Land of Attractions Both Ancient and Modern
by Barbara Barton Sloane

Helsinki-Dec10-2.jpgDesign should never say "Look at me." It should always say, "Look at this." And so it does. In 2012, Helsinki, Finland has been chosen to be the World Design Capital and true to the quote, Helsinki - indeed all of Finland - never says "Look at me," but in its quiet restraint, dignity and joie de vivre, the city compels visitors to look at everything, savoring the country’s stark beauty, the artistic, cutting-edge design visible everywhere, and most especially the people of this land who make you feel most welcome.

Family-friendly in surprising and unexpected ways, Finland is home to the endearing numerous snow sports, spas and kid-friendly ships. Where else can on attend Elf School, feed a reindeer or make snow angels under the Northern lights? Families will find holidays full of European sophistication and fun.

Helsinki Highlights

This stylish, relaxed city is a dream destination for walkers as most of the important sights are conveniently situated in the city center. One appealing feature of Helsinki’s location is that there are ferry connections to Estonia, Sweden and St. Petersburg, Russia. Visitors often plan a one or two-day excursion, using Helsinki as home base.

The Design District is Helsinki’s arts and crafts-oriented neighborhood. The area is home to a wide range of designer shops, interior decorating studios, antique dealers and jewelry boutiques. While here, I visited some of the artists’ workshops and saw beauty being created right before my eyes. At a silver shop, I looked on as the designer made a lacy, filigree pendant and added the finishing touches to a heavy silver ring set with a fine piece of jade.

Market Square is lively and bustling with vendors selling everything from all kinds of berries to produce to clothing and silver jewelry. I had a pleasant morning sitting at a cafe, drinking coffee brewed strong and steaming, complimented by some fresh Finnish cloudberries.
With eighty intriguing museums, you will be busy for your entire stay and then some. Because you won’t have time to see all eighty, do not miss the Ateneum Museum which houses the largest art collection in the country and displays Finnish art from the 1750s to the 1960s and Western art from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s. It also contains the very first Van Gough ever placed in a museum, and it is here where you’ll view a most haunting painting titled "The Wounded Angel" by Hugo Simberg. This allegory depicts two boys transporting a blond child-angel. The lead boy trudges along dutifully, the boy in the rear gazes sullenly out at the viewer. At the time this was painted, there were many charity institutions in the very park where this procession is said to take place. The sweet, white-clothed angel, eyes bandaged, her wings drooping forlornly, gives off an air of resignation as she is carried to the Blind Girl’s School. "The Wounded Angel" was voted Finland’s national painting, and you’ll remember it long after leaving The Ateneum.

One memorable evening, I had the pleasure of attending a Jean Sebelius concert by the Tapiola Sinfonietta held at Helsinki University Hall, the very room where Sebelius began his career in 1899. Conducted by the renowned Leif Segerstam, rotund, dynamic and compelling, he lent an air of excitement to the entire concert. Segerstam is irrepressible and joyous so it was quite fun to glide along on his flourishing baton as he conducted the glorious Symphony #1 in E minor.

Porvoo Pleasures

Helsinki-Dec10-1.jpgA convenient hour’s drive east from Helsinki, Porvoo is Finland’s second oldest town, history-rich, with ancient red, wooden storehouses that line the river and testify to the city heyday as a major port for merchant ships plying the world’s oceans. High on a hill sits Porvoo’s most recognizable landmark – the Luthern Cathedral, which has dominated the town since the early 1400s. We strolled through Old Town, built on a dense labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways and lined with colorful cottages, galleries and boutiques. Children love Porvoo's cobbled streets. In Old Porvoo there are a fantastic number of places to explore.

Auntie Monika and the Viking chiefs gather their troops and reveal their secrets in summer Porvoo. This summer we will be getting to know Porvoo in company that is a little bit different: Albert's Magic Brush will be telling children about the artist Albert Edelfelt and encouraging them to make their own art. As a little boy Albert used to run around the lanes and alleys of Porvoo, and he stored everything he heard and saw on the hard disk of his memory. Later he painted these stories in his pictures. The tour organized by Porvoo Theatre takes about an hour and during it, we'll paint some pictures and find out more about Albert's childhood and life. At Christmas you can join Aapeli the Elf or Auntie Monika on a special Christmas tour.

It is there that we explored the Porvoo Museum with exhibits on the town’s history, including artifacts and art. Recently opened is a fine exhibit on Porvoo’s prehistoric times and the Middle Ages. Holm House, a part of the museum, was built in 1763 and offers an opportunity to see how a wealthy merchant family lived at the end of the eighteenth century. Porvoo is known for its sweets so naturally we wouldn’t leave without answering the call of our sweet tooth. Locals told us to visit The Little Chocolate Factory on Church Square. True to its name, the shop was so tiny we were barely able to fit through the door. But let that deter us? I think not. We were rewarded with rich and sumptuous chocolates, a treat I’d squeeze through this door for again in a heartbeat!

Tooling Around Turku Town

This place has played a very vital role in Finnish history. It is the oldest city in the country and the first capital of Finland. Founded in 1229, Turku is situated in the southwest region, the oldest inhabited area dating back 8,500 years. Fast forward to modern times: this coming year Turku will be the European Capital of Culture, together with Tallinn in Estonia.

Turku today, with its pristine countryside and its nearby fabulous archipelago, provides lush and imposing sights to behold. The area is famous for its manor houses where historical figures lived and reigned, surrounded by lovely parks and gardens. The Turku Region is a great destination for the whole family. There's Moominworld and Väski Adventure Island, the Traffic City in Kupittaanpuisto park, the Biological Museum and Zoolandia. At Turku Castle, you will learn and experience more if you join one of the guided tours. The Middle Ages and Renaissance come alive and stories get new meanings on the tours. Children of all ages will get an introduction to the world of knights on the Turku Castle's Little Knight Tour.

Helsinki-Dec10-3.jpgWe climbed up Unikankare Hill to Turku Cathedral, the heart of the Lutheran Church in Finland and the country’s national shrine, completed at the end of the thirteenth century. How fortunate were we that, as we stood gazing at the intricate carvings in the ceiling, the cathedral’s famed 81-stop organ, built by the Finnish organ-building company extraordinaire Veiko Virtanen, began playing. Surrounded by so much imposing beauty and the soft, musing tones of this special organ, it seemed an authentic moment drawn from medieval times - and it was magical.




Where to Stay

Sokos Hotels ($85/night USD) Haikko Manor ($105) Sokos Hotels ($85)

Where to Dine

Kosmos Restaurant (from $40) Manor House ($55) Vaakahuone ($45)

Salutorget Restaurant ($30)

Olo Restaurant ($60)

Things to Do

Suomenlinna UNESCO World Porvoo Museum Turku Cathedral

Heritage Sea Fortress Lutheran Cathedral

Design Forum Finland

Ateneum Museum

Fiskars Village has ongoing exhibits, events and a Christmas Market; it is along the route to Turku,

Royal Line Dinner Cruises, (from $75 USD)

Finnair Airlines or American Airlines – from $690 USD

Wonderful food, gracious treatment – and they’re on time!

For General Information on Finland

Photos courtesy of Michael Sloane Photography

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