A Helsinki State of Mind (Financial Times 5/16/03)

Gordon Sander discovers there is much to see in the Finnish capital and squeezes in a helicopter ride to Estonia.

“Isn’t this unbelievable?” I said to my friend, Kristine, as our 12-seat helicopter churned its way through the 18 spectacular minutes separating Helsinki from its sister Baltic city of Tallinn. Forty-eight hours earlier, Kristine, a fashion writer who hails from Latvia but had never been to the eastern Baltic, had flown into the Finnish capital to take me up on my offer to show her Helsinki. We decided to add Tallinn as an afterthought.

Cold we actually squeeze in a visit to Tallinn, Helsinki’s up-and-coming sister city, in this three-day Baltic blitz? We could if we took the new helicopter service linking the two cities. In an exciting development, Helsinki and Tallinn are merging into one trans-Baltic supercity. Call it Baltic convergence.

Let’s backtrack 48 hours to the start of our shared Baltic adventure.

Kristine looked at me quizzically, as our cab wound its way from the airport through the distinctly un-beautiful outskirts of Helsinki, with its drab rows of grey and mauve-coloured Stalinist box buildings. “Looks a lot like Riga,” she said, referring to its even drabber and poorer outskirts, not the bejeweled Old City.

“Wait, wait,” I said. Eventually the cab pulled dup in front of our hotel, the venerable but lively Klaus Kurki. This quintessential boulevard hotel, which first opened in 1939, is situatied on Bulevardi, one of Helsinki’s greenest streets, around the corner from Helsinki’s yawning six-lane main street, Mannerheimintie. The Kurki may not be the poshest hotel in town — the five star Kamp takes that honour — but it is my preferred Helsinki hostelry. The friendly service has a lot to do with it: Tom, the long-time night clerk, is one of my Helsinki bellwethers. And the breakfast spread, replete with every kind of juice from cranberry to lingonberry, is worth waking up for.

Having checked in, we went on our first walkabout. First stop was the gagantuan Academic bookstore. Housing 450,000 volumes, it is the largest bookstore in the Nordic region. Despite its relative age, this 1961 Alvar Aalto classic, with its huge atrium and sweeping lines, embodies much of what I admire about Finnish design, plus one of the things I most admire about Finns: they read. Finns buy more books per capita than any other nation outside Iceland. A good deal of them are purchased here under Academic’s vast skylight.

A quick march down Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki’s main shopping street, brought us to Senate Square, the great cobblestone heart of the city. Slowly, we ascended the steep 47-step balustrade leading up to the soaring Finnish Lutheran Church that overlooks the square, the greatest architectural legacy of the days when Finland was a Russian grand duchy. From Senate Square we ambled down Katarinankatu, one of the narrow, boutique-lined streets connecting the square with the harbour, where the tent-lined market was folding up shop. We completed our first perambulation of Helsinki by taking tea at Kappeli, the glass-enclosed restaurant set in the middle of Esplandadi Park, the lush, oblong area connecting the harbour with the main commercial district.

Dinner that evening was at Motti, a revived interwar classic owned by my old friend Christian Moustgaard. Amid huge vintage photos of Gustav Mannerheim, father of modern Finland, we dined on duck confit with sweet potato, ginger-honey sauce and lamb with goat’s cheese-filled potato, dark herb sauce.

Deciding to walk the mile back, we sauntered through the posh Tooloo district, with its many Art Nouveau buildings, past another revived 30s classic, the extraordinary, aircraft-carrier-like Latsipalatsi movie-and-shop emporium, beckoning one and all with its Art Deco neon signs. By the time we reached our hotel, Kristine and I were definitely in a Helsinki state of mind.

The next day, we went to the other points of my Helsinki compass, including Soumenlinna, the island fortress in the middle of Helsinki harbor, and the Ateneum, the museum of Finnish modern art, which houses “Boy With a Crow,” the preternaturally modern 1884 painting by Alexsi Gallen-Kallela and other Finnish masterpieces.

Meantime, I was busy arranging a trans-Baltic reunion for the next day with my best Estonian friend, Anti. Usually I visit Anti by hydrofoil. But the fast boats weren’t running yet: too much ice. The answer: Copter-line, the popular, albeit expensive, Helsinki-Tallinn copter service. And so there we were, the next day, queasily by cheerily flying down to Tallinn.

As agreed, Anti, a boisterous member of the new wave of Estonian entrepreneurs who are transforming that tiny nation of 1m, was waiting for us at the brand new harbourside heliport. Our very agreeable, if whirlwind, six hours in Tallinn began with a restorative snack in the sun-lit bar nook of the sumptuous St. Petersbourg Hotel bar. Smack in the middle of the Estonian capital’s marvelously restored Hanseatic era Old Town, it’s my favourite spot in the town. Then the three of us hiked up to Toompea, the city’s upper castlement, where the Knights of the Sword first established a fortress in 1229.

Dinner was at Vfanaema Juures — grandma’s place, a vintage, semi-underground eatery where we feasted on fried eggs, ham, potatoes, and bread and beef-fillet with apple-plum sauce as old Estonian music from the 1930′s wafted around the room. We only just made the last flight back to Helsinki.

But we had forgotten dessert! The omission was rectified by repairing to another one of my Helsinki culinary bastions, the elegant Taidehalli Klubi, and exquisite art-adorned eatery adjoining the municipal museum. While I tucked into the delicious house chocolate cake, Kristine gave her attention to the generous pumpkin ice cream, waffle and maple syrup.

“Do you realize that we just had dinner in Tallinn and dessert in Helsinki?” I asked my game companion as we took our last, satisfied stroll down Mannerheimintie.

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