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Take a walk down memory lane

Historic tales surface in the most unexpected places in Helsinki, the ancient yet modern capital of Finland

travel Updated: Oct 16, 2010 12:10 IST

The first thing I was told when I was heading to Finland, was that Finns were even more introverted than Swedes; tough, genuine, stubborn and well-educated, but introverted. The second advice was to keep shades handy to escape the ubiquitous glare. After all, I was heading to the White City of the North, Helsinki. 

"Is it because of the snow cover?" I asked. "You'll see."

Later, I found the first fact was only partly true: in a country where Finnish and Swedish are the two official languages, comprehension of English is limited.

However, the second advice proved its worth the moment I stepped into the city. The White City gets its name not only from the semipermanent snow cover but also from its predominantly white architecture. Several designs built in the neo-classical style, including the allwhite Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral right in the heart of the city, have earned Helsinki its epithet.

An inspired city

Helsinki has a rather nascent intertwined history - founded in 1550 by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden, this city was occupied by the Russians for a substantial period of time.

Helsinki is a borrowed concept, a replication. The Russians wanted to design this city as a reminder of St. Petersburg, their home. To a lonesome traveller though, the city offers little respite initially. One has to dig deep to see the beauty of this port town. The fort island of Suomenlinna offers one such opportunity.

Of history and legends

Suomenlinna, the naval fortress spread across six islands, is perhaps the most prominent historical pivot of Helsinki. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island of Suomenlinna is peppered with a museum, few domestic eating joints, and old Russian cannons.

On the near empty streets of Helsinki, I chanced upon a middle-aged gentleman, who turned out to be the former curator of the museum at Suomenlinna. Over coffee at the old city square, we discussed the legend of the naval fortress. Suomenlinna is a sombre reminder of the war of 1708, during which the fort was surrendered to the Russian navy, eventually leading to the capture of Helsinki.

Treasure hunt

Chance encounters, like the one with the curator, inspired me to walk through the streets scouting for hidden fables.

Walking the streets is to constantly stumble into something interesting. In one corner, I found a spontaneous local bazaar.

In the front were shops selling cheap clothes and shoes, and in the middle were kiosks selling pancakes, breads, nuts, fried fish, coffee and hot cocoa. The true treasure lay beyond.
In stalls hidden from sight, souvenirs from the Communist regime lay spread out. Pins and coins, imprints of athletes flying under a flag bearing the sickle and the hammer, military insignia, binoculars and magnifying lenses, paintings and decorated envelopes, ornamental porcelain cups and plates, and books teaching Russian were all there.

I bought an old Russian army leather belt bearing the insignia of a cross-pieced star carrying the sickle and the hammer.

On my way back, I felt the belt. It smelled of old leather, the metal from the buckle was chipping and the leather strip was bent in many places. It probably belonged to a forgotten Russian solider.

It's impossible to describe Helsinki as a whole, only stories of its parts can be told. An unusual dichotomy, caused by the intermingled and confused histories it has witnessed, runs through it. To foreign eyes, the city may seem attached to its past.

To others, it might seem like one of the most rapidly advancing Scandinavian cities. I would liken the city to an old book hidden in the far corner of a dusty book shelf: neatly preserving fascinating stories on its fading pages, and retelling them to anyone who cares to listen.

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