We love you Turku

We arrived in Turku for a week’s stay and have not been disappointed.  It is a smaller city than some of the other places we have been in Scandinavia.  Turku’s population is around 175K.  Turku is in on the southwest corner of Finland, and it straddles the Aura River.  We are staying at an Airbnb on the southern side of the Aura River. (Called täl puol jokke, “this side” by the locals. They call the other side tois puol jokke, “the other side,” no matter which side they’re on.) We are only 2 blocks from the river in an lovely Airbnb apartment.  Restaurants boats line the river near our apartment.  Also, it is a very short distance to buses that take us all over Turku.   There are fewer museums than some of the larger cities, but they give a very interesting and thorough history of Turku.

Turku dates from 13th century and it widely known for the Turku Castle which is a medieval fortress with a history museum.  It is at the western end of the Aura, perched at the river’s mouth.   Turku was the capital of Finland when Finland was part of Sweden, but the capital was moved to Helsinki when Russia took over Finland in 1808.  Finland gained its independence from Russia in 1917, so they are celebrating their 100th anniversary as an independent country this year (2017).

The museums are covered separately on our blog, but here are a few photos to give you a look at this sun worshiping part of Finland.

 

……and then Maggie really likes daisies.

 

The weather has just been lovely.  Highs in the 60’s and 70’s, but we must look odd to the locals wearing our hats and walking on the shady side of the street, while they’re all on the other side, soaking up all the sun they can get.  That’s what we do in Austin in the summertime.  Old habits are hard to break.

We love you Turku

Beer!

Beer is big in Scandinavia. I suppose it helps make those long, dark winters go by a little easier. We’re not here in the winter, though – summer is in full swing, and the beer is flowing in celebration. There are festivals large and small everywhere we go, and beer is a big part of the festivities.

On a summer’s day in Turku, the banks of the River Aura are one long festival: there are old sailing ships tied to the dock, every one turned into a floating restaurant/bar, where everyone is welcome to find the one that fits them best. We went for the Esposito, a suitably decrepit old scow, and placed ourselves in among the  locals, the first tanned people we’d seen since arriving in Scandinavia. We looked over at the guy sitting at the next table: he was a biker, head to ankles: black hat, leathery face, black leather vest, black jeans and slip-on platform clogs, two sizes too small. He was drinking his beer though, so I guess his biker cred was still somewhat intact.

There’s a long history of beer in the region. The brewing of ale and mead goes back at least 1000 years, before the first runes were carved onto stones; beer brewing goes back about 500 years, with the importation of hops from Germany. I was told by an amateur historian that Leif Ericsson left Greenland for the New World when the weather turned too cold to grow barley; they couldn’t import it from Denmark fast enough to keep the colony supplied with ale, so they sailed southwest in pursuit of a warmer climate.

All alcohol sales are made through a government agency; you can buy beer in the grocery stores up to a certain percentage alcohol (from 3.5% in Sweden to 4.7% in Finland), but for anything else, you have to go to a bar or a government monopoly store. The hours of the government monopoly stores are limited: depending on the country, stores close at about 6 most days, mid-afternoon on Saturday and not open at all on Sundays. Prices and selection are the same everywhere. (Small stores carry fewer brands, but those brands will all be available in the larger stores.) Bars have to buy through the government monopoly too, so there’s not a lot of variety there, either.

Prices are kept high to discourage drinking: in Norway, a pint of beer can cost $12 in the monopoly store; prices in Finland are about half that; still high, but much more reasonable. We wonder if that’s because Estonia is so close – Tallinn is just an hour and a half from Helsinki by ferry – so Finland sets the price high enough to limit drinking, but not so high as to encourage black market selling. By contrast, wine prices are pretty reasonable. French, Italian and Spanish wines are about the same price they are in Austin. We found wines from South America, California, Australia and so on, but they’re not as good a deal as they are in the states – so we drink pretty good European wines for the same price. For hard liquor, you have to ask somebody else. We’re not the experts there.

Because of the government controls, beer brewing is a big operation. Most of the beers we see are major local brands: Carlsberg, Hansa, etc. They’re good – definitely better than the major U.S. brands – but it makes us miss the medium-sized American brands, like Shiner, New Belgium and Stone. So, we’re encouraged to see that there is a small but growing craft beer movement. We’ve found local beers by the bottle in some bars, and we helped Helsinki  celebrate its second annual craft brew festival. There were traditional Nordic beers, which tend to Pilsners, as well as  wheat beers, lagers, porters, stouts and even IPAs (pronounced EE-pa here). We did our best to encourage them by trying as many as possible (one time when it’s good to have a small glass) and didn’t find a bad one.  We learned to say Kippis instead of Skål , and met several interesting people, who contributed to the research for this piece, whether they know it or not.

 

Beer!

Last day in Helsinki – Barbecue and Island

We spent 9 day sin Helsinki and on our last day we decided to go to a another island that didn’t get good reviews on Travel Advisor.  When reading the negative one star comment we realized that the reason they didn’t like it was because it was “just a lot of walking” in the outdoors.  We hit the road running after that comment.  We didn’t need another museum, or exciting place to eat……we needed nature!  We found it.  Check out the photos below.  The island’s name was Seurasaari.

 

After a long morning walking on the island – we obviously had to have some Texas style barbecue to end the day.

 

The “B” was a great place for barbecue.  Not exactly Texas or southern barbecue, but pretty darn good.  The waiter proudly noted that the smoker came all the way from Texas, but it’s really from Tennessee. Close enough, as far as they’re concerned. — at the “B” restaurant.  Last photo is of our plates – Brisket and a Finnish-style APA on the left, pulled pork and Frisco Disco Citra IPA on the right.  All and all – a great way to end our trip to Helsinki!

Last day in Helsinki – Barbecue and Island

Old Market Hall by the Sea

Clay and I are staying at an AirBnb just north of downtown Helsinki.  We have a local market near us (Hakaniemi Market), but we much prefer the Old Market Hall by the sea even if we have to ride the Tram instead of being able to walk..  Oh, how I wish I had a market like one of these in Austin.  This is a photo of our favorite – the Old Market Hall

Food Hall

Lazy day on Wednesday, and we didn’t even leave our Airbnb until after 1:00PM. With only a light breakfast and starving – we decided to go to the Old Market Hall  and check out the famous soup stall we had read about. Only 3 soups on the daily menu and we knew before we went it would be the Bouillabaisse. We were not disappointed. After lunch we toured the Hall and I know if I lived in Helsinki I would be a regular.  Check out the photos of the food!

Old Market Hall by the Sea

Another Two Ride the Bus

Maggie and I are hardly novices to public transportation – far from it; we’re big believers and daily users, at home and when we’re on the road. We even got used to the old system in Austin, when bus service was unreliable, the routes changed numbers as they went through downtown, and many bus routes only ran every 45 minutes, even during peak times. The Austin system is much better now: breakdowns are rare, routes don’t change numbers, and the frequency of major routes is much higher.

Good mass transport systems are common in Europe, and the Scandinavians in particular have made public transportation a priority. The concept of loading everybody on the same vehicle, regardless of class, income or title fits in well with their spirit of egalitarianism. They put a lot of effort into making the system easy to use: trams or buses run often during peak hours, usually every 5-10 minutes, so unless you have a specific appointment, there’s no need to pay attention to the schedule – even if you miss a bus, the next one will be there soon. At every stop there’s an electronic sign, updated in real time, that shows when the next bus, tram or subway train will arrive. The systems run on time, almost always. Taking the tram, we’ve made some transfers from one line to another where the scheduled layover was just five or ten minutes, and never missed the connection.

The most difficult system we’ve dealt with is the one in Helsinki. Everything I’ve said about the frequency and reliability of the lines applies here, but it’s sometimes hard to figure out which line or what stop you need.

First of all, because Finland used to be part of Sweden, the stops are labeled in Finnish and Swedish – and since English is so common, a few of the major stops are also labeled in English. You might be looking for the stop that’s labeled Hakaniemi/Hagnäs, or Rautatientori/Järnvägstoget/Central Railway Station. Every bus and every tram car has a screen that flashes up the name of the next stop, but the names are flashed up in each language sequentially, so you’d better pay attention, or know the name of your stop in Finnish and Swedish.

Second, we’ve used the #2 and #3 tram line to get to a lot of places, but by riding the trams, we figured out that the #2 and #3 were really one line laid out in a figure 8, with the middle of the 8 being in front of the central train station; it was the #2 line on the upper left and lower right of the 8, and the #3 on the upper right and lower left. The line changed numbers at the top and bottom of the 8, so riding east at the bottom of the route on the #3, we looked up and the line had become the #2. Confused? It took a while to get used to, but it wasn’t so bad once we did. Except we didn’t figure it out until July 2nd, the day that the routes changed and the previous explanation no longer applied. The new #2 now stops at the park just down the hill from us, so it’s much closer. We don’t know what happens at the top and bottom of the route any more. That threw us into a tizzy for a couple of days, until we realized that we’re still using the old map.

Changes are understandable; routes need to be changed every so often to fit changes in population, and the time to do that is in the summer, when more commuters are on vacation. (A major change is in the works in Austin, so the system will be radically different when we get home.) Not a major problem to us vacationers. It’s just another problem to solve, something new to memorize. All of that keeps the brain pliable, which is a reason to travel in the first place.

Another Two Ride the Bus

Suomenlinna Island – Helsinki

You can not spend all your traveling days in the big city, so off we go to Suomenlinna Island.  Although it is a short 10 min. ferry ride from central Helsinki, it feels like you are a long way away from the hustle and bustle of the city center.   We deliberately waited until the weather prediction was perfect (60ish) and it was!  We then joined the locals on Suomenlinna Island, the site of a fort built in 1748 to defend Sweden from Russia.  Later it was captured by the Russians and used to defend against the British, then as a prison during the Finnish Civil War.  Finland’s history is pretty complicated, we’re just getting a handle on it now. All that fighting is done now, so the fort is a park and several historical museums.

Below are a few photos we took from the ferry, and then some beautiful landscape photos.  We wandered off the main path through the island, and caught beautiful sights that you would miss if you didn’t wander around.

 

There are six museums on the island, but true to our interests, we skipped several and focused on the ones of historical interest.  The Suomenlinna Museum had a short film charting the island’s past and runs every half an hour.  Well worth seeing, I might add!  It helped us get a better handle on Finish history.  Our favorite museums were the Manege of the Military Museum and the Vesikko submarine.  Below are a few photos from the museums we explored.

 

The first photo is of a uniform of the women’s auxiliary force from WWII. The Finns will tell you (repeatedly) that is NOT the Nazi swastika, it’s the Finnish swastika. Even though Finland fought on the German side in the war, the official story is that they were fighting against the Russians, not for Germany. The full story may never be known.   The submarine is a Finnish one built in the 1930s that served in WWII.  It has been fully restored, and yes it was very claustrophobic to me (Maggie).  Clay thought it must have been hot, noisy and smelly on the inside.   Only men were on board, women are too smart for that service I think.

If you find your self in Helsinki, I would recommend spending a day on the island.  We spend about 8 hrs on the island including hiking, eating at one of several cafes on the island, as well as exploring some of the museums.

Suomenlinna Island – Helsinki