Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017

© Lauri Rotko / Visit Helsinki

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Helsinki in two seasons

A romp through Europe’s unsung destination in summer and winter

As Finland celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence in 2017 with year-long parties and cultural happenings, Helsinki is being discovered as one of Europe’s unsung destination in winter and summer.

Years ago, a violinist friend attended a Sibelius Festival in Helsinki, Finland, the home country of the celebrated composer. Finland: it sounded so distant, dark and cold.

It’s unforgivable for a Canadian to apply the same stereotypes to a country as others do to mine so for some perspective I rewatched the Helsinki segment of Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, a favourite movie.

It cemented my idea of the city.

Then, surprisingly, years later, I was going to Finland myself. Would Helsinki match my evermore cartoonish vision: a cold, mysterious city lurking in the shadow of its Russian neighbour, full of silent expressionless people who are obsessed with reindeer meat and, inexplicably, mid-century modern design?

Well, it was winter when I visited: dark at 3pm.

As I strolled the square underneath the imposing Helsinki Cathedral, I watched people shopping at the outdoor Christmas market where vendors in little wooden huts sold everything from long-handled knives to handmade birch sauna soap. Everyone was caught up in the festive atmosphere as if their lives depended on it and then I realized that with SAD, it probably did. I immediately understood why Yuletide Christmas was a northern European invention. You needed something cheery to survive winter. And yet, I came to love Helsinki.

Art museums, saunas and soup for the soul

The city is accessible, compact and very easy to get around, despite neighbourhood names that sound as intimidating as an Ikea instruction sheet: Punavuori, Kallio and Vallila.

Locals, for all their so-called reserve, were as approachable and helpful as any I've met. These are people who are generally at ease in their skin. It'd be hard not to be with all the fresh air, forests and famous cradle-to-grave social system.

In winter, warm and inviting cafés were a gift, and I participated in Finnish high-coffee consumption at iconic cafés like the 19th-century Café Ekberg (cafeekberg.fi) as well as Café Aalto (cafeaalto.fi) in the Academic Bookshop designed by famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. I also had cups at Good Life Coffee (goodlifecoffee.fi) and Café Kokko (cafekokko.com) in Kallio, what’s become a hip neighbourhood in the city’s eastern end.

I checked out some of the city’s excellent museums. Among my favourite were the De-sign Museum (designmuseum.fi), and the interactive Helsinki City Museum (helsinginkaupunginmuseo.fi), which focuses on the everyday lives of the people of Helsinki. The latter has become such a hit since it opened last May that locals come to hang out in the common spaces like its living room. Though it was full of families with young kids when I was there, I noticed the same thing I did walking through the city streets: a pervasive silence. This is one of the quietest big cities you’ll ever visit, even among the hustle and bustle of pre-Christmas shopping.

And yet Finn’s seek out a place with even more peace and quiet: the sauna. It’s said that there is one sauna for every 1.5 people. They used to be public places until every apartment building and now, very often, every apartment unit, even studio, is built with a sauna.

But the idea of the public sauna is coming back. You find them in the most unlikely of places like the business lounge at Helsinki airport and in one car of the Ferris wheel that dominates the port area. Even Burger King opened a branch last year with a sauna in it.

The hottest sauna news — excuse the pun — is Löyly (loyly.net), which opened on the southern tip of the Helsinki peninsula last year. The building is stunning: a hexagon-shaped wood structure overlooking the sea. It combines key aspects of Finnish identity all in one: saunas, great minimalist design and a window to nature.

I decided to walk the 30 minutes from my hotel to Löyly because I was told the route was through the Ullanlinna neighbourhood, which has a huge concentration of Art Nouveau architecture. That idea didn't take long to flop. I lost the race against the setting sun, couldn’t see the buildings. The winds rose and snow started to blow the rest of the way, which was along the frigid harbour front.

The sauna certainly hit the spot. After warming my bones, I was expected to complete the authentic experience by dipping into the frigid Baltic. I was going to, outside again in my swimsuit, but the path and stairs to the sea were icy, so I went for the bucket-of-ice-water-dumped- over-me option instead, repeating the cycle of heat and cold until I felt as relaxed as a puddle of mellow.

Heading back, this time by bus, all I could think about was having a hot bowl of soup under the comfort of my bed’s duvet.

I found packages of ready-made gourmet soups at a supermarket next to my hotel. Alas, I could not decipher what each one was, thanks to packaging more high design than practical visual info and, of course, Finnish-only labels. Finnish is a notoriously tricky language, closest to Hungarian, and I found it impossible to pick out familiar looking words or roots.

A local walking by kindly translated. Lohikeitto, Finnish salmon soup, won. I microwaved it there, crossed the street to my hotel and was eating the delicious soup in my room within minutes. It was one of those nothing moments that became a special travel memory.

Helsinki when hot

I froze again the next morning on a visit to Suomenlinna (suomenlinna.fi), a 17th-century Swedish maritime fortress, a short ferry ride from the city. My guide showed me around the UNESCO World Heritage Site complete with ancient canons and tombs of military heroes. He told tales of Finland’s later Russian period and the fallout of soldiers who used vodka as tonic water. Eventually, my toes couldn’t take the cold anymore and I asked if we could continue “the tour” from the comfort of a cozy café. We did, over cardamom cinnamon buns and hot coffee, at Samovarbar, Suomenlinna’s charming café housed in a wooden Russian-period villa.

Helsinki’s magic and mystery remained with me, but I saw a whole other city when I visited a short period later, this time in summer. It was a city heated up in more ways than one. Here were people celebrating summer quite the way Canadians do, relishing every second of it. The sun was so astonishingly bright that it felt like afternoon when you got up from dinner.

I set off to reacquaint myself with the city, although it was more like getting to know a new city, so different was winter and summer Finland. I attended the hip Flow Festival (flowfestival.com) with its hot music lineup and art in venues like an old sheet metal factory. I visited the Löyly sauna again, this time exploring its expansive terrace overlooking the sea where locals were splashing each other with champagne, I assumed, in a giddy appreciation of warmer weather. I followed that with a visit to Allas Sea Pool (allasseapool.fi), diving into the seawater swimming pool on the shore of Kaivopuisto.

Despite some undiplomatic jabs in the past (most famously by Italy’s raunchy former Prime Minister Berlusconi), Helsinki is becoming a foodie destination on par with its Nordic neighbours.

At trendy new café El Fant (elfant.info), I partook in the produce that stars in summertime. A salad of fresh summer peas tasted like a treat, while lakkakakku (cloudberry cake) was bursting with so much yellow fruit, it was surely a health food. At Shelter (shelter.fi), an inviting new restaurant located in an old warehouse at Katajanokka Harbour, I had salted whitefish in ginger buttermilk.

Finland’s well-known lakes, forests of birch, spruce and pine, and northern lights, may be a harder sell for Canadians who have all of the above. If not, a trip focused on Helsinki doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of Finland’s natural beauty, an abundance of which is within minutes of the city. I took easy day trips from the gorgeous Eliel Saarinen-designed Helsinki Central Railway Station for serene forest walks, once to the nearby island of Emäsalo, once through the thick forests of Nuuksio National Park. Another day, I signed up for a foraging workshop that ended with a picnic lunch of nettles.

There was so much to do that, even in the nightless summer, I wished there could be more hours in the day.

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