Turku and Helsinki: A Tale of Two Cities in a Young Republic
It isn’t everyday that a tired passenger steps off a cramped trans-Atlantic flight into a refreshing pool of frothy suds and cool mineral water.
But saunas here are meant to decompress a stiff spine and marinate a sleepy head, especially after a long red-eye.
Among taciturn strangers with broken English, it’s customary for Finland to treat foreigners to creature comforts immediately upon arrival.
So, alongside a surreal Baltic Sea archipelago, jetlag and fatigue evaporate like the morning dew and the dreamy experience prepares me for dozens of luxuries to come.
The Naantali Spa Hotel, located in the Salo region of southwest Finland, is a five-star pool paradise with a surprising view of a tall, white luxury liner modernized into a first-class crib.
The ship is docked in a freshwater archipelago meant to cradle its passengers to sleep in opulent fashion.
Spa therapies like shiatsu message, peat and clay therapy, Indian relaxation, and even hot stone rubdowns pamper the weary and spoil the rich.
Just down the road is the idyllic marine town of the same name. It too is plenty famous among Swedish politicians, Nokia executives, and Russian aristocracy.
It would be a folly to miss the town but if all you need is a boost of healing compounds and a good night's sleep, Naantali is the place to do it.
FYI: Contrary to what you may have heard, Finnish men and women do not bath nude together, not at Naantali. Sorry to burst your voyeur bubble but it’s true. This spa welcomes the tradition to bare it all but with members of the same sex and in designated areas.
Some openly oriented friends of mine found this quite amenable but the hetero in me was a little nonplused hoping my first hedonistic skinny-dip would be among handsome Finns.
Independence came late for Finland (1917) but its biography is long and tumultuous. The original capital was Turku, but 700 years of war, fire, famine, poverty and disease tarnished the city and the capital was moved to Helsinki.
The seat of the government and the university system, the Royal Academy, moved to Helsinki in the early 1800s, leaving the Turku townspeople eager to find alternatives to maintain their prominence.
A cultural reawakening or Kalevala was born. Through literature, poetry, arts, music and sport, Turku recaptured its appeal and in 2007, a general consensus by the EU Council of Ministers awarded Turku the title: European Capital of Culture for 2011.
The city is awash with restaurants, museums, festivals and nightclubs. Near the handsome River Aurajoki, sit several unique brewpubs serving up suds to beer aficionados who like to sip in style.
Dignified drinkers can stop by The Old Bank, "the hippest after-work destination in Turku,” says Aki Arjola, Editor-in-Chief of EatandJoy.com. Arjola publishes restaurant and bar guides on the finest establishments in Finland and “The Old Bank” scores #10 on his top 20 in 2008.
The Old Bank’s money vaults overflow with kegs while bartenders swap euros for tipples that are far more satisfying than compound interest.
Seasonally, the belly wash of choice is a Lapland’s Jouluolut lager or Father Christmas beer. This malty favorite is a tough pick among 200 competing beers and 22 on tap alone.
Other swill circles include The Pharmacy, The School and The Toilet Bar… yes, all are bars restored from buildings once used for what their names imply.
On the flipside, Toilet Bar, as in lavatory, water closet or loo is the perfect fix for some proletariat fun. Both women and men alike can squat for the night and waste away an evening staring at the evolution of potty seats and flapper valves.
The place is a flushing success with hundreds of thirsty Finns raising their lids for the national drink of Karhu (fisherman’s candy) and Koskenkorva (vodka). Cloudberry cocktails, made with the more commonly known Lakka, work just as well too.
As mentioned, conflagrations like ‘The Great Fire of 1827’ and aerial bombings during WWII destroyed many of Turku’s original medieval structures but saved from sieges and battles are four must-see attractions: the modest military fortification called Turku Castle, the country’s national shrine, the Turku Cathedral, Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova archaeological site, and a quaint little craft village called Luostarinmaki.
Loustarinmake is now a museum and invites people to experience the early days of primitive life when families cloistered under thatched roofs self-employed in pre-industrial jobs: tanneries, seamstress shops, bricklaying and blacksmith work.
A better time to visit this lovely settlement, circa 1809, would be in the summer; longer days and less chance of slipping on wet medieval roads (hint, hint).
As in other Scandinavian countries, you won't find poverty, illiteracy or tacky tourist crowds in Helsinki.
Everyone here enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world and all those under 40 usually know how to speak three languages including English.
When Finland joined the European Union in 1995 it showed the world just how evolutionary Helsinki was with a trajectory in nightlife, design, cuisine and accommodations.
With six straight months of doom and gloom you’d think that Helsinki would hibernate until spring – like the country’s mascot, the big, brown burly bear. Not likely. Locals melt away old man winter temps with song and dance in a music scene that’s anything but bleak.
Especially around the holidays, you’ll find a Sibelius symphony at Temppeliaukio (Rock) Church or a Klezmer festival at the Savoy Theater or a heavy metal serenade at the Patässä Karaoke Bar.
Rather than crash at my normal bedtime hour, I wrapped myself in a blanket of undulating arms and hypnotic music at a place called The RedRum. This world-class club requests a hefty buckload (we scored some discount coupons at a previous bar) in exchange for partying to techno ‘til 4am.
Melancholy is the wellspring of creativity and the Design District is a closely-stitched labyrinth of irregular art, fashion and wares. One hundred, thirty venues rope together cutting-edge usefulness and longevity. Similar to the feng shui theory, Finnish design also analyzes space, color and form to patent products with just the right amount of energy and flow.
The Design District is not your average suburban shopping district. The union of simple organic design and everyday functionality pour into jewelry, chairs, tables, rugs, lighting, glass, ceramics, textiles, shoes, even wedding gowns, maternity and baby clothes.
Some of the more popular Scandanavian playgrounds include: “Design Forum Finland”, “Merrimekko” and “Artek” and on the outskirts of town, a holistic treasure called “Iittala.”
A giant poster upon entering reads “Against Throwawayism,” a radical philosophy that weaves beauty with practicality with thoughtful environmental decision-making.
For those who get excited by contemporary cutlery this is the place to be. This company has been progressive in its thinking since 1881 and still employs an army of designers, painters and craftsmen to ensure all products pass inspection.
Treasures of Wasteland
Especially unique is “Treasures of Wasteland,” all Secco products made by designers using everyday garbage for inspirations: rubber tire handbags, kitchen bowls reshaped out of 33 rpm records and toe rings resized with QWERTY keyboard buttons.
The visual arts and architecture in Finland are cutting-edge and friendly on the environment in every way.
For more interest on the Design District watch the Travel Video I assembled with interviews from the owners.
Survival in the winter also depends on exceptional Scandinavian cuisine, and contrary to what you’ve heard, Finland is tops in tasty traditional dishes. Fresh regional meats like elk, reindeer, even bear or beaver are popular staples as are smoked herring and tar vodka.
Yes, you read right. Tar. As in the viscous black slime used to seal rooftops, roads and waterproof ships and boats.
At the Savu Smokehouse, tar is also a healthy cooking additive in herring, salmon and tuna. I enjoyed an authentic Finnish Christmas lunch of dishes and drink made with equal parts of the smelly solvent. And, to rid myself of germs, the restaurant washed my mitts with a bar of tar soap in a small basin of warm water.
FYI: The Finns have been using tar from birch bark for almost 300 years. The medicinal qualities include relieving skin problems like psoriasis and dandruff to curing canker sores.
It's produced from the bark of a tree, first by wounding it with one small incision, then, after several years, chopping it down and burning it in a tar pit.
An old Finnish proverb states that if sauna, vodka and tar won't help, the disease is fatal.
The Savu Smokehouse is unique because it's culturally educational as well. Waitresses dress in period costume and serve up platters of Finnish delicacies fit for a king. It’s the "only restaurant in the world that uses smoke-curing” said the manager.
A refreshing glass of Glögg (mulled wine mix) with a dash of -- you guessed it –- tar, helped spice up the whole healthy experience.
Not far from the Old Market Hall, in a hotel that’s worlds apart from modern and simple, is the swanky Hotel Kämp. This legendary retreat predates the country’s independence by almost 30 years.
It opened its fancy wooden doors in 1887 for discerning guests like diplomats, Presidents and bankers. Today, film and music stars including Mick Jagger, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Sting, Bon Jovi, Tina Turner and Shakira, enjoy the luxurious VIP suites.
The other 176 hotel rooms are decorated with widescreen flat TVs, recessed lighting, sunken tubs and a strangely out-of-place green or red rubber ducky. The bath towels, slippers and bathrobes hang like stockings on heated bars with pillows as plush as a duck's bottom.
FYI: the restaurant and bar sections of Kämp were once used as a bomb shelter when Stalin attempted to annex Finland in 1939. The place has remained intact with only a few modifications since then.
A beautiful French Renaissance-style exterior overlooks a bustling park and boulevard called the Espanade, perfect for picnicking in the summer and browsing Christmas craft markets in the winter.
The hotels offers two restaurants, one elegant Japanese ryotei on the ground floor called Yumi and another serving up 45 brands of Champagne called Kämp Club on the first floor.
Finnair is a fantastic airline with a wonderful reputation and during Christmas it’s safe as Santa's sleigh. Once you're there, trams, taxis and trains offer affordable alternatives, but Helsinki is best seen on foot.
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