Bookshopping in Helsinki

Soon there’ll be the annual book fair in Helsinki, a humongous event with hundreds of bookshops, publishers and whatnot presenting their best for the tens of thousands of booklovers browsing the offerings and rushing to catch something of the very packed presentation schedule. Pretty much everything’s there from big publishers and literary superstars to tiny one-person workshops and never-heard-ofs. The best bit, for me at least, is the antiquarian bookshop section, where you can basically browse through the best selections of the whole country’s sellers in one go. Conveniently at the same weekend in the same premises there’s something of a wine fair for securing a nice buzz so inspiring for reaching the right mood for some high culture and generous shopping.


Photo: Eero Ehanti

All this is fine, and many a year I’ve been there, finding great books and enjoying the company of good friends and booksellers, many of whom I’m somewhat acquainted with after years of frequenting their shops. But something’s not right. That enormous, fully packed fair-hall with those long book-lined corridors definitely hide a gem or two; perhaps a rare Henry Miller with perfect dustjacket, to name but one of the treasures I’ve come across there. Yes, they are nice, and you’ll always find something like that. But something’s not right, buying doesn’t feel good.



Photo: Eero Ehanti

Why? Because in such a fair you’re in no-man’s land in front of offerings from all around the world. The fairgrounds are anonymous places where everything is brought together for the case of convenience. This surely appeals to many. But not me. Convenience does not belong to the vocabulary of true bibliophile, who enjoys hunting for the rare prey in real shops, the weirder the better, where the actual purchasing momentum is of very high importance. It’s there that you encounter the best discussions with wise shopowners and clientele bound to be equally wise. It is not bookfairs but bookshops, dear bibliophilic reader, where you should head for while in Helsinki, because these are the places for catching the mood of the city. In a way they’re similar everywhere but at the same time they catch something vital from that particular city. What’s been read in the city eventually ends up in an antiquarian bookshop, or the best of it, as the bulk just might end up in the dump, where it probably belongs to.

Antiquarian bookshops, those hotspots of the spirit of place! Whatever that might be in that particular city, you will find something of it in a nice bookshop, or else you’ll sense it whilst walking around searching for one. Always when preparing to conquer a new city I start by finding out about the most interesting bookshops, which I dutifully mark in my map to form the framework for my wanderings in the city. That I encourage you to do as well when in Helsinki, and I can help you. I definitely know these places very well and often hunt for old English language books, which makes my tips valid for the occasional traveler.



Photo: Eero Ehanti

There are quite a few bookshops in town, and most of them have a section for English fiction and plenty of non-fiction scattered in the designated shelves in between the Finnish titles. Go for it, ask for what you want, or if you’re like me, ask the shopowner to just point to the English fiction section and browse it quickly through. One typically quite quickly establishes if there are any fancy hard-back volumes with good dustwrappers.

I’ll name just a couple here with a promise to come back to them later on in this blog: Hagelstam at the corner of Uudenmaankatu and Fredrikinkatu, which is perhaps the best of them all with a unique atmosphere with stuffed owls and very rare treasures. Maps and prints as well. Another good one for English readers is Runebergin antikvariaatti in Runeberginkatu, where I’ve been lucky enough to score some amazing poetry from Lawrence Ferlighetti’s Beat-circles. Definitely not to be missed is the international bookshop Arkadia in Töölö district, which beautifully serves the foreign language clientele with good selection, big cozy and fascinating premises and an amazingly rich program of readings, plays, concerts and gatherings of all kinds. The owner something to be very proud and thankful of. Characters like him make my Helsinki.



Photo: Eero Ehanti

Then there are the Planeetta antiquariats. Three branches, Green planet, Red Planet and Orange Planet, adorn the Hakaniemi, Kallio and Vallila areas respectively with varying specializations. Very good ones these as well, although not so concentrated on English language books. Not to be missed is Kampintorin antikvariaatti in Kamppi, which stocks a large collection of good quality books. Look for the varying displays in the window for some treasures. The one in Kruununhaka, Laterna Magica, is a very fascinating one with a great brick-walled gallery space at the back behind some nicely winding bookshelf-filled corridors, where photographic exhibitions and the like are held. Good English language books will be found. By the tourist-populated Senate Square you’ll find Senaatintorin antikvariaatti, which continues a long tradition of Seppo Hiltunen’s antikvariaatti, a Helsinki-institution definitely if ever there was one. So good that the new owner has picked up the legacy so wonderfully! Do not miss this little place. A very well kept one is Antikvariaatti Sofia in Vuorikatu, where I once found the complete series of Casanova’s Memoirs in a very nice English edition.


Photo: Eero Ehanti

These places I definitely encourage you to seek in Helsinki and promise to cover them in more detail here at some point. There’s more places, luckily, although sadly many an antiquarian bookshop has closed down in recent years. Hats off for places like Sangi, which for one is a place I miss very much not least because of the very nice owner with amazing knowledge of books, music and everything cool. Wonder what’s he up to these days…

If books are your thing, dear reader, go for these places. And yes, why not visit the book fair next month as well, for it is after all lots of fun!




Open water swimming in Helsinki

Summer’s pretty much ended here in Finland as the weather’s cooling down and nights are falling earlier after the summery white nights. It might not seem like a good time for summing up the beach scene hereabouts, but here I go anyway. Why? Because for an autumn-lover like me this is just about the best time of the year to hit the beaches.

This happens to be a subject I’ve got a huge experience to draw on after decades of open water swimming in every possible occasion. Rare is the day when I leave the house without my swimming trunks and a thin hammam towel so suitable for ex-tempore moments of bathing bliss. Actually it’s more than beaches I’m talking about, much more, as swimming in Helsinki is bound to happen not only from beaches but from rocks and whatnot. (Pools are totally excluded here, although there are fine ones in Helsinki well worth a post of their own, by someone else, as I myself am not much of a pool-type. Hate to feel that chemically purified water, or the thought of it…)

One of the plentiful good swimming spots in Suomenlinna. Photo. Eero Ehanti

Helsinki is a true waterfront city with plenty of designated beaches but also kilometers of open seaside ready for the more adventurous swimmer. Surely, this being the Northern hemisphere and the Baltic Sea, it’s not whitesand beaches by turquoise waters, but more like yellowish gravel on somewhat murky greenish water, which is not even real seawater but brackish water. Definitely no palmtrees. Instead we have lots of pines and spruces and other rich vegetation adorning the shores and providing the shelter for those in search of solitude.

Starting with the official beaches, the best known is the Hietaranta beach, or Hietsu, about which Anna already wrote about in this blog, a long stretch of yellow sand with good facilities, beach volley and occasional parties or other events. It tends to get quite crowded in hot summer days, but that’s what many a beach goes longs for; crowds and games, kind of societal bathing. As everywhere in Finland, the water’s bound to be on the cooler side even in high summer times, hindering effectively swimming urges of many people. Definitely not mine, though. I prefer colder waters because of the extreme refreshing effect one gets afterwards. Anyway Hietsu is a wonderful place for swimming, perhaps some Frisbee or beach volley and definitely a pique nique with friends. We go there from very early spring to very late autumn, and I advise to do the same, as the place very nicely changes within the seasons. Beautiful place indeed!


Hietaranta beach. Photo: Eero Ehanti

Another old favorite of mine is the beach in Mustikkamaa, just next to the Helsinki zoo, where there’s an open beach area but also more serene small dots of sandy beach sheltered by trees and bushes. It’s a nice bicycle trip from the center, or a bus ride if that’s more to your liking. Take the bus 16 bound for the zoo and get off one stop before the terminus. Good running paths around there as well, and an adventurous climbing park, which together with the zoo very nearby makes this beach a very good option for families.

Another very family-friendly beach is to be found in the beautiful squirrel-filled Seurasaari island, which is known, very deservedly, for the open air-museum with old Finnish folk buildings gathered there from all over the country. The houses are well worth a visit, or several visits, as there’s truly a lot to see and do in that gem of a museum and one of the prides of the National Museum of Finland. The beach is a small one but nicely located in a sheltered place. The Sporty swimmer swims around the island, but if you do so, remember to have a colorful float with you to avoid the risk of getting run over by one of the many boats cruising thereabouts! And if you’re into nudism, there’s a fenced beach area for that with separate sections for men and women.

One of the more urban beaches is to be found in Eiranrata, near to Kaivopuisto. This is a newish setting, a quite nice one, but crowded as well in the sense that there’ll always be people walking by, because it happens to be along a very popular running and strolling route. If you’re looking for more private experience and happen to be thereabouts, you should take the very short boat trip Uunisaari island just a stonethrow away from Kaivopuisto park. (In wintertime there’s a bridge.) A place of natural beauty, it has a nice restaurant and saunas for rent as well as lots of lone sheltered places for those looking for privacy. Lots of birds, too, which is nice for the most part except for the breeding season, when the protective birds might turn your solitude to something more uncomfortable. Still within the Eira/Kaivopuisto area, another option is to take the slightly longer boat trip to Pihlajasaari island, another place of amazing natural beauty. Nudism area there as well. There’s a restaurant and camping possibility, too.


Photo: Eero Ehanti

I could go on, easily, with these beaches. There’s a fine long one in the eastern suburb Vuosaari, they say, but I haven’t ventured there for a long time. And so on… But at this point, dear reader, I advise you to forget about these official beaches and just dip into the sea wherever suits you. There are places people go to, like Tervasaari or Suomenlinna, where possibilities abound, or best of them all, the so called Missippi rocks. This happens to be my absolute favorite spot in the city, where I go many times a week with my swimming gear and a nice Toscanello for the very rewarding smoke afterwards accompanied with some poetry or other highly complex literature for which I otherwise don’t find the needed concentration nor solitude. A friend’s a good option as well for these moments of somewhat Zenist character. The wherabouts of these rocks? I’m not going to tell you! You’ll find out if you look hard enough, or else you’ll find your own spot for utilizing fully the nature-wonders of our lovely Northern capital. There’s still time before the waters get really cold, so go for it!


Cross-country skiing in Helsinki

Having travelled far to see palmtrees leaning over a whitesand beach by turquoise water I must say that snow-covered trees leaning over you when cross-country skiing underneath in pure whiteness of a Northern forest is more to my liking. This you can experience in Helsinki, right now. You only need to take the tram 2 or 7 to a stop called Auroran sairaala (Aurora hospital), or, following my example, go by bike with skis on your back, and from there enter the forest we call Central park. Skiing tracks start right next to the hospital.

This is not just any forest, but a real one, better than most Finnish forests, which tend to be sort of economical forests with planted skinny trees of similar size in symmetrical lines. In contrast, this Central park of ours has a variety of different trees, even very old, thick and high ones. Wild one this forest however isn’t, nor empty, which would be quite impossible due to its borders reaching very near to the center of Helsinki.  Numerous paths criss-cross the woods and there’ll be plenty of people enjoying the outdoor life so easily accessible for us lucky enough to live hereabouts. But plenty of space there for everybody, the forest’s huge, meaning that momentarily you’ll definitely feel the solitude of wilderness. You could say that Central park is the start of the green forest belt said to continue all the way up to the very Northern Finland.

Come snow and the paths turn to multifunction routes where people run or walk, with dogs often, while people like me ski. This works just fine unless you’re too used to extremely well maintained skiing routes to be found for instance upper North in Lapland. The kind of skiing I’m describing here and lovingly manifesting always when there’s snow, is a very urban kind of skiing, where uneven tracks and dog-walkers belong to the picture. However, after a few kilometers from the start you’ll reach routes designated only for skiers. These are of course in better condition. The one nearest from the center is in Maunula, where you should anyway plan to stop at some point of your journey because of the very cosy café in an idyllic red lodge offering oven-fresh buns and hot drinks.

From Maunula it is easy enough to head for Pirkkola, where another well maintained route is to be found as well as other options for breaks, which I never take as I opt to skate-ski fast a couple of rounds there before heading back. Of course, this kind of skiing is very good exercise, which is not what everybody’s looking for. Many tend to take it much easier and concentrate on enjoying the winter scenery and snow, which at its best it’s pure white and covering the trees’ branches thickly causing the leaning-over effect I so much love. I understand this very well but nevertheless always find myself enjoying the speed and muscular exercise. The only downside is that the route options for skaters are more limited than for those favoring classical style, who can easily continue from Pirkkola to Paloheinä. A wealth of very well maintained tracks are to be found there, some of which fulfilling any professionality standards you might have. I never go that far because the connecting route does not have the required width for skating. But no complaints, there’s definitely enough routes for me and anyway I’m just so impressed and happy that such possibilities are to be found so near to my home. Thanks, Helsinki, for making this possible!

To wrap this up I’ll share my habit of listening to something interesting whilst skiing.  A few year back, when I spent every possible evening and weekend morning skiing the mentioned routes, I listened to an audio book version of Casanova’s memoirs. Easily enough for a whole winter of skiing, this fascinating book series, which gave a fun contrast to the winter forest scenery I was at the same time of course fully enjoying. Lately it’s been Kerouac and other Beatniks, whose poetry hits the spot big time these days. A true feast for senses this kind of experience of combining exercise to art.

Of course, there are times and places for the palmtree scenery as well. It’s all got to do with something like the spirit of place, which I always seek to meet wherever I might be. Right now in Helsinki cross-country skiing and skating, as described in my previous post, truly feels right. Seize the moment, it might not last long!


Ice-skating in Helsinki part 2

Inspired by an earlier post by Anna about skating in Helsinki, I thought I should share my extensive experiences on the subject.

Let’s start from one early January morning when the weather was perfectly wintery with some -20 degrees celsius and plenty of snow. This was a few years ago when we got to enjoy a couple of true fairytale winters in Helsinki with exceptionally plentiful snow and trees disguising in glimmering white ice. That morning I hastily grabbed the 1950s skates my father used to use back in the day and headed for Eläintarhan kenttä. This is the old nostalgic track & field stadium, where the 400 meters running track is frozen in winters for skaters to enjoy. A very fitting place for some speed-skating exercise, especially in early mornings when you get to be the first to mark the newly frozen ice!

This is one way to enjoy skating in Helsinki, a very good one but not the most typical one. Different, more common and somewhat more idyllic but much less exercise-oriented possibilities are the many small skating rinks in parks next to playing grounds. Helsinki municipal workers very kindly prepare these for kids and whoever wishes to slide a while on wonderful albeit often a bit bumpy ices. Very idyllic indeed, doing so in the middle of Helsinki. Especially good it is with small kids whom you get to teach how to skate. I so love these places!

Then there are of course many more professionally maintained bigger rinks, where you might have to pay a few euros to enter. Ice’s going to be perfect, and if you’re into ice-hockey, bring your hockey stick, as you’re bound to find good games there. Just ask and the guys will let you in the game, where the rules are very simple: scoring only straight from a pass, no contact, no rising the puck. Not much protection on anybody and quite a crowd around you, so care is needed but somehow it all works smoothly and everybody’s extremely happy. I for one find it very, very enjoyable to sense momentary hints of my very much bygone days of junior hockey stardom. (Nice hockey gloves turned to vintage remain to witness those days.) The prime place for these games, for me at least, is Kallio ice rink, which is neatly located in the area where the nicest public saunas are to be found. Needless to say, it is absolutely blissful to go to one of these after a couple of hours of hockey. The most traditional Finnish sauna, and hence the most exotic for foreigners perhaps, is called Kotiharjun sauna, while the more hip persons should perhaps head for Kulttuurisauna, which even has a possibility for dipping into the sea. Not to be missed, that experience! Wherever you choose to take your sauna, why not hit the bars after that? Plenty of those in the area.

Another option is the most natural one: sea ice. This is very easy if you have a pair of those skates with long blades designed for natural ices, with which you can go whenever and wherever conditions allow. But beware! You should find out beforehand if the ice is thick enough and know what kind of places are to be avoided. Going under a bridge for instance might be risky and currents might mean thin ice in surprising places. Always carry proper safety equipment. Naturally this kind of skating means more preparation and special equipment, but it is said to be very enjoyable. Not my cup of tea, though, this kind of skating, but having said that I do enjoy going once in a while to one of the well maintained routes prepared on sea ice in certain place in winters cold enough. These should be skateable even with normal skates. The one most accessible from city center is in Laajalahti in the Munkkiniemi district.


What else… I should perhaps mention the place Anna already wrote about, the Icepark in the very heart of Helsinki, where many tourists choose to give their very first try to ice skating. It’s a nice and well-maintained rink with a good cafe and background music. Not a bad place this one actually for early winter skating when there’s no snow or subzero temperatures but you already feel the itch to start the winter season. Kids seem to love this place, too.


So many options for skating in Helsinki. What’s best depends on the occasion and company, I think. That brisk January morning it was solitude at Eläintarhan kenttä while last Saturday it was hockey with friends in Kallio with the full after-skating program. Anyway, give skating a try while in Helsinki in wintertime, it’s tremendously fun!


Retreat to Nuuksio

Dear reader, I’ll be visiting this blog occasionally with scribblings mostly about antiquarian bookshops, museums and generally seizing the moment in some of the perhaps stranger places of our beloved Helsinki.

But oddly enough I start by heading out of the city in search of natural solitude by a beautiful pond in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau. Well, it’s not that lonely out there, but it’s definitely a breathtakingly beautiful place of natural wonder. And it’s easily accessible from central Helsinki by a smooth train-bus combination plus a little bit of walking, as is only appropriate in such retreats. The place’s called Nuuksio and it’s a public natural park. You’ll be there in about an hour and a half from the Helsinki central train station.

Mustalampi pond in Nuuksio

For many a traveler the whole Finland, even the center of our tiny capital, is a place of natural beauty. I strongly agree! Care to wander in a true forest with big trees and all? Head for the (somewhat confusingly named) central park starting just outside Helsinki center. Wonderful place to get safely lost in the woods. How about a dip in the Baltic Sea? Be our guest, anywhere anytime. (I know it’s not the cleanest of waters this so called sea of ours, but I for one don’t mind the murkiness but go for late night swims year around accompanied with very pleasant smokes afterwards.) Anyway sometimes I long for something even more special and so do my daughters, now 10 and 12. That’s when we pack our backpacks, take the train and bus to Nuuksio and walk to Mustalampi pond, where we pitch our tent for the night. What a bliss!

Camping by the Mustalampi pond in Nuuksio

Quite a few hikers there during daytime, but come evening and almost everybody disappears. It’s just you and perhaps a couple of other tents. You’ll be a few meters from the pond, where a swim is a must between the strange floating moss-islands. There’s a place for campfires nearby for cooking and roasting marshmallows, as we always do. A dry-toilet for convenience is to be find nearby as well. The night’s sleep is always distracted by ducks and other birds breaking the otherwise total silence, but no matter, anyway you’ll be tempted to stay outside the tent watching the moon and starscape otherwise quite invisible in Helsinki area because of too much light-pollution. When we were there in late September it was a cloudless sky lit by a supermoon so big and bright I almost felt like reaching for my sunglasses! Was it cold? Definitely, but only for me with the too thin sleeping bag. The girls slept beautifully with proper equipment. Did I mind? Absolutely not. Anyway I mostly stayed outside sipping rum and shivering not because of coldness but due to the natural wonder happening before my eyes and because of the sheer joy of sharing this with my daughters once again, so close to our home.

Swimming in NuuksioIn the morning, after the obligatory dip in the pond and a nice breakfast prepared over fire, we packed our things and took the very nice 5 kilometers hike to the natural center Haltia for exhibition visit and a huge lunch at the cafe’s plentiful buffet table. There’s a direct bus from there back to Helsinki center.

It’s not Thoreau’s Walden, but close enough and probably better for the kind of city dweller as myself. If you’re a nature lover and visiting Helsinki, don’t miss Nuuksio. (But having said that, if you’re a REAL natural lover and an experienced hiker, there’s plenty of truly wild nature upper north, about which I don’t know much).

Next time very likely about bookshops. Until then!