Words by Yousif Nur
My very first trip to Finland was a no-brainer – first, I get to see the sights and sounds of a country I’ve never visited. Secondly, the World Music Expo – known simply as WOMEX – was a first-time visit for me and thirdly, I get to film my documentary whilst there. It totally made sense to come to Tampere, which is Finland’s second city, a 2-hour journey north of Helsinki.
Finland is a sparse, spacious country with 75% of it being forests and lakes. And I got a real sense of how beautiful the vast surroundings are when I took a 2-hour train ride from Helsinki to Tampere, with woodland and lakes galore.
As for Tampere, it’s known for being the Manchester of Finland, partly due to the number of red brick buildings, its history of manufacturing and its rock scene. In fact, there are more metal bands per capita in Tampere, than anywhere else on the planet.
If that wasn’t enough of an interesting stat, it is also the sauna capital of the world, where pretty much every public building, office and apartment has his or her own saunas. It’s even in the school curriculum in Finland; such is the importance of sweating it out for the sake of wellness.
The main reason for my visit to Finland was to attend WOMEX – the largest World Music Expo in the world, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. Held at the Tampere Hall, it’s the largest concert hall and congress centre in the Nordic countries. Just as well really, when there are thousands of delegates from all over the world congregating in one place for meetings, exhibition stalls, showcases and film screenings.
During my three days at WOMEX, I managed to network with various festivals, record labels and bands from as far as New Zealand to as far-flung as Argentina. I also managed to catch performances from up-and-coming Moroccan talent, Asma Hamzaoui and Bnat Timbuktu, playing traditional Gnawa music from Morocco. The response to Asma was very positive and there was a real buzz of excitement before the show. I was also filming a documentary about her, with my camera pretty much following her movements every step of the way in Tampere.
During my busy schedule, I was fortunate enough to fit in a film documentary screening, as I watched “Sufi, Saint and Swinger.” The film was a tragic story of a man’s musical talent in the midst of being conditioned by American society in the 1950s and finding acceptance of his music in Iran, at a time of great tension between the two countries.
I stayed at the Lapland Hotel which is only a few minutes walk from Tampere Hall. As you can probably guess by the name of the hotel chain, it has a very wintery and even a festive feel – the floor of my room was situated in “Christmas Land”, with a large mural of Father Christmas with his little helpers and reindeers when exiting the lift. The reception and lobby area had an open fire and an almost inner interior that resembled being inside a cabin, to replicate the atmosphere of being in the Arctic region.
As for my room, it was a small standard room, yet cosy, warm and comfortable. Above my bed on the wall were some reindeer antlers for a real Lapland, Finnish touch. As the temperature outside was plummeting to as cold as -6c, inside I was feeling quite toasty. All the more important as I had a bit of flu coming on.
To help and try and shake it off, I headed for a trendy sauna spot called Kuuma that doubled up as being a bar and restaurant. After all, when in Tampere, you do as they do, right? After eating a few canapés and a cocktail, it was time to get changed and step inside the sauna.
After a quick shower, I spent about 10 minutes or so sweating it out, before braving it almost stark naked, bar swimming trunks into the cold, and jumping into a freezing outdoor pool, with the temperature being 10 Celcius. The first time like many things in life is always the hardest. But after going in for the third attempt, I ended up swimming lengths, though I couldn’t feel my legs for a good few minutes. It made the cold weather by comparison feel like summer.
The following day at Tampere Hall, when I was looking to take a short break from WOMEX, I went to the world’s only Moomin Museum based on the popular cartoon series, which was situated in the same building. As cameras were prohibited in the museum for fear of copyright infringement, there were limits as to what I could show. But to be more descriptive, there were artefacts, original illustrations by author and creator Tove Jansson as well as showings of Moomin cartoon episodes from throughout the ages.
On a personal level, I was a fan of The Moomins as a child and this visit rekindled feelings of joy and poignancy. Especially when you think about how there are many life lessons to be learned from them that you completely miss as a kid. One particular example that hit home was a quote written on the wall:
“There are those who stay at home and those who go away, and it has always been so. Everyone can choose for himself, but he must choose while there is still time and never change his mind.”
Staying with world firsts, The Spy Museum was the first of its kind with an international collection of documents, artefacts and methods of tools used by various secret service agents from around the world. Being mostly in Finnish, you can ask for a booklet guiding you through everything in most languages upon request. Though it’s a small museum, it’s steeped in history, which even includes equipment from the cold war era. Tip: try and find the secret room located within the museum.
As I was after a restaurant that had food from the surrounding area, I was recommended a place called Ravintola Kajo, situated in Central Tampere. They served up food and drink that was rustic and locally sourced. I started off with a slice of sourdough bread, specially baked in the premises from scratch, as was the butter that was served on the side. It tasted extremely fresh from the oven and was fermented just right.
Then came the main dish, with a dish consisting of grilled and fermented grated carrots with egg yolk, some preserved meadowsweet, preserved blackcurrent, cheese stock sauce from a local cheese farm and vegetable stock. There might have been a lot going on in the dish, I’m pleased to say it all worked well, especially with the sharpness of the cheese stock, the sweetness of blackcurrants and rustic carrots.
Like the sourdough before this, these were all locally sourced no further than a few miles away in the forests. To finish, I had a palate cleanser of a lingonberry pudding with spruce sprouts. Lingonberries are similar to cranberries but less sweet and less of a tangy aftertaste.
In all, it’s definitely worth your while visiting Tampere for a short visit if you’re away on a conference, or you just fancy exploring a bit more of Finland beyond Helsinki.
Photography courtesy of Laura Vanzo