Finland has topped the list of the happiest countries in the world for the last three years.
Located in northern Europe, Finland is one of the world’s most northern and geographically remote countries and is subject to severe climatic conditions. Nearly two-thirds of Finland is blanketed by thick woodlands, making it the most densely forested country in Europe.
Having been compressed under the enormous weight of glaciers, the terrain in Finland is rising due to the post-glacial rebound. The effect is strongest around the Gulf of Bothnia, where the land steadily rises about 1cm (0.4in) a year. As a result, the old sea bottom turns little by little into dry land: the surface area of the country is expanding by about 7sq km annually. Relatively speaking, Finland is rising from the sea.
The landscape is covered mostly by coniferous taiga forests and fens, and there is little cultivated land. Of the total area of the country, 10 per cent is water… ponds, lakes, rivers, and 78 per cent is forest. The forest consists of pine, spruce, birch and other species. Finland is the largest producer of wood in Europe and the paper on which this magazine — Rotary News — is printed, is imported from this Nordic country. The most common type of rock here is granite.
Woman: 84.5 years; Man: 81.8 years
Woman: 68.9 years; Man: 65.8 years
Helsinki, which hosted the 1952 summer Olympics, was the World Design Capital for 2012. It has one of the world’s highest standards of urban living. In 2011, the British magazine Monocle ranked Helsinki the world’s most liveable city.
We were extremely fortunate to have past RI director Virpi Honkala, who lives in Finland, to show us around the place. She left no stone unturned to show us Espoo, Porvoo and Helsinki with an open invite to her home at Raahe in Northern Finland. We are grateful to her and her brother Kari for great hospitality and some great Finnish food too.
The Sibelius Monument is a sculpture done by the Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen titled Passio Musicae. It was unveiled in September, 1967. The sculpture won a competition organised by the Sibelius Society following the composer’s death in 1957. Originally it sparked a lively debate about the merits and flaws of abstract art and although the design looked like stylised organ pipes, it was known that the composer had created little music with organs. Hiltunen addressed her critics by adding the face of Sibelius, which sits beside the main sculpture.
The sculpture, done with the aim to capture the music of Sibelius, consists of a series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. The large monument weighs 24 tonnes and measures 28ft×34ft×21ft.
We next visited the Helsinki Cathedral, a distinctive landmark in the city, with its tall, green dome surrounded by four smaller domes. The majestic building, done in the neoclassical style, was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel as the climax of his Senate Square layout. It is surrounded by smaller buildings also designed by him. The church’s plan is a Greek cross (a square centre and four equilateral arms), symmetrical in each of the four cardinal directions, with the façade of each arm featuring a colonnade (walkway) and pediment.
We decided to plan a trip also to Iceland, which ranks the third happiest country in the world, wondering how can the people of a nation who are troubled by earthquakes, volcanoes and the vagaries of glaciers, and facing so many difficulties due to these natural disasters be so happy.
We were truly amazed by their lifestyle! The healthy lifestyle they practise, in spite of so many odds, gives them an edge over other people and raises their average life expectancy… believe it or not… to the fourth highest in the world! Here the average life expectancy of a woman is 84.5 years and a man 81.8 years. We in India are far behind with the female life expectancy being 68.9 years, and male 65.8 years.
What fascinated us the most was the presence of the midnight sun in Iceland, and its famous geothermal wonders. The country is a powerhouse of geothermal activity, and the electricity produced from it results in wonderfully warm homes and numerous heated outdoor swimming pools. We visited the Katla Ice Caves and glacial wonders which unveiled for us the awesome power of nature. This was the most memorable experience of our trip.
Fridheimar Farm produces over 700 tons of tomatoes a year, nearly 40 per cent of Iceland’s tomatoes.
The country has unique wildlife — reindeer, horses, lambs, sea birds, puffins. It is so pleasing to the eye to see so many healthy and robust horses wherever you go!
But nothing compares to the majestic waterfalls that this country has; every time we visited one, we all exclaimed ‘oh my god,’ almost in unison. Iceland has over 10,000 waterfalls which vary in size and are truly awe-inspiring, reflecting the raw power, energy and force of nature.
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is famous for its thriving nightlife and hosting some of the best music festivals in Northern Europe such as the Iceland Airwaves. It is equally well-known for its unique architecture and the fascinating earthen colours of its buildings. Its three important landmarks are the Harpa Symphony Hall, Hallgrimskirkja Church and the Solfar Sun Voyager. The last is a sculpture which represents a dream boat and is an ode to the sun. It also represents the promise of undiscovered territory and a dream of hope, progress and freedom. This is the result of a competition funded by the district in 1986 to celebrate Reykjavik’s 200th anniversary.
10 per cent of Finland is water… ponds, lakes, rivers. Forest area: 78 per cent
The Harpa Symphony Hall is a landmark building of Reykjavik for all visitors, being a concert hall and a conference centre in the city. The opening concert was held here in May, 2011. The building features a distinctive coloured glass facade inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland. Harpa was designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in cooperation with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The structure consists of a steel framework covered by geometric shaped glass panels of different colours.
Coming to the food, you will get here delicious lamb, seafood, Arctic char and fish stew. Its famous dark rye bread baked in hot springs is a unique experience altogether. It tells you all about how powerful is man’s survival instincts and the unique opportunities offered by Mother Nature!
The Fridheimar Farm is a greenhouse haven for the most delicious tomatoes you’ll ever taste. Visiting this is an experience not to be missed. As you step into this thriving oasis, you’ll be greeted by row after row of vibrant tomato plants, basking in the warmth of Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy. The greenhouse is heated with geothermal water from a nearby borehole and the lights are powered by electricity, also from geothermal energy.
This tomato farm is owned by the passionate horticulturist Helena Hermundardóttir and the knowledgeable agronomist Knútur Rafn Ármann. They’ve been perfecting their business since 1995. It is operated as a family business and the owners are still involved, as are their children. And it is a massive empire. The farm pumps out over 700 tons of tomatoes a year, which is nearly 40 per cent of the country’s entire crop of tomatoes!
The Fridheimar greenhouse complex comprises nine specialised greenhouse buildings and over 27,000 tomato plants (and also some cucumber and basil plants). We won’t be able to forget our lunch there for a long time to come. It proved the proverb that where there is a will, there is a way.
We visited two of the geothermal springs at Sky Lagoon and Hvammsvik; the experience was pure ecstasy. You can spend hours in hot springs, enjoying drinks while appreciating the wonders of nature. It certainly teaches you to be one with nature and hopefully increase your lifespan.
The moment you land at the Keflavik airport and drive down to Reykjavik, the dramatic volcanic landscapes stretch on for miles and miles. But when you go into the details you enjoy the thrills of nature as they produce black sand beaches and amazing places like Rangárþing ytra (a municipality in southern Iceland) with its great hiking trails and vibrantly coloured mountains.
Our eight-day visit to Iceland was a great learning experience on the power of nature, the amazing coexistence between fire and ice and the human endeavour not only to survive but also flourish! It also taught us the importance of changes in lifestyle and respect for Mother Nature.
The author is a past RI director
Pictures by Manoj Desai