Elizabeth Handley visits Helsinki,
a city for all seasons. 

800px-Esplanadin_puisto          Helsinkimerelta--GFDL--          harbour

During spring and summer the trees and flowers in the parks bloom  and Finns take to the water and to their woodland retreats.

Kapelli_Rest          helsinki-city-centre

Pete and I set sail for Helsinki on the Silje-Tallink Symphony – a magnificent floating hotel complete with midships shopping mall, restaurants, bars and modern, compact cabins. We were grateful for mildly fine weather and a later setting sun, that we might view the stark beauty of the Stockholm Archipelago in late winter. The ship made light of the massive ice floes which would have been daunting to the sailors of yesteryear, ploughing majestically through the dark blue waters of the Baltic.

The islands at this time of year are each skirted by a rim of ice, and we could see deserted holiday homes that vary from simple wooden abodes to magnificent, turreted fantasy creations. The islands appeared bleak and inhospitable, compared to the colourful activities we had witnessed there on our summer ferry trip to Sandham (sailing Mecca of the Stockholmers). Now they are microcosmic wastelands of skeletal, leafless tress and black, granite outcrops.

Having “nested” in our cabin, I set out to explore the ship’s shops and cafés. I had hoped for good “sailaway” photos from the deck, but it was bitterly cold outside, with icy Arctic winds slicing through our thick down coats, and the windows within were too salt-splashed for anything but blurry photography.

It was still quite light after 7pm, but I settled instead upon the entertaining pastime of people-watching at a coffee shop. The predominant languages around us the entire voyage were Finnish, Swedish and Russian, and notices and menus were in those three languages, plus English for “the rest of us”. There was a mix of types and ages aboard, from pierced and tattooed teenagers to young couples with babes in prams, empty-nesters like us relishing their new-found freedom, and elderly couples with walkers and wheelchairs. This was Scandinavia on-the-move, enjoying a weekend booze cruise, or simply taking time out to have a change of scene.

Dinner on the ship was a gastronomic orgy – a magnificent buffet of Nordic culinary delights, with a clearly evident Russian influence. I had forgotten the all-day-long, sumptuous buffets aboard the Royal Caribbean ships we had enjoyed some years ago – lavish and colourful displays of tropical paradise fare and fruits – sculpted into creations of imaginative artistry. This buffet was of an entirely different genre, and devoid of superfluous decorations: predominantly fish and seafoods, with vegetables, salads and meat dishes, and desserts to crumble the resolve of anyone attempting to return from their holiday destination the same weight as when they had departed.

Salmon and herrings were attractively laid out upon large platters or in bowls: salted, pickled, poached, roasted and smoked – or made into delectable patés, and complemented with large bowls of red, yellow and black caviar. There were blinis and crème frâiche, dishes of pickled gherkins, and even “salmon pizza”. Meats included roast pork or beef, accompanied by mixed steamed or stir-fried vegetables, spelt and barley risottos, and served with a choice of the usual condiments, and mushroom sauce or aromatic red wine gravy.

A table for barn (children – notice the similarity to the Scottish “bairn”) included mini Viennas, chips, crêpes and burger patties.

The desserts ranged from healthy but tart berry fruit salads, to rich cheesecakes, mousses and chocolate tortes, accompanied by pretty bowls of boiled sweets and fruit jellies. Blue, white or rich creamy Nordic cheeses and crisp breads followed by tea or coffee completed this Baltic feast.

Generally speaking, Scandinavian cuisine is dominated by three primary food sources: fish and seafood (especially shrimps), mushrooms and berries – all prepared and served in a multitude of different flavours and guises.

One could then relax with a shot of biting Finlandia vodka, browse through the boutiques or over-priced gift-souvenir shop, have a Swedish massage in the Spa, stock up on Nordic tack or massive slabs of chocolate in the Duty-free shop, sample the wares in the perfumery, or indulge in unflattering portrait “Cartoons with Boris” – the aboard-ship artist. Or simply fall into a deep, wave-rocked slumber in your bunks, as Pete and I did.

Our_ship_010411The following morning we awoke to a bleak landscape of dark, mist-swathed seas, our ship surrounded by thick chunks of serrated ice. After another magnificent buffet breakfast, redolent with the spicy aroma of sausages and fragrance of strong, bitter coffee, we sighted the golden onion domes, and green domes of Helsinki’s two main cathedrals, followed by the wharf-side buildings. We docked at the Olympia Terminal at 9.30 – an hour ahead of Stockholm time – then boarded a coach for an excellent, bird’s-eye tour of the city. These sight-seeing excursions are always useful for initial orientation, especially to a new city, enabling one to decide upon future sights and attractions to explore.

Highlights of this tour included the Market and Senate Squares, the aforementioned cathedrals, the State buildings, the Esplanadi – Helsinki’s emblematic central park and shopping boulevard, the Finlandia Hall, the 1952 Olympic Stadium, and last but not least, the Sibelius Monument – a modern kinetic sculpture created by Eila Hiltunen, resembling clustered organ pipes, but meant to represent the trunks of forest trees.

Helsinki is a relatively young city, dating only from the mid-16th century. Since medieval times Finland had belonged to Sweden, and in 1550 Sweden’s King Gustav Vasa founded the city at the mouth of the Vantaanjoki River. This was motivated by the growing threat from Russia for control of the Baltic Sea trade – as evidenced by the increased strength of Tallinn, capital of present-day Estonia. When in 1809 Sweden lost Finland to Russia, it became known as the Grand Duchy of Finland, and Helsinki became its capital in 1812, soon after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia.

A magnificent Empire-style city plan was drawn up to reflect the might of Russia and power of the Tsar – then Alexander II, the most popular of the five Tsars who ruled Finland for 110 years. His regal statue graces the Senate Square in front of Helsinki Cathedral.

It wasn’t until 1917 that Finland gained her independence, and Helsinki took on the demanding new role of capital of a young republic. In 1995 Finland joined the EU, and in 2000 was one of the nine European Cities of Culture. Next year, 2012, Helsinki will have the honour of serving as the official World Design Capital.

After having been regaled with fascinating Finnish history through our English-language ear-phones on the coach, and clambering up the snowy slopes of the Sibelius Monument, Pete and I felt ready to assault the fine Finnish products in the Old Market Hall. Colourful displays of fruits and vegetables, alternated with cheeses, breads, seafoods, fish, and meats of staggering variety – from reindeer (including jerky and salamis) and bear meat to pork, lamb and beef – all smoked and cured in a variety of manners and flavours. The warm, pungent smells of cured meat and Sami blue cheese, mixed with the sweet scent of fragrant pastries were welcome indeed after the fresh sea breeze outside. Plump seeded rolls overflowed with smoked cuts, pickles, yellow mustard and creamy oozing cheese. We settled for onion soup and a seafood bouillabaisse respectively, served with a basket of thickly sliced healthy black, rye and brown breads and small bowls of green olive oil.

Thus suitably fortified, Pete and I set out to brave the cold afternoon to further explore, on foot, this unusual little city. (Population 585,000; Greater Helsinki 1.3 million). We were aware that the drawing to a close of winter in Stockholm is far more advanced than that of this further northern location. There was still much treacherous frozen ice and (deliberately laid) gravel on the sidewalks, and ornate, icy stalactites festooned eaves, statuary and drainpipes.

I was struck by the utter lack of spirit or “vibe” in Helsinki at this time – quite unlike the palpable heartbeat of London or Rome, or the buzz of New York, or even the vibrancy  of small inner-cities like Florence or Venice. Although well-geared with an excellent tourism infrastructure, there can’t be too much of this line of business for most of the year there. Two months of summer, at most, would more likely be a time to experience a “vibe” of any sort.

However, there was an unmistakable “essence”, which I shall forever hold in my memories, fostered mostly by the interesting architecture: a blend of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Neoclassical, Russian Orthodox and modern chrome-and-glass. The atmosphere was very cold and still, as if with a sense of waiting. There was not much traffic in the streets, and few people afoot. The city was mist-shrouded and hushed for most of our second day, rendering visibility poor, and dampening the city acoustic. Pictures in our guide books, all taken during the summer months, paint quite a different scenario. Our intention is thus to return one day, and see Helsinki at her summer best.

The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral, with its massive columned façade, and overlooking Senate Square, was our first port-of-call. This stately structure and surroundings are a unique and cohesive example of Neoclassical architecture, and I liked especially its green roofs and five, star-spangled domes. Designed between 1822-52 by Carl Ludwig Engel, the Cathedral, Government Palace, University and National Library all surround the Square which boasts an impressive statue of Tsar Alexander II.

helsin1But it is Uspenski Cathedral, in the Katajonokka district, that captures the imagination. Designed by Aleksi Gorsnostajev and consecrated in 1868, this Russian Byzantine edifice is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Western world. I particularly loved the thirteen golden onion domes – representing Christ and the Twelve Apostles – crowning the dark red brick turrets and central tower of the building. The interior is richly ornate – without pews, as is the Orthodox custom – the walls hung with countless beautiful icons, an immense pale blue dome spangled with dozens of golden stars covering the nave, while decorative brass candle-burners for private prayer surround the perimeter.

The Esplanadi ends in a large circular fountain in the centre of which stands the naked mermaid sculpture, Havis Amanda, surrounded by a pool and four seals – erected in 1908, apparently amid much controversy.

Our minds and souls thoroughly saturated with fascinating historical facts and figures, it was now time to nourish our physically depleted bodies. This we enjoyed doing at Lappi, a rustic, Sami ethnic restaurant in the city centre, promising Original tastes from Lapland, andrecommended by our guide book.

But yet another culinary experience awaited us:

The log-cabin décor was deceptive, as excellent culinary fare emerged from the small kitchen, and was served with a flourish by our dour and meticulous maître d’.

We opted for the platter of “Sami delicacies for two” as our entrée, and were not disappointed: small Baltic white-fish (like sardines), gherkins with pickled onion rings, tiny glasses containing  rich yoghurt topped with yellow caviar, reindeer jerky (biltong), reindeer carpaccio, wild mushroom salad – presented as a small mold, a large dollop of smoked salmon pâté, a smoked salmon mold, and Sami cheese slices – rubbery in texture, but deliciously subtle in flavour – and topped with bitter lingon berries. A basket of three different sliced breads accompanied this miniature feast: rye, potato and a country crisp bread.

For our main courses Pete and I chose grilled reindeer steak with potato cake, and pike-perch respectively. My deliciously-flavoured, lightly grilled fish came with an interesting risotto: pearled barley with finely diced potato, carrot and spring onion, and sprigs of rocket, blended to a creamy consistency with egg yolks. This was all accompanied by a glass of Chilean red for Pete, and delicious, freshly pressed mixed berry juice for me.

After this splendid feast, we declined dessert, but were captivated by the imaginative Dessert Drinks on the menu: Whisper from Snowfields (Parfait Amour, Cloudberry liqueur, pineapple juice and cream), The Swamp Fling (cloudberries, whiskey, cloudberry liqueur and Sprite), and Snow Grouse’s Nest (Saint Brendan’s Irish liqueur, Kahlua, coffee and cream). Pete simply settled for bitter black Finnish coffee, and I for atisane.

We then walked through this pedestrian-friendly city back to our excellent hotel, Hotel Haven, which is central to the main attractions, and conveniently situated near the Olympia Terminal.

Saturday morning was very misty and cold, inspiring an urge for a quiet, warm sojourn in the Ateneum Art Museum the National Gallery of Finland. This was a fascinating experience, as I had hitherto no knowledge whatsoever of Finnish artists and their work, my art history knowledge being confined to that of Western Europe. Inaugurated in 1887, the collection includes 750 sculptures and 4,300 paintings, dating from the 1750’s to the 1960’s. (Works from 1960 onwards are housed in the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, for which I had insufficient time).

The paintings were predominantly Finnish landscapes, depicting inhospitable, icy vistas and the usual Nordic granite outcrops, and exquisitely-lit, mid-summer panoramas with lakes and forests. People involved in ordinary, everyday tasks, usually related to farming, are also featured, and I was struck by the repeated theme of child mortality and illness, such as Albert Edelfelt’s “Conveying the Child’s Coffin” (in a boat) (1879), or Helene Schjerfbeck’s “The Convalescent” (1888).

Spectacular, and significant, too, were depictions of scenes from the Kalevala – the Finnish national epic – ancient myths and legends in the form of 50 poems, collected by Elias Lönnrot in1835 and 1849. The English equivalent would be Beowulf (8th – 11th C’s and actually set in Scandinavia), and the American Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1898). TheKalevala cantos have been translated into over 60 languages, and inspired Sibelius’s Finnish nationalist works – which is where I first encountered this literature – as well as other Finnish composers, such as Robert Kajanus, Leevi Madetoja, Uuno Klami and Aulis Sallinen. It has also inspired Finnish writers, sculptors and dramatists, and even JJR Tolkien.

If art is a reflection of the society in which it is created, then my morning at the Ateneum provided a fascinating glimpse into the Finnish psyche. It brought home to me the harshness of near-arctic existence, and the bitter cold and grinding poverty of most Finns in the past – before the emergence of the quasi-socialist, welfare state that exists there today. Many paintings depicted women and children in tattered clothes, unsmiling faces grim and soot-covered: “Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood)” (1893) by Eero Järnefelt, “The Blind Old Woman” (1899) and “The Fortune-Teller” (1899) by Juho Rissanen.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), who studied on Paris and painted in Kenya,  and Magnus Enckell (1870-1925) are significant artists, and many women artists were featured, too, including Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954) and Fanny Churberg (1845-92).

The gallery also has a few mainstream works, by Chagall, van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch, Gauguin, Finch and Oskar Kokoschka.

The rigours and brutality of peasant and factory life was emphasised in the current special exhibition titled “Illusions of Reality”, in which  various themes were presented in different rooms of the gallery: Earth, City, Minna Canth & Emil Zola, Youth, Religion, Industry, Politics, and Victors and Victims. Too profound for discussion in this travelogue, this exhibition provided much food for thought and contemplation – and renewed gratitude for our comparatively better life in warmer Southern Africa.

After a rushed hot chocolate and pastry in the gallery café, I hastened to meet Pete for our ferry excursion to the Suomenlinna (Sveaborg – Swedish) island fortress. This complex of five islands is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and offers tourists a well-organised Visitor Centre with museum, five other museums, restaurants and cafés, galleries and shops. Construction of this complex, including a church, dry dock, brewery, barracks and the King’s Gate, was begun by Augustin Ehrensvärd under orders from Swedish King Fredrik I in 1748. It was designed to combat growing Russian naval threat from the eastern Baltic, to serve as a landing base for extra troops from Sweden, and to protect shipping channels to Helsinki. An excellent walking tour with a clued-up lady guide added anecdote to history. Unfortunately thick mist obscured the view from one island to the next, and it was thus difficult to fully grasp the ingenious layout and structure of this impressive naval fortress.

After a quick last-minute survey of the few stalls in the market square, we made our way back to Olympia Terminal, and our ship.

We again opted for the splendid dinner buffet, and, sated with Finnish facts and feasts, we collapsed wearily onto our bunks.

Last but not least was our resplendent buffet breakfast, remarkable for its Russo-Nordic flare. We were cordially greeted at the restaurant reception by a dapper Finnish maître d’,offering flutes of “sparkling wine” and orange juice. A window table view still offered no more than grey seas choked with sheets of ice, and then the Stockholm Archipelago islands wreathed in swathes of impenetrable mist.

But our meal soon occupied us fully, as there was a superb selection of cold cuts, cheeses, and sliced salad greens with pickles and peppers, finely diced onions and cream-drenched col’-slaw. A variety of breads – rye, black and brown – and confectionary ranging from pastries and croissants to mini-waffles and blinis, were accompanied by preserves made from the local berries. Fish, of course, in various forms – rollmops, smoked salmon slices and baked white cuts, hot foods such as sausages, savoury-filled tomatoes, bacon and scrambled eggs, and a table offering glass jars containing various cereals and muesli, with honey, diced dried fruits and nuts. In the interests of donning my jeans with minimal discomfort, I virtuously opted simply for bran flakes and a little fruit salad with berries, completed with SA rooibos tea which I carry in my bag at all times. European coffee is known to increase in strength the further north one travels, rendering Finnish coffee of such lethal potency as to guarantee a mazurka on the table-tops and insomnia for a week!

Our long weekend in Helsinki, with Baltic crossing, was a thoroughly interesting experience. I had not anticipated such a fascinating historical and gourmet adventure – indeed I handy known what to expect.  But I have come away with a number of strong impressions: severe and prolonged winter conditions, the sauna is the centre of family and social life – necessary in such a punishing climate, genuinely blonde women (unlike the many Swedish bottle-blondes), strong – if youthful – nationalism, higher prices for everything than in Stockholm, attractive and varied architecture, and enchanting Kallevalic mythological literature.

Visit Helsinki 

Winter, April 2011

This article was first published in Showcook.com.


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