Travel Through South West Finland
There is a common theme in travel stories. Not so much what you read in newspapers or glossy magazines but in what people actually discuss with friends after their excursion. This theme can be summed up in three subjects: the people, the places, and the food. A trip to Finland will leave you raving about all three.
Finland has managed to maintain a unique and vibrant culture despite its turbulent past. Contrary to most North American beliefs, the Finnish people and language are very different from their Scandinavian neighbours. What they do have in common, though, is their warm and courteous disposition. You will find the Finns to be genuinely sincere and helpful.
Voted one of the top ten friendliest cities in the world by readers of Conde Nast Travel, Helsinki is the most common gateway to the Baltics for North American travelers. If you are already in Northern Europe, Scandinavia, or Russia, Helsinki should be added to your itinerary.
The most striking aspect of Helsinki is its Russian influence, acquired during a century of Russian rule. The focal point of the city is the breathtaking Helsinki Cathedral, located in Senate Square. Its luminous green domes can be seen for miles rising above all other buildings. The church is open daily in the summer, and a visit will offer a spectacular view of old Helsinki and the harbour. In the middle of Senate Square stands a statue of Czar Alexander II. Reputed to be good to the Finnish people, the statue is one of the few vestiges of Russian imperialism left in Finland.
For you movie trivia buffs, if any of these sights seem familiar please refer to Reds, Gorky Park, or White Knights, all of which were filmed in Helsinki. Another useful bit of information is that building codes in Helsinki restrict office buildings to only six stories resulting in offices the length of football fields. Therefore, when told a place is “just a few blocks away” you may want to catch a taxi!
For the architectural enthusiasts, Helsinki is a showplace for the world renouned works of Finnish architects. The railway station, designed in 1918 by Eliel Saarinen, is a monolith of form and function that’s worth a side trip just to see it. Around the corner is the equally impressive bus station, designed in 1936 by C.L. Engel, N. Kokko and P Riihimaki. Designed by Ommi Tarjanne in 1902, The Finnish National Theatre is another architectural gem not to be missed. A competition was held in 1898 to design the building and architech Jarl Eklund won. However Tarjanne’s design was the one used for the construction of the theatre because his use of stone was deemed more advanced at the time. The theatre is located at the end of Rautatientori. The National Museum, designed by Herman Gebellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen, is located at Mannerheimintie 34. Although there are several public pools and bathhouses in Helsinki, I recommend the Yrjonkatu Swimming Hall at Yrjonkatu 21b. Designed by Vaino Vahahllio in 1928 it contains a beautiful 25M x 10M indoor pool housed in an exquisite structure.
Helsinki’s market square and the Nora esplandaden or esplanade should not be missed. With its location at the end of the esplanade by the harbour, the market is alive with fun and energy. This is the place to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood straight from the boat, smoked herring, of course, or kitchy nick nacks and local crafts. The ferry to Suomenlinna Island leaves from here, as well as a number of unique sightseeing cruises, all of which can be arranged dockside.
At the market end of the esplanade is the Kappeli Cafe and Brasserie. The cafe evolved from a booth where a shepherd boy sold fresh milk, to a glass and iron pavilion reminiscent of Paris in the gay 90s. In its day the cafe was a favourite haunt of Sibelius and his entourage. Today it’s a great place to sit out and people watch during the day or go dancing at night (the bar closes at 4 am). The food is very good and the prices are reasonable.
Another great landmark to hangout at and soak up nostalgia is the Hotel Torni. It’s not cheap but it’s a great place to be able to say, “been there done that.” The bar, now known as the Ateljee Artists’ Bar is situated at the top of the first class Hotel Torni, whose claim to fame is that it was the headquarters for the KGB during WWII. The decor of the actual bar is vintage 1950′s and the walls are decorated with local artists’ paintings, hence the name of the bar. The hotel remains the highest vantage point in Helsinki and offers the best view of the city, which is particularly beautiful at night during the summer twilight.
If you’re not into the 1950′s look, there is the venerable Cafe Elite at Etelainen Hesperiankatu 22. A model of Art Deco, the Cafe Elite offers a restaurant downstairs and a streetside cafe outside. Windows line the top of the restaurant providing light and a view of the cafe from inside. I will remember this place not only for the beautiful bar, the decor, or the incredible food, but as the only place we didn’t have fish as an entree, (the herring appetizer goes without saying).
The Ravintola (Finnish for ‘restaurant’) Sipuli lies directly below the Uspensky Cathedral and has a glass ceiling that provides a full view of the Orthodox Church. The food is as good as the view, and the cafe is a great place to hang out in the afternoon or evening. If you want something a little less swanky, there are several places around the university (all in the same area as Cathedral and market square) that offer student discounts. Be sure to have your international student card with you.
To get the most out of sightseeing in Helsinki get the Helsinki card, its the best deal going.
Just two hours northwest of Helsinki is the oldest town in Finland and former capital, Turku(Slavic for ‘trading place’), or Abo in Swedish. Turku is a “university town” as there are two main universities, one of which is Finland’s only Swedish language university, and the Turku School of Economics. The town is rich in history and should be given at least a few days to capture it all.
Turku is divided in two by the Aurajoki river, which flows right through the centre of town and out into the Baltic Sea. Along the banks of the river are a number of old sailing ships that have been converted in to cafes, bars, and restaurants. It’s the town’s hot spot and in the summer the river banks are filled with strollers and sunbathers.
Our afternoon in Turku was one of the only times we didn’t have a planned lunch. A group of us strayed from the tour and went to the indoor market, two blocks north of the river on Eerikinkatu (‘katu’ is road in Finnish) and Aurakatu. We did the “North American in Europe thing” and picked up an assortment of breads, cheeses, meats, sweets, and of course, mineral water, and headed to the grassy banks of the river for a picnic lunch. It’s a prime locale for lying out and watching all the blonde haired blue eyed Finns soak up the UV rays. Who can blame them after a several months of near 24 hour days(?) of darkness throughout the winter.
Considering the Turku Castle has be attacked, sieged, burned and bombed for the better part of it’s 700 year history, it is amazing it’s still standing at all. Last attacked during WWII by the Russians, the castle has been restored to its original medieval grandeur as a “living building.” It is used today as a banquet hall for special civic functions, concerts and church functions. The style of Finland’s castles is quite different to the block and turret castles throughout the rest of Europe and Turku’s is probably the best example of this. It is open every day in the summer from 10 am to 6 pm.
Most of Turku was destroyed by fire in 1827. Known as the “Great Fire,” it remarkably spared the 18 wooden buildings of Loustarinmaki (‘Cloister Hill’) on the southern slopes of the Vartiovuori Hill. Today the buildings operate as the Handicrafts Museum illustrating the crafts and trades of the latter part of the 16th century. Each shop is identified by objects or symbol signs that hang outside the entrance. A golden pretzel hangs outside the bakery. A sign with golden boots delineates the cobblers shop. In the “old days,” most people were illiterate so the symbols helped identify the nature the shop. Today however, Finland enjoys one of the world’s highest literacy rates. Some of the shops are still functional and a variety of crafts made at the museum can be purchased. Most items are reasonably priced and make great souvenirs – I recommend the clay rooster whistle pipe!
The symbol of the city is the Turku Cathedral, with a 101 metre tower it is the focal point of the town and is a great reference point for those who get lost easily. The Cathedral is the mother church of the Lutheran Church of Finland, whose history dates back to the 13th century. It too has suffered the elements of war, weather, and fire over the years but has been restored on an ongoing basis since the 1800′s and has a distinct look from the monolithic arches and spires of continental Europe’s churches. What you’ll find most unique about Finland’s cathedrals and churches are the model ships that hang down from the ceiling, a testament to Finland’s marine heritage. The church is open daily and serves as a both a place of worship and a museum.
Naantali is a charming summer town only 15 minutes up the coast from Turku. The town blossoms every summer to twice the normal number of inhabitants. Founded as a convent in 1443, the town became a spa in 1723, although the height of its glory as a spa town didn’t happen until 1863 when the Ailostenniemi resort was built. Falling out of vogue after the 1920′s the town regained its popularity as a spa destination in 1984 when the five star Naantali Spa Hotel was built in the finest tradition of European Spa’s.
There are five pools in the spa, steam baths, saunas, massage clinics and mud baths. Being somewhat of neophyte at the spa thing I laughed when suddenly there was a huge fountain of water welling up from the bottom of the pool. I asked if something was wrong but the fellow next to me just grinned and kept clinging to the pool railing, (I don’t think he understood me in any event). I later found out there are powerful jets at the bottom of the pool that actually support you while hanging on to the railing at the side of the pool. It’s for a foot massage. There are a number of such jets around the pool for a complete body water-massage. An hour in the pools and saunas will leave you most invigorated. Spa Day packages are available for those who are not guests of the hotel.
Both the Finnish president and the Moomin’s call Naantali home. Moomin’s are these hippo like cartoon characters that are about as hot as Barney is in North America. Moomin World is an island in Naantali harbour that is open every summer for kids to visit Moomin’s in their kingdom.
Kultaranta estate is the summer residence of the President of Finland. The grounds and gardens of the residence are open daily but a tour guide is required except on Fridays when it open to the public for their leisure. The granite residence blends in well with the surrounding landscape and is another example of Finnish architectural excellence and harmony. The estate was built by the wealthy industrialist Alfred Kordlin between 1913-16. Kordlin was killed by a Russian soldier during WWI, and in 1922 ownership was transferred to the state. The best time to visit the castle is in mid summer when the 3500 roses throughout the 15 hectares of garden are in bloom. On the crest of the estate is a granite gazebo that overlooks the harbour and town. It’s a beautiful spot for a moments solace, although access may be restricted when the President is at the residence (if the flag on the estate is up, he/she is home).
I had never hear of pike-perch before, but that was our entree at the Kala-Trappi Restaurant, ideally situated between the Sun Marina and Naantali’s Convent Church. The name literally means ‘fish trap’ and it was originally opened as a restaurant in 1875. The food is very good and the view of the harbour in the evening’s sun makes for a memorable dining experience. The Kala-Trappi is the only restaurant in Naantali that is open all year round. Plan on eating before or after 8 pm as next door at the Convent Church evening vespers are played by trumpet daily in the convent tower. Both Turku and Naantali are serviced daily by the Viking Line ferries which run between Finland the Aland Islands, Sweden, and Tallin, Estonia. A number of Swedish people day trip on the ferry just for the duty free shop, which sadly enough is still more expensive that the LCBO in Ontario. Alcoholic beverages are generally two to three times more expensive in Finland, yet it doesn’t seem to deter anyone from indulging.
We took the Viking Line from Turku to Mariehamn, capital of the 6500 Aland Islands. The Aland Islands are Swedish speaking and an autonomous province of Finland. Named after the Grande Duchy of Russia’s Concert, Marie Alexandrovna, Mariehamn is the capital and main ferry port for the islands.
I found the Alands to be unique, beautiful, and a cyclists heaven. The Aland island chain is a trip in itself and when I go back it will be with bike and tent. It’s not exceptionally rugged or challenging, just idyllic. And if you’re seeking that unique European adventure sans your compatriots and cousins south of the border, then its ideal – most tourist there are either Finns or Swedes.
After arriving in Mariehamn we traveled the length of the island (all of 40 km) north to the resort of Havsvidden on the Gulf of Bothnia in the Geta region (the island is divided into 16 regions). It’s a new resort that blends in humbly with its environment, very “IKEAesque”. The resort has an indoor pool, electric and smoke saunas. Just the ticket after a day in transit.
The Finnish experience is not complete without spending some time in a sauna , which is a national pastime – 4.5 saunas for every Finn. Having a smoke sauna is somewhat of a rustic experience. Bunches of birch leaves are placed on the embers and the wood becomes “marinated” in smoke after about an hour. The smoke it let out and then the sauna is ready to use. Smoke saunas are much more humid than electric saunas and the smoke leaves your skin rejuvenated and fragrant for the next couple of days.
Sightseeing of note around the island includes the ancient site of Kastelhom, a restored Swedish castle from the 1700′s. The site has a history dating back to the 14th century (the castle was destroyed by fire in 1772) and next door to the castle is an open air museum with buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries including the island jail that was in use up until 1975.
The best view of the island and sea can be had at the ruins of the Bomarsund Fortress, a Russian Fort destroyed by the British and French forces during the Crimean War. The ruins are located on a large bluff overlooking the ocean Sund region near Prasto. With the numerous small islands of rock and pine, the scenery is reminiscent of Muskoka.
In the summer, the island is full of tourists many of whom take advantage of the bucolic setting and cycle tour. There is something called “everyman’s right” in Finland, it means that you have the right to walk, cycle, or camp anywhere in the wilds so long as it is not private property. You also have the right to eat wild mushrooms and berries in the forests, again so long as they are not on private property. It is possible to camp on private property if permission is granted and considering the amicable nature of the Islanders, I doubt it would be much of a problem.
Most of the island is farm land. “There is plenty of food and shelter across the island and 45 km of new trails” said Gunilla Nordlun, a local tourism officer, “the most exotic thing to do is to go to the Finnish mainland via the archipelago.” Ferry service between the islands in the Aland chain is free. A map and ferry routes can be obtained at the tourist office in Mariehamn. The local youth hostel can design tours and book accommodations if you want something a little more regimented. Bicycles are readily available for rent on the island.
If you are lucky enough to stay with an islander you may get the chance to indulge in two Aland delicacies: sweet bread and pancakes. Aland sweet bread is made with molasses and is just about as heavy. I almost exceeded my luggage limit carrying it home with me. Aland pancakes are like a thick pastry pie and are usually topped with plum sauce and whipped cream. They are quite filling and make for a great indulgence even if you aren’t cycling it off.
The beauty of the island is its gently rolling green hills, its meadows and fields of flowers. It is truly like nothing I’ve seen before. Scattered throughout the island are some 400 Viking graveyards and the occasional stone age settlement. Resembling mini tree houses on top of flimsy pine stilts, Elk blinds are a standard fixture throughout the Aland countryside. I’d be surprised if they could hold a child let alone an adult. Elk are quite prolific on the island and are culled every year from these crude wooden blinds.
From the Alands we headed back to the mainland and on to Helsinki. Although we saw and did a lot in only one week I considered my trip to be the beginning of an experience, not an end. With bicycle in tow, I would like to return when I can spend more time getting to know the people, the land, and the food – just a few of my favourite things. Finland offers Canadians a unique cultural experience in a land quite similar to our own. And contrary to popular belief about Scandianvia being expensive compared to the rest of Europe, Finland can be considered a budget destination. The are plenty of facilities for budget travellers throughout the country and student discounts available for accomodation and transportation.