Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Want some cake in Turku, Finland?

Gaggui (Humalistonkatu 15, www.gaggui.com)

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Many of my female friends had been praising this new café for some time but it was reading the story behind it that finally got me to give it a try. Two identical twins, one a biologist, the other one an artist, joined forces to create this café, and change their careers at the same time. A brave move but apparently successful! It all started as one of the sisters wanted to create the perfect cake for her wedding. After lots of experiments, she had accumulated an interesting collection of different recipes, which the two of them then sold on one of the so-called “Restaurant days”. The cakes of these two sisters turned out to be so popular that they then ventured into business together.

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What I really like about this small café is that it’s really a local Turku place through and through. Their coffee is rosted locally, and a small tea shop up the road provides their teas. What’s more, they use our local dialect in all their signs. Even the name of the place “Gaggui” is a Turku variation of ‘kakkuja’ (‘cakes’). And cakes are definitely the speciality here, one more decadent than the other! Needless to say, all the cakes are their own original recipes and creations. How does “heaven on örth” (‘heaven on earth’ written in Finnish phonetics) sound to you? I can assure you, the cake really lives up to its name!

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This café is small and intimate, basically just one room. The decor is quirky, with nice little touches of originality, even in the restroom. If you visit around midday on a weekday, the place tends to be full of groups of mothers with their kids, and even dogs. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for inclusion, and everybody’s right to go out to socialise. But if you are not accustomed to the Scandinavian lifestyle of public breastfeeding, and toddlers running around screaming, maybe you’d want to choose a time later in the afternoon or early evening to enjoy your coffee and cakes.

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Romantic mini-break in the south

For couples of any age, a romantic weekend getaway every now and then is a must, in order to relax and have some carefree time together. Working weeks are busy, with often so many chores and duties to attend to that by the evening, you just crash into bed, exhausted. Conversation gets reduced to quick ‘how are you’s’ and a few rushed daily anecdotes or fixing schedules and car sharing. You know, how it is – running your daily life is almost like an extreme sport, as one Finnish columnist wrote the other day.

Somebody (Mr Google or Facebook?) must have guessed my thoughts, and sent the offer of a weekend mini-break for two to my news feed. I literally jumped at the chance! Even better that hubby had never been to Hanko, the southernmost town of Finland.

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The deal included one night at a hotel, breakfast included, and a bottle of bubbly waiting in the room, plus a 3-course meal at a seaside fish restaurant. Continuing the evening at a local pub with live music was also recommended.

And so, off we jolly well went last Saturday morning, full of anticipation. It was only a 1.5-hour drive, along quiet country roads. To boost our enthusiasm, even the sun was out, although the lovely early spring weather of earlier in the week had changed back to chilly wintry winds.

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THE TOWN

Hanko is a small seaside town with just under 10,000 inhabitants, about half of whom speak Finnish and the other half Swedish, making the town truly bilingual. It’s a summer town, really, so even at the weekend in late March, the streets were quiet, and the atmosphere idyllically sleepy. The town is best known for its history as a swinging spa resort in the late 19th – early 20th century. The many picturesque wooden villas in all their pastel colours and lacy decorations date from around the same period, and give an oldey-worldey, nicely nostalgic, feel to the place even today. It’s easy to imagine summer visitors – among them prominent political figures, wealthy Russians, the Finnish elite, and artists – flocking these streets in the past. We were sorry to see some of the magnificent villas deserted, at different stages of decay. Hope somebody will be able to afford to restore them soon!

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First and foremost, it’s the sea and, for Finland quite rare, sandy beaches that give the town its character. Being the southernmost tip of the country has made Hanko a strategic military area all through the history of our country. Interestingly, it was also from Hanko port that some quarter of a million aspiring Finns left, on steam ships, for a better life in America, Canada or Australia at the turn of the 20th century. During our stay, the beaches were still deserted, the water cold and the rocks covered in wintertime green moss. Nevertheless, the gorgeous glitter on the blue sea in the spring sunshine made me giddy with dreams of summer. Should perhaps come back then, to see all the sailing boats and yachts in the harbour and the open-air terraces of the cafés and restaurants.

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Worth mentioning is also the very professionally designed Hanko website, which provides a wealth of useful info also in English.

HOTEL BULEVARD

We were accommodated at Hotel Bulevard, only a few steps from the seafront. We only found out on the day of arrival that it is actually a converted old police station! Quite funny as we’d stayed in a converted prison hotel in Helsinki just last year.

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Some rooms were in the actual cells of the old station but ours was upstairs, possibly one that used be an office. A nice detail is that most of the rooms are named after famous Finnish designers, and the interiors get their inspiration from each artist’s work. Our spacious room was dedicated to designer Birger Kaipiainen, who had designed the wallpaper, with his signature style birds on it. In addition to the bedroom, our abode had a small separate ante-room plus a bathroom with a shower. Quite a retro feel in the whole place, and very quiet and peaceful all through the weekend.

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The buffet breakfast was typically Scandinavian, quite alright. However, it was the bowler hat light fitments in the breakfast room, aptly named ‘The Commissar’, that especially took my interest.

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A big plus was the friendly and personal service, in particular for the chance of having a “private” sauna heated for us in the afternoon. It really was a lovely addition to a romantic couple’s weekend, in particular as we were quite frozen after walking around exploring the town in the icy sea wind.

Can fully recommend this hotel. It’s interesting, clean, good value, centrally located – and they even rent bikes in summer, which would be ideal for getting around in such a small town.

PUB GRÖNAN

Not far from our hotel, in the same street, we spotted the evening venue, Pub Grönan, during our afternoon walk. Couldn’t resist checking it out straight away. Quite special, Anglo-American ambience welcomed us inside. Must say, the black leather sofa in front of the music stage looked especially inviting! Later found out on their website that the inspiration for the pub had struck two Finnish guys during their road trip in the US, crossing the Rattlesnake River somewhere in Arizona. No wonder then! There would have been a Swedish troubadour performing that night but the fresh sea air must have taken the better of us, and we had to forego the night out in the pub.

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RESTAURANT ‘PÅ KROKEN’

In the evening, it was time for dinner in the restaurant ‘På Kroken’, which is Swedish and means ‘on the hook’. It is a cosy little fish and seafood restaurant right by the sea, on the other side of the railway tracks, in Hanko village. Our hotel landlord kindly offered us a lift there, and we arrived just in time to enjoy the pinkish hues of the sunset in the horizon.

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Most of the fish served is local, and smoked on the premises. The abundant archipelago buffet is served in a boat in the middle of the room, and consists of one delicacy after another. Hubby’s absolute favourite was the pastrami spiced smoked salmon.

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I opted for ‘blinis’ as a starter. They are Russian-style yeasted pancakes made of buckwheat flour. At ‘På Kroken’ they were served with a variety of fish roes, chopped onion, sour cream, mushroom salad, and gherkins. Unbelievably scrumptious!

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Super service all through the evening, delicious food, great atmosphere, good selection of wines and beers and interesting, rustic decor! We enjoyed all the dishes so much that could hardly manage dessert at all.  Their menu is definitely worth checking out! Apart from the restaurant, there is also a fish shop, and a café that serves, for example, their popular salmon soup with the special, dark, malty archipelago bread. Hmm, a revisit in summer is getting even more tempting!

GREAT STAY

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How about the romance then? In the words of very wise Bridget Jones: “a mini-break means true love”. A weekend away is really worth it! It even got us, after being married 25 years, bold enough to walk barefoot on the empty, sandy beach, holding hands like teenagers. What a giggle, though, as otherwise we still had to wear winter gear! Was it the bubbly, or the sea wind and the spring sun? No matter, probably a combo of everything.  Yet, all in all, having pampered ourselves, and devoted some undivided attention and quality time to being together, we came home happy, rested and relaxed.

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Pop-up “Restaurant Day” in November

November 15, a grey and windy Saturday morning. The temperature here in southern Finland barely above zero celsius, but no sight of snow or ice, thank goodness! The beginning of another pop-up restaurant experience in my town, and around the world. Following the online map, with venues popping up all through the week, I finally found 20+ to choose from, noticeably fewer, though, than on the lovely late summer day in August, which I blogged about earlier. Not surprising, given the season and weather, but enough, however, to plan an interesting tour. According to the event Facebook page, there were still all together 1698 pop-up places opened in 35 countries, which is quite an achievement!

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Our rather colourless riverside scenery in November

Two major differences to our previous experience: this time, we drove around in our car, at times parking and walking from place to place. Still got some fresh air and exercise although, I must say, I did miss my bike, but the distances along our planned route just were too long, unfortunately. Secondly, most of the November events took place indoors, which nicely added an extra interest in actually being invited into people’s homes. Very un-Finnish and brave! Compared to the open-air garden events in August, the indoor cafés and restaurants were far more intimate, and sparked even more impromptu conversations and interaction between the strangers whose paths crossed by chance, around coffee and dinner tables for fleeting moments . Great for us private, and often sullen, Finns! And what a way, for anyone, to “seize the day”, and make each unexpected encounter count.

I and hubby started by the riverside, at ‘Curry in a Hurry’. A simple canopy-covered place, offering 3 different curries with naan bread. Just the right hot treat, temperature and spice-wise, on a nippy winter day! Turned out that the friendly and welcoming curry chefs were also a mixed Finnish-British couple, just like us, so we felt right at home.

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Warmed by the nice and tasty curry, we then walked to a 1920s block of flats up the road, and entered the enchanting ambience of “The Yellow Salon Café”. This was a family endeavour, put together for the third time already by a father, keen on antiques and design, an enthusiastically baking mother and a daughter enjoying the customer service. The whole front room had been totally reorganised for the day, with a lot of effort and care to create just the right atmosphere for a Christmassy coffee break, down to the finest detail. I was especially impressed with the oldie-worldie outfits of the two ladies, not to mention all the scrumptious pies, cakes and goodies, which literally melted in your mouth. I would definitely go again, and can recommend this venue, both for culinary and aesthetic enjoyment. I’m still wondering, though, about the elegant and enigmatic young lady, quietly having chocolate cake while reading Molière in the corner. Just one of those intriguing stories of this great day!

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We finally ended our tour with another Christmassy experience. A summer hut in a garden, aptly named “Café Charm” for the day, with a view of a small, local lake. On offer was our traditional Christmas delicacy: rice porridge, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar on top. Here, too, Christmas carols were played in the background, and flickering candles added to the warm feeling in the darkening afternoon. I can understand people wanting to tap into the Christmas theme as there is no Restaurant Day closer to the holidays, but for me, maybe it was a little early for all the jingle bells, santa figures and decorating gingerbread cookies, lovely ideas and activities as they were. Next this café, there was also a quirky little boutique, boasting the world’s smallest cinema (in a toilet!) showing a 1920s documentary about the area, in the times when the adjacent broadcloth factory was still working. So, not only food and meeting people but learning about local history at the same time!

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The above mentioned “cinema” on the left

Hats off to all the hard-working and creative volunteers for organising this great day for the rest of us! Looking forward to the next edition on February 15, 2015!


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A great Finnish food carnival

Restaurantday1 Are you keen on cooking or baking? So much so that you would even like to sell some of your culinary creations to others? But, obtaining the required licences and going through all the red tape has prevented you so far, plus the fact that you really couldn’t imagine this as your full-time career. Or would you just like to have a fun, novel experience sharing food with people for one day? Well, wait no longer – there is a way: THE POP-UP RESTAURANT DAY. In the words of the inventors, this is what it is:

Restaurant Day is a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day. It can happen anywhere: at your home, at the office, on a street corner, in your garden or inner courtyard, at a park, or on the beach – only your imagination is the limit.

For your pop-up restaurant, café or food stall, you won’t need to apply for any permits, nor do you need to let the taxman know what you’ve earned, for as long as you only charge enough to cover your costs. The first ever “Restaurant Day” was organised in Finland in May 2011, and since then the concept has spread to over 50 countries worldwide. Quite an achievement! If you got interested, here is one of the three men behind the concept, Timo Santala, explaining to you in English what it’s all about. It’s well worth sparing 17 minutes to watch the video as it’s is full of heart-warming and funny stories about interaction, participation, open cities, active citizenship and, above all, the creative madness of people who are given the freedom and trust to organise something extraordinary for a day.

I couldn’t agree with Timo more when he asks:

Is there a better way of meeting new people, experiencing a country as a tourist or integrating to a new place as an immigrant than around a shared dinner table?

Yet, it still amazes me that this phenomenon was actually invented and given the green light in Finland, the promised land of rules and regulations! In fact, the inventors have revealed that it was exactly their frustration with all the Finnish restrictions for setting up restaurants that gave them this idea. What adds to my amazement is that, in general, we Finns are quite private people. Many of us are not particularly keen to open our homes to strangers even though we often do invite friends over for dinner or coffee. What’s more, we very much tend to keep ourselves to ourselves, and shy away from socialising with people we don’t know. I believe this is partly due to our culture of politeness, according to which it is good manners to basically leave people alone, and not bother them with unnecessary small talk. This cultural background makes the concept of the Restaurant Day, where you suddenly expose yourself to dealing with strangers, often in your own home, even more incredible. Maybe it is a positive sign of people longing for a change, and a new sense of community spirit in these highly individualised times. This great day takes place four times a year – in February, May, August and November. Obviously, here in the north, our seasons affect the organisation a lot, with May and August being much easier and more convenient for outdoor venues. I and hubby had a wonderful day last August, cycling around all Sunday to a few places we had picked from the list beforehand. Even the weather couldn’t have been better that day! Our picks then were a Polish-Finnish couple’s pierogi restaurant in their yard, raw cakes by the riverside, a garden do with several main courses and desserts, and with live music, too (in fact, two well-known Finnish musicians, which was an interesting bonus) and another garden café with traditional Finnish coffee and cakes. Not only was the food highly affordable and interesting to sample, but the tour also introduced us to lovely, new neighbourhoods of our hometown that we had never been to before, not to mention the healthy exercise and fresh air and meeting and talking with lots of people. There’s hardly a better way to spend an autumn Sunday!

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My “red lightning transport” for the day

Restaurantday2Restaurantday3Restaurantday3Restaurantday4 If you have never heard of this idea, why not jump on the bandwagon in your village / town? You can find all the information you need on this webpage (and in several languages, too). I can’t wait for the next experience on November 15. I’m even toying with the idea of having my own little café in May next year. Let’s see what happens!


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Best coffee in Turku, Finland

Finns are among the  biggest coffee-drinkers in the world. So if you ever come here, I bet you won’t be able to avoid the traditional ‘kahvi ja pulla’ (‘coffee and bun’) break during your stay. And if you happen to visit my hometown, the historical old capital city of Turku, on the south-western coast, by the Baltic Sea, here is my, totally personal, recommendation of where to go for the best cup of joe.

CaféArt (Läntinen Rantakatu 5, www.cafeart.fi)
Coffee3My all-time favourite, not least for the picturesque milieu of wooden houses by the river Aura, not far from the Cathedral or the market square. In the summertime the café extends to the pavement and side of the pedestrian street, offering a wonderful view of the riverside, and great opportunities for people watching, let alone the fact that coffee always tastes even better in the fresh air.
Coffee1Coffee2Apart from the location, my main reason for preferring this café over all the others in town, is the tasty and always reliable coffees, prepared with care of locally roasted beans by award-winning baristas. Tea-lovers can also a good selection of leaf teas. CaféArt may not be at its best in the eats department but different sandwiches and quiches, buns and cakes are always on offer. In the typical Finnish custom, no table service but ordering and paying at the counter, even if you are sitting outdoors.

Inside, there is plenty of space, and nice separate “nooks and crannies” to cater for groups of different sizes. The decor is quaint but quite ordinary. Yet, as the name of the place suggests, the changing art pieces, exhibited on the walls, add interest. If you are on your own, sitting by the riverside window is ideal for daydreaming – weather permitting, of course. Free wi-fi is also available. Personally, I really enjoy the nice, bubbly atmosphere of people, working, having informal meetings, chatting and talking. This place is not often empty or quiet! And more plus: unlike many cafés in our town (beats me why!), CaféArt is also open on Sundays between 11am-5pm. Warmly recommend!

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My favourite combo: cappuccino and a cinnamon bun

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Weekend in jail

Attending a friend’s 50th birthday party in Helsinki on Saturday, gave us a welcome short break to stay in the capital for the night. I had heard about the Katajanokka Prison Hotel from a friend earlier, and it certainly sounded worth a try. Not cheap but not the dearest either, bearing in mind the fairly elevated Helsinki hotel prices.

Entering inside the red brick walls felt ominous, to say the least. And soon enough, we were LITERALLY behind bars!

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And the same quite authentic prison atmosphere continued inside the building. Beyond the reception, the corridor was almost exactly as you might have expected it to be when the prison still housed inmates, as late as the early 2000s. I expected the doors open any minute, to let the prisoners out for a walk! The refurbishment was well done, respecting the history of the building. We had chosen the cheapest and smallest possible room, without a bathtub, but found it very comfortable and fully equipped with an iron, and ironing board, hairdryer, minibar and free wi-fi. A nice touch was the kettle and tea and coffee provided in the room plus free wi-fi, which are rare in Finnish hotels. Even if small, somehow the height of the room made it seem airy and comfortable. And the out of reach windows high on the wall let my imagination run wild, conjuring up plots of escape.

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We definitely had a good night’s sleep, and didn’t hear a peep from anywhere, possibly thanks to the extra thick prison walls. One word of warning, though – do close the curtains as the shadows on the walls from the night lights outside can be rather spooky!  However, in the morning it is good to open them again to enjoy the first light streaming through the pink curtains. Breakfast was served downstairs in the windowless, candle-lit basement. They still use the old metal plates and mugs but the breakfast itself was a full Scandinavian-style buffet with something for many different tastes. Especially nice was the selection of different jams in rustic glass jars, and the open kitchen with the chef  waiting to fry your eggs on demand.

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In the restaurant area, you can also visit an original isolation cell and a group cell from the 19th century. Anyone staying in them definitely didn’t enjoy any mod cons or creature comforts! It was nice to see that the prison theme was utilised in different parts of the hotel. For example, using one of the city bikes provided at the entrance, made you ‘a runaway’, and at the reception, you could buy theme-related souvenirs, such as mugs or even pairs of hand cuffs. All in all, this commercialisation of the theme was done in good taste, not forced down your throat, in my opinion.

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I can warmly recommend this hotel to anyone interested in something other than your regular hotel chains. The icing on the cake is the location in the charming neighbourhood of Katajanokka, a small island, separated from mainland Helsinki by a narrow canal. Weather permitting, it’s a good idea to walk around the island along the seaside path. Not only can Katajanokka boast with a lot of beautiful Jugend-style architecture, but it is also home to the Finnish foreign ministry in an originally Russian army building, and the huge Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. We were lucky, and took a leisurely stroll back to the railway station. Managed to get some more vitamin D for the winter in the gorgeous autumn sunshine!

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