Helsinki and Beyond

Our first trip to Scandinavia was to Norway in March 2022 – read my post New Adventures In Norway – and the second part of this trip in April 2022, which I have finally got around to writing about nearly a year later, was to Finland. I knew next to nothing about this country, but it had always seemed like an interesting place, if only because I remember listening to a friend speaking Finnish once and it was like nothing that I’d ever heard. And after spending a few days there, it transpires that we love Finland.

Day 1

We arrived in Helsinki in the afternoon on the plane from Oslo and then got the tram to our really nice hotel, the Indigo. After unpacking, we walked down the esplanade to the harbour where we had a local hot dog in a tent (safe from the seagulls) and walked through the beautiful Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall) food market. We then went for a wander, Mrs Departures to the design district and me just mooching about where among other things, I saw ‘braised bear’ on a menu at a traditional Finnish restaurant called Savotta opposite the State House. Not something I’d seen before. 

After a little snooze back at the hotel – I never used to do this, seeing it as a waste of time, but as a man in my 50s, I now see not doing it as a waste of time – we went to the nearby Design Museum. There was an African concert and fashion show which was fun and then we went for a bite to eat and drink when we bumped into Badgers just across the street.

I love doing research for our trips to ensure that we have a list of interesting places to try for food, drinks and culture. Sometimes it works, other times not. Sometimes we stick rigidly to it and other times, it’s kind of a loose idea at the back of my mind. This time, we saw the chef outside the bar holding hot dogs on a tray and thought that might be the place for us tonight.

It turns out that Badgers was a bit of a find and became our new favourite place. Today was the first day of their new menu (and a new chef) which consisted of two luxury hot dogs, one veggie and one not. I had not previously thought of hot dogs and cocktails in the same sitting, but I can honestly say that we had a wonderful evening sharing veggie and meat hot dogs with cocktails such as the White Negroni with Cocchi vermouth (which I’d heard about but not tried before). Seriously good.

The music that night was a playlist of magical 70s soul and funk and for me at least, when you combine that with the food, drinks and a naturally chilled ambience in an interesting new city, I was already thinking about moving to Helsinki so that Badgers could be my local!

After a lovely night there, we walked back to the hotel, already feeling very welcome in Helsinki which we were realising was very walkable, if a little bit freezing cold…

Day 2

After morning coffee and seriously good baked goods (korvapuusti cinnamon buns, pistachio swirls and cardamom buns) at Kaffeecentralen and Roberts Coffee at Kamppi, we got the train to the MariMekko outlet on the outskirts of Helsinki as Mrs Departures is a huge fan of the label.

When we got there, I went for breakfast in the canteen while she went browsing and shopping. So I asked for coffee and a croissant but to my surprise, the café assistant said that they don’t serve them as late as this because it was lunchtime. I double-checked the time on my phone. It was 10.35am local time! I then looked around and people were already coming in, filling their plates with ridiculously healthy-looking lunches full of salads and fish while mostly wearing striped Mari Mekko tops.

I then wondered what time breakfast would have been if lunch is at 10.30am, but that is another reason why we travel, to see new things, different things, things that we don’t understand. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate your own lifestyle and way of thinking and being. In this country starting lunch at 10.30am is clearly a thing. Could it be elsewhere too? Perhaps not here as that’s second breakfast time here in Andalucia.

And then Bonnie Tyler’s 1980’s smash hit ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ starts blaring out of the canteen radio speakers and it all feels a bit surreal. That juxtapositon of something that you know and something with which you are not remotely familiar. After Mrs Departures comes out, we then walked back to the train station and headed back to Helsinki city centre.

There was a juice stand in the train station so I had a wheatgrass shot and Mrs D had something with carrots but the thing we found interesting here was that the assistant had to dig out the international ie English language menu. Although I’d learned a handful of Finnish words and expressions and enjoy learning and using languages, we were grateful to have an English menu as Finnish can be quite intimidating.

How many consonants can a word have? It was also a lovely indicator of Helsinki and perhaps Finland being very Finnish and not as English-language-focused as Norway had been. 

On the way back to the hotel, we passed the Kamppi Chapel of Silence which was on my list of things to see so I popped in while Mrs D waited outside. Unsurprisingly, it was very quiet and calming, which I found both welcome and disarming as you are right in the centre of a capital city.

After dropping everything off at the hotel, we headed out to get some lunch at Haru, a sushi buffet place that we had seen. We were dubious about it because good sushi should be fresh – try and say that after a couple of vinos – and can it be in an all-you-can-eat buffet place? Well, it seems so. Haru was wonderful! Good food and service, and also really good value as Helsinki, similar to our experience in Bergen and Oslo in Norway, was generally not cheap, so another good find. And we had only been in the city for a couple of days at this point.

In the evening, we went to try Bar Llamas, a cocktail place which looked interesting online, but as ‘older’ customers, it was a bit too cool for school for us and the cocktails weren’t even that good. Hey, you can’t always win. And then for dinner, we went to Naughty Burger, which was surprisingly really good. It does what it says on the tin.

Day 3

Today we were off to the nearby village of Porvoo to see a friend and so, unsurprisingly, we started with a coffee and a bun at the historic Finnish coffee chain Fazer at Kamppu bus station. Watch the story of Karl Fazer here. I was also still enjoying the recently released Spiritualized album which I’d got into on our trip to Bergen.

Porvoo is a pretty, chocolate box kind of village. Delightfully colourful architecture with a charming ambience, even on a regular Thursday morning. We had a walk around – it’s tiny – had a coffee at Zum Beispiel and later had a lovely veggie lunch at Aatos Café.

After getting back to Helsinki, Mrs D went for another wander around the Design District while I went back to the hotel for a little siesta. I live in Andalucia after all. It’s normal!

While walking around in the evening looking for a Chinese restaurant, we found a fantastic shop full of Japanese food, so I got a few bits as they were inevitably impossible to get in our little village in Spain. We then ended up at Mei Lin, probably the best Szechuan place in Helsinki where I had the spiciest food I have ever had in my life. I have never seen so many chillis on one plate!

So in the past few weeks, I had had the best curry of my life in a Burmese (Myanmarian?) restaurant in Bergen in Norway and the best Szechuan Chinese dish in Helsinki in Finland.

Day 4

This morning I went to the original Fazer, built in 1879, for my morning coffee experience. With its wonderful art deco interior, you can imagine people over the last century and beyond, popping in for a coffee before going about their daily 19th and 20th-century business. It was also very busy with coffee, pastries and fish with lots of dill.

Today’s soundtrack was the latest album by one of my favourite American bands The Aluminum Group that had been released that day. Their first in 10 years. I love his voice and their gentle melancholy pop melodies.

We went to the bohemian Kallio district today where we had some delicious Greek salmon and prawns for lunch at the ridiculously early but locally popular time of 11.15am at the food market and wandered over to the strange and beautiful Temppeliaukio circular church and afterwards headed over to the botanical gardens.

It was nice seeing another new part of this wonderful city and the weather had been phenomenal. We had brought plenty of winter clothes but it was sunny (almost) throughout our Finland experience. I didn’t miss home in Spain. In fact I was actively enjoying the crisp morning chill with blue skies. It had always been one of my favourite things about living in England. We were both really enjoying this trip!

Day 5

8.45am and I couldn’t find a coffee place open that was near our hotel so I ended up having a ridiculously overpriced espresso in the hotel bar. We were going to Turku today. When we booked, we didn’t know about Vappu weekend. It turns out that on May Day/Labour Day bank holiday weekend, students celebrate finishing their exams and wander around the city in white sailor caps and multicoloured jumpsuits and then meet in the park and by the river to drink lots. Jumpsuits and sailor caps aside, it could be students anywhere in the world after finishing their exams.

Our trip to Norway in the previous month started with a bit too much rushing around in hindsight. A little too much enthusiasm and touristic vigour, so we wanted this Finland trip to be more relaxed. More wandering with food, coffee, cocktails, architecture, design and history. After a week in Finland, we had truly got into an appropriate slower rhythm.

Another lovely, crisp, sunny, blue sky morning in Helsinki. It has a nice, chilled vibe. Thinking that I’d already had too much coffee on this trip but in need of another shot, I thought I’d try a turmeric and ginger shot at the Isey Skyr juice bar in the train station.

On the 1043am train to Turku, I listened to the beautiful ‘Blue Afternoon’ album by Tim Buckley during which I read a story about someone finding a note in a second-hand record that he had bought. It was from a brother to his sister before he was about to be posted to Vietnam. It just said ‘See you when I get back’. The first song on ‘Blue Afternoon’ is called ‘Happy Time’ and as I was reading the article about the note, one of the lines from the song was ‘I’m coming home to stay’. Weird coincidence. I guess we’ll never know if the brother made it back home but I’m an optimist so I hope he did.  

Staring out the window at the Finnish countryside passing by, I was feeling calm and quietly content looking out at the blue skies and millions of pine trees.

We had a wander around Turku, had lunch at the food hall and then went to check out the Vappu event in the park where hundreds of people had gathered including jumpsuited students and lots of older people who we figured were either parents or former students reliving their halcyon days. Many even wore their own sailor caps. The main event seemed to be a choir performance culminating in the crowning of a statue with a white cap. I had no idea of the symbolism of it all but loved the atmosphere.

All this cultural excitement had made me thirsty so we popped into the rather grand Fredrik cocktail bar for an Aperol Spritz.

Day 6

Bank holiday weekend was inevitably busy here as it was anywhere else. We went walking around town and to the harbour where we had a nice pub lunch by the river, watched lots of classic cars pass by in convoy and on the way back to the hotel, we saw the smallest cable car we had ever seen. We also saw several students beig dunked in the river by a crane which I imagine was part of the Vappu tradition or just a really extreme hangover cure. We had a quiet day and an early night.

Day 7

We got the train back to Helsinki and popped into sushi favourite Haru for lunch followed by a siesta and a wander around the city. It’s strange how you never get bored wandering around a new place as there are always new things to discover. We had thought about cocktails and hot dogs at Badgers but sadly it was shut. It had also started raining for the first time on our trip.

We sheltered from the rain by going to the Alvar Aalto-designed academic bookstore and Mrs D also bought something from the Mari Mekko store where it must have been the shop assistant’s first day as it took ages for her to wrap the scarf that she had bought. Almost like the scene in ‘Love Actually’ where Rowan Atkinson does the same thing.

Day 8

Another blue-skied, crisp, sunny day in Helsinki today with a coffee at Robert’s café round the corner from our hotel. Their slogan is ‘Dare to be slow’ which seems to fit in with what we wanted our trip to be like and it was. We had had a wonderful trip to Finland with its new sounds, smells, foods, drinks, places and people.

So now, it was time to return to the south of Spain, to our home in Almeria next to the desert (though we have since moved to Granada) where it was raining. Lots. Who’d have thought that Norway and Finland would be sunnier than Almeria?

Here are a few more pics from the Finland trip. In the next post, I’ll be writing about a trip we had to the wonderful Copenhagen…

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