“Helga’s chief folly was being on lithium when she decorated”—Luxe City Guides, Sri Lanka
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second biggest city with 1.5 million people in the district, but Helga de Silva Blow Perera is hard to miss in the crowd.
Helga is the owner and creator of Helga’s Folly – a hotel right up in the hills of Kandy. I think the Luxe Guide is a little uncharitable, but then I’ve always been a fan of the more is more philosophy both in life and interior decorating. Fair call on the lithium though.
Helga’s Folly is a bit difficult to describe but I’ll do my best.
Just imagine that Frida Kahlo had a Sri Lankan love child with Paul Gauguin, and let it smoke opium for breakfast every day until it turned 12. And then gave it a paintbrush and said, knock yourself out, kid.
Yes. That’s what Helga’s Folly is like.
When you walk through the front entrance, there are plastic skeletons sitting on a chaise lounge and a Sri Lankan man called Lionel who will reluctantly take your drink order.
Around the corner, it just gets more fantastic: stalactites of candle wax dripping from candelabras and bright green and pink Indian silk cushions. In one cabinet sits the family’s collection of antique pistols. In another, oriental lamps and wooden carvings of Buddha and various Indian gods and goddesses. There are murals, Sri Lankan folk art, Dutch antiques, teak and lattice recliners and chandeliers. One room is pale blue and the walls are lined with blue china plates. Another is bright red, with a Sri Lankan elephant procession painted on one wall and gaudy Mexican characters drinking on the other. Above the doorways are stag horns, family photographs and paintings of unicorns. And because it was Christmas a week ago, they’d done some extra decorating: wreaths, baubles and glittering fairy lights.
Outside Helga’s Folly is a backyard made of jungle. There are monkeys swinging from the eaves and sitting on the window sills. Apparently one used to be nicknamed Captain; Captain liked to expose himself to guests at regular intervals.
Helga’s family story is something else. She hails from European-Sri Lankan stock, with a father and grandfather who were both politicians. Her grandmother fought for women’s rights, her mother was an artist and designed the original chalet and her aunt was the first Asian woman to become an architect. Helga herself is an artist, celebrity and local eccentric with three husbands under her belt. Her daughter is a fashion designer in London and her sons are similarly inclined.
Celebrities have flocked here over the years. Helga’s Folly has entertained Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, Paula Yates and the Ghandis. Vivian Leigh had an affair with Peter Finch here. Kelly Jones from The Stereophonics stayed once and wrote a song in honour of Helga; the lyrics to ‘Madam Helga’ are up in the entrance.
I was desperate to meet Helga, but when we inquired the staff were suitably vague. I think she is still in London with her daughter, Madam, said one. She has been very unwell. Another murmured, I’m sorry but she is up country riding elephants, Madam.
I would have believed anything.
And then at around 7pm, Helga sashayed into the dining room.
I actually heard her before I saw her. Helga was behind the oriental screen and monkey statue when she introduced herself to a couple of guests and enquired after their wellbeing.
“I do hope your room is clean?”
Well may she ask. I wouldn’t describe Helga’s Folly as the most hygienic hotel in the country: the antiques and bohemia all come with a good layer of grime and spider webs. It’s just so hard to get good help around here.
Helga meeted and greeted for a while, and then finally she came our way, dressed in diamante studded sunglasses and a long black evening dress cinched in at the waist with a gold leaf belt.
She had a flimsy handshake and indeterminate accent.
It was like meeting an aged film star or obscure member of the Swedish Royal Family: you’re a bit dizzy with excitement but not quite sure why. Mr Tea isn’t easily impressed, but even he got a bit carried away. I turned to get something from my bag, and all of a sudden I look up and he’s showing her our Christmas photos from Galle.
We stayed with Henri and Koki at Kikili House, I tell Helga.
“Oh yes”, trills Helga. “Henri is a dear friend. I must write to her. We’re friends from London, same circles you know.”
I don’t know.
“It’s so nice to meet you”, she says. “We’re going to have Christmas dinner now, it’s my daughter’s last night. But I do hope you enjoy yourselves.”
She leaves us star struck, and after a three course meal by candelabra, Mr Tea and I return to our homestay waxing lyrical about Helga’s Folly.
But Patthi our host is less than enthused.
“That hotel!” he cries. “It is so dirty. I take guests there and one of them got an electric shock. And you pay $240!”
He shakes his head. “Much better you stay here.”
I know Patthi is right, but part of me still wants to take up residence in the gothic museum that is Helga’s Folly and write opium-laced poetry.