Dancing in the Shadows – at Annantalo

I’ve walked past Annantalo so many times and never stopped to wonder what it is. Turns out – it’s great is what it is!

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Annantalo is an arts centre for children and young people, housed in a beautiful old school that was built in 1886. Miko and I recently visited with friends on a rainy afternoon after daycare.

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On the ground floor is the large Kirja Kahvila (book cafe) with loads of space for families and smaller tables set up with paper and colouring pencils. There’s also shelves full of childrens’ books, printed in Finnish and Swedish.

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The cafe is also home to Tutti-tukaani (Pacifier Toucan) who sits atop a large bottle where children put their pacifiers when the time comes to give them up. The idea is based loosely on similar traditions in Finland and was dreamed up by the Office Manager.

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The cafe is run by a lovely woman called Krista, who told me she loves all the handmade touches around Annantalo.

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This includes the warm korvapuustit (cinammon buns) and the woollen covers on the tea glasses.

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Upstairs in the building, there are art classes, as well as dance and theatre for young people. Miko’s daycare has visited in the past to watch a puppet show, which he still talks about.

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There are also exhibitions for children, which are really creative and interactive. Miko loved going inside a big teepee and looking at tiny worlds inside boxes with a torch during the last one.

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Although the cafe is family focussed it can be very quiet at times and there’s lots of space to spread out if you need to work. With wheelchair access it’s a great place for anyone to visit, young and old alike.

Annantalo – events and courses

Annankatu 30, Helsinki

Due to a bad dose of the flu there were no Vappu celebrations for me this year. The spring carnival on May Day is one of the biggest events on the Finnish calendar. You can read my post from last year here

Sandwiches in the Snow

A few weeks ago after Finnish class I decided to walk to Töölö where I was headed to interview a young cobbler. It started to snow so intensely it was like being stuck inside a snow dome someone had just shaken up.

With an hour to go until the interview I was relieved to spy this cafe and ducked inside, out of the cold.

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Stepping inside I was taken back by the size. It was tiny! The floor space was about 2m wide by 10m long.

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No one was around but I could understand the sign: ‘Ring bell. We are in the kitchen. Thanks!’

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A young guy came out and took my order from the menu on the wall. He said the store had been open since the 1960’s and his family had bought it fairly recently.

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Most people, he said, phone ahead and take-away. He went back to the kitchen so I took a seat, admiring the retro Danish posters.

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It was great, as though the cafe had been decorated in the 1960’s and hadn’t been updated since.

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My lunch soon arrived – a delicious open sandwich with fresh salmon and cottage cheese.

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Soon another customer stepped in out of the snow and when his order arrived he made as though to eat it standing up. I invited him to share my table – the only table – and we chatted about a trip he’d made with his wife to Australia a few years before.

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Sated and satisfied I headed back out into the snow, watched by a drummer boy pinned by the front door.

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I felt a bit like him as I tightened my coat and set off once more into the swirling snow, my hat and hood piled high upon my head.

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Dansk Smørrebrød – Cygnaeuksenkatu 5, Helsinki

Creating Helsinki – interview with cobbler, Juho Erving

The Horse and the Beaver

Most of our holidays are centred around walking and eating and walking some more so we are hungry again. Riga was no exception. Not knowing what to expect we were really pleased to get off to a good start by visiting Garage, a tapas bar where I had a delicious ceviche salad and Jonny had a small platter of local cheese.

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On the prowl that night for some vegetarian fast food we went to Street Burgers, open on Good Friday and serving a hearty portobello burger with a side order of fries.

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The next morning, in search of good coffee we headed for Innocent Cafe and found it was brunch time. The table was laden with strips of smoked cheese, pickled vegetables, potatoes, salads and fish.

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 To be honest my stomach was not ready for some of these savoury treats but I happily had a couple of rounds of olives, potatoes and cheese on toast.

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Later, in the Old Town, I popped into Black Magic cafe. They specialise in serving Riga Black Balsam, a herbal liqueur served in coffee or neat. It wasn’t quite balsam-o-clock yet so some more walking was called for before our next stop.

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Looking for lunch we were nearly invited into this den by the Latvian Russell Crowe but pushed on to find restaurant 1221 of which we’d read good things.

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1221 was as lovely as described with lots of people stopping to take photos of the painted exterior.

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Unfortunately however, the menu was not a good fit for a vegetarian and his vege-quarian companions.

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Although for the carnivores there was something for everyone.

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We dined that night at our hotel restaurant, which we never do but it was cold and raining so we allowed ourselves the luxury of going downstairs. The food was delicious and came with glasses of birch water, compliments of the chef.

So we managed to eat our way around Riga without resorting to pork knuckles and cabbage as some guide books would suggest. The euro goes a lot further outside of Finland too and we were very grateful to leave feeling so well fed.

Seems the only thing going hungry on our trip were these poor little guys at the airport.

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The island you never leave

There’s a joke in Helsinki that the residents of Katajanokka are so content with life they never leave the island. Which is particularly funny because this island is connected to the city by a short bridge and is two minutes walk from bustling Market Square.

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It’s a great place to walk around because you really do feel as though you are away from the city, despite the proximity. Your tour begins once you find yourself looking up at the Orthodox church of Uspenski Cathedral.

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There’s some beautiful housing to see on your walk. Katajanokka is described as one of the ‘most distinguished’ suburbs of Helsinki and used to be home to Finland’s former president.

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It’s also home to wonderful examples of Art Noveau architecture, or Jugendstil as it is known here. (Kataja means juniper).

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The details on the window frames and arches are incredible. (I had a bizarre experience this day, in that every time I photographed a door to a building, it would open and someone would walk out).

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Not being too tall can be an asset on this island. I had to crouch quite low to get into this store, where entry is only available through the window.

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Any hobbits visiting from New Zealand would feel quite at home, I’m sure.

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As well as being home to a major port for cruise ships, Katajanokka is also home to the huge ice breaker ships that churn up the Baltic Sea during the colder months.

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The red-brick style of architecture is more evident on this side of the island too and some official maritime offices are housed here.

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Katajanokka is also home to one of Helsinki’s best cafes: Johan & Nyström. It was in their Stockholm branch that current Finnish Barista Champion Kalle Freese honed his craft, after discovering coffee culture while living in New Zealand. You can read my interview for Creating Helsinki with him here.

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Just outside you can often watch hardy Finns walking from the sauna to the frozen water for avanto (ice swimming). From the cafe it’s just a short walk back to the base of Uspenski Cathedral and over the bridge to the city.

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Unless of course, like the residents, you also decide that you never want to leave. In that case, the island’s former prison has been converted into a hotel where you can sleep in a renovated cell.

Which brings to mind the Eagles song Hotel California every time I think of it. ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave….”

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Katajanokka

Uspenski Cathedral

Johan & Nystrom Cafe

Creating Helsinki: Kalle Freese Interview

How I Came to Run an Art Gallery in Helsinki

I was engrossed in Google Maps the other day, looking for an art gallery I wanted to check out but could not find anywhere. Finally I looked up, and there it was. I was standing right outside.

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Lokal describes itself as 72% art and 28% coffee, which is a pretty good blend to me. It specialises in local, independent artists and designers and holds themed exhibitions.

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The current exhibition is ‘Never Never Land’ and features playful pieces from various artists, including some of the most stylish miniature houses I’ve ever seen.

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The store is full of gorgeous design objects, with more available online and worldwide delivery.

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I had a really nice chat with owner Katja Hagelstam, who opened Lokal in 2012. A courier came in as we talked and when she had to leave for a few minutes to give him a parcel she looked at me and said, ‘You’re in charge.’

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Unfortunately not much happened. I didn’t even get to sit in my cool new office or make anyone an espresso.

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But nothing got broken and Katja seemed very relaxed when she got back. Lokal is moving ten doors down at the end of this month and as I left there was no mention of me being in charge of packing or carrying boxes so I assume my contract is over. It was good while it lasted.

LOKAL – now at Annankatu 9, Helsinki

Meet me at Old Market Hall

A short walk from Market Square is Helsinki’s old dame of market halls – Vanhakauppahalli.

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Built in 1888,Vanhakauppahalli (Old Market Hall) was recently closed for renovations and reopened in June 2014. The building is a cultural heritage site and protected by the National Board of Antiquities.

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On a cold winter’s day, with the wind coming in off the Baltic Sea, it’s a relief to get inside those heavy front doors. Inside, a walkway circles the hall, shouldered on either side by cafes, bakeries and fishmongers.

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There are also greengrocers selling seasonal produce from Finland and overseas. It’s a great place to go for specialty mushrooms and berries, as well as big suolakurkku (gherkins) you scoop out of an open bucket.

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For lunch I usually head straight for Soppakeittiö (Soup Kitchen) where the menu always consists of one meat soup, one vegetarian and their delicious seafood boullabaisse, served with lemon-infused sour cream.

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On my most recent visit however I stopped at Story, where the food counter is sure to whet your appetite. I had a cappuccino (equivalent of a NZ flat white) and lohileipa (smoked salmon on bread).

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After lunch I walked the circuit, marvelling at the number of things you can do with salmon. In my mind I always hear the southern drawl of Bubba from the movie Forrest Gump (salmon bbq, salmon cocktail, salmon pie…..).

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There are other forms of protein on offer for the more adventurous too, like Russian King Crab and Spanish jamon.

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 As well as traditional Finnish offerings there is also a vegetarian cafe and a stall selling Vietnamese filled-rolls, spring rolls and salads.

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And there’s an Alko, the only store in Finland selling wine and spirits. This one is touted as being ‘the world’s smallest Alko’ (which is a little bit like American teams winning the ‘World Series’ in a competition only open to American teams).

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There are other Market Halls in Helsinki but this is one of my favourites. If you get a table by the window you can watch the ferry to Suomenlinna making it’s way past the huge cruise ships churning up the frozen sea.

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Go with a friend or go on your own – just make sure you go. I’ll be the one making my way from coffee, to soup to dessert and back as I make my way around Old Market Hall.

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Vanhakauppahalli – Eteläranta, Helsinki

Ravintola Story

Note: I was approached by Meetings Booker to write about my favourite meeting place in Helsinki. This is not a sponsored post and all thoughts are my own (as was that open salmon sandwich, which I cannot stop thinking about). www.meetingsbooker.com

Now & Then – Töölönlahti

It’s easy to miss home at this time of year. Christmas for us signals the start of summer holidays – long hours of sunshine, songbirds, swimming and sand.

One thing about living in Finland however is the intensity of each season. It’s good for me to remember that winter here can be beautiful …. and it’s not forever.

One place this is evident is Töölönlahti – it’s a great bay to walk around and witness the incredible changes as they take place.

9th October 2014

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2 December 2014 – starting to freeze

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Ducks on ice

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4th January 2015 – frozen

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7th January 2015

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23rd January 2015

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And something to look forward to! Same place, different day (taken 3rd August 2014)

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My City Guide to Helsinki – for Design*Sponge

Many of you will have lived in Helsinki, live there now or are thinking of visiting in the future.

I’ve just put together a City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge – a design blog run by Brooklyn-based writer, Grace Bonney. According to the website they currently reach over 1 million readers per day – so if your favourite Helsinki cafes are soon full of international visitors – um, sorry about that.

City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge

My City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge

I’d love to know any additions you would make to the list. I’ve tried to include some old faithfuls as well as some new favourites.

You can find the guide here: City Guide to Helsinki for Design*Sponge

Porvoo, according to Frida

Over a couple of drinks last week we realised our friend Frida was going home to Porvoo for the weekend, the very town we were planning to visit. Just 50km east of Helsinki it’s an easy bus-ride away and Frida offered to be our tour guide.

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Porvoo is Finland’s second-oldest town and was given city rights sometime around 1380 – which blew my mind because it is believed that the first Polynesians only arrived in New Zealand around 1300.

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It was a beautiful, blue-sky day but fresh at only zero degrees. We wandered around the Old Town and visited an amazing toy shop; a quick poll revealing that yes, Miko and I agreed this was the best toy shop in the world.

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We stopped by the home of national poet, Johan Runeberg, a Swedish-Speaking Finn. Frida regaled us with tales about how he devoted a good part of his later years to drinking, which led to his wife writing most of his work and him returning home one night so inebriated he drove his horse and cart straight into the river.*

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Frida also answered my questions about Swedish-speaking Finns as Porvoo is a bilingual city and our visit coincided with Swedish-speaking Week. For some reason it’s hard for me to get my head around but she was very patient, even when I asked her twenty minutes later, ‘So when did your family arrive in Finland?’ to which she reiterated that they are Finnish, not Swedish, they just happen to speak Swedish (and Finnish and English).

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The Old Town has some great shops to visit, including antique and design stores. As we looked for lunch we noticed snails feature on many of the menus but opted instead for pizza and risotto in a warm restaurant.

IMG_3825After lunch we headed to Porvoo Cathedral which Frida told us had recently had a fire in the roof. The man who was found to have started it was rewarded with a lengthy jail sentence*.

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A boat hangs inside the church

We walked back down the hill through streets lined with old wooden houses, peering into windows (me) to admire reindeer pelt-covered seats set in front of warm fireplaces. I stopped in at vintage store Doris & Duke and bought some snowflake leggings while the others huddled outside.

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The paint on some of the buildings is red ochre and so old that it will leave a powdery substance on your hands when touched.* We dutifully rubbed the outside of people’s houses to see if we could remove some of the paint ourselves.

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After all this walking, snooping and rubbing it was time for a treat and so we stopped in at Helmi Cafe which is one of those cafes you often find in small Finnish towns. It’s as though you have entered someone’s private home as you wander through connecting rooms until you find the place you want to sit.

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In honour of Frida, Johan Runeberg and Porvoo itself we finished our tour with a round of Runeberg tortes – a fine way to complete our cultural exchange and more fun than riding into the freezing river.

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*Source: Frida

Runeberg Torte

Excuse me, do I work here?

New Zealanders love a good DIY ( Do It Yourself ) attitude – build your own fence, concrete your own driveway…but Finns bring it into the everyday as at most cafes you’ll find it’s DIY dishes.

You don’t actually have to wash them but there’s usually a place for you to scrape your dishes, stack them and sort the rubbish from the recycling.

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Having grown up with school lunches provided I’d say most Finnish adults are used to this and probably do it without thinking.

It’s great actually – it means the tables are cleared before you sit down, even when the staff are busy.

Used dishes stand & bin at Fafa's

Used dishes stand & rubbish bin at Fafa’s

At Cafe Regatta there are a couple of places for customers to stack their used dishes. You can also have free coffee refills and you get 5c back each time you refill your cup….*

So if times were tough and you were really desperate, you’d probably only have to drink 45 cups of coffee before you started to make your money back and started getting paid to stack that one dirty cup.

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Cafe Regatta

 *the beauty of this is no one wants a 5c piece in their wallet so they tend to go straight into the tips jar