[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku]
There was an odd thing that happened while we were in Turku. The Belated Birthday Girl and I were spending a little bit of time on a bench by the river Aura: not being ridiculously lovey-dovey, just snuggling up and watching the world go by. And a young bloke nearby took it upon himself to tell us what a lovely couple we looked. "There is some good in the world," he exclaimed. Naturally, we were suspicious.
Two days later, on the day of the Midsummer Festival, we were on an island on the outskirts of Helsinki, taking part in a mysterious ceremony that had a ritual wedding and a series of bonfires at its centre. All of our big holidays over the last few years have had a degree of jeopardy in their final days - had we been earmarked by spies in Turku for a big Wicker Man-style finish to this one? Were we, in fact, Sergeant Howie? Would killing us bring back their apples?
All utter bollocks, of course, but you try coming up with all these intros.
We don't find out until the Thursday of our arrival that BrewDog Helsinki is one of those establishments that takes the whole weekend off. This puts a little pressure on our visit, as it means we've only got that day to visit the bar and reach some sort of opinion on it. Not a problem! By mid-afternoon we've grabbed a quick post-lunch pint before heading elsewhere: by mid-evening we've come back from dinner and are settling down to an evening of interesting booze.
The Helsinki bar's design is an odd mixture of old and new - the most unusual detail is the use of etched windows with the new BrewDog typeface rather than the old one. Inside, there are some delightful idiosyncratic touches: a shelf of giant VHS tapes, some surreal beer-related art, and a subtle appearance from Moominpapa. On both visits, the place is nicely buzzing, possibly a consequence of this being the last day before a holiday weekend - I think I'd say that of the five bars we've seen in this Expedition, Helsinki is the one with the best atmosphere.
That's before we even get to the beer. The Finnish BrewDog staff I've encountered both in Turku and Helsinki are some of the best trained I've seen anywhere - friendly, enthusiastic and fiercely knowledgeable when it comes to beer. Our usual request for something interesting brewed nearby pays off massively when we're pointed in the direction of Fat Lizard's Track Day IPA. As two separate staff members boast independently, Fat Lizard come from just a few hundred yards away, and the keg of Track Day is literally no more than two days old. The magnificent blast of hops coming off it shows they're not lying. We also get to try two other Helsinki beers - Mila Brew's Sauna and Donut Island's Musta Munkki (the latter an imperial stout with actual raspberry doughnuts thrown into the mash) - and a couple of imports from familiar places (Pohjala's Uus Maailm and To Ol's Releaf Me).
We only get to spend a few hours in BrewDog Helsinki, but we end up completely falling in love with the place. The staff are enthusiastically describing the beers to everyone, not just the tourists from the UK: the beer range is extensive with some gems buried in it: and the bar itself has a terrifically welcoming feel to it overall. Hopefully we'll get to visit again at some point in the future when we're in less of a rush.
But let's go back on ourselves a little here. Our journey from Turku to Helsinki is relatively painless: if anything, the most irritating part of it is the bus ride from our hotel to the station, when Föli unfortunately blot their copybook with a driver who whizzes past our stop despite us standing in the pouring rain waving him down frantically. By comparison, the two-hour rail journey on VR is a breeze, and the rain that bedevilled us in Turku happily appears not to have travelled to Helsinki with us.
From the station it's a shortish walk to Hotel Helka, although by the end of the holiday we'll be knackered enough to lazily get a bus in the opposite direction. With Helka we've moved back to boutique swishness, but we've done it for a reason, one that was quietly hinted at by The BBG in her Gothenburg restaurant reviews. You see, part of the reason for this Nordic Expedition is that The BBG and I are celebrating 15 years of doing that thing we do. We had a couple of slap-up meals around the day of the anniversary itself, but Helka is our little splash of decadence when it comes to hotels on this trip. We've actually booked ourselves into a junior suite - a series of discount deals mean that it's only a little outside our standard price range, but it is still swankier than normal. (Frustratingly, the service isn't quite up to the level of the room price, with cleaning and replacement of used items not being done as frequently as you'd hope - that may be a consequence of it being a holiday weekend, but it's still not great.)
It would be hard to justify the extra expense of our suite if it wasn't for the PRIVATE SAUNA ATTACHED TO OUR BATHROOM. As soon as we've checked in, we run straight to the bathroom to see what we paid all this money for. It doesn't disappoint: a small wooden room with seating for no more than a couple of people, and an electric sauna heating unit tucked away in one corner. We quickly realise that we have no idea how you're supposed to work this thing, and that no instructions have been provided, on the assumption that all Finnish visitors know exactly how to operate a sauna from birth. Luckily, we have wi-fi, and a quick web search pulls up the operator's manual for this particular model, so we're good to go.
We end up taking our first sauna on the Friday morning of our stay, and it turns out to be the one thing that keeps us sane after discovering the EU referendum news emerging from back home. When I did my first (and only) public sauna session back in 2013, it didn't really work for me - looking back on how I described it at the time, it's possible that the lack of control was what put me off. When you've got total control over the session lengths and temperature, you quickly get used to the idea, and find yourself looking forward to that ssssssssssssssssss as you hurl more water on the hot coals. And once you've started, it's hard to stop: especially on the following Midsummer Day, when nothing in Helsinki's open till at least 2pm, allowing us to spend a hugely decadent morning just sweating ourselves silly. We use the time to quietly meditate on the irony of how we're experiencing some of the best things that Europe has to offer, while at the same time our currency is physically disintegrating in our wallets.
That evening we do it all again, but with beer - low alcohol beer, you understand, we're responsible drinkers. We head off to the K Supermarket in Kamppi and get to see Finland's restrictive alcohol sales practices in operation. As with the other countries we've visited, there's a threshold ABV figure, and here it's 4.7%: anything below that can be sold in supermarkets, while anything above that has to be purchased through the state-run Alko shops. This leads to the astonishing discovery that BrewDog make two versions of Punk IPA for the Nordic market: full fat 5.6% Punk IPA can only be bought at Alko, while supermarkets sell a watered-down 4.6% Punk Pale Ale. We make do with their 0.5% Nanny State instead for sauna purposes, and it does the job beautifully when glugged during the cooling-down period between one session and the next. (Apparently some people take beer into the sauna with them, but that just seems like asking for trouble.)
The city may virtually shut down over the holiday, but we still need to be able to get around it, so once again we need travel passes for the three days of our visit. We're familiar with Helsinki's transport authority HSL from previous visits, and the ticket machines at the Metro station issue us a three day pass with no sweat, although this is the only such pass in our five-city jaunt that comes on a tatty piece of paper rather than a bippable smartcard. (Smartcards do exist on the network, but I think they're more aimed at residents than tourists.) They're good for use on the tram network that ties the whole city together (but get yourself a decent-sized colour copy of the network map if you want a hope in hell of finding your way around the place), the buses that fill in most of the gaps in between, and the metro system that has one or two useful stops on it but not much else.
For a few reasons, I don’t have as much to say about food in Helsinki as I did for the other cities we visited in our trip. It’s not that there isn’t great food to be had in Helsinki – there definitely is, as Spank mentioned when we went there the first time – but just that we didn’t really have much opportunity to sample it. As we were there for the Midsummer holiday, a lot of restaurants were closed for much or all of the time we were in town. Also, we spent pretty much a whole day at the Midsummer festival on the island of Seurasaari, which limited our options that day. And, if we’re honest about it, coming at the end of a 2 week trip around several Nordic cities, maybe we were beginning to feel a little less up for high end eating and the cost that goes with it.
That’s not to say we didn’t manage to have some decent food. I was pleasantly surprised by the range, quality and value of the lunch buffet at Factory, given that it was effectively in a food court. At 20 EUR it was the standard lunch buffet price we’d got used to in Turku, and was pretty extensive, and I was perfectly happy to eat there for lunch. I was a little less happy to find myself back at the same food court that evening, as so little else was open, and eating a Thai meal at Tamarin. It’s not that the food was bad – it wasn’t: Spank had a decent chicken stir-fry with cashews, while I went for the beetroot curry with prawns, which though not as spicy as I would like, was unusual and used local beetroot. It’s just not what I had in mind (I’d hoped for more a traditional Finnish meal), and was devoid of atmosphere, as a result not only of being in a food court but also being almost empty because of the holiday. But at 42 EUR (including two Karhu III beers) it wasn’t too expensive, and if you are looking for a Thai in that part of town, it’s perfectly fine.
As you'll see below, we spent most of Midsummer Eve at Seurasaari. But before we got there, we had a small lunch at Cafe Carusel, next to where we had to get the boat. As it was tipping down with rain, we were very relieved to find it open and serving, and Spank’s cinnamon bun was huge, fresh and still hot from the oven. I decided I should try the Karelian pie - Finland’s national dish, a small open topped pasty made with rye flour and containing rice and cheese - and it was pretty good. As that wouldn’t quite be enough on its own, I also had a slice of cheesecake. With 2 coffees, it came to 17.70 EUR, which was reasonable for a small lunch. Over at Seurasaari, there were a few options for eating around the island, mainly set up just for the day, but we decided the café at the Seurasarri Restaurant would best suit our needs. The Seurasarri Restaurant itself had a proper sit-down multi-course menu, but that seemed more than we wanted to eat or pay for – and besides, we wanted to get back out to enjoy all the fun and festivities. So we just had a couple of salmon pies and coffee, which were perfectly fine and fit the bill, and at 22 EUR didn’t break the bank, either.
The one other sit-down meal worth mentioning was dinner at Bryggeri Helsinki, a brew-pub in the centre of town, and one of the few places that stayed open over the holiday. The food was decent pub grub, and had the benefit of being able to be washed down by beers made on the premises. I chose the salmon soup, which was fine, although it was never going to be in the same class as the terrific smoked salmon soup I had at Ravintola Kuu in 2013, while Spank had a fairly standard cheeseburger. We both chose the summer ale to accompany our meals, partly because of the lower ABV (which appealed because an hour earlier we'd drunk a 6% Suomenlinna IPA at the Majakkalaiva Relandersgrund lightship bar), and it did the job nicely. At 43.30 EUR for the lot, it was reasonable enough, and it was a perfectly acceptable last night’s meal in Helsinki. There were a few other places open where we could have dined on fancier food, but they would also have cost a lot more: and they wouldn’t have given us the chance to look at brewing tanks, which Bryggeri Helsinki did, and that’s never a bad thing.
If we were in Helsinki for four days, and the city effectively spent three of those days on holiday, then you might imagine that there aren't many attractions to talk about. In fact, there are a couple that pride themselves on being open all year round: there's the chance to look down over the city from the Finnair Skywheel (possibly the only observation wheel in the world where one of the pods is a sauna), or grab a moment of calm at the beautifully constructed Kamppi Chapel (a chapel unusually designed for meditation rather than services). And although the museums take time off during the Midsummer period, we manage to get to a couple of them either side of the big break.
One of the trendiest museum districts in town is at the end of the metro line at Ruoholahti. Kaapeli is just the sort of hipster story that could have you ripping your hair out - an old electrical cable factory that's been repurposed into a series of very specialised mini-museums. Many of these are closed on the day prior to Midsummer Eve, but we manage to squeeze into one of the few that's stayed open. The Hotel & Restaurant Museum does exactly what it says on the tin: it's a history of hospitality services, depicted in collections of old equipment and specially constructed tableaux, with a specific focus on the evolution of hotels and restaurants in Finland (including a delightful section about those Alko booze shops mentioned earlier). Most of it is usefully bilingual, apart from a temporary exhibit entitled Side By Side - Women At Work! which looks at the changing roles of women in these industries over the last century. It strikes me that without any English language context for the images and displays being shown, this could be misinterpreted as uniform fetish porn. But maybe that's just me.
If you're looking for more traditional museums, the Museum of Finnish Architecture is a rather fine piece of work - and if you've got enough time, you can do it together with the nearby Design Museum for a discounted price. We don't have the time, sadly - we're doing this on Midsummer Sunday as our final thing before heading home - but the MFA is a good enough visit in its own right. The permanent display relating to the history of construction in 20th century Helsinki is small, but packed with detail. The temporary exhibits are currently dominated by the Finnish Architecture Biennial Review 2016, an in-depth look at 15 of the best architectural projects from the last two years. It's interesting to see how the focus isn't just on the architecture itself, but on the social benefits it brings. The BBG is particularly impressed by the Puukuokka Housing Block, a collection of affordable flats that includes a sauna for its residents. (She's big on saunas by now, as you can imagine.)
But let's get back to Midsummer Eve, where there's only one place to be: the island of Seurasaari. Most of the year, it's home to an open-air museum with lots of carefully preserved old buildings: but on Midsummer Eve, it becomes the site for an entire afternoon, evening and night of suspiciously pagan entertainment to mark the solstice. Tickets are easy enough to get hold of via the Seurasaari Bonfires official site, or I suspect you could just roll up on the day and buy one at the gate. Advance booking does give you access to a rather nice seasonal perk, however: a special ferry that picks you up from Merisatama Harbour (near Cafe Carusel) and drops you off at the island. (The 24 bus can also take you there - and for the journey home, that's what you'll need to get anyway - but why turn down the chance to take one more boat ride?) Just be warned that the ferries only run once an hour at the top of the hour, a detail that's mysteriously glossed over in all the advertising.
Once you're on Seurasaari, just get onto the path and explore. There are maps and signposts to help you navigate, and it's so small an island that it's hard to get lost. There are stalls demonstrating traditional activities like blacksmithing and puppet shows, or selling classic Finnish nosh. There are also a number of locations where musical acts perform, from small patches of ground outside the cafe to custom-built stages. For my money, the best act of the day is Enkel, a group of four young women performing old folk songs with a twinkle in the eye and an infectious sense of fun. They seem to get a slightly frosty reception from the audience, who I suspect want their traditional folk performed more traditionally: but have a look at this and imagine how much fun an entire set of it would be. Enkel are selling CDs out of a suitcase at the end of their performance, and only my concerns over the perilous state of the pound prevent me from snapping one up then and there: thankfully, they appear to have a digital release deal internationally, and I pick up a downloadable copy once I've got home. (As can you: see the Amazon link below.)
But it's the Wicker Man-style elements of the day that are the most fascinating to watch. We get the erection of two maypoles (okay, Midsummer poles), a small one for the kids and a huge one for the grown-ups. The raising of the adult pole is the cue for a gigantic polonaise dance around it: an old woman comes up to me demanding that I join her, I make an excuse involving having a slightly dodgy knee, and she makes the international hand signal for 'you're a loony' and dances off again. All of this is just the warmup for the main event at 9pm, when a series of increasingly dangerous bonfires is lit. This is the part of the day that attracts the biggest crowd, so sadly we're not in the best place to get a clear view of the spectacular highlight of the whole day - a couple that was married just a couple of hours earlier as part of the celebrations, being rowed across the water in a ten-man longboat, holding a flaming torch that allows them to light up the biggest bonfire of them all. Even after this climax, the crowds don't disperse: there's one bonfire still tantalisingly standing there unlit, and nobody seems to know why that is. A whisper goes around the audience that it might get lit up when it finally gets dark - and given that this isn't going to happen until after midnight, that's when The BBG and I decide to head back to our hotel.
After all that excitement, how could our final weekend be anything other than a sauna-assisted comedown? If anything, the biggest discovery of our final day is that since my last visit, Helsinki has finally started running trains from Central Station to the airport (previously you could only get a bus). They're a little slow (Heathrow Connect rather than Heathrow Express), but they're reasonably priced (Heathrow Connect rather than etc etc), and they do the job. Apart from the cripplingly slow service at the airport's Fly Inn restaurant that almost makes us miss our plane, the journey home is uneventful, and soon we're back in London ready to discover whatever mess the British electorate's dragged us into. Still, if we end up being driven out of England completely, there are at least three countries I could put on my shortlist now as possible destinations. Being a monkey, and all.