A cinematic moment, a day of deliciousness and a Finnish poet. Maybe I should finish there! Helsinki was my final destination in Scandinavia and my gateway to the next aspect of the adventure. This was a week of influences from some of my nearest and dearest back home – thank you for all the contributions :)
Arrival in Helsinki was wet. In fact it was Finland’s worst storm in over 20 years. It started as I was ten minutes from Helsinki and it just didn’t stop. Fortunately I had free parking at my hostel and pulling up right outside after the big drive south was a welcome pleasure.
Pico peeking out when the weather was slightly better in the lakeside town of Kuopio
Having been wild camping for a couple of weeks, I’d promised myself a beer and a pizza. I rocked up to the city centre, found a pizza place and unfortunately noticed a pizza of unusual ingredients: so unusual that I had to try it. Pizza Tropicana consisted of Ham, Pineapple, Prawns and Blue Cheese. There’s a reason I’d never seen it on a menu before and you won’t be surprised to know that it’s not a great combo.
With the rain pouring, I didn’t fancy a walk back to the hostel so headed onto a sports bar to discover Pesäpallo – Finland’s national sport. It’s a fast moving bat and ball game that I can’t believe doesn’t exist anywhere else. There are lots of similarities with baseball, which might be why, but with the ball pitched vertically and the speed/variety of attack, it is preferable in my opinion.
After popping into a shot bar for one quick drink, I met Ed, a South African bouncer who’d grown up in Finland. Having had a great conversation with him, he introduced me to his brother, Artem. He’d popped in due to boredom and we chatted for a while. They suggested that I head to another bar for a dance and it’s here I met their sister, Zindri. We later all met up in the bar and my night headed forth with a wonderful series of dances to generally electronic pop and free drinks from the bar. Cheers to the siblings! A night out was needed and I got one.
Pico was STILL wet at this point after the solar shower incident – another day of everything out and copious volumes of paper towels ensued. We were getting there.
I treated myself to a quiet night at the cinema, which is an experience in Finland itself. The multiplex in the centre was huge with a crazy arrangement of screens everywhere and 10s of counters for the huge variety of sweets and drinks available. One thing that was not available was sweet popcorn. The closest they had was a caramel coated form – I was disappointed and opted for pick ‘n’ mix instead.
With a bit of a faff I navigated myself to the appropriate screen to be greeted by a screen assistant who ushered me in overly swiftly and immediately closed the door behind me. Queue the embarrassment as I realised that Finnish films must usually start at the exact time they are scheduled – no 20 minutes of adverts like the UK. The whole cinema had been waiting for me as I’d debated white chocolate raisins or jellybeans. I’m sure I was very popular.
Whether it was because I was late or they don’t show adverts at all, the screen was entirely blank and thus the cinema was completely dark. I crashed, banged and walloped my way into peoples’ laps and chairs. A couple of shin bruises later and I got settled to enjoy the film. I saw Star Trek Beyond: it was ok – looked great, reasonable plot.
Helsinki is a great city – in lots of ways it stands out from the rest of Finland as far more open and cosmopolitan. It’s often been described as the cool younger brother of the other Scandinavian capitals and I completely agree. Nothing defines hipster more than putting the word street in front of everything and you find it in lots of places in Helsinki.
There’s a burgeoning hipster community with an established coffee culture, pop-up street food and stylish arrangement to their architecture. Fafa’s make some of this street food that the locals (Artem!) love too – at €17 for a falafel and halloumi pitta with sweet potato fries and a glass-bottled coke it is quite expensive though. Additionally, I can report that Pokémon Go is just as popular as everywhere else I’ve been so far: parks are filled with people trying to catch ‘em all. Anyways, I really enjoyed it there.
With some great recommendations from Liv (a friend who’d recently been) I had my most successfully planned tourist day – a welcome difference after a few weeks of spontaneity. It was all underlined by with the best day of food and drink I think I’ve ever had.
I started with a trip to the Good Life coffee shop. It’s tiny and tucked under a tower block slightly out of the centre. Reputably it’s the best coffee in the city and I can attest that it is certainly good stuff. Even more spectacular was the Cardamom bun that accompanied my coffee. It left me with a gorgeous melting sweetness in my mouth for at least an hour. I delighted in flicking through books on street art and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck cookbook. I went back the next day for round 2 before I left Helsinki – it was that good.
My flat white and kardemumma bun
A short jaunt to the Olympic stadium revealed it was either in renovation or being demolished. No drama as the graffiti lining the construction boards was great and I snapped some nice pics in the park surrounding it. On to a street food hall and I had the pleasure of a strawberry, goat’s cheese and balsamic glaze croissant. This was a combination I’ve tried that actually worked – delicious with an iced coffee.
Roses in the park near the Olmympic stadium
The croissant of deliciousness
Saunas had been a struggle for me in Finland. In Kuopio I’d wanted to head to the world’s largest smoke sauna, the Jätkänkämppä Lodge. Turns out its only opens on Tuesdays – huh! There’s another classic sauna in Helsinki that Lonely Planet recommends but that’s closed on Mondays when I was prepped to go. So on Liv’s recommendation, I visited the Loyly sauna on the banks of the Gulf of Finland.
This was a very cool venue: modern and architecturally interesting with a restaurant, viewing platform and two saunas. Some Finnish colleagues of another friend had specifically said I should find a smoke sauna and this place had one. Queue a few hours of intense sweating, bay jumping and beating myself with birch branches supplied by two friendly Korean women. I totally relaxed in there and also totally dehydrated myself despite litres of water (and a couple of beers – whoops). For a modern take on saunas I would 100% go there if you’re in Helsinki. It is a little pricier than others venues around but the experience is worth it in my book.
The view from Loyly
Afterwards, I grabbed some new hiking trousers paired with some friendly banter with Mikaela, a sales assistant who is coming to study in Bristol next year.
Then it was onto the best meal of my life.
With a desire for reindeer I’d scanned a few menus and reviews online: the Kuu restaurant came up and I reserved a table for one. To be honest, it deserves its own post and full review but I’ve been writing a while now and its time for a beer!
The restaurant describes itself as classical Finnish cuisine with a modern twist and having been in business for over 50 years they’ve definitely been doing something right. I had a desire to find out what that was.
I chose one of their set menus as it was cost effective, attractive and had reindeer for main course. Starter was a beautifully seasoned Salmon soup – a sizeable chunk of heavily smoked fillet surrounded by the stock made out of the rest of the fish. Smoked on premise, it was a flavour combination I’d never had before and will be looking for again.
The main was roasted fillet of reindeer with a parsnip puree, braised barley and a port wine sauce. It was a well put together plate of food and I really enjoyed the reindeer. Reindeer meat is lean, delicious and apparently as healthy as fish.
A cheeky third course of a the smallest piece of cheese I’ve ever seen and a fig was a delectable addition to freshen the palate. It was local so I’ll give it points for authenticity too. It all set me up well for the crumbled chocolate brownie over sour cream and mango sorbet with some buckthorn berries. I had a couple of excellent glasses of wine too.
Truly it was a meal to delight in. Service was good too – even if they did offer me more bread and it never quite made it to the table! All in all, I splashed out on myself and it was €80 (including a good tip) that was very well spent.
What made it all the more special was an old gentleman who sat down near me about halfway through my meal for his own glass of wine.
He kept looking at me and when we caught each other’s eye he motioned that he spoke no English. It was a strange hello really and one that he immediately followed with by playing with his phone. A few minutes later he beckoned my attention and slid his phone towards me. The screen showed Google Translate and a message introducing him. Petri Koskinen was a Finnish poet who’d visited the restaurant many years ago, had popped in to see if it still existed and had never used Google Translate before.
Through the progression of technology we proceeded to converse. After some basic introductions we wrote poetry to each other until the restaurant closed. I’ve never had a moment in my life like this – it was magical, full of smiles and accompanied by wonderful food: a perfect evening I will never forget.
So my day of incredible cuisine drew to a close. Unfortunately there are no pics as I left the camera at home to self-indulge. I had a burning headache from dehydration but I didn’t want it to finish. It was just a great day out. In many ways it was the right way to wrap up Scandinavia. I was off to Tallinn and back to mainland Europe the next day.
The new day bought another Good Life coffee and I quickly popped over to the sea fortress island of Suomenlinna. My early afternoon ferry had me running round the island and then it was a mad dash to make it on time – Pico and I made it with just a minute or two to spare.
1933 Vesikko submarine laid up on the fortress island
Scandinavia is now done – the first full section of my trip complete. There have been so many special vistas and some wonderful impromptu meetings. Onwards to the Baltics and a fair amount of drinking in some sweet hostels.
Bring on the party…
Saturday 3rd September – Park Hostel, Helsinki
Sunday 4th September – Park Hostel, Helsinki
Monday 5th September – Park Hostel, Helsinki