City of white nights

City of white nights

Design paradise

City of white nights

Rated as the world’s most livable city, Helsinki in Finland has everything from beautiful landscapes to design masterpieces. Preeti Verma Lal explores the city on a summer day, when the sun refuses to sleep

Poppies. I never thought one day poppies could become my magic carpet. Yes, poppies. Those dainty five-petalled red flowers with black whorls. On my way to Helsinki, Europe’s northernmost capital, however, the poppies are not red. They are blue; poppies that have brazenly stolen the sky’s blue for petals and yellow off sunshine for whorls.

The Finnair aircraft dressed in iconic Marimekko poppies look straight out of my childhood scrap book, and one can feel like a pixie flying on poppy petals to a city that was ranked by The Economist as the world’s eighth Best Overall City and by Monocle magazine as the World’s Most Livable City. Perched on a rainstorm of blue poppies, it is tempting to shun ‘Helsingfors’, the city’s official Swedish name, and get slang-y. Call Helsinki by its endearing nicknames: Stadi or Hesa.

I stuck to ‘Helsinki’, which is not a hop-skip destination. It is made of 315 islands, has 900 restaurants, is known for its neo-classical architecture and of course, design (it has a Design District). And yes, cold. It is one of the coldest cities in the world — gets no sunshine for consecutive 51 days, has 121 rainy days and 101 days of snow. I stared at my tweed and shivered at the thought. Fortunately, summer in Helsinki is beautiful. It is in summer that geraniums bloom, the days get longer, the sun peeps from behind the glum sky and then refuses to sleep. It is in summer that Finns wait for the midnight sun — for the white nights. So white is the night, you’d think heavens have mischievously hosed sunshine into the night sky.

Day or night

Finns stack beer and reindeer sandwiches for midnight parties. I picked up the irons to tee off at midnight. Well, there are golf courses where hundreds of light fixtures lend sheen to the greens. But I could never imagine a golf course where one can hit a birdie at night, with the sun being generous with its shine even at night. Sounds like a fairytale? Playing golf at midnight without artificial light can be an out-of-the-world experience. Not many golf courses in the world offer that. The Helsinki Golf Club, the country’s oldest golf course, does.

In Helsinki, that midnight tee is one thing you cannot miss. But if golf is not your idea of a holiday, then there is that another not-to-miss thing. The Helsinki Cathedral — the city’s most photographed building. Smug beyond a flight of stairs in the Senate Square, the 160-year-old Cathedral with its green domes and pearl white looks surreal. The square itself is so huge that you would think that a squat town could easily fit into it. In the cobbled courtyard the tulips and daisies offset the neoclassical architecture that is still oh! so European.

In another square, there’s Havis Amanda, the naked maiden made of granite, who stands in the middle of 100-year-old fountain. Amanda rattled the prudish European sensibilities when she landed naked in Helsinki 104 years ago. No more. Amanda is now the most beautiful piece of art in Helsinki. However, there is more to the square than Amanda. It is here that you see the real Helsinki — yachts and ice breakers hooting by the harbour, gulls squawking raucously and the local market bustling under large umbrellas and tiny kiosks. Berries of all hues tumble out of sacks, traditional dolls hang by a thread in the kiosks and handknitted socks find curious buyers. Food is wok-warm, and fresh mushroom soup and smoked salmon can warm up the coldest of hearts.

Model city

In Helsinki, design gets redefined. Is it any surprise that the city was World Design Capital in 2012? I moseyed up the Design District in the search of the famed Finnish designs. Known as a piece of Helsinki, the Design District holds the city in its microcosm, its creativity, its uniqueness, its exoticism, its urban culture. Walk around the 25 streets that are cluttered with shops, boutiques, hotels, restaurants and two design museums, you’d understand why the District calls itself “a neighbourhood and a state of mind”.

If you think Finnish design lives far off in the Baltics, think again. One is never too far away from anything Finnish. I looked at all the Euros stuffed in my purse and connected facts. Most currency notes — even Time and Playboy magazines — are made of Finnish paper. Look at Fiskars, that sharp pair of scissors that never had competition since it came into being in 1880. And yes, the ubiquitous Nokia. It was born in a village called Nokia. Yes, Nokia is the name of a Finnish village! Angry Birds were created in Finland. It is also the first nation to offer SMS on a commercial basis. The Finns invented the ice skates nearly 5,000 years ago.

Helsinki is so much about a lot of things that you might not see anywhere else. Like the Kynsilaukka Restaurant that only serves garlic! Or, I could take a seat in a table for 22 and get suspended 50 metres mid-air for a Dinner in the Sky experience. Imagine, feet dangling over the Helsinki skyline and digging fork into scrumptious reindeer pate with a world-famous chef, a waiter and an entertainer. In Helsinki, I’d rather slip into a sauna (there are two million saunas in Finland), beat myself with fragrant silver birch twigs (that’s the ritual), get steamed up and then jump into a lake. That’s what all Finns do. In Helsinki, I sure tried hard being a Finn. Just that I beat myself a little too hard with the birch!