Architecture, Culture, Featured, Finland, Helsinki, Travel
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A Letter to Helsinki

Dear Helsinki,

visiting you made me thoughtful. You surprised me with your Street Art District, you frightened me with your massive buildings in Katajanokka and you touched my heart with your peculiar language. All these long words and names that I was unable to keep in mind and every time Aleksi* asked me where I’d spent the day I had to describe the place because I had already forgotten its name again. The only Finnish words I could remember were “Kiitos(Thank you) and “Moi(Hello) – they were short enough. 😉

*Aleksi was my wonderful Airbnb host – I will tell you more about him below.

The trip was very different from what I had expected. I wanted to visited the “Helsinki Design Week” but then everything turned out differently: I arrived with stomach ache and a general feeling of illness which forced me to slow down and listen to my body carefully. Instead of entering the fray I tried to avoid crowded places. I walked along Helsinki’s lakes and sea-coast ate a lot of warm Finnish salmon soup, tried to warm up in different cafés.

Looking back on the trip it reminds me of a journey to Venice that I did some years ago. I had visited the Italian Lagoon in the main purpose to see the Venice Biennale but then it was not this big art event that made the trip so special but the things that happened unscheduled – like a boat trip to the colourful houses of Burano or walking alone through The Venetian Ghetto or visiting the impressive Palazzo Fortuny showing one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen so far.

My artistic base in Kallio

Down to the present day I stayed in 11 Airbnb apartments in 9 different countries. Over the years it became my overall favourite type of accommodation when I travel. And this time in Helsinki I was lucky to find a wonderful apartment and host again. 🙂

Aleksi who works as arts and media teacher and journalist in Helsinki was so kind to share his artistic home with me for one week and enabled me to gain insight into the life of a Finnish citizen. And one thing that I became aware of immediately was that no matter where in this world I am – if I’m walking through a night market in Bangkok with a local Thai girl or drinking a coffee in Kuala Lumpur with a local Malay girl or walking through Reykjavik with a local artist – we’re all sitting in the same boat, we’re all facing the same problems, we all have the same fears and doubts and visions in our mind 🙂

Finland – a torn country

So what stayed in my mind was a conversation with Aleski one evening when Finland was playing against Iceland in the EuroBasket 2017. We were sitting in the kitchen while the TV was showing the game in the background and Aleksi told me about the Finnish history and tried to make me understand some of the Finnish character traits:

Finland is a country with a difficult history – more than 600 years it was under Swedish control and for 108 years it was part of the Russian Empire. The independency is just 100 years young. And as Aleksi told me the Finns are just slowly gaining self-confidence and are just slowly opening to the rest of the world. The accession to the European Union in 1995 was certainly a big step towards this opening.

But now since the refugee crisis had reached Finland the country seems to cloister itself again. The right-wing conservatives regaining strength and the country is torn – the elderly want to go back to an encapsulated existence of the country refusing to deal with or even help to resolve the worlds problems but the younger generation wants to stay active and involved. 

Hakaniemi Market Hall (Hakaniemen Kauppahalli)

On my first day in Helsinki I visited the Hakaniemi market hall which was close to my apartment. On two floors you can buy everything from cheese to bread, vegetables, meat, fish as well as coffee and tableware (even a shop of the famous Finnish brand Marimekko is located in the market hall – I fell in love with their graphical prints and intensive colours immediately).

The interior of the market hall is actually not beautiful but has a very authentic atmosphere that somehow impressed me. Walking through the hallways felt like discovering a piece of Finland’s identity 😉

After strolling around it was time for lunch and I decided to settle myself next to some old Finnish ladies at a small soup bar within the market (Soppakeittiö). The tomato soup was very tasty and the boullabaisse sea food soup should be even better (according to Aleksi). 😉

Töölö Bay (Töölönlahti)

After I had warmed up in the market hall I walked around the Töölö bay – a recreation area close to the city center. On its eastern side you can find some huge beautiful urban villas painted in light pastel colors surrounded by nature. Randomly I came across a sweet little café right next to a beautiful blue villa called Sinisen Huvilan Kahvila. I ordered a cup of green tea and settled myself in a chair on the outdoor terrace with view on the lake. In summer the place must be even nicer 🙂

Katajanokka –
From massive buildings and weird silence

A district that left a lasting impression on me was Katajanokka. It was already during my travel preparations and researches about Helsinki that I came across a very unique looking church: the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (the biggest of this kind in Northern Europe). And since I’ve never been to Russia so far and haven’t seen any church of this kind before it was on the top of my must-see-list. Moreover Aleksi had told me about Katajanokka’s wonderful art nouveau architecture so I definitely wanted to visit this place.

But as I arrived in Katajanokka the atmosphere was a lot spookier than I had expected it to be like. Maybe I felt this way because just one week earlier I had been to sunny, warm Amsterdam and had walked through streets that where full of life surrounded by houses with huge windows and pavements full of plants and residents sitting on benches just in front of their house talking drinking coffee with their friends and neighbours.

In contrast the buildings in Katajanokka were massive and dramatic like fortresses who had to defy the dark and cold Nordic winter. The whole district was died out – just a few people on the streets. Later I found out that back in the days Katajanokka was a famous setting for movies about the cold war.

Nonetheless Katajanokka is one of the most distinguished neighbourhoods in Helsinki nowadays.

One building that I came across on my walk through the peninsula was the Hotel Katajanokka.  I wasn’t aware of its former usage when I stride through the entranced within the red brick wall that surrounded the place but immediately I had a pretty odd feeling. It was just later at home when I was researching about the trip that I found out that the building was the former Helsinki Country Prison.

In times when Finland was part of the Russian Empire the western part of Katajanokka was transformed from a shantytown into an impressive Art Nouveau residential district. To the day that I visited Katajanokka I had known Art Nouveau architecture only from Paris and Barcelona and over there it was a lot more filigree and lightweight.

In smoothie heaven

But I also found two very cozy and lively places in Katajanokka. Both located at the foot of the Uspenski Cathedral in newly restored harbour storehouses just next to the water. One was the Goodio Café which offered a variety of fresh smoothies and smoothie bowls as well as hot coffee and raw cakes. They even produce their own organic chocolate in various flavours. What I hadn’t expected was, that the smoothie bowl was made with an iced smoothie so my original plan (to warm up from the old weather) didn’t worked out that well 😉

Cozy Café to warm up

This was why I stopped for a coffee at Johan & Nyström after I had explored Katajanokka. I immediately fell in love with the warm brick walls and old timber beams which gave the cafe a very cozy atmosphere. A mix of diverse couches, chairs and carpets intensified this homelike feeling.

A spooky bell-ringing at Senate Square

On my way back home I passed the Senate Square. With its neoclassical architecture it was contrasting the heavy buildings in Katajanokka. The square is dominated by four masterpieces of Carl Ludwig Engel (a german-finnish architect and painter):

  • the Helsinki Cathedral (probably Helsinki’s most photographed building)
  • the Government Palace
  • the main building of the University of Helsinki
  • and the National Library of Finland.

View upon the Senate Square with the Statue of Emperor Alexander II

In the middle of the square you can find a statue of Alexander II (1894) – a Russian Czar who was considered because of his political openness towards Finland.

Helsinki Cathedral, designed by Carl Ludvig Engel as the climax of his Senate Square

I was very lucky to arrive at the Senate Square at a very special time when something happens that only happens once a day at 5.49pm. At this time the air of the square is filled with partly beautiful partly creepy tones of a sound installation. It is a modern version of the European “glockenspiel” and travels from one building to the next.

Composed by Harri Viitanen and Jyrki Alakuijala the piece runs for 5 minutes 18 seconds. The synergy of the sound the golden light of the late afternoon sunshine and the approaching dark clouds couldn’t have been more magical 🙂

The main building of University of Helsinki

Sibelius Monument

A name that you might definitely come across when you travel to Helsinki is “Jean Sibelius”. But who is this guy who was dedicated a whole park and a very unique sculpture? Jean Sibelius is Finland’s most famous and highly esteemed composer. There is probably no other composer which was able to express the nature, stories and myths of the Finnish folk through music like him. Moreover his music played an important role in the process of Finnish independence – his composition “Finlandia” is considered as the inofficial national anthem of Finland and had been subject to a performance ban during the foreign domination of Russia.

The Sibelius Monument which was unveiled in 1967 had been a subject of controversial discussion among the public. On one hand there were the conformists urging for a figurative solution and on the other the modernists accepting an abstraction as well.

It consists of series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. The purpose of its finish artist Eila Hiltunen was to capture the essence of Sibelius music. If you take a closer look at the dense cluster of pipes it turns out to be a lot airier than you expect from a distance. Many of the tubes are embossed with a filigree structure that reminds of birch bark. Another association of the monument as a whole are the Northern Lights.

The silver pipes reflect the change of light and season, echoing sounds of nature like birds’ twittering and sea breeze / storms from the nearby sea. To satisfy the public a sculpture of Sibelius face was added to the abstract monument showing the composer in his creative age.

Café Regatta

Close to the Sibelius park just next to the sea there is a sweet little Café called “Regatta”. I’ve never been to such a tiny cafe before! You have to be really lucky to gain one of the few seats inside. It looks a little bit touristy from the outside but my Finnish friend Sanna told me that it’s also a popular place among residents.

The small wooden hut is stuffed with a random collection of paintings, tableware and different sorts of oddities like an old wheel on the ceiling and musical instruments. While I was enjoying a cup of black tea and a cinnamon bun and listening to the conversations that surrounded me I felt almost like I was traveling back in time. An absolutely cozy and curious place.

Beside the small interior of the cafe there is also a big terrace which is famous especially in summer time. There is an open bonfire where you can warm up as well as taste one of the grilled sausages. It’s even allowed you barbecue your own sausages.

Helsinki sightseeing trips

Because I wasn’t in the best of health on this trip I didn’t have the energy to discover all of the places that I had put on my list before the trip. I good reason to come back to Helsinki! 🙂 Below you can find a must-see-list of places that are not mentioned in the article above but definitely worth to be named.

  • Kruunuvuori’s abandoned Villas – an area of abandoned villas in the middle of a forest
  • Seurasaari island – outdoor museum which groups typical old buildings that come from different parts of Finland
  • Suomenlinna – small island with a former fortress (Unesco World Heritage site) and the nice little Café Vanille
  • Temppeliaukio Church – very unique architecture (Built directly into solid rock, it is also known as the “Church of the Rock” and “Rock Church”.)
  • Eira district – Art Nouveau buildings
  • Design district
  • Kamppi Chapel – also known as the “Chapel of Silence”, build of three different types of wood
  • Pasila Street Art District – This great place will be featured in a separate article
  • Löyly Sauna – beautiful architectural concept just next to the sea

Links
Aleksi’s Airbnb Apartment
Inside Out Helsinki – a wonderful blog full of Helsinki’s hidden treasures 🙂
#FinnlandBlog is another great blog that I came across (written in German)
If you want to engross your mind into recent Finish history this book (german version) might be interesting

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