Tourist in Finland
by CHARLES J. ROLO
CHARLES J. ROLO spends several months each year traveling in Europe. Here is his report on what the 1952 visitor will encounter in Finland.
THE most arresting thing about the Finns, even to a tourist, is the genius they have displayed since the war for what Stephen Potter might call Russ-manship, or the art of dealing with the Russians. It is one of history’s pleasantest ironies that Finland, which the Russo-Finnish Peace Treaty should by all odds have reduced to an abject satellite, has won trick after trick in its post-war relations with Moscow.
In addition to annexing one eighth of Finland’s best territory, Russia demanded 300 million gold dollars’ worth of goods as reparations, including ships and machines which the country was not equipped to produce — and dire penalties were stipulated for any delays in delivery. The amazing Finns have met their obligations with scarcely a hitch. By September the entire debt will have been paid off.
When the Russians realized, in 1948, that reparations were failing to cripple the Finnish economy, they remitted half of the outstanding debt in the hope of influencing the coming election. The Finns showed how unimpressed they were by returning eleven fewer pro-Soviet deputies to the Diet. Afterward, the Communists were gradually eased out of the Cabinet, and now there is not a single Communist Minister in the government. The Communists have also been decisively defeated in the crucial struggle for control of the labor unions.
The Finnish press and radio, though uncensored, refrain from direct attacks on the Soviet because the Peace Treaty makes their government accountable for hostile comments. But the speeches of Western diplomats criticizing Russia are fully reported, and the Finnish Communists have received a terrific pasting in the press and on the radio. Helsinki’s leading bookstores stock American and British periodicals, and none of the Finns I talked with hesitated to express a critical view of the Russians. In short, Finland, while it cannot team up militarily with the West, is in most other respects a free country. Although there is a Red Army base on “leased” territory twelve miles from Helsinki, Finland is emphatically outside the Iron Curtain.
How has this utterly defenseless nation of 4 millions managed to stand up to the Russians and their local stooges so successfully? The answer can probably be summed up in a single Finnish word — sisu — which refers to the essence of the national character (and has no exact equivalent in English). Sisu, I was told, connotes guts, perseverance, youthful optimism, readiness to face hardship — above all, a tremendous faith in work. Sisu has apparently made Stalin realize that, if he were to occupy Finland, he would lose an energetic and scrupulous trading partner and be plagued with a nation of diehard resisters. It has, miraculously, put the Finns in a respectable bargaining position vis-à-vis the Soviet colossus — a strong enough position for them to expand their trade with the West and sidestep total economic dependence on Russia.
Sisu is also apparent in the way that Finland — the smallest nation ever to play host to an Olympiad — has tackled the huge job of preparing for the XVth Olympic Games, which will be held in Helsinki from July 19 to August 3. The capital’s Malmi airport cannot take four-engined planes, so a new terminal has been built — Americans can now fly to Helsinki via Pan American without changing aircraft (round-trip tourist-rate fare, $666). Helsinki’s magnificent Stadium has been enlarged to accommodate 70,000 spectators. An Olympics “Village” has been specially constructed to house 5000 of the athletes. And elaborate provisions have been made— in the face of a severe housing shortage caused by refugees from areas ceded to the Soviet — to lodge and cater to an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 visitors, one third of them from abroad.
Helsinki’s hotels will be entirely reserved for Olympics officials and the press. But 50,000 beds in private homes have been mustered for foreign visitors. The price of these accommodations ranges from $1.70 to $5 for a single room, $2.30 to $6 for a double. For obvious reasons, the two-week period when the Olympics are under way is the one time not to visit Finland if you want to see the country in any degree of comfort.
Between June and September of 1952, U.S. citizens will not require a visa to enter Finland. You are allowed to take 30,000 Finnish marks into the country, and it’s well worth doing so, since you can get a decidedly more favorable rate outside Finland than the official 231 marks to the dollar.
The tourist who wants to see Finland in style will find the going moderately expensive; and he should not expect to fare quite as handsomely, where food and lodging are concerned, as, say, in Denmark or Sweden — the past eleven years have been exceedingly tough ones for the Finns. The best rooms in Helsinki’s leading hotels ($6.50 for a single with bath, $11 for a double) are comfortable and spacious, but they are in very short supply; and the cheaper accommodations are likely to be somewhat run-down. The hotel situation, however, is on the mend. Two brandnew luxury establishments will shortly be opened in Helsinki — the Palace and the Vaakuna.
You can run up a stiff bill in Helsinki’s first-class restaurants if you order a three-course dinner à la carte accompanied by several drinks. The best policy, assuming budgetary limitations, is to settle for the table s’hôte menu, which in the top places runs to around $1.25 for a luncheon and $2.50 or $3 for an ample dinner
— not including coffee, which is a luxury item. The ordinary demitasse, a lamentable affair, costs 25 cents; to get decent coffee you must specify “double” strength, and a small pot of it adds about a dollar to the bill.
The finest alcoholic drink in Finland, Russian vodka, is more expensive than geography might lead one to expect; but the Finns produce good vodka of their own. The national tipple, as in the Scandinavian countries, is aquavit or snaps; and though I revere the dry Martini, I found snaps a persuasive substitute.
The Finnish menu is similar to the Swedish; its forte is excellence in the fish line, and the national specialty is smoked reindeer meat. The two restaurants which no visitor to Helsinki should miss are on the outskirts of the capital. Kalastajatorppa (The Fisherman’s Cottage) is framed in a beautiful setting, and the summer terrace commands a view which makes a dinner there memorable. Valhalla is located in an eighteenthcentury fort on one of the Suomenlinna islands, twenty minutes by ferry boat from Helsinki. With its ancient interior, modern Finnish lighting, and costumed waitresses, it gives the tourist a satisfying sense of being steeped in local color. In the town proper, the two best restaurants are probably the Adlon and Vaakuna.
With its broad avenues and imposing white buildings, its parkstrewn residential districts, its lovely harbor, and the beauty of the countryside which reaches right into its suburbs, Helsinki is a continual delight to the eye. The nineteenthcentury church and public buildings in the Great Square — the work of Carl Ludwig Engel — are among the finest achievements of neo-classicism. The Parliament, the Railway Station (by Eliel Saarinen), the Children’s Hospital, the Commercial High School, are striking examples of the way in which Finland’s twentieth-century architects have mellowed strict functionalism with classical motifs or decorative effects.
The leading resort in Finland is Aulanko Park on Vanajavesi Lake. Aulanko is two hours from Helsinki by train, but the most rewarding way of getting there is to take what the Finnish National Travel Office calls “The Silver Line Tour.” After a forty-minute flight to Tampere (Finland’s Pittsburgh), followed by a forty-minute bus ride, you go on to Aulanko via “ water coach” — a magnificent five-hour trip through two of Finland’s 60,000 lakes. The tourist inn on the Heights of Koli — two and a half hours by plane and car from Helsinki — is celebrated for a view which has inspired some of the music of Sibelius; in this tremendous vista of dark forests and blue and silver lakes, you catch the awesome loneliness and grandeur of the Finnish wilderness.
To my chagrin, I had to leave Finland without having glimpsed a Lapp, a reindeer, or the Northern Lights. It is only three and a half hours by plane from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, but six or seven days are necessary to see something of this vast territory — a paradise for fishing, hiking, and canoeing.
Utterly devastated by the retreating Nazis and entirely rebuilt, Lapland is now dotted with new, up-to-date tourist inns and is well serviced by motor coaches.
When Lapland was being reconstructed, the first buildings to go up were the wooden structures in which the Finns take their Sauna or steam bath, where the temperature ranges from 190 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit. It is no legend that the Finns make a cult of the Sauna — I heard of infants being exposed to it at the age of two months. Many of Helsinki’s apartment buildings have a Sauna in the basement, and there are 500,000 in the rural districts, almost one to each family. Among countryfolk, the whole family, and the hired hands and visitors if there are any, troop to the Sauna on Saturday evening in two shifts — the women first, then the men — scrub each other’s backs, beat each other briskly with leafy birch whisks, then splash each other with cold water or take a plunge in the lake if there’s one at hand (which there usually is).
The Sauna, which produces an extraordinary sense of well-being, is a part of Finnish hospitality. I was taken to the Sauna at the Helsinki Yacht Club, where you cool off with a swim in the bitingly cold waters of the harbor. And when a Finnish official invited me and three others to dinner at his country cottage near Helsinki, the evening began with a Sauna.
Pioneers in modern design, the Finns are turning out products of exceptional distinction in the decorative arts, and at prices substantially lower than one would pay for anything comparable in the United States. I was particularly impressed with the glassand crystal-ware designed by Alvar Aalto, Finland’s greatest architect, Gunnel Nyman, and Tapio Virkkala; by the handwoven textiles and the tapestries of Dora Jung and Eve Anttila; and above all by the original and exciting ceramics of Toini Muona, Birger Kaipiainen, and other advenlurous artists of the Arabia Factory, the largest of its kind in Europe. All these products are conveniently assembled at Helsinki’s leading department store, Stockmann’s, which will pack and ship any purchases to the United States for a reasonable charge.
(Prospective visitors to Finland can obtain further information, and assistance in planning their trip, bp writing to the Finnish National Travel Office , 41 East 50th Street, New York,N.Y.)