It’s been a quiet few days here in Helsinki for us, meeting up with some family as well as sightseeing. We’re staying with my grandfather’s sister, Kirsti, who has been so kind to let us stay with her and has made us feel at home!
Helsinki is an interesting city because despite having a long history, it is actually quite modern compared to the rest of Europe. Originally founded in the 1500s by a Swedish king (Finland was not yet an independent country), Helsinki grew in the 18th century when the swedes built a large military fortress on an island right outside the town, increasing industry. However, Helsinki really came into it’s own only after Russia defeated Sweden in a war and annexed Finland as a grand duchy of Russia. Czar Alexander I moved the capital of Finland to Helsinki in 1812 and thus the city was increased and built as we would know it today. In 1917, during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Finland saw it’s chance to become independent and has maintained this state into modern day. Quite remarkable considering Finland bordered the Soviet Union after WWII and didn’t get absorbed into it like the rest of Eastern Europe!
At any rate, while Finland doesn’t have much by way of really old architecture, it does have some considerably important and well recognized icons and design brands. For example, the phone company Nokia was founded here. Perhaps less known to non-Finns, but still recognizable, are Marimekko and Ittala. A glass company founded in 1881, Ittala has been producing high quality and iconic glassware for longer than Finland has been an independent country! I definitely made use of the access I had to it’s shops here and am excited to add a few pieces to our house. One thing that Nordic countries, Finland especially, have down pat is a minimalist and clean design look, exemplified here by one of the displays in the Ittala flagship store.
Marimekko is no exception and has employed the same designs since it became famous in the 1960s, and has remained an icon in national and international markets. The name Marimekko has in fact become synonymous with it’s most famous pattern, the Unikko floral print that comes in various hues, this pink being the original.
I’ve seen pictures of tablecloths and curtains in this pattern from my grandparents home when my dad was growing up! Typically, this wouldn’t be my style, but because it is Finnish and I feel like I have a history with it, I can’t help loving it. And having something like a cloth bag in this print is a great accent piece in my wardrobe!
You may have been wondering about my post title, Moomin midsummer madness. It’s the title of a children’s book penned by Swedish-Finnish author Tove Jansson, in which the characters of Moomin valley embark on an adventure over midsummer. It seemed applicable considering we just passed the summer equinox (more on that and the Finnish celebrations of midsummer later). The Moomin book series have become well loved in Finland since it’s creation in 1945, and I grew up with the stories as a child. Who wouldn’t love little Moomin characters that kind of look like plump little hippopotamuses?? I have to say that I still think they are terribly cute.
Most recently, the Angry Birds phenomenon had it’s beginning here in Finland, with the Finnish computer game developer Rovio Entertainment. This was in fact news to me, and we had been wondering why there was so much Angry Birds merchandise available in stores here, but my dad’s cousin Eero, who took us around Helsinki one morning, informed us that it was in fact a Finnish creation.
Our days here have been slow and lazy for the most part. I mentioned that Eero took us sightseeing our first morning here, which was a great introduction to the city. We saw some of the main buildings, along with more personally interesting things like the apartment where my grandfather was born. We stopped at a park right along the sea and walked his two dogs Didi and Sagi, who were along for the ride. I have to mention that they are probably the most well-trained dogs I have ever seen in my life. Eero says the credit belongs to his wife Caroline but the dogs certainly respond well to his presence as well and he is continually reinforcing their training. Because they are actually used as hunting dogs, they have been strictly trained to follow commands. So for example, the dogs could be running full tilt towards a bird (only with permission) and with a certain whistle they will drop flat to the ground and wait. Eero can command them to go, and tell them what direction, come back, walk beside him, wait, or stop out in the field and lie down. It was remarkable to see!
We also explored Helsinki on our own, making our way to the National Museum of Finland, which focuses on the cultural heritage of Finland, as well as it’s prehistory. We did some shopping along the famous esplanad (a beautiful long, narrow park hemmed in by two roads and lots of shops and cafes), and wandered through the open air market at the harbor entrance where there are food, produce, and craft vendors busy selling their product. We had an amazing salmon lunch there and it was probably some of the best salmon I’ve ever had!
Here are some photos of the Esplanad
Another notable sight is Stockmanns department store (Helsinki’s equivalent of Herrods in London). My grandfather Seppo worked there in his youth! We wandered through a couple times, either in search of food, or just browsing.
Another main sight is the large Lutheran Church that dominates the skyline. It is plain and simple and mostly unadorned, in the style of the reformation brought about by Martin Luther.
On Friday we caught a ferry to Suomenlinna (fortress of Finland). We bought a picnic lunch at Stockmann and supplemented it with some amazing Finnish strawberries from the market at the harbor. From there it was a 20 minute boat ride to Suomenlinna itself. This is the fortress that Sweden had built in the 18th century to defend against Russia, and which eventually surrendered to the same power in the Finnish war. There is a lot of history and politics involved in this particular period, and I won’t bore you with the details here, but essentially the commander of the fortress was tricked by the Russians into surrendering the fortress (and thereby all of Finland). Another little tidbit of history: Kirsti told us that my great great great great grandfather was a soldier at Suomenlinna!
We caught an English tour that took us around the island and then we enjoyed our lunch on the rocks overlooking Helsinki and the sea.
Before leaving we took a look through the museum, which included a film on the history of the fortress, and some interesting artifacts, like the former submarine machine gun that Justin got to try on for size.
It was a beautiful day and lots of Finns and tourists alike were enjoying Suomenlinna, either picnicking, enjoying the water, going for a walk, or perhaps for the more fortunate few, sailing.
We wrapped up our day in the early evening and headed back to Kirsti’s to have a nap before we went out to celebrate ‘juhannus’, or midsummer. This really was a highlight experience in Finland for us. Juhannus is a big tradition in this country, and while it probably roots back to pagan celebrations surrounding agriculture, now it is a good reason for a holiday and a celebration of the beautiful northern summer. I said in my last post that it is more or less light all night long here, and conversely that means it is dark all day long in the winter (ugh). You can see why Finns want to celebrate their summer! During midsummer, most residents of Helsinki vacate the city in favor of their lakeside country cabins, but we joined some of those who remained at a little island near where we have been staying, called Seurasaari. Bonfires, music, folk dancing, and traditional food made up most of the program, and Justin and I had a great time.
We arrived around 9:30pm to see them light the main bonfire, which involves the tradition of a bridal couple lighting the ten meter tall stack of wood and fir branches. It was pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, we weren’t in a good position on the shore to get photos during the lighting, but once the crowds thinned I got to a spot that gave me a good vantage point, just so you can imagine what it looked like.
After that we joined in with the folk dancing and enjoyed the music for several hours, and of course, we had lettus (finnish pancakes)!! That is always a must on midsummer.
Our weekend came to an end with a lazy day on Saturday (nothing was really open because of the holiday!), and this morning we went to church with Kirsti. Interesting anecdote: Justin and I both got translation headsets, but I found myself listening more to the Finnish and soon turned off my headset because it was distracting. Turns out I remember a lot more Finn than I thought I could! It’s been fun to walk around the city and be able to read signs and menus and all manner of things and have all these words come back to me. Who knew that the few early years when I spoke Finnish would be so formative?
We did some last minute shopping today for things to bring home and suddenly, with that, our time in Europe has come to a close. Tonight we fly to Heathrow and then tomorrow morning back home! What a month! I can’t believe it has come and gone already, but as I look back at my first posts, it seems like forever ago that we were traipsing around London. I guess it is time to go home and pick up the routine again, back to work, but also back to our garden!
Thank you for reading along and I hope you have enjoyed our stories! From Finland with love, Pia and Justin<3