arriving by ferry to grey September skies


... there are a few contenders for Europe's most expensive city when it comes to travel, but I can tell you now: it's not Helsinki. When planning my current little trip to the Baltics, I was pondering whether or not to take the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, because I had heard of the obscene cost of living and everything there.

As so very often, how much a place costs in your eyes depends on your interests and expectations. For example, if you know where to eat cheaply (and there are many great options) and love culture, London is probably one of Europe's cheapest destinations, as museums are free and tickets for real theatre and gigs (not West End musical garb) much cheaper than anywhere in Europe. Same goes for Paris if you love architecture and markets, for example.

Now for Helsinki? It's not cheap by any standard, but I spent less there in two days than I regularly do in Dublin, Paris or Munich, and less than in Tokyo, Singapore or even Santiago de Chile. If your budget is rock bottom backpacker and you want to drink a lot for cheap, you might have to stay in Thailand, but if you can splurge a little, Helsinki gives you much better value for money than most other Western European capitals.

Let's look at a few figures:

Accommodation

This is without doubt the most crippling part. Even a cheap hostel dorm bed will set you back around €30... which can also easily happen in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland or Belgium. We shared a double room at Eurohostel, which is a 20 min walk or a 8 min tram ride into the centre, for €90 a night - about the same as you'd pay in Paris, London, Amsterdam or Dublin. Breakfast wasn't included and we had to pay €5 extra for (bad) internet access, but the hostel was modern and absolutely spotless, and staff wonderful in spite this being a large big HI institution. The only country I have found this kind of quality before was in Japan.

Food & Drink

Alcohol is expensive in Finnland, which is why the Finns regularly go on booze trips over to Tallinn. But it wasn't all that bad: a beer in central Helsinki set us back €6, which is cheaper than in Dublin and just a tiny bit more expensive than drinking in a fancy place in Central London or Paris.

We skipped restaurants altogether and had snacks from the market hall and at the harbour (€7-9 for a giant sandwich that will fill you up all day) as well as at the stalls along the harbour, which aren't as touristy as they seem - lots of locals stop by here, too. We had warm, delicious and filling salmon soup for €7 there. In the cafes, a coffee and pastry (heavenly cinnamon buns!) will set you back around €4. Not bad at all.

the Baltic sea from Suomenlinna
Restaurants, though, seemed to be in the same price range as the tourist cities of Ireland or Switzerland - expect €30-40 for a nice sit down meal if you just stumble into a random central place, although you can easily have a simple market lunch or cafe sandwich/soup meal for €10-15. I figure if you look hard enough, you can find something in between those price brackets, too (we just had spaghetti with pesto and a salad at the hostel).

Transport

A day pass for transport in Helsinki is €7, and is valid from 24 hrs from the time you validate it - much better value than those that are only valid for a certain area of town until midnight of the same day (looking at you London Travel Card...). You can also use it to take the ferry to Suomenlinna, the awesome fortress island, which is absolutely free apart from this. But really, all of Helsinki's sights are located in a compact area and if you don't want to go further out, you can easily walk most places and skip the transport card altogether.

Sights

But you don't want to, because you should really go and see Suomenlinna! We just went for a 3 hour visit, but you can easily spend an entire day on the island(s)!

Most churches are free to enter (if you are into churches), and the parks of Helsinki are beautiful, too. Helsinki has excellent museums, which cost around €6-8 to get in, cheaper than Paris and about the same as most other European capital museums.

Shopping

What have I come to? Obviously this is where 'budget travel' ends. Usually, I'm not a big souvenir buyer, but Finnish design found its way into my heart within minutes. It's cute but not overly so, a kind of toned-down version of Japanese kawaiiness. There are many nice boutiques selling cute t-shirts, wood and glass crafts and jewellery which are affordable. 'Traditional' souvenirs include woolen jumpers and hats, and everything made out of reindeer. Eeeew. Save them and your wallet.

Breaking things down:

the very ugly opera house
So, in two days in Helsinki (I arrived around 10 am the first day, and left at 6pm the next night), I spent €80 for food, accomodation, entrance fees to two museums and transport - had I known this, I would have booked a second night there as I really wanted to see more and we felt pretty rushed! We didn't really count every Euro, but had agreed in advance to just eat smalls meals out (and cooked dinner and breakfast at the hostel). We also spent €30 each for medium-range ballet seats (you can book online)... and me, another €80 on gifts, jewellery and other cute stuff, but the last two are absolutely voluntary and and only if you love cute shit and ballet!

Overall, Helsinki was not cheap, but not more expensive than the classic Western European capitals - but it felt like we got much more for our money! I'll be back to fill my room and wardrobe with cute Finnish stuff very soon!
cheeky seagulls hitching a ferry ride!

Another pro: the prices (and weather?) seems to keep away young backpackers of the very... repetitive kind, so most other tourist are very considerate (making even a large hostel a nice, clean and quiet place to stay) and the locals didn't seem annoyed by the tourists, but were very friendly.

Have you ever been relieved that a destination was cheaper than expected?









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'I don't get what you were moaning about all this time, it's beautiful here', he says while he tears another piece off the bread roll and throws it to the ducks, which swim towards us, ravenously pecking at the morsels of food. I look downriver, towards the cornfields, and sigh. We're sitting bythe duck pond of the town that I grew up in, except the duck pond these days is no longer the simple square pond by the river, but has been replaced by a fancy 'architectural project'.

'Let's get some pastries', he says, and we walk through the medieval city gate with its dark red bricks and hanging flower baskets into the tiny cobbled alley that says 'Steintor (ehemals Kuhstraat)' – literally, in German 'at the stone gate', and then in Dutch 'previously Cow Street'. Many cultures have left their traces in the town of Goch in Northrhine-Westphalia, located just a few miles from the Dutch border. Over the centuries, the area also belonged to France at one point, and was later a popular quarter for the British Air Force (who hung around in Germany for 50 years after WWII, just to make sure). When I was born, a quarter of the town's population was British. These days, every street has at least one kebab shops, mostly run by Turkish people, but some by former Yugoslavian refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia – of course to the locals, it's all the same.

We stop by the traditional German bakery/café, one of half a dozen in town, where the same staff has been working for the past 25 years, including the burly patisserie chef who looks like a cliché Italian pizza baker. As we pick up some danishes, everyone turns away from their coffee cups and towards us, wondering what these strangers are doing in town. I know most of them, but they don't recognise me any more.

We wander along the cobbled pedestrian shopping street, which is about a quarter of a mile long, and look at the shops – very nice ones, expensive and creative boutiques. Most of them are empty and the only other people on the street are the teenagers hanging out by the Italian gelateria.Nothing ever happens here, and never has.

These days, I can visit here without having a panic attack, but the memory of the pain of living here, 80 miles from the next town of interest, of coming out as a teenager lesbian in a place where even a new haircut makes you stand out, it prevents me from appreciating any of it.

On the way to the airport, he starts again. 'It's so lovely and tranquil here. Great for bringing up children'. He was raised in 1980's Dublin, an urban wasteland with one of Europe's highest crime rates at the time. Now, he lives a 90 minute drive from where I grew up. And I live a 90 minute drive from where he grew up.

He thinks I'm as crazy as I think he is.







Drivers honk at me as I stomp against the direction of traffic the side of the street of the Hungarian... I guess it's a motorway, although it seems more like a glorified country road. This is not what I had in mind when I was planning for a little untouristy trip in Budapest, after having gawked at the many beautiful buildings in Pest for two days.

Trying to find the bus to Memento Park was already difficult, but I decided it would be worth the pain as I have to admit I know very little about the history of communism in Europe. Here, the advertisement said, communist statues from all over Central and Eastern Europe were brought together in a giant park with a lot of fun activities. A communist Disneyland, judging by the brochure, and even on TripAdvisor, people were raving about the experience.

The pictures showed large groups of people covering every inch of the park, so I decided to get there on my own by tram and bus. The bus terminal was hidden behind a large, ugly building site, and frankly the area it was in looked scary at 2pm already. Still, I convinced myself to get on the bus, asked the driver to stop at the park, first just saying 'memento park', then asking him to stop in English. He nodded, somewhat confused, so I said the same again in German and bingo – he says 'Kein Problem'. I seemed to be the only tourist on the bus, but that didn't really worry me. 20 minutes later, I suddenly see the tops of a dozen giant statues peek out from behind the trees at the road side. I rush to the driver, asking 'Memento Park?' again. He snorts and laughs, then points behind him. We're already a mile past it at this point. He laughs some more, stops and throws me out in the middle of the road. 

When I finally get to the park, there's nobody else there. Neither is there any information on any of the statues – which are very impressive, to be fair. Sure, they have titles, but am I supposed to make out of that? I don't recognise any of the names. I go back to the ticket booth and ask the lady if there is an information booklet or anything, but she just snorts and gives me a crazy look. Only on my way out do I find the small indoors exhibition about Hungary's history of the 20th century. But just half the information is written in both English and Hungarian, and so I come out not knowing more than I did when I got off the bus.

As for fun activities, you could sit in an old trabant car and have your picture taken, and listen to a tape of speeches by communist leaders – all in their respective languages, so not really helpful unless you speak Hungarian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Polish, German and a few other languages altogether.

Unfortunately, I made similar experiences in other museums in Budapest – a lovely idea and interesting exhibits, but very little explanation – often, not even in Hungarian. Maybe it's so that you are forced to go their on a guided tour and spend more money. Or maybe, some visitors are happy just gawking at stuff and not understanding any of it, as long as they can take impressive pictures? That's the only thing I can say I got out of my visit to memento park: a bunch of pictures of statues.


Have you ever gone on a trip with a parent? I mean, apart from when you were little and they paid for it all – just like two adults going on a trip together. My mother came to visit me in Ireland a few weeks ago. It was the first time we actually spent time together without the rest of the family, and without any grudges since I was... hum, 12?

We rented a car and drove around some parts of the country where public transport is not exactly great. The problem: I don't drive and my mother had never driven on the left side of the road before. Luckily, we picked up the car at Dublin airport and not in the city centre! She brought a German GPS which was absolutely useless -especially as it didn't make the connection between the Republic of and Northern Ireland, so it acted like it's the end of of the world at Dundalk, the last town before the border: 'You MUST turn around immediately'.

We also had a lot of fun navigating the three hundred roundabouts that you'll find every few miles in North-West Ireland, and got a tiny scrape on the left mirror when trying to drive out of the car park (which we repaired with nail polish – fortunately, the car was black and we returned it very early in the morning, so they didn't notice ;) ).
Donegal is part of the Republic of Ireland and the most north-western county of Ireland. Basically, it's the end of the world – no trains and very infrequent buses, and certainly more sheep than people. I've heard people tell amazing stories about the rugged coast line, but was warned that this is only for experienced drivers: not my mother, at who I was shouting “LEFT! LEFT!” every two minutes. So instead, we drove from Derry to Glenveagh National Park, which didn't put us at any risk of dropping into the Atlantic with our little rental car .

Donegal is so much the end of the world that at some point, the signs stop being bi-lingual and are just in Irish – it's Irelands biggest Gaeltacht, which means many locals use Irish rather than English when they speak to each other. The local accent is so think that have the time you can't tell which of both they speak, even if they speak English ;) I was very thankful to have learned a couple of words and Irish place names.

The drive through the park was magical and we stopped many times to take pictures of the amazing, rugged landscapes with many lakes, but the highlight of it all was the visit to Glenveagh Castle and its gardens. It's quite high up and thanks to the elevation and the nearby lake, the climate is pretty humid – so much that the castle gardens included a lot of species from tropical countries!

I'm really happy we went, because I think I wouldn't have had a chance to see this otherwise.

Have you ever gone on an 'adult' trip with your parents?

{Sorry for the hiatus – it's been over a month since my last post. I needed a break to get over my unhappiness with Belfast, work and make plans for the future}











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