FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Architectural treats in Helsinki II

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 8, 2019

The architectural delights of Helsinki are one of the many compelling reasons to make a visit to the Finnish capital, from masterpieces of neoclassicism to designs pushing the boundaries of modern architectural style. It’s all here and easy to enjoy on a walking tour of the compact city centre.

One interesting development is the sale of the Finnish State Railway offices (1909) at Helsinki’s Central Railway Station for conversion into a Scandic hotel. The winner of the competition to transform the station was the Finnish architectural practice Futudesign whose proposals include a beautiful new courtyard with a curving facade between the hotel and the station itself. The new hotel is scheduled for completion in 2020.

Architectural wonders can be found across Helsinki

The abundance of art nouveau treats was a highlight of my last visit and I managed to see a few more on this trip, remembering to keep looking up to the rooftops for unexpected details (such as a pair of polar bears in Katajanokka and a bat hiding under the windows on Annankatu) but I am very well aware that I have still only scratched the surface.

At the very end of my trip I discovered a marvelous new english language book, Art Nouveau in Helsinki, which was first published by Helsinki City Museum in 2019 (ISBN 978-952-331-579-2). This book presents 200 highlights from the 600+ art nouveau buildings in the city, arranged by neighbourhood, with maps that make it easy to follow in the footsteps of the authors.

I didn’t have enough time to exploit my new book purchase so that will have to wait until the next trip, along with a plan to visit the rooftop view from the Hotel Tornio to make a comparison with the 1930s panorama taken from the hotel by Olof Sundström that you can see in the Helsinki City Museum! It’s always good to have a reason to go back. My list is already getting quite long…


Day trip to Isosaari

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 7, 2019

The island of Isosaari is one of the most interesting additions to the portfolio of sights in Helsinki. A military outpost at the outermost reaches of the archipelago, Isosaari first opened to the public in 2017. It’s easily reached by a ferry from the Market Square that takes about 40 minutes and there is enough to draw your attention for a full day out.

You might think wonder why you should visit another military island, given that these are not exactly in short supply in Helsinki. In my opinion, Isosaari has a completely different feel to its less remote neighbours. It’s not so obviously fortified as Suomenlinna and Vallisaari, with the military structures here more spread out and relatively well hidden in the natural landscape. It also shows more evidence of its relatively recent use for the military, including some areas that are still fenced off.

Travel to Isosaari on the M/S Isosaari!

I was keen to see the island now, while it is still relatively untouched by redevelopment, as it is likely that the transformation from military outpost to tourist destination will see some of the more interesting features disappear. A good example of this is the nine hole golf course on the island – one of the most difficult in Finland.

The golf course was built one hole at a time in the 1980s while it was still a closed military island, but has been opened to the public with the island. At the time we visited there were dedicated days or evenings for golfers, outside of general visiting hours, but once the island gets all-year round holiday living it seems unlikely that there will be a place for the golf course. A quick look around shows what makes it special with uneven ground, beaches, trees, roads, water and bunkers of the military kind!

Our day trip took us out on the first boat of the day. I had made the booking in advance, but the numbers we saw gathered on the pier at the Market Square didn’t suggest that you would have great difficulty walking up for this one. It was a lovely crossing, taking you to the island via a brief stop at Vallisaari and with a terrific view of Suomenlinna (which never gets boring). On our way out the Viking XPRS was on her way in from Tallinn and the former steamer M/S J.L.Runeberg (1912) was on her way out to Porvoo, adding to the interest.

The Torpedo Station at Isosaari

On our arrival we joined a walking tour, which is the only way that you can get to see the Peninniemi peninsular and the Torpedo station. The official website didn’t mention that the tours were in Finnish only, either in the text or on the booking form, but this was clearly indicated on the signpost before you board. I would have booked regardless, as I wanted to see that part of the island. Our tour guide bravely offered to say a few words in english at each stop, but we were very grateful when a chap who spent some time on the island while in the army kindly translated the key bits for us, throwing in his own anecdotes along the way!

The fortification of Isosaari can be traced back to the Crimean War. Although the Finnish archipelago was a long way from the battlefield, the islands saw some of the actions in the Baltic campaign of the Anglo-French fleet against the Russian Navy at their base at Kronstadt, at Bomarsund and at the fortress islands of Viapori (Suomenlinna). In the last of these attacks around 80 ships from the Anglo-French fleet anchored off Isosaari and bombarded Viapori repeatedly for 40 hours. The strategic importance of Isosaari was not forgotten and after the war the island was fortified as part of the outer ring of defence for St Petersburg.

One tangible link to the Crimean war remains on the island – the grave of 33 year old seaman George Quinnell, who was serving on the frigate HMS Amphion. It is said that he was decapitated by a cannonball fired from Santahamina (another military island, still in use by the Finnish armed forces) during a scouting mission ahead of the battle in 1855. A party of sailors from HMS Albion and HMS Exploit recently visited the grave to pay their respects to the forgotten sailor.

The grave of George Quinnell

The island was fortified under Russian rule, but after the bitter civil war the same fortifications and barracks were used to form the Iso-Mjölö prison camp which held around 1,500 of the most dangerous Red prisoners. The conditions were pretty terrible but worst for the prisoners condemned to die, held in a Russian casemate that was little more than a dug out with a dirt floor and covered with earth. Many died of diseases or were executed. In 1955 a memorial for the prisoners was erected on the island over the site of a mass grave.

Under the new Finnish administration the island continued to play an important defensive role, but instead of protecting the Russian coast the islands were now manned as a protection for the Finnish territories against the Russian threat. Many of the existing armaments and ammunition that had been left behind were re-purposed. This process of adaption continued, for example the Finns installed a gun from a First World War battleship on the island during the Second World War.

One of the more interesting locations on the island, accessible only on a guided tour, is the old Torpedo Test Station (1936). The Finns inherited Russian T/12-torpedoes upon independence in 1917 and experiments with them were carried out here from the 1930s to 1950s. This was particularly important after World War 2. Our guide explained that the Peace Treaty forbade torpedo boats but not torpedos, so this experiment was a way round that.

Inside the Torpedo Station (1933–36)

After torpedo testing operations moved to Upinniemi (1956) the peninsula was used for corrosion testing until 2017 (the corroded frames were still in evidence inside and outside the main torpedo station building). There was also a military weather station located here between 1929-1953 and 1984-2008, though some of the buildings associated with this have long gone.

The island was more than just a military base, as you can see from the infrastructure. Our tour took us past some of the terraced housing blocks built in the 1960s to accommodate around 30 families and a couple of schools. The first school building, now a dilapidated wooden building, was still in use as a school house until the 1970s despite having no running water. The second school building was in better condition. There were still a handful of pupils attending when it closed in 2002. Only one person lives on the island today – the southernmost inhabitant of Helsinki.

Some of the buildings on the island are likely to be demolished, like the L shaped barracks building that was in use until 2012, while others will be used as part of the facilities for visitors. There are a couple of restaurants on the island, including one in the Rikama Hall serving up a very reasonably priced buffet of seasonal produce that came highly recommended. There is also a public sauna included in the price of the ferry ticket!

Plaque on the stone monolith erected in remembrance of Colonel Johan Rikama (1895-1954)

The island has plenty of natural wonders, from stone fields that shows the ancient shorelines to sandy beaches. A walk along the southern shore, dodging bits of rusting iron poking out from the rocks, is rewarded with the sight of a stone monolith erected in remembrance of Colonel Johan Rikama, an important player in the development of the country’s coastal defense. A second plaque, towards the base of the monument, remembers Lieutenant General Eino I. Järvinen, who died during the inauguration of the monument in 1955.

I always appreciate the insights that a tour guide can bring to a visit. I was fascinated to learn that one of the guns was, in its day, so powerful that no binoculars were powerful enough so instructions for firing were given by spotters in Tallinn. Sticking with the Estonian theme, we were also told that Estonian refugees landed on the island in the 1940s and settled there – a bit awkward as there was also a German outpost on the island! The Germans eventually requested they be returned but the Finns refused.

On one of the last stops of our walking tour we were shown a circular gun mount at one of the Russian built casemates, completed in 1915. The Finns inherited the Russian guns after the revolution but didn’t know how to fire them. The Germans arrived and showed them how. All instructions around the gun added at this time were in German, but the next wave of army soldiers coming in didn’t know German… back to square one! After all that effort, the gun was never actually used in anger.

Old School

Our time on the island was a delight. The tour was absolutely fascinating and highlighted many things we would otherwise have missed – well worth doing, despite the little hiccup about the language. The whole Peninniemi peninsula had been closed for the public until May 2019, so we were very lucky to have the opportunity to take a walk around this part of the island.


Helsinki’s new living room

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 6, 2019

The portfolio of tourist attractions in Helsinki continues to grow with a variety of new sights from art galleries to museums. The most unlikely of these new additions to the tourist itinerary would have to be Helsinki’s new Central Public Library – Oodi.

As a librarian, I quite often seek out libraries in new places (which has something of a busman’s holiday about it I know) but here there were clearly plenty of tourists and they couldn’t all be librarians! I made a couple of trips – the first to see the library in action and then to take a few photographs in its quieter moments. It didn’t get any less impressive the more you appreciated the detail of what they have done here…


The first thing that strikes you as you approach Oodi is the prominence of the position, situated opposite the Finnish Parliament and next door to the main railway station. It is telling that such prime real estate has been used for the public good rather than sold off to the highest bidder. It shows how serious the Finns are about the legally enshrined role of libraries in the promotion of lifelong learning, active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression.

Stepping inside, you soon come across a declaration that matches this – proclaiming that everyone has the right to be in Oodi and that hanging out there without a reason is allowed and even recommended. The statement goes on to say that Oodi is everyone’s shared living room and you can really see that is true as you survey the different workspaces, seating areas and quiet corners across the library.

The ‘Book Heaven’ on the top floor is simply extraordinary with the vast open expanse of shelving interspersed with indoor trees and seating. It is a wonderfully light, comfortable and well used space. If you need a breath of fresh air you can step outside onto the citizens’ balcony for a view over Töölönlahti Park. The shelves hold works in twenty languages and even a selection of board games too.

Book heaven on the third floor!

The facilities were incredibly impressive too – 3d printers, sewing machines, massive roll printers, kitchens and even game rooms with the latest consoles. No wonder this place is as heavily used as we saw it. The librarian in me was impressed by the automated book return (complete with conveyor belts) and features like the intelligent docking stations with Hublet tablets that can be borrowed to access digital content or just browse the internet while in the library.

Throughout my visit I was struck by how beautifully thought out the space was with nothing forgotten, from the dot pattern on the glass to stop birds from flying straight into the windows to a pram park and a secret doorway into the fairy tale room. This is a really inspirational place – a sight to restore your faith in the power of libraries to make a difference at the heart of the community.


Helsinki for the weekend

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 6, 2019

The last leg of our travels around the Baltic brought us back to our starting point in Helsinki on a surprisingly spacious intercity train from Turku. Our trip was set to finish with a three night stay at the Radisson Blu Aleksanteri Hotel, taking in a few old favourites and some new sights that have appeared since we visited two years ago.

Hämeenmaa-class minelayer Uusimaa with Helsinki Cathedral in the background

It is the third time that I have stayed in the Finnish capital and I haven’t tired of it yet. I guess there will always be a bit of the excited 12 year old in me every time I walk in to the Market Square and take in the view across the harbour to the Viking Line and Silja Line ferries; the restaurants on the innermost islands; then out beyond to the fortress island of Suomenlinna.

There was no shortage of vessels to admire, including the icebreakers off the Katajanokka peninsula and a warship that made a rather unexpected appearance in the harbour on our second day. The icebreakers are really impressive ships and a Finnish specialty – around 80% of the icebreakers in the world have been designed here and 60% were also constructed here. The most powerful ship in the home fleet, Polaris, can navigate through an ice field 1.8m thick without stopping and plays a vital role in keeping Finnish ports operational all year long.

Icebreakers in Helsinki

On our first day in the capital we spent a pleasant morning wandering around Katajanokka before catching up with our longtime family friend for a quite delightful visit to the Ars Fennica 2019 exhibition at the Amos Rex and Helsinki’s quite incredible new Central Library. The Ars Fennica is the biggest prize in the Finnish art scene, along the lines of the Turner Prize to make a British comparison, held this year in the Amos Rex, a rather astonishing subterranean space under the Lasipalatsi (glass palace) which opened in 2018.

The five candidates for the Ars Fennica in 2019 presented a wonderful dilemma for visitors trying to pick a winner. I loved the large screen video installation from Ragnar Kjartansson (‘Scenes From Western Culture: The Boat’), Miriam Bäckström’s javelin like sculpture ‘Psychopath’; the imagined romantic landscapes of Petri Ala-Maunus and the utterly charming creations of Egill Sæbjörnsson. At the end of your visit you are given a marble to send into a series of tubes to vote for your favourite. Wonderfully fun.

Egill presents us with a mini exhibition chamber within the exhibition, a space where his imaginary friends, Ugh and Boogar, two 36 metre tall trolls, have presented their latest paintings. You can sit down here and read about their adventures (and fear of Moomins) through a specially produced book ‘The Trolls in Hellsinki’ before taking a look at their efforts. Almost seductive enough to win my marble – but not quite!

An unexpected tale to be discovered at the Ars Fennica 2019

An unexpectedly wonderful late lunch at Fazer À la carte, on the 8th Floor of the Stockmann department store, served up a Scandinavian treat – a creamy salmon soup with huge chunks of salmon, herby cream and dill; followed up by a delicious risotto. After some persuasion (unusual for me) I ended up with an astonishingly good white chocolate panna cotta with champagne sorbet and marinated strawberries.

After parting company with our friend we took advantage of the long daylight hours to make an evening visit to the zoo on the island of Korkeasaari, which you can reach by ferry from the Market Square. The zoo charges reduced entrance fees in the evenings and offers the hope that some of the more elusive animals might make an appearance after the departure of the noisier daytime crowds. I think that worked out quite nicely.

The second day of our stay took us out on the water to Isosaari, one of Helsinki’s outer islands and a military base for over 100 years. After military use ended in 2012 the island was opened up for tourism, welcoming its first visitors in June 2017. I picked up on this far too late during our last visit, so it was great to have this opportunity to take a look around.

Helsinki City Museum

Finally, I took a wander out to the Helsinki City Museum on our last day. I had read quite a few negative reviews on TripAdvisor so was uncertain what I would make of it, but I absolutely loved it. I thought it was one of those inspiring museums that really get you to engage and offer a fresh take on a subject you think you know. I spent much longer inside than I expected and was a little late back at our hotel for our trek out to the airport!

Highlights of the museum included some interesting perspectives on Helsinki, such as a display about how skateboarders see their city; an interactive display of historic panoramas of the city; a wonderful photo library; an interactive model of the city in 1878; and a compelling temporary exhibition ‘Objection’ on stories of dissent.

The exhibition ‘Objection‘ is perhaps best described as a cross between a series of art installations and historical documentation. The most fascinating of these was the tale of Hjalmer Linder, once the richest man in Finland, who spoke out about the bloodshed in 1918 after visiting the Suomenlinna Prison Camp. The letter he sent in to the papers saw him branded a traitor and set him on a path to ruin that would ultimately claim his life. I was completely absorbed by this terrible story and the other installations in the exhibition.

Panorama in the Helsinki City Museum

Our weekend in Helsinki was mostly focused around seeing the ‘new’ sights on offer and catching up with our family friend, rather than visiting what might normally be considered the top tourist sights. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more there was to see in the city since our last visit and we had no trouble filling up our time. In fact, we’ve already started a wish-list for our next visit…


The indirect route to Tallinn

Posted in England, Estonia, Finland, Helsinki, London, Tallinn by folkestonejack on June 28, 2019

The first day of our Baltic circuit took us to Tallinn by an indirect routing through Helsinki that would take us on two trains, one plane, one tram, one ferry and a taxi! Our original plan was to spread this over two days but after British Airways moved our flight forward by 3 hours it made sense to take the hit and get all our travelling done in one day.

The Heathrow Express started our multi-transport day for a short hop between terminals, having spent the night at an airport hotel (that in itself was a little problematic – our original choice of hotel cancelled our room shortly before our arrival, saying they had overbooked). Thankfully our flight from London Heathrow went very smoothly and delivered us to Helsinki airport with splendid views over London, Denmark and Sweden along the way.

A view of Wembley Stadium at the start of our journey

On arrival in Helsinki we had a bit of a wait for our luggage, but once we were on the move everything turned out to be quite straightforward (an airport train in to the central station, switching to a number 7 tram at the stop just outside). We stepped off the tram into Terminal 2 at the West Harbour almost exactly two hours after our flight landed.

Our transfer to Tallinn was to take us on board the Tallink Megastar, one of the new generation faster shuttle ferries operating between the Baltic capitals. It’s also pretty large at 212 metres in length and with a capacity of 2800 passengers. Fast seemed to the operative word – boarding started just 20 minutes after the ship arrived (3.30pm) and the ship left ten minutes before its scheduled departure time (4.20pm).

It was pretty clear that we were among many seasoned Tallink customers so just followed the crowd to the sitting lounge and found a couple of spots to rest up for the two hour crossing. The ships are pretty well geared to the needs of foot passengers with an extensive number of storage lockers of different sizes (most requiring a couple of euros) near the main seating areas.

Tallinn: A room with a view

The Megastar gave us a terrific view of the Estonian coastline as we closed in on the Port of Tallinn in the early evening, not that you had any strong sense of the approaching night with sunset not too far short of 11pm. We should probably have used public transport to get to our accommodation but settled on a short hop by taxi at the end of a long day. Time to chill out and enjoy a view over the harbour from high up in our hotel room.


The Tallink ferries sell Tallinn Cards on board, saving time and effort to find a sales point in the city. We picked up a couple of 3 day cards at 47 euros each and calculated that it would saved us at least the same again – terrific value.


A circuit around the Baltic

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 27, 2019

A successful trip to Stockholm and Helsinki in 2017 revived plenty of fond memories of my first foreign adventure in 1984, but also reminded me of the many places I wished I had seen. A plan slowly came together that would allow us to visit some of them on a circuit around the Baltic, starting and finishing in Helsinki.

On our way to Helsinki

After a bit of juggling with ferry timetables we found a way to fit everything together and still give us time enough in each location to see the sights. The plan almost unraveled when British Airways shifted our flights by three hours, but in the end the necessary adjustments actually helped us to improve the plan.

The finalised itinerary would take us by ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn in Estonia, followed by an overnight ferry from to Mariehamn in the Åland Islands and then onward by ferry to Turku in Finland. The last leg, a two hour train journey, would bring us back to Helsinki.

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!


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).


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.