Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

27 Apr 2012

Helsinki and Tallinn

Posted by Will

I’ve spent most of this week off the bike to explore two cities, Helsinki and Tallinn, the capitals of Finland and Estonia respectively. They’re only 70km apart, separated by the Baltic Sea. The rest is much needed after a tough 6 days down Finland. On that stretch I experienced both my coldest (-3′C) and warmest (19′C) day so far, lay sick in the tent for a day, rode mostly on semi-flat tyres due to bad puncture-repair technique, and debated the merits of social democracy with a man dressed (complete with face-paint) as Ronald McDonald.

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Helsinki and Tallinn are a significant checkpoint in my journey through Europe. They mark the end of the Scandinavian wilderness and the beginning of the small, culturally-dense Baltic countries. The days are getting significantly warmer and the snow is now gone for good. Perhaps even more exciting is the change in prices. Groceries are now half the price, beer is about 40% of the Finnish price (25% of the Swedish price!) and all other items are invariably cheaper. Russian is now as widely-spoken as English.

My time in Helsinki was made special by the wonderful family who had me to stay. Antero and Kirsi, and their two teenage daughters Salli and Maija, made me feel at home right away. As I stepped into their home I could hear the soothing tones of Premier League football eminating from the next room, and after showering and being given my own bedroom (!), I flopped down on the sofa with a plate of pasta-salad, salmon and tortilla (laid-on specially) to watch an exciting but disatisfying 4-4 draw between Man U and Everton. Conversations at their house lasted for hours, food always tasted delicious (Antero’s English breakfast and Kirsi’s mushroom risotto) and I was constantly treated to little acts of kindness. Salli even made me a good luck card!

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Antero took me into Helsinki one day to show me round town. The city does not boast historical sights like Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Stockholm although there is a very nice tree-lined esplanade next to the harbour. There are a few buildings in an architectural style I have never seen before, in particular the train station, which looks like it has appeared right out of Orwell’s 1984. Huge concrete statues holding circular lamps look down on the commuters and the clock-tower looks like a hive of bureaucratic activity. The parliament building looks similarly totalitarian with high columns and square edges. The nicest part of the day was sitting at a harbour-side cafe with Antero, drinking strong coffee and watching the boats go by.

Tallinn is a completely different city. The medieval centre probably has the highest density of ‘old-stuff’ I’ve ever seen. Just the 5 minute cycle from the ferry terminal to the hostel had me riding through a huge gateway, alongside the old town walls and over cobbled streets. Round towers with red-tiled rooves point up at the sky and churches large and small stand at most turns in the road. A huge number of little shops and restaurants are in caves underground, normally only connected to the street by a small set of crumbling steps; one which I visited sold surprisingly delicious traditional meat dumplings. All those modern features we’ve come to expect in a city are noticably absent in Old Town: no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, no fast-food chains (apart from a McDonalds of course), supermarkets or shopping centres, no public transport and very few people. Living here for a few days has been a bit like going back in time, in a good way. History is alive here in this small enclave of beautifully preserved medieval Europe.

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My time in Tallinn has no doubt been enhanced by the hilarious Bunstel Hostel. Three nights spent in small, bunny-themed accomodation is surely good for the soul. The resident bunny, Mr Nomsalot, is cute and in charge of discipline, which is just as well because the owner Luke is almost always too busy doing something outrageous to sort that stuff out himself. In fact, he’s usually the one breaking ‘the rules’ (a strictly unadhered-to behavioural code in the hostel). Champions League football followed by a night out listening to Luke’s various pearls of wisdom in a bar packed with loud Estonians may be more enlightening than all the sights in Old Town put together. A Carry on Cycling business card is now firmly taped to the hostel wall.

Time to move on now and meander my way down the west side of Estonia. My legs are rested, my clothes are clean and my blood is ever-so-slightly tinged with alcohol. Conditions are perfect for a bike ride.

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One Comment already on “Helsinki and Tallinn”
  1. 3:35 pmpermalink
    27 Apr 2012

    Kirsi

    Will, if you ever come to Helsinki again, we really must show you some friendlier architecture! :))