The world is blue, green and dark chocolate, with a touch of cream and gold. Quiet. Silence. The sound of water in the distance. No mountains in the distance. This is Finland. Small and big lakes dot the landscape, reflecting the clear blue sky and the puffy clouds. The red houses come straight from fairy tales, and trolls live in the tree trunks. Rye bread, blueberry jam and oatmeal, salmon soup and potato cake can be found everywhere. On the market stalls, in the restaurants. And everywhere you can smell pulla – a type of cinnamon & sugar bread, to be served with a cup of coffee or tea with milk.
I decided to go to Finland after reading Mia Kankimaki’s Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster. Although she wrote about her year in Japan, her book made me want to visit her country, too. I was curious to see the woods, the lakes, the farms where Finnish people spend their summer – or their life.
The journey begins in Helsinki, a modern, clean, quiet city that might not strike you, but for sure it makes you feel comfortable. Surrounded by water, during the winter the city turns into a kingdom of ice and snow. I always spend some time going window-shopping when I visit a new city, to get an idea of what local citizens like. Marimekko, Iittala. Clean lines, minimalist, nature-inspired design, pastel or bright colours characterize objects and furniture.
Scandinavia design is displayed in every window along the Esplanade, the two main shopping streets in the city center, packed with restaurants, cafés and shops. The sun shines and people smile. The youth are gathered in the green spaces, which abound in Helsinki. You can walk around and explore every corner of the city, taking the bus when you start to feel exhausted.
I was not impressed by any monument in Helsinki. The imposing cathedral, the stone church, Sibelius monument are worth a stop, but they are somehow cold. In Helsinki I fell in love with three different places, which correspond to my idea of the North. One is the harbor, Katajanokka, close to the city center, a place where to walk and think, watching the boats.
Here I found a cozy cafe: Johan & Nyström, with its brick walls and wood beams, coloured cushions and lampshades. It felt like being in another world, another time. So far from Italy and the Mediterranean. As you know, coffee shops are my personal fil rouge. I love them. I can’t really feel a place until I walk inside a supermarket or spend an hour in a café. Watching people. Pretending I’m not a foreigner, or at least not a tourist.
The second is the area between Lapinlahti and Hietaniemi (with its beach). The orthodox church and traditional style houses, the view on the bay from the hilltop, the old cemetery, create a dreamy atmosphere, so different from the austere mood of the modern city.
The third is Suomenlinna, an island on which the Swedish parliament decided to build a fortress including a naval base, in the 18th Century. I went there by ferry and wandered around under the shining sun on a very windy day, and it was beautiful. People come here to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon in one of Finland’s world heritage sites. Inside the information office building, some photos show how Suomenlinna looks like in winter, covered in snow.
The journey continues by bus, on the empty roads of southern Finland. Not far from Helsinki there’s Porvoo, a historical village by the river packed with traditional wood houses and artisans’ shops. I would buy everything, from kitchen tools to cups and teapots, from hats and gloves to kitchen towels. Our local guide, Mari, suggests us to pay a visit to the traditional tea&coffee shop Tee ja kahavihuone helmi, with its cozy at atmosphere and the small, beautiful garden where you can have your cup of coffee and slice of cake.
Going north-east I found another amazing coffee shop. Its name is Kahvila Majurska, and it’s located at the fortress of Lappeenranta. The building was a home for Russian officers, a hospital and even an umbrella factory. Now it’s like a museum of old times, and all the cakes are homemade. The apple pie with custard and a cup of house tea make you wish you could come back every day for more. I will never forget the moments spent with my cup of tea and pulla, watching the blue and green lake up in the North.
There are other places I want to write about: Alvar Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä. Ainola, Jean Sibelius house close to Lake Tuusula in Järvenpää. Petäjävesi Old Church, an old Lutheran wooden church and another World Heritage site, situated in a idyllic place by the river, among farms and woods. But that’s another story to be told another time.