To start off, cast your mind back to the last week in May. I'd been asked to spend the final four days of the month in Helsinki for work. The Belated Birthday Girl noted that this would require me to fly out of the UK towards the end of the late May Bank Holiday weekend. With a little bit of rearranging, the trip turned into a two-part affair - a long weekend in central Helsinki with The BBG, followed by four days on my own working in the slightly less glamorous environs of Vantaa, close to the airport.
My latest Monoglot Movie Club post for Mostly Film, A Poor Second To Belgium, is the usual edge-of-xenophobic analysis of the local films I saw during those eight days. If you're interested in the non-film stuff that we did in Finland, though, then this Red Button backup piece is where you need to be. (I've also got a few photos from the week on display over at Picasa.)
Let's break it down, shall we?
Travel: At the start of 2013, I hadn't even heard of Norwegian Air: but this became my second round trip on the airline, with potentially more to follow later this year. (The first was to Stockholm back in January.) I'd still say they're pretty good as far as budget airlines go, only let down in this instance by a return journey bedevilled by the cumulative delays a shuttle service encounters during the day. Once you've landed, the 615 bus does a good job of getting you from the airport to central Helsinki: if you're staying near the airport, check out the free courtesy buses that go to most of the major hotels.
Hotels: For the purposes of claiming expenses without fiddling, we needed two separate hotels for this trip - a nice boutiquey one for the pair of us for the weekend, and something more practical in Vantaa for the working week. We struck lucky in both cases, really. The Scandic Paasi is well located, close to the 615 bus stop and near Hakaniemi metro station: it's got nicely decorated rooms, a sizeable breakfast buffet, and incredibly helpful and friendly staff. My work hotel was the more basic Holiday Inn Vantaa, which may be out the back of beyond but at least has two megamalls within walking distance (Flamingo and Jumbo) for your restaurant and cinema needs.(Plus, the Holiday Inn's own restaurant has a surprisingly ambitious menu, considering it's a Holiday Inn.)
Touristy things (onshore): It's surprising once you get there to discover just how compact Helsinki is - at the time we saw Pystyssä we'd been in the city for just 48 hours, and could already recognise several of the locations used in the film. (At one point, we even had a shot featuring the cinema we were in.) There's lots of fun to be had just wandering around taking in the everyday free sights, such as the Hakaniemi Market and the Sibelius monument. As our Sunday ended up being a bit wet, that day became more museum-based as a result. The Olympic Stadium is best known for the views from its 72 metre tower - on the day we visited, we got to the top just in time to watch several thousand women in purple leaving the complex at the start of the Naistenkymppi fun run. The Tram Museum is small, and confusingly shares space with a sushi restaurant, but has an enjoyable mixture of restored vehicles, archive footage, and aggressively educational display panels. The Design Museum is even better, actually telling a social history of Finland through its careful selection of design items.
Touristy things (offshore): All the above can be done on the back of an HSL day ticket, which allows unlimited travel on buses, trams and metro in the city centre for a measly eight euro. For another five euro, though, you can get a return ferry to the nearby sea fortress of Suomenlinna, which is worth a day trip in its own right. Well, maybe half a day, it's not that good. Grab yourself a leaflet on the ferry, ignore the offers of guided tours and just follow the blue route on the map to get a feel for the various attractions on the island. Among them - although only open for part of the year, apparently - is the Vesikko Submarine, which saw active service against the Russians in WW2, and has been kept in incredibly good condition. There are plenty of other museums and sights to explore, but we limited ourselves to just a couple, mainly enjoying the lovely views from up where the big guns are kept. And we finished off, somewhat predictably, in the fortress' brewery restaurant.
Touristy things? (sweaty): I think it was largely The BBG's idea that we did a public sauna while we were in Finland - I wasn't entirely sure myself. Even after having been through one, I'm still not certain what I think. Once we'd boned up on the etiquette involved (noting the similarities with our previous experiences in Japanese baths), we chose the wood-burning authenticity of Kotiharjun Sauna to try it all out in practice. The baths are segregated by gender, of course, and it struck me as a much more social experience than the Japanese one - it's almost entirely groups of men or women in the sauna, no singles. When we met out in the street in our towels halfway through the process (yes, that picture at the top is exactly what it looked like), The BBG and I were the only man and woman talking to each other. As for the experience itself, I think I get on better with hot water than hot steam: there's something queasily masochistic about the way people head for the hottest parts of the room, and even more so when they start beating themselves with birch twigs. (You know the one thing they never tell you about that part? The risk of splashback. If you sit on the wrong step, you can easily end up with someone else's freshly-whipped sweat hurtling at you.)
Food and drink: In the Mostly Film article, I've already mentioned the Kaurismäki-related restaurants we went to (Kosmos and Zetor). We had a few other terrific meals along the way - The BBG highly recommends the smoked salmon soup at Kuu, but our best dinner of all involved the 'sapas' (Finnish tapas, basically) that are the speciality of Juuri. Many of our meals in Helsinki were accompanied by local beers, to the extent that I barely know which ones I can recommend to you. There are plenty of interesting bars around too, from the novelty of the Spårakoff pub tram to the craft beer heaven of Kaisla and its various relatives. Meanwhile, in the Vantaa area, the Sudenkolo lunch restaurant deserves a quick mention. Its menu is small, and not especially veggie-friendly, so it's just as well that The BBG wasn't with me by then: but it's decent food, decently priced, and served by a big guy who has the word CHEF tattooed on his knuckles in gigantic Gothic script.
Cinema: Just to wrap things up, we saw Pystyssä at the Finnkino Kinopalatsi, while I caught 21 Tapaa Pilata Avioliitto at the Finnkino Flamingo in Vantaa. You know by now where you can read more about the films, but as a bonus here's the jolly opening title sequence to 21 Tapaa.