Northern Lights. White Nights
Helsinki was the first port of call. Also the last. I would be in & out thrice. This the first leg 48 hours only. Three pm already, time was therefore of the essence.
Despite a baggage allowance of 23 & carry on of 8, both bags accompanied me inside. The total weight – less than 8 kg. A feat I am immensely proud of & willing to expand upon – one to one. Marvel at it meanwhile & wonder. Consider time saved also.
Out of the terminal, I am soon heading towards town & getting there in less than 30 minutes.
(The Finnair shuttle operates every half hour from outside Terminal 2 – platform 51, Euro 6.90 cash/card – dropping one off at Helsinki Central Station, a distance of 19 kms. On the return it plies from platform 30, Elliel Square, Central station).
With free Wifi onboard, quick “Landed. All well” calls were made. Could anything be simpler, more gratifying?
The other option is Bus 615 or train – Line I or P. All go to Central Station – the hub of Helsinki life.
The hotel was a 10 minute walk. Bags deposited, I am off to the Esplanadi & Market Square to catch a ferry to Suomenlinna. Everything is within walking distance. Helsinki, with wide open green spaces is made for walking.
Suomenlinna island can only be accessed by ferry- 15 minutes. It has an 18th century fortress & is a UNESCO heritage site. A place to spend quiet time, picnic or wander. I went across (euro 2.80) then quickly grabbed a coffee. That’s another thing. People are constantly grabbing either a coffee, beer or ice cream.
The summer solstice has emptied the city with shops either closed or closing but the island has crowds of holidaymakers & the mood is festive. Young boys & girls sport floral tiaras. They will go berry picking, as is the local custom. Mid summer night, remember?
I have been up for what seems like forever without any sign of fatigue or tiredness. A feeling of exhilaration only. Such being the magic of the midnight sun.
The next day is officially the longest & begins with a leisurely stroll to Kamppi, past the art work depicting 3 naked men at Stockmans, coffee – cake at Regatta, down to the White church, turning towards the harbour & the statue of Havis Amanda where Christina, the guide will meet.
Havis Amanda is symbolic of Helsinki rising from the sea. Sculptured by Ville Vallgren an early 20th century French artist, lady councillors had taken umbrage at her depiction in the nude but quite sensibly decided to let it be. So here was the beautiful Amanda sharing space with four lusty sea lions.
These ‘free’ walking tours – is anything in life ever free? – conducted by locals are a wonderful introduction to the city. An orientation & peep into the life & culture of the place.
Twenty two year old Christina is a student of law with an interest in art, history & culture. She walks us through, discoursing on the neo classical buildings – archtecture. The palace, green dome cathedral, university, senate square etc etc.
I had hoped to squeeze in Seurasaari, the island that has historic Finnish houses but it is not to be. While Turku is a must.
Finland’s oldest & third largest city, Turku was the capital until 1812. It has the pigduck (Posankka) as mascot & the finest Finnish street food: Hesburghers, Karelian pastries & ‘makkara’ – grilled pork sausages.
The Inter city express linking it to Helsinki (euro 34 return) takes less than 2 hours. (Keep in mind the fact that the last train out is at 9.30 pm. Turku after that is a ghost track).
A straight road leads to the river front – less than 15 minutes – where all the major sights are located. A 1.5 km stretch along the Aura with cathedral & castle (13th century) at either end. It is a beautiful traffic free avenue – cycles & segway permitted. Children play along grassy banks while old couples walk hand in hand.
The town has both character & charm & is full of cafes, ice cream corners, quaint art décor, bookshops, Romeo & Juliette balconies & decorative doors. At Ratikka the market square you may get lucky & glimpse the only remaining tram carriage.
Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Lapland is 45 minutes by air. There is an airport shuttle after every Finnair flight (euro 7/kms 9). It dropped me right outside my hotel.
Surrounded by 4 bridges/at the confluence of two rivers, Rovaniemi is a small compact town with everything within easy reach. Europe’s oldest inhabitants, the Sami are purported to live here, though I didn’t see signs of any. They are perhaps so fully integrated as to be indistinguishable from the rest. The town at first gives the impression of the wild west. With names like Hemingway’s Bar, Navy Rum, Roy’s Club etc. its streets & squares were cold, windswept & deserted. It’s the summer solstice again. I enjoyed walking around though & watched a young boy segway in circles, wondering if I should try the reindeer meat – ball dish at all.
Elena, is to pick me up at 11.30 for a midnight sun picnic on Santavaara hill. It was to be a small group but turned out to be just us, Elena & me. Nice of ‘Viator’ to have gone ahead & not cancelled it altogether. The longest day was not yet over & this was especially close to my heart.
Elena was terrific company. We drove some 10 kms out of town, into forests of Birch & Pine with a short 900 metre hike up the hill. Everything above, beneath & around was white & still. In the distance ran a white streak – the river, soundless too. Man & beast have lived & interacted in such close proximity down the ages that the animal at least is shy & wary. He keeps a safe distance.
We carried wood & flint – lit a fire while Elena took out an array of German sausages. Chatting about our lives – woman to woman – dinner was barbeque, salad & coffee. (scent free Birch cones, unlike Pine are ideal for bbq. So I learnt)
We waited past midnight but the sun refused to emerge from behind the clouds. A perfect white night still. One I am unlikely to ever forget.
That Lapland was home to Santa was known. Not so the humongous industry around him. There is a Santa village & a Santa Express – 10 kms/euro 7 -connecting it to town. He has an official address, an office, work hours & Elves to do his bidding. Also a post office handling mail from around the world – over 20 million at the last count. There were parcels, gifts, X’mas decorations & a reindeer sledge that could be hired for a fee. Also a long long queue to meet him. I fall in line too, if only for the fun of it.
Dressed in traditional attire SC is rosy cheeked & chubby & has a twinkle in the eye. “From India of course,” says he. “ are you from Hyderabad? See what I have here” (pointing to the Ganesha upon the shelf.) “We are never too old to live our dreams…….I believe in fairy tales & happy endings.”
I could not /did not take a photograph. An elf had done that already along with a video clip. Would I like a copy? Would I? Not if its euro 40 and 60. Hey Santa, that is a rip off. Dreams die first.
Instead, I walked up to latitude 66*32* N – distinctly marked on the ground – and had a picture taken (euro 4.50). Certificate in hand, to prove that I had indeed crossed the Arctic Circle.
White nights aside Finland is a winter wonderland. Home to the sauna. Design capital of the world. Have a look around ……
The people? Introvert, friendly. Also romantic, in an unstated tender kind of way. The happiest in the world, according to a 2019 survey. The secret, minimalism once again. It’s ‘no frills,’ with a deeply ingrained respect of silence & space. Conquered & ruled by outsiders for much of its history, the yearning for peace is paramount. To the extent that it ceded Karelia to the Russians. Anything for peace.
What didn’t I like?
It is neither hot nor sharp, spicy or tangy.