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September 24, 2013

Travel: Helsinki, a Baltic beauty

On my first day in Helsinki, I battled jet lag and hot temperatures and headed for Suomenlinna Island Fortress, whose construction started in 1748 when Sweden ruled the area. To get to the UNESCO World Heritage site, cited as a prime example of European military architecture, I caught a ferry at bustling Market Square where vendors sell all sorts of produce and seafood, and the inhabitants like to sit and enjoy a Keralian pie or coffee and a local rendition of the doughnut.

As my boat slipped away from its dock, I was impressed with the number of big cruise ships docked in port, then readied my camera for some great shots of the cityscape from the upper deck.

The sea around Helsinki is dotted by close to 340 islands, some large, some no bigger than a pick-up truck, which must have proved problematic for early seafarers. The ferry, however, had no trouble navigating the rock-strewn waters, and 15 minutes or so later, it docked at the island fortress, one of Finland’s most popular attractions.

It was a pleasure to be able to walk along cobblestone streets in the shadow of the crenulated stone battlements without being distracted by auto traffic. Actually a town of 350 year-round residents, Suomenlinna shares its historic stone bastions with a number of artist shops, museums and cafes.

To see much of the fortress, including the King’s Gate, the Great Courtyard, the pink-plastered jetty barracks, the extensive Zander bastion and the 1854 Russian church (now functioning as a Lutheran house of worship), plan to do a bit of walking and allow yourself at least three hours, more if you linger in the museums.

Back in town, expansive Senate Square and its surrounding buildings are the oldest part of central Helsinki. Much of the square’s Neoclassic architecture resembles that of St. Petersburg because after the Russian emperor annexed Finland, he commissioned the same architect who previously worked in the then-Russian capital, Carl Engel, to work on Finnish projects.

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