Written: 22nd Feb 2011 | Last Updated: 22nd Feb 2011
Travel is always affecting, usually stimulating, often life-changing. Occasionally, it can also be unpredictable. For reasons unknown, things go awry and spoil even the best-laid plans. Bad weather, missed flights, grubby hotels, food poisoning, indifferent people, credit card fraud, even terrorism, can deflate, delay, distress and detour one’s perfectly composed itinerary.
Fortunately, things generally work out...and for us (despite a last-minute flight switcheroo due to strikes in Paris), when we visited the Finnish city of Helsinki for one week in late October/early November last year, we were privileged to experience the Pearl of the Baltic in all her autumnal glory.
Autumn is a particularly pleasant time to visit Scandinavia; the damp, chilly air called for coats, scarves and gloves, but not thermal survival gear. Remembering a few winters spent in Canada, where skin, hair and eyeballs froze as you stepped out the door, the Finnish fall weather, though often gloomy, was what I’ll call atmospheric - befitting a northern seaport - and made a nice change from our warm Australian spring.
Since my last visit in 1992, Helsinki has developed an invigoratingly fresh, upbeat attitude; it’s super confident and sophisticated. Restaurants serving Finnish cuisine (once maligned by international food critics) are inventively world class; downtown shopping offers an enticing mix of au courant global couture/ready-to-wear and local creations; and you immediately sense an elevated awareness and appreciation of architecture, art and design; paired with the calm, soulful hum of Sami (Lapp) spirit and myth, this gives an edge to this city unlike any other. History and ethnic culture are linked to the now...past and present dancing elegantly, like Ginger and Fred.
Hotel Glo was our base, and lived up to its reputation as one of the region’s hippest lodgings - think cool, urban chic smack bang in the best part of town, with the added attraction of a very popular bar adjacent to the foyer (it reminded me of the W on Lexington in New York when it first opened in the wheatgrass-shot 90s). Some seriously slick people cut business deals and celebrate clinched ones here, and it’s fun to hang out where there’s a get-it-done-then-get-down vibe. The barman was kept busy, and to his credit remained attentive to all.
Our deluxe room was of generous proportions, on-trend, with an enormous bathroom partitioned off from the bedroom/lounge. Toiletries were classy, as were the requisite terry toweling robes and slippers. A separate toilet with hand basin was, as always, appreciated. Flat-screen TV, great sound system (just plug in the iPhone), WiFi and other new century comforts made hotel-time really comfortable. Office-style windows kept the city sharply in-frame.
Despite its appeal, we didn’t spend too much of each day at Glo; just outside pulsed a vibrant metropolis of 600,000 inhabitants (greater Helsinki, including Vantaa and Espoo, totals 1.3 million); and as any inveterate traveller will tell you, interesting cities need to be explored, preferably on foot. Strolling Helsinki’s elegant boulevards and charming small streets uncovered its moods and secrets, its style and cleverness, its youthful energy; this was a place to admire, for being so livable, and for adapting so successfully to a modern, technology-driven world.
Thankfully, Helsinki isn’t all “go”. Finns are dedicated nature-lovers; abundant open public spaces (one third of the city is classified as green-space) bring nature into the city, and being autumn, this was especially noticeable in gorgeous Esplanadi Park, where turned trees spun the scene into pale gold. Cobbles and footpaths were strewn with fallen leaves, forming a carpet not unlike the Yellow Brick Road. Beautiful lime (linden), Norway maples and horse-chestnut trees, some planted in the mid-1800s, created a perfect miniature wood in the heart of town. All the parks we visited during our stay were well-designed, well-tended and well used.
Market Square, adjacent to Helsinki’s South Harbour, must be glorious in summer when regional fresh berries and crayfish are in season; but autumn’s offerings were luscious, too, with elk and other game, herring and fabulous wild mushrooms of all shapes and sizes on display. We missed the annual herring festival, which was held in early October. Both the indoor and outdoor markets are worth a visit...open-air stalls were piled with reindeer pelts, Sami-style boots and clothing as well as the requisite souvenir trinkets; inside, you could stock your pantry with fine Russian caviar, salmon, reindeer meat and tins of bear paté (really!).
On a drizzling, cold afternoon, we decided to catch a ferry from the wharf at South Harbour for the 15-minute ride to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suomenlinna. This impressive 18th century fortress of 200 buildings, 8 km of walls and 105 cannons, was built on eight rocky skerries (small islands) toward the end of Finland’s so-called Swedish era (1200-1809), as a buffer against attack by the Russians. It was then called Sveaborg. As a defensive weapon, it ultimately proved unsuccessful, as Russia won the briefly-fought Siege of Sveaborg in 1808 and subsequently ruled Finland from 1809-1917, during which time it changed Suomenlinna’s name to Viapori and developed it further as a buffer against any counterattacks by the Swedes. Talk about a pickle in the middle! When Finland finally declared its independence on December 6, 1917, Suomenlinna became home to a Finnish artillery regiment, the Valmet shipyard and a submarine base.
Today, Suomenlinna is the property of the Finnish government, however the fortress is administered by a civilian authority; Pikku Mustasaari island, where the Naval Academy is situated, Suomenlinna prison and a customs facility remain under government control.
The fortress structures, the majority of which date from the late 18th century, are justly famous for their classic military architecture; but upkeep of ramparts, walls and buildings is constant, and inmates of the prison can often be be seen up on scaffolds assisting in the preservation and restoration processes. We wandered around for two and a half hours, exploring in all directions (walking is easy and pathways well-signed); as we wrapped our scarves a little tighter and flipped our collars up against the cold, we felt a bleak sort of isolation, despite such close proximity to the city; it was windswept...the islands flanked by a grey, bumpy sea...quite the lonely outpost for soldier, sailor or convict. Only the seabirds seemed truly at home.
One of the more interesting sights at Suomenlinna, the 18th century Susisaari Island dry dock, was really impressive, with many old sailing ships and other historic wooden craft stored and being restored there. If you’re interesting in maritime history, it’s a fascinating stop.
Mention must be made of the fine little museum on Suomenlinna, in the Visitor Centre; the permanent exhibition gives a great overview of its history and development, and if you’re interested, there’s a widescreen video show every hour.
The ferry trip back to Helsinki took us past docked cruise ships just in from Stockholm and Tallinn; there’s a roaring tourist trade between these ports, and thousands of disembarking passengers made an awesome sight as they vigorously headed up Esplanadi Park to the big-draw stores like Stockmann and Marimekko.
Pretty much as soon as you arrive in Helsinki, you realise that architecture is a powerful, constant influence; Scandic, Russian and European styles blend together creating a distinctive Baltic quilt; the mix is, at times, a tad jumbled...at others, smooth and harmonious, despite differing eras and ideas. Traditional Orthodox and Lutheran cathedrals, 19th century industrial and Neo-Renaissance high-rises, 20th century Alvar Aalto designs of immense beauty and logical aesthetic...the pieces shouldn’t fit together, but they do, most excitingly. It’s a refreshing whole, one that takes your eyes on a journey of history and imagination, via both ornate and simple routes toward an elegant, unique expression of place. While it may not possess the majesty of, say, Paris, Rome or even Saint-Petersburg (which copied both), it pays homage to all, while showcasing the extraordinary talents of its own modern interpreters of Nordic classicism, International Modernism and organic modernist style.
We enjoyed almost universally good meals in Helsinki, but the award for the very best must go to the legendary Savoy. Overlooking Esplanadi Park, surrounded by Aalto’s clean yet warm decorative vision of Finnish style, and treated to excellent service (almost military precision, in honour of Field Marshal Mannerheim perhaps?) and truly fabulous food, we felt completely spoiled and privileged; it was a night to remember...a one-off that, quite honestly, may never be outshone. Fresh local produce, French-inspired culinary finesse, knowledgable attentiveness from sommelier and waitresses...all swept us up into an extraordinary food heaven where every bite delivered joy, where each sip of wine was in harmony with not only the flavours of the evening, but the emotional quotient at our table.
Ravintola Töölönranta, set beautifully in the park overlooking Töölönlahti bay close to the Finnish National Opera House, was another perfect experience for us. We enjoyed a marvellous Sunday brunch there...food was of a very high standard, the atmosphere cosy and classy...very good value with outstanding service. To ease the kilojoules from our hips afterwards, we enjoyed a walk along the water back to the centre of town...past Aalto’s strikingly white, Carrara marble-clad Finlandia Hall...strolling beneath beautiful autumn-toned trees in the company of bike riders, children playing with their parents, ducks swimming...very pleasant indeed.
In one week we experienced much of Helsinki, its harbours and suburbs...cruised iconic stores such as Stockmann, iittala, Artek and Marimekko...wandered little shopping streets dotted with art galleries, design showrooms and sophisticated craftwork boutiques...went to the Design Museum and flea markets...ate at cool eateries like Mecca, and on the flip-side, steak joints like Manhattan...but there was so much more to see and do. We’d love to return, in another season...perhaps next, the white nights of summer?