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Stories from our Travelers

White Nights in Helsinki


A contemporary installation in Esplanadi Park

Fisherman’s cottage in Helsinki’s harbor

Clouds and sun over Helsinki
by Melissa Cicci

[From Winter-Spring 2008]

Wandering Helsinki's streets during White Nights is a dreamy pleasure. In this part of the world in midsummer, the sun doesn't wane until the early morning hours. At about 4am, the sun announces itself again with the determination of a Finn, knowing that once fall and winter set in the days will be unbearably short. Finland is not on most Americans' short list of travel destinations. It should be.
Green spaces and bike trails abound throughout Helsinki's compact center. At the harbor, the Gulf of Finland laps peacefully against a lively marketplace. Traditional architecture blends seamlessly with contemporary Finnish design and streetcars rumble quietly along the primary avenues. The distinctive Finnish greeting of a friendly "hey," is endearing and welcoming.

Dreamlike is the only word I can think of to describe our family's experience with Helsinki's charms. My husband, two teenage children and I had decided at the last minute to add a side trip to Helsinki on to our long-planned visit to Russia.

Our first day we planned to rent bikes to tour the city center. We'd heard that Green Bikes, located several blocks from our hotel, would outfit us with sturdy bicycles and helmets. As we approached the bike shop, stomachs grumbling, we came upon Serata. An Italian bistro was not what we had expected to find on a quiet Helsinki corner. We made our bike arrangements and then returned to the restaurant. Although Serata was concluding its lunch service for the day, the hostess welcomed our arrival. We lingered over an Italian lunch with a Finnish accent, fresh, simple pasta, a bread table with delicious oils, and a selection of crisp white wines.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon navigating the streets of Helsinki on bikes - with a warm buzz on (adults only!). Helsinki is a cyclist's paradise. Throughout the city, designated bike paths meander through busy commercial districts, green parks, and alongside small lakes. When a gentle rain began, we took it in stride and pedaled on. The rain-slicked, empty parking lot of the American-designed Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art became an impromptu racecourse. A little shower didn't diminish the indescribable bliss, if for only a short afternoon, of pretending to be northern Europeans astride very tall bikes!

Scandinavian, German and Spanish visitors (but almost no Americans) crowd the popular harbor market, open every day in summer from 6am. The sights, sounds and smells are inviting: salmon at every stall; deep magenta raspberries; crepes; every shade of green vegetable; Finnish crafts; ice cream; just-caught fish, potatoes and onions; cawing seagulls; and a portly Italian accordion player. He was there every day; in the same spot, on the same stool, playing the same two songs.

Our last night was typical of the unexpected joys we encountered each day. As we walked back from dinner at 10:30pm, planning to pull closed the blackout curtains in our hotel room to prepare for our early morning departure to St. Petersburg, we were drawn into an impromptu street concert. Young Finnish classical musicians had claimed a corner and were filling the night air with the most improbably beautiful music. I had become skilled at tuning out street music after years of traveling New York's subways. But this group was different: we were mesmerized, so much so that for a moment I stepped backward into the path of an oncoming streetcar. A friendly hand pulled me back in. Fortunately for us, we didn't have to make the decision to tear ourselves away. About 25 minutes later the musicians bowed gracefully, packed up and moved away - most likely to another corner.

As we strolled on, we heard the thump of a bass guitar coming from a nearby alley. Wandering in to investigate, we discovered a cover rock band squeezed into an interior courtyard. How was it possible that we hadn't heard this loudly amplified music while listening to the classical musicians? That's Helsinki; every turn of a corner offers a fresh and singular experience.

Maybe it was a dream. Helsinki.

Details:

How to Get There:
Finnair offers non-stop service between JFK and Helsinki’s Vantaa airport (in code share with American Airlines). Departures from other U.S. cities on U.S. carriers involve connections in New York or European cities.
Tel. 800.950.5000, in the U.S.
www.finnair.com

Where to Rest:
Hotel Kamp
(lovely, classic hotel, centrally located along the Esplanadi Park)
Pohjoisesplanadi 29, Helsinki
Tel. +358.9.576.111 (from the U.S., first dial 011 + number)
www.hotelkamp.com

Dining:
Serata
Bulevardi 32/Albertinkatu, Helsinki
Tel. +358.9.680.1365
www.serata.net

Ristorante Gastone
(slightly more upscale, delicious Italian)
Korkeavuorenkatu 45, Helsinki
Tel. +358.9.666.116
www.ristorantegastone.fi

Karl Fazer Café
(100+ year-old café with contemporary food)
Kluuvikatu 3, Helsinki
Tel. +358.20.729.6702

Where to Rent Bicycles:
Some hotels provide bikes for guests’ use. However, if you want top-quality bicycles with helmets and locks, check out:
www.greenbike.fi

Photographs by Melissa Cicci

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