Helga’s Folly. A unique, otherworldly dreamworld, nestled in the hills of Kandy; the last capital of the ancient era of kings with the spectacular ‘temple of the tooth’ at it’s heart.
From the Alice in Wonderland welcome at the end of the bumpy, winding road to the spectacularly flamboyant interiors, you only need a few minutes to realise that Helga’s Folly is no ordinary establishment- it’s quirky, artistic and fabulously eccentric from top to bottom, with Madame Helga the very heartbeat of the house.
Helga’s mother Esme de Silva was a student of the Berlin Bauhaus movement (designing Helga’s Folly, previously known as ‘The Chalet’ in the 1930s) whilst her father is credited to securing the independence of British colonised ‘Ceylon’ in 1948 to the nation we now know and love, Sri Lanka. Her aunt, Minette de Silva, was also the first distinguished female architect in Asia. A truly remarkable family tree!
During the era of Hollywood greats, Peter Finch and Vivien Leigh stayed at The Chalet to film ‘Elephant Walk’, swathed in a love affair until Leigh suffered a breakdown, demanding the presence of her husband Laurence Olivier, who stayed a while before whisking her away. Mahatma Ghandi was also an honoured guest, although choosing to live a humble existence, slept in a modest room with a single sheet on the bed.
At the age of 17, Helga worked as a fashion model for leading designers such as Christian Dior and Charles Frederick Worth, her statuesque beauty and charismatic charm bewitching soldier/ historian Jonathan Blow whom she married in 1962. Together, they had 3 children, Selina (a fashion designer), Amaury and Detmar (an art gallery owner). Detmar married Isabella Blow, previously Delves Broughton in 1989- a prominent fashion editor and stylist, credited with launching ‘fashion greats’ Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacey.
Today, Helga’s Folly is a pastiche of both art and history; a momentous collection of photographs, artwork and articles following a visual timeline of her family history alongside zestful murals and antique heirlooms. Helga began painting these murals in 1988 when she returned to her family home following a chain of both tragic and unfortunate events. Her father recommended exploring art as a healing process, offering up all walls in the house as her canvas.
Helga painted the first room entirely black. As the healing began to take effect, colour reignited in her eyes, painting room after room in an uplifting kaleidoscope; each brush enriched with passion and significance throughout the journey to find peace within herself once again- each room is so much more than mere decoration, but a celebration of life itself.
These days, the rooms echo with music reminiscent of a bygone era, a medley of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Ella Fitzgerald amongst many other eloquent classics. The Folly is like a surreal dream, a frozen moment in time amidst an all embracing parallel world, a Tim Burton-esque fantasy where topsy turvy Christmas trees claim pride of place all year round and glow in the dark skeletons bagsy the best seats in the house; a sincere reminder that ‘we are all the same underneath it all’.
As an overnight stay or a quick visit for dinner or drinks, Helga’s Folly is a must see for culture vultures with an open mind and a love of experiencing something entirely unique. There are many culinary delights on offer, my favourite being their signature ginger, lemongrass and coconut soup accompanied by freshly baked, melt in the mouth bread rolls- perfect with a glass of red wine.
I will leave you with some words written by Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics, whose song ‘Madame Helga’ was inspired by their visit to Helga’s Folly during a Sri Lankan tour in 2002. I find these lyrics particularly pertinent:
I’ve been dancing in the hills
At a place I know
She said ‘and that’s the place
Where the fire flies glow’