"We tend to hibernate a bit during the winter," he said, treating me to a grin in his rearview mirror, "but during our endless summer days we celebrate! We party!"
I got it wrong. "What do you mean, endless summer?" I ask. "Surely the summers up here in the north are somewhat
"Oh, I don't mean the season," he replied with a laugh. "I mean the days themselves. Yes, we're far north, so far north that in the summer the sun just slips beneath the horizon for an hour or so and it never gets really dark. So ... whatever you like to do ... sailing, walking, playing tennis, gardening or just partying ... you can do it all day long. And believe me, we do! "
We were driving from the airport and my taxi driver was extolling the virtues of his city of the north, Helsinki, capital of Finland.
Although a bit beyond the 'partying all night' age, I soon discovered not only how right my driver was, but also how wonderful those long hours of daylight are for visitors keen on sightseeing. Helsinki, although compact and easy to explore, has much to offer.
First stop for most visitors is the harbour area, home to a lively market where you can buy gifts, clothes, flowers, berries and delicious Finnish delicacies to savour as you wander or eat picnic-style on the wall watching the world go by. On a sunny day with the breeze blowing from the sea, I sit fascinated by all the activities around me: little waves sparkle in the sun, birds shriek and wheel overhead and merchants call out their wares while ferries large and small toot their horns as they arrive or depart from this lively scene.
Across the harbour, reached by regular ferry, lie the six islands know as Suomenlinna, or Finland's Castle. These islands and their fortress, begun in 1748 by Finnish units of the Swedish army, were Sweden's shield against Russia until a Swedish commander surrendered to Russia during the War of Finland (1808-19). Today, Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site, continues as a military garrison but also contains museums and galleries and offers parks with views back over the city's famous skyline. An early spring visit is delightful, when the islands are canopied with fragrant lilacs.
Jean Sibelius is Finland's favorite son. You may catch a concert in Helsinki's ultra-modern Finlandia Concert Hall, and stroll around the harbour, past the islands and through the parks, to find his brooding steel monument. His favorite bar/restaurant remains the choice of many, the renowned Capeli, located on the corner of Harbour Square where everyone in Helsinki seems to meet to enjoy a beer or delectable snack on the music-filled terrace.
"Overseas visitors love our shops," an assistant in an elegant interior décor store told me, speaking, as most Finns do in perfect English. "We are known for our design, and I hope you see why." Indeed, I did. Finland is home to attractive furniture, innovative glassware, elegant clothes and much more. 'Cool' is the adjective that often applies.
'Cool' is an adjective in its most literal sense to be applied to one of Helsinki's most famous sites, the Temppeliaukio Church, built inside a great rock in an elegant residential square close to the center of town. Walking through its simple design, it's a restful spot to pause for a respite from summer's relentless light or you may decide to attend a service or organ recital as the acoustics are magnificent.
Adjacent to the market stalls in Harbour Square, there's a permanent market. Don't be fooled by the warehouse style of building; inside, you discover intricately carved wooden stalls and an astonishing array of delicacies. If you have a picnic in mind, you won't know when to stop! Perhaps it will be kalakukko (fish baked in pastry), reindeer
pâté, smoked herring or salmon or a portion of vendace, the roe of the whitefish that is so highly prized by gourmet Finns that there is never enough of for export. Follow these delicacies with a basket of Finland's cloudberries or mouth-watering, wild strawberries. Later, when time for a fine restaurant, set out for the unmistakable onion domes of the Uspenski Cathedral where, in its shadow, you find the renowned Restaurant Sipuli for famous Finnish dishes and a wide selection of other continental cuisines.
I've only touched on Helsinki's delights. There are cathedrals to visit, modern museums to explore, a plethora of small commercial galleries for art works, and when time to rest your weary head, hotels from vast and luxurious to small and intimate. A car is unnecessary as comfortable shoes or the efficient public transportation system and fine ferries take you anywhere your heart desires. You find out just how much this city has to offer if you make your way to the Helsinki Tourist Office, a local landmark near the harbour, a recipient of past "Best Tourist Office in Europe" awards with a wealth of information in English. Here, you may purchase the Helsinki Card for reduced access to public transportation including the ferries, entry to city museums, a city tour and other discounts.
Don't forget to pack your 'stay-awake' pills for this city by the sea that never sleeps - in summer!
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/