Category Archives: Finland

Sibelius’ Helsinki

Sibelius’s work may not say “Helsinki”, but the city was central to his life. He studied there, premiered many of his works there, and wined and dined to excess there before building a retreat, which he named Ainola, after his wife, 30 miles north of the city. He is synonymous with Finland and Finnish music, and deservedly in any pantheon of great composers.

Main Building of the University of Helsinki
Jean Sibelius moved to Helsinki in 1885 to study law at the University of Helsinki and music at the Helsinki Music Institute. The Great Hall of the University was the city’s main concert hall at the time. He conducted there the first performances of nearly all his main orchestral compositions. Sibelius also served as the model for the pale-cloaked man in the centre panel of Albert Edelfelt’s fresco The Inauguration of the Royal Academy of Turku that adorns the wall of the Great Hall. Badly damaged by bombing in 1944, the original architecture from 1832 was altered. The acoustics suffered and the hall lost its position as a leading concert venue.

University of Helsinki, Main Building

National Library
The National Library of Finland houses the biggest collection of Sibelius’ musical manuscripts. Work on the complete critical edition Jean Sibelius Works began here in 1996. The edition is based on a thorough study of all surviving sources.

National Library, Finland
National Library, Finland

Helsinki Cathedral
Sibelius passed away on 20 September 1957. The funeral was held on 30 September in the Helsinki Cathedral. The coffin was brought to the church on the previous day, and that evening 17,000 people came to pay their respects to the great composer. Students formed the honour guard. Seven candles burned on the altar at the funeral, one for each of Sibelius’ symphonies. The laying of wreaths lasted two hours. Musicians carried the coffin out to the car, which then drove towards Järvenpää. People lined the way for the entire 40-kilometre journey. Sibelius was buried in the wooded garden of his home, Ainola.

Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki Cathedral at dusk

Arppeanum, Snellmaninkatu 3
During his study years Sibelius played violin in the Academic Orchestra. The orchestra played in the university’s music hall in the Arppeanum, which also housed the university’s chemistry laboratory.


House of the Estates
Freemasonry was revived in Finland here on 18 August 1922, when Sibelius too was inducted. He later composed ritual music that is still used by the Freemasons in Finland and the USA.

House of the Estates
House of the Estates, Interior

City Hall
Originally built in 1833 as the Seurahuone Hotel, the City Hall building also housed a restaurant and banquet hall. Around 1900, the Helsinki Philharmonic Society Orchestra held here popular concerts that were often attended by Sibelius. His compositions were also performed; the first version of his Karelia Suite was premiered in 1893 at a charity concert in the banquet hall. In 1913 the City of Helsinki acquired the hotel and converted it into the City Hall. The interior underwent a brutal modernisation in the late 1960s, but the banquet hall was retained and is still used at times for concerts.

Helsinki City Hall

Doctor’s House, Fabianinkatu 17
In 1901 a group of doctors had an impressive Art Nouveau house built on the corner of the Kasarmitori square. Sibelius’ doctor from 1908 to 1919 was Dr. Wilhelm Zilliacus, who lived and worked here. Zilliacus was a strong opponent of Russian repression and supporter of the Finnish Jaeger movement – young men who had sought military training in Germany with the aim of liberating Finland. In 1917 he received a copy of the words for the Jaeger March, written by one of the Jaegers serving in Liepaja, Latvia, and smuggled into Finland. Zilliacus asked Sibelius to compose the music for the march. In great secrecy, Sibelius soon delivered the composition to Zilliacus, and it became a powerful symbol of independence.

Doctor’s House, Fabianinkatu 17, Helsinki
(now called Agronomitalo – Agronomy House)

Swedish Normal Lyceum, Unioninkatu 2
As early as the spring of 1886, Sibelius attracted attention as a violinist in the student concerts of the Music Institute held at this school (built in 1880). Some of his earliest compositions were performed for the first time here, including his highly acclaimed String Quartet in A Minor at the end of his studies in May 1889.

Helsinki Normal Lyceum

Around 1900, the Esplanade was the recreational heart of Helsinki where the young Sibelius too would spend his free time. Some of his favourite cafés and restaurants are still there, albeit much changed over the years. The Opera Cellar that opened in 1866 on the park side of the Svenska teatern is today a bar and nightclub, while König, which opened in 1892 at Mikonkatu 4, is now a disco and karaoke bar. The Esplanade was also lined by many banks that the chronically indebted composer would visit often, such as Wasa Bank (Eteläesplanadi 12) and the old Yhdyspankki (Aleksanterinkatu 36b), as well as the fine Art Nouveau bank halls at Pohjoisesplanadi 15 and 19 that now serve as cafés.

Kappeli, Eteläesplanadi 1
The café and restaurant Kappeli originally opened in 1867, while the current building dates back to 1891. Kappeli was a popular hangout among artists in Helsinki. Sibelius spent a lot of time there around 1900, either partying with his artist friends, sometimes for three or four days at time, dining out or simply enjoying a glass of sherry and a cigar.

He was once phoned by his wife asking him for a forecast of when he might come back home. “My dear, I am a composer. I am involved in the business of composing music, not delivering forecasts,” was the reply.

Kappeli Restaurant and Café
Kappeli Restaurant and Café
Kappeli Café

Kämp, Pohjoisesplanadi 29
Opened in 1887, Hotel Kämp was where Sibelius, together with several other composers and artists comprising the informal Symposium Circle, gathered to discuss art and to get spectacularly drunk.

By the end of the 1880s Sibelius was spending many evenings at Hotel Kämp among the “Leskovites”, a musical group of friends so called after the dog Lesko, who belonged to Ferruccio Busoni, piano teacher at the Music Institute. Between 1892 and 1894 another group, the Symposion, gathered at the Kämp comprising Sibelius, the painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela and the conductor Robert Kajanus. Their spirited art discussions and merrymaking (ie cultured booze-fests) became legendary and were immortalised in the painter Gallen-Kallela’s Symposion.

Symposion, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1894

Sibelius continued to dine and stay at the Kämp into the 1930s.

The hotel eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1967, but a section of the façade was restored for the bank building that was built on the spot in 1969. In 1999 the bank was converted back into a five-star hotel, but the interior does not correspond to the original design.

Lundqvist’s Palace of Commerce, Aleksanterinkatu 13
Radical young cultural intellectuals formed a circle around the Swedish-language literary magazine Euterpe in 1902 and convened at the magazine’s editorial offices in this building. Sibelius spent many long spirited evenings at these gatherings, ultimately leading him to move to the countryside in Tuusula in 1904.

Helsinki, Aleksanterinkatu 13

Svenska teatern (Swedish Theatre)
Completed in 1866, this building became the centre of Swedish-language theatre in Helsinki. Sibelius’ first theatre composition Kristian II debuted here in 1898. In 1899 Svenska teatern presented a tableau depicting episodes from Finnish history to the accompaniment of music by Sibelius. The piece Finland Awakens, meant as a covert protest against Russian oppression, captivated audiences and would evolve to become the symphonic poem Finlandia. The decorative façade of the theatre was simplified in 1935, but the main hall and foyer would still feel familiar to Sibelius.

Svenska Teatern (Swedish Theatre)

Hotel Klaus K, Bulevardi 2–Erottaja 4
In the 1880s there was a wooden building on the corner of the streets, and just up the hill was the brick Paersch building that housed a German school for girls. Founded in 1882, the Helsinki Music Institute originally leased premises in the school, where Sibelius studied from 1885 to 1889. The music institute held exams and concerts in the main hall of the Paersch building, and Sibelius himself often played there and performed his early compositions.

In 1913 an Art Nouveau building was completed on the corner. In 1920 this was joined to the Paersch building to form the Rake hardware store. A hotel opened in the building in 1938, and the hardware store closed in the 1970s. The main hall of the Paersch building was restored in the 1980s and renamed Rake Hall.

Helsinki, Rake Hall at Hotel Klaus K
Helsinki Klaus K Hotel

Old Student House
The Old Student House was built in 1870 as a centre for student parties, organisations and cultural activities. It included a music hall, where student choirs could rehearse, and a banquet hall, where concerts were held. Sibelius attended these concerts, and in 1889 he performed as the violin soloist for the Academic Orchestra. His performance was praised, but thereafter Sibelius buried his childhood dreams of becoming a violin virtuoso. Instead, Sibelius’ male choir pieces would be sung in the music hall from the 1890s onwards.

The banquet hall was damaged by fire in 1978 but fully restored. Choir singing was discontinued in 2013, as the Student Union felt it disrupted the building’s restaurant activities!

Helsinki Old Student House
Helsinki Old Student House Banquet Hall

Fennia, Mikonkatu 17
Sibelius stayed often at the Hotel Fennia (opened in 1898) when visiting Helsinki – sometimes for weeks at a time when he sought peace and quiet in which to compose. On Sibelius’ 70th anniversary 8 December 1935, a banquet was held here. The guests heard his second symphony broadcast live from New York.

Helsinki Hotel Fennia

Finnish National Theatre
Regular theatre productions in Finnish began in Helsinki in 1872, and the long-awaited national theatre building was completed in 1902. The theatre’s inauguration was a national celebration for which Sibelius composed the piece The Origin of Fire (Tulen synty). The most famous of his compositions that was premiered here, however, is Valse triste, which was originally composed in 1903 for the play Death (Kuolema) written by his brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt.

Finnish National Theatre

Kaisaniemenkatu 1
In the early 1930s Sibelius tried to focus on composing his eighth symphony, and he spent long periods living in the hotel Karelia in this building. However, the composer grew increasingly self-critical and the symphony was never completed.

Helsinki Kaisaniemenkatu 1

Kalevankatu 45
Armas Järnefelt, future conductor and Sibelius’ friend, introduced him in 1888 to his sister Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969), and the two fell in love at first sight. Sibelius became a frequent guest at the Järnefelt’s home, befriending Aino’s brothers and adopting the family’s powerful patriotic sentiments.

Jean and Aino Sibelius married on 10 June 1892. The newlyweds rented an apartment at this address. The couple’s first child Eva was born here, and the first version of En Saga and the choral piece The Boat Journey (Venematka). The family moved out in spring 1893.

Helsinki Kalevankatu 45

Sibelius Academy, Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 9
In 1924 the Helsinki Music Institute, where Sibelius had studied, became the Helsinki Conservatory. The school finally got its own building in 1931 and was renamed Sibelius Academy with the composer’s consent in 1938. Sibelius conducted for the last time on 1 January 1939 in the academy’s concert hall. The Radio Orchestra performed Andante festivo in a live broadcast for the World’s Fair in New York. The rehearsal for this concert is the only existing recording of music conducted by Sibelius.

Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo)
The Helsinki Music Centre opened in 2011 and houses the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The HPO was founded in 1882 and performed the premieres of many of Sibelius’ main works under his leadership. The Helsinki Music Centre is also home to the Sibelius Academy.

Sibelius Akatemia

Sibelius memorial oak
In 1941 the Helsinki Society and Helsinki’s male choirs planted an oak tree by the City Garden in honour of Sibelius, who had just moved back to the city.

Töölö Sports Hall
In the 1930s Sibelius was at the height of his fame in Scandinavia, the UK and the USA. His 70th birthday was an international media event, and the old composer was inundated by tributes. On his birthday, 8 December 1935, a concert was held in the new Exhibition Hall (now the southern end of Töölö Sports Hall). Sibelius enjoyed the acclaim but afterwards no longer wished to appear in public due to his shaking hands.

Sibeliuksenkatu 11
In 1939 the Sibelius family rented a large apartment at Kammionkatu 11 A where they planned to stay during the winters. Their first stay was cut short by the Winter War, but from autumn 1940 to summer 1941 they lived in Töölö. Aino enjoyed living in the city, Jean less so. With the outbreak of the Continuation War in 1941, they decided to remain in Ainola in the countryside, and they gave up their city apartment in 1942.

Helsinki Sibeliuksenkatu 11

Sibelius Park and Sibeliuksenkatu
Sibelius’ acclaim in Finland was approaching hero worship, and as he grew older his birthdays were celebrated with ever more grandeur. In 1945, when Sibelius turned 80, the City of Helsinki named this park Sibelius Park. In 1965, to mark the 100th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth, Kammionkatu, the street where the composer lived for a short period, was renamed Sibeliuksenkatu.

Helsinki Sibelius Park

Sibelius-monumentti, Sibeliuksen puisto
The Sibelius Society organised a design competition for a memorial to the composer. It was won in 1962 by Eila Hiltunen’s entry Passio Musicae. The abstract design initially provoked a lot of controversy, but the issue was resolved by adding Sibelius’ bust to Hiltunen’s work. The Sibelius Monument was inaugurated in 1967 and soon became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki.

Helsinki Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument

Kallio Cathedral, Itäinen Papinkatu 2
The most played Sibelius’ work, Kellokoraali (bell choral) for seven bells, has rung out for over hundred years daily at 12pm and 6pm from the tower of the Art Nouveau Kallio Cathedral (completed in 1912).

Helsinki Kallio Cathedral

An Alvar Aalto Tour of Helsinki

Anyone who has visited an Apple store will have sat in the sleek High Stool 64 created by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. His curvaceous Savoy vase is still an icon of Finnish design 81 years after its creation. But these internationally known pieces are not the basis for Aalto’s title as the father of Modernism. His true claim to fame is his architectural prolificacy, and his distinctive Nordic Modernist style is on display throughout Finland, his home country.

During the course of the 20th Century, Aalto’s Modernist style – defined by the concept of functionalism – changed and matured, resulting in experimentation with particular materials like his “red brick period” and other styles such as Monumentalism, which is defined by massive, monumental buildings. In later years, his inclination for functionalism was often tempered with elements of humanism, in particular a softening of corners and an abundant use of wood and other natural materials.

Where Aalto was consistent – and original – was his devotion to the idea of Gensamkunstwerk (“total work of art”), where his buildings incorporated many different art forms, including craftsmanship, interior design and landscape design. He even dabbled in urban planning, lending his artistic vision to designs of university campuses and city centres.

Over the course of his 55-year career, Aalto worked on some 500 building projects, about 400 of which are in Finland.

There was a fortuitous practical side to Aalto’s success; having found favour with a rich industrialist, Harry Gullichsen, and his wife Maire, a series of important commissions suddenly came his way. A new residential area for employees of the Sunila factory was built under his direction in 1936-9, one of Finland’s first housing estates in the modernist context. As such, it could also take its inspiration from such 19th century prototypes as Bourneville, near Birmingham, which the Quaker Cadbury family had constructed for their workers. Like Bourneville, too, it could also be seen to have a social dimension, one in which the well-being of employees could be married to a prosperous democratic vision of the good society.

From the iceberg angles of Finlandia Hall to the ubiquitous curves of his iconic L-leg furniture, Aalto’s presence in Helsinki is inescapable. Visiting the landmarks of Aalto’s life and work is to discover the principles of functionality, a devotion to natural materials and a minimalist beauty that have all helped characterise Scandinavian design since the 1920s, and continued to drive its popularity to this day.

Any tour of Alvar Aalto’s Helsinki ought to begin at The Aalto House, unless you happen to be in Helsinki on the only days when public tours are not available! The Aalto House and Studio are open through guided tours only with days set aside for organised group tours only.

The Aalto House and Studio was the family home and working studio built by Aalto and his first wife, Aino, in 1936. Nestled in the residential neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi, a seaside neighbourhood that was barely developed when Aalto designed and built the home, the house is in largely the same condition as it was when Aalto lived here up until his death in 1976. The very fact that he inhabited this house for over 40 years speaks volumes about the philosophy that informed his attitude towards life and design. Never one for indulgence or over-embellishment, The Aalto House was constructed around ideas of comfortable functionality that would last for years.

Aino Aalto died in 1949, but Aalto continued to live here – later with his second wife, architect and author Elissa Mäkiniemi (1922-1994) – until his own death in 1976. Elissa Mäkiniemi continued to run the practice, and to live in the Aalto House, until she died in 1994.

(L) The Aalto House-studio in the 1930s
(R) Family life at the Aalto House in the 1930s
(L) The fully functioning Studio Aalto in the 1960s
(R) Alvar Aalto at work

Containing distinct studio and living spaces, the home exemplifies the functionalism of Aalto’s early career, with such practical features as a walk-in closet in the bedroom (unusual at that time) and a two-sided china cabinet that is accessible from both the kitchen and the dining room. But the plentiful use of natural materials, including a dining room wall covered in brown suede, hints at the humanist bend his designs would take in the coming years.

The simple appearance of the house masks a complex, even experimental, structural framework that incorporates load-bearing brick walls, timber cladding, steel columns and a concrete structure supporting the ceiling – a mishmash of architectural ideas that is counterbalanced by the stylistic coherence of the building’s interior. As expected, wood dominates inside, from the living room floorboards through to the 1920s Italian dining chairs (purportedly bought on Alvar and Aino’s honeymoon) and the large sliding screen that separates the house’s domestic area from the studio space. The studio was the home of Aalto’s architectural practice from 1936 to 1955, until the gradual growth of the business rendered the space obsolete and the team was forced to move five minutes away to a new location named Studio Aalto.

“Alvar’s idea for a studio at The Aalto House represented an important change in ideas of workspace for an architect in the mid-30s,” explains Malmberg. “This is like an artist’s studio, with a large window facing north providing uniform light, whereas the newer space [at Studio Aalto] has windows on all sides to maximise the sunlight coming in.”

Aalto House exterior today
Aalto House interior today
Aalto House living room

As Aalto’s career progressed, he needed more room to work, and in 1955 he designed a separate atelier nearby, Studio Aalto. The curving walls of this white-washed building arc around a courtyard amphitheatre, a space that was used for client presentations and meetings. Bay windows and skylights allow for plenty of natural light – ideal for examining documents and drawings. Every last detail was designed to enhance the aesthetic and work environment.

Studio Aalto is reminiscent of a modern architectural workspace with large desks, computer screens and scale models. Despite Aalto’s death in 1976, Studio Aalto remained as a working practice until the Alvar Aalto Foundation took over the building in 1994. A small group of architects still work there today maintaining Aalto’s built legacy, which includes nearly 200 major projects.

Studio Aalto today

Like the Aalto House, Studio Aalto is experimental in its form. The only office in the nearby residential area, the building seems to, quite literally, turn its back on the neighbourhood, merely revealing a white wall to the street. Inside, the structure curves around a courtyard and amphitheatre (used for film screenings in Aalto’s day), revealing one of the crucial ideas behind the designer’s architectural practice.

It is from this studio that Aalto designed some of his most celebrated works.

After the Second World War erupted, there were important commissions of a more practical nature to preoccupy the architect. The requirement of providing vital accommodation for those in desperate need of cheap housing came to dominate his work. During the war, Aalto had already come to see standardized housing as the only viable solution to massive displacements. In quest of inspiration, he travelled extensively in the US, seeking efficient prototypes. Thus, when he became involved with the development of the suburb of Haaga, in the hands of a private cooperative association, prefabricated elements played a major role. This approach, with its theoretical background, he was able to popularize through the good offices of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari, author of the world-famous novel, The Egyptian (1945), who assisted him in the production of a booklet on the subject. A sculpture to the memory of Waltari by Veikko Kirvimäki was erected in 1985 near the Hesperia Hospital, not far from where the novelist lived.

In 1953-5, Aalto built his famous Iron House (Rautatalo) at Keskuskatu 3A. Based upon a simple plan making efficient use of a very constricted site, shops occupy most of the building, in which Artek was formerly situated in the basement, while Marimekko opened, along with other offices, at the top. There is also a spacious interior courtyard on the first floor, containing cafés. In constructional terms, it is the first building in which Aalto made use of marble and travertine for his stepped galleries, incorporated into what is basically a structure of reinforced concrete.

This was followed later in 1955 by the House of Culture, a major concert venue situated at Sturenkatu 4 in the centre of town. A five-story curvaceous building (also containing offices) faced in brick with copper elements, it includes an asymmetrical concert hall accommodating 1,500 people as well as a congress wing. Studio Aalto at Tiilimäki 20 was designed the same year.

House of Culture

His House of Culture in Sturenkatu (Sturegatan), built between 1955 and 1958, was the first great musical venue to appear in the Finnish capital since before the Second World War. Basically composed of two separate units, one side contains the concert hall, with its voluptuous curves and richly textured red brick walls. The other is a five-story office block, adorned by a copper-plated façade, somewhat withdrawn from the street and joined to the other unit by a canopied bridge-like section at the rear.

House of Culture

In 1962, Aalto built the administration building of the pulp and paper company Stora Enso, with its marble cladding, just over the bridge on Katajanokka. This was followed in 1965 by his new plan for the complete redevelopment of Helsinki’s centre. Designed to be carried out in two stages, little of it actually ever came to fruition and his great vision, based upon the purest concepts of modernity, was never fully realized. This had consisted of a fan-shaped square, with terraced buildings, along the western shore of Töölö Bay. Only one component was finally constructed, Finlandia Hall. It provided the city with the most important concert hall since the White Hall was constructed for that purpose on Senate House Square in 1925.

Finlandia Hall

Finlandia Hall is easily Finland’s most recognisable building. Rising up from beautiful Töölönlahti Bay in the middle of the city, this modest white fortress is a breathtaking sight to behold.

While the visual effect is imposing and impressive from the outside, the purpose of the auditorium’s high roof was to enhance the acoustics on the inside (with limited success). and the warm interiors reflect nature’s own hues and forms. Finlandia Hall is stunning at any time of day but come at night and you will see a spectacular display of light as the hall is reflected in the bay.

Finlandia Hall

With a façade decorated by a mélange of Carrara marble and black granite, it reflects Aalto’s late-career interest in Monumentalism. The main auditorium was built in 1971 and the Congress wing, with a number of conference halls, completed some four years later. As such, it is the only building in Aalto’s great plan for Helsinki of the years 1967-71 to be constructed. The principal auditorium of the concert hall accommodates 1,750 people — a sharp contrast with that of the White Hall, which only holds 400; there is also smaller hall for chamber music, seating 350.

Finlandia Hall – main auditorium
Finlandia Hall – main auditorium

The premises he built in 1969 on the Pohjoisesplanadi, opposite Stockmann’s, for the Academic Bookstore took inspiration from his much earlier work at the Library in Viipuri and has become one of Aalto’s best-loved buildings in the city centre.

Academic Bookstore (Akademiska Bokhandeln) – great selection of books, in all major languages

The Akademiska Bokhandeln (or Academic Bookstore) in the heart of Helsinki’s commercial district is fronted by a rectilinear shell of dark copper – a somewhat austere contrast to the atrium space of the bookshop’s ground floor, which is flanked by white marble staircases and sits below stunning, angular skylights. It is the largest bookshop in Helsinki and features an extensive English language books section, which contains work by Finnish writers.

The Academic Bookstore lies at one end of the Esplanade, which consists of two major shopping strips full of essential Finnish design stores including Marimekko, Iittala and Aalto’s own Artek.

Artek store
Artek – Ball chair by Eero Aarnio
Artek – Cute miniature chairs 🙂

Another pit stop for furniture enthusiasts is Artek 2nd Cycle Store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of vintage stools and armchairs. The store was set up in 2011 to refurbish and repurpose pre-owned pieces of furniture from Artek and other classic designers besides Aarto, including Ilmari Tapiovaara and Charles and Ray Eames.

On the south side of the Esplanade, Ravintola Savoy (Savoy Restaurant) sits atop the Industrial Palace building, where it has overlooked the city since 1937. The bespoke furniture designed especially for the site by Aalto and his first wife Aino combined with the views over Helsinki make the Savoy a special site in itself. And that’s all before you taste the authentically Finnish menu by head chef Kari Aihinen, whose dishes include octopus carpaccio, fillet of deer and cloudberry pastries.

Chef Kari Aihinen of Ravintola Savoy, Helsinki

Main course – Grilled pike perch and lobster , butternut squash and red wine and orange sauce
Selection of Petit Sevens 🙂 by Savoy’s Pastry Chef – including a cherry macaroon!

A Lazy Sunday in Helsinki

There are more than 20 Moomin cafés and dozens of Moomin shops in countries all over the world and incredibly the four licensed Moomin cafés in Helsinki have only opened in the last 12 months. The first café to open at Mumin Kaffe at Liisankatu 21 in Helsinki.

Mumin Kaffe
Liisankatu 21

It’s time to share a cinnamon bun (korvapuusti) with Snork Maiden. Yummy!

Mumin Kaffe
Liisankatu 21
Mumin Kaffe
Liisankatu 21

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was an artist of many talents. She was a painter, novelist, comic artist, illustrator and writer and is best known as the creator of the Moomins. Tove’s party frescoes are on display at Helsinki Art Museum.

Little bears love parties!

Party in the countryside, 1947
Tove Jansson
Party in the city, 1947
Tove Jansson

And play time!

Sculptor Pekka Kauhanen (b. 1954) has designed many public works of art for various sites in Finland. One of them is the National Memorial to the Winter War that was unveiled in Kasarmitori Square in Helsinki on 30 November 2017.

Open to many interpretations, his works are all highly accessible and also humorous. According to Kauhanen, he uses a Lego-style method to create the sculptures, assembling them of components made of different materials that are then cast in bronze, aluminium or stainless steel. Some are on display at Helsinki Art Museum.

Look back and You’ll see in front, 2017
Pekka Kauhanen
Squashed figure with shadow, 2017
Pekka Kauhanen
Pekka Kauhanen sculptures

A ten minute walk from the Helsinki Art Museum, Café Ekberg goes all the way back to 1852 and is famed across the city for its sweets. Classic in its structure and service, the bakery and patisserie serve unique Finnish brunches along with a number of delicious cakes.

Cinnamon bun at Café Ekberg

Helsinki was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1808. The future capital of the Grand Duchy was provided with a town plan in 1812 in which a promenade was to separate the new stone construction from the colony of wooden houses on the southern margin.

Esplanade Park

Architect Carl Ludvik Engel’s park plan of 1826 divided the area into three. The eastern end, modern-day Kappeli Esplanadi, was constructed first. It was a fenced area, with the gate being closed at night. In the western end, modern-day Theatre Esplanadi, there has been a theatre since 1827. The facade of the current theatre was rebuilt in 1936.

Svenska Teatern (Swedish Theatre)

It was Svante Olsson, the Swedish son of a torpare (a variety of crofter) who left the greatest imprint on the Esplanade. He had already carried out important landscape designs in Sweden, first at the great aristocratic estates of Tullgarn and Säfstaholm, then at royal properties at Stockholm’s Palace and Haga. When he arrived in Helsinki, aged thirty-three, to become the city’s first landscape gardener, a huge task lay before him and he was to remain here for over fifty years. The Esplanade had previously served as a grazing ground for horses, and it was not one urban entity, but three — Kappeli Esplanadi, Runeberg Esplanadi and Theatre Esplanadi, focused as they were around their most significant features. But the landscaping activities of Olsson gave them a new “green” unity. In 1889 he radically altered this area, one of the city’s four so-called green spaces, by laying out trees, shrubs and flowerbeds throughout the park. He also encouraged the development of other green spaces, so that by the 1920s the city had at least thirty-two.

The park was turned into cultivated land in 1918 during the time of shortage caused by the First World War. Cabbages, swedes and potatoes were grown instead of roses.

Roses flowering in December!

The café and restaurant Kappeli originally opened in 1867, on the site where a herdsman were said to have sold milk. The current building dates back to 1891. Kappeli was a popular hangout among artists in Helsinki.

Kappeli Café and Restaurant
Kappeli Café and Restaurant

Sibelius spent a lot of time there around 1900, either partying with his artist friends, sometimes for three or four days at time, dining out or simply enjoying a glass of sherry and a cigar. He was once phoned by his wife asking him for a forecast of when he might come back home. “My dear, I am a composer. I am involved in the business of composing music, not delivering forecasts,” was the reply.

Kappeli café

The day ended at Finlandia Hall with a Laura Voutilainen concert.

Laura Voutilainen

Who is Laura Voutilainen? We don’t know either. Well, we do now. She is a Finnish pop singer, and she is really good! But it doesn’t look like she has any English language market penetration. The concert was for her latest album, released earlier this year, Miks Ei.

Laura Voutilainen
Laura Voutilainen and band

Blue and White Helsinki

The First World War shattered the old world, destroyed cities and gave birth to new national states. Helsinki remained the natural capital when Finland separated from Russia and became an independent republic in December 1917 under the shadow of world war and the Russian revolution.

Many of Helsinki’s strongest meanings are embodied by waterways. The capital city is shaped and defined by the Baltic Sea. The river, the ocean waterfront areas, the bays, shores and coastlines, as well as the isthmus site have, to varying degrees, figured prominently in the historical development of the city. The sea has played a role in building the city’s economic and symbolic image, as well as its spiritual urban essence, its blue-whiteness. The historic centre, located on the narrow peninsula, is linked to the sea in an exquisite fashion, and its neoclassical waterfront façade is the well-known emblem of the capital.

Helsinki has a particularly rich shoreline and very different spaces linking the city and the water. The presence of nature plays a central role in the city’s urban image. As the seat of government in Finland, Helsinki was mainly created in the 19th and 20th centuries, which were “centuries of capitals”. As a result, there is nothing medieval or feudal in Helsinki’s atmosphere. The first phase of the planning took place under the special circumstances of Russian rule, yielding a city of order and dignity. Engel’s city plan created the white architectural image of the neoclassical parts of central Helsinki. The central area of the city still retains rather low roof heights, and any vertical element is highly visible in the townscape. Even so, Helsinki today is no longer bound by this neo-classicist framework. During more than 150 years that have passed since Engel’s blueprint, alternative urban and planning approaches have been explored and a unique capital city has been constructed. With the 1952 Summer Olympics Helsinki joined the exclusive club of Olympic cities.

Helsinki’s stunning geographical location, extraordinary history and cultural riches make it one of the world’s most fascinating cities, situated in the innermost recesses of a wide archipelago, with seemingly endless islands, dotted by ancient and modern fortifications and the occasional summer cottage.

It is a city in which town and country enmesh in harmonious fashion. A busy urban thoroughfare can suddenly terminate in an unexpected wilderness of stark boulders and lofty pines, looming against a backdrop of blue sea and sky. As the French visitor and Fellow of the French Academy Xavier Marmier (1808-92) put it so bucolically after his visit in 1838:

This town stretches over a vast peninsula, dotted with rustic hills and cool vales; the sea surrounds it on all sides like a girdle of gold and silver, studded with woods and granite rocks. Here the sandy coast dips down level with the waves, which toss on it with a soft murmur their lace of foam, their fringes of mother-of-pearl and sky-blue. There the coast bristles with a rampart of massive rocks, topped further away by a pine forest. On the esplanade, on the quay, on the squares, there is activity, the continuous movement of people, horses, and, a few hundred years away, there is wild solitude, the far horizon, and no other sound than the sighing of the waves or the moaning of the wind.

Helsinki also lays claim to fame as one of the world’s most northern capitals, situated on the 60th parallel. Yet it is a city in which the balmy warmth of the summer’s day (last year it was a Thursday 🙂 ) can be enjoyed along the banks shallow ponds and lakes of almost spring-like warmth. Despite its cold winters, its environs have long sheltered human habitation. Indeed, its prehistoric settlement is far longer than its historical one.

The area around Helsinki had been colonised as far back as seven thousand years ago, at Kaarela, Pitäjänmäki and Vantaa, though it was first during the early Iron Age that more permanent settlements were established. Yet an increasingly cold climate and the ravages of the Vikings and even of the Finns themselves, who sometimes pillaged the coast eastwards as far as Novgorod, curtailed the lives of these settlements as well as of their inhabitants. Yet as the centuries rolled by, the inroads of the Vikings were gradually substituted by the arrival of Christianised Swedish colonists, many from the coastal areas of Norrland and Hälsingland, but some even from the Swedish interior, especially in the years around 1100.

At first these immigrants settled the coastlands from the Gulf of Bothnia, in the west, to the site of Espoo, just to the west of present-day Helsinki. But, within a century, they had moved further east, to colonise the coast of present-day Uusimaa, the province in which Helsinki is now situated. Only the outbreak of the Black Death in the late 1340s put a halt to this immigration, as the internal migrations of peasants, hunters and gatherers in Sweden itself reduce their need to seek work elsewhere. Still, numerous settlements on the south coast of Finland thrived despite visitations of the plague in the late 1340s. Koskela, a village near which Helsinki would later be founded, had already been long established by the time it first appears in historical chronicles from 1417, though virtually nothing remains to be seen from that period.

Although Finland, in political terms, had been integrated into the Swedish dominions as far back as the 12th century, Helsinki itself only became a political entity during the reign of Gustav Vasa (1496-1560), the first hereditary king of Sweden and the monarch who introduced the Reformation. It was during his reign that the first example of Finnish literature appeared in 1542: an ABC, under the auspices of Michael Agricola (C. 1510-57), Bishop of Turku and Finland’s leading Protestant reformer.

After the foundation of Helsinki at the mouth of the Vantaa River by royal decree on June 12, 1550, numerous burghers from such Finnish towns as Tammisaari, Porvoo, Rauma and Ulvila were obliged to move to the new settlement. The king’s intention was to make his new “city” a mercantile rival to the Danish Hanseatic one of Tallinn on the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland, for it was hoped that it would derive its wealth from the prosperous Baltic and Russian trade. But fate was to dash his hopes since the shallowness of the bay and other factors frustrated his plan to create a good harbour, and within a few years the unhappy settlers, after ardent and piteous petitions, were finally permitted to return to their previous homes. Many did, but fortunately not all. It was their descendants who in 1640 were relocated at Vironniemi in Finland, a name associated with Estonian traders and that part of Helsinki is known today as Kruununhaka.

Yet the city’s period of prosperity had still not arrived. In fact, in the late 17th century it suffered from a variety of disasters, not least fires, which ravaged the wooden town at regular intervals. As a result, Helsinki hardly grew in size as the 18th century dawned, it had no more than 1,700 inhabitants.

When the Russian Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) founded his new imperial capital St Petersburg in 1703 on the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland, the portents for a new and even more ominous era seemed to have arrived, one with dire implications for Sweden-Finland. Already two years before, the Great Northern War had broken out between Sweden and Russia, a state of hostilities that continued until 1721. Despite the brilliant martial qualities of the Swedish King Karl XII, it became clear to the world that Sweden’s brief position as a great power was at an end. After peace was made, the Russian border was radically readjusted to the detriment of Sweden-Finland, a situation that its rulers were powerless to change. Not only was the important province of Karelia, including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg, in Russian), lost to Russia, but Helsinki now found itself out on a limb, within a short journey from the new Russian frontier that was now literally on its maritime doorstep.

True, in the wake of the city’s evacuation to avoid brutal treatment by the Russian forces, it was burnt to the ground by the departing Swedish administration itself, keen to ensure that no practical use of the site could be made by the invaders. But with the subsequent return of Helsinki to Sweden, this was to prove the last catastrophe to afflict it on such a scale. Henceforth, Helsinki would accommodate its residents without a break and without the alien occupation of enemy troops. As a result of such continuity, a significant number of Helsinki families can even today trace their ancestry back to the 16th century. Later, the so-called War of the Hats broke out between Sweden-Finland and Russia and raged in the years 1741-3, taking its toll on the political and social fabric of the city, with a renewed occupation by Russian forces. But this proved a minor setback in the generally modest growth in prosperity that Helsinki enjoyed in the course of the 18th century. In fact, by 1800 Helsinki had grown into a rather large town, by Swedish standards, with around 3,000 inhabitants excluding an even greater number of military personnel and ancillary staff who resided on Viapori (now Suomenlinna in Finnish, Sveaborg in Swedish) its recently built military fortress. As such, Helsinki had become Sweden’s fourth largest town with a harbour, in terms of mercantile imports the third most important in the kingdom.

The upheavals of the Napoleonic period brought about many changes in the city, but by 1809, as the war between Sweden and Russia came to an end, a new era of economic prosperity and political importance dawned for Helsinki. With the Treaty of Hamina, Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Czar, even if the administrative capital continued to be Turku. Yet the fire that in 1827 destroyed much of Finland’s old capital – a city in any case tainted for the Czar by its close geographic, economic, social and cultural links to Sweden – made a major development of Helsinki, itself ravaged by fire in 1808, a necessity and so it came under consideration as the new capital. All the more so as it was much nearer to St Petersburg, and thus more subject to Russian influence.

The fire that had broken out on November 17, 1808, was the most fateful but also the most fruitful for Helsinki. A young man, Gustaf Lindqvist, employed by a local trader by the name of Cadenius, knocked over a candle in a wooden shed. As a result of the rapid spread of the ensuing fire, more than a quarter of Helsinki was destroyed, as sixty-one houses were razed to the ground. Terrible as it was, this happened at a very fortuitous moment, when the needs of the Russian Czar coincided with those of his new grand-ducal capital.

This provided the opportunity for the creation of what was really a totally new city, dependent upon the financial largesse of the Czar Alexander I (1777-1825) and conceived as a whole under the direction of the German architect Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840). The reconstruction included the building of both Lutheran and Orthodox churches, government buildings and a new university. It was to take more than thirty years to accomplish, after the deaths of both the architect and his patron. Still, by the 1850s the grand designs of Engel had been completed and the city assumed a proud and elegant appearance, one of which its by now 16,000 inhabitants were rightfully proud. The outbreak in 1853 of the Crimean War, which was to last three years, had little lasting effect on Helsinki, despite the bombardment of Suomenlinna Fortress on islands at the entrance to the city’s harbour.

The city’s growth and development did not stop there. In 1880 some three quarters of the city’s architecture was still composed of one and two-story wooden buildings, but this was soon to change dramatically. By 1900 Helsinki had grown into the Grand Duchy’s most important industrial centre and a city of 91,000 inhabitants. In the process, construction on a massive scale rapidly transformed the face of the city. In essence, this urban growth was a reflection of industrial development and change in the rest of Finland, leading to large-scale migration, not only from country to town, but abroad as well.

Other major changes were also underway. In 1906 Finnish women were granted the franchise, making Finland one of the first political entities to give women the vote, after New Zealand. This was quite an extraordinary feat, considering it was still part of the Russian Empire, where such a political franchise was otherwise impossible. The city, meanwhile, continued to expand. By the advent of the First World War, Helsinki’s population had grown to 140,000. The First World War, independence in December 1917, and ensuing Civil War in the early months of 1918, created upheaval both social and political, but these were temporary and by 1920 the city had grown still further.

The city’s great test was to come with the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. By the advent of the Winter War of 1939-40, the population of Helsinki had burgeoned to 317,000 as large numbers of refugees from the east flooded into the capital. War against the Soviet Union broke out again in 1941, leading to Finnish recovery of the ceded territories and lasted until 1944 when the Finns were irreversible forced out, resulting in the final resettlement of thousands of Karelians (from the former Finnish territory of West Karelia) throughout Finland, but especially in Helsinki. The lost territories were then ceded to the Soviet Union. Despite bombing, most of the city was left intact since relatively few bombs hit their targets and after an initial onslaught when the Russians had other objectives to focus upon. One of the terms of peace between Finland and Soviet Union was that the Finns turn on their erstwhile German co-belligerents, which they did, declaring war on and then driving out the Nazi forces stationed in the north of the country in the so-called Lapland War of 1944.

When the war ended with a return to normality in 1946, a large number of new independent communities sprang up around Helsinki and these, along with the older ones, were incorporated into the city. In contrast to the relatively expensive and more up-market accommodation in central Helsinki, the new suburbs were built as cheaply as possible, and with little attention paid to architectural details or the luxury of space; the desperate priority of housing large numbers of refugees quickly had made speed a necessity. Still, many incorporated a simplified modernist design and took advantage of the city’s unspoiled surrounding countryside.

The 1950s was a period of redevelopment, but by the 1960s and 1970s the tide was turning and an increasing number of people returned to the inner city of Helsinki. There, during the 1980s and 1990s, old industrial areas, occasionally dotted with even older wooden houses, once again met residential needs as the industrial fabric was removed or redeveloped.

The best place to being a tour of Helsinki is in the market place in front of the Swedish Embassy, not far from the South Harbour, near where the boats formerly arrived from Sweden, Estonia and elsewhere, carrying thousands of tourists every day to and from the capital. If one stands with one’s back to the old Quarantine Basin, at the foot of the Esplanade, one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Finnish capital in all directions. To see the west – in front – look up the central promenade, extending through the leafy park, full of cafes, which makes up the Esplanade. This grand thoroughfare was laid down in the early 19th century, and the Swedish Theatre stands in the background, with the old red light district and the working-class area of Iso Roobertinkatu beyond.

It was Svante Olsson, the Swedish son of a torpare (a variety of crofter) who left the greatest imprint on the Esplanade. He had already carried out important landscape designs in Sweden, first at the great aristocratic estates of Tullgarn and Säfstaholm, then at royal properties at Stockholm’s Palace and Haga. When he arrived in Helsinki, aged thirty-three, to become the city’s first landscape gardener, a huge task lay before him and he was to remain here for over fifty years. The Esplanade had previously served as a grazing ground for horses, and it was not one urban entity, but three— namely, the Kappeli Esplanadi, the Runeberg Esplanadi and the Theatre Esplanadi, focused as they were around their most significant features. But the landscaping activities of Olsson gave them a new “green” unity. In 1889 he radically altered this area, one of the city’s four so-called green spaces, by laying out trees, shrubs and flowerbeds throughout the park. He also encouraged the development of other green spaces, so that by the 1920s the city had at least thirty-two. He then redeveloped the hilltop upon which Engel’s Observatory is situated into one of Helsinki’s most charming parks, a project that took fifteen years to complete. Yet, at the time, he faced considerable opposition, and at one stage, an important and ungrateful government official revoked his free pass on the city’s trams. Despite this slight, he preferred to remain in Helsinki rather than take up the position of Head Gardener to the City of Stockholm.

To the left of the Esplanade, southwards, towards the boat terminals, rise up the hill on which the Observatory is situated, at its foot the Kaivopuisto Gardens, where the famous Ullanlinna Spa was located, and some of the grandest of the old aristocratic residences.

To the right, northwards, however – and this is the most picturesque of the views – stands the true heart of Helsinki, Senate Square, the University, the old Senate House and rising above these neoclassical buildings like a crown, the Great Church of St Nicholas. Beyond it, hidden from view across the Long Bridge, is the old industrial working-class district of the capital. And beyond this new suburbs extend, embedded among the granite boulders and gentle pine-covered hills, each representing a different generation of Helsinki residents. As the city has expanded to the north like a fan, it now covers quite a number of islands on either side of the peninsula on which old Helsinki is situated.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the sea – the Gulf of Finland, with its countless islands of granite boulders, interspersed with the occasional pine. For centuries the sea has been the primary conduit of communication for Helsinki, for trade as well as for the less welcome arrival of foreign troops. More recently, it has also provided a splendid venue for tourists keen to experience some of Europe’s most beautiful and pristine nature, where the colours blue and white dominate, the colours, fittingly, of the Finnish flag.

Today, parts of Kruununhaka, situated between Senate House Square and Pohjoisranta, remain as the oldest area of Helsinki still in use as a residential area. An area of tall, eclectically inspired houses, its apartments tend to be large and comfortable. This district had been constructed long before the great re-development of the city under Czar Alexander I in the early 19th century. In those early days, Finland was under the sovereignty of the kings of Sweden. Indeed, Finland had belonged to Sweden since the 13th century and would do so until the Napoleonic Wars effected its transfer to Russia.

During the 17th century the grandest residence, where the royal Swedish governor Count Per Brahe the Younger (1602-80) stayed on his rare visits to the province, was situated by the harbour. Two stories high, it encompassed a ballroom – an extraordinary luxury in Finland at that time – with a special suite reserved for Brahe, whose father, the elder Per Brahe, had been a courtier of King Gustav Vasa. It was he who had made the younger Brahe a count and a member of the council of regency as well as the governor of Finland during the years 1637-41 and again from 1648-54.

Other courtiers, government officials representing the Swedish Crown, and various dependents were also beginning to take up residency, at least occasionally, in Helsinki, even if Turku continued to be the capital throughout Swedish rule and well into the 19th century. Some of the estates they owned and occupied were situated in the countryside outside Helsinki and were directly linked to royal largesse. Gustaf II Adolf (1594-1632), for example, had granted the demesnes of Meilahti, Munkkiniemi, Tali, Huopalahti, Latokartano and Lauttasaari to the riding master Gerdt Skytte, a devoted retainer of the king and an important courtier of his time.

Meilahti’s history through the centuries is a mirror, in many ways, of that of the ruling circles of Helsinki itself. Thus, with political vagaries most of the lands connected to Meilahti had already been transferred to the ownership of the corporation of Helsinki in 1650, at which time they were used for both residential and grazing purposes. Then in 1682 the estate was again transferred, this time into the ownership of the war commissioner Johan Gripenberg. His proprietorship also proved brief, and by the 18th century the wealthy Dutch immigrant sea-faring Mattheizen family had acquired it. They embellished the Baroque country house erected there with Chinese tapestries and other grand decorations still to be found on view.

After Finland was transferred to Russia as an independent Grand Duchy under the Czar, Meilahti once again acquired new owners. None other than the new governor general, Count Fabian Steinheil, purchased it during the 1820s together with the rest of Tamminiemi. His contribution was to add a small country residence in the empire style, a style much favoured in the heady days of early imperial rule in Finland.

Under his daughter and her husband, Count Stewen-Steinheil, Meilahti enjoyed a period of splendor during the 1840s, never to be seen before or since. Among the guests who stayed there for lengthy periods while enjoying the seemingly endless festivities were the famous Count Vladimir Musin-Pushkin and his wife Emilie, as well as her sister, Aurora Karamzin, a famous beauty of the Russian Court who was also a lady-in-waiting to the Czarina Alexandra, consort of Nicholas I. The house and garden became the venue for a splendid cavalcade of aristocratic gatherings throughout the summer months. It was said that even the lawns were draped with fabrics so as to prevent the ladies from sullying the trains of their gowns.

Aurora Karamzin was also associated with another important country house of the nineteenth century, the Villa Hakasalmi (Hagasund), today the City Museum at Töölönranta. Designed by Ernst Bernhard Lohrmann, the German who had succeeded Carl Ludwig Engel as the city’s chief architect, and built in 1843-7, it was first the home of Carl Johan Wallen, an important administrator in the city’s government and former governor of Viipuri in Karelia to the east. Situated just outside the city limits, it combined the amenities of both town and country. Of the two principal floors, the lower contained the kitchen, service rooms, and the rooms used every day by the family; on the floor above were the public rooms, used more rarely: two salons, the dining room and a guest room. Its stylistic appearance differed radically from that favoured by Engel, eschewing strict classicism in favour of an Italianate villa arrangement and style. After the owner’s death, Aurora, who was Wallen’s stepdaughter, took over the villa. She continued to live there until her death in 1902. Strange to say, her descendant Catherine Oxenberg, the daughter of a Yugoslavian princess, became famous as the character Amanda in the famous American television serial Dynasty.

As for Meilahti, it was once again sold in 1847, this time to Count Alexander Kushelev-Bezborodko. He was the first of a number of proprietors who briefly lived there, including Captain Gustaf Jägerskiöld, until in the 1870s the city of Helsinki once again acquired it. Not only did the summerhouse enter Jägerskiöld’s ownership, but the island of Seurasaari, too, on which the open-air historic village museum would later be created. Other principal parts of the property were then conceived as part of a new suburban villa zone, but since no one showed any interest in purchasing them, far from the city as they were, the area remained undeveloped for some years.

To the east, however, such plans for development proved more successful, and in 1873 the architect F. L. Calonius built the luxurious Villa Kesäranta, now used as the official residence of the prime minister. In today’s context the most important building erected at Tamminiemi from imperial times was the Villa Tamminiemi (Ekkudden), designed by the architect Gustaf Nyström, later the residence between the 1940s and 1980s of successive presidents of Finland, most famously of President Urho Kekkonen.

The periphery of Helsinki still abounds with a number of other noteworthy manor houses from the Gustavian period. These include Tuomarinkylä Manor from 1790, situated at Kartanomuseontie. It had been commissioned by Johannes Weckström, an administrator of military finances, but changed owners several times until in 1917 the City of Helsinki acquired it. Restored in 1960 and more recently in 1986, it serves as a museum of country house life of the late eighteenth century. Also noteworthy is the late eighteenth-century Espoo Manor House to the west of Helsinki, which originally belonged to Governor Anders Henrik Ramsay, the scion of a Scottish family who had immigrated to Finland. It was considerably altered in 1914-15 by W. G. Palmqvist, who extended it and added a large colonnade that serves as a verandah. A bridge with stone vaulting, the oldest of its kind in Finland, is also to be found in its park, not far from Espoo Church, with origins in the late fifteenth century.

Like so many cities and towns in Finland at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Helsinki was a conglomeration of wooden houses and other buildings, prone to the ravages of fires. One of the last remaining examples of these wooden homes can be seen in Kruununhaka, where the Burgher’s House, at Kristianinkatu 12, now a branch of the City Museum, is decorated, as it would have been in the 1860s. A relatively small house, its modest interior is furnished in the fashion of the times, including an interesting period kitchen. It remains unmistakably rustic in appearance, so unlike those built in other European cities during the mid-nineteenth century.

It was the very destructiveness of Helsinki’s fires that also provided the opportunities for renewal, with wider streets, larger houses and more fashionable amenities than before. When in November 1808 a great fire ravaged the whole of the city, devastating the area between the two harbors to the north and the south, it presented a pretext for the rebuilding of this strategically important fishing port and garrison town. Originally, a military officer named Anders Kocke provided a plan for the reconstruction, based upon the earlier layout of the small town but with minor extensions along the “rational” rectilinear layouts prevalent in Europe and the United States at that time. But after Finland was transferred to Russian rule in 1809, many changes were in the offing. Helsinki was about to become the new and vibrant capital of the Russian Empire’s latest territorial acquisition. This initiative was duly seized by the Russian Czar, who promulgated an imperial decree in 1812, according to which not only was the transfer of the governmental seat to Helsinki confirmed, but the creation of a new and imposing capital laid out. The plan was given its final form five years later in 1817 under the direction of Johan Albrecht Ehrenström. Ehrenström (1762-1847), an entrepreneurial figure, had lived a colourful life not without its up and downs. He had been put in the pillory in 1793 and was later imprisoned for treason, having had his death penalty commuted. Yet after 1811 his position in Finland seemed to change as he was rehabilitated and became actively involved in the redevelopment of the new Finnish capital.

It had obviously not been a very prepossessing place in these days, if the Pole Faddei Bulgarin, who had first visited the city in 1808-9 while a soldier in the Russian army, is to be believed. It was, he remarked, “one of the most insignificant and wretched little towns in Finland, a village, almost, a few streets of red wooden houses, built on rocks and impassable mud.” Perhaps it is the old Burgher’s House that provides the best illustration of this aspect of old Helsinki, though it is decorated in the style of the 1860s rather than of the time of its construction. Yet it was the end of a tradition, rather than the start of a new one.

Sensing the opportunity of turning this new rustic capital into a showcase city, Alexander I commissioned one of his favourite architects, Carl Ludvig Engel, to create a new and majestic city centre for the Finnish capital. This was to be the beginning of the German architect’s immensely significant relationship with Helsinki. He left his mark on the city as no other architect would do before or since, for he was to build thirty public buildings and to supervise the construction of more than six hundred others.

Engel had first come to Finland in 1814, when he carried out a design for a sugar refinery at Turku, and was shocked by the ruggedness of the terrain. As he wrote to his parents from Helsinki on May Day 1816, since:

all of Finland is nothing but a rocky cliff … boulders the size of buildings must be blasted away where the new streets will be laid out. The crashing and banging of exploding stone is heard day in, day out, at all points where the new city is to be built.

By no means despairing, however, Engel saw this as a unique opportunity and eagerly took up the challenge.

Engel’s first commission from the Czar was the restoration of the old Bock House, on the southeastern corner of Senate Square, at the corner of Aleksanterinkatu and Katariinankatu, carried out between 1816 and 1819. This structure had originally been built in 1763 for the merchant Gustaf Bock, but in 1801 had become the residence of an important city official. Under the Czar’s scheme, it was to serve as the new residence of the governor general, the imperial representative appointed to live in the capital. To this end, it was enlarged in 1817 by the addition of an upper floor, in which a ballroom was placed and a balcony attached for public proclamations and such like. It was from here that Alexander I, on a rare visit to Helsinki, appeared before the crowds gathered outside on his name day, September 11, 1818. As he showed himself on the balcony, to great popular acclaim, the new façade provided a perfect backdrop, decorated as it was by a diminutive Ionic portico of four free-standing columns supporting a triangular pediment incorporated into the upper two floors. The renovated building also contained a large barrel-vaulted assembly room. Later, in 1837, it became Helsinki’s City Hall. When that function was moved to the Society House, it was occupied by the Municipal Court, not far from where, on the south side of the square, the new Magistrate’s Court was later built. As such, the Bock House was among the first of a number of important official edifices in the capital. During the late 1980s it underwent a major restoration, together with the Burtz and Hellenius Houses, and today also incorporates a new building in which the City Council Chambers are now located. Important receptions are now held by the City Council in Bock House.

Yet it was not so much the Senate Square but the Esplanade, that tree-lined avenue in the heart of Helsinki, that provided the central axis to join the new and the old districts of the city from east to west. Moreover, for all the modern building in stone, most of the houses continued to be of wood. Nor could the granite stone upon which the city was built always be relied upon to provide substantial foundations. On the contrary, some houses were also built not on rocks, but on sandy soil, where considerable preparations had to be carried out in order to make building at all possible. As Mrs Tweedie, a lady who held strong views on a plethora of subjects, wrote in 1897:

The town stands either on massive glacial rocks, or, in other parts that have been reclaimed from the sea, on soft sand; in the latter case the erection has to be reared on piles. For the foundation of the house mentioned, long stakes, about 20 feet in length, were driven into the ground. Above this pile a sort of crane was erected, from which hung a large heavy stone caught by iron prongs. Some twenty men stood round the crane, and with one ‘Heave oh!’ pulled the stone up to the top, where, being let loose, it fell with a tremendous thud upon the head of the luckless pile, which was driven with every successive blow deeper into the earth. When all the piles were thus driven home, 4 or 5 feet apart, rough bits of rock or stone were fitted in between them, and the whole was boarded over with wood after the fashion of flooring, on top of which the house itself was built.

Unioninkatu, running north-south on the western flank of the Church of St Nicholas, had now become the principal thoroughfare of Helsinki, like St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect or Berlin’s Under den Linden. Though it was diminutive in size by comparison to the former, it was taking shape as an elegant showpiece for its new imperial master’s generosity.

Senate House Square, newly created by Engel from what had formerly been a ramshackle area with small houses and a church, was the principal public space of the capital, a large area on which public demonstrations and festivities could be held. It was also the site of the Senate House, after which the square was named, a building upon whose construction little expense was spared, as the city’s most prominent secular edifice. The Senate of Finland, as the Finnish government was called, had its seat here. Appropriately Engel chose for this, his first monumental building on the square, a Corinthian colonnade, the grandest of the classical orders, to adorn the exterior. An oval throne room, similarly decorated, overlooked Senate Square, with at either end a slightly projecting pavilion. The main block is rectangular in shape, while three wings to its rear, of lesser height, were decorated with ionic colonnades. The north wing was built by Lohrmann, in 1853, but later made way for another building, by C. R. Björnberg, in 1900.

The architectural inspiration for the Senate House derives from the Italian architect Carlo Rossi, whose works from the early 19th century include the Yelagin Palace and Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Sources from ancient Greek or Roman architecture might also have played a role. In any case, a library had been included in the east wing, based on the Baths of Diocletian, but it has long since disappeared in the course of remodelling. In the 1980s the complex underwent a thorough restoration.

Other building projects commissioned by Alexander I and carried out by Engel include (to name the most important) the university and its library, a military school for orphans, and a house of social assembly, all of which are discussed in other chapters. Together these formed a major undertaking, at great expense to the Czar. Yet even he did not possess unlimited money, and spending in Helsinki also had to be balanced against that in Russia proper, even if resources were largely raised in Finland itself. Still, all in all, by the time Engel’s commissions were completed, a total of 4,229,743 roubles and 91 kopecks had been spent. This vast sum had been found not only from various local taxes, but also from an excise duty on salt as well as an export duty on tar, so sought after by foreign shipping. The State Loan Bank in St. Petersburg also assisted with substantial funds.

For those carrying out the work the rewards could be considerable. The building trade was very lucrative and some, like the Russian Uschakoff family, made their fortune in manufacturing building materials. The villa at the North Esplanade, 19, now a city information bureau, would become a supreme example of Jugendstil in Finland, when Lars Sonck restored it in 1904. Others, like the Korastieffs, made theirs as building contractors. Still, it was clear to all that without the benevolence of the Czar, Helsinki would have remained a dusty village on some rocky crags. A suitable monument was duly commissioned to testify to the foresight and generosity of Helsinki’s imperial patron. By the entrance to the harbor, against a backdrop of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the Empress’ Stone was erected, a monument built to commemorate the visit of Czar Nicholas I and the Czarina Alexandra in 1833, when most of the rebuilding— though not the Great Church— was largely completed. It is still in Market Square today, despite the ebb and flow of political change, crowned by the Romanov two-headed eagle, symbol of the Russian Empire, and recently resurrected as the symbol of the Russian Federation.

Needless to say, when members of the imperial family went to Helsinki, their aristocratic courtiers were sure to follow and this they did in ever growing numbers, until the debacle of the Crimean War once again sidelined the Finnish capital socially. By then Helsinki had become totally altered from what it had been a few decades before. When the military officer Bulgarin returned in 1838 to the city of his youthful military days, it had changed beyond recognition: from a town of some 3,500 souls, it was now a city of 12,000.

It had also come to attract a large number of the Russian aristocracy under Czar Nicholas I, not so much for political reasons but as a summer resort. This was especially true during the 1830s, when by virtue of its proximity to St. Petersburg and the need to circumvent travel restrictions for those who wished to go abroad (introduced in reaction to the Decembrist uprising that had greeted the ascension of Nicholas I), many aristocratic Russians came to Helsinki.

Among the eminent, if sometimes extravagant, visitors who arrived at this time was the Princess Yusupov, notorious in the Russian capital for her Neronian feasts, during which the marble statues in her gardens were replaced by serfs in the appropriate poses, nude or not, as the fancy moved her. Her parties in Helsinki may have been more restrained, but her house at Kaivopuisto was built at great expense and with considerable elegance in the classically inspired style of the times. Legend has it that the proximity of her reputed lover, a certain Captain Isakov, imprisoned in the Suomenlinna fortress, was the true reason for her seasonal removal to Helsinki. It was believed that the site of her house had been chosen because of the proximity and ease it afforded her in surreptitious visits to and from her convict amour. History remains silent on the veracity of this hypothesis. In any case, the Princess Yusupov was not alone in her choice of Helsinki as a summer playground; the Princesses Gagarin, Trubetskoy, and Musin-Pushkin, also favoured it, with retinues of paramours and personal retainers.

By 1850 Helsinki could boast a population of 17,000, not exactly a rival to Stockholm or St Petersburg, but not insignificant by comparison to its size at the beginning of the century. Yet in the second half of the century, with the growth of the city westwards as well as into Kamppi and Kluuvi, the city burgeoned much further.

The upper echelons of Helsinki society now lived in Kruununhaka, especially in the vicinity of what is now Liisanpuistikko. But in many places vestiges of the city’s older, more humble origins remained; many of the houses beyond Engel’s monumental centre were still comprised of one or two-story wooden structures on plots separated by wooden fences. Houses of stone remained few and far between, even if the new construction of wooden houses was prohibited. In any case, the southern side of the Esplanade and the area around Kasarmitori still had quite a number of two-story wooden houses, so Helsinki’s appearance, especially on its periphery, remained rather rustic and like that— except for Engel’s city centre —of Finnish provincial market towns in general.

One important aspect of the new imperial administration introduced into Helsinki after the Grand Duchy’s incorporation into the Russian Empire was the official Russian nomenclature of hierarchical ranks in 1826, which ordered both military and civil positions, superseding that of Sweden. According to this system long established in the Russian Empire, all official administrative positions corresponded to fourteen classes and covered 168 posts. Each entailed its own responsibilities and privileges and each had its corresponding uniform, edged in green, the colour of Russian officialdom (this replaced the blue used on Swedish uniforms when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom). Generally unpopular for its rigid regimentation, the nomenclature, first established by Peter the Great in Russia in the 1720s, finally disappeared with the end of autarchy, only to be formally abolished in the early 1920s.

Yet some reform of Finnish political life was possible under Russian imperial rule and none was more important than the abolition of the estates and the introduction of the first Finnish parliament or Diet. This momentous event occurred in 1863 with its first convocation and was the first major political change since the cession of Finland to Russia. Within six years Czar Alexander II, a relative liberal, had ratified a new act, according to which a frequent and regular convening of the Diet was envisioned and greater liberties provided. Forever afterwards Finns would think of this Czar with great affection, the principal reason why even today his statue can be seen in the centre of Senate House Square, the most important site for commemoration in Finland. It was created by the sculptor Walter Runeberg (1838-1920), a son of the poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and is flanked by other statues representing Law, Peace, Light and Labour.

Finns, of course, did not only look to St. Petersburg for political leadership. They also looked to what was then the Russian capital for work and career advancement. In fact, St. Petersburg was in many ways Finland’s most important city throughout the nineteenth century. A large proportion of its population was from Finland and for much of the century St. Petersburg was home to more Finnish-speakers than Helsinki. Before the construction of the railways, transport by water to St. Petersburg from the central and eastern provinces of Finland was a relatively simple matter. Parts of Karelia, at Finland’s south-eastern corner, virtually abutted onto the suburbs of the northern Russian capital, while even Savo was easier to reach than Helsinki, connected as it was by a splendid series of lakes and canals. Moreover, many Finns worked seasonally on the railways, while in St. Petersburg Finns provided considerable seasonal labour in the building trade during the middle and later nineteenth century.

There were also several schools and churches in St Petersburg in which Finnish was the main language, and many well-educated Finns made their way up the military and civil service ladders in the imperial capital. Indeed, they were an especially favoured people there, with considerable freedom of movement in and out of Russia, not reciprocally granted to native Russians themselves with respect to Finland.

By 1840 at least 11,300 Finns, craftsmen, domestic servants and labourers, were at work in the Russian capital, making it by far the most populous Finnish-speaking city, after Helsinki (13,300) and Turku (13,200). By 1869 the number of Finns in St Petersburg had risen to more than 16,000, making them the largest ethnic minority there after Germans and a labour force definitely to be reckoned with. There were also many Ingrians who had settled in the Russian capital from the surrounding countryside, where they had resided for centuries before the foundation of the city and who spoke a language closely related to Finnish.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon of Finland with Russia, though long-lived, came to a sudden unhappy end. The beloved and modernizing Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and his successors, Alexander III and Nicholas II attempted a more forced integration of Finland into Russia. This coercive approach was paradoxically part of reforms by Russian liberals to further modernize the government of the empire, to make it more rational and efficient and therefore better able to serve all its inhabitants more effectively. From 1889 onwards growth of Pan-Slavism, with its emphasis upon a unified and unitary state run from St. Petersburg, severely undermined the relatively harmonious relationship Finland had enjoyed under its various Russian grand dukes since its transfer from Sweden to Russia. In reaction, a new constitutional party was formed in Helsinki, bringing together both Swedish and Finnish speaking Finns of all persuasions. Focused initially upon a campaign of passive resistance to all attempts at Russification and infringement of Finnish political and cultural rights, its members in government office, often partisans of the Young Finns Movement, increasingly refused to implement the administrative measures that the imperial government demanded. This often led to sackings and the creation of a disgruntled segment of former administrators. As a result, it was the so-called Old Finns, “Uncle Toms” of accommodation as the Young Finns saw them, who came by default to fill their positions, taking the adage “bent, but not broken” to heart. It was perhaps just as well, for though on the surface more accommodating, their suppleness enabled them to endure the ever more vicious winds of change which blew westwards towards Helsinki from St. Petersburg.

Russian imperialism in Finland, for all its negative reputation and frustrations, also encompassed many benefits, especially in the early days of Czarist rule. It offered a wholly new labour market to Finns, whatever their skills and abilities. Yet it is important to emphasize that these opportunities affected every level of society from the lowest to the highest. For by means of the fourteen ranks that formed the hierarchy of the Russian civil and military bureaucracy, a Finn, whatever his origins, if he possessed the requisite degree from the Swedish-speaking Åbo Academy in Turku, could in Russia enter the eighth rank, thereby gaining the status of nobility. Ironically, the structure of Russian society was such that these opportunities were very rare indeed for native Russians. Not surprisingly, then, the combination of career opportunities and status made Russia for many decades an attractive place for Finns to develop careers both in the army and navy and the civil service. Indeed, it was not until 1848, that the first Finnish flag – not the current one but the Grand Duchy’s coat of arms against a white background – flew and the national anthem was sung for the first time in a public place, all under the placid eyes of the Russian authorities.

The more negative aspects of imperialism became apparent as the nineteenth century drew to a close, for it was during the period from 1890 to 1905 that the most concerted efforts at Russification were made. The Finnish currency was abolished and by virtue of the Post Manifesto of 1890 the Finnish postal system was integrated into that of the Russian Empire as a whole, losing all independence. The issuing of Finnish postal stamps was prohibited. At the same time, the use of Russian as the language of governmental administration and schooling was promoted.

With the promulgation of the February Manifesto in 1899, Finnish autonomy itself came under severe threat, as Russian intentions to remove power from the Grand Duchy’s four-chamber assembly of estates became clear. Women dressed in black, and wreaths were laid at the foot of the statue of Czar Alexander II on Senate Square. The artist Eetu Isto produced in response his inflammatory allegorical painting, Attack (1899), in which his anthropomorphic embodiment of Finnish national identity, “The Maid of Finland”, a beauteous maiden defending a vast tome of law against would-be attackers, acquired immense importance as a national symbol of Finland’s vulnerability and defiance.

On March 13, 1899, a mass demonstration of discontent took place in Senate Square and a petition with more than 524,000 names was also submitted to the Imperial throne. As the Finnish author, Aino Kallas, wife of Estonia’s first minister to the Court of St. James in the inter-war years, wrote at the time:

A telegram received by a certain Danish newspaper says that the Czar has not consented to receive our delegation, a group of 500 men. More dispiriting yet, it has been ordered to leave St Petersburg at once, otherwise it will be expelled!

It is not in vain, now, that Finns wear mourning dress, or place wreaths on the statue of the Law. It is as if a great funeral is being conducted here, the funeral of truth, justice, light and freedom. ‘C’est fini!’

Extremism triumphed in 1904 when, with anti-Russian feeling reaching a crescendo, the Swedish-speaking Finn and son of a former senator, Eugene Schauman, took matters into his own hands and cold-bloodedly assassinated Governor General Nikolai Bobrikov before committing suicide soon afterwards. Another assassination of a Russian official occurred the following year, when Eliel Soisalon-Soinien, a government prosecutor, was murdered, but afterwards such events ceased.

The Russian authorities made no attempt to cease their policy of Russification, and as they persisted in the early years of the 20th century so did the hostility of many Finns towards the centralizing tendency of the Russian government, especially among some Swedish-speaking segments of the population. Already, in 1903, some Swedish-speaking university figures had formed a conspiratorial society for the purpose of fomenting armed struggle against the Russian authorities. Yet a basic problem remained, for Finns as a whole were unable to come to an agreement on precisely how Russification should be resisted. As a result, great bitterness prevailed not only between Russians and Finns, but among the latter on whether a passive or active approach should be taken.

With the outbreak of revolution in St. Petersburg in 1905 and the General Strike in Helsinki that followed in its wake, conditions appeared for a while to improve. The student Hella Wuolijoki, later post-Second World War director of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, who hailed from the province of Estonia (until 1918 part of Russia), wrote many years later of her considerable relief at the time:

Finally, the news arrived that the emperor had signed a manifesto according to which legal conditions were restored to the country and an extraordinary meeting of the estates was called to deal with parliamentary reform and electoral legislation, with the aim of introducing universal and equal voting rights.

In any case, other political changes were also in the offing. In 1906 the Diet of Estates, only recently installed in 1891 was abolished by the Diet itself. In its stead a unicameral parliament was established. (Later, the Diet’s premises at Snellmaninkatu 9, designed by Nyström and with a tympanum containing a relief by Emil Wickström depicting Czar Alexander I at the Porvoo Diet of 1809, was used by a variety of learned societies for meetings, although they too have now moved elsewhere.) The political atmosphere at the time must have been electric. This must also have been the case at the House of the Nobility, where representatives of the aristocracy had their seat, situated in Hallituskatu 2, with its pseudo-Gothic façade behind which a vast assembly room is located. (Like the nobility itself, it was less structurally sound than might have appeared from without, and steel reinforcements for the ceiling had to be added by Nyström as the Russian period drew to its close.) Still, the centralizing pressure from St. Petersburg to conform to Russification continued in the following years, only really to find itself aborted as a result of the First World War.

The outbreak of this war provided yet another push towards the approaching rupture of Finnish-Russian political unity. Instead of large numbers of Finns rushing to the aid of the Czar and so-called sister nations of the Russian Empire (some, it must be said, did do this), at least 2,000, a disproportionate quarter of whom were Swedish-speaking, went over to the German side. Joining the 27 th Royal Prussian Jaeger Battalion, many of its members were to play a key role after Finland unilaterally declared herself independent of Russia on December 6, 1917, a red-letter date still commemorated today. Despite two vicious wars and economic upheavals, Finland has retained its cherished independence since that time and has gone on to become one of the world’s richest and most successful countries, a model to those in both East and West.

So perhaps all things considered, the legacy of Russian imperialism was by no means all bad, like a marriage, happy in its early years but turned miserable and unpleasant as it drew to a close. After all, as the writer, Matti Kurjensaari wrote in A Story of Helsinki (1962), the heart of Helsinki on the southern tip of its little peninsula still retains its essentially imperial legacy from the early nineteenth century, even if the north has different traditions as a suburb of workers:

In the south lies Ehrenström’s and Engel’s Helsinki. This means a traditional order, senators, professors, The Book about Our Country (by Topelius), Doric columns, theatres, opera, posh restaurants, educational establishments. In the north, there are factories, workers, hubbub, machine oil, steam, hearth stoves, fuchsia in the windows.

However true that may be, it is the new marriage of a royal and imperial past with a working, industrialized and highly technological present that has made Finland the contemporary success story which it is.

From Helsinki: A Cultural History, by Neil Kent (Interlink Publishing, 2014).

Official Home Town of Santa Claus

Rovaniemi is the capital of Finnish Lapland. It’s a small, compact city that comes with a real buzz of modern shopping malls, lively bars and restaurants serving up everything from traditional cooking to French cuisine. It’s also got the rather big draw of having Santa Claus on hand – not to mention Arctic wilderness that’s perfect for snowsports and sleigh rides.

There is Santa Park and Santa Claus Village. They are not the same thing.

Santa Park opened in 1998 and is designed to look like the home cave of Santa Claus. It is an indoor amusement park with an entrance fee. Visitors descend through an impressive 50 meters tunnel that leads them through to Santa’s home cave where they are immediately greeted by elves.

Santa Park
Entrance to Santa Park

The attractions at Santa Park are:

The Elf Show, the Elf School and the Elf Workshop: You, as an apprentice elf of any age, will learn how to make Christmas decorations, behave like a good elf, or simply relax watching their show.

Elf Show at Santa Park

The Ice Bar and the Ice Gallery: A place to rest and enjoy some pretty cold drinks. You can meet the Ice Princess and enjoy all the ice sculptures that are on display.

Mrs Gingerbread Bakery: You can decorate gingerbread cookies and / or have a glass of glögi, the Finnish Christmas drink.

The Magic Train: You go through the four seasons of Finland and visit the elf workshop, where everyone is busy at work getting ready for Christmas.

The Post Office: You can post your Christmas cards from this office, and send your wish list to Santa.

You can undercross the Arctic Circle:

And you can meet Santa in his office 🙂

Next to Santa Park is the Arctic Treehouse Hotel where we stayed with Rakas restaurant.

Arctic Treehouse Hotel
Arctic Treehouse Hotel
Rakas Restaurant

It’s Christmas all year round at Santa Claus Village, within a comfortable walking distance (even in winter) from Santa Park. Santa Claus Village is an outdoor village with lots of shops and cafes, and with some different attractions.

Santa Claus Village
Santa Claus Village

You can visit the Arctic Circle line. A line on the ground marks this geographic line of the Earth. Above this line, there is at least a night a year that lasts 24 hours, and a day per year where the sun doesn’t set for 24 hours.

You can also send your Christmas greetings from the Post Office here, and you can specify the day that you want the mail to arrive (for instance: next year for Christmas), independently from the day you visit.

Santa Claus Village – Australia is so far away that it didn’t have a sign! Let’s hope that Santa can find it!

You can, of course, make gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, enroll in Elf School or take a calligraphy class and compose your Christmas wish list with a traditional quill.

Other area attractions include the Ranua Zoo, home to baby polar bears, wolverines and moose, and the Arktikum, a science center where the mystery of the northern lights is revealed.

There is even the Roosevelt Cottage. Rovaniemi and the surrounding area was the scene of fierce battles during WWII, was bombed by the Russians, captured by the Nazis and then devastated by retreating German troops whose scorched-earth tactics destroyed most of the city. Rovaniemi and Lapland were the first recipients of aid provided by UNICEF’s predecessor UNRRA in post-war Finland. The aid provided by UNICEF also helped to inspire the construction of the Arctic Circle Cabin and the commencement of tourist services.

Known as the “soul” of UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), Eleanor Roosevelt visited Rovaniemi in 1950. Designed by architect Ferdinand Salokangas, the Arctic Circle Cabin was constructed in just two weeks as the reception ceremony venue. The cabin, built by Jarl Sundquist’s experienced construction crew, used logs taken straight from log floating on the Ounasjoki River.

On 11 May 1950, the cabin received its distinguished guest. The event was an important groundbreaker for tourism on the Arctic Circle.

Roosevelt Cottage, ie Arctic Circle Cabin

You can visit Santa in his other office 🙂 and you can take photos with him.

There is also a Christmas exhibit that shows how Christmas is celebrated in different parts of the world.

How Santa Claus’ home got established in the Arctic in the first place is a bit puzzling. After all, St. Nicholas, the Third Century saint who was the inspiration for the bearded gift giver, lived in Turkey. But an illustration in that appeared in Harpers magazine in 1866 is widely credited with establishing his home as the “North Pole”.

When Markus Rautio, a Finnish radio broadcaster known as “Uncle Marcus”, reportedly declared on-air in 1927 that Santa’s workshop had been discovered in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, or “Ear Fell”, the notion of that Santa Claus lived in Finland became part of the public consciousness, at least in Finland. After all, there is nothing for reindeer to graze on in the North Pole, but they roam free in Lapland, as the Finnish like to say.

But establishing the provincial capital of Rovaniemi, rather than remote Korvatunturi near the Russian border, as Santa’s “official home town” was much more of a calculated business decision, albeit one that took decades.

Rovaniemi and the surrounding area was the scene of fierce battles during WWII, was bombed by the Russians, captured by the Nazis and then devastated by retreating German troops whose scorched-earth tactics destroyed most of the city. With funding from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the town was rebuilt by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, based on a plan that resembled the side of a reindeer’s head, complete with antlers.

The fjell-shaped Lappia House and City Library, by Alvar Aalto
Photograph: Emma Kähkönen

The work of Alvar Aalto, a Finnish functionalist architect responsible for the post-war town plan, exemplifies Rovaniemi’s relationship with its hills and nature. The façade of fjell-shaped Lappia House, finished in 1975, might be as cold and grey as slushy snow, but Aalto’s simple choice of making the ridge of the roof mimic the fjells, saves the building from being dreary.

Lappia House is home to the Theatre of Rovaniemi, a music school and broadcasting company. Together with Aalto-designed city library and the town hall, it is the cultural and governmental centre. The institutions are surrounded by an outdoor exhibition of reindeer sculptures, that “roam” the field.

Destruction in the centre of Rovaniemi, WWII.
Photograph: Vilho Uomala/SA-kuva

Tourism proved the key to Finland’s economic reconstruction. As soon as 1957, The New York Times’s Travel section was writing about trips to “Europe’s northern wilderness” during the summer solstice, when the sun never sinks below the horizon. “To see the mid-summer championships in which lumberjacks shoot the rapids standing on a single piece of timber, the capital of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi, is the place,” the Times recommended.

But it wasn’t until the Finish tourism board, under pressure to boost visitors, decided in 1984 to market Lapland, as scholar Michael Pretes reports in The Santa Claus Industry, as the official home of Santa Claus, that Finland truly embraced the legend. In December, Asko Oinas governor of Lapland, declared the province “Santa Claus Land” and the Santa Claus Village was opened just 8 kilometers north-east of Rovaniemi in 1985, complete with a post office that would frank mail with a special “Arctic Circle” postmark.

In 1989, 16 of the largest companies in Finland formed the “Santa Claus Land Association”, whose “sole function lay in marketing the Santa Claus idea,” as Pretes writes. The group sent Santas from Lapland to as far away as Beverly Hills to promote tourism.

Some of the area’s dark history still lingers — Santa Claus’ Official Airport is a former Luftwaffa airfield, and the woods near Santa’s office are dotted with the remains of Nazi support structures.

But much of the area has been completely Santa-fied. Postal employees dressed as elves receive about half a million pieces of mail a year addressed to Santa, and for €7.90, you can request a reply. They stamp millions more outgoing letters, sent by visitors who are keen to send mail with the Arctic Circle postmark.

Levi – The Winter Resort

Levi has worked up quite a reputation over the years as Finland’s most popular ski resort, drawing in hordes of mountain-sport enthusiasts and fans of all things festive from the world over. In addition to the skiing and snowboarding on the impressive ‘Levitunturi’ network of expertly groomed pistes that are more often than not dusted with freshly fallen snow, visitors can live out fairy tale experiences including meetings with Santa, sights of the elusive Northern Lights and riding with huskies, reindeer or on snowmobiles.

Riding with huskies
With the snowmobile on the frozen lake
At Ounaskievari Reindeer Farm

Established in 1964, Levi is Finland’s largest ski resort, and one of only three in the country with a gondola lift. There are 48 slopes here, 18 of which are floodlit, most are suitable for beginners and intermediates but there are 4 black slopes for experts. The longest slope is 2.5km long, the highest vertical drop is 325m, and the resort also boasts one superpipe, one halfpipe, ten children’s slopes, two snow parks, and 27 lifts. There are seven restaurants on the slopes.

The Express Gondola to Levi Summit
Levi centre

Levi also has a village centre, packed with bars, shops (mostly winter gear and souvenirs) and restaurants and cafes. Visitors who want to do a little more than speed down a hill will be delighted to find that there are 230km of cross-country skiing tracks, 28km of which are illuminated. Lengths of trails vary and on the longer ones you can make your own meals on an open fire or stay overnight in log cabins or wilderness huts. By far the fastest means of transportation in the fells is the snowmobile and Levi has over 886km of Finland’s best snowmobile tracks including a track to the top of Levi fell.

Don’t fret if you’re a little baffled by the maps; the actual name of the village is Sirkka, but most people know it as Levi after the name of the fell (mountain) it rests beneath and the name of the ski resort.

Levi is situated in the district of Kittilä which has a bigger surface area than Belgium and populated by around 6,300 people and 30,000 reindeer. Kittilä, a 15 minute drive from Levi, is a traditional Lapp village which has managed to combine modern with historic. It is worth visiting the museums here to learn more about the indigenous Sami culture.

Geographically, Kittilä is in the centre of the fells district of Western Lapland and has 3 other major skiing centres nearby – Ylläs, Pallas and Olos. Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland and the nearest large town, is famous for being Santa Claus’s official home with Santa’s Village a year round visitor destination.

Autumn is known as the “Ruska”, or rainbow season and as early as October the summits of Levitunturi are clad with snow blown in from the Atlantic, this is when the blue twilight of the polar night closes in, the midday dark of winter when daylight hours shorten. Even during mild winters Finland usually has a plentiful supply of snow because of east wind currents from Russia.

The Finns are a very adaptable people and even in a winter rich with snow everything works as it should. The transport system functions in all weather conditions. The roads are always cleared and gritted, even in the middle of the night if need be. Railways operate to schedule, as does the national airline, Finnair, which serves one of the densest domestic networks in the world. We got the express bus from Rovaniemi to Levi, a three hour ride.

Many people visit for another reason – the hills of northern Lapland attract professional gold prospectors and this area is well known as gold country. The Kittilä mine is the largest primary gold producer in Europe. Precious and semi-precious stones can also be found in the mountain streams.

The resort’s location, some 170 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, usually guarantees generous snow cover and sub-zero temperatures throughout winter. Daytime temperatures generally range from 0 to -20 degrees C, but it can fall as low as -40 during a particularly cold spell. At -17 your eyelashes start to freeze but activities carry on in temperatures down to -30 degrees C. At temperatures below -30, things stop working.

The temperature when we arrived in Levi. With gloves off, my fingers were so frozen I could not manage a straight photo.

A picture of the winter wonderland you’ve only ever seen on Christmas cards, Levi is surrounded by dense pine forest, glittering lakes and heaps upon heaps of fresh snow. Due to the season’s early sunsets and 24 hour night, twinkling lights adorn some of the trees and streets. The buildings are mostly traditional log cabins or modern constructions with wooden cladding to reflect that all-important rustic appeal. Zero Point (the plaza under the front pistes) even has cosy huts selling warming drinks, hearty food and Lappish souvenirs.

Base of the front pistes / Levi Summit
View from Levi Summit
View from Levi Summit
Walking, sometimes sliding, down from Levi Summit