Summer midnights on the Gulf of Finland are so enchanting, “it seems a pity to sleep,” said Linda Inoki in the Financial Times. The sun shimmers over Helsinki, the capital, all the way through to morning. The white dome of Helsinki’s cathedral rises above the skyline, “like a pleasing echo of St. Petersburg.” This is the romantic Finland that inspired Sibelius’ symphonic poem Finlandia. Equally inspiring is the rolling countryside just outside the city, full of “thousands of lakes that push back the land and pull down the sky like ancient, powerful mirrors.” Picturesque towns stretch along the old King’s Road from Norway to Russia.
At 4 in the morning, the main square of the shipyard town of Turku is already filled with merchants setting up stalls. Noted for its medieval castle, Turku is the gateway to an extensive archipelago of islands in the Baltic Sea. Many of Finland’s traditional wooden buildings have been lost to fire, but a few survive. Some of the most significant are located in Naantali, the summer home of the Finnish president, and Porvoo, “almost too picturesque for its own good” because it attracts so many tour buses. Once, Czar Nicholas I planned to raze the entire town as a fire hazard. Instead he decided to create a “new, improved version built next door.” Walking across a timber bridge, I admired a series of iron-red storehouses alongside the river. Steep lanes lead up to a bell tower that has been immortalized by Albert Edelfelt, a painter beloved by the Finns.
At the Haikko Manor, a hotel and spa once owned by Russian aristocrats, I enjoyed “a fiery, 10-second sauna and a refreshing dip in a pool.” The next morning, I breakfasted on sea buckthorn juice, rye porridge, and Russian tea, then walked “to Edelfelt’s rustic studio in the woods.” Later I made my way through a birch woods. Finland, I realized, is a country “split by light and darkness, civilization and wilderness.” As I breathed in the air smelling of warm earth, I understood “why Finns are happiest in their forests.”