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Baltic Cruise Day Three: Helsinki, Finland

Our view of Helsinki as we sailed in to port.

Our view of Helsinki as we sailed in to port.

Helsinki is the beautiful, urban capital city of Finland. Full of history and culture it is also the largest, most populated city in Finland. We took the four hour, “Walking Tour of Helsinki”, which wasn’t nearly enough time to see all we would have liked to have seen but our guide gave us a really nice cross section of the historic and modern influences the city has to offer.

Our guides in both Turku and Helsinki stressed the importance and strong government support for education in Finland. Most education through university, is free, even to foreign students. To graduate though, in addition to the Finnish language, you must learn and show a mastery of the Swedish language as well, even though less than 5% of the population are native Swedish speakers. The reasoning is due to the close social and economic ties with Sweden. If I remember correctly, English is taught to students beginning in the third grade. I found this very impressive.

Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Our first stop was the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. It was designed by Russian architect, Alexey Gornostaev but wasn’t built until after his death in 1862.

Next we visited Helsinki Cathedral, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, in the center of Helsinki. It’s main structure is in the design of a cross with a large main dome surrounded by four smaller domes. The domes were added later, modeled after Saint Issac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral

The interior, though simpler than many of the Russian cathedrals we would visit later, is quite stunning with its high arching peaks.

The magnificent pipe organ and choir loft of Helsinki Cathedral.

The magnificent pipe organ and choir loft of Helsinki Cathedral.

I found it interesting that the choir lofts in most of the churches and cathedrals we visited are behind the congregation and mostly hidden from view.

Great care is taken in the renovation and maintenance of these iconic Finnish landmarks.

We then walked through the more modern streets in the heart of Helsinki and saw many examples of historic and modern architecture and also many, many buildings dedicated to the arts.

Taking a break from our walk, we stopped at an intriguing little local restaurant for blueberry tarts, coffee and tea. It was tucked away in a much more densely populated part of the city that you could easily miss. The decor was quite eclectic and I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of the colorfully-lit bar just inside the entrance. I loved the atmosphere in this place.

A hidden gem in modern Helsinki.

A hidden gem in modern Helsinki.

Continuing our walk, we visited the historic Finnish National Theatre and the modern, glass-designed, Helsinki Music Centre, that houses two symphony orchestras and the Sibelius Music Academy.

Outside the Church of the Rock in the center of Helsinki.

Outside the Church of the Rock in the center of Helsinki.

Then we came to a large rock hill, roughly the size of a city block, surrounded by business and apartment buildings. Inside this rock is the Temppeliaukio Church, also know as the Church of the Rock. It is a Lutheran Church built in the late 1960’s inside the excavated rock. From the outside, the land appears mostly undisturbed, similar to the exposed rock clusters you’d find in Central Park, NYC. Inside, you find a gorgeous modern church, rock walls, copper ceiling with natural light warming the center.

Inside the Temppeliaukio Church, also know as the Church of the Rock.

Inside the Temppeliaukio Church, also know as the Church of the Rock.

A close up shot from underneath the Sibelius Monument.

A close up shot from underneath the Sibelius Monument.

We got on the bus to travel a short distance to our final stop on our tour, Sibelius Park. Here stands the Sibelius Monument to honor Finland’s great composer, Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius (1865-1957), was a prolific composer, particularly in the 1920’s and is probably best known for his composition, Finlandia and his symphonies.

Apparently, there was quite a controversy over the monument and its modern art design when it was erected in the late 1960’s. I love its design and think it’s a fitting tribute to the late composer.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland.

Thousands of residents travel each day by the Helskini trams.

Thousands of residents travel each day by the Helskini trams.

So there are the highlights of our whirlwind tour of Helsinki. I really loved the blend of historic and modern architecture.

The city was busy, yet didn’t give you that overwhelming, rushed feeling that many new city surroundings can give you.

I was also impressed by the elaborate transportation options in the city. Fewer cars and many bicycles, trains, buses and trams for travel.

I’d definitely visit Helsinki again.

Back on the Voyager, we ended the day with a fabulous dinner followed by this breathtaking sunset. A perfect ending to perfect day.

Finnish sunset on the Baltic Sea.

Finnish sunset on the Baltic Sea.

Next stop: Russia.

Baltic Cruise Day Two: Turku, Finland

I never in my life thought I’d visit Finland. I’d never heard of Turku before the cruise, so I had no real expectations. Exploring the unknown is always a real adventure.

At every port we had multiple excursions to choose from and Michael and I booked all of ours online months before the cruise to take advantage of the best options. We learned later that as tours filled up, often new ones were opened. For the most part, we got our first choices at each port.

Turku Castle

Turku Castle

Turku is the oldest city in Finland, believed to be founded towards the end of the thirteenth century. An important

Finnish city, it is probably best know as an important seaport for commercial and passenger ships.

Of the available tours, we chose “Turku Castle, Naantali & Ruissalo” giving us the opportunity to experience three different communities in Finland. There was also the opportunity to explore Turku on your own– but as first time visitors we thought we’d get the most from an organized excursion.

The Inner Courtyard at Turku Castle.

The Inner Courtyard at Turku Castle.

Let me say here, as a rule, I’m not a big fan of tours. I would prefer to move along at my own pace, taking more time in areas of interest, skipping through others and stopping for photos along the way. When you’re on a bus with a tight itinerary, or even on foot, it can get a little frustrating. I took very few photos on the buses because they just don’t turn out well. At every port we passed many areas I would have liked to explore. Throughout our trip though, we felt it was the best introduction to foreign countries. We now have a better idea of what countries and towns we’d like to return to for a longer visit. I’d also like to add, with one exception, all of our local tour guides were really great at what they do.

Medieval Art at Turku Castle.

Medieval Art at Turku Castle.

Our first stop was Turku Castle. Building of the medieval castle began around the year 1280 and then it was later expanded during the 16th century. Extremely well preserved, it is the most prominent symbol of Turku and a popular tourist destination.

I found great beauty in the massive structure and was particular fond of the inner courtyard and the surviving medieval paintings that adorned the inner walls. The large chapel also displayed some interesting and unique artifacts.

Inside Turku Castle.

Inside Turku Castle.

The main street in Naantali, Finland.

The main street in Naantali, Finland.

Our second stop was the city of Naantali. It is considered an important summer tourist destination in Finland. The year-round population is less than 20,000 but increases substantially during the summer months.

One thing I learned, that seemed to be a common theme in most of the countries we visited, is that unlike families in the United States, most families in these countries have some sort of a vacation home for relaxation in the warm summer months . In the US it is more the exception than the norm.

Naantali Church.

Naantali Church.

We had free time to wander around Naantali Old Town and harbor on our own. Though it was bustling with the activities of tourists and and summer residents, we enjoyed the peaceful, relaxing atmosphere it had to offer.

We wandered off the main street, down alleyways and through some of the residential paths lined with small cottages. Attracted by a bell tower, ended up spending the most time on the grounds of the medieval Naantali church and cemetery. It was all so quiet and serene. A nice contrast to the more densely populated city of Turku, giving us a broader glimpse of Finnish life.

The cemetery at Naantali Church.

The cemetery at Naantali Church.

Naantali Harbor

Naantali Harbor

The barn of a secluded home on the island of Ruissalo.

Our final stop of the day was the island of Ruissalo, in the Archipelago Sea, southwest of the city of Turku. Ruissalo has a very small population of just a few hundred residents and is best known for their annual Ruisrock music festival.

We walked along the water, down a path past quaint, secluded homes and enjoyed the warm sunny afternoon and fresh air before returning to the ship for dinner, followed by Patti LuPone’s highly-anticipated concert.

A sailboat at the island of Ruissalo.

A sailboat at the island of Ruissalo.