Baltic cruise aboard Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf: Helsinki, Finland

IMG_1596credit Dave G. Houser_IMG_15961008

ONBOARD WIND SURF- ­With an all-aboard call for 12:45 p.m., today’s visit to the Finnish capital was a hasty one.  Although this was Melinda’s first visit, I’d been here on a number of occasions, so I volunteered to lead an independent tour of the city.

Nestled around its scenic harbor, with most popular attractions within walking distance, Helsinki is an easy city to explore afoot, and we got started with a visit to the bustling harbor side market.  Fish and produce stands anchor the colorful market but vendor stalls featuring clothing, handicrafts and souvenirs stretch for a couple blocks along the harbor.

Berries are a summer staple of the Finns and all varieties of them were on display.  We bought a basket of sweet, just-ripe strawberries for a snack and hiked on to Senate Square, home to the landmark Helsinki Cathedral.  The white Neoclassical-style Lutheran church, topped by green domes, is probably the city’s most photographed site.

Finland was governed by Russia from 1809 to 1917 and reminders of the Tsar’s influence are seen throughout Helsinki, with the most prominent edifice being the towering brick Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral that rises from a promontory just above the harbor.

Berries -- at their succulent summer best -- on display at Helsinki's famous harbor front market.
Berries — at their succulent summer best — on display at Helsinki’s famous harbor front market.

Continuing our trek into the city center, we strolled through Esplanade Park, a leafy promenade lined with classical old cafes and elegant Art Nouveau buildings.  We took a table at one of the cafes for a coffee (and for Melinda, a regulation Earl Gray tea) and for a bit of people watching before walking on to the Design District.

Helsinki is universally recognized as the creative epicenter of contemporary Scandinavian design, characterized by minimalism and clean lines, and spawned by such famous names as Alvar and Aino Aalto, Eero Aarnio, and IImari Tapiovaara.

We were mesmerized as we wandered through the cluster of designer shops and studios, including Marimekko, world-renowned for its boldly patterned textiles; Kalevala, noted for its distinctive bronze and silver jewelry; Iittala, highly regarded for its innovative glassware, and Artek, whose furniture, lighting and home accessories have set the standard for modern design since 1935.

Those of you following my blog are probably aware of my fascination with architecture.  I’ve always loved to photograph buildings, perhaps because I see the art form as a direct reflection of any given culture.  Melinda shares my interest to some extent so I wanted her to see two more of Helsinki’s architectural standouts, the Central Railway Station and Temppeliauko Church.

The city’s massive granite rail station is a local landmark, distinguished by its copper-topped clock tower and a pair of statues depicting muscular males holding spherical lamps on either side of the main entrance.  The station was designed in 1919 by the noted Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, whose son Eero moved to America, gaining some fame for himself as designer of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

One of Helsinki's premier attractions, Temppeliauko Church (better known as the Rock Church) is hewn from solid granite and topped by an impressive 78-foot high copper dome.
One of Helsinki’s premier attractions, Temppeliauko Church (better known as the Rock Church) is hewn from solid granite and topped by an impressive 78-foot high copper dome.

Running short on time, we had to hustle on to our final destination of the morning, Temppeliauko Church, better and more simply known as the Rock Church.  Built into solid rock and topped by a 78-foot high copper dome, this one-of-a-kind church is Helsinki’s most popular architectural attraction, receiving nearly a million visitors a year.  Two architect brothers, Tuomo and Timo Suomalainen, designed the church in 1969, choosing a rocky outcrop rising 40 feet above street level as the site for their unique design.  The interior, with seating for 750 worshippers, was blasted from granite bedrock and, because of its superb acoustics, the church is often used as a concert hall.

It was disappointing that we didn’t have more time to explore Helsinki, but as we sailed out through the scattering of islands dotting the harbor we got a good look at another of the city’s top attractions.  Built by the Swedes in the mid-1700s to protect Helsinki from Russian invasion, Soumenlinna was once the Baltic’s largest sea fortress and became known as the Gibraltar of the North.  Today, the island is a lovely place to visit with its well-preserved fortifications, museums, cafes and picnic areas.

August 29, 2016

Photos by Dave Houser

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