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The White City of the North

Helsinki, Finland

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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 North’.

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 growth.

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.

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