It was January. Back in 2010. Snowstorm. Most flights from Vienna, Austria were delayed. Also the one to Helsinki, Finland. After four and a half years studying journalism in Slovenia, it was time for me to embark on a journey abroad. Erasmus was the greatest opportunity to do just that. Helsinki were my home for a semester. Best decision ever! Yes, already eight years have passed; but memories of my half a year adventure in Finland are still very much alive. My memory is good, whether that is a good thing or not – it depends on a situation. In school it was very convenient, but if you ask my boyfriend, not so much. I could forget some (stupid) things he says, according to him. Ok, I’m off the topic right now (my mind always wanders… but hey, that’s who I am – a wanderer.)
FINLAND, right. As I’ve said, it was 2010 that I’ve lived in Helsinki from January till mid-June. I was thinking of studying somewhere warm, like Spain or Portugal, but due to not speaking Portuguese or Spanish, the safest, yet not the cheapest option was Finland, where all the classes were thought in English. And boy, do the Finns speak English. Everyone you stop on the street will help you in perfect English. Many have asked me, why I’ve chosen Finland? There far north, where winter doesn’t know the sun. Where the temperatures can get as low as minus thirty degrees Celsius. Where the snow doesn’t just melt away. Yes, there I’ve spent the best time in my life. I couldn’t have answer why I’ve went to Finland, I still cannot. Guess something ‘’pushed’’ me towards Helsinki. I’ve met some of the best friends there.
Finland is a beautiful country, amazing landscape, friendly people, but be aware – it can get very expensive. Coffee prices are around 4 euros (in Slovenia, for instance, coffee is usually around 2 Euros). Don’t even get me started about the alcohol. No wonder most of the Finns go to buy alcohol in Estonia. The ferry from Helsinki is usually crowded with does trying to buy cheaper liquor in Tallinn. While my valet was getting thinner, I wasn’t… due to the cheapest thing in Finland – chocolate. Since 1891, Finns are making chocolate Fazer (yummy). Fazer though is not the most popular brand in Finland. I would say is Marimekko (bags, clothes, furniture). Remember Carry from Sex and the city? You might recognize flower pattern on her curtains. Marimekko doesn’t ring a bell, well the Nokia will for sure. At least it ringed from almost everyone’s pocket or purse (at least it did back in 2010). From chocolates, clothes, mobile phones, let’s check at the world of cartoons. Perhaps they are not worldwide known, but everyone adores them in Finland – The Moomins are the characters in books, comic strip and have since been the basis for television series, films and even a theme park Moomin World in Naantali in Finland. They are a family of white, round fairy tale characters that resemble hippopotamuses.
Top 17 musts while in Finland
When describing Finland and habits of Finns, I must mention saunas. In the country with population of five million, there are, amazing, three millions saunas. Saunas are places where they can relax with friends and family. It is not a sign of luxury – saunas are necessity. Why make business deals in the office, if one have saunas. We even had two saunas in our students house, there’s supposed to be one in the Finnish parliament. Finnish saunas are dry with high temperatures. How can they bare such heat, I thought to myself, when the temperatures outside are so low. Well, they are introduce to culture of saunas with young age. I remember thinking I won’t make it through that heat once in a public sauna, but next to me, there were a mom with a baby, who just started walking. She was running around, enjoying herself, her mum kept on pouring the water on the hot stones. I left the sauna all red in the face, while the little girl with a smile on her face. Being in sauna is not Finnish enough for you? Then try the crazy thing they do after sweeting in sauna. Jump in the ice hole or roll yourself on the snow, if there’s no lake near you. I’ve tried both. Crazy me. Never again. (I actually cannot due to my medical condition – I’ve had stroke two years after my Finnish adventure).
Just one little advice if you want to run from the sauna on the snow to the ice hole on the lake. We tried that in Lapland – the most amazing experience next to seeing the Northern lights (more about this below). Wear socks. I wasn’t cold in my body when running from 80 or more degrees Celsius in sauna to the frozen lake. Though my feet were freezing and hurting while running barefoot on the snow. The next time I’ve wore socks.
Next, you need to visit my second home – Helsinki. There’s plenty to do in the capital, but here is my pick of things to see. The most memorable in Helsinki’s skyline is definitely the Helsinki Cathedral. White church with green dome on the top of the stairs is a hero on almost every photograph. This white jewel of Helsinki dominates the Senate Square right in the middle of the city. The Tuomiokirkko was built to replace a smaller church on the site dating from 1727.What I liked about the White Cathedral is its simplicity. Nor the interior of this Lutheran Cathedral is exaggerated. There is a lack of ornaments. Complete opposite is the Uspenski Cathedral. It is an Orthodox church, reportedly the largest one in Western Europe. This spectacular and colorful sight represents Helsinki’s Byzantine-Russian architectural heritage. I’m not a religious person, but let me stay on a topic of churches a bit longer. If you’re looking for the simplest one in Helsinki, visit the Rock Cathedral. Temppeliaukio Church is built directly into solid rock.
Do not miss a photo opportunity underneath the amazing monument – Sibelius monument, dedicated to great composer Jean Sibelius. An abstract monument resembles a soundwave made of clusters of organ pipes. This spectacular attraction consists of over 600 steel pipes unevenly grouped together at various heights. You will find steel pipes in Sibelious Park next to a monument of the famous composer’s head.
Take a short ferry ride and visit a small island near Helsinki. While the archipelago of Helsinki consists of over 300 islands, my favorite must be Soumenlinna. The island you simply have to visit is more a fortress than an island. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress was built in 1748 as a protection against Russians. Exploring Soumenlinna is nice in all seasons. In winter, covered with deep snow, a trip to the fortress provides with peace and serenity. Since, I’ve lived in Helsinki for half a year (from January until June), I’ve walked on Soumenlinna also decorated with grass and flowers. Explore the old military base, enjoy the sea breeze, beautiful sunset, have a nice picnic, or just get away from the city.
While Finns love their incredible nature (forests, lakes), they also love coffee and karaoke. I’ve found this pretty little coffee place called Regatta. It’s a small red wooden hut and in my opinion the cutest little café in Helsinki. It only has four tables but it’s pretty cozy because it’s filled with many other objects like old kitchen appliances, musical instruments, old pictures … that give the place special atmosphere. You’ll find Café Regatta only few steps away from Sibelius monument. The other thing Finns adore, fascinating, are karaoke bars. You can find them all over Helsinki. Finns may have a reputation of being reserved; however, trust me, after a couple of drinks and especially in a karaoke bar, they get loose. Either you just go there to listen or you want to give it a try yourself, visit to a karaoke bar has to be on your list. I’ve heard there’s even a taxi that has karaoke machine. As you probably know, metal is popular music genre in Finland, fancy to sing some of hard rock songs? Just visit a bar Heavy Corner and join their karaoke nights.
If you have couple of extra days in Helsinki, I recommend you take a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. Just take an early morning ferry from Helsinki port and enjoy the ride. While I went to Tallinn for sightseeing, it seemed most of the Finns go there to buy cheaper booze. And the drinking starts on the ferry, even though it was still early in the morning. After they empty couple of bear cans, they start singing karaoke. If your purpose is not just getting drunk, Tallinn is a lovely city to explore. The old town is small; just take a walk around it. Spending a day in Tallinn is enough to see the charming capital of Estonia. On the way home with the ferry, I was surprise to see the Finns carrying large boxes of different alcohol. Even the older people, who had trouble walking, were carrying big boxes filled with bottles. It was funny seeing an old man with a red nose clearly drunk pushing a trolley with six boxes of alcohol. Alcohol is expensive in Finland, so many go on one-day trip to Estonia and buy alcohol in bulk.
If you’re eager to witness a great big outdoor student festival in Helsinki, then go to Helsinki in May. When students graduate, they celebrate by gathering around the Havis Amanda statue and put on her a white graduation cap on 30 April. Next day, May Day (Vappu) is celebrated with students wearing white caps and dress in different costumes gathering in parks and partying. During my Vappu experience in 2010, the snow was finally gone; the sun was sending first warm rays down on us.
Wanna hear about the most memorable thing I did in my six months in Finland? Perhaps even the most amazing thing I’ve witness in my whole life. Aurora Borealis a.k.a. Northern lights. To observe this breathtaking phenomenal, you’ll have to leave Helsinki and go north. And by north, I mean all the way to Lapland. We took a night train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi and then continued by bus to Korvala where we stayed in cute little wooden log cabins. Beautiful scenery, incredible nature, plenty activities … all that waits for you in Korvala, around 60 km north of Rovaniemi and the Arctic Circle.
In Lapland I went on reindeer and husky safari, cross-country skiing in Korvala, skiing in Pyhä ski resort (further north from Korvala), running into hole in the frozen lake after sauna, I’ve crossed the arctic circle, I’ve whispered my wishes to Santa Claus in the magical Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi right on the arctic circle. This is supposed to be his official hometown. Santa Claus’ original home lies in the mysterious Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland, but he established an office in Rovaniemi in 1985. Santa Claus village is opened every day of the year, you can meet Santa Clause there, buy Christmas souvenirs, sent a postcard that will be received on Christmas Eve. In Santa Claus Village, you also cross Arctic circle.
Reindeers, huskies, Santa Claus in person, all that sounds amazing, however nothings beats the Northern Lights! The Northern Lights dancing up on the sky is such a powerful and unique natural phenomenon it changes lives down on Earth. Auroras are caused by electronically charged particles originating from the sun. Multi-colored displays form when different atmospheric gases are agitated by this solar wind. In northern Lapland, the lights shine on a clear night from September until March. Just wait for a clear night, dress warm, take your camera, look up to the sky and you’ll witness an entrancing, dramatic, magical display of pink, green, yellow, blue, orange and white colors lighting the sky. .
In 2010, we stayed in small cottages in Lapland and had to stand on a frozen lake in the night with temperatures as low as around -30 degrees Celsius and wait for the Northern lights. I still remember (and I think all of my Erasmus friends do) I was screaming with the top of my lungs: “NORTHERN LIGHTS! Come out! Northern lights!” when the amazing show started. Most of my friends were still inside the warm cottages, but couple of brave us were freezing outside for more than an hour. Believe me it was totally worth it. I remember Justin from England running out from the cottage only in socks. We sent him back to put on some shoes, or else his feet would have frozen. These days you can stay in a built igloo and watch the northern lights from inside. However, standing outside it’s a part of Aurora Borealis experience.