Finland was our last stop before returning to the U.S. It turned out to be more than we had hoped for. My advice: Go there. Helsinki is a world class city, which I think deserves a lot more attention than it gets. Like the three Baltic capitals we visited, it is worthy to be on any bucket list.
After a shaky start we settled into our “backup living unit”—a comfortable “2ndHome” (a local competitor of Airbnb) studio apartment, located about a half block from the first, ill-fated, Airbnb apartment. (I am petitioning the Airbnb executives to require the owners of that apartment to stipulate that at least one guest must be over six-feet-six or guests must bring their own stepladder.)
Our first full day in Helsinki was one of those like we had in Vilnius, drop-dead-gorgeous, with temperatures near 70, a gentle breeze, and the few clouds that occasionally decorated the blue sky looking like cotton candy. This is when the typical Finn orders a cappuccino or a beer in one of the cozy, outside cafes and sighs, “Ok, it is worth the 18 hours a day of December darkness and the bitter cold from November through March.”
We spent almost the entire day on a Hop-on, Hop-off bus getting a good feel for this compact city of only about 650,000 (1.3 million metro). The entire population of Finland is only 5.5 million, less than the population of greater Washington DC in a country roughly the size of California, though admittedly few people live in the northern part of Finland. Helsinki is different from the other Baltic cities we visited due to its decidedly international flavor. Streets are buzzing with people of all shapes, sizes, languages, and complexions, and restaurants advertise in addition to Scandinavian food, Japanese, Italian, Asian, French, and American (McDonalds, Burger King and Subway).
The closest city to Helsinki that I can think of in the U.S. would be San Francisco because the Baltic Sea—today sparkling blue, not the gray mist we experienced the day before– surrounds three-quarters of the city, which is also hilly like San Francisco (though not as extreme). Boating activity of all sorts was underway in the harbor, and most of the downtown pedestrian malls and sidewalks were in heavy use. Cafes, fancy stores and beautifully manicured parks seemed to pop up around every corner. On a day like today if you concluded that the entire population of the city was outside basking in the delightful weather, you probably would not be that far off.
What immediately stands out about Helsinki compared to the Baltic state capitals we have visited on this trip is the absence of a Medieval old town section, the presence of tower cranes with buildings going up, a lot of newer buildings mixed in with the old, far fewer churches, and fewer, conspicuous tourists. While there is a lot of energy and vitality, the atmosphere is more laidback, friendly, and casual than you find in DC or New York. Graffiti, while present as it is in almost every European city, is not as hideously prominent as it is elsewhere. Practically everyone speaks at least some English, many fluently. Like in the U.S. scooters are now ubiquitous, as are bikes, and skateboarding would appear to be the national sport. On a day like today it would be hard not to fall in love with this special place.
The next two days we spent in Helsinki were much like the first except that since it was a weekend, the mood was even more festive, casual and relaxed. The highlight for me was a two-hour, “canal tour” aboard a small, sightseeing boat, which motored around the Helsinki harbor and a dozen or so of the myriad islands that dot the Baltic around Helsinki. We bought a three-day “Helsinki pass,” which allowed us to hop on and hop off the tourist buses all we wanted to, to use public transportation at no charge (buses and trolleys), free museum admissions, a free harbor tour, and a free train ride to the airport. We took advantage of all the options though whether we actually saved money is not certain. What is certain is that we saw a whole lot of the city that we would not have seen otherwise and loved it.
Now you may recall that we often choose bargain options such as taking public transportation whenever we can, staying in Airbnbs or windowless , subterranean rental units rather than hotels, and avoiding fancy restaurants. This is due to Embry’s Scotch-Irish DNA, which tends to prevent her from choosing a more expensive option when there is a cheaper one available. She can’t help it—unless I put my foot down, as I do occasionally, such as insisting on business class when flying overseas. That is why I was somewhat surprised when Embry enthusiastically announced she had made a reservation at a restaurant for our “goodbye, farewell dinner,” called Olo, which had gotten a rating of four stars in the Michelin Guide, the highest rating of all the restaurants in Helsinki, and considered in the guide to be one of the best restaurants in the world. There was no mention of prices. There was a hint via email from the restaurant, however, warning that for any guest that did not show up, the credit card on file for the reservation would be charged 69 euros and that we should allow a minimum of three hours for our dining experience. I smiled skeptically wondering if Embry knew what exactly we might be getting ourselves into.
Walking about two miles from our hotel to the restaurant, we were a few minutes late and panting as we opened a heavy, wooden door in a nondescript, six-story, aging building facing the waterfront. A tiny sign that read “oLo” hung over the door. To describe the décor as “understated” would itself be an understatement, but the restaurant did have a kind of worn, old-world charm with very high ceilings and green drapes that blocked out light from the high windows. A cheerful hostess greeted us warmly and immediately escorted us to a small, quiet room containing four tables, all occupied except the one reserved for us. We later learned that the restaurant has only 15 tables situated in four separate rooms and can accommodate no more than 50 people at one time.
Within a minute or so after being seated, our main waiter, a guy in his early thirties, dressed in a black vest, white shirt, black pants, a red bow tie, and sporting a handlebar mustache, greeted us. He spoke perfect English with a British accent. During our three-hours in the restaurant, we were served by four, attentive, wait staff—all in their thirties and several with full tattoos on their right arm. (Why the right arm and not the left or both?) In addition three chefs, also about the same age, who were dressed in full white, chef’s attire, complete with apron and hat, also checked on us from time to time. After a waiter or waitress had carefully placed a dish in its proper place, moments later one of the chefs would appear, kneel down so that his head was even with ours and then describe the dish in detail– where it came from, how it was prepared, and what subtle flavors to look for. The menu listed the names of the entire staff that were on duty that day—some 19 people, a ratio of almost one staff person for every two dinner guests.
When the waiter with the handlebar mustache explained that this was a six course, fixed price, tasting menu, Embry asked if we were supposed to pick one offering from each of the six courses. He smiled and replied that all the items listed in the menu would be served—some 19 in all.
Within a minute or two the first item was carefully placed on the table before us —a rare kind of Russian caviar, elegantly presented in a small bowl resting on top of round stones. And so the evening began with only moments between the time we had devoured a delicious morsel and another one, even tastier, was carefully placed before us, then meticulously described by the chef who prepared it.
To be accurate, I have to say that since the portions were not large, eating or “tasting” 19 items was not pure gluttony. But it came close: Several varieties of rare shell fish, fresh fish from the Baltic, local mushrooms, fresh garden vegetables hand picked that day, various varieties of carefully prepared beef or pork, delicious sauces, and reindeer liver, you name it. Most, but not all dishes, were Scandinavian. Each savory dish was not so much to be eaten as “experienced,” and that is what we did. And of course, each offering was paired with the appropriate wine. Three hours later we had polished off 18 dishes plus the most delicious dessert I had ever tasted and were ready for the bill.
When it was finally time to go, I fully expected the six or seven people that had so enthusiastically taken care of us to rush out and embrace us with goodbye hugs. It was one of those evenings.
I did finally get up the courage to tell Embry how much it was (a figure which will remain secret); and in a few seconds after the look of horror disappeared from her face, she smiled sheepishly. Her Scottish ancestors would be turning over in their graves. We both agreed it was worth every euro, the dining experience of a lifetime. And it was a fine way to finish up the trip.
The time we spent in this part of the world, just short of three weeks, turned out to be something very special. These countries were certainly not on our bucket list; and had it not been for the choir tour, we would have never gotten there. Life, it turns out, is a series of chances and opportunities taken or passed by. We both are grateful we took this one.