Helsinki — Finns are a people canny in their reasonableness. A nation of 5 million abutting the expanse that is Russia, Finns embrace diversity and incongruity and thus go their very own decided way.
Consider these facts: Today 7 percent, mostly descendants of those who were sent to settle the pirate-speaking, so all Finland is bilingual. Its people master two languages which almost none of the rest of the world speaks before going on to learn the usual complement of English, French, and German.
Part of Russia until 1917, it managed to elude the Soviet bloc. In 1809, after 600 years of Swedish rule, it was ceded to the Czar. When Moscow was distracted by the revolution, Finland, which managed to hold on to its national identity, declared independence. Grateful to Germany for help with border wars, Finland joined the Axis, only to suffer defensive bombing by its ally. In the war settlement, it was forced to give up one-sixth of its fields to Russia. With all this, Finland manages to have a high Western standard of living.
This history is of interest to the traveler for this is the meaning of the rows of low square apartment buildings and offices that sprang up in bombed-out areas 40 years ago. Modern Scandinavian functionalism obtrudes, but the charm of an older and less prosperous Finland is still to be seen.
The easiest way would be to combine Finland, especially Helsinki, with a trip to Sweden or Russia. A day or night train trip (provided one has arranged weeks in advance for a visa) brings one from Leningrad. One can sail from Stockholm on an overnight cruise on the Silja line through the fairy-tale islands of Swedish pleasure homes through the Gulf of Bothnia.
To visit Helsinki is to island-hop, for it is, like all of Finland, part of an archipelago -- a cluster of many islands. The harbor, with its daily market, is the liveliest quarter. In market stalls fur pelts, textiles, sauna buckets, and carrots (at a dollar a bunch) are for sale. The entire capital, including gypsy women in long black skirts, gathers there. so does a plethora of sailing craft -- fishing boats docked at the quai to sell salmon, Scandinavian liners, yachts, rowboats, and Russian tankers.
One can depart from here on a tourist boat to Suomenlinna, a group of five rocky islands which tell a story of the battered coast. Bikinied Finns and others on holiday testify to the country's current prosperity. "Rug beaters" along the shore who actually combine rug cleaning with family picnics are a perfect example of a utilitarian spirit of fun. The guided cruise takes one past former Swedish fortresses, czarist bases bombed during the Crimean War, and Finland's only submarine drydocked along the coast.
In the capital itself, possibly the most interesting place to visit is Seurasarri, an openair museum a little to the west of the city center. Begun in 1909, this national park of shady trees and earthen paths brings together buildings from all over Finland -- a church, farmhouses, workshops, barns, granaries, and even a "savusauna" or smoke sauna. A visit to a sauna, f Finnish national institution, is a necessary part of any trip to the land, but this particular nonworking sauna helps one understand the importance this "bath" holds for the Finns. Seurasarri's sauna, dating from the time of the American Revolution, was the original structure -- bedrooms and kitchen were added only as the couple could afford them.
More primitive houses show that the concept of the chimney had not penetrated the outreaches of Finland so when the ovens burned, the house would fill with smoke and dwellers would have to leave. Near the looms one sees wooden sticks which would be lit by hot coals to serve as torches -- candles were unknown.
One of the newer buildings is a country store which operated until 1955. On the counter is a Finnish abacus, and wares such as inflexible felt boots hang from the ceiling. In nearly every building is an authentic example of the weaver's art -- be it rugs or bedspreads -- or of the Finnish gift for working wood. Guides who lead visitors about Seurassari say the patterned doors were the inspiration of carpenters who saw the baroque moldings in the homes of the wealthy.
Along the road back to town you will see a sign reading "Friends of Finnish Handicraft." Located in a turn-of-the-century villa, Friends brings together work and showrooms of hand-woven textiles. The permanent ryijy or wallhanging exhibit is open to the public, and many textile products are for sale.Ryijy has been described as a poem of colors because it employs up to 100 different shades. The craft supposedly was developed when weavers sought to emulate shaggy fur skins.
Wo destinations under an hour outside the city are Hvittrask, the former home of architect Eliel Saarinen, and Porvoo, an antique city of pastel wooden houses.
Hvittrask was conceived by architects Saarinen, Armas Lindgren, and Herman Gesellius as a complex of living and working space after they won fame at the 1900 paris Exposition. Using stone and logs, they strove to incorporate the cliffs, forests, and lakes of nature. After Saarinen became sole owner, he hosted Gorky, Mahler, and Sibelius, but such men had to accommodate themselves to the rather small proportions of the furniture. Eliel, short of stature, designed everything to his own scale and his own tastes. Doors are low and beds are small, though perfectly scaled.
Since Eliel didn't liek meetings, he designed conference talbes and chairs that hit the back in such a way that one is eager to adjourn. Eliel's wife Loja designed rugs and weaving that everywhere brighten the house.The decor throughout is somber, relieved by bursts of brights and pastels. Although the interior was designed over 50 years ago, some details, such as grass wallpaper and a romantic art deco bedroom, are echoed today.
Porvoo has the distinction of being second only to Turku in age. While Turku , considered Finland's cultural heart, has a castle that was begun in 1280, Porvoo retains more historical flavor. Back roads take one through farmland and cottages built in the rustic "empire" style. In the town's old part, Porvoo's medieval plan survives in the steep narrow alleys. Besides these, a photographer's delight is the row of red storehouses along the river. Their particular burnished color, seen elsewhere in the country, is the result of washes of Finnish earth.
There is of course more to Finland than the Helsinki area. One popular destination is Rovanemi, in Lapland, where the sun never sets in summer, nor rises in winter. Its attraction is due largely to the fact that it is situated on the Arctic Circle and has a center and post office where visitors can be certified as having been to that exoticsounding spot. Another locale is the above-mentioned Turku with its renovated (more that than restored) castle and the Sibelius Museum featuring musical instruments arranged so that the beauty of their forms is paramount. Turku even has ice-breaker plats. But the traveler whose budget and time are in any way limited can have an ample Finnish experience by sampling the capital area.