To my surprise the train at Rovaneimi station was a double decker one. In Europe these trains seemed to be for commuter travel through cities and suburbs, not an overnight trip through most of Finland to Helsinki. Never mind, it was a welcome sight. I hadn’t booked overnight sleeping and I had the feeling this train would be more comfortable.
It was. Not a perfect nights sleep but one of comfortable dozing in more space than usual while a country swept by. One of forests, distant stretches of water, the odd town station, all under a night sky that seemed to hang on to the last vestiges of summer dusk in a disorientating way, making it hard to guess what time it was.
Tampere. Morning showed it to be a town by a big lake with a few hills. A good place for exercise and long hikes. Last stop before the Finnish capital Helsinki. Geographically I was heading in the right direction for home after reaching the Arctic circle but the biggest objective of the journey was the World Science Fiction convention in Helsinki. It’s nice to get to a gathering of friends with similar interests a long way from home. Only well after that would I be heading for home in earnest.
How would I find the hotel I was staying at? It was by the railway I was on, on the way into the city centre. And there it was! Odd though as the street plan I had made it look further back from the track.
I found out why when I got to the city centre after reviving myself with a station breakfast. I walked out into a centre of imposing buildings with company logos on them and milling crowds. Time was lost working out why my bank card didn’t work. Some obscure European way of doing things. Luckily that was eventually circumvented; but it became clear from enquiries and a map that the hotel I’d seen was too far north. There must a chain with 2 of them in similar positions near railway stations to add muddle to the situation. The one I wanted was opposite the convention centre on the other side of the railway and I went a stop too far trying to find it. Luckily there was only one main line out of Helsinki centre to the north and I learned that it was the first stop.
It was best to sign in at the convention centre before my room was made ready. Tired by now I threaded my way through a modern architectural complex before asking directions. I’d very nearly made it anyway!
Within a few hours of arrival I’d met just about every one of my friends. Unusual for a convention the size of a Worldcon. Including Martin, an old convention hand, whom I would be travelling back some of the way with.
After that it was time to find my hotel. It was a challenge. It was on the other side of the railway area which was a massive no mans land of building sites and cranes. Going through the station led nowhere and the only ways across were bridges about ½ a mile away either way. A tiring trek with the backpack but I found the hotel on the other side. It seemed almost as tiring as hiking all the way up that Norwegian valley. Cities can exhaust one more than a country hike.
The convention settled into routine. One of exploring convention attractions, attending panel conversations and maybe the odd film, conversations with friends over midday drinks, more of the same in the afternoon, drifting around looking for friends, evening meals out and more drinking and parties.
I build – or did build and maybe will again someday – planets. Model ones that were shown in convention art shows. I hadn’t done that for some time but still contributed by appearing on the odd panel. There were 2 this time.
There could be a problem with one of them since it was on early American space exploration which I wasn’t an expert on and I was the only panel member apart from the American heading it. Luckily we met and levelled with each other beforehand so I became more or less his assistant; proving myself surprisingly useful when his equipment proved to be a pain and I was lucky enough to find help quickly.
The other was much more my scene since I’m not only into planets but the natural world. Forests in SF and fantasy was the theme. It was probably arranged with the kind of forests one finds in Finland in mind, but I was able to expand that with the jungles I’d been through, having photos which could be passed round the audience. The rest of the panel was large and composed entirely of women.
One other surprise occurred near the end of the convention at a large meeting along the lines of ‘how the hell are we going to cope with Brexit?’ Right at the end I found the only friend I hadn’t seen during the convention sitting next to me. He’d unwittingly disguised himself by growing a beard. Living in the Czech republic as a Brit abroad he’d suffered from Brexit and we had a good conversation about its problems including the unfortunate surprises of friends who’d turned out to be rabid Brexiteers.
The whole convention affair terminated with a crowded party on the ground floor of my hotel – as luck would have it – and a smaller gathering of friends in my room along with a representative of Finland; a youth who was made welcome.
I got over any hangover on the morning after by hiking to the center of Helsinki. Better than it sounded for there was more or less a green corridor stretching from across the road from the hotel the whole way there. Plus the morning was one of stunning sunshine. It began with a minor climb up a rock outcrop right across the road from the hotel, followed by leafy green woods with exercise apparatus by the path I tried out. A kind of playground for grown ups perhaps. Further in funfair attractions projected above the trees like an futuristic construction, then there was a walk between the railway and a lake and Canada Geese near another exercise area on a sunlit meadow flanked on both sides by the city. There was also an entrance to an underground car park bored through solid rock. I found out later there was a whole complex of that sort of thing below Helsinki.
I linked up with Martin and a friend of his from Yorkshire who looked younger than his age, early 70’s. We shared a hotel room in one of those places where you never saw any staff and had to remember number combinations to get into the place. That was why it was cheap.
We were in Helsinki for another day or so and I had a look at the botanical gardens, amazed to find cacti growing outside. The weather was brilliant but surely the whole lot would be covered by snow in winter. They were moved into the protection of hothouses then.
There was a museum with a memorable mockup of a coal age forest. Photos I took looked quite atmospheric, almost like the real thing.
In the evening we met another SF fan by accident: a woman we knew who’d missed her plane in Iceland after too much shopping? I think that was it. She didn’t seem bothered about it as we discussed it over a drink. For me it had the feel of the casual jet set making the most of whatever time we had left.
In the morning it was time to head south on the ferry to Tallinn: capital of Estonia.
I reached the docks on foot by passing a giant sculpture of a naked figure with an outsized head. He was watering the plants with an everlasting piss. Yup! Can’t think of any other way to describe it. What with the Oslo sculpture park it was tempting to jump to conclusions regarding the ‘mores’ of this region, or lack of the ones found in Britain maybe. Goodo.
After waiting in a disused terminal for awhile under the impression it was the right one – its age should have been a clue – I hiked further and found the right one. Luckily I’d allowed myself plenty of time.
Martin showed up. We headed up an escalator, along galleries giving a scenic view of the docks and the city, and boarded the ferry.
Helsinki was left behind as we glided out between the peninsulas and islets of the Finnish coast on which people were enjoying themselves during the brief summer months. I wondered what it was like here in winter? Just about the only views of Helsinki I’d seen was on ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ with Michael Caine, where it was a city in snow and ice.
Norway, Sweden, Finland. The Scandinavian coast is incredibly fragmented around these countries but that of the Baltic States is more even. Estonia and its capital Tallinn, was just over the horizon. Martin had got a hotel within walkable distance of the docks. It was a relief to find it. He’d got a really good deal here for though comparitively cheap it was still modern with luxurious dining and bar areas and – most of all – good clean spacious rooms.
That evening we found a theme pub very near the hotel: ‘Scotland Yard’. Full of split levels and police regalia of the antique sort. The mini skirted waitresses were adorned with handcuffs. The exception to the theme was a very big fish tank forming a backdrop to the entertainment which that evening consisted of a woman with a guitar, whom we agreed was very good, as we drank and ate in that correct order. We were going to enjoy ourselves in Tallinn and would go there again.
The following 3 days were a time of real pleasurable relaxation. Often aided by alcohol. On the 2nd day I didn’t even bother leaving the hotel. Sometimes I just like completely ‘vegging out’ as it were. Martin observed that either I did nothing at all or moved really quickly, meaning whether I was walking or not. He had nerve damage to a leg and walked slowly. I reassured him by saying I welcomed a gentle stroll for a change rather than bombing along which is how I often walk. Fast.
Beyond Scotland Yard and a strip of park was the city proper. Not one of high rises and futuristic architecture but a preserved old city complete with city walls. Even the buskers played classical instruments. Tallin was tailor made for the tourists but authentic. Pleasures here were a museum housing a model of the old city and big ones of a house and ship, a garden on the other side of the city with sculptures and artwork that included a half sunken car or two. And of course, bars and restaurants. Ones with massive slabs of polished wood for tables and benches and a tastfully photographed lifesized nude on the wall. Medieval ones with candles on the tables. Ones consisting of rows of tables outside staffed by ethnically dressed Baltic maidens where I remember the honey beer and cinammon beer served in earthenware jugs as being dee-elicious! Another memorable place was an old house on the edge of the old city converted into a restaurant with hippy like décor where we had at least one evening meal.
There were modern parts to Tallinn as well. ‘Attention. This is a self-driving bus’ was the wording on a yellow notice I saw near Scotland Yard. Then I saw it: a driverless vehicle like a cross between a tiny bus and a car. It was my first sight of a driverless vehicle, plus the reminder of how widely English was accepted and how lucky the British were in consequence when travelling. Then I found a district near the hotel going the other way from Scotland Yard, the Rotermann Quarter, that reminded me of the surrealist artist De Chirico who painted architectural scenes in stark light and shadow. But even he didn’t create the angles of the architecture, pavement intersections and gradients here. An ornate dress in a shop window added to the surreal feel.
One final modern aspect. On a few occasions jets roared and thundered overhead. Russia was close and these were probably exercises for that reason. I’d wondered – what with Putin – whether heading for the Baltic States that summer was like heading for Poland in the summer of 1939? Just before invasion! Happily this wasn’t so.
On the other side of the walled city was a small train terminus. Martin was going to take one of the ultramodern trains to Tartu in the east of Estonia. To sample the architecture maybe and the beer of course! He would continue sampling the beer throughout Europe until after I was back at school in September; by which time he would be getting close to home.
I on the other hand could be running out of money soon, since not only had Scandinavia been one of the most expensive parts of this planet but there had been all those adventures on the other side of Asia. It was time to bid Martin farewell and make a break for home. Bus was the cheapest way of doing that from here. The bus station was a fair hike past a modern high rise complex on the other side of the Rotermann quarter.
I’d no idea of how good bus transport was in this part of the world so I’d bought a seat to Riga before I found there was a bus going all the way to Warsaw! Too late to get that changed though.
They were certainly comfortable enough and gave an easy journey out of Tallinn and it’s suburbs and into the pine forested plains of Estonia, which seemed to occupy most of the country. There wasn’t much agricultural land until well into Latvia, which didn’t appear to have an obvious border. The road ran along the Gulf of Riga but was screened off from it by more forest.
Riga itself – the capital of Latvia – was more like something out of the Communist Bloc than Tallinn, with a little of the 1950’s thrown in: judging by a house height advertising hoarding on the side of an office block. It featured a couple where the man was dressed in suit and tie as though for a prestigious position in that time and the woman was in a coat designed like a flared gown, common then but hardly seen now. Elsewhere was a Stalinist structure – ‘The Latvian Academy of Sciences’ – where the architecture resembled Moscow University. I’d seen a similar tower in Warsaw imposed by the Russians.
The bus station was by the big river flowing through the city. It turned out I could stay the night there very cheaply! Bound to be a dorm I thought but no: a single room! Rough and ready with no TV, a view of a roof only and a a toilet down a corridor but these were trifling issues and I was in no mood to grumble. Not only that, when I tried to find a bus to Warsaw I found I could get one all the way to Berlin! So the next stage of the journey would be down to Germany. From there it would be an easy ride to Brussels, then home. I hadn’t realised such a comprehensive bus network extended through eastern Europe with comfortable buses at that. I was impressed by that and remained so.
Across a creek from the bus station was a massive building with 4 curved hangar like structures. It was the Central Market Hall of Riga. The hangar like structures were actually old Zeppelin hangars. That’s the bit of Riga I explored on foot.
Late next morning the next bus pulled out of Riga along the wide river and across a bridge where there was a good view of the TV tower. A red and white soaring tower, over 1,000 feet. Like an SF 1950’s magazine illustration of how an alien spaceship might be imagined then.
South of Riga towards the Lithuanian border the forests gave way to a great rolling agricultural plain extending across Lithuania. An industrial spoil heap was the most memorable terrain feature and that must have been well into that country. Again the border seemed non existent.
The odd storm gave a spectacular edge to some photos I took while on the move. The last major town was reached before the Polish border: Kaunas. By another big river with wooded bluffs on the other side.
Onward towards Poland. I caught sight of a signpost for ‘Vilkaviskis’ at a crossroads. I can see now from its location on Google Earth that the bus was on the right road.
Around the Polish border the landscape became hummocky with small hills, seemingly without a pattern. Nice scenery actually and I wondered if this area was some huge terminal moraine of an ice age ice sheet. What was now the Baltic Sea had been a central region for them.
Poland was crossed in a night. I remember entering Warsaw, then leaving it without actually seeing it, just sketchy streetlit scenes with buildings mostly hidden by night, in between sleeping comfortably but fitfully. Never mind. I’d seen Warsaw and much of Poland 4 years ago.
Dawn found the bus and me at the Oder River, the German Polish Border. It was also the last river before Berlin and the site of the last stand of Nazi Germany against the Russian hordes near the end of World War 2. A small city, ‘Frankfurt an der Oder’ could be seen to the north. Early morning sunlight was on its high rises. Then into Germany was a wind farm. Its futuristic sight rising above the morning mist on the meadows.
I’d been in Germany before but not to Berlin so there was that excitment of discovery, heightened by a city with such a notorious past. The bus was skirting the it from the south, coming up to the bus terminus on the western side. Should see Templehof Airport then. There was an airport but it looked modern and Templehof was back to the Nazi’s and beyond. Perhaps it was being refurbished. It was a new airport though for there was Templehof further on, looking like a field.
A motorway led past both and cut through Berlin until we swung up into an inner suburb of Berlin, very near the main road west out of the city from the Tiergarten. The bus terminal was here End of journey. Charlottenburg. Could be a dangerous place a passenger warned me. Now what?
I wanted some time in Berlin for I’d never seen it before. Better be prepared to shell out the readies for a few nights at a hotel then. First thing though was to find a hotel! To get over the long journey, lack of proper sleep and shower. I could be easy meat for anyone up to no good when in this condition. But where?
The chances were the centre was more expensive but it was where I wanted to be because not only were the sights there but I felt it might be less of a problem than the inner suburbs regarding possible muggings. Also I’d saved money on buses and accomodation all the way from Tallinn; so I not only had enough for a central hotel – within reason – but from here on I could make a more expensive bolt for the Channel and home by train. So it was to be a hotel near some central station terminal. Like Paddington or Waterloo.
I got out of the bus terminal, across a major road and round a corner by a modern complex. There was a U-Bahn station around here. The Berlin underground train system. When I found a map within it didn’t seem to display any kind of terminus station in central Berlin. Better make for the knot of lines by Berlin Zoo. That looked major and was on my side of the centre.
When I got there it was a certainly a big station with opportunities for breakfast. With one of the sights of Berlin in sight: the monument of ruin that was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Still couldn’t resolve the rail station issue though so maybe ask at a hotel. The one I found myself at turned out to be the Waldorf Astoria! To say I wasn’t dressed for that was an understatement and one of the staff was approaching in anticipation that I shouldn’t be there, very likely. Still if I was as courteous as possible… The result was good: one of the strange aspects of this city was that there were no rail terminals indeed, but I could easily get to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof on the northern edge of the centre from the station I’d just left and once there could catch a train anywhere, I was informed in friendly fashion. As a joke I thought I might as well ask how much the cheapest room was at the Waldorf and – sharing my sense of humour – the man told me. It was out of my league but he gave me a map for nothing and we parted on good terms.
The Hauptbahnhof was one of the most amazing buildings I’d seen. The great glass & metal structure was built in 2006. 5 levels I think with trains running through 4 of them. It was half mainline station and half shopping centre with a touch of Escher thrown in; what with escalators, levels, railway lines and trains criss crossing each other above and below, with shops every which way one looked. Enquiries here led to the home run of the journey being a train to Cologne, then Brussels, then back to Blighty. The time the train departed was a surprise on the good side: around midnight tomorrow night, which meant I only needed a hotel for tonight.
Another good surprise was the hotel. Next to the Hauptbahnhof it was budget enough to be a glorified youth hostel with a young clientele. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a bar cum cafeteria I could sample the local beer at. It went down very well after which I found my room had a view of a glassed over section of the station, complete with passing trains. The sound insulation was effective though and I caught up on sleep soundly.
In the afternoon the weather was ok so I ventured out for some sightseeing. The Spree River, probably slightly less wide than the Thames at Reading, was on the other side of an open plaza from the Hauptbahnhof. Their seemed to be a fondness for more open space – plaza or park – linking this up with the Tiergarten immediately to the south. Quite right too, and because of this the Reichstag with its glass dome could be seen from a distance. Up close though I found it to be a tourist trap with huge queus outside and up there under the dome one could make out throngs of tiny figures, tourists who had got in, looking like an exhibit in an insect house at a zoo.
It would take all day to get up there so I soon found myself at the sandstone hued edifice of the Brandenburg Gate. Parthenon like columns with a chariot on top but without a temple behind. Instead it was the main thoroughfare of the Unter den Linden running through the heart of what was East Berlin, flanked by modern architecture and opulent establishments. What a change from the ruin this neighbourhood must have been at the end of World War 2 and half a century of Communist rule when one couldn’t walk where I’d just strolled.
Striking off from that towards the Spree River I had a break for a frankfurter, then paralled the Unter den Linden east. I was heading for the TV tower past an extremely baroque building: the Berlin Cathedral. When in a strange city go up a high tower to get a good idea of the layout, plus a good view of course, but when I got there it was walled off by tourists again.
I consoled myself with a visit to a museum on the way back. Along with honest depictions of the Nazi regime there was a map display there of the way European countries had changed shape, fragmented, formed up and occasionally disappeared according to the perspective of history, each periods political geography fading in and out. I’d heard of the German psyche being affected by the geographical position of Germany being at the centre of Europe, being beset by dangers on all sides. The Thirty Years War, unification under Bismark, the lead up to the First World War and the excesses of the Nazi regime all owed something to this. Without justifying what had happened here the map made the German position more understandable.
Berlin wasn’t just a city one should visit in relation to the horrors of recent history though. This was a city for architects. There was a great range of architectural style here from ornate historical buildings and the monumental ones of the 20th century to the ultramodern Hauptbahnhof, the adapted Reichstag, and building design along the Spree River that belonged in the latest architectural magazine.
The most striking thing about the interior architecture though was the theme of high ceilings and massively high doors found in the museum and other buildings throughout the city, especially administrative ones favoured by those who had been in favour of Hitler. Look at war films set in Berlin. There was a feeling through that of the individual being dwarfed by the state.
One day in Berlin. Sounds like a film title. The sun seemed to be smiling on this city as I passed over the Spree River again, past the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. Instead of the Unter den Linden this time it was the Wilhelmstrasse which went in the general direction of Hitlers’ bunker. I never found that but found just about everything else.
Starting with the British Embassy, complete with flags and security.
Carrying on down the street I saw a balloon rise into the air. It was a big one rising to a considerable height. Being completely free I walked in its direction. There were people in it. There was open space on the left and a green space where it could land. Could it be?
Yes it was a novel way one could see this city from a height! For a fee you could get on a circular meshed in walk below the balloons’ base, see the ground falling away below and views opening up acrosss Berlin, its buildings losing their detail into speckled suburban expanses, bounded by the muted green horizons of the north German plain on every side. To the north west the top of the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Hauptbahnhof were in line, next to that the dark green mass of the Tiergarten stretched westward. In the good weather it looked idyllic and there probably was something of a renaissance going on down there. After all the Nazi’s and World War 2 were fading into the depths of history and the Russians had gone too; leaving a re-unified city, capital of a re-unified country at the heart of a prosperous Europe.
Right below though were reminders of how bad things had been. Across the street was a building that looked regimented out of 5 to 6 story grey office blocks. Now the German Ministry of Finance it had been built in the 1930’s as the ‘Air Ministry’, headquarters of the Luftwaffe. From Google Earth it seems that Goering had a bunker near there. Unexplored.
Right by that was a section of still standing Berlin Wall. The other side of that was used as a linear display of associated grim depictions, beyond that within a bare space without a blade of grass was ‘The Museum of Terror’. Site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS.
A relief from that was the Tiergarten. Comparable in size to Hyde Park but narrower and longer. Bisected down its length by a main road with a massive roundabout and ‘Victory Column’ – commemorating Bismarks’ wars of unifying Germany near its west end. The Tiergarten is saved from its traffic by being mostly trees, unlike Hyde Park which is mostly grass. Within I found woodland walks leading to sunlit glades to chill out in, with small lakes and ponds nearby, instead of the Serpentine.
The zoo was at its south west corner. What a comprehensive zoo it was too judging by the photos I took: dated representations of Dinosaurs at its entrance, gavials in a sunken enclosure like a hothouse with a pond thrown in, lizards, snakes, a salamander, frogs, toads, an axotolotl, tortoises, tropical fish hanging out on a coral reef, bison, a seal blissfully sunning itself on a rock just big enough for it, a beaver, antelope, monkeys and bears. I would have got round to the big cats and others but I only got there in the mid afternoon.
The angel on top of the Victory Column seemed to beckon towards the oncoming sunset as the low angled sun made her a brilliant gold. The Brandenburg gate Reichstag were highligted in a similar way as I made my way back through the Tiergarten and past the curved architectural masterpiece of the Kongresshalle. ‘Art Without Death’ was being exhibited there. Seemed to sum up the mood in this city somehow.
Back in the Hauptbahnhof something I’d never seen in a station before got started after nightfall. A small orchestra with a violin, cello, concertina and piano were playing classical dance music and a couple were dancing to that bordered by a watching crowd. You could have a birds eye view of that from the next level up as I did. Later couples started dancing around the continuing event. Art without death indeed.
The train home left from the upper level. The level I saw from my window last night; where the multicurved roof housed platform and signs flooded with the brilliant starkness of night lighting. Berlin beyond was simplified into the odd muted stack of city lights. Towards the western end was a big ‘Bombardier’ sign heralding the company making trains, and an English word in the middle of Berlin.
The train to Cologne was the worst endurance ride of the trip what with attempting to sleep in a fully lit carriage, but I was feeling better around Brussels and a pigeon welcomed me home by eyeing my breakfast at Waterloo Station.
© D Angus 05 18