Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 9-11: Helsinki and Stockholm

So far on my recent Unlock the Past cruise ( travels, I have blogged about my visits to Bruges, Berlin, Tallinn and St. Petersburg. Now into our second week, the next major stops were in Scandinavia, at Helsinki (Finland) and Stockholm (Sweden).

Helsinki was the first to be visited on Day 9 (July 19th), and was a particularly big day for Alan Phillips (CEO of Unlock the Past) and his family, who were due to meet up with long-lost family locally for a huge genie-fest of information exchange and visits (see Alona Tester's blog post). For me it was another new city to conquer, and after the Celebrity Eclipse docked at 8am, I went in on a shuttle bus with Tony Beardshaw and Jane and Steve Taubmann for a further dander. At first my heart sank, as we appeared to have been dumped in a fairly average run-of-the-mill shopping precinct, but within a few minutes we realised the driver was obviously having a laugh, because there was a much more interesting part to the city just a few minutes walk away - things soon picked up!

It was a fairly quiet but sunny Sunday morning, and we made our way to the major neo-classical style Lutheran Cathedral, built between 1830 and 1852. This dominated the surrounding landscape, built on a hill overlooking a city square, and we took a few snaps, although we did not venture inside. There was something clearly going to be happening on the square later in the day, as it was fenced off, but we were not able to discern what it would be, and so left to wander around some surrounding streets.

As we wandered it soon became clear that one thing Helsinki is not is wifi friendly for visitors, and so my fiendish masterplan of not using the expensive on-ship wifi, and only leeching off free wifi in city centres took a dastardly blow, with only the occasional bubble of hope occasionally rising and then crashing again repeatedly as we perambulated through the city. 

In the midst of wifi hunting a novel experience soon occurred, when my heart almost made an assassination attempt on my brain for taking a wrong direction as we passed a government building with a banner advertising the truly exciting exhibition, "Our Mutual Debt: Finnish Government Borrowing 1859-2015". Fortunately an adjacent statue with a stone plinth that had clearly been shot at repeatedly soon peaked our interest, although there was nothing on display to suggest why it had been targeted. Quite possibly it was a statue of the person who first came up with the notion of making an exhibition on Finnish Government Borrowing.

The genius of the debt exhibition was later matched only by a shop for which the mind truly boggled, called Bonk Mindlab. This was one business for which I did not want to discover a purpose, in case it turned out to be the place where creativity pushed tirelessly beyond the bounds on a daily basis to end up producing government debt exhibitions...!

By the riverside we then crossed a bridge with many padlocks clamped to it with couples names inscribed upon them, the current in thing for young love.

We then proceeded to the Finnish Orthodox Church, an extraordinary building, which I briefly popped into. There was a service going on, and so I stayed for a few minutes to observe, having never been to an Orthodox service before, and experienced lots of smells, but no bells - it was all very calm and dignified, and a real pity we could not have stayed for longer.

After this the four of us made our way to the waterside and to a market, where I bought the compulsory fridge magnet, avoiding the purchase of anything made from reindeer, or the salmon soup which seemed to be on special offer from all the food-vendors, clearly a local delicacy. We left the riverside, passing a bronzed Mr T impersonator (10 out of 10 for random!), and then through a couple of parks to the Brunnsparken/Kaivopuisto park to the south of the city, before making our way back in to the centre for a beer.

The final part of the trip was a visit to a church literally carved out of a stone, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko, or Underground Rock Church. This was stunning, yet another Lutheran church, but with an architectural style much simpler and more modern, and which opened in 1969 - well worth a visit.

Another dream soon came true after we left the church, as I finally got to meet Santa Claus and a reindeer busking outside of a shop!

Back at the boat, Helen Smith kept the daily evening talks programme going with a session on researching health history. Again, I missed this one, as happening at the same time was a hot glass show taking place on the upper deck, with a demonstration on the art of glass making, which sounded too good to be true and which was worth the 90 minutes of mild hypothermia I endured to watch the team demonstrate their extraordinary craft. However, Helen has kindly given me a copy of her publication Death Certificates and Archaic Medical Terms, 2nd edition (available from, which I will review in due course, and which on intial inspection certainly looks to be a useful guide.

On the Monday morning, Day 10 (July 20th), we were then in Sweden, having docked at Stockholm at 9am. As with Helsinki, this was another short stop of just seven hours, and so I was back out again early to take in the sites. It was quite a grey morning, but we wandered into the old part of the town to see some beautiful small cobbled streets. There were some wonderful squares, and we soon came across yet another royal palace, this time for the Swedish royal family.

From here we then made our way to one of the real jewels in the city, the Tyska Kyrkan/Deutsche Kirke (German Church). We went inside and just marvelled at the interior. It was much more basic than many of the grand cathedrals we had so far witnessed, and to me seemed a bit more reassuringly familiar, the Lutheran interior being a seemingly blinged up version of the more austere Presbyterian kirks I am more used to in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Whilst incredibly ornate, it still felt much more basic than anything else we had seen on the cruise so far.

After a coffee at the under Kastanjen cafe, in a cup that never emptied and with a wifi source that never failed, wecontinued our meanderings, and soon passed an amazing statue of Saint George fighting a dragon. This seemed as much out of context as Saint Andrew did in St. Petersburg, and yet this is every bit as much a part of the local culture in Sweden as it is in England.

As we made our way to the riverside by the palace, we then bumped into a bit of troop trooping, which we stood and watched for a bit, before passing a building marked Sveriges Riksdag, which I presumed was a parliament - Riksdag possibly being a localised equivalent of the German word 'Reichstag'. It turned out that it was indeed the legislature for Sweden. (One of the interesting things about touring around the Baltic was seeing how the Germanic and Cyrillic languages mutated from place to place, making it possible at times to guess what some words meant with my limited German, and which was fun to guess.) Whilst we never visited inside, we did see some interesting things around it, not least of which some 'hoop-boats', a rather unique design for a fishing boat. I later found some old black and white pictures online of these boast in use, which can be viewed at After a final visit to the Riddarholmen church, the oldest in Stockholm, and which has long been used as a royal burial church, we made our way back to the boat, getting on board just as the heavens opened.

As I ate dinner on the 14th deck I was able to watch as the boat sailed out of Stockholm, through a beautiful landscape of islands which seemingly followed our exit for several hours, before we again reached open sea. The final part of the day was to hear Jane Taubmann's useful talk on scanning and restoring old photos, with her recommendation to use a software package called Photoshop Elements, which I will certainly need to look into.

Day 11 was then a full conference day at sea, and so time to get busy again on the genealogy front. I gave the first talk on Scottish civil registration records to a fairly busy theatre for an 8am start (there isn't a more disciplined force than a group of genies wanting to learn!). Several interesting talks then followed, from Cyndi Ingle on maintaining an organised computer, Jane Taubmann on Family Historian's diagrams, and Eric Kopittke on locating an ancestor's place of origin in Germany. Shauna Hicks also spoke on family history on the cheap, with several tips and tricks on offer, and Barbara Toohey spoke on charting your family history. After a quick lunch Rosemary Kopittke gave an overview on The Genealogist website (, before I then had a second, and this time, successful bash at my postponed talk on Scottish land records, introducing the audience to the complex but awesome world of Scottish feudal records. This was then followed by a research help zone, where the main speakers offered advice to individual delegates on the cruise with brick wall genealogical problems - always a good way to keep us on our feet!

I missed Cyndi Ingles' talk on creating chronological timelines in order to attend Paul Milner's talk on pre-WW1 British soldiers' records, which I was glad I did as it confirmed a potential line of enquiry I had suggested to one of our delegates with some research I had been carrying out for her, to confirm a particular brick wall issue by chasing the subsequent payment records of money paid to a soldier ancestor after being discharged to pension (and which I am delighted to say has since worked out for her after a fruitful day's research at TNA yesterday!). I then attended another writing workshop by Carol Baxter on structuring a family history or other non-fiction piece of work. The final talk of the day was by Helen Smith on the need to ask grandma, and other relatives, for stories and information before it is too late!

Coming next - I get shouted at by a Danish soldier, and then have what is probably the finest lager in the world in full view of a little mermaid - before a final full two day conference at sea, and a slight problem with time keeping...

Additional Baltic based cruise posts:

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 1 to 3: From Southampton to Bruges

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 4 to 6: Germany and Estonia

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 7-8: Russia

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 12-14: Copenhagen and homeward bound


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit

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