Unlikely Splendour (Helsinki Happens 10/11/98)

 On the face of things, Karkkila would seem an unlikely place for one to establish a retro-chic hotel-resort with gourmet restaurant — or any sort of hostelry, for that matter. For most Finns, the small, former industrial town of 8,000 located 75 kilometres northwest of Helsinki, once the epicenter of the great, now bankrupt Högfors Ironworks, is, in a way, synonymous with depression of both the economic and psychological kind, of and an olden, thankfully deceased Finland best left in peace.

“Karkkila?” a staff member of the London office of the Finnish Tourist Board asked incredulously, upon being informed of the first stop of my next trip to Finland, before dissolving into helpless laughter. “You’re going to Karkkila?! Oiva? Never heard of it.”

It isn’t as if Karkkila proper entirely lacks interest to potential sightseers, especially of ethnological bent. There’s the old Högfors Ironworks blast furnace, which bellowed its last in 1877; and the 44 hectare Fagerkulla open-air museum, where you and your family can trace the evolution of ironworkers’ dwellings between 1850 and 1980, when Högfors finally went under; and the handsomely restored residence of Joseph Bremer, the first patron of the Ferro-estate, with its clever, ashlar-patterned wooden façade, not to mention Finland’s national foundry museum. And, of course, there are the waters of Lake Pyhäjärvi, or Holy Lake, which are said to proffer the best salmon fishing in southern Finland.

Yet with all the other things there are to do in and around Helsinki, especially these days, the notion of a foreign visitor to Finland schlepping off to Karkkila for any period of time would indeed normally be a risible one, at least until now, for the simple reason that little Karkkila didn’t even have a hotel. Not a one.

But now it does, thanks to the far-sighted, if slightly demented spirit of Karkkila’s most renowned resident, filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki and a small cabal of like-minded friends. It’s called Oiva. And, we are happy to report, it is a charming place indeed.

In fact, Oiva — which means ‘splendid’ in Finnish — is more than a mere hotel. It’s an experience. And it’s bound to change the way people think about Karkkila. Indeed, Oiva could well end up putting Karkkila back on the map.

Located in a converted retirement home on a leafy 20 acre site just a stone’s trow away from Lake Pyhäjärvi, this surprisingly lavish, 19 room facility, which opened last February, has everything — or seemingly everything — that a traveler looking to escape the hustle and bustle of The Big City, with or without loved ones, could ask for.

First and foremost, Oiva has a first-class restaurant and thanks to the zealous oversight of Kaurismäki’s partners Erkki Lahti and Kari Pulkkinen, who also run the respected museum restaurant Taidehallin Klubi and the new Kiasma café, and are partners with Karuisämaki in Helsinki’s Corona Bar. Here once can feast on such delicacies as coconut chicken soup with Thai herbs and Coeur de Filet Provencale for two, while gazing at the beatific vernal landscapes outside, or admiring the paintings of Kaurismäki’s gifted wife, Paula Oininen, which adorn the dining room walls.

Every Friday during the summer, there is an old-fashioned dance at the new hotel barn, featuring the like of Finnish crooner Markus Allan, who also appeared in the recent Kaurismäki film Drifting Clouds, and other estimable musicians; of late, the swirling, nostalgic affairs which are also open to the public and have become a major Karkkila event, have been attended by upwards of two hundred.

There is swimming, too, at Oiva, courtesy of a beautiful, nearby stream, and horseback riding, and tennis, too — not to mention a rudimentary game room where one can try one’s hands at billiards.

Then there are the odd touches one would expect at a Kaurismäki hotel. Like the old disused sewing machine, a vestige of Olivia’s former incarnation, which sits outside the washroom on the ground floor, for no particular reason. And a brilliant chef who also doubles as a saxophonist in a local band.

To hear the filmmaker tell it, his entry into the hospitality field was much like that of the central husband-and-wife characters in Drifting Clouds. It just sort of– happened. Essentially he fell in love with the building, which partner Pulkkinen had found for him.

“I can’t help myself,” said Kaurismäki, dragging on a cigarette. “I never can. It’s just like that bar over there — see, over there?” he continued, pointing towards the semi-circular, leather-padded bar in the corner. “I saw it in New York in 1989 and bought it on the spot. The same with this building. I saw it and immediately fell in love with it. It had a sad and lonely look about it. I wanted to adopt it. I wanted to transform it into something new and beautiful.”

The original intention was to turn the place into a bed-and-breakfast place. But then Kaurismäki got carried away and decided to make a real hotel out of the old convalescent home. Six months and FIM 1.5 million later he and his friends had given birth to Oiva.

To be sure, business was slow at first. Kaurismäki & Company hadn’t even bothered to produce a brochure about their new establishment. But now word is out, the word is good, and rooms are filling up.

Oiva is still a work in progress. A smoke sauna is under construction. The hotel’s small lakeside beach needs to be cleaned up. And the main building could use a new coat of paint. But it is clear that Oiva is a success, and its owners are justly proud. “It will have its life, “offered Kaurismäki, and then he was off again in his great lumbering white Cadillac, as Olavi Virta continued to serenade the empty dining room.