Filmed in January 2020, enjoy the cultural highlights of a two day visit to this stylish city on the Baltic Sea.
Arriving by boat the Finnish capital welcomes you with a skyline of two fabulous cathedrals that appear more Russian than Nordic. However, the architecture of the Lutheran and Orthodox cathedrals makes perfect sense as the two edifices were built during the time that the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian empire. However, magnificent though they are, for me the attraction of Helsinki is the cool retro-vibe supplied by the integration of 50’s styled neon, flourishes of art nouveau, and striking contemporary architecture; not to mention the effortless style of the Finns themselves. The compact size of the city centre promotes walking and there are visual delights to be had at every street corner. When the cold bites, or the rain becomes too intense then the artwork continues in the numerous galleries. I was delighted to recognise some of the Finnish masterpieces in the Ateneum that I had bought postcards of during my first visit almost 30 years previously. However, it was a tiny self-portrait that took my breath away with its intensity. I knew nothing of the artist Ellen Thesleff at the time. I now know that she is recognised as one of Finland’s foremost modernist painters. I was able to satisfy more of my curiosity at the gallery’s gift shop and was then fortunate enough to see a further retrospective later that day at the Helsinki Art Museum.
My post gallery treat was the Fazer cafe. Fazer chocolate is ubiquitous in Finland and an art deco facade ushers you into the original cafe opened by Karl Fazer in 1891. It would be hard to imagine that a more tempting array of open sandwiches or cakes could be found in the entire country. However, the most memorable aspect of the cafe is perhaps its ceiling. I had read previously that it had a cupola that reflected back people’s conversations and was, accordingly, not the place for idle gossip. At that moment I was simply in need of a rest and had entirely forgotten this curious anecdote. However, after my first mouthful of my salmon and avocado rye bread sandwich I heard a loud conversation in German emanating from above my head. Stupidly I looked up half expecting to see a speaker. The reality was that I was receiving a crystal clear communication of a conversation between two ladies about four tables away at the edge of the room. Happily for them my German is rustier than the Titanic.
On this trip I was determined to make it out to the island fortress that I had seen all those years ago. The Finns know it as Suomenlinna but it was originally called Sveaborg when the Swedish Crown constructed it in the mid 18th century in an ill-fated attempt to keep Russia at bay. The island is inhabited and, in the warmer summer months, is a hugely popular destination with a raft of visitor attractions and cafes. By contrast, I was visiting in January. Not only that, I was still jet-lagged from my flight from Tokyo and, having been awake for hours, resolved to take an early ferry and see the sun rise from this rocky outcrop. Sadly for me there was to be no sunrise that day. It was replaced by a ferocious blast of sleet from the icy Baltic. The fortress surprised me with its scale and the combination of the adverse weather and the complete lack of tourists meant that I felt more in tune with its original purpose and could imagine the Swedish forces hunkering down before their eventual surrender, or the Russian soldiers who armed the multitude of cannons in an effort to fend off the French and English navies during the Napoleonic wars. Atmospheric though that was, as I became colder and wetter the call of a strong coffee back across the harbour became over-whelming. I look forward to returning and enjoying this unique place with the crowds on a long mid-summer day.
The least known of the Nordic capitals is well worth a visit!
Filmed in January 2020