reede, detsember 02, 2005

A Quick Tour of the Nordic Capitals: Helsinki & Tallinn

And so we're on to the final lag on our quick jaunt through the six Nordic capitals, heading to the land of Finno-Ugric peoples that seem simultaneously caucasoid and mongoloid. In my opinion, Finland is like the Greece of the north, while Estonia is like the Cyprus of the Baltic. The stereotype is that Finns are fat drunks, while Estonians are thin drunks. The stereotype is probably correct. Both capital cities have their charm, although Tallinn is obviously the more immediately pleasing of the Finnic cities, but first...

Fifth stop: Helsinki, Finland.
For starters Helsinki is much bigger than you expect. Finland seems like the black sheep of the Nordic countries, and you expect its capital to be nothing special. BUt the city is big and interesting. Unlike Stockholm or Copenhagen, Helsinki is a fairly modern city, which means its roads follow some sort of grid logic. The "head" of the city (I wouldn't call it the center) is the Esplanaadi which protrudes away from the harbor and up towards the trains station and that big Lutheran cathedral you see in that photo to your right. Of course there is also the giant Stockman's department store. The reason Helsinki is overlooked by tourists is because it lacks in that immediate Euro charm that draws the throngs to Venice and Prague. It's square and even and often gray and brown and nothing too exciting. As with Oslo, the better, more "capital-like" city lies on the sea - Turku - which actually used to be the capital. But Helsinki has its treats. My favorite place was Savonlinna, an old barracks in the harbor. The whole harbor is interesting and it might be fun to just cruise around. Also, I have never wandered around Helsinki at night without something going on and people doing something. Unlike sterile, uninteresting Oslo, the drunks of Finland appear as if they have a good time in the open up here. Also, if you are looking to stay inside, you should check out Chiasma, the art museum. It's really interesting.

and Final Stop, Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn seems to be undergoing a major renaissaince in building these days. One day it's an abandoned factory, the next day it's been destroyed, the third day there's a Swedish-style shopping center there in its place. The architecture here, outside of old town, is postmodernity defined. In one place you find an old church, then a Khruschev-era building, then a rotting 19th century dwelling, then one of those giant Nordic-style department stories, all on top of each other. While jarring and inconsistent, it gives the explorer a desire to find the diamonds in the rough. The old town is obviously very nice and easy to get lost in. I've never really bought much there myself, but I am sure there are lots of things to bring back from so far away. The public transit leaves something to be desired as the trams are often packed, muddy, and friggin' gross. They also have this outdated system for checking tickets so watch out you don't wind up in the back of a security vehicle paying the fine! Tallinn is supposed to have an outrageous nightlife, and I am sure those stag parties are great, but I think that's more advertising than reality. The feeling in the city itself is mostly sterile northern efficiency. Tallinners have a reputation in their country for being materialistic and business-like. I think that's true. My favorite parts of Tallinn city are Kalamaja - a neighborhood of old wooden houses northwest of the old town and grimey train station (which is looking better too) and the old town itself, which is really fun to walk. Toompea, the neighborhood where the parliament building is located, in particular is more peaceful than Raekoja Plats (townhall square) which is loaded with tourists all-the-time. The neighborhoods in Pirita are similarly pleasing, like Kalamaja, for a reflective, peaceful walk. It's hard to know what to do outside Tallinn, since I have spent so much time inside the city. But I'd recommend no matter what picking up some Saku Originaal Strong (the best beer EVER) and eating some chocolate from Kalev to keep the seratonin levels in your brain up on those moody Estonian days.

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