Back on the search for Santa, Ben discovered that the best and cheapest way to get himself, the crew and his Saab from Stockholm to Helsinki was on board a Silja line car ferry.
The Silja Serenade and Silja Symphony offer overnight ferry rides between Sweden and Finland, complete with tax-free alcohol, gambling casino, shops, cafes and restaurants under a long, glass-roofed promenade. People from all over the world meet and swap stories.
The 12-hour ferry ride gets you into port at 8am. You will discover that while Helsinki is Finland’s capital and largest city, it is comparatively small and intimate. It is a good city for walking and has plenty of friendly cafes, parks and markets. Nearby islands are a delight to visit in summer.
King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden founded the town of Helsinki when Finland belonged to his country. The new trading post became a competitor to Tallin in Estonia, on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Finland. In 1550, the king ordered the burghers of Rauma, Ulvila, Porvoo and Tammisaari to move to Helsinki, but medieval traditions changed slowly.
Wars in Russia, the Baltic countries and Germany made Helsinki a strategic military centre. It became a point of embarkation for troops and a winter haven for the navy.
In 1640 the town was moved further south to the Vironniemi headland, now known as Kruununhaka.
The 18th-century founding of St Petersburg and Russia’s growing power had great influence on the growth and future of the Finnish capital and the next century was one of great hardship. War, plague and hunger were thrust upon Finland, with Russian occupation during the Great Hate of 1713-21 and again in 1742. Sweden lost its status as a super power.
It became vital for Sweden to fortify Helsinki. In 1748, construction of the magnificent sea-fortress of Suomenlinna began on an outlying island. It was described as the Gibraltar of the north and marked the turning point in Helsinki’s history, bringing prosperity and taking seafaring to new proportions.
Sweden was forced to declare war on Russia in 1808 as a result of the power politics of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I. Finland was annexed to Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy in 1809. Helsinki became the capital in 1812.
Devastation by fire made it necessary for the town to be completely rebuilt. This was done in a style worthy of a capital. The Finnish and German architects together gave the city its monumental empire-style centre, with the 1852 cathedral being the most conspicuous building.
Helsinki soon became an administrative, university and garrison town and the biggest industrial city in the land. By the 20th century it had a population of more than 100,000 and declared independence in 1917. Civil war followed and early in 1918 the government was forced to flee Helsinki. In May, 1918, the war ended with victory for the government troops. Many challenges were posed for the capital of the young and independent republic.
During the 1920s, the republic developed briskly. Architecture of the 1920s and '30s was marked by classicism and functionalism. The Helsinki Olympic Stadium was ready for the 1938 Games, which were postponed due to the war but held there in 1952.
Helsinki has more than 30 museums, lots of parks and architectural wonders. Visitors shouldn’t miss a boat tour to one of the nearby islands.
The city’s central square, Senaatintori, was modelled on St Petersburg and is ringed with buildings from the early 19th century. The most prominent landmark and favourite religious building, Tuomiokirkko, dominates the northern side of the square. It towers from one of the granite outcroppings on which Helsinki is built and can be seen from way out at sea. Its exterior is columned and grand, but its interior reflects the stoicism of the Lutheran faith, which is followed by 85 percent of Finns. Its great domed ceiling provides excellent acoustics, making it a favourite venue for concerts. As Finland’s most important Lutheran building, it is comparable to St Peter’s in Rome or St Paul’s in London.
Just outside Helsinki is the town of Hämeenlinna, home of the medieval Häme Castle which has an extensive museum. It is also home to Jouko Ahola. Between 1997 and 1999 he was the world’s strongest man. These days, aged 33, he runs a construction company, but was more than happy to show Ben that he is still able to pick up a car and pull a semi-trailer without too much trouble.
Another Finnish character Ben visited is Wilma Schlizewski, the Inky Queen. In fact he attended her wedding party. The tattoo queen’s guest list was diverse to say the least bikers, drag queens, singers, actors and ice hockey players, all of whom proudly and permanently wear examples of her artwork.
This all led to Ben being invited to protect the goal of Helsinki’s premier ice hockey side, the IFK Cougars. This proved to be difficult and dangerous, even for the intrepid Ben, so rather than risk the next leg of the drive, he contented himself on the bench watching one of the most explosive sports on the planet.
From Stockholm to Helsinki.
Bentours International has eight-day, self-drive packages through Scandinavia, including twin-share accommodation, breakfast and car hire, starting at $1110 per person.
Scandinavian Airlines fly frequently to Stockholm, starting at $2133 ex Perth, $2151 ex Sydney, $2162 ex Melbourne, $2165 ex Brisbane, $2619 ex Darwin and $2627 ex Adelaide, per person.
SAAB Automobile Australia has Saab hire from Avis starting at around $144 per day, based on three-day hire or more.
Entry to Tuomiokirkko Helsinki Cathedral is free. Hours change with the seasons. Helsinki Card gives free urban travel, entry to more than 50 attractions and discounts on day tours. Check with the Helsinki Tourist Office for more information.
Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.
Ph: 1800 221 712www.bentours.com.au
42 Lavender Street
North Sydney 2059
Ph: (02) 9929 6044 Fax: (02) 9929 firstname.lastname@example.org
Ph: 1300 727 707www.scandinavian.net
SAAB Automobile Australia
Ph: 1800 507 222 Fax: (03) 9681 email@example.com
29 Unioninkatu, Senaatintori Finland
Helsinki Tourist Office
Pohjoisesplanadi 19, FIN-00100
Ph: 358 09 169 3757
Fax: 358 09 169 3839