NewkhskOn my first full day in Helsinki, I went to Suomenlinna, the Castle of Finland, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once upon a time it was a sea fortress, back in the days when Finland used to belong to Russia and/or Sweden and perpetually got itself caught up in battles and sieges between its various owners and neighbours. Nowadays it’s a pleasant place to spend a few days, an oasis just separated from a jewel of a city, a series of interconnected green islands out in Helsinki harbour, studded with military leftovers and a hugely delightful place for a green new tourist to experience the beginnings of a Nordic winter for the first time – because, if you remember, it was November.
Back in 2008, on my first real trip away, I hadn’t acquired the Good Winter Wardrobe I now have. I hadn’t even considered that it was a thing I’d want to acquire. This was still a one-off at this point and I was wearing a long grey wool coat which I’d bought from New Look for a school trip to Russia (and I do promise I’ll write that one day), pair of sheepskin mittens from Primark and a pashmina, also from Primark, which I was using as scarf and blanket. It was all a bit more streamlined than the Arctic Fleece and the Hulk but nowhere near as warm. Fortunately, Helsinki is relatively tropical, even in November, and I could cope with the weather.
To get to Suomenlinna you go down to the harbour, by the fish market, buy a ticket from the machine on the quayside (it speaks English and as of 2017, it costs €5). It’s about twenty minutes across to the fortress and the first thing you see is a big pink arch which houses a cafe.
If you’re interested in military history, you’ll love Suomenlinna. It’s not my thing but I do like miniature cliffs, islands joined by bridges and views over the Helsinki archipelago. Can one person entertain themself for the best part of an entire day not doing anything in particular? Oh yes, although according to my blog of the time (all 253 words of it), the sun was beginning to hint at setting by about 1.30pm which seems incredibly early. Sunset in Helsinki in November is more like four o’clock.
Despite the cold, and it’s always colder on the water, I made a deliberate effort to stay out on the deck on the way back on the ferry, getting a good view of the Helsinki cityscape, its skyline dominated not by glass towers but by the two cathedrals: the white Lutheran one perched on a set of steps to raise it well above the rooftops and the red Orthodox one sitting on its little hill. And both of them dwarfed by the Baltic ferries in port between trips to Tallinn, Stockholm and the Åland Islands. I’ve seen pictures of massive cruise ships dwarfing Venice but Helsinki is small enough to be dwarfed by mere ferries.
That day, apart from being the day I fell in love with Helsinki, was also the day I first went out in the dark on my own, a dangerous activity I’d always been warned to never do. But short Nordic days mean you have to be safely back inside by mid-afternoon and that would have been a huge waste of my time, so out I went and out I stayed and I learnt that there’s a difference between “night” and “dark”.
That day – that one day – marked the beginning of a new epoch in my life. I was a person who was “brave”, I was a person who travelled, I was a person who went out in the dark, I was a person who blogged, I was a person who liked the cold.
That was the day Juliet was born.