I knew that blueberries were popular in Finland, but I didn’t expect to find them everywhere. If you are driving and – in all likelihood – you’re passing by a forest, you can decide to take a short walk among the trees and you’ll find enough berries to fill a basket. Or to bake blueberry pies for a year. Berries abound in the market stalls, are used in cakes, mixed with porridge and yogurt for breakfast, cooked to make jam, powdered to be sold in shops. Healthy as they are, and considering that there’s no big chance to find lots of fruit and vegetables in Finland, they are the apple in the eye of the country.
Reading a book about the 1000 places to visit on Earth, I was surprised to find out that Finland was scarcely represented. Lapland remains one of the most astonishing places I’ve ever been to (if visited in wintertime). And Helsinki is a very relaxing city, but there’s more to see and discover. There are three cities I would add to the list of Places to See in Finland, if one really wants to get an idea of the country.
Ideally located between two lakes, Tampere is the second biggest city in Finland and I believe there’s something fabulous about it. I got this impression when I climbed on top of the Pyynikki Tower, where there’s a panoramic view over the lands surrounding the city. Lakes, woods, endless horizon. In the green and blue landscape, some chimneys can be spot, which belong to paper factories. I was reminded of certain locations of epic movies, where – often on the back of a dragon – characters fly over inhabited, pacific lands. On top of the tower there’s a café that has become popular among tourists and locals for its sugar doughnuts.
The city in itself is big, with lots of green spaces and a pleasant combination of old and new. On the hill, where there’s another spectacular view over the lake, houses are pastel coloured and remind of fairy tale constructions. This is the authentic Finnish style of the past. Whereas the imposing cathedral left me cold, I was very positively impressed by the very modern Tampere Hall, in which concerts and conferences are held. Designed to recall nature in every possible way, the building has perfect, clean lines, and the concert hall has been designed so as to look like a virtual forest.
I’d heard about Juväskylä because of Alvar Aalto, the architect who made modernist buildings with functional spaces and expressionist furniture, which have been clearly imitated by Mr Ikea. It’s no joke. If you visit the Alvar Aalto Museum, you’ll see that chairs, glassware, tables and lamps look somehow familiar. Yes, you might’ve seen them inside an Ikea shop or at your place. It happened to me with my favourite, comfortable Ikea armchair. The museum is housed in a nice building surrounded by trees and includes a café where you can sit, rest, eat. And also leaf through design magazines or books telling about the architect’s life and work.
Juväskylä is a lively city with a big university located by the lake. The old part of the town, Toivolan Vanha Piha, consists in a group of wooden houses, artisans’ shops and a lovely café, Kahvila Muisto, where you sit on the wooden benches by the fire and order blueberry pie, cheesecake and Finnish apple cake.
By the way, Finnish cuisine has much improved in the last decennials, thanks to the Government’s campaign for healthy and nutritious food. Fresh salmon (boiled, baked, grilled), baked potatoes, berries, homemade yogurt, rye bread, goat cheese, salmon soup, rice and oatmeal porridge make up for the lack of fresh vegetables.
Not far from the city, the ancient Protestant church of Petäjävesi is a wooden construction by the river, among forests and farms. Once people came here by boat, now they arrive by car, but the impression of being in a fairy tale place remains. Inside, everything is made of wood: benches, sculptures, and the altar. Believe me, this church is a true jewel.
In the heart of Finland, Kuopio is a lakeland harbour town located on the shores of Kallavesi. I’ve spent just half day in Kuopio, wandering in the central market where I saw berries, mushrooms and flowers.
But I was mostly impressed by the lake view, at twilight, when we went out for a walk and everything was silent. There was nobody by the lake, just us. We wondered where all citizens went at night and a Finnish lady explained that most of the people was in pubs or at home. Which was strange, because in summertime there are festivals and events all around the city. Well, at least there should be.
However, Kuopio is the home of a famous Karelian pie, the kalakukko, a combination of fish, bacon and rye bread that is sold in bakeries (like Hanna Partenen’s bakery) and at the central market. Where they also sell blueberries as well as lingonberries, an abundant wild fruit which can be found everywhere in Scandinavia. And it’s very healthy, too.
The Finnish way of life
There’s something special about Finland, and as I headed back to Helsinki I understood what it is. There’s a perfect harmony between man and nature. All cities seem to be embraced by lakes and forests; there are no lavish villas or poor houses, but functional buildings, clean streets and well-kept parks. Finnish people have a perfectly working welfare system. The eldest can retire without having to worry about money or asking for their family’s help, whereas the youngest are paid to study and be independent.
I’m not saying that we should all move to Finland now. Maybe I wouldn’t do that either, despite my love for the Scandinavian countries. But it’s good to know that there’s a place where life follows its own rhythm, the Government works for the people’s wellbeing and the most popular activity on Sunday afternoon is going berry-hunting in the woods.
There’s a special place worth mentioning, a house in the woods not far from Helsinki. This place is called Ainola. It was home to a renowned Finnish musician, Jean Sibelius, who lived and worked here. He composed music that was inspired by the surrounding landscape, by the voices and colours of Nature. Listening to a young pianist playing The spruce (op. 75), I felt the spirit of the North, that belongs to forests, lakes, cities, blueberries, and to the Finnish people.