Finding the essence of Finland – one coffee cup at a time
One of the most picturesque features in Finnish landscape is the old vicarage: the 19th century wooden mansion, normally painted yellow or red. The vicarages have been an integral part of Finnish town life for centuries, and they appear over and over again in Finnish literature being the centre of the town’s sophistication – or scandal. But now, long gone is the heyday of the Finnish “pappila” (vicarage); the clergy has moved out, the paint is crumbling down, and a slow process of forgetting has swiped some of them already from our modern townscape.
Luckily, this is not the case with all old vicarages, and one of them is Kenkävero in Savonian district, Finland. Kenkävero is an island in Mikkeli and roughly translated means “a shoe tax”. There are many stories concerning the name’s origin, one of which tells how the men in the area used to put on their shoes here before entering a church and then take them off again after hearing the God’s word. Another story relates how the priest had to give a pair of shoes and woollen socks to the sexton every year for his services. There are other, more dramatic stories, but I am declined to favour this one with woollen socks included – so Finnish!
The vicarage’s decline begun in 1969 when the vicar moved into the city. Finland was going through a modernist phase in its architecture and development, and Kenkävero was neglected. Luckily, even with all the yuppies of the glittering 80s, there were some insightful people who saw Kenkävero’s importance and atmospheric originality, and plans for its restoration begun in 1988. Nowadays you can track the building’s development from the plans saved in one of the vicarage’s rooms.
In the main building, as you step in, Kenkävero greets you with corky elegance. On one wall you see an appealing arrangement of old trays and opposite a spiral of really, really old stairs – entrance to this room is restricted, but I’m glad they keep the door open for visitors to see a glimpse of the olden times. There are several dining rooms inside, and as it is after lunch hour, the place is almost empty. A few parties chat quietly by the windows and a Russian family soon takes a seat. All treats – traditional Finnish cookies, massive meringues – are handmade in Kenkävero and a lunch buffet of local produce is served daily.
I had just spent a surreal (due to some frustrating, bureaucratic errands I had to run there) day in Mikkeli, for everything had changed in the city: offices had closed down, services were only available online, people were gone. Once I even found myself standing in an office with instructions to book a visiting time to the office in question either online or by calling. Standing in the office I called them (I saw many people behind their desks), but got no answer. Online, the time schedule showed that the office would be fully booked for weeks to come. At this point, I gave up and thought nothing could bring me up from my slump.
But then, there it was: Kenkävero.
Just when my faith in Finnish way of life had been crushed, Kenkävero came to the rescue. This is the reason I like my native land: history, hominess, style and elegance in one, unassumingly cosy spot. Old barns transformed into galleries and shops, vicarage modified to fit big parties and smaller encounters.
I started to feel more confident about my winter’s stay in Finland: for sure, there will be setbacks, and for sure I’ll miss London’s coffee shops and buzz. But then again, Finland has something else to offer, something that is hard to define… but that’s alright, I have the whole winter to try!
What: Kenkävero is an island attached to the mainland by a bridge. An assembly of little shops and restaurant and coffee shop is rebuilt in Kenkävero’s old vicarage. The history of the place goes back over 500 years and you can feel it when visiting!
Where: Kenkävero is part of Mikkeli, the capital of Southern Savonia, Finland. Mikkeli has about 50 000 inhabitants and is situated in one of Finland most scenic, lakeland areas.
When: Kenkävero is open all year round from Sun to Fri 10 – 18 and on Saturdays 10 – 16
More detailed information here: www.kenkavero.fi
P.S. For another elegantly historic experience, click here: Sokos Hotel Torni, Helsinki