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Helsinki’s Sunday Soul


I have never been much of not much of a Sunday morning person but as I stand in the middle of Market Square I know that I found something special. It could well have been heaven on earth – a radiant blue sky with the occasional wisp of a cloud and the sea glittering in the harbour.

Market Square in Helsinki

The aromas of meat pies, seafood, coffee, doughnuts and cinnamon buns waft from the stalls selling them. Others sell reindeer hides and hats. Even the seagulls that screech as they wheel in the sky are almost angelic.
Meanwhile the Lutheran Cathedral and the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral are silhouetted against the skyline in the background of the Market Square.
An early Sunday had been recommended to me by my guide over dinner the previous night at the Saari restaurant (www.asrestaurants.com/saari), a traditional Finnish restaurant on Uunisaari, just one of hundreds of islands which litter the archipelago which has become Helsinki.

I had planned to discover the city by coach but I decided against this. By foot is much easier (and a lot fitter). There are no really high hills in Helsinki which means its an easy city to explore by foot whether or not you stroll around the city centre or escape up to the Olympic Stadium to the north.
But the from the Market Square I am drawn the Uspenki Cathedral which soars on the Katajanokka peninsula. It is western Europe’s largest Orthodox Cathedral, its golden onion dome has been drawn worshipers and tourists for years, it brings a breath of the East into the whiteness that dominates the historical centre of the city.

Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral

Uspenski is one of the most visible reminders of how greatly Russia has influenced the history of Finland. During the many centuries of Swedish rule, Russian visitors to Finland had been few and far between and Lutheranism was the only religion from the Reformation onwards.

The Russians that settled in the country after it was wrested from Sweden in 1809 were of the Orthodox faith and felt they needed a sufficiently grand place of worship in the heart of the city. The site had originally been earmarked for an Imperial palace.

With its pavilion roof and golden domes, the Cathedral is very much in the Byzantine-Russian architectural tradition. In addition to its Eastern motifs, however, the building also reveals some features of Western Romanesque architecture. Its facade material is solid dark-red brick.

Services of worship are held on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings as well as on religious holidays. Only persons who are members of the Orthodox faith may receive Holy Communion as part of the liturgy on religious holidays, but otherwise services are open to visitors.

The Olympic Stadium

From high above on the above Katajanokka peninsula I catch yet another magnificent sight – the Lutheran Catherdal that stands in the great Senate Square.

The square is a remarkable place surrounded by powerful symbols of religion, science and politics including the Cathedral, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the Senate Building (which now accommodates the Council of State).

If Helsinkiites were asked to name the place in their city that they would be most proud to show visitors, many would unhesitatingly reply – the Senate Square.

The man responsible for the wonders of the Senate Square is a German called Carl Ludvig Engel (1778 – 1840).  Born in Berlin Engel’s stately and elegant designs has earned the Finnish capital the epithet ‘White City of the North’.

The Lutheran Cathedral, formerly called the Church of St. Nicholas or just ‘the big church’ is almost certainly Finland’s most-photographed building. A central tower dominates the profile of the cathedral and the statues of the Twelve Apostles on the roof are made of zinc.

A high-ceilinged, cruciform crypt lies underneath the building. Now skilfully restored, it is used for exhibitions, concerts and meetings. There is an enjoyable little cafè there in summer. The entrance to the crypt is at the rear of the Cathedral.

Looking up Mikonkatu

The Cathedral is where festive services of worship are arranged on special occasions in the life of the Government and the University, but it is also the parish church of its local Evangelical-Lutheran congregation.

As soon as the sun has any heat at all in spring, students cover the massive steps leading up to the cathedral, an ideal place to bask or just rest for a while after strolling around the city.

An interesting tradition in the square each summer is that the various regions of Finland take turns to present their attractions and wares to the people of the capital. One year it can be Lapland, then Savo, then Karelia.
During the Helsinki Festival in August, the square becomes a piazza, where some of the best restaurants in the city put up tents and there is a bandstand with good music in the evenings. An impressive feature in winter is the ice church built in the square. It is big enough for visitors to go inside.

The biggest date of them all on the calendar of the Senate Square is 6 December, Independence Day, when students march to the steps of the Cathedral at the end of a torchlight parade through the city.

Another big day is New Year’s Eve, when chilled hands raise glasses of champagne in a toast to the coming twelve months.

From the heights of the Lutheran Cathedral I realised just how crucial the Baltic Sea has been to Helsinki. It is a city which has remained in close touch with its natural environment and the maritime character of the city is palpable everywhere.

For Finland the Baltic has long been the most important traffic artery to the rest of the world and also the sea that has made a whole range of livelihoods possible.

Trade with the lands around the sea and the islands in it has gone on for centuries, if not millennia, and this has also brought the Finns valuable cultural influences. It could be said that the sea is part of and an extension of Helsinki.

The many islands dotting the sea off Helsinki have much to offer in the way of recreational amenities and interesting sights.

The Lutheran Cathedral

Probably the best known of them is Suomenlinna, an internationally famous sea fortress that has found its way onto the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites. Another island, Korkeasaari (in case you don’t know saari is Finnish for island) is the home of the Helsinki Zoo.

One charming feature of Finland is the tradition of washing carpets at designated places on the Baltic (or on lakeshores in the interior of the country). Jetties and wooden frames have been built to facilitate scrubbing and drying.

The soap used is an environment-friendly type made from tall (pine needle) oil. Washing the carpets is very much a summer ritual, a good way to get a suntan and visual delight to watch.

A very popular cycleway and walking path follows the southern coastline of Helsinki along the fringe of the large and very beautiful Kaivopuisto Park.
Along the way are seaside cafes, ice-cream kiosks, places to rent canoes and lots of boats to look at and admire.

Helsinki is Europe’s northernmost gateway between east and west and is without doubt one of the underrated capitals in Europe and a destination that deserves attention. Considering that it takes only three hours to fly from either London on Dublin it is within easy access to UK travellers. 

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