There are three things I love about Finland: the music of Jean Sibelius, the writings and art of Tove Jansson, and the architecture of Alva Aalto. Sadly, all dead, but in their lives they embody much of the history of a country that few people from the UK know much about, or ever visit. This summer I travelled around just a small part of this unique and fascinating country.
Finland is a big country with a small population; just 5.5 m people scattered across a terrain bigger than the UK. It has a traumatic history of occupation and war, reflecting its position between Sweden and Russia, and on the edge of Europe. Finns speaks a language that even some of its citizens find hard to penetrate, but luckily for us tourists they also speak brilliant English.
Travelling around the country is made simple by a transportation system that works, is easy to navigate, and is also pretty cheap.I travelled about 1000 miles on the train and the total cost was about £53. In the towns and cities I visited it was easy to get around because of the way in which they are laid out, made accessible by foot or cycle. Also I love the way that as you approach a pedestrian crossing the cars actually stop for you…You would be dead if you tried this in England!
Much of the country only gets about 4 months of daylight a year, so it’s best to visit from June to September. You can then experience very long days when it seems there is no dark at all, and you can understand why Finns love to be outside during the summer and enjoy fantastic facilities in parks, lakes – and even just outside their flats.
Finland is a very beautiful country. Its landscape is dominated by nature with wonderful forests and lakes which have not be destroyed by commercialism or industrialisation. And, although Finish composer Jean Sibelius lived in a very different time, looking at the landscape and listening to his music, you can understand his love for his country. Listen to one of his most popular compositions here.
Travelling around just a small part of the country I was struck by towns which have a mixture of architectural styles; reflecting the history of the country with the influence of Sweden, France and Russia. There seems to be a determination by the planners to ensure that commercial premises are kept out of residential areas, and that goes for advertising of all kinds. Maybe this reflects their long relationship with the Soviet Union, and cities such as Tampere remind me of travelling around the USSR in the mid-80s.Many people live in flats, but they are made enjoyable places to live by the way in which they are designed with plenty of trees surrounding them, wide streets that people can use to cycle around, and lots of outdoor facilities for children.
My trip began in the the area called the Lake District, so-named because its landscape is dominated by lakes and forest areas . I started my travels in a small town north of Helsinki called Jyväskylä which has a population of 137,000. It is considered the home town of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
One of the things I like about him is that he was not just a creative person, but he was an activist taking part in the war against the occupation of Finland. But he made his reputation as an architect, and his philosophy mirrors the words of British socialist and artist William Morris: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
Alvar was not just an architect, he was also a sculptor, designer and painter. Known for his modernist design of houses and buildings :he wasn’t just interested in the design of the building but with his wife, Aino Aalto, was concerned with the total look of the house, designing everything from lamps to glassware. In Jyväskylä I visited the Alvar Aalto Museum and also his Experimental House which he lived in during the summer. The house is made of wood, but he mixed in local brick and marble giving it a very contemporary look. He also designed his own, and essential Finish smoke sauna, and a boat to transport him and his family across the lake to the house each summer.
Sauna in the woods
you can sit on an Aalto seat
Alvar designed many different buildings across Finland and Europe but I really liked the Workers Centre in Jyväskylä which the local Communist Party commissioned him to build.
Workers Centre-ironically now next door to a bar called Revolution!
Today Finland is a member of the EU, but during the last hundred years they had a very close relationship with the former USSR. My next stop was Tampere, the second largest city in Finland, where II visited the Lenin Museum which was set up in 1946, and which celebrates the bonds between the two countries. Lenin lived in Tampere in the early 1900s, and from there he plotted the revolution in Russia and he was supported by the Finnish Communist Party so it’s not surprising that there is a whole museum devoted to him. Because of this relationship he ensured that Finland became an independent country in 1920, and over the years the two countries established close economic ties until the fall of the USSR in 1991.
In Tampere you can also visit the Amurin Museum of Workers’ Housing. Amurin was one of the first workers housing districts in the city, created to provide housing for the workers in the new industries springing up from the 1880s. People lived there until the 1970s. Made of wood, the houses show the very poor living conditions of workers, and you can find out about the history of their attempts through the trade unions to improve their lives. Apart from the dwellings you can also see recreations of a cobblers’ shop from 1906, a 1930s cooperative store and a haberdashery from the 1940s. Being Finland there is also an excellent cafe.
My last stop on my Finish journey was to its capital city, Helsinki or as the Tourist Board call it “Hel Yeah”. It looks like the centre of the country, it has lots more people around, including tourists, lots more cars and lots of shops and restaurants. But the architecture is fabulous, with the churches and cathedrals which dominate the centre. But they have also kept many of their older buildings and now use them as housing, retail and commercial premises.
There are lots of interesting galleries in Helsinki, but walking around is like living in an art gallery because everywhere you go in their buildings and public spaces you can see the history of the country in beautiful sculptures in parks and public buildings. Here are some of the ones I came across as I wandered around the city.
These 1930s murals were on the outside walls of a care home in Helsinki
Tove Jansson is one of my favourite artists. Not just an artist but also a novelist, painter, and illustrator, she is best known for producing the wonderful Moomin books Tove created the Moomins at a time of real crisis for Finland in 1944 when they were doing dodgy deals with Nazi Germany and they sum up her attitude to life: joy and the importance of togetherness for humankind. In Tampere you can visit the Moomin collection which exhibits Jannson’s art work from the books as well as actual models, including the Moomin house which she created with her partner, Tuulikki Pietila.
Before visiting this exhibition I really thought the Moomins were a creation for children, but I learnt that it is the work of an incredible artist who was trying to say something important to the world. In Helsinki at the Helsinki Art Museum , you can see some of her other artwork including two beautiful murals she created for a workers cafe in Helsinki in the 1940s.
Travelling around Finland it is hard to distinguish a big difference between social classes. Helena, a retired trade unionist officer, gave me a tour of places that she said showed the real Helsinki. We left the city centre and in her car drove to a large shopping mall in east Helsinki. It was just like many you get in the UK, with chain stores of everything from mobile phones to clothes and household items. I noticed several Somali women in traditional dress, and Helena explained that there was local social housing that refugees lived in and there was a foodbank nearby which the queues were sometimes a kilometre long. It was funded by groups such as trade unionists and anyone, including poorer Finns, could use it.
In the shopping mall we headed for the food section for lunch and I noticed that the menu reflected the ethnicity of Finland: Predominantly Finish but also in Swedish (the largest minority), Russian and English. Helena said that many people from the EU were now living in Finland including people from their neighbour, Estonia. The Estonians (like the Poles in the UK) had come to work in the construction industry and had been used by employers to undercut local workers. There were lots of parallels with the UK: I saw groups of young Arabic and African men sitting in parks and some Roumanian women begging in the larger cities.
Finland has its own problems with 10% unemployment and, like the UK, a lack of jobs for many of its young people. But over there, and even with a right wing government, there is a social consensus about the funding of public services and people pay a higher percentage of income tax, 30%. But what you don’t see is many people begging on the streets or the physical breakdown in public services that is evident in the UK by just walking around the cities and towns of this country. Several Finns I spoke to were concerned about the UK’s exit from the EU, for them it’s a no-no to leave, not surprising given their history, but for the UK it is not just disengaging from the EU but a wider disengagement from our political system that we need to worry about.