For all it being right on our doorstep, Finland seems so far off the beaten track. Overlooked by even the most curious of travellers, it is an empty, wild and stunningly beautiful country dominated by trees and water. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his notebook and crosses the Baltic…
As with so many stories of adventure, my encounter with Finland started somewhere completely unexpected. Poland, to be precise. To be even more precise, in a bar in the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, where I was talking to a frock-coated conductor who, like me, had been lured to the Polish capital to witness the living legend (now sadly departed) that was Stanisław Skrowaczewski conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra’s most recent interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth or ‘Choral’ symphony. What’s this got to do with Finland, I hear you ask. Well, the younger conductor, whose name I forget, was clearly on some sort of official charm offensive and was circulating the green room trying his best to be nice to people. When he came to me, he asked in immaculate English, but a slightly withered tone: “Do you like Beethoven?” I’m still not sure why, but I replied rather foolishly: “sure do. He’s the best.” To which, he replied: “do you know that when the world has forgotten Beethoven, they’ll still be performing Sibelius?” I confessed I didn’t and suggested that he might have possibly got his composers the wrong way around here. The junior maestro seemed to grow and inch or two in height as he informed me: “I don’t make mistakes.”
A few months later and I’m in Helsinki standing in front of a monument to Jean Sibelius, Finland’s greatest composer and the man who re-invented the country’s musical identity after it gained independence from Russia towards the end of the Great War. The monument, brainchild of Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen, is located in Sibelius Park in the fabulously named district of Töölö, and is an abstract mass of stylised steel tubes that are supposed to represent organ pipes. This confused me slightly as, although I’m by no means an expert on Finnish classical music of the late-Romantic/early Modern period, I’m pretty sure that of all the things Sibelius was famous for, it wasn’t organ music. Perhaps his best known and almost certainly most patriotic work, Finlandia doesn’t have a church organ anywhere near it. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one to be perplexed by the Sibelius Monument. When the 600-plus organ pipes were unveiled in 1967, half a century after Independence, there was uproar.
Uproar is not a word generally associated with Finland. If we think of it at all, what comes to mind is a quiet, polite country that enjoys a good old sauna, produces paper, makes Nokia mobile phones and occasionally incubates Formula One champions such as Kimi Räikkönen and Mika Häkkinen, who are both by reputation quiet and polite. It’s a peaceful country, more water than land it seems, where what land there is appears covered with trees, most of which are ghostly silver birch, giving the country a mystical, fairy-tale look. In fact, Finland is so quiet, polite and peaceful that it has developed a reputation for being boring, something you suspect hasn’t been exactly helped by the famous Monty Python song that describes the country as “often ignored, a poor second to Belgium when going abroad.” And while this is not the place for me to air my opinions about their puerile public schoolboy attempts at satire, the Pythons raise a decent point when they say that with its treetops so tall, Finland has it all.
And that’s because once you’re out of Helsinki, there’s very little to mark the human presence in Finland. At around a third of a million square miles, it’s a huge place (that’s more than 40 times the size of Wales), and with barely five million living there (that’s way less than London), it has one of the least dense populations in the developed world. So it’s hardly any surprise that most who travel to Finland
for pleasure are outdoor types that enjoy a spot of fishing, hiking, camping and, as you get further north towards the Arctic Circle, dogsledding. And that’s what my visit was all about: apart from the fact that I was supposed to be photo-graphing Finland for the business travel pages of one of the Sunday newspapers. As I sat in my hotel room watching the local news on TV, my heart sank as I realised the task would probably be impossible as national hero Mika Häkkinen was getting married in the capital the following day, and according to the presenter, there would be such scenes on the streets of Helsinki that had never been seen before. I took this to mean that there would be masses of security, traffic diversions, restrictions on photography. But there were none of these impeding factors. I spoke to a policeman on duty close to the green-domed neoclassical cathedral in the centre of the city. I asked him where all the crowd control was. “Oh, there’s no need for that,” replied the Finnish bobby. “Mika has asked his fans to stay away from the church while the couple get married. They’ll go and pose for some pictures and sign autographs down by the dock a little later.” Curious, I decided to cast my eye over events, and there was Finland’s most famous living son, chatting with the good people of Helsinki, recalling the policeman’s kindly yet proud words: “we don’t need extra security here. This is Finland, sir. Not the UK.”
Sometimes the best way to travel through unknown country is by bus and so I said goodbye to Helsinki and pointed north-west to the town of Rauma on the Baltic Sea, watching the countless trees and endless watercourses slide past the window. I was heading to such an obscure place to report on the construc-tion of an enormous ocean-going cruise-ferry at the dockyard, a job that I needed to get out of the way before flying much further north to Kajaani, where I’d be able to do some serious exploration of the ancient forest. I hadn’t been at all keen to go so far off the beaten track in pursuit of a half-built ship, even if it was called the Robin Hood, and was deeply unimpressed when I was dispatched to photograph the ‘topping out’ ceremony, in which a provincial mayor recited a few words of an unintelligible language in the freezing cold.
I returned to my hotel to discover it was ‘Black Lace Night’, which isn’t quite as exciting as it sounds. From what I could work out, from time to time this tiny little town, perhaps most famous for its UNESCO-approved wooden architecture, holds a festival to celebrate the local craft of lacemaking. The crescendo of the event, which I had stumbled upon by sheer chance, was an evening of late-night boutique browsing, during which those that really want-ed to go to town traditionally dress themselves head-to-foot in black lace.
I arrived at the pocket-handkerchief airport in Kajaani during what are technically known as sub-Arctic conditions, which can be simply translated into layman’s terms as ‘very cold.’ And although I was eager to go dog-sledding (something I’d previously done in Canada and Norway), I was also keen to hike in the forest, where I was told that there were traditional woodland paths that dated back something like 15,000 years. I met my guide Jouko at the edge of the airfield and we drove off through the snow to a section of forest managed by one of the large paper companies that produce so much of Finland’s exports. Sustainable forestry management is a huge concern in Finland and the paper companies fall over themselves to show off their environmental credentials – something that they were doing long before other parts of the world had even heard of recycling. Jouko took me to the Puikkokoski region nature trail with the promise of exploring an old pine forest on the banks of the Miesjoki river. As we walked, he described the process of harvesting trees, from the seeding to the felling, in a cycle that needs to run on a timeframe of around 80-140 years. His company UPM-Kymmene keeps an old section of the forest for visitors to walk through to experience what life in prehistoric Finland was like. He points out the bogland where cranberries and cloudberries grow wild, sustaining a flourishing bird population. He tells me how the ancient peoples used to live off the bounty of the forest which provided both food and shelter. They would hunt for black grouse or pine marten, fish for trout that would be eaten with foraged lingonberries. Today we have sandwiches and coffee, over which Jouko tells me the history of the traditional loggers who worked the region from the 16th century until the late 1960s. Because of the remoteness of the forest, the men lived there in chalets by the sawmills and the pulp and paper mills. “What did the men drink?” I ask. “Tar vodka,” comes the reply.
Tar is called terva in Finnish and is made from tree sap extracted from burning wood, usually pine, of which in the forests of Kajaani there is plenty. And although its industrial use has for centuries been to coat ships and as a medicine, it’s also used to make booze in a process as old as time. In fact, tar kilns dating back to the Stone Age have been found throughout the region. Jouko tells me there’s old Finnish proverb that says, “if vodka and tar won’t help, the disease is probably fatal.” And so, to be on the safe side, we’re going to do both. As we walk through the forest he stops, sniffs the air and, in a theatrically conspiratorial manner, whips out from behind a tree stump a glass flask containing a dull, rust-coloured liquid. I didn’t need Sherlock Holmes to tell me that this was the fabled terva vodka. We drank in silence. Imagine eating a bar of coal tar soap and washing it down with vodka. If you can be stunned and not surprised at the same time, that was me: stunned that I’d put the stuff in my body and not surprised by how bloody awful it was. “Let’s go and plant trees,” said Jouko.
It was a shame to leave the forest behind, but there was the matter of heading further north to the parts of the land where sub-Arctic conditions get stripped of their ‘sub’ prefix and become simply Arctic. I rendezvous with the dog team somewhere near the tripoint with Norway and Sweden. Hans and Judi ask me if I’ve tried the sauna since arriving in Finland, to which I reply in the negative. They tell me that this must be done as a matter of priority, and before long we are relaxing in a small cabin on the side of a frozen lake, where we chuck water on the coals and settle in for a long steam. I’ve never understood the Nordic obsession with sauna and yet don’t have any strong feelings either. Judi tells me that down south they finish with a swim in the lake, “but we can’t do that here. We just go out and roll in the snow. But if you are too British to do that, we completely understand.” Knowing that I’d been reverse-psyched didn’t seem to matter as much as I thought it would, and as the three of us rolled around in the snow I started to understand. As they ate their barbecue tenderloin of reindeer (I had something made with trout and grated horseradish), they asked me when I was going home. I thought about it for a moment before answering: “I think I’d quite like to stay.”