More than Marimekko in May — Helsinki

Eliel Saarinen's Art Nouveau Train Station in Helsinki completed in 1919

Eliel Saarinen’s Art Nouveau Train Station in Helsinki completed in 1919

By Jean and Peter Richards

Helsinki, Finland, may not be one of Europe’s most interesting capital cities, but it has its charms. A two hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki stands a cool contrast to the warm colors and people of medieval Tallinn, Estonia.

Salmon is ubiquitous at the food stalls in Market Square

Salmon is ubiquitous at the food stalls in Market Square

The water’s edge is a good place to start in Helsinki with its lively daily market of food, wooden and wooly crafts and eateries featuring grilled salmon, tiny white herring, curries and the Finnish take on paella. Moored nearby are the boats which ply the inner harbor in regular hour-and-a-half tours (22€) which weave through and around Helsinki’s islands of summer colonies, palatial residences and the town zoo. One of the highlights is passing the sturdy built ice breaker ships home from their winter’s work.

The Tourist Office, diagonally across from the scenic boat port, produces first rate information in English, including the “See Helsinki on Foot” booklet of five walking tours, One of the few bargains in this sometimes shockingly expensive city is the one hour around the city ride on the green and yellow 3B/3T tram which costs 2.80€ if purchased from the driver and comes with a little booklet alerting the rider to 37 sights. If riding with a travel card which can had at the tourist office, the visitor can hop on and off.

Church of the Rock

Church of the Rock

We stopped to see the spaceship-like Church built into a rock in the Töölö neighborhood designed by architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969. It is light and bright, but left us cold.

House on an island in the harbor

House on an island in the harbor

Helsinki is monument to Functionalism, design for purpose rather than pleasure. It’s a style that suits the reserved Finns and evokes memories of the mid-20th century when cutting edge was a pared down chunky tea pot, stackable tables and a formless Marimekko dress with bold stripes.

Alvar Aalto, a famous Finnish architect, is improbably best known for a sinuous, difficult- to-use vase he designed in the 1930’s for the city’s tony Savoy restaurant. It is still manufactured by Iittala of Arabia-ware fame and popularized in New York by MOMA.

His main mark on Helsinki is the city’s 1960‘s white, marble mass of a convention and concert hall called Finlandia; but more interesting, perhaps, were his sterile furnishing designs for sanitaria when tuberculosis was a scourge earlier in the century. Many of these pieces can be seen in the comprehensive design museum, Korkeavuorenkatu, housed in, of all places, a Victorian school building.

The well organized and explicated museum is a walk through many a person’s youth with the molded chairs, Kaj Franck glassware and functional melamine kitchen and dining ware that became sought after and copied world wide.

Row of apartment houses showing styles frequently seen in Helsinki

Row of apartment houses showing styles frequently seen in Helsinki

The Museum of Finnish Architecture at 24 Kasarmikatu housed in a neo-classical building directly behind the design museum has a small, but informative exhibit on the history of Helsinki’s urban architecture. Surrounding  streets offer an interesting, walkable tour of architectural evolution from Neo-classical through Art Nouveau, Deco and Modernism.

A star of the city center is its railway station designed by Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero. Four giant granite sculptures light the entrance to the pre-Functionalist pink granite building functioning still as a hub of Helsinki.

Schmoozing at Kappeli

Schmoozing at Kappeli

Nearby is the new contemporary art museum, Kiasma, a name as pretentious as the American-designed building is banal. In early May, Helsinki’s cultural life was most evident in the huge tented venue for an African Film Festival situated between Kiasmu and the new concert hall. We found Finlandia closed, but throughly enjoyed the National Museum of Helsinki’s art, furnishings and ethnological artifacts.

Kappeli, at the port end of the Espanade, became our daily afternoon coffee place. The beautiful 1867 café lured us not for its food but for its ambiance — an ideal spot for watching Finns on parade. We understood why Jean Sibelius and other Finnish intellectuals made it their hangout.

Kappeli, a favorite place

Kappeli, a favorite place

We dined with mixed results near our Haven’s Hotel and the port. The FishMarket Restaurant produced a very good fresh Dover sole meunière and fried fresh water perch with fennel and dill.

It’s neighbor, Sasso, has Northern Italian pretensions and so-so international food. One entrée at Sundman’s Krog was inedibly conceived and sent back: braised lamb with Bearnaise on top of another dark, but indistinct sauce. Carême would have turned in his grave.

The  Sea Horse at 11 Kapteeninkatu did better. It’s old-fashioned cooking and it’s good: cream of wild mushroom soup, breaded sweetbreads with a proper Bearnaise, calve’s liver with onions in a spectacular lingonberry sauce and pancakes with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, strawberry jam and fresh strawberries With wine and beer 80.80€, an inexpensive dinner for Helsinki.

Pleasant as it was, Helsinki would not be our first choice for another trip. For us, it had limited places of interest and was very expensive.

The prices for good beef at one of the markets astonished us

The prices for good beef at one of the markets astonished us

Copyright © 2013 Jean and Peter Richards


About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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