I have been meaning to visit Helsinki for ten years. My Finnish friend has long urged me and since she relocated back home a few years ago, its postponement on my hit-list has become a ridiculous oversight.
Personal circumstances finally conspired in the shape of Him Indoors increasingly Out There, harassing prospective Finnish financial services clients, and my friend announcing her imminent departure for the new world. And with the days getting longer and a major centenary exhibition dedicated to Moomins creator, quintessential Finnish artist Tove Jansson, now on at the city’s Ateneum Gallery – the travel Gods had also started crying ‘Helsinki!’
The Moomins always scared me as a child and do so still. Apparently light and playful, there is something deeply foreboding in their bovine mouthless faces; their endless, timeless adventuring in lost Scandinavian forests and valleys. Innocent and joyful in some cartoon manifestations but nightmarish, a pre-linguistic psychotherapeutic vision, in their little stage sets, designed and made for many decades by Jansson and her long-term partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä.
Jannsson (1914-2001) is a cultural national treasure and, as the comprehensive retrospective shows, much more than the creator-illustrator of the Moomins. She’s a renaissance figure who worked across media from paint and print to model-making, sculpture and mural, from the novel to the short story; a driven chameleon whose styles evolved through naturalism, cubism, primitivism and a sea of other influences; a true artist who returned throughout her life to the imaginative hinterland, the childhood, of the Moomins’ fairytale landscape.
Their world is poised between light and darkness.There is something in it that feels to me particularly Nordic – preoccupied, mature, sombre, clear-gazed and melancholic – outside and in.
Helsinki seems to reflect this ambiguity I think, the space between day and night. Historically caught between Swedish and Russian empires and tormented by dark winters, it is renowned for a simple and playful design aesthetic, showcased in bright exports such as Marimekko, and by spring is illuminated in crisp northern light.
While pal and boy were working at their respective academic and software grindstones, I made the most of my geek-at-leisure time with visits to the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral perched on the headland looking out into the bay, a rich and frozen monument to a dwindling religiosity; as well as to Temppeliaukio Kirkko, the famed Rock Church built by the Suomalainen brothers in the 1960’s, a wonderfully kooky cave carved into the granite and resembling nothing so much as Dr Evil’s personal chapel.
Less than three hours from the UK and two hours ahead you are sufficiently on the fringes of Europe in its northernmost capital to feel on the cusp of a different, quasi-arctic world. And yet Helsinki is friendly, navigable and packed with great architecture and more history than it ever might have chosen, as well as awesome design, had my wallet been up to it.
I’d bundled on T’s expenses bandwagon by spending the first night at the very lovely and very swish Hotel Haven – superb fancy-pants bar (eye-wateringly expensive even by Helsinki’s standards), friendly staff and enough luxury to pull off the price. Lunch at Restaurant Suun is a classy and cheery affair, looking out on the expanse of the Senate Square, where the University and Government Palace face each other, flanking the pristine white Lutheran Cathedral.
My friend explained the layout of state on one side, university on the other, church on the third, and how the city was very much a planned political project after Finland came into Russian hands in 1809. The historic capital at Turku was eclipsed for a brand spanking new administrative centre, and Tsar Alexander II remains in the square’s centre as an ominous and triumphalist reminder.
We caught up with another old friend at Kuurna, an intimate little restaurant with flickering candlelight, a tasty concise menu, good wines by the glass and (rare joy of joys) an excellent vegetarian option. Winning cocktails came courtesy of the awesomely prohibition-era Liberty or Death – a Londoner’s dream, with the hipster condescension removed and at least one drink named after Margaret Thatcher. I wish my flat looked as cool as this place. Or that it was next door and I could order the gin mixers nightly while coveting the furniture.
I also enjoyed the small City Museum, which was hosting a Mad about Helsinki exhibition, with old photos and exhibits representing the maritime city residents’ favourite spots and treasures through the decades: the historic Hakaniemi market square and hall, ice-swimming and the historic fortress of Suomenlinna, one of the many tiny islands and coves 15 minutes boat-ride across the water.
Pictures of the fortress in the museum showed the dark days. During the brutal Finnish Civil War following the Russian Revolution, Red Guard prisoners were transferred from the main market square to the island prison camp, where around 6000 were held, some executed and many more died of starvation and disease in the damp network of bunkers you can still wander through.
Yet riding out there on a bright sunny day, you find a breezy tourist destination, a place Helsinki-dwellers head on a family trip; picnics and ice-cream, even a brewery. A place of happy memories, pleasant walks, coveted apartments, and sun-dappled views back to the city.
The Moomins final adventure saw the family off-screen, their happy house seemingly abandoned and their brooding, troubled friends waiting for them to return… when?
No one knew, and as the boat sped back through dark waters to the warmth of the city, where an anglophile aperitif of Pimms and lemonade was waiting to be shared between old friends, I got the sense that they may still be out there. Wandering endlessly through forests and valleys, darkness and light.