Relaxed Helsinki affair

Helsinki, a city of 1.3 million people, a place to visit a sauna, eat reindeer meat and drink fisherman’s friend-infused vodka (honestly, it’s called Fisu). The city that is, apparently, home to the world’s northernmost underground train network, is also the well-mannered host of Flow Festival – a music and arts festival which not only brings in big names from across the spectrum of the pop world, but also provides a platform for many talented Finnish acts to perform.

The festival is located at the Suvilahti Power plant, an old, disused production area near the centre of Helsinki that is nowadays utilized for different cultural events. Walking through the main entrance, one is greeted by a gas works tower and two iconic smokestack chimneys. The air feels clean, and the gods have blessed us with a lovely, bright blue summer’s day. The loud blast of Finnish hip-hop drags people magnetically towards the main stage, and there they meet Asa Masa, Helsinki-based rapper and social commentator, performing his tunes to a small mix of genuine fans and curious passersby.

It’s early on day one, and people are still arriving through the gate at a steady pace. Over the next three days, festival goers can look forward to performances by Destroyer, War Paint, Midlake, Royksopp, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Janelle Monae, Mogwai and Kanye West, just to name a few. For now, however, people are casually finding their bearings, and then their way to the nearest bar, for it is a well-known fact that hot weather, loud music and a number of attractive strangers from the opposite sex, tends to make people thirsty.

Famous across the world for its long winters, where the daylight hours stretch for only five at a time, the city of Helsinki is portrayed in the films of Aki Kaurismaki as a lonely, cold and unromantic place. A city depressingly stuck in the 1980s, where love is for fools and life deals you bad hand after bad hand – so what would it be like now, for a tourist, in the middle of summer? Actually, it’s a relaxed and attractive place. Due to the festival kicking off at around 2:30pm each day, there is plenty of time in the mornings for sightseeing. A walk through Market Square – a tourist trap, really, but a delightful one – reveals vendors selling fried calamari, octopus, reindeer meatballs, creamy, dill-flavoured salmon soup, and mounds and mounds of salmon steaks freshly caught from the Baltic Sea (although salmon stocks are decreasing alarmingly in the Baltic Sea, for your information). There are also boats offering trips to the various islands around Helsinki, including the famous fortress Suomenlinna, or a swim in the cool, clean waters surrounding the island. Just watch out for jellyfish, no kidding.

Walking around the city centre, there is an abundance of flora-rich green parks, squares with water fountains, and more than a few majestic cathedrals to admire. The architecture in Helsinki tends to be neoclassical in design, often with distinctive Russian-style turrets, and, due to a simple grid system, one can walk around easily without getting lost. If, however, you are a public transport buff, there is an extremely efficient tram network as well as the aforementioned underground. If coffee is your thing, then Kaffecentralen is the place to go to get a well-made espresso from a barista with an eye for detail. There’s an impressive stocks of geeky, home coffee paraphernalia, too.

Much has been made about the so-called “Finnish silence” - they don’t like small talk, big deal. More attention needs to be paid, however, to Finnish music festivals. With such an impressive and eclectic line-up, the fact that the weather remains hot for the duration of the festival feels like a wonderful bonus. Relatively small in scale – a semi-circle, really, around the gas works and chimneys – and with most of the action alternating between the Noika Blue Tent, the Main Stage, and then the two dance-orientated zones (the Black Tent and the Voimala Club), one can walk from place to place in just a few minutes.

Following the aroma of fresh lasagne, garlic and chilli, tarragon, meatballs in cognac sauce, roasted sweet potatoes and chickpeas, an array of food stalls present themselves to the hungry festival-goer. Manned by friendly-faced, elfin-featured Finnish girls, or broad-smiled, blonde-haired Finnish men, it all looks completely and utterly delicious. The goat’s cheese, lentil and chickpea salad is good for lunch, but if you’re really hungry, the Lasagne from Four Seasons provides that warm, satisfied after-eating glow. People sit on the grassy knoll by the Blue Tent as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart play on, drinking their beer and eating lasagne. The air is warm, and with the blue sky encompassing all with its innocent and carefree colour, the atmosphere is appropriately festive.

The best place, however, to enjoy the sun and the grass, is around the corner, past the Wine and Tapas area, past even more fragrant food stalls, past the ice cream man, to the part of the festival known as Back Yard. There, you find Finnish DJs We Love Helsinki, spinning some classic – and some obscure – soul and pop tunes from the 50s and 60s. Finnish language versions of ‘All My Loving’, and ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ are delightful to dance to, or simply to sit in the grass and listen to, and consult your festival schedule. Mogwai are playing later tonight, and then there’s Kanye West on the main stage.

With summer holidays playing an increasingly important role in our collective mental health levels, especially as our winters are becoming ever the colder, darker and longer, a weekend in Helsinki – and Flow Festival – seems an ideal form of escapism and fun. The festival has been increasing in size each year (it began eight years ago as a small festival, organised by a group of friends) and is attracting many more big names, as well as retaining and supporting a healthy level of Finnish acts. A relaxed music festival with a great line-up, swimming in the ocean, exploring islands and then the mounds of fresh salmon on offer. Why not?

Words by Kerry Tyrrell

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