September 12th was our 30th wedding anniversary and a break was planned to another European city we'd not yet visited - Helsinki. We'd both ticked off most of the other Nordic capitals together or separately but never this far north. My knowledge of Finland was limited and knowledge of anyone famous really stopped at the former Bolton Wanderers' goalkeeper. So this trip quietly excited your intrepid explorer.
I am not that devoted to loyalty schemes but I've had a BA American Express air miles card for some years and occasionally cash the miles for a journey. A return flight to Helsinki in Business Class was booked!
Part of the deal of cashing these 'miles' is that everything flies out of Heathrow. So we plummeted down the M1 for an overnight stay prior to a flight the next day on Finnair. An evening meal was hastily planned at Newport Pagnell and a Turkish restaurant called Capadocia was selected. Anna and myself like Turkish cuisine and she could select a vegetarian selection with ease. The restaurant was busy for a Wednesday night and our meal was fine. The Turkish proprietor who floated around the tables introduced himself and asked how we'd found out about the restaurant? 'Trip Advisor'!
Oh dear, light blue touch paper and retire...
From here he recounted a brutal review of a day earlier from a diner that had given him one star. In fact he visited the table twice to show genuine hurt and pain and even brought up the review on his smart phone to show us. The diners had thought that the food bland. "Why didn't they tell us when they were here? We would have changed the meal or given them some money off?"
His lament continued at the low score. "Maybe three stars would have been fair?" He' had looked through their other reviews and establishments visited recently and even opined that they were saboteurs who preferred another local Turkish restaurant and was attempting to hurt his restaurant by posting this review!
As I say the place was busy with happy customers and getting so upset over one review was not worth it. However, it does highlight the damage and outrage some reviews on Trip Advisor can create. In fact you don't have to stay at the hotel or eat at the restaurant to write a review. By the way, my main course had little flavour! I will not be noting this with a review on Trip Advisor.
Terminal 3 is not a venue that I have any affection for. We stayed 3 miles away from it but it still took 25 minutes to reach in the rush hour. It is a tangled web of entrances and various phases of construction and I pity an elderly or less mobile traveller using it.
We were chipper however as we had use of the Business Lounge and copious coffee, fruit and pastries were consumed along with our free newspapers before embarkation. Ordinarily then any turn left would cause me discomfort but on entering the aircraft a platinum blond goddess looked at our boarding pass and sent us toward Business Class. Oh deep joy!
I had often trouped past these little cubicles after an uncomfortable long haul flight envying the lucky so and so's who luxuriated in these pens whilst I had got a crick in my neck and little or no sleep back in 'cargo'. Now it was my turn but sadly for only 2 hours 50 minutes. It did cross my mind to suggest that they took the 'long way round' to Finland to enjoy this experience more. It was bliss and a wonderful way to travel.
Helsinki airport is modern but was hellish on our arrival. The trek to the train station is past endless Duty Free shops and not only was it a long walk but the place was rammed with travellers. Most I would volunteer were Chinese nationals who transit via Helsinki before flying onto China via the shorter northern route.
We eventually made the train and had a pleasant 30 minute ride to the city centre. From here we had another walk to the hotel. We could have used an Uber or some such but it's not our way, we're addicted to the step counter on the iPhone! A taxi only seemed a good idea as the rain started to steadily fall.
The Four Star Boutique hotel was a 19th Century converted prison! Anna found this on Trip Advisor and it was a little strange to check into three converted cells via a heavily fortified wall but everything was quite classy and plush. In the basement they had kept one of the original cells and encouraged recent visitors to write on the walls. It was utilitarian, brutal and dimly lit - any lengthy stay here would have been hell.
We wandered the short distance into the centre near the front for dinner and dined at 'Toca'. This was a gourmet dinner which didn't run to à la carte menu but various choices were explained to you and then modest but adequate portions of modern cuisine appeared. It was surprising and delicious... especially as we had selected it at the hotel thinking it was a pizza restaurant! The bill before the tip came to €110. This brings us to Finnish prices. Certain things were expensive but overall the prices were fine. Food and drink was a high price but frankly eating in the centre of any major capital is never cheap is it? Everything we ate was usually delicious and beautifully presented.
The next morning we did a walking tour of the centre of Helsinki. We're avid walking tour fans and I reckon I could write a guide for those leading them to maximise the entertainment. Our guide failed to mention that whilst the tour was free that she'd welcome tips. A lot of the folk abandoned her after two hours, literally receiving a free tour. The guides are usually students trying to raise extra funds. I think we tipped well.
Finland, like a number of the Nordic nations, is quite young. It only has a population of 5.5 millions and around 11% live in Helsinki. Over the centuries either the Swedes or the Russians have occupied it. It only gained its independence in 1917 when it took advantage of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution to break free. In the meanwhile they have a very long border with the Russian bear and know that if they want to come back then not a lot will stop them! The Soviet Union was very hostile and repeatedly tried to occupy the country during WW2 and eventually took some territory.
The Finns seemed very calm, organised and open. We were struck by how a large sand pit used by children in a park had toys left scattered around for the next day's play. In the UK these would be locked away and the sandpit surrounded by a high fence to stop the local youth doing something horrid to it overnight. Around the city were embassies and Government offices that all looked very vulnerable to easy entry and terrorism should a malign party wish to cause harm. This Scandinavian innocence is quite a contrast to our UK world. (As we were in Helsinki then the Parsons Green Tube explosion was reported).
In the afternoon the sun came out, briefly, and I found a few vinyl record shops to look around and Anna looked at the shops in the centre. I was short of time on my tour and didn't buy anything but found a great jazz record store where the owner seemed to be having a great time playing his personal favourites. Next door was a record store specialising in reggae. Love it.
That night it was a couple of drinks in a local bar and an omelette.
The next day we had a leisurely start and got the ferry to Estonia. It was a two and a half hour sail to Tallinn. There were cars but most of the passengers were going by foot. Near us in the queue was a party of primary school teachers going for an overnight stay and a night out. In fact many of the passengers seemed to be getting into a party mood on the ship and there was much imbibing. (The return sailing saw lads wheeling on cans and cans of beer and many others wielding carrier bags of booze. It seems a long time ago that the Brits visited mainland Europe on booze cruises, or do they still do it?)
Tallinn was beautiful. The old town was beautifully presented with its cobbled streets and old buildings. Again another walking tour filled our time and we learned quite a lot about this nation of 1.3m people. It was the usual story of occupation over the centuries by Swedes, Germans and Russians. Whilst they celebrate 100 years of independence shortly then they only got rid of the Russians in 1991. From here they achieved the Holy Grail for these small nations by joining the EU in 2004.
It is easy to see that the EU is an attractive option for these smaller nations. You get access to markets, you get subsidy, you get an internationally recognised currency and not least you get an umbrella of supposed security by being part if a larger group. Especially useful if your neighbour and 25% of your population is Russia or Russian. Add NATO membership and you may even start to dream about another 100 years of independence.
The guide for all his earnest explanation about the history and economy did excel at talking about the Estonian character. They don't like people and seldom, if ever, socially greet each other. They are not tactile and the concept of dating is foreign to them! Meeting the opposite sex was described as either as a sort of stalking for several weeks and pretending it is a coincidence to run into the desired target repeatedly. Or the popularity of binge drinking and finding yourself, the next morning, beside a partner that you couldn't remember meeting seemed common. I suspect this is rubbish but it did give an illuminating insight into this small nation.
Our visit to Estonia, and back, never involved the inspection or even presentation of passports. I am not sure if they are in Schengen but it seemed that terrorism could move easily between the countries. Back in Helsinki we had a pizza and checked the football results back in Blighty. Yet more rain as we walked around but never very cold.
The next morning we took a couple of bikes from the hotel and toured the peninsula where we were staying. The icebreaker ships were moored here along with other more traditional forms of sailing craft.
So from the hotel we got to a quiet Sunday airport and relaxed in the Business lounge before the flight home. Whilst Business then the cabin wasn’t the new layout, but everything else was pampering! We picked up the car and, listening to the football, drove to York.