Last week I was fortunate to have to travel to Helsinki for a scientific meeting as well as a catch up with a scientific collaborator. This was my third trip to this wonderful city & each time I have experienced it in a different season. I have been there in mid-Summer, in winter & now in Spring. Each time things were so very different. Right now the plants are getting ready for the growth season – the daffodils are out & the trees are budding. The full growth season is just around the corner… The weather is reasonably mild, but the wind still has a chill. The photos that I have included in this post are a mélange of images taken from my three trips to Helsinki.
At a latitude of greater than 60 deg North, this means that the days in Helsinki can range from being extremely long in summer to extremely short in winter. In mid-summer there is ~19 hours of daylight, no actual night, but a kind of twilight instead. I remember being jet-lagged & waking up at around 2:30 am – when I opened my curtains it was very light outside. The heavy set of curtains in the hotel let me go back to sleep without having to deal with the sunrise at 4 am! I also remember a beautiful sunset at around 11:30 pm that we enjoyed as we were finishing up dinner in a restaurant (image below).
In midsummer, the other striking thing was that it was light enough to actually read a newspaper outside at midnight – a friend invited me to do this – however, after a couple of minutes a cloud of mosquitoes had formed around me. [Mosquitoes are supposed to be really bad in the countryside, so I cannot imagine what that would be like.]
When I returned to Helsinki the next time it was winter – towards the end of January. Mercifully, at that point the days were getting longer, but the sun still only rose at ~9 am & set early ~4:30 pm. The light was so different compared to the blinding light of summer – the week I was there it was overcast & we appeared to be in a perpetual twilight. I cannot imagine what it would be like around the time of the winter solstice. The picture of the sunrise below over parts of the snow covered Bay of Helsinki was taken on the one winter morning when we actually had sun for a while.
On that visit it also rained for a couple of days before I arrived. All the rain water froze over the snow – leaving everything like an ice skating rink. This meant having to shuffle around without lifting your feet like a very old person. I would imagine that there were also a lot of broken limbs that week… Not surprisingly the cars have winter tires with studs on them over there.
This time, in spring, the day length was less extreme with the sun rising at ~5 am & setting ~9:30 pm. [A great website for seeing day length, sunrise/sunset for places around the world is https://www.gaisma.com/en/ ] When I went for a walk on a lovely sunny spring weekend afternoon people were sitting in outdoor cafes & bars enjoying the sunshine. And the buskers were out as well – just like in summer!
There is some very striking older style architecture in Helsinki – it has a certain chunky & geometric style that I find very esthetic & compelling. This is seen on buildings such as museums & the main train station as well.
Yet the city has so many modern buildings as well, which are very distinctive & monumental – with interesting form, but at the same time are minimalistic. I find them also very esthetic. The best example of this minimalism I can think of is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence – a spherically shaped building crafted from varnished wood. It is as minimalistic inside as it is outside.
It is designed to be a haven of silence within the heart of a bustling city… It was the brainchild of 3 architects – Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola & Mikko Summanen [of K2S Architects Ltd], was completed in 2012 & won the International Architecture Awards for the Best New Global Design 2010 [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamppi_Chapel].
Another astounding modern building is also a place of worship. It is the Rock Church – also located in central Helsinki [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temppeliaukio_Church]. As it’s name implies it is built in a rock. The space is deceiving from the outside – only the copper dome that forms its roof is really visible – the rocky surroundings hide a wonderful secret…
The circular interior is simple & the main features are the rock walls themselves, the copper dome & the interface between these two features, which is designed to let natural light enter.
The acoustics are fabulous in there – an organ was being played when I visited <em>https://neurowandererblog.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/rockchurchhelsinki.m4a</em>. Not surprisingly, the church is used as a concert venue.
The main religion practiced by ~70% of the 5.5 million Finnish population is a version of Christianity known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The second official state church is Finland’s Orthodox Church & it has followers made up from around ~1% of the population. Both official religions have their main Cathedrals in Helsinki. These are very distinctive buildings. The Orthodox or Uspenski Cathedral has the characteristic domes, is dark from the exterior & is located on a hill. It can be seen from a number of parts of the city. As to be expected, it’s interior is elaborately & richly decorated with icons [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uspenski_Cathedral,_Helsinki].
In contrast, the Lutheran or Helsinki Cathedral is very light on the outside & inside. It is minimalistic on the inside, but very beautiful nonetheless. It is on a high point in the center of Helsinki on Senate Square [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helsinki_Cathedral] – it dominates the city skyline when viewed from the water. The first photo of this post shows it – it’s distinctive towering white form cannot be missed! It was built in a long construction process between 1830-1852.
Helsinki is a city whose history is linked with water. The city of Helsinki is located on the Gulf of Finland, which is connected with the Baltic Sea. The Gulf of Finland is littered by many islands & the best way to get a sense of these is to take a boat trip from Helsinki – either for pleasure or as a commute between Estonia, Russia & Sweden.
This is a great thing to do on a summer’s day – I highly recommend it. Apparently herds of elk occasionally can swim between islands, so boat operators have to be very watchful for the animals – as well as watching for rocks & other hazards etc.
There are so many things to do in Helsinki & surrounds – it is an outdoor culture, despite the harsh climate. In winter when the days are not so short people head north to Lappland to view the Northern Lights. In summer, they head out of town to their summer homes on the lakes – Finland has 188,000 of them! And in the city, when the weather is good [i.e. there is no snow] people ride bicycles everywhere.
In the next post I will talk a bit about Finnish culture, art & food…