If this is Sunday, it must be Helsinki!
We are officially into the “white nights.” The sun won’t set until almost 11 p.m., and sunrise will be around 3:30 a.m. Even in the middle of the night, there’s a gentle twilight outside our cabin window. And this will be even brighter when we sail above the Arctic Circle in a few days’ time.
In Helsinki the Summer Solstice is a very big deal, celebrated with two days of festivals, drinking, and staying up late. And on the third day, everyone rests. And takes aspirin. So we could have fired a cannonball down the street (if we’d had one) as we met our old friends Timo and Kaisa, who took us on a tour of elegant Helsinki, modelled on the broad streets and expansive buildings of Saint Petersburg. In fact, several spy movies made during the Cold War used Helsinki’s main square to represent Russia. It’s the only Baltic port that doesn’t have a medieval centre on this tour.
At the end of each school year, graduating students give this lady of the fountain a good all-over scrubbing, and crown her with a graduation cap. Known as Havis Amanda, she is a mermaid rising from the sea who has represented the rebirth of Helsinki for over a hundred years, and fish and sea lions frolic at her feet.
The market caters both to locals and tourists, and we enjoyed the sweetest strawberries I can remember. Just like candy.
We took a brief trip to the monument honouring composer Jean Sibelius. A fierce nationalist, Sibelius wrote “Finlandia” to protest against Russian censorship and to honour Finland’s struggle for independence. It was given different names in its early performances – for example, “Happiness at the approach of Spring” – so that the Russians wouldn’t censor it.
Then Timo and Kaisa took us to Hvittrask, three houses built out of town in 1902-3 by three young Finnish architects (Elio Saarinen, Herman Gesellius, and and Armas Lindgren) who wanted to get away from it all. Each designed his own house, mostly made of wood logs and granite, and even the interiors, right down to the furniture, all made by hand locally. It’s now a museum and restaurant.
The house breathes Nordic from the moment you walk in. There are cozy seating areas next to handmade ceramic fireplaces, but it’s also airy and open to views of the outdoors. Down by the lake there’s a sauna – of course. It feels like a house where you could raise a very happy family.
We came back to the city to visit Stockmann’s, which has a good selection of sauna accessories, including the felted wool sauna hat, which you need when you are taking a sauna in -20 Celsius weather; as well as household items of Finnish design.
TOILET TALK: At the risk of you all thinking I have a really unhealthy preoccupation with bathrooms, just a quick mention of the Finnish toilet. Every one that I saw, even the public toilets, contained a miniature shower head attached to a tiny washbasin. These are for freshening up – ahem – “down there.” I haven’t seen this variation on a bidet anywhere else, but I gotta say – what a good idea! Sanitation for the nation!
Okay, I’ve mentioned bathrooms a couple of times, but it’s in private spaces where cultural differences are particularly evident. So it’s evident, in the bathrooms and the saunas, that Finns value cleanliness very highly – and that’s not a bad thing!