The West Coast of Finland
& The Midnight Sun
I’m going to take the rather unusual step of starting this travel piece with a recipe for what I think is the best blueberry pie I have ever tasted. Read on to find our where I tried it, maybe you’ll have a go at making it, if you do let me know how it turns out.
Wiurila manor blueberry pie
150 g of Butter
150 g of Brown sugar
300 g of Plain Flour
1 teaspoon of Baking powder
1/4 teaspoon of Cinnamon
50 ml of Cream
3 tablespoons of Brown sugar
175 g of Blueberries
Preheat the oven to 175°C. Beat brown sugar and butter until fluffy, then add an egg and beat until mixed well. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Add the dry mix to the butter mixture a tablespoon at a time. Add cream at the end and beat until well combined. Spread the dough evenly in a buttered pie dish. Sprinkle blueberries on top, leaving a little space around the edges. Sprinkle with sugar and bake until browned and set, about 40 minutes.
Finnair make it easy to fly to their country. A comfortable brand new A321 Airbus took me to Helsinki in a little over three hours. Cotton wool clouds and blue skies all the way. My last visit to Helsinki airport had been in January and it was -19c, I was hoping for better weather this time.
Good signage and Scandi logic took me from the plane through the airport (and the duty free shops) to the sleek ultra modern train station. I bought a timed ticket lasting 1’20” to get me to my hotel. Plenty of time spare and only €5.50, Finland is in the EU so no confusing unusual currencies. This is a country full of trees. The 28-minute journey is overwhelmingly dominated by views of Silver Birch sliding by. Small towns along the way with hardly any people – it’s Saturday afternoon so the business world was resting.
My first night was at the funky, modern Scandic Paasi Hotel, only three stops from the main station on the tram. Helsinki is a low-rise city that has an unusual mix of architecture. I wandered out for a bite to eat and began to understand the many peculiarities about beer and gin in Finland. First thing to know is you can’t buy ‘hard drink’ (anything over 4.7% alcohol) in general shops or supermarkets, only beer and cider. The second is that the harder stuff including wine is only available in state run Alco stores of which there are many. The third that craft alcohol is big in Finland, very big. Everywhere I went there was a local brew of gin (and in time there will be whiskies) to sample. A great burger and beer was to be found at Ravintola Sävel. Afterwards I walked around the market square, it was pleasantly warm in June.
A new country 99 years young it was under Russian control (The Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire) most recently and before that Sweden ruled the roost. The main station was designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1909 and completed in 1919. It has a pair of statues holding spherical lamps either side of the main canopied entrance. There’s a modern functionality about it, not quite Deco more rational with a precursor to Socialist Realism. It is a splendid structure with dizzyingly high ceilings and the ticket hall a real treat. In 2013 it was voted one of the world’s most attractive railway stations.
Finland is the same size as Germany but with only a 5.5 million population and has the second most northerly capital in the world after Reykjavik means there is a lot of space for everyone. It’s a country of 200,000 lakes and a lust for the outdoors and let’s not forget the most famous of national inventions, the sauna (there are over two million of those). This jewel of Northern Europe is an unexplored treasure trove to us Brits. I set out to discover some of the highlights.
My trip was to take me from Helsinki along the west coast about half way up the country as far as Vassa. Here the brackish Baltic Sea freezes in the -30c temperatures common in the winter months. It’s no surprise that 65% of the world’s icebreakers are built in Finland. But my visit is during the hot but short summer months. The best time to get down with nature is June and July. The other very odd thing about this part of the world is the extended hours of sun or darkness depending on what time of year you visit.
My tour coincided with Helsinki Day on 12 June. A national holiday with all sorts of festivities organised, it was fun to be part of it. The main attraction was an 800m long picnic table laid down along one of the main streets where people came and ate a feast of their choosing. Some groups were cooking the food on site, others brought elaborate hampers and many were dressed up in their finery.
Before heading out of Helsinki I lunched at the up and coming area of Teurastamo, in 1930’s an area known for slaughter of animals, but don’t let this put you off, it’s a buzzing hub of new restaurants, bars and clubs, also the Helsinki Distillery Company is based here. Brand Ambassador Mari Kuivanen showed me around. Award winning Gin is what they are up to. They are in the long-term process of making whisky as well (this takes three years to be certified) so they started making gin to keep them busy as the barrels matured their investment. Their products are well worth seeking out if a modern, clean tasting tipple is your thing. They can be found in many restaurants in the city and at the airport duty free. They will be opening their own restaurant and bar later this year. There is also a craft brewery there called Stadin Padino that’s making some very popular ale.
Helsinki really is the gateway to the east. You can be in St. Petersburg in 3.5 hours by train, catch a sleeper and wake up in Moscow or spend 2 hours on a ferry and find yourself in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The links to the east continue, Senate Square, the oldest part of Helsinki where the Cathedral sits on top of a large flight of stone steps, the Government Palace is a mini version St. Petersburg and it even has its own statue of Alexander II.
An excellent meal on an island south of Helsinki in a restaurant called Sarri was to provide a first for me. The views of the Baltic are brilliant as the dropped in the sky, casting long shadows. As well as the wonderful mixed meats and fish and tender lamb I tried tar ice cream for the first time. A byproduct of burnt pine used in the boat trade it has a strange almost antiseptic smoky quality. When tethered with cream and sugar I found this to be distinctive but not altogether unpleasant. It divided opinion with my fellow diners. It could well be the new Marmite!
I stayed at the 500 year old Hämeenkylan Manor just north of Helsinki. Some of the buildings were designed Carl Engel the famous Finish Architect and others as recently as 1930’s. The main house sits in glorious gardens with smaller properties you can stay in dotted around, all very picturesque and tranquil. The next day I would travel further north and hopefully catch sight of the famed midnight sun.
In the morning I left the capital by train for Isokyrö to visit the Kyrö Distillery. After a couple of hours the train stopped and we all got off, no platform, no buildings it was like the wild-west except there were trees everywhere. Then I heard a low rumbling noise. The owner and force of nature Miko Heinilä had come to meet us on his tractor and was pulling a custom trailer with bench seats. All aboard!
The distillery is large and was once a cheese dairy. Now producing gin and whiskies that are both award winning and very good. A fine lunch was provided at a long trestle table. They have parties here and it opens to the public on certain days during the summer. The distillery is set in beautiful country, open fields, lakes and the oldest wooden bridge in Finland is used to get there.
Continuing my journey north I stopped at Vassa in the Ostrobothnia region. The main draw there was the Kvarken Archipelago, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Taking a boat out through the waterways it was easy to see why this is a special place. Countless inlets with secluded bays and tiny cottages scattered along the coast. I passed underneath Replot Bridge at over 1000m it is Finland’s longest. I would see it in a different light later that evening as I drove over it.
A home by the waterside is a Brit’s dream but for the Fins it’s more of a summer necessity. With their long winters they have learnt to make the most of the short summers. There is almost a religious dedication to the mökki or summer cottage in the month of June. With over 100,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of coast there are wooden houses everywhere. The prerequisites are: be near water, indoor and outdoor fires, BBQ and at least one but preferable two saunas.
I arrived at Arken Restaurant a kind of glorified timber shack that looks straight out of the film Jaws. Boat hooks and ancient hunting and fishing paraphernalia adorn the wall, distressed wooden floorboards and the view outside is of numerous red boats huts used in the winter. The wildlife is plentiful with seals as neighbours and salmon amongst the daily catch. The restaurant was once a summerhouse built in 1949 but was converted into a Martha’s Vineyard look alike 25 years ago.
After the excellent meal of cheeses, perch and a dreamy pudding served in a jam jar (everyone seems to be doing this in Finland) I headed outside and walked along the beach and past numerous huts. It was about 9pm at this stage and no sign of darkness at all. The sun was low in the sky but still bright. I must issue a warning here, there are lots of mosquitoes at this time of year so wear repellant (lots of it)!
There was a large ominous looking wooden tower not dissimilar to the one Edward Woodward ends up in the 1970’s film Wicker Man (the scenery in this country is very cinematic). After climbing the 20m tower I was rewarded with an outstanding view of the surrounding waterways and sea. The sun by this time had gone as low as it would all night and was just clipping the horizon. At times the night seemed upon me and others it was as bright as an afternoon. Very strange and beguiling.
On the drive back we passed over the Replot Bridge where we stopped. Two things of note; it was completely empty and secondly at exactly midnight it was bright enough to drive without headlights on. The effect the sun staying so late in the day (it doesn’t really get dark at all near the summer solstice) is that you feel as if you’ve been up all night by midnight.
Kristiinankaupunki is a well-preserved wooden village with a church dating from 1700’s. It was founded in 1649 when it was ruled by the Swedish it’s still bilingual. Known for its ship building virtually all the houses are wooden of which 306 are listed buildings. It has a sleepy atmosphere with local crafts and produce playing a part in daily life. I felt this was the Finland of 50 years ago, simple, honest and uncomplicated.
An afternoon spent at Ahlström Works, a small historical industrial village with housing for the workers not unlike Cadbury or Bournville in the UK was a chance to see how things were done until 1956. Large saw mills and old forges and a paper mill were all interesting. Ahlström was a Victorian philanthropist who believed in education and the arts, he built several local schools and the family still runs the village as a business. I was lucky enough to stay in the grand house, a 16-bedroom country pile in an Arts and Crafts style. Fabulous rooms and grounds. A sumptuous meal with highlights of elk carpaccio, roast deer and some spectacular wines hosted by Peter Ahlström the current owner. The evening went on late, sitting around the large fireplace in the hall chatting into the small hours. A very special place.
Moving down the coast there are plenty of unspoilt towns like Poli where I saw the local women perform the annual washing of the rugs to herald the beginning of summer (they make them too in the village). I passed along 6km of Yytri beach where there is an excellent cafe looking out over the sea and I had a most delicious liquorice and lemon ice cream. Then on to Pori and settling in Rauma. Another world heritage site with cobbled streets and wooden houses closely packed together. The old centre is exquisite, a big fire wiped out most of the town in 1640 but a small part pre fire remains. Everything else was rebuilt in the original style.
The Maritime Museum is worth a look in. I had a lesson in lace making (really)! You can also learn (through a fantastic piece of technology) how to steer a boat in a force ten gale. The museum was once a naval college and has a large tower from where the students would be instructed how to read the stars. Another quirky feature of this picturesque town are gossip mirrors. A metal frame of two mirrors at 45 degrees are placed outside a window and allow the viewer who is onside to see ‘down’ the street without poking their head out, ingenious.
Another day and another large grand country estate. This time it’s 300-year-old Wiurila Manor. Handed down from mother to daughter it s one of the most historically important manor houses in Finland. Holding various art exhibitions and a fascinating family museum full of social history. They also serve the best blueberry pie I’ve ever eaten.
Getting closer to Helsinki I visited Fiskars (of the famed orange handled scissors) An artists’ community started 20 years ago set in a beautiful wooded village producing some traditional and also high tech Scandi products such as ceramics, woodwork and glass wear. A great place to pick up something that will undoubtedly be all the rage in a year of two.
My last night in Finland was at Svartå Manor. A fantastic old house with other buildings in the grounds. The housekeeper gave us an informed and lively tour. The restaurant in the grounds served superb food and wines including an unusual dessert of porridge and yoghurt ice cream!
As this was my last night I was determined to have a sauna (pronounced sow-na). It would be rude not to! They like them very hot here but don’t stay in for long, maybe 10 mins at a time. You then wrap a towel around you and head for the bar and have a beer or two, then repeat as many times as you like. Some of the group also ran naked into a very cold lake!
So my trip to the wonderful, spectacular, exciting, historic and friendly Finland was at a close. I can’t recommend the country enough, from incredible scenery, the midnight sun and stunning food (not to say a bit unusual) it was all a big hit with me. I’ll be back to sample some of the whiskey at The Helsinki Distillery in a year of two that’s for sure. I truly loved the vibe of the West Coast, they have a natural, simple way of living that seems stress free. The locals are happy and easy going, the natural beauty might account for some of this but really I think it’s down to an attitude, be happy with what you’ve got, work hard and learn to love life, it brings its own rewards. Bravo Finland!
Some useful contacts
Coastal Charm press trip to West Coast of Finland
12-17 June, 2016
HELSINKI DISTILLING COMPANY
(small distillery at Teurastamo / Abattoir area)
TEL +358 40 648 4534
STADIN PANIMO/BREWERY IN HELSINKI
(an island restaurant in Helsinki)
(we spent the first night here, 12-13 June)
Ms Karita Kousa
mobile +358(0) 40 537 4169
(the place for great gin and history stories)
Mr Miko Heinilä
Mobile +358 (0)408349835
(Kvarken Unesco world heritage site. Björköby and the bird watching tower with amazing view)
Mr Erkki Laakso
Vaasa Region Tourism Ltd
Tel +358 (0)50 4699 007
(the second smallest town in Finland)
Ms Angelique Irjala
tel +358 (0)40 569 3796
(The evening with Mr Peter Ahlström in his ‘castle’)
Ms Riitta Kilo, Business operations director
(Raasepori village and Yyteri beach)
Ms Maria Suomivirta
Sales and Marketing Director
Mob. +358-44-701 7920
Guide in Pori
Ms Jaana Mälkki
Mobile +358 (0)40 73 466 96
(wooden town, Unesco world heritage site. We met the lovely singing family at the sea museum)
Ms Irene Villanen
mobile +358 (0)40 1809786
Fiskars Village Info
Tel. +(0)19 277 7504
Ms Anne Marie Aminoff
(the last night accommodation and sauna)
Learn more about Finnish sauna:
Termperature normally 70-80 Celcius / 158-176 Fahrenheit
Some prefer even more hot but this is the average
Lovely piece, Neil, and superb photographs – as always!
Thank you John for your kind words. Finland is an extraordinary country to explore, if you haven’t been I urge you to go.