Trends and tango

Finland, nesting between Sweden and Russia, offers the visitor everything from pristine wilderness to the very latest designer finds.





South African Garden and Home


September 2013


Judy Bryant

“Come to Helsinki,” said a former Johannesburg flatmate, now living in a northern European seaside town. “In the summer they tango in the streets all night long and bike through the empty streets at dawn for a swim.”

A month later, thanks to a former editorship of a design magazine and a fair amount of chutzpah, I found myself in the 2012 World Design Capital.  What struck me initially was how few people there are in the streets, which are resplendent with neoclassical and modern architecture. But with fewer than 600 000 central city residents, living in Finland’s modern welfare state, it started to make sense why this year British lifestyle publication Monocle ranked Helsinki as the second best city in the world to live in.

It’s not a town of old European landmarks, or a commercial melting pot. The main influences are Swedish and Russian – it was established in 1550 by the Swedish king Gustavus I. Vasa, and later Finland was annexed to the Russian Empire as a Grand Duchy. Situated only 300 km west of St Petersburg, Helsinki became an Imperial Russian city before gaining independence in 1917.

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First step was finding my World Design Capital designer hotel, within easy walking distance of the metro, and Temppeliaukio Church. This landmark is built into the granite rock with daylight entering the building through a circular skylight surrounding a huge central copper dome. I crossed a bridge over a walking and cycling track below – it was a former train track converted into one of numerous green recreational spaces – with athletic-looking Finns jogging and cycling in slick outdoor gear.

I checked into the Hotel Helka, tying not to stare too hard at the huge lip piercing and long, lavishly decorated nails of the receptionist. The rather sweaty reception area (too many hearty visitors riding the bikes lined up beside the lift?) harked more to its first incarnation 80 years ago as a YWCA, rather than its current status as a signature World Design Capital 2012 designer hotel.  But Finns simply don’t do bling, and the longer I stayed, the more I appreciated the thought and discernment that had gone into transforming my small room into a comfy haven and efficient working office.

The ceiling was a backlit nature landscape, the bedside light was a globe encased in a cube of glass by überhot designer Harri Kerkonnen. And the stool beside my bed – looking utterly contemporary – was in fact designed 79 years ago by the godfather of Finnish design, Alvar Aalto.

The term ‘Scandinavian design’ originates from a design show that travelled the US and Canada in the 1950s. It exhibited various works by Nordic designers and set the bar for the beautiful, simple, clean designs that are inspired by nature and the northern climate. The emphasis is on enjoying the home and creating bright, light, practical environments to combat the long winters.

The affinity with nature is ever-present. Helsinki’s city centre – Senate and Market Squares – is close to the sea, with ferries, yachts, giant icebreakers and cruise liners lining the shore.  There are huge stretches of green parkland (about a third of Helsinki is green), with the black and white speckled trunks and green foliage of birch trees, and constant glimpses of lakes and islands.

Design Week was an immersion in striking and beautiful buildings and objects. It ranged from Habitare, the largest furniture and interior decoration and design fair in the country, to a morning walk through the old streets of Design District Helsinki, a cluster of creative businesses, restaurants and shops.

Many projects linked to the World Design Capital year go far beyond aesthetics and have long-term implications for improved urban living. Red brick buildings, originally built to house the city abattoir in 1933, are being renovated for restaurants and markets. And a cast-off rail turntable in a gritty industrial area is the site of an oasis of urban gardening. Here you can lounge in the greenhouse and enjoy a lunch of organic vegetables and fruits grown on site.

The compelling new Chapel of Silence at the southern corner of busy Narinkka Square – near the metro and a shopping centre – has a curved wooden façade and receives natural light from a large skylight. The interior walls are made of thick, oiled alder planks and it is a quiet sanctuary in the heart of the city, where you can catch your breath in the tranquil silence.

Helsinki also offers small specialised shops and boutiques, restaurants and cafes. The lively centre area offers art galleries specialising in Russian art and old orthodox icons, good selections of wonderful Finnish glass, tableware and handmade design, as well as tea houses and delicatessens.

You can drop into museums and galleries and take in a movie, or stroll down to the seaside market to purchase anything from a reindeer pelt to a plate of freshly cooked fresh salmon, washed down with cold lager.

Food is absolutely fresh, often organic, and simple.  Mushrooms and berries are a staple, along with rye breads, cheeses, excellent coffee and game (moose, reindeer, bear).

My culinary highlight, though,  was a trip to the world’s first pop-down restaurant, 350 metres down an old limestone mine 45 minutes’ drive from the city. What a great example of World Design collaboration – partners ranged from a manufacturer of high-speed lifts (products are tested in the mine shaft) to the iconic table and glassware firm iittalia. The company used the occasion to showcase its latest range of embossed plates and drinking glasses.

We set off by bus, led by an enthusiastic foodie wearing a chef’s apron and a mine helmet. The lift was certainly in a different class to the shaky cage in which I had once descended a Johannesburg gold mine – though the ice-cold  lavender martini we knocked back en route would have dulled any worries.

We trampled past old mine equipment, led by a guide who resembled a tall gnome in his grey robe and hat, stopping en route for a sound and light show. As the coloured strobes played on the limestone outcrops, and a Swedish symphony reached its crescendo, I had to pinch myself that this was actually happening.

The meal was whipped up by the chef Timo ‘Lintsi’ Linnamäki from Muru, the 2012 Finnish restaurant of the year. It showcased modern, laid back, utterly delicious local cuisine.

Starters included salted salmon seasoned with cumin, with a mustard-aquavit sauce, crayfish and potato salad with cucumber. The entrée was a fennel risotto with escargot flambéed in Pernod, and the main course roasted veal and steak simmered in a herb stock.

Accompanied by an Alsace Riesling and a full-bodied Valpolicella, plus the four suave members of a local jazz band, it had to be one of the most unusual meals I had ever experienced

Even if you’re not hooked on design, Helsinki offers a vast amount to enjoy – from swimming and saunas to restaurants and markets, music and art.  Cycling is a great way to enjoy the sights and close to Helsinki you can find good downhill and snowboarding slopes.

And yes, they really do tango – it’s a variation of the Argentinian tango, but slower and nearly always written in a minor key, which makes it more melancholy.  But dance up a sweat and dip into one of the 1.8 million saunas, and it’s all good.

You need a valid national passport or other equivalent official document that establishes your identity and nationality. If you aren’t a citizen of Finland or a European Economic Area country, you may also need a visa. (South Africans do need a visa.) For more information:


First published in South African Garden and Home September 2013

Images Judy Bryant and supplied