The White City of the North
One of the most popular destinations for Baltic cruise ships isn’t actually in
the Baltic at all. The Gulf of Finland – which runs off from the Baltic in an
easterly direction – is usually considered a body of water in its own right by
mariners. However, it’s popular with cruisers because three of the most
beautiful cities in Europe line its shores. At the far western extremity lies
St. Petersburg, Russia; on the southern side is Tallinn, Estonia; and to the
north is Helsinki – the capital of Finland and the legendary ‘White City of the
Like many places in the region, Helsinki has had its ups and
downs over the years. To understand why, it’s important to grasp the fact that
Finland hasn’t existed for long as a country in its own right. For years it was
a province of Sweden, and, after the Russian-Swedish wars of the early
nineteenth century, became Russian-dominated for a while. Helsinki itself was
actually built on the orders of a Swedish king who wanted his own port on the
Gulf of Finland to counter the threat posed by St. Petersburg and Tallinn, both
controlled by the Russians. It wasn’t even considered a major town for a while,
and it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that it became the
capital of an independent Finland.
It’s a very attractive city to explore, these days, despite
being one of the fastest-growing conurbations in Europe. During the glory days
of the eighteenth century it was extensively developed in order to rival the
prestige and military power of St. Petersburg – the legacy of that expansion is
some of the most beautiful neo-classical architecture in the world – the city
is only really rivaled by St, Petersburg itself, London and Boston, MA. The
Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral are particularly fine examples of this –
the cathedral, in particular, is an interesting mix of east and west. The
classical facades and the great dome that sits on top of the wedding cake-like
structure is a reminder of St. Paul’s in London, while smaller towers – which
are almost like minarets – make the building look more like one of the Kremlin
churches, or perhaps even Aya Sofya in Istanbul. One of the reasons that the
cathedral and many of the other buildings that were put up during the
eighteenth century look so similar is that they shared a designer: the German
Karl Ludwig Engel. Although he didn’t live to see his cathedral completed,
Engel is still remembered today as the chief architect of the city’s first
You can tell that the place is still growing, too. While St.
Petersburg and Tallinn are still emerging from the economic swamp of the years
of Soviet control, Helsinki has been on the move for some time, and in recent
years has profited from helping to speed the growth of its near neighbors.
Walking the streets you get a distinct sense of a city on the move – and
Helsinki residents are proud of the fact that they live in a city as advanced
as any in the western hemisphere. Helsinki and Finland in general, has also
risen to prominence in recent years as the home of Nokia, the world’s leading
cell phone manufacturer.
Although hi-tech may make the money, its low technology that
draws the crowds – in particular to Helsinki’s spectacular sea fort,
Suomenlinna. The name means “The Castle of Finland”. If the name looks a little
un-European, you have to remember that the Finns (Suomi) have a language that
by an accident of history is totally unrelated to all the Indo-European
languages around it.
Suomenlinna is not all that lo-tech, either. Designed to keep
the Imperial Russian Navy at bay, it was built according to the scientific
principles of the great French military architect Vauban – the place is a mass
of ramparts, ravelins, redoubts and all the other intricacies of a fortress
that was at the cutting edge of design in its day.
These days the fortress – which sits on a group of islands
across a stretch of water from Helsinki proper – is one of the most notable
tourist destinations in the city, and will certainly be on your itinerary if
your cruise line has organized a city tour. As well as being a fascinating
place to look around – the fortress features an extensive museum – it’s popular
with the locals as a spot for taking in theater and live musical performances.
This is very much a city on the move. The Helsinki you visit as
part of your cruise this year might be a very different city from the one you
might visit in ten years’ time.