In Helsinki, style is ev­ery­where

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Tim Heald

SNOW was fall­ing the only other time I had vis­ited Helsinki. I re­mem­ber a con­cert at the Fin­lan­dia Hall (Si­belius, surely?), rein­deer meat and sil­ver birch trees. Smil­ing po­ets told me dole­fully that it was very un­lucky in Fin­land to have only one drink (or two, or three . . .). There were fur coats and a me­dieval paint­ing show­ing a saint turn­ing sheep into grasshop­pers. Fin­land — ruled for ages by the Swedes and by the Rus­sians but fiercely in­de­pen­dent since 1917— was like nowhere else I had been . . . elu­sive, Baltic, strange.

I had al­ways wanted to go back, and then sud­denly the op­por­tu­nity arose. It was a quirky ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing an un­planned evening at the Olympic sta­dium with the Fin­nish Cricket As­so­ci­a­tion, but the high­light was the Savoy Restau­rant. This was opened on top of an of­fice build­ing on the Es­planade 70 years ago.

It was de­signed, down to the last ta­ble lamp and place set­ting, by Arvo Aalto, Fin­land’s most cel­e­brated ar­chi­tect, and be­fore long it had be­come the haunt of an­other fa­mous Finn, field mar­shal Carl Gustaf Emil Man­ner­heim, the ar­chi­tect of his coun­try’s in­de­pen­dence and ul­ti­mately its pres­i­dent.

The field mar­shal had a reg­u­lar ta­ble at the Savoy, marked now by a dis­creet plaque on the wall. Here in a cor­ner of the long, low, pale pine-lined room, he would look out on his fel­low din­ers while sip­ping an ak­vavit-based drink of his own in­ven­tion, called a Marskin ryyppy. They still serve this lethal con­coc­tion at the Savoy in an icy shot glass filled to the point of over­flow­ing. This was the way the mar­shal liked it and even in old age his grasp was so steady that not a drop was spilled.

While drink­ing his ryyppy, the old sol­dier ate vorschmack. This, too, is still served at the Savoy and it comes beau­ti­fully pre­sented as if it were se­ri­ous gourmet food, which it isn’t, be­ing in­stead, as far as I can see, of­fi­cers’ scoff, which the mar­shal orig­i­nally en­coun­tered in the mess of the cavalry school in War­saw. The cen­tre­piece of vorschmack is a hash of minced beef, lamb, salt her­ring, an­chovy and gar­lic. Around this are grouped pota­toes, ei­ther plain boiled or mashed, beet­root, dill cu­cum­bers and sour cream or smetana.

I paid an en­joy­able homage to Aalto and Man­ner­heim re­cently, eat­ing and drink­ing the field mar­shal’s el­e­gantly served favourites in the ar­chi­tect’s stylishly pre­served en­vi­ron­ment while look­ing out over Helsinki’s rooftops and savour­ing a pink and black north­ern sun­set. It was the most mem­o­rable mo­ment in an un­usual, ac­ces­si­ble and stylish small cap­i­tal.

Both for­mer res­i­dences of th­ese fa­mous Finns are open to the pub­lic: mod­est private houses scrupu­lously pre­served as un­os­ten­ta­tious do­mes­tic mu­se­ums. Man­ner­heim’s home, in what is now the em­bassy part of town, is dark and un­showy save for the im­pos­si­bly glam­orous pic­tures of the old sol­dier in a variety of Ru­ri­ta­nian uni­forms with huge epaulettes and jaun­tily worn hel­mets, the orig­i­nals of which are pre­served be­hind glass.

The field mar­shal was a good-look­ing man with an im­pos­ing mous­tache and an aris­to­cratic mien. When he met Hitler in a rail­way car­riage near the border he was sur­prised to see the Fuhrer run­ning to greet him and re­marked caus­ti­cally, ‘‘ You can tell he’s a cor­po­ral. Only other ranks run.’’ Af­ter din­ner he lit up a ci­gar, know­ing per­fectly well that Hitler was an ob­ses­sive nicotino­phobe.

Aalto’s house is at the other end of town. It is mod­est but also bears all the hall­marks of Aalto’s style, in­volv­ing light woods, curv­ing orig­i­nal shapes, prac­ti­cal­ity and a wry sense of hu­mour. There is even a nar­row lad­der to a thin, semi-se­cret door through which Aalto was able to es­cape to a much-loved roof ter­race over­look­ing the sea. When he built the house in the 1930s it was still in open coun­try­side be­yond the city bound­aries but Helsinki’s sub­urbs have now sur­rounded it.

Sadly the sea view has been blocked out. The same is true of the mar­shal’s house down­town. Both places, like both rep­u­ta­tions, sur­vive but they have be­come sub­sumed by his­tory. Man­ner­heim also has an eques­trian statue near the par­lia­ment build­ing, while Aalto is memo­ri­alised in the Fin­lan­dia Hall he de­signed. To­gether they rep­re­sent the very best of their coun­try: style, in­de­pen­dence and a dis­tinc­tively soul­ful hu­mour. The Spec­ta­tor


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