We were warned that Finland was a much more expensive country than Russia and it proved to be so in our short stay. As we were entering the EU we would be using euros for the rest of our trip. The service fee at the currency exchange office was high so it was lucky we had used up most of our roubles before we left St Petersburg. Fortunately, we had booked a hotel directly across the road from Helsinki’s chief railway station so we were spared the cost of one taxi fare.
Many of Helsinki’s footpaths are cobbled which makes it hard for pedestrians with old knees but we soon learned where the smooth paths were. Helsinki is a compact, fairly flat city so it is cycle friendly. There is a lot of bicycle traffic and packed out bike racks frequent the footpaths. Helsinki is well supplied with public transport. It has a metro that we used a few times. The tram fleet was generally more modern than the ones we had seen in Russia. There are still a few Czech built trams, presumably from the Soviet era but most are light rail style that are much more passenger friendly: their floor is lower so you can step “across” from the platform rather than have to step “up” two steep stairs. There are also some public buses but we didn’t need to use them during our stay. Even though it was still early autumn (mid-September) it didn’t take much to get cold in Helsinki. Shady tram stops were not comfortable places!
Finland has to construct housing able to deal with the harsh climate. Even though our hotel was over a hundred years old it had good central heating, air lock doors and old fashioned double glazing (one complete window inside another). As we did not venture into the countryside we did not get to see much renewable energy. Due to the low sun angle Finland has little solar energy, mainly used for hot water. They do have some wind power turbines some of which we saw on the coast. Finland also obtains renewable energy from hydroelectricity and black liquor, a bi-product of the paper pulp industry. Helsinki has a beautiful harbour with many nearby islands. Yachting is a popular recreation and there are extensive marinas and on-shore facilities for yachtsmen to winter their vessels.
From Helsinki we took one of the huge ferries to Tallinn, in Estonia. The frequent ferry services are quite cheap and many Finns citizens travel to Tallinn to buy alcohol that is much more expensive in Finland. The main tourist attraction in Tallinn is the walled medieval city. The narrow cobbled streets are not suitable for buses so tourists must walk into the city to visit the historic buildings and churches. The modern city of Tallinn (population 450,000) surrounds the medieval city.
Estonia has had a very chequered history and has been occupied at various times by Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and Germany. It had a brief period of independence between World War I and World War II after which it was occupied by Soviet Russia. It regained its independence in 1991 as part of the disintegration of the USSR.
Most of Estonia’s tram fleet dates from the Soviet era and resembles the Czech built trams we travelled on in Yekaterinburg. Some of the tracks are poorly maintained and the ride can be a bit bumpy. Near the end of our stay we caught a light rail service that was much more comfortable than the old trams. The diesel bus fleet is extensive and very well patronised. We caught a bus out to the impressive Seaplane Museum on the outskirts of Tallinn. On another occasion we caught a bus from Tallinn’s underground bus interchange. The interchange is sheltered, warm and the electronic timetable shows real time arrival and departures. We were visiting Tallinn’s concrete television tower (like Canberra’s Black Mountain) that played a key role in the declaration of Estonia’s independence in 1991.
On our last day in Estonia we went on a day trip to Tartu, a university city close to the Russian border. We took a diesel train not unlike the rail motors that service parts of New South Wales. The rolling stock for this train was quite luxurious and had features such as remote opening toilet doors and bicycle storage using hooks. As the tracks have been well maintained we averaged around 120kph on the trip. Perhaps because of its large student population, Tartu appeared to have more cycle traffic than Tallinn.
Most of Estonia’s power is generated using their rich shale oil reserves but wind generation is expanding rapidly. When we left Estonia for Italy we noticed that Tallinn’s airport carried prominent government advertising trying to attract English speaking migrants presumably to work in their growing service economy.
To be continued…