Hello Helsinki

Hello Helsinki

Nature commands a certain respect in Finland. Woven into the fabric of daily life, it has shaped the Finnish experience, from the dark green forests that dot the landscape to the 188,000 deep pools of blue that are the nation's lakes.

It is possible, too, to get in touch with nature in Helsinki's urban setting. Beyond the quaint low-rise buildings and picturesque trams, there are churches carved from rock, Nordic walks adapted to city terrain and saunas - oases of stone, wood and heat - that offer an escape into the wilder elements.

Nordic walking

When I was searching for especially Finnish things to do in Helsinki, I came across an article about Nordic walking. Intrigued, I found out that the activity - which involves walking with Nordic (cross-country) skiing poles - started out as a way for Nordic skiers to train in the summer.

I arranged a one-to-one, two- hour Nordic walking tour (thejoggingguide.fi), which costs €70 (S$104). I was instructed to wear something comfortable so I went with sneakers, yoga pants, a T-shirt, sweatshirt and rain jacket as well as a little backpack with essentials and a bottle of water.

My guide meets me at the hotel, with extra jacket and gloves. She gives me the poles, similar to ski poles but reinforced at the bottom to take the pounding on city streets.

You can customise the tour according to your interests, but I have kept my instructions vague. I want to see some green and maybe parts of the city I have not seen yet. We set off and walk a winding route through city streets and parks.

Before we start, I am taught the correct way of Nordic walking. Hands are looped through the pole ties and I must grab the pole handle (similar to regular skiing). The pole that is opposite my forward leg is then planted with each step.

The interesting part is that I am not supposed to plant the pole in front but behind me. As I stride forward, I open up my fists and let go so that my hands do not cramp up.

At first, there is a slight ache in my arms due to the unfamiliarity of the stance, but it gets comfortable quickly. The beauty of the poles and of Nordic walking is that one quickly falls into a nice rhythm that keeps one going.

We weave in and out of parks, city streets and different areas. I do not have to worry about getting lost as I just follow the guide.

I get to see a diverse range of architecture from beautiful pastel houses to a hilltop in a park where I can see the sea, islands such as the former military fortress Suomen- linna and lush greenery.

The weather starts out grey and extremely windy, with a light sprinkling of rain, before the sun breaks out in full force as we make our way to the seaside.

I ask my guide, a former teacher, about the surroundings, Helsinki history and traditions. We see ships going to Tallin in Estonia, just across the Gulf of Finland, and big cruise liners stopping on the way to St Petersburg.

We walk about 6km in those two hours, but with the cool weather, changing vistas and pole-set rhythm, it may have been one of the most enjoyable walks I have taken.

•Go to hassutourshelsinki.com for other Nordic walking tours.

Sauna Kotiharjun

Sauna is the only Finnish word to enter the English language, which says a lot about Finns and their love of sweating it out. To get an authentic sauna experience, I hire a guide for my first visit to a Finnish sauna.

There are only three public saunas left in Helsinki: Sauna Kotiharjun, Sauna Arla and Sauna Hermanni. This is because most Finns now have their own saunas at home. It is considered a necessity and the Finnish parliament and jails are said to include saunas.

We take a 10-minute tram ride from central Helsinki to Kallio district to visit Sauna Kotiharjun (www.kotiharjunsauna.fi), which has been around since 1928. It is in what looks like a residential building, except for the letters spelling out "sauna" outside.

Entry costs €12 (S$18) a person. You can rent towels, but I have brought my own.

We strip down to nothing and step into a communal shower room for a quick wash. In public saunas, everything is divided by gender.

I enter the sauna and am surprised the floor is not boiling hot.

There is a lever on the side of a stove we release for three to five seconds that heats up and releases more steam. In more traditional saunas, there are hot stones that you pour water over with a ladle to release that same steam.

We climb onto the benches, which have six levels, the top being the hottest. The highest level has wooden slats to sit on but the rest are stone, so people sit on their towels for a little buffer. I choose the second highest level which is hot, but not scorchingly so.

The heat is dry and though I am sweating, I am not dripping. Compared to steam saunas, which are a bit suffocating sometimes, this one is quite comfortable. Apart from my guide and myself, there is only one other woman, who turns out to be a German tourist.

The guide says saunas are closely associated with purification. In the old days, it was where women would give birth and where dead bodies were washed. The supply of clean hot water meant it was the most hygienic place.

The sauna experience reminds me a little of a Japanese onsen, in the way you undress, shower first and sit and soak to relax.

But the next step is different. We step out of the sauna, wrap towels around ourselves, grab a bottle of water and sit on a ledge outside the building.

I am next to the pavement, which is next to a street full of parked cars, next to a little park. Even with wet hair and clad in only a towel, I am not cold.

The sauna warms me to the core and the change in temperature is invigorating.

Finns have saunas in cottages in the country and after their visit, they jump into lakes or in wintertime, roll in the snow.

A portly Finnish man, who chats with us on the ledge, says he has been in this same position even in minus 15 deg C weather.

The sensation is of feeling very alive and refreshed. We go back into the sauna a second time and the guide tells me a story of how saunas have long been embedded in the culture. Finnish leaders of years past have often invited other leaders to visit the sauna, somewhat like how golf invitations are extended, she says.

Finnish president Urho Kekkonen reportedly visited a sauna with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev during the Cold War and, in order to get Khruschev to allow Finland into a free trade agreement, kept adding water to the stones and raising the heat until the Russian relented.

Whether this is true or not, the story shows another wonderful quality of the sauna. Stripped down in that space, it is a great equaliser.

We pop back outside, before finally taking another shower, putting on our clothes and paying for our drinks. Some establishments offer small bites for the peckish to nibble on during their outdoor rests between the sauna sessions.

I realise that this is a tradition to be enjoyed leisurely and cannot be rushed.

•Go to www.saunahermanni.fi and www.arlansauna.net for other public saunas in Helsinki.

Temppeliaukio Church

Temppeliaukio Chuch (helsinginkirkot.fi/en/churches/rock-church- temppeliaukio), also known as Rock Church, is a testament to the elements. Excavated into solid rock, the oval space features craggy rock walls and a copper-lined dome overhead. Concrete beams support the dome and the glass between each beam lets sunlight in.

On the Tuesday morning I visit, the place is bustling with people. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki, the church is an impressive combination of natural materials and man-made ingenuity.

Entry is free and people stream into the building and gaze upwards. There are 11 rows of pews divided into three sections and each bench is covered in purple-fuchsia upholstery in contrast to the grey floor and white, grey, black and brick-red veins of rock on the walls.

A staff member performs on the grand piano, which looks small in comparison to the room's spaciousness. Her playing, which shifts from haunting melodies to light-hearted fare, demonstrates the acoustics of the space.

What intrigues me is the abundance of contrasting lines, from the curve of the dome to the angle of the beams and pews to the organic zig-zags in the rock slabs. The church evokes grandeur but also feels intimate, a feat achieved by the designers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen.

Built in 1969, the Rock Church has a slightly hippie feel, with the cave- like interior and mix of copper, glass, concrete and rock. The space was originally gazetted for a more conventional church in the 1930s, but plans were shelved due to World War II in 1939.

The church occupies about a square block and while people revel inside, there is also a way to enjoy the space from the outside. If you step out and walk towards the back of the block, there is a gentle incline next to a small playground.

I climb this and reach the roof of the church. There is a rock cordoning to prevent people from getting near the glass windows and dome, but it is a lovely little hill to walk around and enjoy the view from.

I run my hand along the rock cordoning and peek in between the large gaps and crevices. It is much quieter than inside, and all I can hear are the birds and the wind as I sit on a sun-warmed stone slab.

Kamppi Chapel of Silence

I am not religious, but I decide to visit one more church in Helsinki, the Kamppi Chapel of Silence (helsinginkirkot.fi/en/churches/kamppichapel-of-silence).

Built in 2012 as part of the programme when Helsinki was awarded World Design Capital status, it is much newer, smaller and less visited than the Rock Church.

This wooden structure, located across the square from Kamppi terminal and designed by Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola and Mikko Summanen, is a must visit. It looks a little like a ship's bow, but incredibly sleek and modern. Visitors enter through the glassy corridor attached on the side.

The chapel itself is a simple space and the curved wooden walls made of birch make me feel almost cocooned in place. It is light-filled, though there are no big windows, only slats at the top of the structure to let in light.

Inside, there are six rows of simple wooden benches on the right and the left, all facing an altar with a Bible, flowers and four flickering candles.

The main draw of the chapel is the silence. It was constructed as a meditative place, a respite for people to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Once inside, the silence and stillness is extremely striking and makes me think about how rare it is to be engulfed in quiet these days. The soundproofing in the chapel must be top-notch because I hear nothing.

Originally, I was going to take notes inside the space (where no photographs are allowed), but even putting pen to paper would disturb the preternatural calm. People come in and out of the space, and I can hear every windbreaker rustle and sneaker squeak.

But those uninterrupted stretches in between, soaking up the near-palpable silence, are more engaging than a cacophony of voices. It is meditative by design, but also rarer and more beautiful than I expect.

This article was first published on July 05, 2015.
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