I walked a mile across Helsinki to see the Cathedral and I felt I got to know the city a little better with each step.
I was excited to see the Cathedral as it appears a striking building in photos. But when it's stood there right in front of you it is so much more than the 2D image you gaze at on a screen or on a postcard. But this is another blog post for another day.
It was after climbing the Cathedral's steps, poking my head inside and wandering around it (though you sadly can't circumnavigate completely and I'm not sure why but this left me a little unfulfilled) that I suddenly realised how incredibly cold I was. Despite my thick jacket's best attempts my thighs ached with cold and I was struggling to feel my fingers or toes.
It was time for a coffee.
Happily a lonely sign saying "Cafe" caught my eye nearby. It was standing awkwardly outside an official looking building directly facing me from what is actually the front facade of the Cathedral, though most photographs are taken from the side. If in doubt of which side of the Cathedral is the front, look up at the cross on the top of the Cathedral's top dome.
I descended the snow and grit covered steps with due care and attention and inspected this promising sign closer. "UniCafe", where students can drink coffee for 1,40 Euros and non-students must pay 20 cents extra. I think I can cope with that. As I pulled the heavy door open - and doors in Finland are rightfully heavy, they have no need for chilly draughts and doors left open here - I noticed a plaque to my side with some more of those funny Finnish words I'm at a loss to. Underneath was the English translation "National Library of Finland". I think my "Oooh" was audible.
I walked into that building wanting to warm up by drinking a coffee that cost me less than 2 Euros. I walked out of that building educated, enlightened and enthralled.
I was educated by a small exhibition in the basement of the building about the Finnish author Arto Paasilinna who hails from, lives in and loves dearly Finnish Lapland, from where I type this blog post surrounded by snow, magical light and ageing trees. The small collection of words I read about him and his stories couldn't have been a better warm-up and I have bookmarked several of his books to read in the future.
I was enlightened that the 2 Euro coffee I consumed tasted wonderful. I also ate my first pulla, a Finnish doughy, slightly sweet bread that is a distant, less sugary cousin of the doughnut.
And I was enthralled by the rooms I walked through to get to the cafe. Elaborate ceilings, grand staircases and balconies, a stately domed roof decorated extravagantly. Furthermore nearly all of this was lined in bookcases holding old leather bound, important and precious books. I stopped and admired it all. I was also a little inquisitive why nobody, no map or no guidebook had recommended this place to me before? It was free to enter, beautiful to wander around and yes, (good!) coffee for less than 2 Euros in one of Europe's most expensive cities. Perhaps they wanted to keep it a secret? But you know what, I can understand this.
Well, now it's our best kept secret about Helsinki, isn't it?
Frances M. Thompson
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