Northern Lights (Condé Nast Traveller [UK] 10/98)

 Rose was agog. Outside the window lay terra magica, the Finns’ very apt appellation for their naturally well-endowed land, all forests and lakes stretching as far as the eye could see. It was late October, somewhat late in the year, you might think, to visit this northern country. Our action-packed long weekend in Helsinki would prove otherwise.

The intensely bright Nordic sun glinted off myriad tiny laketops as the plane began its descent And suddenly, there it was, off to port, the great harbour that the Swedes built when they owned Finland centuries ago, jutting out into the Baltic, the baby-blue Finland centuries ago, jutting out into the Baltic, the baby-blue Finland centuries ago, jutting out in to the Baltic, the baby-blue cupola of the Lutheran cathedral clearly visible in the smogless air.

It had been too long: nearly two years for me, an old Nordic hand, the first time for Rose, my intrigued, if skeptical, English girlfriend. ‘Helsinki?’ she queried, before our impulsive getaway. ‘Now?’ One moment, it seemed, we were going about our ordinary London business; the next, we were cruising into this exotic northern city, past the architectural guard of honour standing astride Mannerheimintie, the main road into town, past the soaring lines of the huge new opera house and Alvar Aalto’s long, white Finlandia Hall, and past the imposing statue of CGE Mannerheim, founder and saviour of modern Finland, dramatically silhouetted against the metallic façade of the startling, new Museum of Contemporary Art.

And then, after hastily checking into our hotel, the centrally located Torni, there we were, slightly out of breath, standing in Senaatintori (Senate Square), epientre of Finnish history, staring up at the colossal, neoclassical façade of the grand church that Carl Engel the great German architect, built for the Russians when they owned Finland, after the Swedes.

After we had climbed the 200 steep church steps and were looking out into the monumental square, I pointed to an august, saffron-coloured building to the left and said, “See, there, in 1904, a Finnish nationalist shot dead the despised Russian governor-general Bobrikov. And,’ I continued, pointing to the right, ‘that building, the main building of Helsinki University, was bombed by the Soviets during the legendary Winter War of 1939.’

But Rose, while no unappreciative of my history lecture, was more interested in the seagulls swirling above the quiet, cobbled piazza, and the long balustrade, which she descended with a whoop. Her love affair with Helsinki had commenced. Mine had begun anew.

That evening, after resting in our vast Art-Deco-adorned suite at the Torni, we had a rendezvous with my friend Christian, a debonair producer-promoter, and leading man about town. First Christian led us to Rarouge, a sumptuous new ravintola (restaurant) located on Yrjonkatu, one of Helsinki’s most fashionable streets.

Not long ago, before Helsinki metamorphosed into an international city, there were but a handful of foreign restaurants. Today, there are dozens, serving up everything from Tex-Mex to Thai. Farouge is one of the best of the new crop. An imaginative restaurant offering dishes such as fasolja bidxaax (chicken with broad beans, tomato sauce and Lebanese rice) and keitettya kielta (cooked tongue marinated with garlic and lemon), served against a soothing background of classical Lebanese music, the place has become a fast favourite of the local diplomatic set and intelligentsia.

Next we sauntered over to Baari No 9, a new hangout on Uudenmaankatu, Helsinki’s hip new street. All Formica, neon and mirrors, this quirky establishment feels like a cross between a Parisian café and an American soda fountain. Very cool, Rose and I agreed, sipping espressos and cloudberry schnapps, while tapping our feet to the sound of African guitarist San Mgwana wafting out of a corner PA. Cool — and a relief from the run-of-the-mill Finnish pub, where the unwary foreigner stood a good change of being hit by a flying Finn.

The next day we were tempted to sleep in and wait for the waning autumn sun to rise, but that would have meant missing breakfast. There is nothing like a Finnish hotel breakfast to get you through the day, especially during the colder months. The lavish spread at the Torni was a fine specimen: an inviting, tastefully laid out cornucopia consisting of numerous types of cereals, breads, and leikkeleitä (cold meats), including poron lihaa (reindeer meat), diverse fruit juices, and canisters of the ultra-powerful Finnish kahvi (coffee).

Thus fortified, we quickstepped through a light drizzle down Esplanadi, the promenade of designers, to the harbour, and the annual Baltic herring festival. There, amid a small sea of tents and open stalls, fishermen from all over the coast and outlying islands were hawking the finest herring in the world, as well as potatoes, home-made mustards and salads, and the wonderful, dark, sweet bread, saaristolaisleipa.

Leaving the bustling quay, we strolled up Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki’s largest shopping street, pausing to admire a set of gargoyles etched into one of the tall, granite-faced buildings, and to laugh at an especially clever window display featuring six identically dressed mannequins literally kitted out to kill. While Rose explored Stockmann’s department store, Helsinki’s answer to Harrods, I made for lunch at the famed Kosmos with my Finnish friend Ilkka Ranta-aho (love those Finnish names).

Owned and operated by the same family since the 1930s, the Kosmos, a tall, atrium-type restaurant featuring classic Finnish cuisine, is a local institution. Ensconced in one of the lovely old wooden booths, surrounded by palms, Ilkka and I caught up on old times while munching on sitruunamarinoitua ahventa (lemon marinated perch) and herkkusienilla taytettya broilerinrintaa basilikakastiketta (breast of chicken stuffed with mushrooms with basil sauce) topped off by juustolautanen (cheese plate) and mansikka-rahkatorttua (strawberry and cottage cheese tart).

That evening, after touring the Cable Factory, a massive, multi-arts complex located in a former telephone factory, we traveled back in time and dined at the Alexander Nevski. The grandest of Helsinki’s Russian restaurants, the Nevski, which faces the market square, is designed to deliver the full, imperial Russian experience, and succeeds admirably. The dinner, an elaborate production starring, among other things, bear consommé Nesselrode, roasted breast of duck with morel ragout, and a plangent-voiced serenading singer and accompanying guitarist who lingered by our table, left us feeling swoony. We walked back to our hotel through the still Senate Square, looking much as it did a century ago, expecting at any moment to encounter the old tsarist police. Thus the delightful paradox of Helsinki: it is, at once, the most avat0gard of northern European capitals and the most old-fashioned.

The pace of our long Helsinki weekend quickened considerably the next and penultimate day, when we switched hotels and moved several blocks to the newly renovated Klaus Kurki. The only thing that was familiar to me about the Kurki, an old standby, was Tommy the night clerk, and the venerable, grille-type lift, dating from 1926. Otherwise the Kurki is a totally new creature, featuring a jazzy new bar and a topnotch deli, Tony’s deli, which serves up fresh pasta and assorted Finnish and foreign delicacies. Tommy himself wasn’t sure about all the changes but the dozens of happy, young Finns standing outside and streaming through the lobby certainly seemed to approve. So did we, we agreed, after we ate and drank our way through the building.

Then there were the parties. Five years ago, the guidebook question ‘Voitteko suisitella hyvää yökerhoa?’ (‘Can you recommend a good nightclub?’) would have elicited laughter in this once dowdy city. Today there are numerous nocturnal emporia, catering to every possible taste and proclivity. One night we attended a manic magazine party at probably the classiest joint, the Hesperia, a large dance palace-cum-bar in the basement of the luxury hotel of the same name. The raucous jamboree included a bevy of skimpily attired local maidens serving shots of the sizzling, new Jagermeister energy drink — Korkeaoktaaninen! (Super!) — and a wacky, cabaret-type dance floor show. And you thought Helsinki was dull.

The following evening, out last, we were invited to an equally frenetic affair thrown by a local advertising agency at Soda, a cousin of No 9, also located on Uudenmaankatu. The agency pulled out the stops, hiring a platoon of models to sashay through the crowd of young arts and media types, while a DJ spun jazz discs. There was an innocence about the affair, as well as an edginess, that reminded me of the party scenes in Blow Up. Like London in the 1960s, Helsinki is truly coming into its own, after decades of hovering in a kind of twilight zone between the East and West, finally, it seems, young Helsinkians are cutting loose.

Then, in a whoosh, we were off, but not before making plans to revisit this magical, underappreciated city in the spring, when the ice is melting, and we would once again have Helsinki to ourselves.