Rapid city: the place to defrost your soul

Tampere showcases Lenin and the Moomins - that must be the strangest place in Finland? It certainly is, says Andrew Spooner
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The Independent Travel

At its best, life throws up all kinds of possibilities and bewildering juxtapositions. Take Lenin and Moominpappa. Hard to imagine them inhabiting the same sentence never mind rubbing shoulders. But, in idiosyncratic Finnish style, there they sit, a stone's throw apart.

I'm walking through Tampere, a city in central Finland, once the hub of the Finnish industrial revolution, now on the tourist trail thanks to cheap flights. These days, large-scale industry is mostly a memory, although red-brick mill chimneys still throng the Tammerkoski rapids that cut through the grid-like city centre of wide streets and handsome buildings. These fierce rapids brought Tampere its fortune, linking two vast, shimmering lakes that give the city a sense of spacious light.

More than anything, Tampere is a city used to struggle. During the bloody Finnish civil war of the 1920s, it became a Workers' Soviet and the seat of the revolutionary government. A vicious street battle ensued, leaving 3,000 reds buried in a mass grave on a ridge overlooking the city centre.

Fittingly, for a city drenched in the passions of revolution, my first port of call is the Lenin Museum. It's a remarkable place, housed in a Nouveau-inspired building on a long tree-lined boulevard, Hameenpuisto. Lenin held revolutionary gatherings here, in what was once a workers' theatre, when he was on the run from the Tsar's secret police.

The museum's somewhat dusty collection explores the story of the most iconic, non-religious figure in history through personal effects - Lenin's school report reveals his worst subject was logic - documents, Soviet-era paintings and Lenin busts. There's also a haunting plaster copy of Lenin's death mask.

But it's a browse through the museum shop that brings the place together. Here, I find a comprehensive selection of excellent Soviet and Lenin memorabilia. Posters, badges, goblets and Red Army hats create a wonderfully kitsch hoard. I'm struck by how extraordinary it is that the optimism, radicalism and brutality of the once mighty USSR should be reduced to such pastiche.

I hit Tampere's icy streets filled with cold nostalgia. I need to get warm. Luckily, my destination, five minutes walk away, is as cosy as it gets. Moominvalley, sited beneath the arched copper-clad contemporary elegance of Tampere's library, at the other end of Hameenpuisto, holds an incomparable trove of original Tove Jansson Moomin paintings, drawings and etchings: almost her entire collection is here.

I scan the walls for my favourites - Little My, Hemulen and Toffle - tickled by the range of friendly Moomin faces. But, while adult fans are still enthralled by Jansson's colourful and deeply humane creations, Moominvalley is aimed at its target audience, kids. Dressing-up rooms are filled with exotic costumes and a small stage where staff pull on Moomin suits bringing Jansson's amorphous creatures alive for wide-eyed children. Miniature models of famous Moomin scenes created by Jansson and her friends are displayed in glass cases and the museum shop sells Moomin books in several languages.

My soul defrosted, I head back out into the Finnish winter to look for lunch. I head for Tampere's main Kauppihalli, a covered market found in every big Finnish town, more akin to a French-style gathering of produce than anything Nordic. Piles of local organic apples vie with mountains of succulent hot-smoked salmon. Butchers' stalls are filled with delicate moose and reindeer hams, joints of smoked lamb and strings of tasty makkara, Finnish sausage. Bakers ply the best dark rye bread ever tasted.

On with the tour. Tampere has two cathedrals: an eye-catching, though often closed, onion-domed Russian Orthodox affair near the railway station, and the main Lutheran pile near the rapids. The Lutheran cathedral appears grim and forbidding, all heavy granite and stone-cladding. But, on opening the heavy wooden doors, I'm astonished by the original interior. There is no religious chintz, creating a sense of serene capaciousness. Hovering behind the altar is an enormous, ethereal painting of several haunting Expressionist figures walking towards a soothing light. It was painted in 1907 by the Finnish artist Magnus Enckell, as was the large coiled snake that transfixes me with bright eyes from its eyrie beneath the apex of the domed ceiling. A startling fresco of pink naked boys carrying a lengthy wreath filled with bright red flowers - painted by another Finn, Hugo Simberg - is elongated along the rim of the gallery. Just to the side of the altar resides Simberg's Garden of Death, featuring friendly skeletons tending rows of plants. The cathedral is an unsettling ensemble of the macabre.

I head to the other side of the rapids, and the remains of the Finlayson factory. Tampere's first factory was founded in 1820 by a Scot, James Finlayson, who immediately saw the potential of the rapids as an infinite source of power. It became the biggest textile mill in Finland until its demise in the 1990s when Tampere's unemployment hit 20 per cent. These days, the entire factory, acres of red-brick, 19th-century buildings, some still containing antique machinery, has been turned into an entertainment complex. There are cinemas, restaurants, hi-tech offices and several museums, the most eye-catching being the Spy Museum, which contains a disconcerting collection of secret agent gadgets. Torture devices, deadly weapons hidden in everything from gear sticks to fountain pens - Mata Hari's poison ring has a certain elegance - and a museum shop filled with balaclavas. This is a city with truly eclectic tastes.

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies daily from London Stansted to Tampere from £64 return in January.

Sokos Hotel Tammer (00358 20 1234 600; www.sokoshotels.fi) has a great central location. Weekend bed and breakfast rates are lower than weekdays, at €95 (£65) compared with €142 (£100) per night.

Where can I get more information?

Tampere's tourist office is located at Verkatehtaankatu 2. Finland Tourism (020-7365 2512; www.visitfinland.com/uk).

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