suomenlinna during its display

We could see that the spots with the best photographic vistas were already starting to disappear fairly early on, so made the decision to take up a couple of spots on the wall alongside the road at Kaivopuisto, not too far away from display centre. The view was gorgeous – immediately in front of us we had the islands of Uunisaari, Harakka and Särkkä with the more distant backdrop of the Naval Academy and church on Suomenlinna.

I could happily have stayed at our chosen spot for hours watching the world sail by, with everything from the smallest sailing boat to gigantic superferries in our line of vision, so a couple of hours passed easily as we waited for the airshow to start. Some of the movement on the water was clearly connected to the air display, such as the warship and coastguard vessels that appeared to be guarding the display exclusion zone. Unfortunately I hadn’t come prepared for the sun, but fortune smiled on us by supplying some free caps.

Finnair A350-XWB (OH-LWF) flies over Kaivopuisto

The air show was a delight from start to finish, with a rather different feel to any that I have been to before – a combination of the unusual setting, exotic planes and a terrific crowd vibe. There was so much to like – from the ingenious display of hangliders, flyboarders and seaplanes that opened the show, through to the local stars (such as the Finnish Douglas DC3, Finnish Fouga CM170 Magister pairing, Finnish Air Force Hornet, Finnish Border Guard Air Patrol and Finland’s Midnight Hawks display team).

Another highlight was a low flight over Kaivopuisto by one of Finnair’s ten strong fleet of Airbus A350-900s on the appropriately numbered flight AY350. The plane taking part in the show, OH-LWF, as delivered almost exactly one year ago. It looked rather splendid as it passed overhead at the culmination of its 26 minute long circular flightpath. After taking part in the display this plane is scheduled to depart for Hong Kong just before midnight.

The Red Arrows perform the detonator during the Kaivopuisto air show

The display helped me see the Red Arrow display from a fresh perspective, despite my relative familiarity with their display routine. It was lovely knowing the familiar pattern of the display, such as the arrival from behind the crowd or the big set pieces (especially the breaks, rolls and the smoke-drawn heart) and enjoying the incredible crowd reaction. The audible sound of hundreds of thousands of spectators gasping in surprise or delight was quite something else! The crowds gave the RAF team an enthusiastic round of applause which grew even louder when the Red Arrows returned for one final pass trailing blue and white smoke in honour of Finland’s 100th anniversary.

The crowds gradually thinned following the Red Arrow display, but the numbers walking back towards the Market Square at the end of the show were still pretty huge. At its peak it was pretty impressive and felt as though most of Helsinki was at the waterfront. In a little bonus we were delighted to see the take-off of the sea planes midway through our walk back to the centre, even if it did delay our hunt for food a little (the show officially finished at 9pm but with the walk back it was not until 10.30pm that we managed to find a table in a restaurant).

The Midnight Hawks provide a fitting finale to close the Kaivopuisto airshow

After the event we heard that the air show had attracted a crowd of at least 130,000 spectators to Kaivopuisto alone, let alone any of the other viewing spots. This figure was sufficient to make this the largest public event in Finnish history! It was certainly one of the most enjoyable air shows that I have ever attended and the memories of the day will stay with me a long while.

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Sea-fortress Suomenlinna

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 9, 2017

The splendid approach that the Viking Line ferries take through the narrow passage between Suomenlinna and Vallisaari had already given us a wonderful view of the fortress (it’s worth standing on deck as you come in as the height of the ferries allows you to look down on the fortifications with something akin to an aerial view). However, now it was time to get re-acquainted with the sea-fortress on foot.

Suomenlinna

The journey across to Suomenlinna is remarkably easy – car and foot passenger ferries operated by the Helsinki Region Transport Authority (HSL) make the 15 minute crossing from the eastern side of the Market Square to the island around three times an hour in the middle of the day. The frequency suits both tourists, of which there were many, and local residents (the islands include 350 apartments and around 800 people live in Suomenlinna). We were stepping out at the ferry port at Suomenlinna barely an hour after arriving in Helsinki!

Suomenlinna, often referred to as the ‘Gibraltar of the North’, was built on six islands (five of which are connected by bridges or sandbars) with works commencing in 1748. The original builders, Sweden, gave way to the Russians in 1808. It was only in 1918 that the islands were handed over to the newly independent nation of Finland. In a reflection of its complex history the fortress has many names – it’s original Swedish name was Sveaborg but it was known as Viapori in Finnish. The current name of Suomenlinna (‘Castle of Finland’) was only adopted in 1918.

The islands are a lovely blend of community and heritage – besides the cafes, restaurants and tourist attractions there is a church, library and supermarket on the island. One of the most surprising elements is a low-key open prison, which many a tourist has accidentally wandered into. On a day as gloriously sunny as we were experiencing it was no surprise to see locals making the most of the opportunity to have a picnic or spend time on the beaches around the islands. If the label of ‘sea fortress’ sounds grim the reality was anything but!

The view towards the Market Square from Vaster Svarto

We started our visit with an hour-long guided tour which was perhaps a little too dry for my liking, but it gave us a good sense of our bearings and we were able to spend plenty of time wandering happily afterwards. Most of the major attractions are centred on just two of the islands (Susisaari and Kustaanmiekka) but we also took the time to walk out to the farthest island, Vaster Svarto, to check out the Russian fortifications here and the monument to Helsinki’s air defence in 1939-44.

On our time on the island we visited four of the six museums (Suomenlinna Museum, Ehrensvärd Museum, the submarine Vesikko and Military Museum’s Manege) and took a look at a temporary exhibition in the barracks on Susisaari (B28). I was quite ignorant about the circumstances of Finland’s independence and had no idea that it began with a bloody four month long civil war until I saw the displays in the barracks. The island held 8000 red prisoners in the aftermath of this and saw its fair share of horror.

The submarine Vesikko

I was particularly pleased to be able to go board the submarine Vesikko, just as I did 33 years ago, though it felt a good deal more claustrophobic as an adult! Back then I hadn’t appreciated what a hellish contraption. However, the full horror of life on board was wonderfully captured in a handful of sentences on a display board inside:

“When the diesel engines were running, the engine room was boiling hot and the noise was ear-piercing. The members of the crew had to firmly grip the rails with one hand whilst constantly pouring lubricating oil into the engines with the other hand. The rocking of the boat was heaviest in the stern and it was difficult not to fall down on the oily floor.”

Historic sights we covered included the King’s Gate, the symbolic gateway to Finland; Artillery Bay; Jetty Barracks; the dry-dock; Ehrensvärd’s tomb; and the many tunnels around the site (thankfully we had remembered the instruction to bring torches). You can easily spend an entire day here, though its wise to pack some warmer clothes as we experienced a surprising dip in temperatures at one point as the seas mists rolled in and out.

Suomenlinna is a really lovely place to spend some time and we certainly allowed plenty of time to do it justice. More than anything though, I was just pleased that the place lived up to my childhood wonderment. I stood, I wandered and I marveled once more!

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Night crossing to Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki, Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 7, 2017

The thought of nearly 17 hours on a ferry to get from Stockholm to Helsinki might not be everyone’s idea of a good way to spend time on holiday but I knew from the outset that it would be one of the highlights for me, just as it had been 33 years ago.

The debate about whether the Viking Line or Silja line is the better option for the crossing has been going for years and has found a new lease of life online. I ploughed my way through pages and pages of opinion but the thrust seemed to be that there is very little difference these days, though I gleaned that perhaps the Silja Line ships were better for regular travelers who value the on-board shopping experience and that the Viking Line ships are possibly better for tourists who want to admire the changing scenery. No matter, the choice of shipping line was never in doubt as far as I was concerned – my brand loyalty had been won at the age of 12!

The Viking Line super-ferry M/S Gabriella

Our ship, the M/S Gabriella (1991) for the crossing, is not the largest operating the route but at 35,492 tons was still substantially larger than the ship we boarded in 1984 (the 15,179 ton M/S Viking Saga). The Silja Line ships that ply the route come in at 58,377 tons by comparison.

The Viking Line adventure began in the city centre, checking in at Cityterminalen to get our bus transfer tickets, cabin keys and meal cards. It seemed hard to comprehend how the bus transfer could take as long as 20 minutes, given that we could easily see the terminal from our walks around the old city. However, we soon discovered that the bus looped back and forth in all directions before depositing its passengers at the Stadsgården ferry terminal. I suspect the extensive roadworks around Slussen have some part in this strange routing.

Boarding was a relatively leisurely affair and soon enough we were up on the ninth deck (we opted for the extra space and views offered by a LYX Seaside Premium cabin, one of the mid-priced options available). If you didn’t know that you were on board a ship you could easily have mistaken our smart cabin for a hotel room, complete with complimentary mini bar and television.

It was lucky that we had such a beautiful afternoon for our departure as the route offers wonderful views of Stockholm, Djurgården and the archipelago of 30,000+ islands that stretches along the eastern coast for many miles. There were plenty of viewing spots on this ship, ranging from the vast open deck at the top of the ship to the balcony at the prow, all offering a great view of the Swedish coastline.

One of many tall ships seen in the early stages of our voyage

I had a vague memory of a continuous landscape of green forests from thirty-three years ago, but probably hadn’t appreciated the variety of striking sights lurking amongst that.

Early sights on our voyage included two stunning residences designed by the Swedish architect Ferdinand Boberg – the Italian Embassy, originally built in 1910 as a palace for Prince Wilhelm and the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, and the mansion of Waldemarsudde built for Prince Eugen, now the rather beautiful setting for an art museum. Next to Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde is a rare 18th century oil mill dating to 1784. Other sights included the Skansen; the distinctive Danvikshem retirement home and the Kaknäs Tower.

Later, the fortresses of Oskar-Fredriksborg and Fredriksborg on either side of the channel proved fascinating. The fortresses were intended to defend the approach to Stockholm from the Russians at different stages in Swedish history, though never in tandem. Fredriksborg was constructed in 1735, but was superseded by an upgraded Vaxholm Fort in the early 19th century. Oskar-Fredriksborg was constructed in the 1870s and looks strikingly different, built into the rock and today blending rather well with the natural landscape.

The Viking Line ship M/S Amorella (1987) passes Fredriksborg fortress around 5.45pm on the final leg of her journey from Turku to Stockholm

Between all of these sights we got glimpses of the many small communities that lie on the archipelago, inter-linked by ferries. All the while a seemingly endless supply of pleasure-boats headed to and from the small islands that surrounded us. It probably helped that it was a national holiday – everyone seemed to be out on the water or basking in the sun.

We gave up on our sightseeing at 8pm, heading inside to the curiously titled ‘No name restaurant’ for a nine course tasting dinner. The setting was superb, at a table with a stunning view of the changing coastline, but the 9 dishes of Finnish flavours were quite something else.

The next two hours saw us taste asparagus with dried egg yolk; salsify served in many ways; marinated herring with pickled cucumber; a stunning garlic millet porridge with snails; pike perch with vegetables; duck parfait with rhubarb and pickled red onion; a beautifully cooked lamb medallion, served with a lamb’s tongue croquette and charred turnip; sorrel sorbet and diced apple; carrot cake and butter ice cream on a hazelnut crumb; and last, but not least, a rhubarb and meringue tartlet with an exquisite elder-flower sorbet.

The expense of eating out in Sweden and Finland might have limited our culinary ambitions for the trip but the tasting menu proved to be a pretty amazing experience from start to finish and very reasonably priced. The bottle of Black Cottage Sauvignon Blanc that accompanied it was lovely too. I was more than a little relieved that it proved to be a terrific distraction for my ship-phobic prone better half, rather than a calamitous prelude to a night of seasickness!

As the light faded our ship made it into the open waters east of Kapellskär, crossing the Baltic sea to Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands (where we found another Viking Line ship, the M/S Rosella). Our ship only made a very short stop here, around 10.45pm (Swedish Time), with time enough only for foot passengers to embark or disembark. The night ferries used to sail from Stockholm to Helsinki without interruption but a stop at Mariehamn was added in 1999 to use a loophole that allowed the lines to continue offering tax free sales on board.

Once our ship vacated the berth at Mariehamn our fellow tax dodger, the M/S Silja Serenade, prepared to take it over. This ship had followed us out of Stockholm from a point just beyond Fjäderholmarna island (where the Silja line and Viking Line routes converge) but was scheduled to overtake us during the early hours and arrive in Helsinki first.

The Viking Line ship M/S Rosella (1985) in her berth at Mariehamn, capital of the Åland Islands

After our ship left the Åland Islands behind we decided it was time to turn our clocks forward an hour to Finnish time (British Summer Time + 2 hours) and hit the sack. Strange as it seemed, we knew that it wouldn’t be that long before the sun started to rise.

Sure enough, the light was streaming through the gap in the curtains before long and it was time to grab a buffet breakfast and prepare ourselves for the morning ahead. As arrivals go, it’s hard to imagine that anything could beat the approach to Helsinki with the passage between the fortress islands of Suomenlinna and Vallisaari or the view of the market square straight ahead.

The crossing had been incredibly smooth and tucked up in our cabin there was little to give away the fact that we were moving (assuming you hadn’t tuned in to the live TV feed from the prow of the ship available through the television!).

M/S Gabriella at her berth in Helsinki

Our arrival, at 10.10am, was perfectly on schedule. It didn’t take long for us to disembark and make the relatively short walk through the compact city centre to our hotel. Refreshed and ready for some sightseeing, where better to begin than with another ferry…

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Thirty-three years later…

Posted in Finland, Helsinki, Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 3, 2017

In 1984 I spent a blissful holiday in Helsinki that was one of the highlights of my childhood, sparking a lifelong love of travel that has taken me places that I didn’t know existed at the time. On my return I immediately set about compiling a three volume trip diary that I still have to this day, plastered with receipts and souvenirs, whilst many a school project took a Finnish theme. In time, I moved on but deep down I knew I would always be a finnophile!

1984: The thrill of international travel

It is strange to think that in the thirty three years since that 12 year boy stepped ashore at Katajanokka I have somehow never quite got around to making a return – until now. I don’t know if it is a mistake to tread in these childhood footsteps but it will be fascinating to see how much I remember.

I have already recounted the tale of my adventures from London to Helsinki in the first trip. On that occasion we made the entire journey by train, but so much of that is no longer possible (the station at Hoek van Holland Haven was downgraded to a tram stop in early 2017, the train ferry from Helsingborg to Helsingør closed in 2000 and sleeper services have largely become a thing of the past in Europe). However, it has been reassuring to see that the Viking Line still operates ferries between Stockholm and Helsinki.

British Airways B767-300ER G-BNWX

The plan is to stay in Stockholm for three days and then travel on the Viking Line ship M/S Gabriella to Helsinki for a four day stay. Book-ending the trip will be flights on an aging British Airways 767 and a youthful Finnair A350-XWB. I will be steering clear of computers on this trip (I spend too much time behind a PC in my working life as it is!) so any posts about our travels will appear once we return…

Sleep(er)less in Kobenhavn

Posted in Denmark, England, Finland, Helsinki, København, London by folkestonejack on July 19, 2014

A few weeks ago Danish State Railways (DSB) announced that they are to end all sleeper trains to/from Kobenhavn in December 2014.

It is not the first cancellation of sleeper services in Europe and certainly won’t be the last, but it still saddens me as it was a journey on just such a train (via Kobenhavn) as a bright eyed twelve year old that gave me the travel bug and introduced me to the thrill of international railways. It is not a great surprise to learn that the economics no longer stack up. If anything, it is astonishing that sleeper services have survived this long against the growing market of cheap flights.

The announcement made me curious about my first sleeper experience, so I spent a quiet evening or two trying to fit together the pieces. Our journey proper began at London Liverpool Street, exactly thirty years ago, and ended in Helsinki where we spent the most wonderful family holiday. My memories are a little patchy, but I was pleased to find that I could paint a pretty decent picture of the trip from a look back at my first attempt at a diary, a large collection of ephemera and some rather poor photographs. You can see the full story at The first trip, though this probably makes for a very dull read!

1984: The thrill of international travel

1984: The thrill of international travel

I have been lucky enough to make a few journeys by sleeper since then, some on scheduled services and others on specially chartered trains. Each journey has been completely different, yet none have ever lacked in the excitement of travel – whether it be the Caledonian Sleeper in familiar territory or one of the many sleepers working through the sometimes alien landscapes of China (until the massive investment in high speed rail and domestic air infrastructure starts to affect sleepers there too).

There are a few sleeper trains I would still like to try, such as the Night Riviera to Cornwall and the Krasnaya Strela (Red Arrow) which runs between Moscow and St Petersburg. However, if the opportunities slip by then I have at least got some good memories of travelling the slow way across countries and continents.