This was not the way I prefer to plan expeditions. I typically zero in on a single destination and attempt to grasp its culture and geography in depth, enabling a rich exploration once I reach its shore. In the beginning, this adventure was 100% Russian, and while the centerpiece remained running a marathon through St. Petersburg, the breadth had expanded to fold in Helsinki and Tallinn. My excitement over experiencing all of these marvelous places was muted by misgivings around losing the ability to dig deep.
What probably disturbed me most was how the two week itinerary would encompass three different languages. I devote time trying to learn essentials of the native tongue (and I find this remarkably beneficial, because great appreciation has always resulted from my mediocre attempts to speak local lingo), but there was no way I could hope to tackle three new languages, all of which used an unfamiliar alphabet. Just trying to absorb three distinct histories was overwhelming, and there simply were not enough hours in the day to prepare in the usual fashion.
But who am I to quibble? There was no denying a brilliant adventure awaited and perhaps it was time to try a new tack and ‘learn on the go’. In spite of advance preparation, I always leave open time to wander and happen upon random discoveries anyway. Recognizing there is no single best way to travel, I found comfort in how excited I was to dive in. And it clearly was not like I would be stumbling around blind.
Our first stop, Helsinki, would allay fears around a lack of preparation. It is a terrific city to explore on foot, and Helsinki does not conceal its treasures. Much of the action centers around Market Square, an open air marketplace sitting on the harbor. The Esplanade is adjacent, a welcoming green space stretching several blocks and lined with a variety of artsy stores and cafes. Linking these two highlights is a fountain with an amusing history. Havis Amanda is a curvy nude surrounded by water spouting seals. Apparently the sculpture aggravated principles of conservative officials who commissioned the piece, and the artist had a hard time collecting his fee. But not only did the artist finally get paid; his lovely lady has been mooning Helsinki’s city budget office for over a hundred years now!
Of course we also had Ilse to offer guidance, and her suggestion to tour Suomenlinna was brilliant.
This chain of several small islands, an easy fifteen minute ferry ride from the harbor at Market Square, is the reason there is a Helsinki. Suomenlinna is a giant fortress, built by Sweden to defend against potential Russian threats after Peter the Great established St. Petersburg and began building a navy. Helsinki escalated from teensy village to thriving metropolis by virtue of supplying armed forces stationed here. I can only echo Ilse’s recommendation. Suomenlinna became a memorable daytrip, a scenic and delightful patch to stroll about.
The most memorable part of our visit would be redemption for not stressing over lack of research. We had voyaged to the Baltics to celebrate White Nights in St. Petersburg, but chatting with our waiter over dinner in Helsinki led to discovering the everlasting twilight was celebrated during the summer solstice (Midsummer Eve) in Finland with the custom of kokko. A kokko is a bonfire built at midnight along a shore to ward off evil spirits, and with directions from our friendly waiter, we set off at 11PM to experience this tradition.
Our understanding of kokkos was enhanced by learning this was rooted in pagan tradition and an ancient belief was that witches were okay to reveal the future during the shortest night. Apparently a fair number of young Finnish ladies still place a freshly plucked flower under their pillow Midsummer Eve to see their future mate in dreams.
A couple notes around enjoying a kokko. First, jet lag is a huge bonus when you’ve flown seven time zones east to a place starting celebrations at midnight. Second, wow. Walking a couple miles at eleven o’clock at night in sunlight was powerful. Even better was all the people out and about at this late hour, in particular the number of paddle boarders plying harbor waters. I was particularly tickled by one young lady with a hefty cooler between her legs – I had never witnessed a paddle boarder hauling cargo before!
The bonfire was already ablaze when we arrived, resonating peace. We reveled sharing the celebration, particularly looking out to Suomenlinna from our bonfire. One of the island’s attractions is an unlikely combination: a church housing a lighthouse in its steeple. As much as we had enjoyed the architecture while on the island, gaining appreciation for its beauty as a beacon was a wonderful plus. Travel is relentless in casting off sparks, you only need to get out there to savor its glow.