Dear fellow travellers
Are not some landscapes genuinely therapeutic? We crested wave after wave of rolling forests as we drove through Karelia last week. Writers looking to plot the spiritual geography of Europe might do well to start here, for Finnish Karelia is a landscape full of longing and nostalgia, a region that has a very distinctive sanctity. We did not start our journey as pilgrims, yet Karelia wove its spell around us and turned us into pilgrims.
There is something tantalisingly beautiful about eastern Finland - which happens also to be the easternmost part of the continental European Union - and adjacent parts of Russia. The days are long in May, the forests and the skies have a redemptive purity and the journey itself can become a sacramental experience.
Karelia is rich in allegory and allusion. The very name Karelia invites thoughts of the Kalevala, the epic poem which has so powerfully shaped Finnish thought and identity. So when Finland lost eastern Karelia to Russia during the Second World War, many Finns judged that something of their history, a landscape that was peculiarly Finnish, was being wrested from them.
Seven decades later Karelia is still divided, and Karelian myth-making has become a powerful cause in Finland. Heritage villages present an idealised view of Finland's lost eastern territories, and a veritable tourist industry has developed around the Orthodox monastery at New Valamo, created on the Finnish side of the border by 150 monks who fled west from their monastery on Valaam island in 1940. They carried with them material objects: icons, textiles and sacred chalices. But they also brought memories and something of the Karelian soul, transplanting Valaam's religious heritage to a new location on the shores of Lake Juojärvi in Finland.
New Valamo has a sense of the remote. But by comparison the road through the forests to the Finnish village of Hattuvaara is very much more remote. This is where Finland rubs shoulders with Russia and the route along the border is pure poetry. Hattuvaara is a slip of a place with a beautiful white Orthodox chapel - and it lies further east than St Petersburg. We drove south for an hour along a dirt road to reach Hattuvaara. At times the scenery was deeply melancholic. The last of the winter snow lingered in forest dells, the waves of forest blended into the heavens, and the saving grace were the distance signs that punctuated our dusty progress: Hattuvaara 30 km . . . Hattuvaara 20 km. And suddenly we were in Hattuvaara, soundscapes of Sibelius behind us, the litanies of lost territories replaced by this living community in the forest.
Hattuvaara is a speck on the map, a place too small to have its own priest. The village is full of the spirit of the Karelian borderlands. It is a spot on the very edge of Europe, but this is no cloister. Life is tough, especially in winter. Relations with neighbouring communities in Russia are fractured by history. We drove on further through the forest, listening to the music and stories that are so much a part of this Orthodox fragment of Finland. Some journeys are simply magical. This was one of them.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)