Travel challenge trip 5: Helsinki

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware”  – Martin Buber

My trip to Helsinki came about in a rather random way; usually when planning future travel I have an idea of where I want to go and for May I was planning on visiting Sofia, but a few days before I was going to book it I received an out of the blue email from a Finnish guy requesting to couch surf at my house, my interest in Finland suddenly piqued and before I knew it I had booked a flight there. An impulsive move for a generally indecisive person! The sentimental reason for wanting to visit Helsinki is when growing up in Leicester our coming of age favourite cocktail bar to visit was called Helsinki. This is where I had my first cocktail (Black Russian), learned to love tequila shots, thought anyone over 24 was incredibly old and fell in love with gay bar tenders.

Leading up to this I had been running from commitment to commitment and generally over filling my time, as a result my energy levels were low and I was feeling pretty exhausted. I thought I wanted to slow down, but the sharp contrast of pace had a jarring effect on me. From my arrival Helsinki it felt like a solitary place and thinking back it was too quiet for me, the stillness fuelled my loneliness and it felt empty. I spent nearly all of my time alone, the space and vast landscape amplified this isolated feeling and I longed for some meaningful interactions. I am used to solo travel, but this was my 6th consecutive trip alone and I definitely need some balance and company, so I’m happy my future plans are with friends.

Saunas are my therapy, you sweat out your worries and witness that you can cope even when it feels intolerable, visiting one was the only ‘to do’ on my list for this trip. Löyly was recommended to me and a quick look on their website convinced me to go. If you visit do not assume as I did that you can rock up without a reservation and a swimsuit, you cannot. But I am lucky and practical so managed to function underwear and a sports bra into a swimsuit and gained entry. The sauna is housed in an absolutely beautiful modern building and sits on the edge of the sea, so you are obliged to dip in and experience temporary body shock. There are two saunas here, a relaxing lounge area where you can get refreshments along with an outdoor terrace. Attached to the sauna is a restaurant and the whole place has a very minimalist scandi-chill vibe going on. I had the best nights sleep for ages after my visit here and would definitely go again.

I stayed in two different hostels in Helsinki, this wasn’t the plan, but my Couchsurfing host fell through at the last minute. The upside is this allowed me to see different areas of the city, the more local and hipster Kallio which I doubt I would have got to on this short visit if I wasn’t staying there, then the following day I moved right to the centre where I stayed at the super hip Yard hostel, which is perfectly located to many bars and restaurants and a couple of minutes walk from the train station.

I really loved Kallio and spent my first evening bar hopping, people watching and exploring the neighbourhood, taking in the atmosphere of the place and admiring the light of Helsinki.  Recommendation-wise take brunch in  Gastro Café  which does great versions of poached eggs and beers in Bar Molotow, a cozy, book-filled local bar.

The Finnish museum of photography is a small museum in a converted cable factory, there are a couple of museums housed in this complex, but as I arrived at the end of the day I only had time for one. I saw the Mythical Journey exhibition by Heikki Willamo who photographs Nordic landscapes and nature. The photos he takes are so raw and striking you feel like you are observing these animals in their natural habitat, then you snap back to reality and realise you are in a gallery.

On my last day in Helsinki I took the ferry to Suomenlinna sea fortress, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The fortress has a fantastic history and has served in the defence of three realms: Sweden, Russia and Finland. I spent a couple of hours walking around the island taking in the views, having lunch and taking lots of photos of the same view!

Helsinki for me is open spaces, walking and self reflection. Don’t get me wrong I did have a pleasant time here, but I felt as if I was waiting  for something exciting to happen, to fall into an unexpected situation and be pulled into a whirlwind of excitement. Great and memorable travel for me is the story, the feeling and an intense unexpected moment with someone. So far on these monthly jaunts I’ve been spoiled with immediate and often intense connections with a mixture of surprising and wonderful people. This won’t happen on every trip, but more planning and considering of options can encourage spontaneous connections. Lesson learned, it will be implemented next time and who knows what will happen.

Next stop: Snowdonia

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