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Trip Report Trip Report - Helsinki and Tallinn, baby!

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Hello, Fodorites!

Background

In light of the current economic climate I had decided to holiday within Europe. I settled on Finland because I wanted to go somewhere a bit different from my usual Mediterranean haunts and Helsinki stood out since I knew absolutely nothing about it other than it was the capital of Finland. Oh, and Finland tends to be cold.

By checking out the Fodors website and reading a couple of trip reports (especially rhkkmk’s – thank you!) I realised that Helsinki was the place to go to for a week, with a side trip to Tallinn.

I booked flights with KLM and Sokos Hotel Aleksanteri via Expedia and was able to get a reasonable rate despite it being the height of the tourist season. I cannot recommend this hotel highly enough. Although it is a little walk away from the main tourist hub, it is located in a beautifully peaceful area with many delightful cafes, restaurants and galleries. The staff were amazingly efficient and friendly and I would not hesitate to go back there again. Also, there is a supermarket directly opposite the hotel, so it was cheap and convenient to stock up on drinks and snacks.

I’d heard that Helsinki can be a massive black-hole when it comes to money so I had decided to only eat out in modest restaurants and only pay for the attractions I was genuinely interested in. Having said that, I do not feel as though I missed out on anything.

Useful Websites

General tourist information on Helsinki and Tallinn:
http://www.visithelsinki.fi/In_English/Visitor.iw3
http://www.tourism.tallinn.ee/

Hotel:
http://www.sokoshotels.fi/en/hotels/helsinki/aleksanteri/

Transport:
http://www.finnair.com/finnaircom/wps/wcm/resources/file/ebf1760126ea0fa/FINNAIR_CITY_BUS_TIMETABLE.pdf
http://www.hsl.fi/EN/Pages/default.aspx/

Tallinn side trip:
http://www.lindaline.fi/en/
http://www.inyourpocket.com/estonia/tallinn
http://www.fmi.fi/weather/local.html

Day 1

I arrived in Helsinki late on Monday afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to be out of the airport with my checked luggage within 15 minutes of landing. This was probably the most super-efficient airport I had ever known! The Finnair bus cost €5.90 and I was speedily transported into the city with a handful of other passengers. It was reassuring to know that English was commonly used, though I enjoyed listening to the gargling Finnish language too. I was deposited at the railway station; using the a guidebook I’d picked up from the tourist information counter at the airport, I was able to navigate my way along Mannerheimintie towards Albertinkatu. I’d advise all visitors to get a copy of ‘Helsinki This Week’ because it contains up-to-date listings of restaurants, cafes, activities and all the sights along with opening times and costs. There are excellent maps also. The back cover had a picture of George Clooney flogging a particular brand of watch, which was fine by me, though he could have lost the accessories and shirt, perhaps...

Checking into the hotel was quick and I was pleased to see that my request for a quiet room was fulfilled. The room was fantastically peaceful even though it overlooked the central courtyard area. Dinner was at nearby Rivoletto (Albertinkatu 38), which had a relaxed atmosphere and delicious pizzas and pasta dishes. I managed to dine for less than €15 and then retired to my room to get well acquainted with my shower/wet-room and reconfigure the air conditioning unit.

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    great start. Nice to have all the links right up front.
    We were in Helsinki for 3 days during the heat of July and enjoyed it very much. To us it had the feel of a somewhat big city transported to the woodsiness of Northern Minnesota. Haven't had a chance to get to my own trip report so I'm anxious to read the rest of yours.

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    Day 2

    For breakfast there was the usual varieties of breads, cold meats, cheese, fruit and cereals as well as frankfurters, meatballs and, oddly, cauliflower cheese. I thought it would be rude not to sample a little of everything and so came away totally stuffed and ready for a day of heavy duty sight-seeing. Come on Helsinki, baby, show me what you’ve got!

    First port of call was Upenski Cathedral. I enjoyed wandering down to harbour area whilst it was still rather quiet. The market square was filled with locals shopping for fresh berries and fish and a few tourists checking out the furs and souvenirs. There was even a guy in a boat selling potatoes, which I found a little random but gave rise to several interesting questions. The cathedral was beautiful, the golden domes appeared to radiate warmth on this cloudy morning. The interior was richly ornate, from the gold adorned icons to the star filled sky on the central dome. Everything seemed to be screaming ‘look at me!’. I spent about half an hour taking it all in until a noisy tour group.

    A short walk along Aleksanterinkatu led me to Senate Square, which is overlooked by the glorious Lutheran Cathedral. The difference between the two cathedrals was striking. Stepping inside was like walking into a minimalist’s idea of heaven. It was blindingly white with few touches of colour. The statues of three clerics were politely waiting to be discovered and I obliged. It may be a shallow observation, but I much preferred the understated elegance of the Lutheran Cathedral.

    The sun appeared and this called for a stroll along Esplanade Park, located in one of the most stylish areas in the city. Being in the place to be seen, it was a tad difficult to do my impression of a over-paid surly catwalk model, especially since I was lugging my backpack, but I gave it my best shot. No one asked for my autograph, photograph or hand in marriage. My late lunch was at Cafe Espland, where I was greeted by a variety of cakes and pastries but opted for a monster sized salad instead. I ate in the rather optimistically named ‘garden’, which I would rather describe as ‘car-park’. Nevertheless, the food was tasty and I enjoyed every morsel.

    The Ateneum Art Museum, otherwise known as The Finnish National Gallery, was my final call for the day. The beautiful building contained a mixture of Finnish and international art and was an amusing way to while away a couple of hours.
    With sore feet I went back to my hotel to chill out before heading out for a delicious meal at Villa Thai on Bulevardi, as recommended by my guide book. Again, I dined for a modest sum and congratulated myself for not breaking the bank. I was later dismayed to see that the restaurant had added €2 for a jug of tap water.

    Day 3

    I arose early and breakfasted quickly before making my way on foot to the Makasiini terminal to catch the 10am hydrofoil to Tallinn. I’d reserved my day-trip seat online and so just had to check in. (Apparently, buying a ticket on the day at the LindaLine office incurs an additional charge whereas advance booking online carries a 15% discount. Also, the service is at the mercy of the weather, so if you can do check the forecast before booking.) Travelling tourist class on LindaLine was uneventful, though I was somewhat amazed at the number of passengers buying large volumes of alcoholic drinks as breakfast. After a short nap involving me, pastries and George Clooney (“...why, I’d be delighted to rub that all over you, sir...”) I arrived at Tallinn’s Linnahall speedboat harbour. The concrete monstrosity was imposing and without a doubt one of the most desolate and ugly structures ever to signal entry to a new country. I really felt like I was stepping back into a cold-war era Soviet union. At least it was sunny; if it had been raining I think I would’ve cried.

    I ignored the taxis and the LindaLine bus which cunningly arrived just as I stepped onto dry land. For the princely sum of €1 it promised to whisk me in air conditioned comfort to the Old Town. I have no idea how much a taxi would cost, but I could see the drivers rubbing their hands in glee, possibly planning how they’d spend their windfall. Being a complete skin-flint, I just kept an eye on the towers at the right hand side and walked over to Paks Margareta in about 5 minutes. Stepping across the threshold, I felt like I was taking yet another step back in time into a medieval times.

    It’s difficult to do justice to the beauty of the Old Town. From the cobbled streets to the warm terracotta rooftops, I was enchanted! I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the many holiday makers who, after eagerly awaiting the development of their photographs, end up with slightly dishevelled and completely over-awed idiot in the background with her mouth agape.

    Taking Pikk, I wandered over Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The area was filled with tourist groups and an enterprising group of old women begging on the steps of the cathedral. Entry wasn’t allowed so I admired the neo-byzantine symbol of Tsar Alexander III, which is generally loathed by Estonians, but is slowly being accepted as a popular touristic image. I did a couple of circuits around the Castle Square taking in the confectionary-inspired State Assembly and St Mary’s Cathedral. The interior walls were gleaming white with gigantic coats-of-arms of noble families, which looked like they were slowly climbing the walls.

    A detour led to Kiek in de Kok (‘peep in the kitchen’), Megede Tower and the Danish King’s Garden, which was strangely quiet despite the fact that hordes of holiday-makers were still milling around the grand cathedral.

    I came across a cafe built in the walled fortress, giving spectacular views of the local area. Unsure about whether it was worth it, I asked a British couple who had just descended from the staircase. “Oh yes, it’s lovely! Really worth it!” they clucked and cooed. I handed over 25 kroons and climbed over the steep, uneven stone stairs up the tower. Well, it is a truth universally acknowledged that if it costs more than the LindaLine bus, then it must be a pile of pants. The clerk was actually grinning and saying in Estonian to her friend, “Ah Maarika! These idiotic Brits can’t wait to hand over their cash for this pile of crap!” Sure enough, it was a disappointment. The walk along the walls of the fortress was short and the view was of the neighbouring trees – there weren’t any roofs or spires to look at. I busied myself by thinking about how I could bury my backpack in Maarika’s head but contented myself with telling another couple who were debating about whether to go not to bother. They seemed relieved to have not been separated from their kroons and we all happily skipped away.

    I’d spotted lovely little Cafe Bonaparte on Pikk earlier on so I retraced my way back. They have the most exquisite cakes and treats. I took a slice of quiche and a pastry and ate it whilst sitting in the blazing sunshine on the bench outside the shop. Good cheap food and people watching – delightful!

    Refuelled, I headed over to the Town Hall Square via the Cat’s Well. There was no feline activity around nor any small, annoying children to throw into the well so I proceeded to the square. The central area was filled with market stalls selling a variety of souvenirs, and at the fringes were cafes and restaurants. Overlooked by the gorgeous Town Hall, I bought some knick-knacks without even bothering to haggle. The vendors quoted prices in Euros, but I insisted on paying in Estonian kroons since I’d been advised that I would be fleeced if I’d paid in the former. A walk along Viru ended at De La Gardie shopping centre – a modern and sleek looking building, which was rather empty. I looked at the basement area for more souvenirs but came away empty-handed. The knitting wall was next. I’d always imagined this to be a set of old women sat on up-turned crates, knitting and perhaps prodding unsuspecting tourists with their knitting needles and possibly even swearing in Estonian as we pawed their wares. Well, they were certainly knitting, but their stalls were built into the fortress walls. They were of all ages and they welcomed me with big smiles. I managed to resist purchasing an sweater, which looked like it was designed for an arctic expedition.

    A short cut through Katariina Kalk, an enchanting alleyway lined with tombstones, led me to St Peter and St Paul’s church, a haven of tranquillity. I was the only visitor there and a priest welcomed me in. We had a chat and I learned that he was from Nicaragua via Newark and was stationed in this church for three months. He informed me of the history of this little catholic church and the poverty of the local congregation. He was charming and patiently answered my inane questions and offered me a selection of books to read, which I politely declined.

    A quick drink at Spice cafe allowed me to rest my tired feet.

    After checking out a few more sights, I found the Sauna Tower. 20 kroons later I was happily running between Nunne, Sauna and Kuldjala towers, peering through the fortress walls and generally making a nuisance of myself in the high towers. The views were gorgeous and since it was getting late, a peacefulness had descended upon the town. I had the entire area to myself and felt very lucky indeed. By now I had to head back to the harbour so I took a look around St Olaf’s church after gorging on passion fruit ice cream.

    The walk back to the harbour was great because I was able to see the serene Gulf of Finland and feel a fresh sea breeze. Within 90 minutes I was back in Helsinki. A quiet dinner at Ristorante Dennis near my hotel and a camera full of pictures entertained me for the rest of the evening.

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    What a lovely trip report! I visited Helsinki and Tallinn in October 2004 for 8 days -- 3 in Helsinki, then went across on the ferry for 3 days in Tallinn, then another 2 in Helsinki. I stayed with Russian cousins in Tallinn in their friend's apartment and that was quite an experience. I loved walking around Old Town. October was variable in the weather but when the sun was shining it was glorious. Looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    Day 4

    Feeling somewhat exhausted from all the fresh air and exercise over the past couple of days, I wanted to sleep in. However, it was a bright and sunny day so I forced myself to get out of bed and have breakfast. I’d decided that because I’d enjoyed the sea crossing so much, I should take a look at Suomenlinna sea fortress. Purchasing a ticket for €3.80 for the public boat from the automated machine, I enjoyed another look at the market square again. The sea crossing took about 15 minutes. It was obviously still quite early in the morning since the boat was practically empty. The fresh breeze was welcome and soon I was at the main quay on the tiny island. Armed with a free map, I wandered through the main island until I found my way down to the King’s gate. The area was well signposted and the information boards were well, informative. I enjoyed the views of Helsinki and the sea from the various viewing points. The old canons were preserved and some clever soul obviously thought they were a new type of waste receptacle and used them as bins. I spent about three hours clambering around the area before heading back to the main quay.

    Back in the city I had a peek at the Old Market Hall, which would become one of my most favourite places in the city. Equipped with a slice of pizza and a drink I sat at the steps of the harbour, commending myself for having chosen such a wonderful place to visit. After three bites my pizza was attacked by a seagull. This greedy critter was so stealthy – the way it swooped right along my head and grabbed my slice as I was getting ready to take a bite. Surprised, I looked around to see if my fellow diners had witnessed what had happened. They were all laughing at me and shaking their heads. Defeated, I threw the remainder of my slice into the water and walked back into the hall as a flock of seagulls descended to feast. I learnt that I should either not eat in the same place again or at least eat quickly. To console myself I bought some stuffed vine leaves and a lingonberry tart. I ate in my hotel room. Under the covers.

    After a little nap I disengaged myself from the slightly oily sheet and sauntered over to Temppeliaukio, otherwise known as The Church in the Rock. Approaching from Fredrikinkatu, I passed the Kampii shopping centre and made a mental note to visit it. The church itself could be easy to miss even though I was reliably informed that it is the number one attraction in Helsinki. The way the green dome seemed to be perched on top of the granite rocks looked a little odd. It was as if the walls had crumbled yet the roof was left intact. I shuffled past the other tourists and took a seat and marvelled at the interior of the church and understood why it was so popular.

    A quick look at Anna’s souvenir shop opposite the church and a quiet chuckle at the prices, I went to see the parliament building. Unfortunately, it was closed, but I admired the classical architecture and had a respectful look at the statues of a couple of former presidents.

    Dinner was at China, a place I cannot recommend more highly. It was cheap, satisfying and very tasty. Service was excellent and I left with my clothes feeling somewhat more snugly fitting than earlier. After a long shower, I decided to play a special game of ‘where is the iron kept?’ I couldn’t find it but it didn’t matter because I was too tired to tend to my laundry needs.

    Day 5

    Again, an early start and I knew that I just had to go to Helsinki Zoo. I was turning into a sucker for the boat rides! €16 later I was deposited at the arrival point. Maps were sold for €1 so I purchased one and headed off to see the tigers, bears, snow leopards and other creatures that may think I was their breakfast special. The tiger was rather obliging, getting up and walking over to me when I approached armed with my camera. I enjoyed looking at all the animals, following the map, which was also plastered all over the zoo. The two brown bears were amusing – having a bath and a good, satisfying scratch whilst young children squealed with delight. Many of the animals are endangered and it was heart warming to see such a well managed zoo. A couple of hours later I was ready to get my boat back to the market square. I handed my pristine map over to a young couple as they entered the zoo, they seemed genuinely surprised!

    Lunch was again from the Old Market Hall, but I ate whilst sitting in Esplanade Park, people-watching and resting my feet under the gaze of the patrons of the Kamp hotel. Several youngsters were zealously tending to the flowers and there was a nice hum of activity all around me. Thus refreshed, I walked over to Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and Theatre. Now, I don’t consider myself a philistine, but I usually give contemporary art a wide berth. I just don’t get it. It always seems to be an exhibition involving mangled dolls heads perched on top of things where they have no business being. As soon as I stepped in I’d decided that I didn’t like it. The cloakroom clerk practically shouted at me “Bag, madam!” as I arrived. Looking somewhat dumbfounded, she repeated it again, slightly louder. Realising she was talking/shouting at me, I walked over to her. For a third time she shouted at me, practically in my face. I had the urge to bury my backpack in her mouth, but I was afraid that the goth clerk next to her would attack me with her black eyeliner pencil. I made a rather immature show of meticulously unpacking my bag and sorting out my valuables in order of size, which I then carted about with me and left her with my practically empty backpack.

    Now, the exhibits were strange and to be honest, I feared for the sanity of several artists. There was a film of a woman laying with her head in bowl of fruit and looking like it was the most natural thing in the world. There was another film of an immobile man standing before a table as shorn hair was being dumped onto the table. Several people were sat watching it in rapt attention. I think one person was actually crying. After about a minute I looked at the information panel. This film lasted 40 minutes. Let me just say that again. 40 minutes. What did they think the ending was going to be like? I can’t honestly remember anything else from the place. All I know is that the crying man seemed to be following me until I realised he was the security guy. I guess that if I had to watch that film everyday I’d be crying too. Oh, I did find a display of about fifty mangled dolls heads, which disturbed me so much, I fled for my life.

    Worn out by fleeing down Mannerheimintie and not savouring the prospect of dreaming tonight of severed dolls screaming for my possessions, I retired to Tamarin, a thai restaurant. The staff looked bored but I was kept company by a group of flies around my table. I don’t think they saw me constantly swatting the table, or if they did, they didn’t care.
    I took this as my cue to return to my hotel where I played a fantastic game called ‘I’ve just locked my safety deposit box and now it won’t open. Gosh, what am I to do?’ After an hour of keying every single possible combination I have ever used, I admitted defeat. A sheepish trip to reception was required to inform them of my stupidity. The receptionist was charm personified, as though idiot guests locking themselves out like this was a routine matter. Anyway, the whole thing got sorted out after I returned to my room and gave the box a good piece of my mind. Somehow, it did the trick and the door magically opened.

    Day 6

    I had a lie in this morning since it was raining heavily and it was Saturday. I took a slow, leisurely breakfast and commended myself for being prepared for all weather conditions. However, the skies soon cleared and I made my way to the Natural History Museum. This place was everything that Kiasma was not. It was fun, relaxed, mind-expanding and staffed by people who seemed genuinely happy to see me. I loved it and if I could, I would have taken the clerk and the giant elephant home with me. He even asked me kindly if I would like to use a locker free of charge to store my bag or take a free English language audio tour. I delightfully took advantage of both. Each exhibit was well presented with lots of things to look at. There was the polar, temperate and boreal zones displaying their natural flora and fauna. I really enjoyed the audio tour which gave an insight into how life evolved. Of course, the dinosaurs hall was the best! I think this was my museum highlight and was surprised it did not even feature a mention in my guidebook.

    I then took a trip to Kamppi and I have to say I was rather underwhelmed by it; it was just another shopping centre. After a large and tasty curry at Namaskar Express, I visited the National Museum of Finland. It was wonderful to see the hordes of archaeological displays and the development of Finnish culture. The museum felt huge and after a couple of hours I decided that I’d spent enough time in museums today so bid my goodbyes to the bear outside and wandered back to the hotel to have another fight with my temperamental deposit box.

    Day 7

    My final full day in Helsinki and I’d saved it for shopping. Unfortunately, the department stores opened at midday so I decided to spend a short time at Helsinki City Museum. I wish I’d known about this place earlier on. It was magnificent - it was free! The friendly staff were happy to chat about the museum and were proud of their city. It covered Helsinki through time and it was interesting to see the city how wars with neighbouring countries affected the development of the city.

    I window-shopped along Pohjoisesplanadi and made my way to Stockmann. Although my guidebook billed it as an exclusive department store, I found that they had some of the cheapest souvenirs in town! If you want to buy a fridge magnet without having to take out a second mortgage or sell your first born child, then Stockmann’s is the answer. I was particularly taken by iittala glassware and the little knick knacks designed by Pentik, so I made a stop at their stores to stock up on things that will no doubt require endless hours of dusting. Now time for a confession – as a child, the Moomins always freaked me out. It was something about the noises and odd, expressionless way they looked. However, by gathering my courage, I entered the Moomin shop at Kamp Galleria and was amazed at the range of items available. I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything since I was developing a rash so I had a peek at Forum shopping centre.

    Lunch was again from the Old Market Hall and again I ate it whilst in Esplanade Park. I enjoyed the classical music and watched the world go by as I imagined my bank manager’s reaction to how well I had worked my credit card today.

    Since I was feeling completely worn out, I decided to eat again at Ristorante Dennis because it is about 10 paces from the hotel. I believe that children and old women from all over the neighbourhood came up to the window to peer in and see the amazing girl who could eat her entire body weight in lasagne, fries and salad such were the size of the portions. Actually, I just made that last bit up. I didn’t touch the salad.

    Back at the hotel, I was again having problems with my safety deposit box. Leaning against the edge of the mirror frame whilst thinking of ways to insult the lock mechanism, the mirror shifted. Behind it was a secret compartment, big enough to hold a person. I’m glad to say I didn’t have my own personal pervert hiding in there, but the iron and ironing board. So that’s where it was all along!

    Day 8

    Having finished breakfast early, I packed and checked out of the hotel, stowing my suitcase in a luggage storage room. I made my way towards the market square to purchase the obligatory naff tourist T-shirt for €15! Ouch! A slow circuit around the area (including a saunter through the fantastic academic bookstore) allowed me to take a few more photographs and after lunch I was ready to return to my hotel to retrieve my luggage. I entered the railway station to peek at the interior; it was nice, but I preferred the lamp holders on the exterior. At the airport bus stand the Finns were patiently waiting to board the coach – I think they could give the Brits a run for their money in orderly queuing and soon I was on my way back to Vantaa airport to return home.

    Final Thoughts

    Well, I said earlier that I knew Finland was cold. I had no idea the summer weather was soo-o hot! It reached 29oC one day and it was glorious sunshine for most of the week. I’d love to come back in the depths of winter just to contrast my experiences. There’s something undeniably romantic about having a steaming hot chocolate in a snug cafe whilst looking out at fresh snowfall.

    The Finns are a delightful bunch! So tall, lean and good-looking, it really wouldn’t be hard to dislike them intensely. However, everyone I met was polite and helpful, kindly taking my photograph, offering advice and aiding me with directions. I haven’t visited a more courteous city.

    The food was lovely, though I didn’t have the courage to eat reindeer (something about those doleful eyes and Rudolf with his red nose stopped me). Neither did I get the opportunity to dine out at Hesburger. Restaurant prices were comparable with, say, London.

    Kiitos to the fodorites who provided me with information and advice, as well as all Helsinki-ites and Tallinn-ites who welcomed me to their city with such warmth! Hei hei!

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    Sandy,

    Thanks for the detailed trip report complete with impressions and emotions. So glad you had a good time. Not many people spend that much time in Helsinki, so you really got a good feel for most of the tourist sites in the city. There are also nice suburban and water destinations that are off the main tourist track.

    I'll be headed back for the ?th time this November and still haven't made it to Upenski Cathedral or a couple of the museums you mention. On my "to do" list. I get distracted if I am there in nice weather and want to spend all my time out walking the neighborhoods, the parks, or the trails. Won't be a problem in November.

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    Sandy, what a lovely report!
    October was a gorgeous time of year to go. I seem to remember I went the first week, and I already needed a fleece. Tallinn, with the changing leaves, was so beautiful. All my photos are negative film from that year so I can't upload them but it was lovely.

    My cousins took me to the Kadriorg Palace and park which is now a museum. We also went to the stadium where the singing revolution started. We walked and walked around the Old Town. And, we went to a brand-new, just-opened museum of the Occupation of the Soviets. It was fascinating to see the history of how the Soviet system took over the Baltic states.

    I loved Helsinki in the autumn too. My trip coincided with a special Helsinki herring festival and lots of boats pulled up to Market Square to sell their wares. Really fun. I also went to the synagogue there and got a history of Finnish Jews during the War.

    If I go another time I'd definitely go in warmer weather!

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    I loved your sense of humor and writing style. We have just decided to fly to Helsinki instead of London on our way to Russia so loved your report and it gave us some great ideas. Thankyou

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