Not the Paris and London William Shakespeare wrote about, but our version features Helsinki and Tallinn.
Whatever was going to follow Stockholm was going to find it a hard act to follow, and to be honest Helsinki struggled. That’s not saying Helsinki is a bad place, far from it. It has a lot to offer and we spent three days seeing most of what the city had to offer at a much slower pace than normal.
Once again we managed to find a campsite with easy access to the City Centre. The site itself was one of the best we have been on during this trip, with plenty of space and loads of facilities including the obligatory Finnish sauna and access to a small beach.
Two minutes walk from the site was a Metro stop and in 15 minutes we were in the centre of the city. Straight away we started to notice differences between Finland and Sweden. We had thought they would be very similar considering Finland was part of Sweden for hundreds of years but in many ways they are poles apart.
The first thing that is noticeable is, unlike The Swedes, The Fins aren’t big talkers, whether that is to strangers, neighbours, family, anyone in fact. They are on the whole uncomfortable with eye contact and conversation.
Heavy Metal music is huge here. They have the most bands per head of population than anywhere in The World and this is reflected in their dress which can be quite dark and almost grunge like. Then there is their hair. Not a subject Steve can be really called an expert on, but if he had any it certainly wouldn’t be dyed every colour of the rainbow, which is a very common look around Helsinki.
Helsinki is a relatively new city. Turku, close to Sweden, was the capital until The Russians took over in the early 19th Century and they moved the capital closer to St Petersburg and built Helsinki which was a small fishing village at the time. This is reflected in the architecture, with most of the buildings looking very similar to one another. In fact, some are actually identical. They are, however, painted in more pastel colours which does brighten things up.
We joined another free walking tour. Which was good for getting our bearings and identifying a couple of places to revist. It also took us to the Helsinki version of Changing of the Guard. This actually could not have been on any smaller scale. It was a straight one for one swap, literally a changing of “THE” guard!
Probably the most impressive two buildings in The City are the two Cathedrals. One is Lutheran and the other Russian Orthodox.
The white imposing Lutheran Cathedral dominates the city. It is set in the centre of town, at the head of a large open stone square and definitely looks the part from the outside. The inside, however, is a completely different story.
There is apparently a joke in Helsinki which says they spent so much money building the Cathedral there was nothing left to decorate the inside. Lutheran churches are always plainly decorated and the Helsinki Cathedral epitomises this. Five minutes inside and you have seen it all ….. twice!
The Russian Orthodox Cathedral down by the docks is very different in design, very dark and ornate. Although the inside has more to see than its Lutheran counterpart, you can only access a small part of the building and we were, in truth, left a little underwhelmed. It’s hard not to compare them against the magnificent churches of Spain, Italy and France.
Luckily our weather in Helsinki was beautiful and ideal for strolling around the city, people watching and trying to spot a couple having a conversation!
On our other full day, we made the 15 minute ferry ride to the island fortress of Suomenlinna. Wherever you look this is always number one on places to visit in The City.
Eight hundred people live on the island and they were getting close to a million visitors a year pre-Covid. It has a long and turbulent history and was a nice enough place to stroll around for a few hours in the sun playing with the cannons. It also had an old, small submarine exhibit and Steve relived some of his dim and distant past.
After Helsinki we had a few days in hand. We had finished the cycle leg of this trip considerably earlier than we had expected and we were paying for it a little as we were both pretty tired. So we decided to go somewhere for a rest and a break from camping. We had never been to Estonia before so we boarded a ferry for the two and a half hour crossing across The Baltic Sea, booked a swanky apartment, and headed off to Tallinn for five days.
One thing we can say about travel is that very rarely places are as you imagine them to be. Before visiting a country you build up an image about it, driven by what you have seen, read and been told. Sometimes the image is close and sometimes it is way off the mark. Tallinn was more of the latter.
We knew there would be an Old Town and that lots of cruise ships visit but other than that we knew very little. It was an old Soviet State so maybe it was struggling to throw off that part of its past.
We loved it. One of the first things that struck us was how clean it was. Oh, and people talk to one another. The Old Town was much bigger than we expected and we spent a few afternoons wandering and exploring.
One thing we didn’t realise was how technologically advanced Estonia is. Apparently, there are more ‘Start Up’ companies per head of population than anywhere in The World. Two in particular caught our eye, driverless buses and small robotic boxes on wheels moving around the town. At first we couldn’t work them out but after a bit of digging they turned out to be delivery robots!
We did another free walking tour where we learned quite a lot about Estonia and its history of invasions and the various Nations who have ruled it, until it gained independence only 31 years ago.
We spent a few days wandering around the Old Town and along the very modern looking seafront promenade which is still being developed with ultra modern apartment blocks and the beautiful city gardens.
In the evenings we relaxed in our amazing apartment in an old converted warehouse, which was possibly the best accommodation we have had this year. It even had a sauna in the bathroom. Unfortunately the weather was so good it was too hot to use for its designed purpose but Sarah did find a great use for it!
On the whole we took time out, relaxed and recharged our batteries after a hectic and heavily camping loaded six weeks, and prepared for the next six weeks which is very likely to be hectic and heavily camping loaded!
So our Tale of Two Cities didn’t have any unusual incidents or funny stories. It was just sightseeing and relaxing. However, we have been saving one incident for just such an occasion (actually we forgot to include it at the time!).
We need to go back to when we were at Amsterdam airport in May. We had checked in our luggage and our bikes for the flight to Milan and were making our way to the gate. Normally we walk but on this occasion we decided to use the travelators to save our legs for the upcoming bike ride. As we travelled along, enjoying our free ride, we were admiring a series of huge aerial photographs of various locations throughout The Netherlands. We had spotted a bridge connecting a series of islands which we had driven over in the last year. How were we to know the travelator was coming to an end? Where was the warning? Sarah got there first, side on. She hit the end and then static floor, struggling to keep her balance with her legs and arms everywhere. Will she fall? Won’t she fall? must have been the question on the other passengers lips. She was just gaining her composure when Steve hit the end, grabbed hold of Sarah, and we went into some sort of crazy pirouette dancing move which would surely have achieved a ’10’ on a popular TV dance competition. Remarkably we stayed off the floor and on our feet. We regained our composure before walking on in fits of laughter. I’m sure we brightened up a few of the other passengers days!