#24: Get familiar with Finnish birdlife and nature… and overlook Helsinki!

Active, All year, Birdwatching, Nature, Sea

I must had been passing that castle-like building by the side of Helsinki-Turku highway for ages before I discovered it was Galen-Kallela museum, aka Tarvaspää. I have posted about the museum on my other blog and it is well worth a visit, but this time I thought we could explore the area – Ruukinranta – better.

And it was really surprising! The ambience was not unlike Westend, that is, private rich houses and villas close to the shore, but much more picturesque. More wood, more soul, more ornamet, more age and taller trees. The downsides of the area are bad collective traffic connections and the omnipresent humming noise from the nearby highway. I’m sure the locals loved to find out that the highway would be built there….

We started the walk at the port, close to Villa Åkerblom, a popular event venue dressed up as a humble wooden villa. Then we walked (lie! Ee did not, we drove, but it is totally walkable) to Villa Elfvik. It is, in fact, a nature education centre with a cosy café, several children- and wheelchair-friendly nature trails, a bird-watching tower and… nature diversity. It was remarkably awesome! Seriously, a lovely Espoo surprise. As much for not being a birdwatching fan or a nature education freak, this was a low-threshold (literally) spot to enjoy an evening walk. We’re coming back on bikes, so expect more pictures within the next weeks – and this time we will make sure that the venue is actually open. #cake

So, this is the main venue, Villa Elfvik…

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… with a lovely garden gazebo…

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… here starts the birdwatching trail…

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… there is Helsinki behind the reeds, I swear….

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… and remains of an old pier…

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… overlooking Otaniemi – and Helsinki.

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Contact information: A bit tricky, the best is to get there on bikes or by car. Alternatively, buses 106, 106K, 212, 213N, 510, 550 will take you to stop Laajalahdenristi – beware, it is in Espoo. Munkkiniemi, for more info see the website or my map.

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#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.

#14: Explore the isle of sheep (Lammassaari)

All year, Birdwatching, Helsinki, Outdoors, Parks, Sea, Walk

I know what you are thinking – yet another Isle of Something, get a life, how can this get interesting. Well it does, because islands in and around Helsinki (aka Helsinki archipelago) constitute such an inseparable part of the genius loci. If you liked Suomenlinna (everybody does), chances are you will like the islands I’m writing about – and you can be sure that the experience delight will rise as the number of tourists drops.

Most of the islands are only accessible during the summer season when the ferry service operates (unless you have your own boat – good one, I know). That’s the case with Pihlajasaari for example. Some islands are however accessible via bridges and man-made earthwork, such as Matosaari I wrote about some time ago.

Today we will move slightly toward the north, to the area of Vanhakaupunki (Old Town). This area should be on a list of anyone visiting Helsinki for longer than a few days or hours – and that does not only apply to nature freaks! Having said that, do not get deceived by the name. Indeed is this place of historical importance, apparently that’s where the core of Helsinki was before Helsinki the way we know it came into being:) yet don’t expect a number of monuments, museums and what-else-not touristy things. Tourists usually stop at the Arabia factory (see below) – and actually even most Helsinki residents have no clue where or what Old Helsinki is, my guess is they think it is some kind of a pub.

Take tram number 6 or 8 toward Arabian ranta, get off at Arabiankatu – and pay a visit to the Arabia factory (and museum and a well-equipped factory shop selling Arabia, Iittala, Fiskars and Finlayson goods). By now you must surely have come across with the moomin mugs or other items you will find in each and every Finnish household.

In close vicinity you will find Kumpula, a lovely area with a botanical garden, wooden district not unlike Käpylä and an outdoor swimming pool. I hope you won’t mind if I write about all of these places a bit later on this year..? Unless someone is eager to see pictures of a pool full of slush. Another couple of hundred metres along Hämeentie take left to Vanhakaupungintie, you will find Kellonmäki hill there with some spectacular landmarks, such as an obelisk to the remembrance of founding of the city of Helsinki. Return to Hämeentie, now cross the road and enjoy a short walk around the bay towards the Museum of Technology (ummm… looks like a big water pump really). Enjoy the little “waterfall”, turn right onto the Viikintie, walk for a little bit, take another right to Katariina Saksilaisen katu and keep walking until you reach the end of civilisation and arrive at a car park slash field. This won’t take long, believe me :)… and Bob’s your uncle, we are close to Lammassaari, all you have to do is keep crossing the field toward Lammassaari…

… this fieldy foresty area, in fact, is the Viiki natural reserve, a popular destination for bird-spotters and families with small children (not THAT kind of popular, more like behaving curious kids popular). The wooden path leads you across the area – you will most definitely come across a few bird-spotting towers (look out for Lintutorni).

The views from these are stunning, but what stuns you even more is the peace. You can hear the humming city, yes, but it does not bother you. Overlooking the marshlands, the water, the greenery makes you smile inside (and outside, unless it’s raining).

And one of those magical paths leads you across the marshlands (or meadows? It is hard to say in winter) to the Lammassaari.

An island accessible on a wooden path from the Viiki side and by boat from the half facing Herttoniemi. A popular recreational area guessing by the number of cabins. Superpeaceful during the winter. Probably even more magical during the summer.

Interestingly enough, some of the largest buildings on Lammassaari (wooden Leppola house and Pohjolan pirtti from 1904-05) are owned and managed by this abstinence society, Kottio ry, promoting active and culturally rich lifestyle. I understand that the nature surroundings contribute to the ethos of the organisation – but the number of cabins and Finnish style grilling (involving cheap sausages, avocado and LOTS of beer and “cider”) probably not so much. The dominant of the island is definitely the Pohjolan pirtti

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… owned by the above-mentioned, a restaurant and event venue. Naturally this was deserted in February, and there is currently no mention of summer events, opening times, etc., but I believe that I will revisit again.

Information: http://www.koitto.net/

Accessible on foot: park your car on Joukontie, take the bus (57, 68, 71, 71V, 74, 74N, 506) to Viikinranta – or if you have a lot of energy in your legs I can recommend taking the tram and

#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 

 

#11: Take a walk around Kivinokka recreation area

All year, Helsinki, Outdoors, Sea, Uncategorized, Walk

Kivinokka is a recreational area located a few hundred metres from Kulosaari metro station. It is, again, positively bizarre spot: today we are talking about a collection of several hundred summer cabins, some of which date back to early 20th century. The idea was quite clear: to provide city dwellers with a place not too far from their homes where they can spend their precious free time in close proximity of nature. Nowadays Kivinokka is located pretty much in the centre of Helsinki, but hundred years ago it must have been a true paradise: beaches, forest, blueberries, bird-watching tower and a little shop/café for the more social ones.

The following applies to pretty much entire Finland: if you want to make the most out of visiting a place of choice in Finland, do make an extra effort and visit it both in winter and in summer. Summer charms are indisputable, the colours, the light, those wild flowers, sea, wind, ice-cream and birches. Winter (or any time between September and April), on the other hand, converts most areas into quasi-ghost towns. The tranquility is further accentuated by the wintery silence, lack of people and colours and other disturbing factors.

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And that is what happened in Kivinokka one late autumn afternoon. The seasonal frolics just went, like migratory birds, and what was left was just a memory, or a collection of happy stories and memories, and an assuring yet somehow volatile promise of another summer coming next year. Cabins prepared for winter. Deserted beach. Empty café. Ah, I loved every single second of it, and have to come back. I loved it so much I decided not to complain that I had left my gloves and hat in the car and was freezing badly.

This is the 1930s functionalist kiosk/café. One of very few places in Kivinokka with electricity. Apparently someone showed their disapproval with the actions of the (female) owners of the kiosk. Who knows why.

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Kivinokka’s story gets actually pretty exciting: in 2013 – or 2014? – the local authority decided to tear down a substantial part of the area and upscale it: yeah, you are right, that means building yet another mini housing estate with Vuosaari-style flats selling at a price out of range for middle class. Fortunately, a group of active citizens expressed their dissent and started nurturing the local community. Nowadays, a wide range of social and cultural events take place in Kivinokka throughout the summer part of the year. It has been making some headlines, and it is definitely a place worth a visit in the summer – for all attractions Kivinokka can offer, check out this map and this link.

More information: http://kivinokka.fi/

Contact: Kipparlahden silmukka, 00810 Helsinki