I liked Tallinn more than I liked Helsinki.
Joe: "Hi. can you help us find a hotel, or a youth hostel or somewhere to stay?"
Tourist information: "There are no hotels. Why not try some other city?"
But I'll come back to that in a while.
While I'm living in Sweden, it seems sensible to try to visit some more of Scandinavia. On the way here we travelled through Denmark - a thoroughly unsatisfactory visit to a country where, I have heard, if you are not full at the end of a meal you are not expected to pay for it. And at the end of July, we leave mainland Europe via Norway. So, this weekend, near the midpoint of our stay in Sweden, we travelled East, to Tallinn (the capital city of Estonia) and Helsinki (the capital city of Finland). Planning was kept to a minimum: we booked ferries to from Stockholm to Tallinn and Helsinki to Stockholm, as these routes required cabins. We also pre booked one youth hostel, the Hostel Alure in Tallinn. The trains, ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki and accomodation in Finland, we left to chance.
We departed on Saturday (14th June), taking a morning train to Stockholm. A stylish, modern and allegedly safe city (in which Libby was physically assaulted twice last weekend). I wanted to quickly glance around the centre, in case I don't get a chance to return. Then we asked tourist information (Stockholm) for advice on how to reach the ferry terminal. The response was a disinterested wave of the arm. Helpful. Not the worst tourist information of the weekend though. In the end we found the ferry (by way of another tourist information point, and a wrong terminal), and hoped on board a fantastically tacky ferry, festooned with brass. On board entertainment comprised German satellite tv (which I watched for a while. Video game reviews) or a Bulgarian band called Joyride (who weren't terrible, but did perform a rendition of "Hey baby" which left me feeling decidedly seasick). Duty free didn't sell Milka (what?), but as we headed into the Baltic there were some really pretty islands, sometimes as little as an outcrop of rock, on which people had enterprisingly build little wooden houses. What do they do out there (fish, I assume). Slept in the deep dark of the ship, as on the inside deck, without portholes, it got darker than we have become used to. Next morning (15th June) we breakfasted on an all you can eat buffet (I got my money's worth) and struck out into Tallinn.
Tallinn is a small capital city, with a population of around half a million people. The main draws are: it is much cheaper to buy alcohol in Tallinn than in Finland, and, as a result, the port is surrounded by alcohol stockists and drunks - apparantly ten a.m. is not too early. The other draw is its medieval town centre, retaining much of its original wall, and a smattering of streets from the medieval period (and several other historical sites). Checked into our hostel - room was huge, and empty, and wooden, and curiously free of curtains. A man slept near the door. The shower bore a sign which read "do not try to turn the upper handle" - which happened to be that which turned on the shower. We left for town. First port of call - Oleviste Church, formerly the world's tallest building. I climbed the steep, winding stairs. Its bloody tall. The observation platform is all of 2 feet wide, and circles the church roof. At the corners, the wind hit me hard enought to unbalance me (and I'm hugely enormous). Descend. Look inside (quite dull, but a concert of sorts seemed to be in full swing). Then I visited the Museum of Occupation and Struggle for Freedom. Its small, but rather good, if you're interested in Soviet history. Well hidden though - from town, climb up to the Cathedral, then head South. The museum entrance is cunninly hidden behind two wings of the building, and signed in small, pale letters on a large metal door. Visited the Cathedral. Decided to head out to a park / palace, and while reading the map discovered a street called, simply, Joe. Not Joe street, road or avenue. Joe. I had to go there. And it was just about the best street I've ever had named after me. Went to the park - by way of a really surly shop - and relaxed by the gulf of Finland, and then headed to the palace - closed. Back to town, where we ate in a medieval themed restaurant - Olde Hansa. Tallinn really loves medieval, and most people seem to own a costume of one kind or another. I feasted well, for I was possessed of a great hunger. I ate meat soup, followed by bear, elk and boar sausages, served with various medieval vegetables (turnip. berries. horseradish). The sausages were satisfyingly olde worlde, and full of animals. I feel bear is probably not the tastiest meat, seemed quite sweet, meaty, strange. Washed it down with a litre of strong, dark herbal ale in a massive pottery mug. Finished with saffron pudding. Expensive, very expensive, but also very good. Headed home in high spirits, checked out some medieval streets, the only gothic town hall in Northern Europe, and a suspicious event: two black Audis, waiting outside a building, flanked by men in military uniforms. Somewhere nearby, the KGB headquarters loomed into our minds. Slept (badly).
Awoke on Monday (16th June) early. Really early. Headed to the port and booked onto the next ferry to Helsinki. Basically a floating casino. Arrived in Helsinki, and sought out rooms. Found a hostel rapidly - no rooms. Bon Jovi is playing the stadium, and "some people are actually willing to pay to see him". Tried tourist information, who, most helpfully, told us to try another city. We left. The train station is pretty cool, very art deco and great statues at the entrance, but also very grey and plain and labyrinthine and unremarkable. Not as good as Kyoto station... not many PLACES are, though. Headed out to Turku - the oldest city in Finland, found rooms and visited a quite good castle. Full - FULL - of dead moomins. Wandered back up the road, bought the most Finnish food I could find (pasties) and visited the Cathedral, where we saw a travel agency called "nevatravel". Great name! Walked home along the river, which was disappoiningly lined with industry, while I had hoped for an old town. Slept.
Tuesday 17th June. Woke early again and hit Helsinki. I've wanted to visit this city for years. It has the reputation, like Stockholm, of being cool, and sleek, but also slightly alien, influenced by Russia and long winter nights. Finland itself has always struck me as a rather fantastic country on the map - crater marked with lakes and empty landscapes, a place where moomins might concievably breed and flourish. I had a short list of activities for Helsinki - take a sauna, and drink Finnish vodka somewhere cool. All the saunas I tried were closed - one, ostensively the only remaining wood fired sauna in Helsinki, appeared to be gone for good, replaced by a cluster of Thai massage parlours. We ate cake and sandwiches at Ekburg, which was good. I checked out three churches - including one hewn into the rock, an orthodox Cathedral and a Lutheran Cathedral. Then I felt dissapointed. This lifted when I bought great chocolate at the market hall, and a huge plate of Baltic herring and potatoes at an outdoor market. It rained and we left. I resolved to return to Finland in the future to better explore it, and if I can, to Denmark to eat meat and be a Viking. The ferry was insane, a huge and mighty fun fair casino, official carrier of moomins, with numerous overpriced eateries, shows, a nightclub and two saunas. I took one, despite their attempts to send me to the swimming pool deck, and struck up a conversation with a man in there (actually he did, in Swedish, and I revived it in English). I felt clean and happy after this. I should mention that Scandinavian saunas are taken in the nude - try this back home and there will be trouble, I do not doubt. But I didn't want to leave Finland, where they invented the sauna, without public nudity.
Wednesday 18th June we returned to Stockholm. My trousers had developed a hole in the groin, so I needed to buy new ones. This suited me fine, as I'd had my fill of churches and castles and wanted to trawl the modern city of Stockholm. In the end I bought two pairs of trousers from what, to me, were unusually fashionable retailers, and a pretty great shirt. In the meantime, Libby's bank had, very helpfully, cancelled her credit cards - fortunately, it was a temporary bar on their use and she lifted it. Then I bought a patch for my bag and ate at the oldest restaurant in Stockholm - Zum Franziskaner. It was founded by German monks. I ate traditional Swedish husmanskost (house man's food, I believe), consiting of smoked fish, and meats and potatoes and eggs. The we left, bought brownies in a mall, visited a museum (of medieval Sweden, where we played chess on a great big board), and wandered. Returned to Borlange, mostly happy, having had some great times, but a little disappointed. I am sure that Finland has a LOT more to offer, and I will go and seek it out... although probably not this year.