Contrary to popular belief, Finland is not considered a Scandinavian country. While it might be geographically close to Norway and Sweden, it’s actually classified as Nordic, or at least, merely an “observing” Scandinavian one. Because of its strange status among the northern European countries, Finland is somewhat of an enigma, and it was a pleasure unpacking its culture and life while in the country for a day.
Despite being under Swedish rule for over 700 years, as well as the Russian Empire for another 100 years, Finland has still retained much of its distinctive identity. One thing that has made the country so steadfast is its language (“suomi,” as it’s called in Finnish), which has no close ties with any other of its neighbors’ speech, with the exception of Estonian and, interestingly enough, Hungarian. It can be said that the Finnish language has helped the Finns persevere throughout history, all the while stay true to their national core.
There is the idea of Finns being tough and resilient people, even more so than their Nordic neighbors. In fact, they have the word “sisu,” which translates along the lines to “stoic determination” in the face of hardship and multiple failures. The Finns pride themselves on this character, which has become a form of their national identity especially after centuries under foreign rule and wars. One can even say that saunas, originally invented by the Finns, are a testament to their tenacity under pressure!
I had limited knowledge about Finland before visiting, aside from saunas and a childhood friend who has family there. Similar to the other Nordic countries I’d already seen, I went in without expectations and found myself enjoying a day in and around Helsinki, the country’s capital. At least compared to our packed itinerary in Saint Petersburg just before, Helsinki was a notable contrast in being more peaceful and relaxed in sightseeing.
My family and I disembarked from our cruise ship and headed to our first stop of the day in town. We started off at the Sibelius Monument in the Töölö district, located west of the city. Dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, it’s a conglomeration of 600 or so steel pipes that appear to float in the air, which are made to represent organ pipes. It’s an abstract homage to Sibelius, who had composed many pieces that developed Finnish national identity during Russian occupation in the 20th century. I’d actually listened to a few of his symphonies before, and I was blown away by the depth and power in each movement. It made for a lovely treat, then, to step foot on the soil of the composer’s home country, all the while see the monument dedicated to him.
Besides Helsinki, we also spent a couple of hours in Porvoo, a small medieval town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of the capital. It was about a 40 to 50-minute drive over, and we soon reached the small town for a brief visit. We had some free time to stroll through the Old Town along the Porvoo River, admiring the rustic-red long houses and checking out the 15th-century Porvoo Cathedral. While not extravagant-looking like the Catholic churches of Spain or Italy, this Lutheran-style building has an air of austerity that shows the people’s simple, but wholesome dedication to God.
One of the highlights of Porvoo would have to be Brunberg, a family-run chocolate shop that’s local to the town itself. Our tour guide told us that, in general, Finns don’t use a lot of cacao (no more than 60%), thus resulting in a lighter-tasting chocolate. We sampled a few flavors, including mocha, mint, even orange before purchasing a block of the mocha as a souvenir. You could say that it was a sweet way to conclude our time in town!
Our tour took us to a 19th-century farmhouse in the countryside, where we had lunch prepared by the family who owned the estate. The three-course meal was extremely fresh, as I could taste the potatoes and berries just harvested and picked just hours before. From the rye bread to the meatloaf and berry tart at the end, the food wasn’t anything fancy, but it was hearty and delicious all the same.
We returned to Helsinki in the early afternoon, and we started off at the Temppeliaukio Church. Translated as “Rock Church,” it’s built inside of a rock, housing a grand organ that sweeps horizontally across the church’s jagged walls, as if a masterpiece in itself. It’s one of Helsinki’s notable landmarks, and I found the rock-based church to be ingenious it structure and creativity. Certainly one of the cooler-looking churches I’ve come across in Europe!
Aside from Temppeliaukio Church, there was also the Helsinki Cathedral. Built in the mid-19th century, it’s a towering, blue-domed building modeled after the Greek Orthodox style, but in fact is Lutheran-based in faith. We didn’t enter the building, but we saw it from the outside, snapping a photo or two before we continued to the Esplanadi, aka “the esplanade” which extends from the Market Square to Erottaja Square. Our tour group stayed within the former square, which happened to have dozens of stalls set up for selling freshly-picked berries, homemade crafts, fish, and just about anything else you can imagine.
Our day in Helsinki concluded afterwards, and we returned to our cruise ship by mid-afternoon. Although it was a short six hours in Finland, I was happy to have gotten a taste of the country. Not only did I get to visit the capital, but I also enjoyed going a bit outside to Porvoo to see more of Finland. My impressions are that it’s a sleepy, but peaceful country, with incredibly-fresh air and plenty of nature to go around. History aside, Finland has come a long way since the early 20th century, now a prospering place with a strong sense of national identity.
More of my time in the Nordic countries soon!