28 March 2017 – Suomenlinna Fortress and the Helsinki Rock Church [Finland]
It was our second day in Finland and due to jet lag we were all up ridiculously early. The adults were awake by 4am and kids were up by 5am, it was going to be a long day……. Try as we might no one went back to sleep so we eventually gave up and went downstairs for breakfast when it opened.
The breakfast room in hotel Katajanokka is really interesting. It was decked out with candles and you could also use metal plates and cups keeping in with the former prison theme. There was a really good selection of hot and cold food, along with copious amounts of salmon, herring, cheeses and really great dark rye bread. We were fascinated by the traditional karjalanpiirakka, a Finnish pastry that is made from a rye crust with a filling of rice. It actually tastes more like cheese and is quite delicious. It is served with egg butter which was also surprisingly good.
All full of a hearty Finnish breakfast we rugged up for the cold and caught our number 4 tram from outside the hotel down to the service ferry terminal, with a plan to head out to Suomenlinna fortress. As all the signs were in Finnish, we weren’t able to make much sense of them so we just assumed we were in the right spot and our googling had been correct. We had purchased a 72 hour transport ticket for our stay in Helsinki and this covered all our tram rides and also the ferry trip to Suomenlinna.
Pretty soon a ferry arrived and it was us and one other person in the passenger cabin. We were on the service ferry rather than the main tourist ferry so there were also a few cars, trucks and bikes. The trip out to Suomenlinna was around 10 minutes and despite it being cold it was another beautiful clear day so we had good views of all the islands as we cruised out.
Suomenlinna is an inhabited sea fortress and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress is built across six islands and is considered part of the city of Helsinki. The fortress construction was commenced in 1747 and has served in the defence of 3 realms – Sweden, Finland and Russia. The construction was undertaken by the Swedish when Finland was part of the Swedish realm.
Once on Suomenlinna, we arrived at the service terminal, so away from the main tourist entrance point. From the service terminal it wasn’t exceptionally well signposted but we started wandering in the direction of the main dock and quickly found the route signs pointing us in the correct directions. It was pretty easy to find the church and church park as they are visible from most of the islands. The kids were a fan of the huge bell in the church park.
Suomenlinna is a monument of military architecture so there are plenty of large chains, anchors, cannons and other bits and pieces to look at. Interestingly 800 people live on the fortress islands and we saw quite a few people wandering around with prams and small kids and heading into their houses. I’m not sure I’d be so keen on living in a tourist attraction but it was actually fairly quiet while we were there. The residential parts of the fortress have lots of interesting coloured houses. Aside from residents there were a lot of workers on the islands as it’s still an operating naval academy. Some areas were marked as off-limits for visitors.
We eventually walked down towards the main ferry terminal and there were big tour groups coming in on the ferries so we were glad that we had come in on the service ferry without the crowds.
From the main dock we had a walk around the military base over the bridge (the fortress islands are mostly connected by bridges). The kids were impressed with the thick stone walls in most of the buildings, they were wider than Astrid!
We followed the main tourist track over towards Kings Gate. Our walks took us past lots of cannons and giant anchors. There are quite a number of ramparts you can walk over and the views out from the ramparts were nice, although we were making sure the kids didn’t veer to close to the edge as there no barriers on sections and the ocean was rather cold looking, especially as there was still some snow on the ground and ice in most of the ponds and puddles.
After our walk around to King’s Gate we were all getting a bit cold so morning tea was in order. Suomenlinna is actually one of the most popular picnic spots for Helsinki residents in Summer but it wasn’t exactly picnic weather in late March! There are 6 museums on the island but only 2 were open in the off-season but we didn’t visit either as they weren’t really of interest to a 3 and 5-year-old.
Aside from the museums there are a number of cafes and restaurants in Suomenlinna. We found an art gallery cafe that was deserted but was both warm and had nice cakes, coffees for the adults and a hot chocolate for the kids.
We were surprised at how un-touristy the island was given it is one of the main tourist attractions of Helsinki. It was definitely quiet on a Tuesday in the off-season. There was signposting around the island but even the tours only ran on weekends during off-peak. During the Summer season it is possible to catch boats between different points of the fortress but they don’t run during the Winter season. In Finland it is considered Winter until at least May!
After morning tea, we had discovered one of Astrid’s gloves was missing and we were perplexed as she seemed to have had them on when she arrived at the cafe and we were the only ones in there……. and we’d searched high and low for it within the cafe. The missing glove resulted in a bit more walking around in the cold trying to retrace our steps but no glove was to be found. They were her bike-riding gloves so it wasn’t great having lost one already. A tired Astrid was also whinging quite a bit about a cold hand.
With a cold and whingey 5-year-old we decided that it was time to head back to Helsinki for a rest at the hotel. On the way back to Helsinki we caught the passenger ferry from the main dock, which was bigger and more busy than the service ferry. It was a slightly quicker trip and we got to see the other side of the island which was a bonus.
When we got off the ferry at the harbour we finally discovered Astrid’s glove had somehow gotten caught up inside my hat (which I’d been wearing) so that mystery was solved and there was no need for a shopping trip to replace gloves.
We paid a quick visit to the Kauppatori market we’d walked through the previous morning and picked up a couple of souvenirs. There were lots of animal skins and furs for sale along with other knick-knacks and hats, scarves and gloves and plenty of local food options. Most of the food consisted of some form of fish!
We ended up walking back to the hotel from the market as we had just missed a tram and it really isn’t that far, and it was too cold to stand around not moving waiting for the next tram!
We arrived back just after 1pm and kids did not need a lot of convincing to nap given our early start to the day and general sleep deficit. Anto and I desperately wanted to sleep but had still been waking up too early with jet lag so instead resisted, and drank coffee and ate chips. Coffee is not hard to find in Finland, they are a bit obsessed with it. The Finn’s are the number one consumers of coffee in the world at 12kg per capita per annum. Interestingly, you can’t actually grow coffee in Finland due to the climate so they import all of it!
Unsurprisingly, the kids did not want to wake up from their nap and it took a forcible awakening after 3pm. Usually it is a bad time for a 3 and 5-year-old to nap too but they were way to down on sleep for us to care!
We had decided that after several days of traveling we needed to do some washing and had located a laundromat near the afternoon sightseeing activity. So off we trooped with our large backpack of smelly clothes via a couple of trams to a new area we hadn’t yet explored. In the usual Finnish style the laundromat didn’t require you to talk to anyone and was totally automated. Once we figured it out and the washing was underway we headed to the nearby Temppeliaukio Church or ‘Rock church’.
The rock church was easy to spot from a distance, it looked like a huge rock in the middle of suburban apartment buildings. The church is excavated into solid rock . The church hall is covered by a dome lined with copper and the church walls are made of rock. Due to its excellent acoustics the church is a popular venue for concerts. We were informed there was going to be a concert there that night, which would have been interesting to attend but it was going to start at 9pm which was getting too late for jet-lagged kids and adults.
We had made it to the church just in time to go inside before they closed for the day. It looks a lot like a regular church inside, except that the walls are entirely rock and there is a rock altar. It was certainly something different.
We then went back outside and looked at it from the outside and it’s pretty much a large rock and no sign there is a church below!
Once out of the church it was a quick dash down to swap the washing over to drying. While we were waiting for the drying to be finished Anto and Soren went in search of dinner options, and found a restaurant with good reviews just down the street. Once the clothes were done we were on our way, now with a large backpack of clean clothes! The restaurant was rather nice looking and we were grotty, smelly and carrying a large backpack of washing and had 2 over-tired small children, but they were seemingly happy to feed us.
It turned out to be the most amazing meal. A really nice focaccia and butter appeared on our table while we were waiting for our meals which we all devoured. I ordered a lentil, mushroom and pesto dish with leeks and Jerusalem artichokes and it was amazing. Anto had some meaty dish that he was fairly impressed with The kids had a burger with fried potatoes and kale (they always love kale). Everything was so good……. and I took no photos as the camera was buried under our pile of coats and I kind of forgot. We had hoped to try to the awesome sounding desserts but both kids were pretty much trying to fall asleep in our laps and we had 2 trams to get back so we decided to give it a miss and get them to bed.
We had a fantastic run of trams and were back at the hotel around 15 minutes after we left the restaurant so we probably could have stayed for dessert after all. On the upside we were treated to an amazing sunset as we cruised back to our hotel on the tram, so the camera got a workout after all. Helsinki really is very pretty despite not being known as one of the great European cities.
All exhausted the kids were well and truly flaked out by 8.30pm, which is still way later than we hoped but that seems to happen every day we are travelling. Apparently sleep is for the weak (it’s 4 weeks later as I’m finishing this post and I can assure you there has still not been enough sleep!!!).
Statistics for Tuesday the 28th of March 2017 in Helsinki Finland – the temperature was minus 2 to 5 degrees however the apparent temperature was below zero for the entire day! We have been told it was unusually ‘warm’ for the time of year! At least it was sunny…… our total walking for the day was 14.6km, which the kids managed all of!
Up next, our final morning in Helsinki and crossing the Gulf of Finland to Estonia on the ferry………