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Pole to Pole

Day 22: Rovaniemi to Helsinki

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Michael Palin - Pole to PoleOur train pulls into Helsinki an hour early. It's a warm Sunday morning and after I've been filmed arriving we have the rest of the day off. Helsinki, with a population of half a million, is by no means a brash or daunting city, but it requires a conscious mental adjustment to be back where humans control the environment, rather than the other way round.

The station is a remarkable building, an example of what is known as the National Romantic Style, developed by Saarinen and others at the turn of the century to express, in architecture, a Finnish culture and tradition that was not dominated by either Sweden or Russia. It makes much of indigenous materials such as pink granite, brass, wood and copper, decorated with reliefs of trees and plants. Dark and mystical, redolent of mead halls and medieval castles, it contrasts strongly with early nineteenth-century Helsinki, down by the sea. This is light and graceful and neo-classical, a reflection of Leningrad, only 180 miles to the east.

I've found that the best places to aim for in a new city are stations, for the buzz and the newspapers; markets, for food and colour; botanical gardens, for peace and contemplation; and, whenever possible, harbours, for space and spectacle. The joy of Helsinki is that you can visit all of them in a couple of hours.

In the early evening I take my first run of the journey, around the Toolonlahti, a shallow lake close to the centre of the city. The temperature is in the low seventies and it's hard work. At 11.15, as I turn in, the lights are on along the Mannerheimintie - the main road in to the city from the north, where the sun will still be shining.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 22
  • Country/sea: Finland
  • Place: Helsinki
  • Book page no: 45

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