Our program included an optional excursion to Helsinki, Finland and Tallin, Estonia. Both of these countries are absolutely beautiful, and definitely under the radar destinations worth visiting. We traveled to Finland by train from the Finlandsky Vokzal Station, and arrived in Helsinki later that night. There is a little less history in Helsinki than Tallin, but there is plenty to do and see when in Finland.
The main tourist site is the Sea Fortress. It is an old fortress located about 20 minutes by ferry from mainland Finland. There are a number of sites on the island worth visiting. There is a very informative museum concerning Finnish history and the history of the island. Across a bridge is a series of old tunnels that have been unused for decades. If you want to let your inner child out for a while, it is worthwhile to explore these dark and damp tunnels. Towards the outer edge there are several cannons, all deactivated, that you could climb on and touch. My favorite part of the island was a small inlet just past the cannons where one can sit on the rocks and watch the ocean. If there is anything that brings me back to Alaska, it’s watching the ocean. This entire island is beautiful, and the Finnish “wilderness” is something you won’t often get to experience.
Another prominent site is the Rock Church. If you have read my other posts, you know I am very interested in religious architecture. Out of all of the cathedrals, churches, synagogues, and mosques I have seen in the past few months, this was my first favorite (until a particular church in Estonia but more on that later). However, the Rock Church is a very architecturally interesting building. When approaching the front, it looks like nothing more than a mine shaft or entrance to an underground parking garage. However, the church itself is built into the ground using rock walls as support. It is a two-layered church, and boasts an impressive organ system. The rock walls also double as insulation for the Finnish winter, and the copper ribbon roofing helps amplify the acoustics. It is a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church and hosts up to 190 musical events each year.
Another beautiful cathedral is the Uspenski Cathedral, which stands near the port and the Sea Fortress. It is a magnificent red and teal Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. It’s name is derived from an Old Slavonic word, uspenie, which denotes the dormition of the Virgin Mary. It was consecrated in 1868, and is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe.
The Helsinki Cathedral, a massive white building with green domes, is the other rival cathedral here. Completed in 1852 as a tribute to Nicholas I, the tsar of Russia and Grand Duke of Finland, it is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Finland. The square is always full of tourists taking pictures of the building and selfies with the statue of Alexander II. More than 300,000 people visit the church each year, and it still holds both religious and civil services.
If you ever find yourself in Tallin, Estonia, you should know a few things. Tallinn is an “e-country,” meaning they are very internet oriented: they vote online, pay bills online, and they each have their own special online ID card. Skype was also invented in Tallinn, and if you take a guided tour, they will tell you this a number of times. Tallinn is also, ethnically, 25% Russian, but most people speak English. That being said, it is a very interesting city.
If you only have a few days in Tallinn, make sure you go to Old Town. Old Town is what happens when a medieval town survives to modern day. There are narrow streets and cobblestone roads, and each building has so much history to it. You could spend days walking through the streets, captivated by the antiquity and simplicity of this city.
The very first attraction you see is a shorter, wide tower called Fat Margaret. The widest walls of the tower are 6 meters (20 feet) thick, and it was used as a defensive building during the many foreign invasions of Estonia. Inside houses the Estonian Maritime Museum, though I did not have time to visit.
The next location you encounter is Saint Olaf’s Cathedral. This cathedral is not so large, but it has an extremely tall tower. After a lengthy climb up the medieval staircase, you can reach the base of the tallest spire on the building and walk the entirety around. You can see every part of Tallin, including all of Old Town, which makes for a very beautiful panoramic shot. The spire is over 400 feet tall, and has been struck by lightning over ten times. During World War II and until the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB used this spire as a radio tower. Today, it is a functioning Baptist church.
Another great visit is the Olde Hanse, a medieval themed restaurant located in the town square. The interior of the building is lit completely by candlelight, as there are no artificial lights. The staff dresses in medieval garb, including the chefs. Three women sat on top of a balcony above us and played music with bagpipes, drums, flutes, and other instruments. The food was amazing (I got the “Divine Pork of the Good King”) as well as Rose Pudding. While it is a little expensive, it is absolutely worth it for the atmosphere and the quality of the food. This is necessary for any serious foodie or just anyone who wants to treat themselves while abroad.
I came to Estonia with very little knowledge of Estonian history so one of the museums I visited was the Estonian History Museum. It is located in what used to be the Guild Hall, and is a very extensive museum. It covers several thousands years of Tallinn and Estonian history. If you love interactive exhibits, this is definitely the place to go. Every part of the museum has something to touch or play with. In the basement, there is a “trading” game where players choose a famous Estonian merchant and use that character to travel around the globe. Whoever has accumulated the most money in 5 minutes wins. The game mostly serves to represent Estonia as a mercantile country. There is also a vast display of weaponry, along with the correct way to load and fire antique rifles. There is a section on the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Estonia, though not nearly as comprehensive as the next museum.
A very emotional museum here is the Estonian Occupation Museum. It has a very impressive amount of information and describes how people were treated and why during both the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Suitcases litter the entire museum, a testament to the Estonian Jews who fled. There are old Soviet relics, including a chair used to “pacify and calm” citizens deemed unruly or unfit for society. If you are interested in wartime, Nazi, or Soviet history, this is a definite stop.
The Nevsky Cathedral is my favorite I have seen so far. Named for a Russian, Alexander Nevsky, it is a large white cathedral with black domes. In 1242, Nevsky won the Battle on Ice at Lake Peipus in present day Estonia, to which the church is dedicated. There are 11 total bells, one of which weighs 16 tons (more than the other ten combined.) The church is absolutely beautiful and by far my favorite church.
The last experience I was able to have in Tallinn was the Kiek in de Kok Tower (that is the real name, but it translates to “peek into the kitchen”). This tower served as a defensive structure, but is now a nine-level museum full of history. There is medieval Estonian weaponry, including trebuchets and catapults. After walking up 7 levels, there is a café that offers an excellent view of the city.
Estonia and Finland are both very beautiful. I felt like a child, climbing through tunnels and walking through the beautiful medieval town. You don’t have to stay in study and learning mode the entire time you are abroad. The beauty of being abroad is that you can learn firsthand and in person. Sure, there are benefits academically and professionally. But first and foremost, this is for you. You are not studying abroad for anyone else; you are surviving in a strange country with a different currency and a different language to prove something to yourself and to break away from the comfortable bubble you were used to. It is scary at first, and it can be hard at times. That being said, the experience is, without a doubt, worth any hardship or worry.