The Finnish capital is a city that takes pride in its cultural heritage and stunning landscape.
The temperature is below zero, but the sky is navy blue. I am out for a stroll in Helsinki and soon I find myself along the seafront and decide to head out to the islands that form part of one of the most magnificent archipelagos in the world. And with the sea frozen solid, I can walk on water. The snow underfoot echoes my footsteps with a comforting crunch and, while the groaning of the ice is slightly daunting, the air is fresh and the snowy landscape serene. A few minutes later I am rewarded with splendid views of the “White City’s” skyline. What a perfect backdrop for a spiritual experience or a musical epiphany – particularly now that the soundtrack in my head has switched to Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite.
When I return (by boat) on a balmy summer evening six months later, I am in for a different treat. There is no hint of darkness, as between mid-June and early August the nights in Helsinki are “white”, which means that the sun disappears below the horizon for only a brief instant.
It is easy to fall in love with this “daughter of the Baltic” at the height of summer. This time of year people gravitate towards the Market Square (Kauppatori) situated right next to the harbour, in the old part of the city. In June the market’s most surprising delicacy is wild strawberries, then wild blueberries in July, to be supplanted later by tart-tasting cloudberries.
During wet and warm summers there will be plenty of mushrooms on offer. The golden chanterelle and king bolete (the Finns are Italy’s main supplier of porcini) are exquisite. If you love fish, and particularly caviar, you’ve reached paradise. Finns prefer the orangey roe from the vendace and burbot to the black variety from the sturgeon.
With your back facing the harbour you can’t fail to notice the neo-classical Presidential Palace, the Russian Tsar’s residence when he came to visit. A few doors down, the Swedish Embassy flaunts a neo-renaissance façade clearly inspired by the Royal Palace in Stockholm. The 13 onion domes of the red-bricked Uspenski Cathedral will already have caught your eye. Make the effort to climb the hill and marvel at the rich Byzantine-Slavonic interior adorned with icons. Typical Russian and Swedish architecture sit side by side, symbolising the schism in this country’s identity, which eventually coalesced into the amalgam that is Helsinki. I like to think Jean Sibelius’s distinct musical style illustrates perfectly this fusion. Sibelius came from a Swedish-speaking background, was influenced musically by Tchaikovsky, and was an ardently patriotic Finn. To this day, Finland has two official languages – Finnish and Swedish – which is reflected in the bilingual street signs.
Finland was part of Sweden for hundreds of years, but the Russians took over in 1809. Three years later, Tsar Alexander I made Helsinki into the capital of a newly created Grand Duchy. The blindingly white Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko), completed in 1852, wouldn’t look out of place in St Petersburg – and neither would the surrounding university and government buildings. Drop into the National Library, which boasts a splendid Empire-style interior unequalled in Finland.
For a less imposing notion of grandeur, wind down at Hotel Kämp
on North Esplanadi. For a while this was the favourite haunt of Sibelius and his artistic friends. Once, the maestro’s wife Aino came looking for him here. She was wondering when he planned to come home, to which he retorted: “I am an artist, not a fortune teller”. Today, Kämp is the pinnacle of old-world luxury, but if you crave some smart modernism just cross the park to the south side of the boulevard. Restaurant Savoy has, since the 1930s, been one of the flagships of Finnish gastronomy, and Alvar Aalto’s interior design continues to exude pure Nordic coolness. Reserve a terrace table, which provides you with a fantastic rooftop view and a chance to experience the magic of a white night.
The highlight of a first visit to Helsinki is always going to be the maritime fortress Suomenlinna, a 20-minute ferry ride from Market Square. Reserve at least half a day for the whole trip – or more in summer, when concerts and theatre performances are held in the evening. The Swedes built the maritime stronghold in 1748, across eight rocky islands, as a defence against the Russians. Sixty years later the Swedish commander surrendered, without much resistance, to the Russians. An Anglo-French fleet bombarded the fort in 1855 during the Crimean war, causing extensive damage. There are many historical buildings, fortifications and museums, as well as a submarine that saw action during WWII. The sturdy-looking church steeple doubles, curiously, as a lighthouse.
A good national art museum should give an insight into the soul of a country. Ateneum, built in national romantic style across the road from the imposing Central Railway Station, fulfils that educational role. A highlights tour will give you a very good idea why nature is key to so much Finnish music. The paintings based on the national epic Kalevala by Akseli Gallen-Kallela are essential viewing for Sibelius enthusiasts, particularly because the artist was a drinking buddy of the composer. Note the fairytale-like character of the works – not wholly at odds with the composer’s own interpretation of the saga.
Within walking distance is the hip contemporary art museum Kiasma, which stood at complete odds with its surroundings when built in 1998. Over the last decade, however, other new buildings have mushroomed in the vicinity and architect Steven Holl’s “sculpturesque” concept is more acceptable. Kiasma’s temporary exhibitions deliver the goods, but the interior is still an incomplete aesthetic success. But feel free to ignore my comments and remember Sibelius’s words: “No statue has ever been raised in honour of a critic”.