Helsinki Warming

The city of Sibelius, known as a center for innovative technology and design, now stakes its claim as an urban hotspot

The Finnish capital, facing the Baltic Sea (residents frequent the quay), enjoys a setting that has long enthralled visitors, including a Frenchman in 1838: "This town stretches over a vast peninsula...," he wrote, "the sea surrounds it on all sides." (Yoray Liberman)
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When the long northern winter finally ends, the Finnish capital of Helsinki returns slowly to life. Deathly pale residents, who look as if they have just emerged from confinement in a cellar, roost on the gray stone steps of Senate Square; students from the University of Helsinki sprawl in the greening grass to soak up the sun; crowds linger by the Baltic Sea harbor, where fishing boats, painted bold red and blue, sell the day's fresh catch, watched closely by gulls wheeling in the salt air. The whole city is bathed in golden light, which brushes the pastel neo-Classical buildings, shimmers on the blue sea and shines on the capital for 20 hours a day, all the more welcome after the months of darkness.

Dour climate and isolation have made the Finns a grim people. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom regarding this nation of 5.3 million. They would have reason enough for melancholia, having endured not only eons of winter but also centuries of dominance by more powerful neighbors—first the Swedes, then the Russians, then the Soviets. (The country declared its independence after the fall of Russia's czar Nicholas II in 1917.) Finns survived all of this by dint of sisu, their phrase for stolid perseverance in the face of long odds and frequent disparagement. Even their old capital, of which Finns are justifiably proud, was designed by an outsider, Carl Ludvig Engel, the famed German architect hired in 1816 to rebuild Helsinki when it was hardly more than a town of 4,000.

Now, after years of self-doubt on the sidelines, that capital has grown to 561,000, and the Finns are finally stepping out into the sunlight of modern Europe. They are even showing the way for the rest of the world: Finns were among the first to embrace modern telecommunications, arming themselves with Nokia cellphones, a local product that they unleashed upon the planet, and one that keeps virtually 100 percent of this once-reticent nation chattering away, breaking down the vast distances that characterize their sparsely settled country.

Helsinki's inhabitants have always lived—and thrived—by balancing their urban and bucolic souls. Because parts of the capital are blanketed by woodland and washed by the sea, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish where nature ends and city begins. About three quarters of Finland's 130,500 square miles are thickly forested. The country has some 190,000 lakes, and the coastline crumbles into 95,000 islands. This means that many a Helsinki family has easy access to a summer cottage—usually a modest one, without electricity, but comfortable enough for July and August.

Perhaps as an antidote to the sensation of being overwhelmed and isolated by their natural landscape, Helsinkians have embraced technology more quickly and avidly than people elsewhere. Finland's Nokia, the largest cellular phone manufacturer in the world, introduced wireless phones across the land at a time when most Americans were still using land lines, and the capital's new residential enclaves come equipped with wireless broadband on the premise that good access makes good neighbors.

More than a century ago, Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), helped forge his nation's identity by writing music that sought to bring the spirit of the ancient forest into the cosmopolitan salons of the growing capital. At the time, the Finns were about to emerge from centuries of foreign rule—by Sweden (1100s to 1809) and Russia (1809 to 1917).

By age 33, Sibelius had established his reputation as a musical genius with his 1899 tone poem, Finlandia; his countrymen immediately embraced the piece, and its composer, with patriotic fervor. But Sibelius had already fallen into a life of partying that was sapping his musical output. A famous 1894 painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, ironically titled Symposium, depicts Sibelius and some artist pals carousing at the Hotel Kamp's restaurant. This unflattering portrayal scandalized the public. In 1904 the composer decamped for the countryside. "In Helsinki, all song dies in me," he confessed.

He found respite—and inspiration—north of Helsinki in a country retreat named Ainola, after his wife, Aino. She and Sibelius lived out their days there, drawing strength from prolonged immersion in the landscape of dense forests and limpid lakes. Weather permitting, Sibelius spent hours each day walking amid the pines and birches, lingering in farm fields and finally reaching the shores of nearby Lake Tuusulanjarvi. Dressed in a suit, vest, tie and Borsalino hat, he looked like a gentleman banker. These daily encounters with nature infused his music.

And at Ainola, in a two-story house with whitewashed pine slat walls and a red-tile roof topped by several towering chimneys, Sibelius wrote five of his seven symphonies, scores of tone poems, some 50 piano compositions and dozens of chamber music pieces, usually without the aid of any instruments. "He claimed to have an orchestra in his head," says guide Annikka Malkavaara. Sibelius was so obsessed with the need for silence that he forbade the installation of modern plumbing, fearing that the sounds of running water and knocking pipes would break his powers of concentration.

Across the gardenlike esplanade from my hotel in Helsinki, the furniture store Artek pays homage to Finland's other cultural giant, the architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), who co-founded Artek. Here, the furniture, vases, trays and lamps he designed in the 1930s and '40s continue to sell briskly. Of course Finland has long been known for its world-class design: boldly colored Marimekko fabrics have been popular for decades. More recently, about an hour's car ride west of Helsinki, the village of Fiskars (birthplace of the popular scissors of the same name) has gathered a hundred artists, ceramists, woodworkers and graphic and industrial designers in a decade-old cooperative whose creativity is probably unmatched throughout Europe. But Aalto, the exponent of clean-lined modernism, is still considered the fountainhead of Finnish design. Even cooks claim to be inspired by him. When I ask Markus Aremo, the 37-year-old chef at George, a leading Helsinki restaurant, what made his reindeer fillet in red-wine sauce and purŽed cabbage so irresistible, he replies: "Good Finnish food imitates Aalto—simple, pure, and close to nature."

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