Monday, August 24, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 1

We weren't very worried about our flight to Helsinki because we were going on Icelandair through Reykjavik, and it’s so startlingly cheap (compared to Finnair at least) that we ended up indulging ourselves and booking business class. It’s a modest business class compared to some – no fancy pods or fully horizontal sleeping quarters – but it’s certainly easier to sleep in the larger seats, with no one sitting next to you. In fact, we’re booked in the exact same seats, in the fourth row on the right hand side, for all four legs of the trip. We flew out of Toronto just after 9 pm, having gone to see the fine film Mistress America and then out for lunch earlier in the day, and were both asleep before they served dinner. We arrived in Reykjavik about four and a half hours later, and easily made the connection to Helsinki an hour later. We had breakfast on that flight, but otherwise slept through much of that too. So by the time we arrived in Finland, at around 2 pm, we’d more or less had the equivalent of a night’s sleep.

We took a taxi into the city. It followed the familiar pattern (for us anyway) of many such initial European journeys – a rather non-descript light-industrial stretch, although with more surrounding greenery than we’d probably get back home (this portion of the journey passed very quickly, given that we had a stereotypically aggressive cab driver); the slow build-up of the city (very sleepy today, it being Sunday); then an escalating density that makes us think we'll be hitting the really good stuff in a few minutes; then the cab suddenly turns up a pleasantly tree-lined side street and there’s our hotel (I’m quite sure our European hotels are almost always on pleasantly tree-lined side streets). It’s the Radisson Blu Plaza, a safe brand-name choice, which delivers those nice little extras – not just a coffee maker in the room, but a Nespresso machine too! – along with some semi-inspired local “touches.” Walking to the room, the numbers are lit up in the floor, alternating with offsetting circles of light, suggesting a budget-challenged sci-fi show’s notion of “futuristic” set design (we later realized that the numbers are lit up in blue, red or green depending on the status of the room occupant, which seems like a very gaudy way of asking not to be disturbed). It’s the only hotel room I’ve seen that supplies the guests with sunglasses. And there’s a TV embedded in the bathroom mirror. It doesn’t actually work – it just displays abstract patterns of static, which is probably more appropriate to the bathroom.
We went out for our initial walk, with a map from the hotel lobby, but no real plan otherwise. Actually, we had a small plan, because we spent an afternoon here some thirteen or fourteen years ago on the way home from Norway. We had a stopover which was long enough to take a bus into town, where we walked around a harbourfront market area and bought a souvenir wooden sheep, which we still have. It seemed like an obvious idea to go there again and see how it compared to our memories, but we never ended up finding it. Our hotel is centrally located, across from a casino, with many surrounding restaurants and sidewalk cafes; today, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the neighbourhood seemed to be aspiring to Paris. The “fashion district” is just a few blocks away, then we started heading towards what we thought was the water – this shouldn’t be hard to do, as the city is on a peninsula, with water in basically every direction. But as often happens, we managed to bury ourselves right in the centre, getting lost in street upon street. This didn’t matter of course – it’s fun just to keep going and see what happens, or whether anything will ever happen, just taking in the general European-ness. Our guide book comments that Helsinki “isn’t quaint, it isn’t regal, it isn’t even terribly old,” and at first impression that seems about right – it’s not particularly distinctive, visually or tonally. But it also feels integrated, unforced, and at ease, and if it’s not terribly old compared to say Rome, you should compare it to our neighborhood of glass condos.

Eventually we did hit the water, but at the south end of the city, far from our original intention. We came to a beach – not a very big one, but crammed with people (because the world over, you have to make the best of what you’ve got) and we bought an ice cream from a vendor who identified himself as Cyprian. Naturally, everyone speaks English if you want them to, but otherwise we barely heard any English in the streets today – it’s probably not a major vacation destination for non-Scandinavians (actually, the plane from Reykjavik was the emptiest one we’ve been on for a while). We walked up along a coastline path, dotted throughout with cafes – all very active and happily occupied today. For most of the way, you’re looking across at various small islands – some of them have restaurants, with boats taking customers back and forth every twenty minutes or so; another has a museum; another a fortress. We came to a market that was packing up for the day, but not the one from the earlier trip. Helsinki has its own London Eye-type wheel near there, because I guess that’s what places do. We walked back past the cathedral, although we might have taken the white columns and green cupolas to indicate parliamentary pomp more than spiritual rapture. Earlier this year, a music promoter caused a minor scandal by placing a thousand racy photos of rapper Nicky Minaj on the steps leading up to it, but today they held only people.

We went back to the hotel and slept for an hour or so. At around 8.30 we wandered for a while and eventually went into a restaurant called Aino, tempted mainly by my notion of ordering reindeer. It was entirely our kind of place – white, clean design, modern wood surfaces, no nonsense. Ally had cauliflower soup and a carrot crepe; I had salmon and the reindeer. It was a wonderful meal, and went by super-fast so we decided to have a beer near the hotel, in the outside space in a bar called The Public Corner. We ended up staying until 1.20 am, so I guess it was more than one beer (you try drinking just one Karhu!). The Public Corner isn’t actually on a corner, but is embedded into a row of cafes and apartment buildings, facing an enormous square, with the railway station on the far side. I assume the square is often used for events, but today it was just a huge cobbled space – back home, developers would certainly be petitioning to build on it. Even late on Sunday night, the people-watching was of excellent high quality. I remarked at one point how, compared to home, more people were just sitting by themselves having a drink; at one point I went to the washroom and when I came back, after a mere two-minute absence, two of these single-person tables had merged, and the man and woman were chatting away as if they’d been together forever. Maybe Helsinki is the true City of Love? On the other hand, as we’d seen earlier, the apparent attempt by some to create a bridge of love locks doesn’t seem to have acquired much momentum…

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