Turku and Hanko, Finland: The Youngest Nordic Nation
Fantastic Finland Inspires and Delights: A country full of artists, innovators and creative thinkers
By Max Hartshorne
Driving along winding country roads past well-maintained red houses, sweeping freshly tilled fields and green lawns, for a minute I thought we could have been in the great state of Vermont, a place dear to my heart. But instead, we were in the far north of Europe, not in Scandinavia but in the Nordic country of Finland, that many Finns told me has a special relationship with America.
Many thousands of Finns departed from the town of Hanko on the coast to better lives in the US in the 1920s and ‘30s when their economy was in tatters and like the Irish, they needed to find a better place to live. In states like Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, their legacy is famous, many communities there still have Finnish speaking enclaves.
Finland is familiar: most Americans know Finnish design from the iconic works of Aero Saarinen, who designed the St Louis Arch and Terminal One at JFK Airport. Marimekko’s brightly colored linens, dresses and handbags are familiar to fashionistas across the US.
Our week-long spring journey to Finland began on the country’s flagship airline, Finnair, in one of their well-equipped new Airbus planes. Here is what I liked: Electric plugs below every seat, tasty simple food and their very relaxed in-air staff in a plane that wasn’t packed like a sardine can. Finnair’s counter staff make you feel welcome and appreciated. And yes, on time, each time, no delays in three flights, and an inflight media system that includes Finnish and Russian art films that made me think, along with the usual Hollywood fare.
Turku, the old Capital
Though jet-lagged after two flights, we were ready to explore two cities that 90 percent of Americans never see, Turku and Hanko, both west of the capital along the Baltic coast. The most common itinerary for most visitors are stops in Helsinki and Lapland. You can read about both of these great destinations on GoNOMAD—but once again I was glad we had taken a route to find some less trampled and less familiar places.
Turku was once the capital of an autonomous region of Russia, the whole country was part of the Swedish Kingdom for 700 years and then for another hundred was part of Tsarist Russia. It’s only been since 1917 that the country that we know as Finland was created. The vastness of this place is impressive—it’s as long as Chile and the majority of the 4 million residents live along the bottom of the nation along the Baltic sea.
Turku is one of the shipbuilding capitals of the world, and that’s not because of the cheap local labor. No, it’s because big cruise lines rely on the talented shipwrights who live in Turku to build the biggest liners in the world—Royal Caribbean’s gigantic Quantum and Oasis of the Seas came out of Turku.
The big yard is now owned by Meyer, a German company, that is building many more cruise ships for German lines, and the back order is big enough to mark Turku as a bright spot in an economy that’s being hit hard to the EU boycott of food exports to Russia.
That long 1800-mile border with Russia is a key part of the Finnish psyche—we talked to many people who said that there is anger about how the boycott is hurting the Finns who rely on their neighbors in St. Petersburg to not only trade with, but who once arrived in droves before their ruble took a pounding.
The River Aura
There is a big river that runs through and defines Turku, the River Aura, and for many years, its industrial center was right on its banks.
Today a gigantic skeleton is all that’s left of an automobile engine factory, that is being turned into urban apartments and condos. The buildings exterior shell was preserved, as well as the two giant cranes that once lifted steel and parts in and out of the factory leaving behind a very large reminder of what was once a huge employer.
On the banks of the river there are barges, some are parked permanently serving as floating bars, clubs and restaurants. Near these many floating establishments are ferries that take people out into the Baltic sea, where 40,000 islands are popular destinations for summer fun.
Turku’s become a popular film production location in Finland, the city’s cathedral and castle have both been locations for many films in recent years. You can visit both of these giant buildings and get an upclose view of history.
But not only are these history-filled places fun to visit, according to locals. “The library is like a second home for city residents,” said Aiju von Schoneman, who was born here. The river and its riverside attract people from far near as well, especially during the warm months, when everyone comes outside as much as possible.
A Nation of Second Homes
Nearly every family in Finland has a rural vacation home—nothing fancy, mind you—but as long as there are four walls and a wood-fired sauna, everyone will be happy.
The more remote and far away, and the colder the lake (in which to plunge after the 160 degree sauna), the better. I can attest to the charm of a Finnish country vacation home after we were treated to the full experience that starts with smoked salmon and includes the sauna, some Russian vodka, and a night so quiet you think you’ve died. But when the summer sun streams into the room some time around 4:30 am, soon you’ll be making coffee and rousing yourself for a mountain hike, or a bike ride in the splendidly isolated woods.
One thing many Finns told us was an important aspect of life here is the ‘everyman’s right.’ This gives anyone the right to pick berries, The city has many beaches to enjoy during the short summer season.forage for mushrooms, or simply hike across anyone else’s land. Like in England, where the walking paths are owned by no one, here the permission is already granted to go pick those lingonberries, blueberries or morels that wait in the forest. Nobody can prevent you from this right, we were told.
There are plenty of woods here—forest products are the country’s biggest export. But what surprises the first-time visitor is how narrow the harvested A rustic cabin called Villa Armas at Hawkhill Nature, outside of Espoo, Finland. birch and pine trees are. At his latitude, far above the rest of Europe, trees grow very slowly, so they are harvested as small as fifteen inches around.
The famous north woods of Finland are the home of many thousands of lakes, all so cold your head would burst if you jumped in.
That’s why at every lakeside cabin, there is a wooden pier with a ladder so you can back in after a sauna and dip without getting all of that 40 degree water over your head.fte
We drove east from Turku across beautiful green rolling hillsides that reminded me of Vermont, to the vacation town of Hanko, where there is a massive old wooden casino that once was the heart of this holiday town.
Today it’s closed and nobody is sure what to do with the big building facing the Baltic Sea. Nearby are massive rocks that make a perfect seaside hiking spot, we were told that our guide held her daughter’s wedding on the big open rocks looking at the water.
Hanko has several big beaches and the only problem is that some weeks of the summer, pollution caused by their Russian neighbors makes swimming unsafe.
The issue of the pollution caused by the 12 million people in nearby St Petersburg Russia has vexed the Finns–they’ve even spent millions of Euros to build treatment plants in Russia to try and keep the Baltic cleaner. But it continues to be a big challenge for every seaside town here.
Like every town in Finland, Hanko has a Swedish name, as the nation is officially bi-lingual. So all of the road signs show both Hanko and Hango, just like in Canada with their English and French.
Most of the Finns we met told us that in their households, their children speak Swedish to one parent and Finnish to the other. I asked why doesn’t everyone just speak English, a language that is nearly universally spoken here. “It’s a matter of pride, and our heritage,” most people agreed.
In Hanko, thousands of Finns departed for the United States in the bleak years of the 1920s when there were few jobs and emmigration brought hundreds of thousands of people to the US. There is a peninsula with a pretty crescent of beach and on the other of the spit of land, a large facility for exporting cars and trucks.
Lunch at Home
There is no better way to get to know a place than to enjoy a meal with locals in their home. We were treated to such a meal at the home of our loquacious tour guide, Leena Immonen, who is a talented piano player and a lover of all things Italian.
She regaled us with stories from her many trips to Tuscany as well as a mini-recital of music by Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. It was a wonderful treat, along with her husband Timo’s inspired salmon tartar and beef entree.
Timo told us about an American football league that plays regular games in Hanko–another hint that evidences the closeness between our two countries.
Our journey continued as we drove the country lanes to Fiskars Village in Fiskari. This enclave of artists is located on the grounds of what was once a foundry where iron ore was mined and tools were made.
It is owned by the Fiskars corporation, who are famous for making scissors, garden tools and knives and who needed to do something with the many buildings that were not being used since the 1950s.
In 1993 a group of 20 artists arrived and began living in some of the abandoned buildings, with an aim to simply produce art, with very low rent and building renovations paid for by the Fiskars company.
Today it’s a thriving artist community where more than 600 craftspeople ply their various crafts–from dance choreography, to graphic design, fabric artists, potters, knife-makers and fine furniture artisans.
The artists here receive varying degrees of subsidies to pursue their subjects and there are many art shows and events such as theater performances and concerts.
Visitors arrive in droves to explore the shops, meet the artists, and enjoy the beautiful rural atmosphere of the village. We talked with several of the artists, a woodworker and a fabric artist who arrived here from London. They still can’t believe how wonderful life is in this rural hamlet, surrounded by colleagues who share their vision.
Fiskarsintie 9, 10470 Fiskari
Tel. +358 (0) 19 277 7504
Finland Surprised Us
Finland really surprised both of us having traveled to most of the other Scandinavian countries, this was different. As the Finns pointed out, they are Nordic, not Scandinavian, closely aligned to America and has it’s own unique identity.
To us, Finland was a breath of fresh air, full of people pursuing interesting lives, with compassion in government that provides just about everything that their citizens need. They are very environmentally conscious, I was hard pressed to find even a gum wrapper of litter on the ground, everything is recycled, and their universal respect for rules made us feel safe. If it’s not the first country you think of for your next vacation, think again
This story was written with assistance from Visit Finland, but the opinions are the author’s own. Find out more about travel to Finland:
Visit Turku tourism website
Hanko tourism website