A week in Helsinki – homely art nouveau city by the water.

In September 2022, after a wonderful time at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, I stayed on in Finland for another week and moved to Helsinki, a place that everyone I know who has been there to told me that I would love it. I did.

I love the way it manages to be a capital city with all the things that I expect from such places – good facilities, interesting buildings, art galleries, a concert hall or two, good restaurants and places where you can just have fun – it has those things, of course, but it also has the feeling of a small town where you recognise people on the streets, where you won’t be overwhelmed by the infrastructure of city life. Maybe it’s the trams! They remind me of childhood toy railway trains, and Helsinki’s trams, are not only very efficient, but they are pleasant and homely, and they seem to be saying, don’t worry we know where we’re going and we will take you home again afterwards too. The trams have a nice life here, the roads are mostly straight and, like the trams, always seem to know where they are meant to lead us.

With the correct app on my phone, recommended by a helpful man at the tram stop, I soon mastered the way Finns buy tickets and check tram times. It made me realise how stressful public transport can be in other countries, less well organised than Finland. Almost immediately I felt at home.

I liked the buildings too. Finland has a great reputation for architecture, the original or unusual take on even more traditional buildings, like this art nouveau apartment building from 1907, just round the corner from where I was staying. Helsinki seems to reflect a knowledge of tradition but with a willingness to try new ideas – even amazing ideas, like some of the buildings I would see a bit later in my stay. But it was also good to see the recently restored 1891 Gothic Revival Johanneksenkirkko (St John’s Church), the largest Lutheran church in Finland, which also doubles up as a concert venue.

The organ was installed in 1892 but extended by the church’s first organist, the Finnish composer Oscar Merikanto, he maybe little known today outside of Finland, but he was the composer of a piano piece, Valse Lente, I used to play when I was a child, too young to know more than seeing the name Oscar Merikanto on my sheet music. Finding that he was organist here at this church, made Helsinki seem even more homely to me. Here is the Finnish pianist Janne Oksanen playing it, I am sure, a lot better that my schoolboy self did – but I remember enjoying showing off with that final flourish when I had to play it in a school concert.

Oscar Merikanto (1868 – 1924)

The painting above the altar is A Divine Revelation, the Conversion of Paul the Apostle by Eero Järnefelt, 1932, the Finnish artist who was also composer Sibelius’ brother-in-law.

Eero Järnefelt (1863 – 1937) portrait by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1888.
Sibelius by Eero Järnefelt (1892)

He painted a portrait of his friend and brother-in-law in 1892. He lived in the artists’ colony around Lake Tuusula, near the Sibelius family. I planned to go out towards Lake Tuusula during my stay, especially to find Sibelius’ House, Ainola, some 38 kilometres north of Helsinki. I wanted to see the quasi-mystical land where the grreat Sibelius found inspiration.

My apartment was not far from the centre of Helsinki, behind these imposing security doors with a handy electric scooter waiting outside.

Through the main doors there was a courtyard and a bicycle park, trams, bicycles and electric scooters appear to be the principal forms of transport in Helsinki.

Upstairs I found the apartment was modern and white like the apartment in Lahti and just as comfortable, with its own sauna too.

I enjoyed the civilised urban environment here in the Ullanlina district of Helsinki, a wealthy middle class district in the 19th Century, with its mainly Jugendstil, art nouveau, architectural style. It is close to the city centre but also to the waterfront.

While I was in Finland, my home country, the UK, kept creeping onto the news. On the 5th September, the television news told us that the British Prime Minister had been forced to resign over his less that serious handling of the Covid lockdown regulations. On the 6th September, the Finnish news told us that Liz Truss had just been appointed the new British Prime Minister. And two days later, on the 8th September, I was watching the regular evening news when I heard about the death of the British Queen, Elizabeth II. Even here, a long way away from the UK, the Queen was the main news of the day. It was a strange experience being a Brit abroad that week when Britain had two prime ministers and two monarchs. In conversations across Helsinki, I was obliged to hear about the sadness most Finns felt about the UK leaving the EU, then I had to agree with the jokes that were told about our apparently clueless politicians and then, finally, I was given heart-felt condolences from more than a few people who held the Queen in high regard. It was a common reaction during this holiday, that it appeared as if the UK was fracturing before our eyes.

The TV news told us ‘Queen Elizabeth II is dead’.

Failed UK prime ministers, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson – a laughing-stock across Europe.

The UK’s troubles kept coming up on this holiday, but I tried to distance myself from the turmoil and, instead, headed down the street to Helsinki’s waterfront which was resplendent in the early September sunshine.

This star pattern on the pavement became the site of my daily kungfu and tai-chi practice – an ideal spot to do tai-chi by the water.

This, my temporary do-jo had a handy coffee kiosk too, so every morning, after tai-chi, there was always a welcoming breakfast of coffee and croissants.

Helsinki sparrows were either trying to be friendly or they wanted to steal my croissant – they didn’t go hungry, but I got the lion’s share.

I was also just a tram journey away from the city centre, a daily journey to enjoy some of the attractions.

Helsinki’s art nouveau Central Station (Helsingin päärautatieasema) and clocktower was built of granite in 1919, designed by Eliel Saarinen (1873 – 1950) and its famous Lantern Bearers statues, (Lyhdynkantajat) were the work of Emil Wikström (1864 – 1942).

The Stockman Department Store, not far from the station, also has an art nouveau facade but a Nordic Art Deco interior – it was opened in the centre of Helsinki in 1930 and it remains a palace for high-end shopping in a Europe where the department store is mostly losing its gloss.

The original architects, the brothers, Valter and Ivar Thomé were killed in the Finnish Civil War between the Reds and the Whites in 1918. They were shot by the Reds in 1918 trying to cross to the White side of the line. A tragic fate for two of Finlands most talented architects.

Valter Thomé (1874 – 1918)
Ivar Thomé (1882 – 1918)

Outside Stockman is the Three Smiths Statue (Kolmen sepän patsas) (1932) by Felix Nylund – the three naked smiths are hammering an anvil in an apparent celebration of labour with the figures modelled by wrestlers from Helsinki’s Jyry Gymnastics and Sports Club.

A modern ‘lighthouse’ street clock in central Helsinki makes a splendid vista against the jigsaw domed roof in front…I was constantly delighted by Finnish design.

Amazing as much of the design in the central city was, nothing quite prepared me for the beauty of the Kamppi Chapel (Kampin kappeli) – the Chapel of Silence in Narinkka Square – it has become one of my very favourite buildings.

People are encouraged to come into the chapel to find peace and to remain silent here in the middle of the bustling city centre. The interior would have made me speechless even without the silence warning. Heavenly.

I made my way, of course, to the Modernist home of The Finnish National Opera and Ballet, armed with tickets for their new production of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, the second instalment of a planned complete cycle of his epic operatic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung or, in Finnish, Nibelungin sormus).

Finland’s national opera company had to make do without a home for 120 years, mostly with touring opera companies supplying the repertoire, but, in 1993, this wonderful new building was opened, the work of architects Eero Hyvämäki, Jukka Karhunen and Risto Parkkinen, on Töölönlahti Bay with state-of-the-art technology and seating for 1350, as well as a studio theatre that seats up to 500.

As with other cultural institutions, like the Lahti Sinfonia and many other music and arts events in Finland, the government, with popular support, sees culture and education as one and the same thing, and they put their money where their mouth is. And, surprise, surprise, the result is not only superb architecture, but great art to put into it. It is now beyond surprising to read about innovative Finnish architecture and design, but also to find out that all around the world there are orchestras with Finnish principal conductors, and Finnish musicians and composers proving that blossoming talent and money are interconnected when a nation takes culture seriously.

No surprises either then that Finnish National Opera has now got an international reputation for excellence and no surprise either, that their new production of Die Walküre was a must-have ticket for anyone interested in opera in general and Wagner in particular. You can count me in on both of those.

I was thrilled to be there for this opening production of the second opera in their Ring cycle in yet another Finnish acoustic that did the musicians proud.

It was a sell-out, of course. I had booked early on the first day of ticket sales, on an excellent, fault-free online booking system that gave me a second-by-second account of where I stood in the queue. It was actually an exciting experience in itself to see the house getting sold-out on the day. Finnish National Opera, I decided, had definitely arrived and the world should listen. Here’s the on-line promo…..it gives you a taste of what was their fantastic but also edgy new production – with world-class singing and orchestral playing under the dynamic Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, with a ringing-voiced Joachim Bäckström as Siegmund, a lyrical Miina-Liisa Värelä as Sieglinde, a thunderous Matti Turunen as bear of a Hunding, and large-voiced magnificence from a bravely punk Johanna Rusanen as Brunnhilde and a charismatic Wotan from Tommi Hakala – with a troupe of punkish Valkyrie maidens to die for. So many terrific Finnish singers along with the German star, Joachim Bäckström.

After Wagner, a tranquil walk by the water back near my temporary home looking over the Baltic Sea, in the part of the world where Wagnerian epics were almost certainly born.

I was perfectly content to watch the sun set over the harbour and to listen to the evocative sound of riggings rattling masts in the sea air.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *