Thursday, 29 March 2012


Viitaniemi, Jyväskylä, Finland. I walk along a road lined with almost off-white, melting snow; almost past an off-white wall, but not quite. Light befriends the shadows on the wall.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Helsinki: the first cup of coffee outdoors

The streets of Helsinki are showing signs of waking up after the long, snowy winter. The dirt is being brushed away little by little. The little pine cones that have taken over these flower boxes may soon have to give way to something less dry and brown. Unless of course this is considered easier to care for...
At Lönnrot park, the statue of Elias Lönnrot is bathing in the sunlight, waiting for the snow to melt away. Elias Lönnrot was a keen walker and he did numerous trips to collect old Finnish folk poems especially in Karelia. As a result he managed to put together Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, as well as Kanteletar, a major collection of Finnish folk poetry. That explains why the statue includes also Väinämöinen, the hero and main character of the national epic. The young maiden Impi represents poetry.
On the sunny side of the park the snow is melting fast. Some spring crocusses are already getting ready to bloom.
Marimekko store at Pohjoisesplanadi street attempts to spread a little colour on the grey street: the joyful bean bag chairs manage to stop at least me on my tracks and also look at the window display which is decorated with large Easter eggs, made of fabric, naturally. 
On the southern side, Eteläesplanadi street, I find some more signs of the end of the winter. A restaurant owner has planted spring flowers in the flower boxes. I hope they will make it through the remaining cold days or nights - you never know about the weather at this time of the year.
Around the corner, on Unioninkatu street, there are hand embroidered artworks on the window gallery. A series of smiles embroidered with red thread on white make you smile, and I couldn't agree more with the bigger work of art, don't worry so much. However, I forget to check who the artist is. Well...why worry about it!
As I walk along Unioninkatu street, I see the sunlight hit a sidewalk table of a small café, Café du Coin.  The tiny café usually only does lunches at this hour (the limited space is reserved for people having lunch) but I step in and ask if I could get a macchiato outside, my first of this spring. A couple of minutes later I sit at a table outside, in the sunshine, and smile. Ode to Spring in Helsinki!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Laukaa - Devil's Icy Grave

If you follow the road north from Jyväskylä to Laukaa, and from Laukaa a bit further towards Valkola, you will see a black sign pointing to the left: Hitonhauta. Hitto stands for devil, and hauta for grave. That of course may not tell you much... I park on the side of the road and decide to take off without my snowshoes and only carry a pair of poles as a precaution, in case the icy surface of the snow gets too slippery in places.
I arrive at a log shelter but it is much too early to stop there to make a fire. How interesting - the fireplace is actually inside the open log shelter, and the smoke will simply escape through the opening at the front (of course there's no chimney). Never seen a shelter like this before. Then again, it must be pleasant on a wet day, to sit in front of a fire that doesn't mind the rain.
The Iso-Harinen lake is right next to the narrow road. Judging by the footprints leading to the ice, I guess they were left there by fishermen who've gone winter fishing. Not a bad way to spend a day, sit in the sun and wait for the fish to bite.
The narrow road leads through a conifer forest and every once in a while there are clear signs pointing to Hitonhauta. Some of the signs are in a dire need of repair, but at least there are good black and white maps attached on some signposts. A bit further, a sign forbids motor vehicles; this is a nature reserve. Finally, a grey wooden sign guides me to turn to the right, into the forest.
Thanks to the snow, the path underneath is not visible, but I can follow the footsteps of the previous visitors. Without them, I would have to rely on the map because I notice only one red trail blaze painted on a tree...And that wouldn't actually take you anywhere.
As the trail descends, the rocks on both sides get more and more steep. When was the last time I was here? It must have been years ago. I've totally forgotten how impressive the Hitonhauta gorge is! And Hitonhauta is what a gorge like this is often called in Finland; perhaps people thought in the old days that Devil's Grave must have been designed by the devil himself.
Actually, the sculptor wasn't the devil, but the Ice Age. It is believed that towards the end of the glacial period, the melting ice was flooding through this area. I know these rocks are nothing compared to rocky mountains somewhere else, but when found in the middle of a Finnish forest, it is quite impressive.
Although the glacial period is over, Hitonhauta can still boast of its own little glacial period that repeats itself year after year, each winter! On my left there is a great icy wall with numerous, massive icicles, some parts of which have already smashed onto the ground.
Hitonhauta gorge is quite a sight, especially at this time of the year. When the spring is on its way, the combination of sunlight, the bright white snow,  ice and the rocks is simply magnificent. On different seasons, Hitonhauta can look totally different.
I continue along the footsteps in the snow, deeper into the gorge which is about 800 meters long. Before I reach another wide opening, the rocky walls are leaning even closer.
There I meet another, perhaps even larger ice wall behind which you can hear water falling and dripping down. The afternoon sun seems to reach this far through the trees on the other side of the cliffs. It is quite a fairytale land...
There are so many different, fantastic shapes of icicles in the ice wall. You could spend ages just looking at those.
Right opposite the ice wall there is a granite wall with a little cave in it. I climb on top of the pile of snow and have a peek but can only see more ice; definitely no going in, if there would even be room to enter the cave. Oh what is that sound which so thrills the ear? I can still heare the sound of the water from behind the ice wall!
I simply have to go back and admire the ice wall once again, listen to the water splashing down, hidden from my eyes.
On my way back I walk slowly, stopping here and there to wonder about the never-ending groups of icicles hanging down from the rocks. There are already so many, and there may be even more, depending on how the spring advances and how the snow that covers the cliffs continues to melt.
Everywhere I look there are little ice sculptures, and whatever glacial artwork you can imagine.
Hitonhauta, Laukaa, Central Finland, is a wonderful place for a winter day trip especially at this time of the year. The rocky path that is now hidden under the snow may actually be more difficult to walk on in the summer but snow is easy to tread on. Anyway, thanks to the previous visitors who kindly opened the trail for me.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Jyväskylä: Alvar Aalto in C major

The snow that covers the grounds of the main campus of University of Jyväskylä is crispy in the afternoon sunshine. I'm about to walk straight through the campus but stop to look at the snow sculptures between the apple trees of Aallonpuisto (Aalto's Park) and the university main building. I suppose the creations have been made by schoolchildren, not students at the university...
The university main building by architect Alvar Aalto is known simply as "C" among both staff and students. That's all it says in the signs around the campus as well but originally, the C stands for Capitolium. I doubt many people have heard that.
Alright, I'll step in and do a little exploring. The lobby houses a café the name of which reminds you of the architect: Aallokko (waves; Aalto = a wave) but it was originally called Belvedere, probably because of the huge glass windows. The open cloakroom area is surrounded by a stylish curvy counter that clearly spells Aalto.
The side staircases from the lobby lead to the top part of the Festivity hall. The steps are white marble and the beautiful polished wood next to the black handrail also catches the eye.
The black handrail seems to continue forever, making a full turn right up to the door of C2, the top half of the Festivity hall. I've never really paid attention to these handrails before. It is so easy to not even notice that you're taking hold of something, walking forward and getting support from it. You just let go. You may have been holding something very beautiful in your hand.
I walk down the stairs and choose another entrance to the Festivity hall: the main one right in the middle of the lobby. As if by a miracle, the doors are open although there is no lecture or event going on! A group of architects seems to be visiting the building and thanks to them, I also get to see the hall open and lit up. This is quite an entrance.
Entering the lower part of the Festivity hall, C1, you'll see a curvier black handrail than the one that takes you to C2. Nice.
I walk up the stairs to get a good view of the whole Festivity hall. The hall's two parts C1 and C2 can together seat more than 700 people. I think that I've usually only been here in the evening or when it is dark and you don't even realize that there are windows up in the ceiling.
Entrance examinations, course exams, rock bands, symphony orchestras, lectures, official ceremonies. This hall has seen it all. It is a rare thing to see this space so empty.
And when you leave the Festivity hall, the handrail will guide you safely back to the lobby, after a concert, a lecture... Like a shepherd's rod.
To the right of the festivity hall the lobby reaches much higher and reveals a different combination of red bricks, skylights, structures and white surfaces.
The staircase leading upstairs also has beautiful handrails but these are wooden ones, in different shapes. A round handrail for a round column.
On the second floor the handrail is square. Aalto has played with shapes. I wonder if there are triangular ones somewhere? Again, I've never before noticed these details although I've spent hours and hours in this building!
The door to the lecture hall C4 is also invitingly open. The afternoon sunlight does its magic and paints another set of windows on the red brick wall.
This may be world famous architecture but I can assure you, the folding seats are not exactly comfortable to sit on for an hour or two.
The Aalto-designed chairs reserved for the teachers at the front seem much more comfortable.
I go back downstairs, slip into the corridor that takes me to the side wing of C building. This is where the Aalto library, or Aalto Reading Room is. The library has given in to today's technology; the reading tables are equipped with computers. Do students and researchers still come here to read books or do they focus on the computer screen? At least there is room for both.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Jyväskylä: Snowshoeing at Karhujärvi

Karhujärvi, here we come! It is a gorgeous, sunny day when we arrive at Ampujien Maja, a local shooting club's house at Laukaa. The club house is only about 15 minute's drive from Jyväskylä and it is not only for people who are club members; during skiing season weekends, Ampujien Maja is popular among cross country skiers who park here for the day, go off skiing and on their return can relax with a cup of coffee and a snack at the club house canteen. We step in for a snack in front of an open fire before setting off. Oh, those were the days when the doughnuts were freshly baked right here, but you can't have it all...
Time to strap on our snowshoes and leave. At first we follow the cross country skiing track (no walking on it!) but soon decide to make a shortcut across the bog. Funnily enough, we have just crossed the border of Laukaa and entered Jyväskylä city! The snow is very soft and my snowshoes sink deep into it. The skiers seem to fly past us. We advance slowly, step by step, but luckily we're in no hurry.
On the first slope there are traces of snowshoes across the ski track, going to the right direction. We also turn left and start meandering through the forest. The trees do not grow in straight lines so it would be impossible to go straight anyway; snowshoes are exactly right for this route. Soon we see a clearing ahead: Karhujärvi lake.
Karhujärvi lake (karhu=bear, järvi = lake) is a peaceful corner of northern Palokka, a suburb of Jyväskylä. There are hardly any buildings on its shores, with the exception of a cabin used by local scouts. And of course there's the nearby log shelter to which we made a shortcut through the forest. If you are skiing, you can find it easily following the signs on the ski track.
We follow the previous snowshoer's track onto Karhujärvi lake and find also another set of snowshoe footprints from a slightly different direction. So that's the way we can take to return to Ampujien Maja when we're heading back.
Here you can say it's walking with a light step because the snowshoes don't sink deep into the snow. There seems to be somewhat less snow on the lake than in the forest, and much less compared to the amount of snow on the bog.
There's a smell of smoke and sausages in the air even before we reach the Karhujärvi log shelter. The skiers are just finishing their sausages when we sit down at the fire. I dig two biscuits from my jacket pocket and think positive: it is nice to be walking without a backpack for a change, even if it means that we've got no tea or sausages with us. The skiers leave, the next group arrives with a dog. More sausages, and a small tragedy: one of them falls onto the embers. The lucky dog!
We stop to admire the lake before heading back to the forest. It would be great to stay on Karhujärvi and continue to enjoy the sun that has an extra large smile on its face today... Then again, as we snowshoe across the forest, it is also lovely today, with the sun pointing out some beautiful spots.
When we're back at the Karhusuo bog the ski tracks seem deserted whereas earlier there was a continuous flow of skiers. It is getting later, and the shadows are getting longer. I find our earlier footprints and start marching back towards Ampujien Maja. Here's a trail for the next snowshoers...