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Helsinki: In Search of Winter

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Kappeli, Helsinki

By Richard West

Given that 2015 was the warmest year on record and my wife and I are experiencing our third consecutive wimpy winter in Amsterdam—no frozen canals, no Ice Station Zebra temps, no snow or ice—we decided to find the serious fourth season: winter you can wrap yourself in, then retreat indoors to warm from.  Where?

In Helsinki, the second most northern capital after Reykjavik. Ah Finland, one-third of which lies above the Arctic Circle, where winter lasts at least six months. Winter and fabled darkness responsible for the Finn’s famous “sisu,” stoic perseverance in face of adversity. “Kaamos’ (polar night)…”morketida” (the dark period).  Cold enough to crack stones where the apricity, the warmness of the sun in winter, is zero. In fact, a nation beyond heliopause, the sun’s influence this time of year.

Cafe Strindberg, Helsinki
Cafe Strindberg, Helsinki

The views from our perfectly-situated Hotel Haven—steps from the city center, the Old Market Hall filled with Finnish delicacies just below our windows—looked promising: a frozen bay, street-heaps of blackened snow piles, some of the average seasonal 300,000 large truckloads collected for Baltic Sea dumping, graveled-iced sidewalks—but no sky-drippings, thus a day to begin “Helski” (local slang) exploring. The outside temps, a surprising mild spring-like 32. Hmm.

Cafe Engel, Helsinki
Cafe Engel, Helsinki

Two blocks north, the towering, white Helsinki Cathedral on the city’s highest point, looking down on government and university buildings surrounding Senate Square and the statute of Russia’s Czar Alexander 2nd.  No great view from the cathedral steps but at the Czar’s footsteps, a  five-minute digital carillon rings out daily at 5:49 p.m. Facing the square, the cozy Café Engel (lingonberry pie alert!) and Finnish dishes at the Savotta restaurant, including probably your first bear burger, bearly affordable at 45.40e.

We retraced our steps to the city’s best feature, the lovely Esplanade Park, the Champs-Elysee of Helski, that begins east at the harbor and ends westerly at the Swedish Theater: fountains, tree-lined, statutes of Finnish greats, solar-powered litter compactor barrels whimsically called “Big Belly”. Anchoring the bay end, the magnificent all-glass Kappeli restaurant/bar (est. 1867) with its comfy sofas and tables looking out at the Havis Amanda fountain, a naked mermaid, the city’s symbol, and four open-mouthed sea lions.

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Stockmann, Helsinki

Lining the Esplanade’s north side, a row of handsome neo-Renaissance buildings bringing to mind Paris. A few suggested stops along Pohjoisesplanadi, the northside street:

Café Strindberg, the toniest of several Esplanade cafes. Bar-restaurant upstairs,  the chattering classes below, Finnish pastries & light lunch, a window seat preferred. The Finns lead the world in coffee consumption, Café Diem indeed for the Finns who annually down about 1,300 cups per person.

…The three-story Kankurin Tupa, classy souvenir central and seller of high-end Finnish sweaters, scarves, gloves and hats. Wild berry syrup also, 9.90e.

…The Stockmann department store, Europe’s largest, seven floors, 540,000 square feet of everything. Inside it seems larger than the country.  In the late 1980’s I recall a droll ad on Stockmann’s window: “Dress like the Rest. Don’t You Have Something Better To Do”?

Leaving the Esplanade we walked a short distance to the imposing Eliel Saarinen-designed Central Rail Station & its campy muscle-bound caryatids carrying spherical lamps (lit at night) and, inside, to verify it houses the world’s most beautiful Burger King. Indeed true with its lovely mural above the checkout counter, birchwood table partitions, and large photos of the station’s earlier years.

Tractor dining at Zetor, Helsinki
Tractor dining at Zetor, Helsinki

On to lunch to sample the unofficial national dish, Karelian stew at the almost-hidden Zetor. Who knew we would enter a large tractor-themed (Zetor makes tractors) kitschy barnlike roadhouse done in Finn Hillbilly décor: cow and goat replicas, lampshades of old cheese graters and buckets, rooms divided by chicken wire, actual tractor-tables.  I fully expected to meet cartoonist Al Capp’s Barney Barnsmell and Daisy Mae. Karelian stew: stewed beef/pork/lamb topped with sugary linden berries and a side dish of boiled potatoes. Soothing comfy food especially with a dark Tumma Kukko beer.

After lunch, time to satisfy my bookstore passion, this time at the superb independent Arkadia International Bookshop in a residential area, second-hand (mostly) English-language treasures on two levels. And a piano, pool table, stage for events, and bookstore dog named Lola. A must for book lovers.

Dena Timm taking a break at Arkadia Bookshop, Helsinki. Photo Richard West
Dena Timm taking a break at Arkadia Bookshop, Helsinki. Photo Richard West

Further flaneuring past a few cyclers avoiding slick spots (iceyclists?); a stop to admire the six cats at Helski’s Kissakahvila Cat Café; then a glass of white wine at the 14th floor Ateljee Bar of the Sokos Torni Hotel for a synoptic view of the city.

Dinner time after the instant twilight. We chose the Lappi restaurant, traditional dishes from Lapland in the far north, in a traditional Finnish lodge or maze-like wilderness cabin of stone floors and log walls. First, the Reindeer’s Tear, a shot of Finnish Koskenkorva vodka with a few cranberries in a frozen shot glass, followed by salmon soup and the Lappish Game Dinner For Two (roasted elk, reindeer sausages, braised reindeer, winter veggies, potato fondant with creamy game sauce). Dessert: Lappish farm cheese in cinnamon cream and cloudberry jam. Rudolph the Red-Nosed and the rest, superb.

A lovely long weekend but deep winter eluded us. Never a bone-chilling Boreas wind or teeth that chattered, in Dante’s Inferno (Canto 32), the constant sound of freezing hell. Next time perhaps. Until then, another Reindeer’s Tear toast to Helsinki. Kippis!

 

Go to Visit Helsinki and to The Official Travel Guide of Finland for more info

 

Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.

 

 

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