Sitting in my very comfortable Lufthansa business class seat, I do exactly as the captain advises on the speakers. I peer down through the tiny window. To be rewarded by the sight of silvery blue seas dotted by what look like giant turtles with green carapaces. As the plane comes closer these tantalising shapes reveal themselves to be hundreds of tiny islands, possibly thousands, all like asymmetrical green upon verdant green carpets flying on a blue sky. My imagination has just done the bottoms up view. In my plane I am stationary as above me magic carpets fly past.
It’s a momentous introduction to Finland. As dramatic as the symphonies of its most favourite composer Jean Sibelius who was born in 1865 and died in 1957, his last 25 years spent in utter silence. The reasons for this self-imposed isolation deserve an entire chapter in itself but analysts of his legendary oeuvres are unanimous about one fact: Sibelius was deeply influenced by the legends of his own country, itself a complex child of the whims and vagaries of two parents, one Swedish and the other Russian.
Just imagine this. A land area of 338,000 square kilometers, larger than Italy, embracing within its folds 188,000 official lakes, billions of towering trees, deep valleys and gushing rivers being pulled in two opposite directions by the determined kings of Sweden and the powerful Russian tsars.
In 1550, King Gustav Vasa of Sweden founded Helsinki at the mouth of the Vantaanjoki river to compete with Tallinn (capital of Estonia), which lay on the opposite side of the Baltic Sea. Russia snatched it from the Swedes in 1809’s bloody war. When Finland became independent in 1917, Helsinki assumed the role of capital.
In 1952, Helsinki hosted the Summer Olympics marking its appearance as a global city. In 2000, Helsinki was awarded European city of culture. In 2007 it hosted the Eurovision song contest, joined the Good Food cities of the world in 2009 and thanks to its immensely creative citizens has been designated as World Design Capital in 2012. In an area of 716 square kilometers about half a million people live, sleep, eat, work, cycle and speak a language that only Hungarians understand! Its grammar is difficult, no prepositions or genders included but when they speak its almost song-like lilting in its cadences and tones.
It’s a language I am engulfed by in the next 10 days. My hosts Sakari and Kaarina Karttunen, multilingual as most Finns are, segue easily from Finnish to English to Swedish to Finnish, illustrating just how different Finnish is from most other tongues. Sakari is one of Europe’s leading jazz and travel writers and had visited Jazz Yatra 1988 (does anyone remember those halcyon days?). It’s taken a decade of gentle persuasion for me to accept his family’s invitation to stay with them. Accustomed to lodging in the world’s finest hotels this is indeed one of my most memorable decisions.
Let us go then, you and I (in T S Eliot’s immortal words) when the afternoon is spread out against a darkening sky, through half-deserted streets to explore Helsinki.
Within two hours of landing, in my jetlagged state, Sakari leads me to the Rock Church and immediately I hear angels singing. No, I haven’t fainted! We have stumbled onto a Lithuanian choir rehearsing for the evening’s concert.
About 50 perfectly pitched male and female voices soar to the dome and envelop visitors in a musical embrace. It’s also an archi-tectural marvel, the wooden slatted dome a contrast to its walls quarried out of millions of years old natural bedrock.
Say hello to Helsinki’s most famous nude lady. Havis Amanda is her name and she was built in Paris in 1906. To spite their Russian masters, the city installed her bronze statue with her ample buttocks facing the mayor’s office. Surrounded by four seals spouting fountains, Havis Amanda is situated right in the heart of Helsinki’s buzz area of the Esplanade Park (free concerts of jazz, pop, swing, folk, and big band music take place every day from May to September) and the Market Square. Brightly coloured tents cover this popular touristic square selling souvenirs, bric-a-brac, beverages and Finnish tribal handicrafts. I ate three memorable fish meals here, one even with Helsinki’s version of fish paella.
Fishy desires brought us to 120-year-old Market Hall, ten steps away from the above mentioned attractions along the waterfront. Stepping inside, I was immediately reminded of Mumbai’s Crawford Market — a cleaner, more orderly version, that is. Rows of neatly arranged stalls sell Baltic herring, different types of salmon (some marinated in different sauces), typical North Sea and Finnish fish varieties.
A two minute walk away from Havis Amanda’s buttocks in the opposite direction will bring you to one of Europe’s excellent examples of Neo Classical clusters, with its hierarchy of axes, squares and important buildings. My jaw dropped when I saw the imposing cathedral, white on blinding white with green domes. This is known as Helsinki Cathedral, (quite different from the Russian Cathedral, which ispis a 10-minute walk away) and was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel who was also responsible for the other buildings (between 1822 and 1852) in this Senate Square. A great flight of steps leads up to Finland’s most famous and photographed building. Inside its Lutheran sanctity, silence and minimalist beauty reigns. Outside and below its commanding height impressed tourists bustle about admiring the Old Town Hall, the still intact Sederholm House built in 1757 making it Helsinki’s oldest building (now a museum), and the impressive University buildings.
This peninsula, a two-minute walk from the market square, is notable for the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. With its golden, onion shaped cupolas, this cathedral was built on the highest outcrop of rock in the late 19th century. This area is also famous for the largest collection of buildings from the Finnish Art Nouveau period. Most of these colourful, highly individual and organic architectural gems were built between 1896 and 1913. The shipping cargo harbour is also in this peninsula. Many redbrick warehouse buildings are to be found and one of them is Helsinki’s luxury Grand Marina Hotel.
One of the world’s most eclectic hotels is also located here. The former Katajanokka prison is a four-star hotel, each prison cell now refurbished as a hotel room. The lunch in its darkly lit basement turned restaurant was delicious.