Travel - Finland
Lapp of the gods
Sara McMillan takes a tour round Finland’s south-west coast and discovers that there’s much, much more to the country than Santa and saunas
When I first started making plans for my weeklong trip to Finland, I began the requisite process of droning on to anyone and everyone who would listen about my upcoming travels. However, on completion of my I’m-going-to-Finland-(ha ha you’re not)-and-for-your-sake-I’ll-try-not to-look-so-smug spiel, I found that I always got the same response: ‘Finland? Really? I didn’t know people went there.’
It’s true. Apart from Christmas treks to Lapland to see Santa, travelling to Finland for pleasure isn’t something that people do. Finland’s southernmost points are as far north as Shetland, a geographical reality that has led to the supposition that the whole country is even colder, darker and gloomier than Scotland. So why on earth would anyone want to go there?
This is the journalistic transition paragraph: where I pronounce that I set out to answer this looming question plaguing my – and by extension your – curiosity. But that would be a lie. I have always, always wanted to go to Finland. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the romantic lure of a country whose citizens subscribe unwaveringly to the relaxing, restorative – not to mention social – properties of sharing a sauna (pronounced sow-nah) with close friends and family, enhanced by knowing that the traditional smoke saunas radiate with heat generated from burning sweet, musky, perfumed birch wood for ten hours or more. Maybe it’s more of an intellectual fascination: Finland was home to Sibelius, one of the most notable classical composers of the 19th century, and is world-renowned for its exemplary, groundbreaking architecture and design from heavyweights such as Alvaar Alto, Eero Saarinen and Marimekko.
To say that my expectations of Finland’s southwest coast – the Archipelago, Turku and Helsinki – were met, would an understatement of such gross proportions it could be classified as the biggest porky I’ve ever told.
We flew into Helsinki direct from Edinburgh. This next sentence might seem like something written by an ad man for Finn Air, but our stay in Finland began the moment we stepped into the departure terminal. Everyone was relaxed, cool, matter of fact. We were helped thoughtfully and openly, as though angst and anxiety are unknown afflictions in Finland. So much so, in fact, that the airline streams live footage of the runway during take-off and landing, presumably for someone’s viewing pleasure. My scientist husband thought this was great. I, on the other hand, hid my eyes like it was a graphic scene on ER. But I’m kind of a sissy when it comes to flying.
Getting around is a similarly relaxed process. Upon arrival in Helsinki we easily found our way to the bus terminals and set off to Turku, Finland’s former capital and gateway city to the Archipelago. For all I had read about the country, nothing had prepared me for the stunning beauty and serene landscapes of the Finnish Archipelago, a collection of over 40,000 islands spanning the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. It’s magical, and a boat trip through it is breathtaking. The sea, often sheltered by other islands and seemingly unaffected by tides, is relatively calm, but the vista changes from moment to moment; the coastlines dotted with understated cottages and evergreens reaching their tall thin bodies up toward the sky. The waters, often shallow due to the clusters of low-lying islands spanning the seascape, are best navigated by someone whose primary purpose is not to get where he’s going as fast as possible. As the area is no longer able to sustain commercial fishing, leisurely tours are often guided by ex-fishermen who use their knowledge of and passion for the area to help you catch some of the elusive pike perch inhabiting the areas waters.
The islands are best seen by boat and best experienced by bicycle. The relatively flat landscape and network of bridges and ferries – many of which are free – mean that cycling around the Archipelago is simply a joy. We biked around the island of Nauva (pronounced Now-wa) and stayed at Gyttja Vasterfard, a cosy B&B operated by Tom Carling who offers a level of comfort and accommodation at mind-bogglingly modest prices. So modest, in fact, that splurging on the Archipelago menu of herring tartar, a creamy crayfish cappuccino soup, and locally-reared lamb with potato dauphinoise in the famous neighbourhood restaurant L’Escale seems perfectly reasonable. Mandatory in fact.
Leaving the Archipelago (and my new fantasy life) felt exceedingly difficult, until I remembered that we were headed for Helsinki. Even arriving into the central train station, we were made aware that this was a city bursting with life, free from the cut-throat antics of the modern world: outside the station stood a huge collection of bicycles – scores of them – unattended and unlocked. We had arrived into a city so civilised that theft and a preoccupation with consumer goods was superseded by a love of public art, architecture, culture, theatre, dance, and design.
Helsinki is technically the size of Edinburgh, though, brimming with people and activities all year round, there’s a much more tangible bustle. There’s a (much smaller) arts festival in August, and while the international crowds and ongoing hype aren’t nearly as big as they are at home, the performances are just as diverse, affecting and exciting. In the bespoke Huvila Tent, in one night, we caught Ensemble Al-Kindi – an Iranian ensemble with whirling dervishes spinning into trance – and legendary chanteuse Juliet Greco recreating Paris through the songs of Jacques Brel. The Festival director, Risto Nieminen, is forging powerful and exciting links with the emerging Baltic states, creating a distinct, compelling culture for performance and art that has helped Helsinki become a noted, year-round stop on the contemporary performance calendar. The energy, much like Finland itself, is palpable without ever being self conscious or pretentious.
Finnair, www.finnair.com, 0870 241 4411, operates flights direct from Edinburgh to Helsinki and back on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Where to stay
In the Archipelago
Naantali Spa Hotel, Matkailijantie 2, +358 (0) 2 44 55 100 www.naantalispa.fi
A five star hotel in the popular seaside village of Naantali, which offers luxurious spa facilities including Turkish bastus, several swimming pools, spa baths and public and private saunas.
Pelago Ltd. Köpmnsgatan 18, 21600 Pargas, +358 (0) 10 548 5700 www.pelago.info. Standard and bespoke cycle and fishing tours of the Archipelago are available from this specialist travel agency. Four-day, three-night cycling packages start from 168 euros per person.
Hotel Sokos Presidentti, Eteläinen Rautatiekatu 4, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel. +358 (0)20 1234 608
Central, stylish and affordable, this hotel is minutes from the train and bus stations, outdoor markets, over 100 art museums and retail therapy in Helsinki’s main shopping district.
For more information, contact the Finnish Tourist Board on www.visitfinland.com