Finland

Mr Blue Sky: Tallinn and Helsinki

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Friday 2nd September
I’d met Jayde after work on the Thursday and we’d booked a night at the Holiday Inn hotel at Stansted airport. Waking up at 4.20 was still a struggle but had prevented the need to wake up at 1.45 as I had the previous week when I’d had to get to the same airport for a similar departure time. We arrived at the airport shortly after 5.15 and we were quickly through the baggage drop off and security.We arrived in Tallinn and caught the bus from the airport to the city. The bus dropped us off at the main bus terminal by the port and we walked about 15 minutes from there to our hostel in Old Town. After checking in, we were told that our room wasn’t ready so we ate at a nearby vegan restaurant called Kohvik Inspiratsioon recommended to us by the receptionist. I was satisfied with my lentil burger but Jayde wasn’t overly keen on her lentil soup.

We returned back to the hostel and went up to our twin room which looked quite cosy. We spent an hour or so resting before getting ready to go out as we had booked a local run tour around the old fortress/prison Patarei Merekindlus. The tour began from a nearby hostel also in the old town so we got to see more cobbled streets and old buildings en-route. There were more people on the tour than I expected and after a brief introduction our guide led us on the 15 minute walk to the prison.

At the entrance he showed us a model on the wall which showed how the site had looked and to point to the areas we were visiting. He also explained that whilst part of the prison is open to the public for them to explore, his tour had permission to take us to areas normally closed off to the public. The prison was originally a fort completed by 1840 however whilst it was in a good strategic location it was never used in battle. It was converted in to a prison in 1919 which is how it remained until it closed in 2004.

The prison has basically been abandoned and suffered years of neglect, suffering badly from damp in particular. The building is (apparently) listed so it cannot be demolished however there is not currently the funding to restore it. Even the areas reopened for the public are dark and eerie and cannot be described as restored. Most of the rooms had been emptied but one room still had the abandoned beds intact as well as a large painting on the wall which had been created by one of the prisoners.

We went outside, looking at some of the cells that were slowly being taken over by nature before going through a metal gate which had been pad locked. This was the building not normally open to the public and it had even less lighting and we were required to use the torches on our mobile phones to see. We saw a few more cells and climbed some staircases before we arrived at the area executions were carried out.

After the tour was over our guide explained his personal interest in the prison and then pointing out some aspects we could explore alone. I briefly climbed in to the old watch tower which looked over the yard below. Jayde and I then walked the scenic way back to Tallinn which took us past the front of the Prison and along the beach. It had been quite an unusual experience and it was refreshing to see somewhere that hadn’t been restored.

We arrived back in the old town and made our way through the cobbled streets to a restaurant called the Kompressor. which is apparently popular with locals and tourists because it sells cheap pancakes. I had mine with smoked cheese and bacon but couldn’t finish it all because it was so big and possibly because we’d been a bit greedy by also ordering some Potato balls. I also had my first Estonian beer A Le Coq which was refreshing.

It was starting to get dark when we left but we spent a little longer walking around the old town knowing we would have a proper tour with our guide the next morning. The hostel had given us vouchers for a nearby local bar called Ükskoik. Upon entering we should have left but we didn’t and I ordered a Saku (another Estonian beer) and Jayde ordered a cocktail. Neither drink tasted good and it was a typical, seedy looking backpackers bar with overly loud music considering it was just us and one other person.

We returned back to the hostel and decided to get a relatively early night so we were refreshed as possible for the start of the tour.

Saturday 3rd September
We couldn’t get breakfast at the hostel so after waking up we went to a local shop to get a pastry for breakfast. We left our luggage at the hostel and waited outside the hostel for our guide and the rest of our tour group. There were only 6 of us, Christine from Liverpool, Matt and Giulia from Australia and Chris from the US.

It is always nice to have a local guide and our guide Elo (El) didn’t disappoint as the passion for her country came across as she gave us some interesting information about the history of Estonia. Estonia like much of Eastern Europe experienced a turbulent 20th Century and was eerily similar to that of Czechoslovakia which i’d studied at University. Estonia had gained it’s independence from Russia in 1920 however the German–Soviet Nonaggression Pact meant it fell under Soviet Occupation (remaining occupied until 1991) except for a brief period in the second world war when it was occupied by the Nazi’s.

El took us to some of the main sites in the Old Town and we started at an example of a Merchant House along what had once been the main street through the old town. She explained how in Medieval times there were different guilds and told us about the House of the Blackheads, a professional association of merchants and later we saw a building with a face on the door belonging to the brotherhood. Much of the medieval architecture had been preserved

Other sites we passed included the oldest coffee shop, St Peter & St Paul Cathedral and St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest buildings in Tallinn which was destroyed during the reformation and parts were used as a warehouse in the Soviet Union as the state fought against Religion. Eventually we stopped off at the coffee shop Pierre Chocolaterie where we started to get to know each other a bit better. As we were a small group, names were easy to remember and there was less need for some of the small talk.

After a coffee we explored more of the old Town passing the town hall and climbing some steps towards the city walls which were surrounded by some rather creepy looking monk statues before we continued past the Estonian Parliament Building, to Pikk Hermann, Big tower. The Estonian flag was raised at the top and El explained the symbolism of the colours, the blue representing loyalty, and the seas & lakes; the black representing fertile soil and past oppression and finally the white representing virtue, snow, and the struggle for freedom and independence. We continued past the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which was built in the typical Russian style before we reached the Patkuli Viewing Platform which provided a beautiful view of the city and a fitting place for us to get our first group selfie.

We returned to the hostel and after collecting our bags got a taxi to the ferry terminal and boarding the boat from Tallinn to Helsinki. The M/S Star was a lot bigger than I expected considering it was only a two hour journey. We found a spot in the bar and El gave us a rundown of the itinerary for the next week. Jayde and I then got some food from Burger King before we re-joined the others and listened to the band in the bar.

The weather had been dry and sunny in Tallinn however it was quite cloudy in Helsinki and the rain was threatening though just about held off. We caught a tram from a station near the ferry terminal to the hostel where I planned to have a Finish sauna. Unfortunately the one for the men wasn’t working so I had a nap instead and met the others in reception.

Rather than a passing shower the rain that was threatening had now been unleashed. El decided to start our orientation walk and our first stop was an old prison which had been turned in to quite a fancy hotel in 2000. It made me wonder why they didn’t do the same with the one in Tallinn which would also have been able to offer pleasant sea views. To avoid standing in the rain unnecessarily El gave us some details before we made a dash. We sought shelter in an alley way before passing the home of the author of the Moomins, obtaining a umbrella from an Italian coffee shop. and finally reaching the Uspenskin Cathedral.

Eventually we sought shelter a view of the harbour where we needed to get the ferry to Suomenlinna Fort and the market which El recommended did good Salmon soup. From our shelter we could also see the Presidential Palace with a guard outside, though fortunately for him he was standing under a large metal umbrella. By the time we reached the Cathedral the rain had eased off slightly so El could talk to us under the umbrella. It seemed a festival was going on for a midnight run, and the band rather fittingly performed Purple Rain.

Rather than continuing the walk we caught a tram to the main street and from there it was only a short walk to the restaurant.As soon as we arrived we began peeling off our drenched coats and left them on the coat stand to dry. I ordered the Elk steak on flat bread with a Kantaja porter which was nice but perhaps a little expensive however that is what I had expected from Finland. As it was the first night of the tour, the meal was a good opportunity for us to get know each other.

After dinner, Jayde, Matt and I quickly went to a nearby supermarket to grab some snacks (I got cheesy puff balls and some moomin jelly sweets) for the trip ahead. Fortunately we left and made it just in time to catch the tram the others were about to get on. Unfortunately a ‘night fun run’ meant our tram took a different route to usual and in the end we were forced to walk all the way back to the hostel in the relentless rain.

Sunday 4th September
After waking, I opened the curtains and realised that the sun was shining and there was barely a cloud in the sky. I went straight to the Sauna but rather than feeling a sense of freedom, admittedly felt quite awkward as I removed my towel and sat down totally in my birthday suit as is the Finnish way. There were 2 other guys already in there and 2 others joined shortly after me which meant we were all a little close for comfort. After about 30 minutes I felt I’d spent enough time cleansing my pores?! and left. I had a quick shower and then made my way to meet the others for breakfast.

Christine, Matt and Chris and I had agreed to visit the UNESCO listed fort Suomenlinna built across 6 small islands Kustaanmiekka, Susisaari, Iso-Mustasaari, Pikku-Mustasaari, Länsi-Mustasaari and Långören . We made our way to the pier however we just missed the boat so took the opportunity to re-visit some of the sights from the night before in the much more pleasant conditions as well as a marina with yachts. We returned for the next ferry and the short journey was relatively smooth uneventful.

We arrived on the island and the maps we had been given highlighted the main sites. We therefore started off with the Prisoner of War Camp memorial which also provided us with a good view of the bay before walking through the gate of the Jetty Barracks. We then continued through the Great Courtyard and past various sites including Suomenlinna Church and the dry dockdry dock, the oldest in Finland and one of the oldest operational dry docks in Europe

We eventually arrived at the actual fort Each of us then got a photo sitting on one of the cannons which Chris said reminded him of the iconic frame from the movie Dr Strangelove. We thoroughly explored the site with Matt and I even exploring one of the tunnels. We were unable to leave using the other ferry from the King’s gate built in 1753–54 as the entrance gateway to the fortress so we slowly returned to the main harbour via the second world war submarine Vesikko .

Once we had returned to dry land Chris and I got a salmon soup, recommended to us by El, from market. The 4 of us then walked to the Cathedral and had a brief look inside. We then began the walk back to the hostel, returned the umbrella to the Italian cafe, walked past the moomin House and finally the prison. We arrived back in plenty of time, met up with Jayde, Giulia and Elo and caught the tram to the ferry terminal.

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