Since 1966, the Pori Jazz Festival has been attracting visitors to Finland. Jamie Grierson finds out why this quirky Nordic country is so captivating.
I AM in the home of Kaarina Nurmi, in the old-town of Rauma, a Unesco World Heritage site on the west coast of Finland, and I’m confused. I’ve been brought to her 19th century home to marvel at a hoard of antiques and bric-a-brac filling every inch of available space she owns. A 19th century bible, illustrated by French artist Gustave Dore, traditional Finnish farming tools, 1950s Playboy magazines... you name it, Kaarina has it.
Dressed like a giant fruit-pastille lollipop in a multi-coloured knee-length woollen sweater, the PHD research manager tells me the house has seen many tragedies – suicide, prostitution, alcoholism.
I’m readying myself for some sort of historical revelation, a story that reflects the significance of the preserved 17th century wooden town I’m in, maybe even a turning point in the Finns’ cultural existence that would define them for the rest of time.
But the revelation never materialises.
My experience in Kaarina’s home does, however, come to represent something about Finland as a whole – that its people and culture are hard to define.
Some three hours from the capital Helsinki, washed by the chilly Gulf of Bothnia, Rauma is a cobbled network of wonderfully preserved wooden buildings, some dating from the 1600s. It’s built around a charming Franciscan monastery where the mid-15th century Church of the Holy Cross still stands.
About 10 miles inland from Rauma, hidden in the vast Boreal forest, is a genuine ancient wonder. Sammallahdenmaki is a vast Bronze Age burial site. If you are unaware of its existence, strolling through the luscious green landscape, you’d have no idea that the nondescript mounds of granite rocks you’re stumbling over were in fact deliberately placed there more than 3,000 years ago by some of Finland’s first people.
The town is sleepy and a stay here is provides me with ample time to rest before I turn my attention to the real focus of my visit – the Pori Jazz Festival.
Further north, up the coast from Rauma, the much larger town of Pori is, quite frankly, one of the ugliest concrete nightmares I have ever had the displeasure of visiting. Bleak, grey monstrosities tower over a clinical grid-system of streets, blotted with mid-range bars and restaurants that appear to have left their fronts untouched since the 1960s.
Our Visit Finland host Virpi Aittokoski explains that the government of the Sixties and Seventies embarked on a mass modernisation of the country’s urban environment, flattening almost every traditional building in sight to be replaced with much more functional structures, more finely tuned for modern living.
This movement, combined with some post-war restructuring, means that less than 13 per cent of buildings in the country date back to before 1920.
But even ugly-mug Pori has a beautiful town hall, designed by early 19th century German architect Carl Ludwig Engel, plonked in the middle like a diamond in the rough.
Perhaps I’m being unfair? Of course, I’m not in Pori to marvel at its homage to concrete. For a week in July, Pori transforms into the place to be seen, where national icons rub shoulders with the locals, while music fans from far and wide settle in among the working population.
The bars – dismissed by my first impression as grotty – are actually buzzing, while the restaurants are packed and lively, and the streets lined with fun-loving musical tourists.
Within the festival itself are yet more cultural contrasts and mysteries. Held in the Kirjurinluoto park, on the other side of the Kokemaenjoki river, it attracts revellers of all ilks, ages and creeds.
Teenagers dance alongside middle-aged couples and young families bounce babies on their laps to the beats, while crowds of students drink in the sun. The line-up is beyond diverse and despite the festival’s title, doesn’t appear to feature that many jazz artists.
Without doubt, Pori is a joyful place when the Jazz Festival comes to town. The event hasn’t missed a year since 1966 and is clearly cherished.
But as Pori’s speakers boom, other beloved cultural events take place elsewhere in the country. The annual lace week in Rauma showcases a traditional craft beloved by the elderly but shunned by youngsters, while a Tall Ships Race in Helsinki hints at the country’s bond with the sea.
Judging by their interests, the Finnish people are certainly an eclectic mix.
But there is one thing that’s consistent in Finland, and that’s the natural environment. Boasting more than 180,000 lakes and 700 miles of coastline, fractured into speckled archipelagos, it is rich in natural beauty.
After exhausting myself spending so much time and effort trying to define its culture, it is away from the muddle of urban life, in a solitary lighthouse on a remote island off the coast of Rauma, that my view of Finland becomes – albeit temporarily – pure and simple.
Built in the 1950s, the Kylmapihlaja Lighthouse towers above a rocky outcrop the size of a football pitch. It is now a small hotel and restaurant, offering the unique opportunity to spend the night in a functioning lighthouse. With nothing between me and Sweden but the unsteady seas, and little company but the droves of rare birdlife nesting on its rarely-touched surface, its tranquil beauty really does move me.
Sipping an ice-cold lager, I watch the sunset cast a gentle pink glow across broken clouds with the Gulf of Bothnia crashing relentlessly on the rocks in the background, and I finally see Finland showing off its talents with nothing to defy my perception. It is a phenomenal haven.