Amateur Hour on The Ramblin’ Randy Show
152 countries in and yet I still continue to make the amateur mistake of taking cab rides without first asking/confirming “how much.” To my credit, I actually almost always ask the cost first—95% of the time—but this was one of those rare instances when I didn’t. After all, there were big signs mounted on the pillars outside of the airport announcing the fixed price of “$39 to City Center,” so what could possibly go wrong? I picked an Iraqi with a luxury station wagon and we had great conversation on the 30-minute midnight ride into town. I always like telling Iraqis that I’ve been to their country. “Business?” they always ask. Then they are shocked and in complete disbelief when I explain I came as a tourist. We got along so well during the drive, you can imagine my shock when we arrived at my hotel and the tab was 80 Euros. “You gotta be kiddin’ me,” I said. “That’s more than what my flight cost to get me here!” Mark my words, this will be the last time I don’t confirm the price first.
I checked in to what would be the nicest hotel on my trip thus far and got to bed shortly after 2AM. It would be my first good night of sleep since my journey began five days ago. I needed it. I awoke around 1PM and was out the door to explore by 2.
It took me only about three minutes and 500 feet to become enchanted with Helsinki, as I ran smack dab into Market Square. But why were the stalls bobbing up and down? I hadn’t been drinking. I soon figured out I was looking at the rears of a couple dozen boats, backed right up to the concrete, with fishermen selling their goods right out of the stern – just like you might picture someone selling stolen stereo equipment from the back of their trunk! This was such a cool scene – something I’ve never seen before. As I made my way into and through the square I saw more vendors selling fish, fish products, fresh fruit (lots beautiful, bright cranberries) and souvenirs. The coffee and waffle stand lured me in. It was the perfect quick, cheap and probably only breakfast option this late in the day. Helsinki had managed to charm me and fill up my stomach in the first 15 minutes and soon I’d let go of the sourness of last night’s taxi robbery.
I spent the next 90 minutes meandering the streets of the city center, marveling at the ornate cathedrals, the giant parliament building, and the huge central bank before wandering into a mall to buy a cap to keep my head warm. It was a blustery day with chill winds whipping between the buildings and even some precipitation. I hated spending 25 Euros on a beanie. I had three or four at home and was chapped I didn’t bring one along. It was at the mall when I got a text from my friend Patrik, a local who I’d met on Facebook weeks earlier inside a travel group. I gave him my 20 and soon he was giving me a private guided tour of the neighborhood. We finished up with coffee at a Café Java as the rain came down. We chatted at our table on the second floor with a big glass window of the busy intersection outside. Patrik gave me some great ideas for my to-do list the next day and helped me go online and purchase a public transit pass.
And to Finnish the Night…
Later that night I grabbed the metro and headed north to mill around the Kallio district, finally deciding on some very un-Finnish food for dinner: a meat and salad plate at an Iraqi-owned döner kebab joint. Then, it was back to the hotel for some shuteye as I’d need rest for another full day in Helsinki.
To my delight, I woke to sunshine my second day in Helsinki, heading over to the historic Ekberg Café for breakfast. I missed the breakfast cutoff time, so I was relegated to the lunch buffet. It wasn’t bad and my pansa probably didn’t need another day of pancakes and waffles! Ekberg is Finland’s oldest bakery, patisserie and café, so it was more about the atmosphere than the food. Don’t worry, I’d have another waffle at the market before the day was through, I assure you.
A Three-Hour Tour
One of the amazing things about public transport in some countries, is that your “card” includes access to not just buses, trams and subways…but to boats! I first experienced this in Istanbul back in July, and such was the case here in Helsinki as well. (I wouldn’t have known this if it wasn’t for Patrik – thank you sir!) I took the opportunity to use my “HSL” card to board the ferry to Suomenlinna Island, where I enjoyed a two-hour jaunt all around. I could’ve even left the jacket at home, it was nearly t-shirt weather today!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: There are more expensive “tourist” ferries that can take you to Suomenlinna Island, but why not save that money? Grab an HSL (public transport) card and take the public ferry!
CAUTION: You are now entering the selfie-zone.
To Hel(Sinki) and Back!
My second day was just wonderful, and a little bit of work, as I clocked in over 20,000 steps. I called it an early night as I was bushed and the next day would be an early wake up call to catch a ferry to Estonia. Finland was one of my favorite countries on this October pandemic-infused journey. Helsinki was just enough big city mixed with Finnish delights like the market and Suomenlinna Island – it was the best of both worlds combining both urban locale with a nature breakaway and lots of history between the both. The waffles weren’t bad either.