Wednesday was officially the start of the American Coaster Enthusiasts Scandinavia tour, but only to register and pick up our trip materials. The real first park visit would be the next morning. Since the meet-up time was in the evening, we had all day at our discretion. I liked this system much better than the one for our prior trip to Spain with ACE, when we'd had to meet at the airport early in the morning of the first true day of the tour. This put people at risk if their flights arrived late, so most arrived the day before anyway but then had to go back to the airport to meet with the group. The new process was more convenient and much less subject to unexpected problems.
With most of the day to ourselves, we didn't have to worry about getting up early, a luxury that would be rare during the course of the trip. All we had to do was to be sure to be up in time to get our breakfast. Many of our tourmates for the upcoming coaster trip were also there, having arrived and off that day to do tourism of their own.
Unlike the day before, we hadn't made too many specific plans for the day. We would just head into the central part of the city and visit a few sites that interested us, but with one exception didn't have much concern for timing and order. We took the primary tourist tram line for Helsinki, the 3T (together with 3B forming a complete loop). It took us to the railway square in the heart of the city. We'd stayed only blocks away in 2004, so it was quite a familiar area to us, though I didn't remember quite as many advertising signs on the buildings around the square (I had seen such signs in Oslo but didn't remember them being so prevalent elsewhere in Scandinavia).
Though our plans were flexible, we had an agenda of places we wanted to visit. The first was a rather unlikely-seeming destination, the Stockmann department store. We weren't really interested in most of the store, just the very extensive deli and gourmet food section on the lower levels. We spent a good 15 minutes looking at the amazing variety of food available; respectable for any supermarket, and of high quality to boot. We were tempted by a variety of baked goods, cheeses, candy, and especially an extensive fish section! The alcohol selection was surprisingly disappointing, though; I could have gotten as good a selection at a premier beer store stateside.
Our next stop was across the street, at an Academic Bookstore also associated with Stockmann. We are big fans of bookstores, and this sounded like a great one. There were three levels worth of books in multiple languages across many subjects. I wouldn't have precisely called it an "academic" bookstore myself, but there certainly was a better selection than your typical Barnes and Noble.
We would have spent quite a bit of time at the bookstore if we could have, but we had one constraint, really the only one we had for the entire day. Janna had seen in a brochure that there would be an organ recital at the cathedral at noon, so on the spur of the moment we had decided to try to catch it. We had to allow some time to walk there, so we left the bookstore at about 10:30.
We walked hurriedly along Helsinki's Esplanade, a great segment of public pedestrian walkway, to get to Senate Square where the cathedral was located. We definitely wanted to savor the atmosphere of the Esplanade more but simply didn't have time at that point. When we reached Senate Square we found it didn't have quite the same feel. It was already surrounded by tourist buses and generally felt more like a tourist trap while the Esplanade felt more genuinely like a place for local Helsinki residents. But the cathedral looked very imposing above the square, white, with its blue domes covered with inlaid gold stars and topped by gold crosses.
The recital started at noon (they started turning tourists away about 15 minutes beforehand unless they were willing to listen to the whole thing). I fully expected the songs to be hymns or popular pieces ending up with "Finlandia". In this I was surprised, as the song selection turned out to be longer, more modern-sounding, atonal pieces. I characterized the first as "moody", the second as "jagged", and the third as "energetic". I suspect some of the listeners were put off by the organist's selections.
After the recital we walked back through the square toward the harbor. From there we could see the cruise ship we'd taken in 2004 from Helsinki to Stockholm. We wouldn't be taking it this time, but it triggered pleasant memories. At the water's edge was a large outdoor market area where we hoped to find street food for lunch. Wandering the market was interesting enough in itself. It seemed to be divided into various areas, where fresh produce, clothing items, souvenirs, and so on were sold. The produce was particularly impressive. Besides produce that people could buy for cooking, bags of pea pods or fresh berries were sold as snacks. These were tempting, but we were more interested in a full lunch.
There were quite a few food items that attracted me, including salmon soup and a variety of small grilled fish called Vendace. On our past trip to Finland I'd had a dish called lohipyttipanu--grilled salmon with potatoes, vegetables, and spices--and was eager to try this again, but in the end "lohipaella" (salmon paella) drew my attention more. It came with a creamy garlic sauce atop it (though I could have turned this down if I wanted to). I was surprised that the olives that came with it were California-style, somewhat bland, but otherwise it was good--less spicy than a Spanish paella, but easier to eat because I didn't have to worry about removing shells from the salmon!
Janna got a salmon filet with potatoes, green beans, and some very sharp onions. Her fish steak was folded in such a way that the skin was in the interior. We had Cokes with our meals. Unlike on past European trips, I wasn't as excited to have Coke with real sugar in it; perhaps the fact that it is more readily available for us now stateside contributed to previous trips.
The seating area next to the stand was quite crowded, but we were able to find space at a table (one of the reasons we chose that particular stand over other similar ones). It was good to be under cover since we were warned that seagulls were aggressive about stealing food.
Once finished eating, we headed back to the Esplanade. We completely forgot that there was a nearby indoor market that we'd also wanted to see; by the time we remembered it was too late to backtrack before it closed. It was a bit of a shame though I certainly didn't mind lingering longer on the Esplanade, which I had pleasant memories of from our 2004 trip. Its broad stretch of pedestrian walkway and parkland had lively, yet laid-back feel. I remembered some unique performers including a cat circus and a quartet of xylophonists playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons. We saw nothing quite like that this time, just a few single buskers, but it was still a very pleasant place to be.
There are a few cafes on the Esplanade, and we decided to stop in the most prominent of them, Kappeli, for a little wine (for me) and coffee (for Janna). We also split a dessert, a pastry called metsämarjakakku in Finnish and "wildberries" in English. The building is very elegant, curved iron and glass resembling a 19th century greenhouse. There was outdoor seating but we chose to eat inside. In fact we got a table inside a little circular pod at one of the corners of the building. Though it had the drawback of being quite warm from the greenhouse effect, just sitting and eating gave me the relaxed "European" feeling that I was eager to experience on the trip.
After this we walked from one end of the Esplanade to the other. We saw the seagulls in action; at one point one dive-bombed a woman with an ice cream cone, got the ice cream onto the ground, at which point the rest of the gulls all swarmed about it. I couldn't help laughing though I felt a bit bad about enjoying the woman's misfortune.
We returned to the bookstore for a while to get more of our fill of it, then decided it was time to head back toward the hotel. We wanted to have a chance to rest, and perhaps to catch up with some of our friends that were due to arrive that day. On the way to the tram stop we ran into an interesting street performance. An acrobatic juggler was midway through his performance when we arrived and already talking about his grand finale, but he strung it out for a very long time. His big final trick was to do a kind of sideways leap over a man lying on the ground, while two kids held a piece of chain well above him, but in the meantime while playing it up he did several other tricks to keep us entertained. He chose his helpers from the audience, but the man lying down--named Joe--may have been a plant. During the performance he got a suspiciously timed cell phone call. We all got a good laugh when he said, "Can I call you back, I'm lying on the ground in Helsinki". It was a good moment, but seemed a bit too much like a setup in retrospect. The entire show was presented (in English) with a great deal of good humor.
We took the tram back to the hotel, amused and appalled by two very drunk passengers making out during our ride. Once we arrived, we were pleased to run into the two people who would be our main travel companions for the rest of the trip, Chris and Mike, who had both arrived that day. We chatted with them for about half an hour (also greeting a number of other new arrivals for the upcoming coaster tour), then arranged to relax for a bit before going back out in the early evening.
Our evening excursion mostly involved us escorting Chris and Mike to some of the locations we'd been to earlier that day. We went to Senate Square to look at the cathedral from the outside but didn't venture in. If anything it looked more impressive at that time of the day with the gold crosses atop its domes glowing in the lower sunlight. The market area was closed--all that was left were many pea pods on the ground for the pigeons to pick through--so we found ourselves on the Esplanade again, where a live concert by a Finnish band playing American country-style music was going on.
After a bit of wandering around just taking in the pleasant atmosphere of the city, we looked for a place to eat. This was more difficult than I expected. We initially returned to the Stockmann deli, but in the end decided to go for something slightly more formal. However, in a common theme for the trip, a lot of the other restaurants we saw were rather expensive and we all wanted to be careful with our budgets. We wound up at a kebab place (such places are generally what we'd consider "gyro" outlets here) called Chilli. As with my prior experience in Scandinavia, I was a bit surprised when the kebab had a tomato-based sauce. In addition it had pickles, another strange touch to me. However it wasn't bad. We were able to eat outside, which was enjoyable.
Sadly, we couldn't linger too long in central Helsinki (I imagine the atmosphere on the Esplanade would have been nice in the evening), since we had to get back to the hotel for our appointment to pick up our registration packets, so we took the tram back and returned to the hotel lobby for our meet-up with the trip organizers. The packets were distributed in convenient little canvas bags, which included a detailed trip schedule (which admittedly we would have liked to have received further in advance), a trip T-shirt--as garish as one would expect--and a lanyard we were to wear when getting special privileges from the parks. The lanyard also had a currency conversion chart on the back, which came in handy at times; it was a good idea. Just perusing the trip schedule got me excited about what was coming up. We had certainly enjoyed our time in Helsinki to that point, but it was time to start riding some coasters!
This post is one in a series. For the other installments, see: