#21: Take a deep breath in a mental hospital from 1841.

All year, Coffee/Tea, Culture, Darkness, Helsinki, History, Housing, Indoors, Parks, Spooky, Walk

Within a stone’s throw from the heart of Helsinki (by which I’m referring to Kamppi, sadly) you can find Helsinki’s asylum. A rather unique place, and recently an exceptionally busy one.

Lapinlahden mielisairaala (Lapinlahti mental hospital) is located next to the Hietaniemi cemetery, about 800m from Kamppi and 500m from Ruoholahti.

When I first visited the area in 2014 I was thrilled. The area stood abandoned and frequented by occasional dogwalkers, bike commuters and the misfortunate and looked like this:

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And squirrels popping from the nearby chestnut trees. It read on multiple signs that I’m currently entering hospital and daycare premises, but there were no signs of life around. Just imagine, an abandoned mental hospital, you simply cannot resist and have to walk around. Stare. Absorb the atmosphere. Look out for ironbars in the window. Imagine what kind of people have been kept here – and what for.

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And then, in the section facing the sea, you will see this:

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And your heartbeat speeds up. Nowadays, though, the views are not half that bad. The back yard has been cleared of walls and fences and looks like an ordinary park:

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Only several meters of anti-climbing tall fence reveals what once was going on in there. Actually for a long time, the hospital closed only around 2006 and was moved to Töölö (to a rather ugly  building, yet closer to the central hospital I guess). The same old story I’m afraid: costs, some minor water damage and mildew, etc.

So – what happened after the closure? Nothing at first. Only about three years ago Lapinlahden lähde and Pro Lapinlahti associations (or movements?) were put together with the goal to revive the once-so important site, and with the help of many a volunteer and with some strings pulled the site is back to life. It serves as a social and cultural centre promoting mental wellbeing, as place of business of many organisations dealing with mental health issues, a part of it rooms an art gallery, a café with a little handicraft shop, oh and one wing is hired to various businesses. Also, there is a public sauna (for 7€ per head) almost every day and many cultural, educational and social activities (most of them free of charge) all year round.

The hospital was built around the Lapinlahden lähde, the well of Lapinlahti (hence the name of the above-mentioned associations), with exceptionally clear and high quality fresh water. In the old days the water was used among others by the famous Hartwall factory or by many of Helsinki’s pharmacies.

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Today a patch of land speckled with urban gardens is situated between the well and the cemetery and is apparently very popular among young families living in central Helsinki. Renting queues are long. The garden area served mostly for therapeutic purposes about a century ago

The building itself is, well, so typical for mid 19th century: white, symmetric site, clean lines and a lot of (planted) greenery – sounds like a neat place for an asylum. Just off the sea and overlooking busy Länsiväylä, close enough to the city, but far enough as well. Far enough not to disturb the possible nearby inhabitants.

We actually joined a guided tour with Green cap tours on Saturday in order to learn more about the history of the site and explore the inside without getting strange looks. And in this respect it succeeded and I can recommend doing the same to anyone who would like to know more about the place, its famous visitors and/or interested in the history of treatment of ill mental health. It was not as fancy as exploring an abandoned hospital, and to be fair the guide lacked some spark and confidence and did not share his sense of humour with us that much, but it was informative.

And we walked along those long corridors.

And visited the (overly staged 😦 ) room of Aleksis Kivi, probably the most famous patient in the hospital’s history.

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And the gallery, aka the former apartment of the senior psychiatrist.

And were sorry that the place does not give you the chills as it used to a couple of years ago but glad at the same time that the building is serving a good purpose again.

More info: www.lapinlahdenlahde.fi, the address is Lapinlahdentie 1, 00180 Helsinki. Can be reached by tram no. 8, stop 8: Marian sairaala (Maria’s hospital, a nearby hospital again closed for business. This only happened a year or two ago, I have actually made it twice to there before it closed… a pity, it was conveniently central and had much more soul than those modern monstrous buildings in Meilahti).

#19: Hike around the isle of Vallisaari.

Active, Autumn, fortress, Helsinki, History, island, Outdoors, Parks, Sea, Spring, Summer, Walk

Did you enjoy Suomenlinna? Of course you did! Only a short boat (!) trip from the Kauppatori will take you to the place where history meets urban leisure time. The fortress is really interesting, the hobbit houses supercute and the time spent with your friends picknicking on the beach unforgettable.

Now, if you enjoyed yourself but would like to visit something more edgy, mysterious and considerably less touristy, I would recommend the isle of Vallisaari.

Looks good, huh! Today I will even present you with a nutshell history of the island, facts are impertinently copied from http://www.nationalparks.fi/en/vallisaari/history 😉

Since the 15th century the island has served as a sea fortress and a utility island for the neighbouring Suomenlinna. The cattle grazed in Vallisaari, firewood was also brought from here and some fortification structures served as storage.

In the 18th century, Vallisaari also became a pilot base – and now a little quotation from the official website: “The pilots and other inhabitants of the island were a headache for law enforcement. Distilling of alcohol and a tavern on the island caused the people to forget work on occasion. The inhabitants were also suspected of smuggling and serving illegal alcohol”. – Ha! I told you, Suomenlinna experience with a twist 😉 The last pilots left the island as late as in the early 1920s.

Under the Russian rule the fortification of Vallisaari (or Aleksanterinsaari at that time) was at its peak, the batteries you will see when you visit the island are from this period, such as the Alexander Battery (how original) with casemates and thick sand embankments. In the years preceding WWI, the batteries in Vallisaari were modernised with concrete constructions (the “bunker” like buildings you will see, especially around Kuninkaansaari), and a gunpowder magazine was built in the middle of the island.

The history of the two islands as a military area continued after Finland became independent in 1917; the islands served as weaponry storage until quite recently. In Vallisaari, ordnance, torpedoes, and mines were loaded and maintained; weather observations were made; and gas masks were repaired. In Kuninkaansaari, a coastguard station was in operation. During WWII, a German-made air surveillance radar was placed on the island.

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And now a little history fact which is present in Finns’ historical memory today. Of course it has to involve and accident: “A destructive explosives accident occurred in Kuolemanlaakso (‘Valley of Death’) in Vallisaari on 9 July 1937. Thousands of kilos of explosives were flung across Vallisaari and all the way to Suomenlinna”, 8 people lost their lives in the explosion. The reason for the explosion is unknown…

The Valley of Death is by the way accessible by a semi-official path nowadays, the atmosphere is… deadly? You don’t want to spend too much time there, especially not in autumn.

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“In addition to the functions of the Finnish Defence Force, a residential area with a distinctive identity of its own emerged in Vallisaari, with its residents being principally civilians employed by the state of Finland. The island was at its liveliest in the 1950s, when more than 300 people lived there – a school, a shop, and a youth club were active in Vallisaari, in addition to a choir, a drama club, and a troop of scouts. Although Vallisaari is located close to Helsinki city centre, the islanders led a rural life. People tended their vegetable gardens on the island, in addition to which a whole range of grazing animals was found: rabbits, sheep, horses, and pigs. The last inhabitants left the island in 1996.”

Since then, the islands have slumbered, remaining almost in a perfect natural state. In 2013, Metsähallitus started a project to prepare the opening of the islands to visitors before it opened to public only in spring 2016 – that already is a great promise for those who like to enjoy unspoiled nature with a “record-breaking range of species”. And indeed, you will experience the number and unique mix of plants so typical for Finnish archipelago – within 20 minutes boat ride from the heart of Helsinki. And as for the fauna – bats apparently love Vallisaari and abundant in here. Badgers and whateverbirds can also be spotted here. We were not that lucky, we did see the ‘flying lynx’ (horned owl) though, sitting undisturbed on the corner of Aleksanterinbatteri:

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Now, here is the catch: due to islands’ military history the visitors are obliged to stay on official paths, digging is strictly prohibited, dogs have to be kept on leash at all times – and entry to certain areas is forbidden,violators can (will) be prosecuted. Swimming in ponds and on most of the beaches is also prohibited due to the amounts of scrap iron in which swimmers can get caught – plus all the military surprises. Some really exciting looking cliffs have been eroded (and eroding), and you don’t want to take the chance 😦 it is just a matter of time before the island becomes completely tourist friendly.

I understand the security risks, and no thanks I don’t feel like stepping on a landmine, but imho this cultivation process will take a lot of islands’ charm away. I feel so tempted to borrow a metal detector and help Metsähallitus with clearing up the beaches, lakes, forests…

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Yet another quotation from the official website which summaries how I felt about the islands: a paradise for children. Made me shed a tear of nostalgia – how many places like that (minus the explosives though!) are there in Finland, where kids can actually experience adventure?

“For children, Vallisaari was a secret world where small islanders experienced numerous adventures, sometimes without the knowledge of the adults. Children threw stones at windows, searched for the mouth of a tunnel that, according to rumours, led to Suomenlinna, and dug up explosives, even though this was strictly forbidden then and is now.”

 

Sob. But please do adhere to the rules…

Contact information: Vallisaari is located between the Suomenlinna and Santahamina islands. Here you can find all the useful transport information and a map.

#13: Visit the mystical Island of Worms (Matosaari)

All year, Architecture, Helsinki, History, Sea, Spooky

This island just off Jollas (just after Lauttasaari) – or a peninsula, as it has been connected to the mainland sometime in late 19th century – has one heavily loaded karma. Atmosphere. Genius loci. Tiny in size and not attracting crowds of tourists, green, quiet and unwelcoming (compare to for example Kivinokka or relatively nearby Korkeasaari).

On the way to the island… 

When Finland was still a part of Russian empire, the island served as a part of the coastal fortification, during the Crimean War (1853-1856) a fort was raised there to protect the Grand Duchy from attackers. After the island has become a peninsula it was sold for civilian use. First land owner, K.H. Lindh built a lovely villa on the island – the house is still standing nowadays and is owned and used by by Helsingin meripelastus (Helsinki Lifeboat Association). In the 1920s, a certain Uno Björklund built another fancy villa on the island. Garden architect Paul Olsson was appointed to re-design the house’s surroundings in 1928; in his plans he included the remains of the fort as well as natural stone walls. The plan, however, was never carried out since in 1963 the villa was destroyed in fire, all what is left nowadays includes piles of stones and beams in the middle of island overgrown with grass and lichen. It gives shivers.

Walking around the island among the ruins.

Some views from the island. Note Hamina island in the third picture serving as military training facility.

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Location: 00850 Helsinki. If you are travelling by car I recommend parking next to Jollas Institute (Jollasvägen 89) and continue on foot. Alternatively, take bus number 85 from Herttoniemi (direction Jollas) to Kellaripellonpolku and walk from there.

More information (in Finnish): http://www.kysy.fi/kysymys/mista-voisin-saada-tietoa-laajasalon-matosaaren-historiastaneuvosta