The world is blue, green and dark chocolate, with a touch of cream and gold. Quiet. Silence. You can hear a distant sound of water. No mountains, only forests and fields. 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 the fairy tales. Trolls live in the tree trunks. Rye bread, blueberry jam and oatmeal cookies are sold in the markets. Salmon soup is served in every restaurant. And everywhere you can smell the buttery pulla, a type of cinnamon & sugar bread.
I decided to go to Finland after reading Mia Kankimaki’s book, 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 CAPITAL OF FINNISH DESIGN
The journey begins in Helsinki, a modern, clean, quiet city that may not possess the striking beauty of Stockholm, but has made me feel very good. Surrounded by water, during the winter the city turns into a kingdom of ice and snow. In summertime, the city is full of energy and good vibes.
As you may know, Helsinki is the capital of Finnish design. In a new city, I always spend some time going window-shopping to get an idea of what locals like, so my tour begins in the streets of design. Marimekko, Iittala. Clean lines, minimalist, nature-inspired design, pastel or bright colours. 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. People are smiling under the shining sun. Many youth are gathered in the green spaces, which abound in Helsinki.
I’ve read on a travel magazine that of the most interesting neighbourhood of Helsinki is Kallio, with its bohemian soul and industrial past. So this is my second stop. The heart of the area is the Hakaniemi Market Hall, designed by the architect Karl Hård af Segerstad. Here you can find a wide range of local products, from bread to fresh fish, from berries to goat cheese, because going to the market is a very Finnish experience. Kallio Church with its high tower, made up of Finnish granite and red bricks, watches the neighbourhood.
After a quick lunch at the market, I take a tram to the city center. The National Theatre, with its grey brick façade and red roof, is one of the most striking examples of Art Nouveau, the architectural movement that has influenced Scandinavian design. It was designed by architect Onni Tarjanne and completed in 1902.
THE TRAIN STATION AND THE NATIONAL MUSEUM
Nearby, the central train station is also worth a visit. Designed by architect Eliel Saarinen, it is guarded by two sets of stone men holding circular beacons. From here you can walk to the National Museum of Finland, which resembles a castle with an iron-topped tower. There are scenes from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, painted on the ceiling of the entrance hall. And the Kalevala was the main source of inspiration for the National Romantic Movement.
Design, Art Nouveau, markets. But Helsinki is also water and islands. There are three places that make the city very special to me. One is the harbor, Katajanokka, close to the city center, a place for long walks and meditation, while watching the white boats. There’s a cozy coffee shop, Johan & Nyström, which is so Scandinavian with its brick walls and wood beams, coloured cushions and lampshades.
The second is the area between Lapinlahti and Hietaniemi. 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. There’s even a sandy beach down here, which attracts locals during the summer.
And then there’s Suomenlinna. Helsinki is a city of water, and taking a ferry to one of the islands is part of the ordinary life. In the 18th century, the Swedish parliament decided to build a fortress including a naval base on the island of Suomenlinna.
Today, the island is one of Finland’s world heritage sites and a lovely place for a relaxing Sunday afternoon. Therefore, I took a ferry and explored the old fortress and the traditional houses under the shining sun, on a very windy day. Inside the information office building, some photos show what Suomenlinna looks like in winter, covered in snow. Pure magic.
MY ADDRESSES IN HELSINKI
• Marimekko, Mikaelsgatan 1, Helsinki
• Iittala, Pohjoisesplanadi 25, Helsinki
• Artek, Mäkelänkatu 84, Helsinki
• Johan & Nyström, Kanavaranta 7C: a great place for breakfast /coffee and cinnamon bun) or lunch
• Olo, Pohjoisesplanadi 5: a small, refined restaurant where you can taste real Finnish cuisine.