Travel: Cover all of Finland's Oulu in 20 minutes

Oulu’s most prominent landmark is the Oulu Cathedral, and the towering belfry is the perfect marker to orient oneself anywhere in the city. (Anita Rao Kashi)
Oulu’s most prominent landmark is the Oulu Cathedral, and the towering belfry is the perfect marker to orient oneself anywhere in the city. (Anita Rao Kashi)

Summary

From ‘living lab’ to the ‘city that burned 10 times’ to ‘home of the Air Guitar World Championship’, Finland’s Oulu has many names and endears itself to anyone who passes through

Located on Finland’s northwestern coast in the Gulf of Bothnia, Oulu sounds more like an exclamation in Finnish than the name of a city. The name traces its roots to the Sami (the indigenous people inhabiting northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and parts of Russia) word for flood water. Oulu, named for the river on which it sits, is Finland’s fifth largest city with a population of just over 200,000. It is affectionately called the city of 20 minutes—because it is relatively flat, and much of its central area is within an easy walking distance and takes 20 minutes at most to cover, whether you’re looking for its heritage or commercial parts.

Oulu’s history goes back to 1605 when King Charles IX of Sweden founded it as a trading site, especially for its rich wood tar deposits. Predictably, it was attacked over and over and burnt down, gaining the sobriquet of ‘city that burned down ten times.’ But its people have been not only been resilient but also forward-looking and tech-savvy. The city of Oulu was one of the bases of Finnish cellphone maker Nokia, and its residents are known to experiment and test new technologies such as NFC tags and ubi-computing (seamless interaction between several devices), thereby earning it the title of ‘living lab.’ It is also called the ‘quirky city’ because it hosts the prestigious Air Guitar World Championship every August since 1996, an event that draws participants from all over the world. The city takes this epithet and event very seriously: there is rumoured to be an air guitar repair shop but its whereabouts are an inside secret.

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All of these have contributed to Oulu being inducted into Unesco’s Creative Cities Network for Media Art in 2023, which “emphasises the connection between art, science, technology, and digital media." Further recognition of this rich intermingling has come with its designation as the European Capital of Culture for 2026, a whole year during which it will showcase all the creative aspects that make it unique.

The Hupisaaret Islands City Park, spread over several square kilometres, and is Oulu's largest lung space and comprises dozens of islands created by babbling brooks and flowing streams, connected by pretty white wooden bridges.
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The Hupisaaret Islands City Park, spread over several square kilometres, and is Oulu's largest lung space and comprises dozens of islands created by babbling brooks and flowing streams, connected by pretty white wooden bridges. (Anita Rao Kashi)

But early in the morning when I am there, something entirely different holds my attention. Towards the northern part of Oulu is the Hupisaaret Islands City Park, spread over several square kilometres, and is the city’s largest lung space. It comprises dozens of islands created by babbling brooks and flowing streams, connected by pretty white wooden bridges. A network of narrow paths—some asphalted, others of packed earth—runs through the vast expanse that hasswathes of velvety green grass, clumps of towering trees and bushes laden with colourful flowers. In the morning stillness, chirping birds are loud and melodious, stringing together a symphony of their own. It is broken only by the crunch of cycle tyres on the gravel or the occasional soft patter of shoes. I wander around and perch on a bench facing a little water body that is frequented by birds. It is the perfect start to the day, where mindfulness comes without effort.

Faint sounds of a church clock galvanise me out of the park through the main entrance. I follow the road that leads to the centre of the city, a less-than-ten-minute walk. On the way is possibly Oulu’s most prominent landmark—the Oulu Cathedral, whose clock spurred me out of the park. As the city is flat, the cathedral’s towering belfry is the perfect marker to orient oneself anywhere in the city.Dating back to the late 18thcentury, the partly wooden, partly stone structure burnt down in one of the fires that mark the city’s history. It was rebuilt in the early 19th century and was designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel, who also designed the spectacular Helsinki Cathedral.I step inside and realise it isn’t very big, but exquisite stained glass details, massive central dome, and a beautiful organ draw my attention.

At mid-morning, the city centre, a grid of cobble-stoned avenues that is completely pedestrianized, is not noisy or crowded. It is packed with stores, boutiques, pubs, restaurants and a fountain in polished granite. I cross it and pass a series of streets with beautiful pre-war buildings. By the side of one of them, I stop to stare at an art work comprising 32 bronze miniature metal sculptures installed in an arc, called Ajan Kulku (passage of time). Each is an anonymous representative that is evocative of a particular event in Oulu’s history: it starts with King Charles and is followed by people representing various trades such as a pastor, farmer, fisherman, sea captain, elegant lady, military man, office goer, a mother, a female doctor and so on, each signifying Oulu’s progress over centuries. A few minutes from here, at the market square, I encounter Oulu’s icon, Toripolliisi, an adorable statue of a rotund policeman sculpted in black stone, dedicated to the policemen who used to patrol the area, after the practice of patrolling ended.

It the market square is Oulu’s icon, Toripolliisi, an adorable statue of a rotund policeman sculpted in black stone, dedicated to the policemen who used to patrol the area.
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It the market square is Oulu’s icon, Toripolliisi, an adorable statue of a rotund policeman sculpted in black stone, dedicated to the policemen who used to patrol the area. (Anita Rao Kashi)

A 10-minute walk west of the market, via a bridge, takes me to the tiny island of Pikisaari, meaning ‘pitch island’. One half of the island is a neat grid of streets and pretty gabled-roof houses. The oldest building, from late 19th century, located on the main road houses a sailor’s museum with seasonal openings. The rest of the island is thick woodland with tall grass, dense shrubbery and towering trees.

As the evening shadows fall across Pikisaari, I head back to Oulu proper. It truly is the city of 20 minutes—it takes me less than that to reach the city centre. Once back, I could choose from nearly a dozen different museums, the seaside resort area of Nallikari and a handful of churches but I feel the need for lights and noise. Storefronts flicker to life and music spills into the streets. People mill about, greeting each other, cheerful and in high spirits; children run around; a couple of rollerbladers weave in and out… I sit at a cafe and watch the shifting tableau. The cathedral, a silhouette in the night, starts chiming the hour, deep and melodious. It’s a sound that stays long after I’ve left Oulu.

Anita Rao Kashi is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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