“It’s almost a miracle how nature has the energy to be reborn after so many months of frost”

Ever since I moved to Oulu from Northern Italy back in 2013, I have admired the connection people here have with nature. In the beginning, I thought it to be something innate in the Finnish culture; it was only later I discovered this trait to be much more enhanced in the Northern part of the country, where nature is at its quintessential wild state. This connection goes beyond simply taking walks in the forest and admiring its beauty in any kind of weather, be it favorable and sunny or slippery and freezing. It is much deeper. It’s about coexistence and understanding.

Potrait ThaisFK

Northern Finland is a land of contrasts. Long and dark winters where the most prevalent colours are black and white eventually make way for a very colourful and lush summer. To me it’s almost a miracle how nature has the energy to be reborn after so many months of frost and freezing temperatures. Despite the harsh winter, when the sun’s warming power returns and melts the snow and thaws the ground, invariably nature begins to flourish. Sap starts to flow in the trees, wild herbs emerge from the ground, leaves and blooms appear.

Northern Finland has some of the most pristine nature in the world. And this nature is something anyone can benefit from. For many foreigners the concept of everyman’s right is an unfamiliar one. The idea that everyone has the right to roam free in nature, enjoy it and benefit from it as long as it’s left unharmed is so liberating. And the variety of Arctic wild food is noteworthy. It is not limited merely to one of the widest varieties of wild berries in the world, but also includes mushrooms, edible wild herbs, flowers, leaves, sprouts and wild fish.

Local, seasonal ingredients are incredibly tasty in Finland, especially wild and organic ones. And that’s really what I find to be at the base of Finnish traditional cuisine: a few, fresh ingredients. The secret, really, is to eat seasonally and so adjust one’s diet to what nature provides in that season instead of buying imported goods. Nature adapts and transforms. Being connected to nature means adapting and transforming along with it.

I love to combine different food cultures, highlighting the strengths of each. In particular, I specialize in bringing a Nordic twist to Italian recipes and vice versa. It’s very satisfying to look outside the box and create new flavors. In my creative process I usually start with an ingredient and I develop a recipe around that ingredient or I think of an existing recipe that might need an interesting addition. Giving a Nordic twist to some recipes can be as easy as adding a few wild berries on top of a breakfast bowl, a cake or even a meat stew. Another way to travel through food to the North is to use some signature Arctic flavors, such as fresh dill, rye, butter and cardamom to name a few or even salty licorice and tar for the real culinary adventurers.

This pandemic has certainly made a lot of people appreciate nature more than they used to. More and more people value organic and sustainably sourced food. Suddenly, the possibility of going out and being in nature is connected to safety, freedom and mental health. More than that, nature has finally regained its rightful place as a food resource. The people that before would go to the supermarket to buy superfood powders from a faraway land now realise that they can go out to forage for themselves the forest superfoods and even start to grow their own vegetables in their backyards and balconies.

In conclusion, I find the Nordic and Arctic wild food scene to be an incredible resource that deserves to be enhanced. It is something completely unique in the world and a territorial asset beyond comparison. It is an exclusive attraction for a very specific niche in tourism. For people who value the concepts of slow living and sustainability and that would like to experience for themselves this kind of special and primordial connection with nature.

Thais FK (https://www.thaisfk.com/

Photographer, Recipe developer and Content Creator. Half Italian and half Brazilian, born and grown up in Italy, moved to Finland soon after graduated. Lives in Oulu.

This blog is a part of the European Capital of Culture Oulu2026 program Arctic Food


Oulu2026 – The Cultural Capital of 33 Municipalities 

The implementation area of the Oulu202cultural capital programme includes 32 other municipalities in addition to Oulu, which is a lot when looking at the history of European Capitals of Culture (ECoCs). The area is broad also geographically: it includes cities and municipalities from Kainuu, Sea Lapland as well as from Northern Ostrobothnia. Work to win the competition for the title of cultural capital and the journey towards the year 2026 demands investments from the entire northern implementation area. Luckily there is a strong desire for collaboration as the involved municipalities are excited about including their cultural projects into the programme. The commitment to the shared values of the activity, such as social and ecological responsibility, has also been unanimous. 

Diverse Ways of Collaboration 

The partner municipalities are each collaborating in the cultural capital work according to their resources and chosen points of focus; collaboration with municipalities can mean for example planning together new art and cultural content for the year 2026 based on the cultural heritage of the area. The contribution of a partner municipality can also be a project that they do by themselves or in contribution with local operators; for example, a festival for which something special is developed for the cultural capital year as a part of the Oulu2026 programme. 

Participating in the programme can also mean content work that unites several municipalities; many municipalities have had the type of cooperation, already before the programme, with neighbouring municipalities, where the offering goes well together with the capital of culture programme in terms of the themes and ways of executionAlso, the delightful message from the field is that the capital of culture programme has already now refreshed the mutual collaboration within the area. 

There has been an attempt to do the collaboration so that it would answer to the needs of all the participating municipalities and would reflect, for example regarding the cultural programme, those themes that are seen as important in each particular region. The collaboration is also continuously being developed more and more into this direction. This can already be seen in the Oulu2026 programme, and especially in its cultural programme, for example in networking collaborations and open programme applications. This development will continue strong in the future as the cultural programme is expanded and diversified further on the journey towards the year 2026.  

In all of this collaboration there is also present a strong international dimension  after all, a reciprocal dialogue with Europe has been essential in the birth of the European Capital of Culture conceptremains essential for the concept today and will be essential for it in the future. By working together, we achieve the greatest benefits, and this can be seen not only in the working methods, but also in the bigger picture: the new winds blowing our way from Europe are at least as significant as achieving international coverage and new European audiences. What can we learn from past and present capitals of culturesister cities and from other international partners? What kind of methods are used to develop responsible tourism for example in the rural regions of Southern Europe? 

A Broad Implementation Area Enables an Imposing End Product 

In practice the collaboration at this point is done mostly with individuals designated by municipalities as liaison officers or members of the delegation. Through them we strive to form a dialogue with the whole area; we want to hear about situation updates and new ideas from the municipalities, as well as share the news about each phase of developments regarding the Oulu2026 team and programme. Indeed, this collaboration is largely also communication and marketing work and we work with a local communication and marketing network to strengthen it. The network consists of individuals chosen by the municipalities. 

In addition to the municipalities there are plenty of other operators from the region participating in the programme, such as individuals from the fields of art and cultureoperators from the tourism sector and professionals from the field of technology. The participating municipalities have, for example, many third sector actors, such as associations from different fields that have extensive local knowledge and significance. Who would know about the phenomena of the region, such as about traditional food culture, innovative people or subculture operators, better than the locals? We already have many wonderful programmatic examples of this for example in Kuusamo, Kajaani, Oulu and Pudasjärvi. 

We want to network to many directions: It is extremely important to maintain already existing relationships and to create new partnerships both amongst municipalities and across different fields. We work on this collaboration and encourage to develop thinking outside the box: in addition to the familiar partners of art and culture, such as tourism operators, we create new connections regarding projects, for example with professionals of agriculture. 


A small world

Having lived in Oulu for eight months, I’ve met enough people to make amazing daily discoveries of how everyone is connected.

Let me give you an example: in early March I did an interview with Juha Toppi, the man who built and maintained the Hailuoto ice road. An immensely likeable character doing a brilliant job with his tractors and heavy machinery – which, as I found out a few weeks after we met, he had also used to transport a shipwreck from Hailuoto to Oulu to feature in Hylky, an immersive theatre production I wrote a review about last September. And where did the shipwreck end up after the last Hylky performance? At Ruskotunturi, of course: Oulu’s rubbish dump that’s been converted into a ski slope with a biogas plant inside the hill  – a story in one of the most popular videos I’ve made this year.

It increasingly feels like Oulu is just the perfect size to know someone related to pretty much everything that’s going on in my life. It’s not too small to be boring and not too big to feel lost and disconnected.

A trip to Helsinki in February really brought this home to me. Helsinki felt crowded after Oulu: cafes, restaurants, shops and trams were all full. It’s funny how perspectives change so quickly. Before moving to Oulu, I’d lived in London for 23 years. I came to Helsinki from London four times in 2019 for work and I always thought it was a quiet city with loads of space. This last time Helsinki felt like a metropolis. Not in a soul-less way, but it was certainly more hectic and stressful than Oulu.

And the contrasts kept on coming. Soon after my trip to Helsinki I spent a blissfully relaxing weekend at a friend’s mökki in the middle of nowhere on the bank of the magnificent frozen Oulujärvi. It was a setting straight out of a fairy tale, with more snow and silence than I’d ever experienced. The nearest supermarket was 30 km away, and there were two neighbours at the safe distance of about 800 m in each direction.

And that’s where I made a very surprising discovery. I’d always thought that Finnish people went out of their way to seek solitude when going to their mökkis in the wilderness. They would even get annoyed to see a boat on the horizon, invading their personal space the size of greater London.

But here, there was more social life than I’d ever imagined: the men in the three mökkis had bought a tractor together and appeared to have the time of their lives spending the whole of Saturday fixing it. And the three families even share their saunas: they take turns heating them and they happily go and use a neighbour’s sauna two out of three evenings. And that’s not the end of it: they often stay in each other’s mökkis for snacks after sauna! This is stuff that I’ve always associated with Italy and Spain but not Finland. It just goes to show how wrong stereotypes can be.

And finally an admission: I didn’t survive a night in a laavu. And it wasn’t even very cold: only minus 6. I tried and tried to go to sleep, tossing and turning, but it was too cold for me. Despite my military-grade sleeping bag, I could feel the cold radiating from the ground and by two in the morning my nose was turning into ice. At that point I gave up and retreated into the mökki.

I love winter but my first attempt at sleeping outdoors was a failure. Astonishingly, my 72-year old laavu companion declared it was “too hot” as she was unearthing herself from her sleeping bag at 8 am. I promised her I’d give it another try next winter. Only five more months to wait.

Erika Benke, journalist
born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC.
Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project

A tour through Europe: Plovdiv 2019


Plovdiv was European Capital of Culture (ECoC) in 2019 together with the Italian city of Matera. Plovdiv is also the second largest city in Bulgaria with a population of around 347 000, as well as the cultural and business center of Southern Bulgaria. The city is around 8000 years old, which makes it one of the oldest still inhabited cities in the world. Plovdiv was originally a Thracian settlement, but was later inhabited by Persians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Bulgars, Slavs and Turks. Because of this the city has a very diverse cultural heritage and a multi-ethnic population. Plovdiv’s location on the banks of the Maritsa River, the longest river in the Balkans, and at the foot of the Rhodope Mountains makes it an attractive tourist center. The city’s economy has been supported for a long time by manufacturing, commerce, transport, communications and tourism. Moreover, Plovdiv was recently ranked by the Financial Times among the top three European cities in the category “Foreign Direct Investment Strategy” in the ranking “European cities of the future 2018/2019”. The city’s six universities and over 70 schools ensure a vibrant and youthful atmosphere. Although Plovdiv has gained reputation for its economic development in recent times, the city is known among Bulgarians as the city of Ayliak, a Turkish word meaning a relaxed, laissez-faire attitude to life.

Plovdiv has over 200 archaeological sites, the most significant being the Ancient Theater, which was built in the 1st century AD and is one of the best-preserved ancient theaters in the world. The theater has a capacity of 5000 spectators and is still used for performances, concerts and festivals. Another famous ancient site in Plovdiv is the Roman Stadium, built in the 2nd century AD and located underneath the main street of the city. There are also many museums, galleries, theaters and an opera house in Plovdiv, as well as a unique Center for Contemporary Art, based in the premises of an ancient bath from the time of the Turkish Empire. Furthermore, due to the diverse religious communities in the city, many churches, mosques and synagogues displaying the architecture and iconography typical to the region can be found in Plovdiv. Major ongoing cultural events in Plovdiv include the Opera Open festival in the summer, held at the Ancient Theater, the Night Festival in September, taking place at museums, galleries and night clubs and One Dance Week, which is dedicated to contemporary dance. In addition, the Kapana Fest, taking place in an old neighbourhood that has been revived as a creative industries district, attracts many visitors as well.

During the title year there were 513 public events with cultural content in Plovdiv, in addition to which 54 events related to the ECoC were held in other cities and abroad. Plovdiv’s culture programme can be considered to have been very accessible in the sense that 61% of the ECoC events had free entrance. Indeed, according to the final monitoring report the share of citizens who attend cultural events relatively often in Plovdiv rose from 27% in 2017 to 44% in 2019. Moreover, survey results indicate that 60% of the city residents attended at least one cultural event during the title year. The ECoC also had several projects targeted at specific minority groups, such as the Roma, young people from deprived neighbourhoods and senior citizens from smaller towns and villages in the wider Plovdiv region, which helped in increasing the participation of individuals from these groups in cultural events.

Altogether over 1,5 million people participated in ECoC events in Plovdiv and the wider South-Central region in 2019. 80% of the participants were national visitors, around 11% were residents of Plovdiv and the remaining 9% were international visitors. Statistics show that the ECoC had a clear influence on the increase of tourism in Plovdiv. According to monitoring data the proportion of Bulgarians visiting Plovdiv increased from 28% in 2015 to 39% in 2019. Furthermore, the number of visitors stating cultural events as the primary reason for their visit increased from 11% in 2015 to almost 39% for the title year. Also, the number of international visitors increased from the year 2015 by 27% for 2019, as there were 121 478 international tourists in Plovdiv during the title year.



Ex-post evaluation of the 2019 European Capitals of Culture – Final report

Image: rassputyn, pixabay.com



A tour through Europe: Matera 2019


Matera was one of the two European Capitals of Culture (ECoC) in 2019 together with the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. The city is located in the Basilicata region in Southern Italy and has a population of around 60 000. Matera is also the capital of the Province of Matera and is also known as the “Cittá Sotteranea” (The Underground City). Nowadays the city is famous for its historical center known as “I Sassi”, which has ancient cave dwellings that have been inhabited since the Palaeolithic period. Today I Sassi is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Agriculture has been the main economic activity in Matera for hundreds of years, but nowadays its economic sector is more diversified, affected notably by the rise of the tourism, handcraft and research fields, which are replacing the local “furniture” district that emerged towards the end of the 20th century.

As an ancient city Matera has a number of ancient and rupestrian churches and archaeological sites. There are also several museums and theaters in the historical center of the city, including the National Archaeological Museum “Domenico Ridola” and the Museum of Medieval and Modern Art. Matera has gained reputation also through several movies shot in the city in recent years. Since 2014 Matera has been the venue for around 30 movies and short films, including Ben-Hur (2016), Wonder Woman (2017) and No Time to Die (2021), the latest, yet to premiere, James Bond movie.

Matera’s ECoC programme provided a diverse range of cultural, artistically high-quality activities. The programme featured a large number of both national and international artists and altogether over 1300 events, 65% of which were free, as the rest were accessible with the Matera 2019 Passport. In total the different events attracted almost half a million visitors. A clear majority of respondents to the ECoC Foundation’s survey was satisfied with the content, quality and originality of the cultural programme (64%) and with the diversity of the cultural offer (66%). The diverse cultural offer and the direct engagement of the citizens in the co-creation process of the event increased the number of people accessing cultural activities. Furthermore, many people felt that Matera became more culturally vibrant (78%) and more open to cultural differences and diversity in general (82%).

The number of tourists in the Basilicata region increased from around 520 000 to nearly 950 000 between 2012-2019, more than in the rest of Italy. According to a survey conducted with tourists in 2019 almost 70% of the respondents visited Matera at least partially because of its ECoC status. The tourist numbers also boosted Matera’s market revenue. AirBnB listings between 2017-2019 show a 25% increase on the average daily rate for one-night stay accommodation.



Ex-post evaluation of the 2019 European Capitals of Culture – Final report

Image: blank76, pixabay.com



A tour through Europe: Leeuwarden 2018


The Dutch city of Leeuwarden was European Capital of Culture (ECoC) in 2018 together with the Maltese capital Valletta. Located in northwestern Netherlands, Leeuwarden has a population of 100 000 inhabitants. Leeuwarden is the main city in the region of Friesland which has a population of 646 000. Altogether Friesland has 11 cities which are connected by water. Leeuwarden is also one of the oldest cities in the north of the country as its history dates back to the Roman age. Due to its location the inhabitants initially worked in agriculture, fishery and trade by the sea. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the “Golden Age” of the Northern Netherlands, Leeuwarden became quite wealthy. Friesland has two official languages, Dutch and the local Frisian, which makes it the only bilingual region in the Netherlands. Frisian is taught in many of the region’s schools and the people in Friesland are recognized as having a strong cultural identity and sense of local pride.

The cultural sector of Leeuwarden-Friesland is often described as locally focused in terms of its target audience and ambition. Especially considering the population of the region, Leeuwarden-Friesland can be considered to have a diverse offering of cultural infrastructure and activities. Leeuwarden is known for the impressive Fries Museum that opened in 2013, the Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics as well as many smaller galleries and exhibition and performance areas. The world-famous artist M.C. Escher was born in Leeuwarden and his work was significant also for the ECoC programme. Prior to the ECoC the cultural offer of the region consisted mainly of works and performances by local cultural artists and performers, with not many cultural operators visiting from outside the north of the Netherlands. In fact, the primary motivation of visitors to Leeuwarden-Friesland was to enjoy the isolation and rural nature of the area as opposed to enjoying the cultural offer of the region.

Leeuwarden-Friesland’s ECoC programme’s central motto was “Iepen Mienskip” (Open Community). The central values of this concept are mutual respect, participation, grass-roots development, equality and civic responsibility. Out of the 800 projects in the culture programme over 700 were part of this “open programme” that dealt with the bottom-up mienskip approach. The open programme and its projects were mostly planned and organized by locals, while the ECoC Foundation guided and supported them. The main focus of the cultural programme was to bring people together to find solutions to common societal challenges through culture. Themes such as child poverty, the threat to biodiversity, equality, the integration of migrants, the detachment of the city from the countryside and water management (i.e. flooding) were central to the ECoC. Although other ECoCs have also had a community aspect in their programme, its scale and importance in Leeuwarden-Friesland’s ECoC was far more significant than witnessed before. Indeed, the ECoC was often viewed more as a social programme that aimed to educate, promote and highlight societal issues rather than simply a cultural programme merely for entertaining people, and stakeholders felt that because of this the locals were more engaged with the programme than they otherwise would have been.

In addition to the open programme the ECoC included the “main programme” which consisted of 60 projects. Projects of the main programme had generally much larger budgets and profiles as well as larger attendance figures than the open programme projects. Another notable difference was that the projects of the main programme were generally organized by professional cultural operators both from Friesland and elsewhere.

The ECoC also had a very strong European dimension, which could be seen in the 1600 international collaborations with 87 countries that took place as a result of the ECoC. These collaborations included visits, exchanges, joint performances and joint marketing campaigns. Furthermore, many new connections with international networks were established. Those responsible for the European dimension of Leeuwarden-Friesland’s cultural programme estimated that the ECoC generated 10 times more international collaborations than there would have been without the title.

It is estimate that 5,4 million people attended ECoC projects between 2015 and 2018. Furthermore, around 10% of the total population of the region participated in the ECoC by either delivering a project or by volunteering in projects. The increase of overnight stays from 0,8 million in 2017 to 2,1 million in 2018 suggests that the ECoC had a notable direct impact on the increase in tourism in Leeuwarden-Friesland. Moreover, hotel managers in Leeuwarden stated in interviews that most of these increased overnight stays were from foreign tourists who had arrived in the region specifically because of the ECoC.



Ex-post Evaluation of the 2018 European Capitals of Culture – report

Image: Piet van de Wiel, pixabay.com