OlutExpo 2017 does it right

From the time you pick up the lanyard with credit card attached to the time you drop it off and get reimbursed for the balance left on it, you know these guys have done it right. It’s pro, it’s efficient, the queues are shorter at the entrance and you leave knowing that nobody’s tried to rip you off, you got what you paid for. If you so wish, you could muster up an even warmer fuzzier sense of goodness when you leave the balance to one of the charities they support.

Fat Lizard Brewery from Finland

A whole string of local micro breweries have come up with selections of beer that speak of real craftsmanship, each one with its own specific punch line and story. Fat Lizard has a sense of humour as in their ‘No crap on tap’ slogan. Topi Kairenius, brewmaster, explains their take on what makes them stand out,“We like American style APAs and IPAs and use mostly American hops. Except for Rib Tickler which contains New Zeland hops.”Their products come in funky cans and are all of a lighter, drinkable style, a hint of their own laid-back approach to life.

The intrepid couple from Pien

 Pien meaning ‘small’ deserves a mention. This couple are bold if nothing else. They have two small shops: one behind Ateneum Art Museum on Ateneumkuja and another one in Iso Omena Shopping Centre. Their products are hand-and heart-selected and they’re selling some unique beers and other goodies from their stores. Because of the monopoly Alko, they have to stick to anything under 4.7% alcohol but whatever they have to sacrifice is made up for by big flavours and choice ingredients. They’re the exclusive importer of Brewski, an outfit in Helsingborg, Sweden, that bottle in small sizes using labels designed by a kick-ass artist. The contents are pretty good too.

Pekka Montin, importer and veteran of the beer scene

From Estonia comes Tanker Brewery. Everything’s unfiltered and only American hops is used since 50% of the business belongs to Graham Suske, American himself and the other half by Jaanis Tammela. The Ketser will creep into the corners of your gob and squinch up your cheeks with the sourness it brings with it while Pretty Hard has a touch of raspberry to soften the blow. The latter’s label is pink with a speech bubble for the lady, ‘ It’s so hard to be pretty’. At 7% you’re likely to forget the make-up and get the party started.

Cider has its place at this festival and it’s the elegance of the logo of Kuura Cider that catches my eye. They’re from the little town of Fiskars, about a 60 minute drive from Helsinki. With a still and a sparkling product, their focus is on ripe, local, cooking apples rather than cider ones. Minimum intervention leaves it unfiltered but with an elegance and complexity that put it in a class of its own.

Also from the famous artist/artisan town of Fiskars is Ägräs Distillery. Infused with nettles and fennel is their greenish coloured Long Drink, the freshest hit of herbal delight you can possibly imagine with no hint of sugar but pleasantly accessible. Their Akvavit is also made from foraged nettles and wild herbs and is aged in American oak, a smooth, golden-coloured, velvety drink that caresses your tongue as it slides around the furthest recesses of your mouth.

Food is the focus at Malmgård Brewery where they use their own spelt, wheat, grains to make their products including bread. They’re located in the countryside near Loviisa at a manor house owned by a count.

From the far-flung island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides, the whisky that comes from there is user-friendly. No heavy peat, no heavy smoke just something easy to drink, terribly enjoyable and made for the market. Their 16 year-old Jura Diurachs’ Own is the whisky of choice for the islanders and you know why when your taste buds get a hint of apricot, marmalade and toffee, a mouthful of rounded goodness.

End your taste tour at Helsinki Distilling Company where their brand new rye whiskey comes with a kick but no aggression. Applejack can only be described as light Calvados, a pleasant apéritif or a less powerful digestif.

In the spite of the archaic alcohol laws in Finland, OlutExpo has managed to put together a thought-through, well organised event, represented by both local and international brands without a single moment of unruly behaviour and plenty of class and luxury in which to spoil yourself.

A Celebration of the Art of Åke and Karin Hellman – Suomi 100/Finland 100

There are not that many people that can boast about being 100 years old and many of those cannot claim to be artists, especially artists of such renown as Åke Hellman (born 1915). A Shared Atelier is an exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki that takes you on a journey through his life with his cherished wife Karin Hellman (née Wisuri, 1915 – 2004). She wasn’t lucky enough to reach her husband’s ripe old age.

Karin Hellman – a pioneer of collage

A wide scope of genres is represented by the works of this couple that lived in Porvoo, a small town east of Helsinki. Their children Åsa and Karl-Johan are still alive to give some insight into this exhibition of over 150 pieces stretching from the 1930s to the 2000s. We also get a glimpse of what it was like to live with them. Åsa explains,

“Father was quite analytical and cool and loved to discuss and talk about art while Mother was very much in tune with nature and could be described as an earth mother.”

Mother Karin and daughter Åsa – Clay Medals (1980)

Massive collages line the walls of the museum depicting abstract images and shapes, some colourful, others in ‘black and white’, as it were with fine dark thread sewn onto cream fabric. Themes range from trees to emotional outbursts as in ‘Scream’, prompted by the disproportionately small snake, fear detectable in the eyes of the by-standers. ‘Clay Medals’ show a series of ceramic buttons created by Åsa, a collaboration between mother and daughter. Karin’s paintings too span a range of eras and styles.

‘Scream’ – collage – Karin Hellman

Portraitist of his time, Åke Hellman has painted many of his contemporaries. The President’s wives Sylvi Kekkonen (1978) and Tellervo Koivisto (1990), bishops, professors, doctors and others have sat in his studio to be immortalised. There’s a distinct change of technique from the 50s to his later paintings. When I ask Åsa about the ‘stick figures’ in some, she explains that one must keep in mind that he was a Professor of Art at the University, that he was teaching art and hence, probably the simplification. It’s extraordinary to compare these naïve, but yet beautiful, works with the more voluptuous nudes which are striking in their maturity. Then he delves into cubism and then into surrealism, a wide palette indeed, not only of colour but of variety too.

Winter Venus – Åke Hellman (1985)

A Shared Atelier is on exhibit at Kunsthalle Helsinki from 21 October 2017 until 19 November 2017.

Berat – an Albanian Must-See

When the overcrowded, touristy beaches all get too much, head for the hills.

If you’ve had it up to here with new architecture, crowded beaches, dirty resorts, jump on a furgon, privately-owned minibuses, and get the hell away from the coast to this beautiful city where old, Ottoman architecture in all its white glory still survives. Most Albanians are pretty friendly, but hospitality takes the biscuit in Berat.

Ottoman Architecture in Berat

I always choose Airbnb because it lines the pockets of the locals and not some huge probably foreign-owned conglomerate chain. You get to know the people too and here’s where the real Albania lies. The guy sitting behind me on the bus, peers over my shoulder with the address I’m looking for on the piece of paper. What would normally seem like strange manners, he tells me where to get off and I’m grateful to him. My little suitcase doesn’t weigh much but rolling it over the slippery stones towards my destination is not an option so I have to carry it. I stop to ask some young guys directions. They smile at me, call my landlord Petrit Sheshaliu and lug my luggage up the hill to his place. A warmer welcome you couldn’t get. The airy room is high up, looks over the city and is equipped with air-conditioning, phew!, and excellent wi-fi. Petrit and his wife are delightful. Petrit serves me homemade berry juice, drive me to Çobo Winery (see Albanian Surprise: http://foreignfinn.com/?p=1638) and waits for me to take me back. The breakfasts come with homemade jams and they’re quick to point out that the butter and cheese has not been bought in the supermarket but locally sourced from a farmer. It’s all delicious.

Petrit and his lovely wife

The Mangalem district or Old Town with its three mosques and Ottoman architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exploring it takes you over rocky patches, through small walkways, passed flowery window boxes and quaint chimneys. If you keep looking, you will eventually find Lili’s Homemade Food which is absolutely where you want to eat. The four or five tables in the tiny courtyard are usually fully booked in the evenings but lunchtime is a good bet and lasts from 12.30 to 4.30pm. Lili, strange as it may sound, is a man with impeccable hosting skills who knows how to make you feel comfortable, wanted and at-home. Stuffed tomatoes, aubergines, pork with cheese, and byrek pastry, come in huge quantities and don’t be fooled by the size of the portions on the photoboard that acts as a menu, it’s a lot bigger than you imagined. Lili’s father makes the homemade wine from Shesh i Zi and Merlot and it’s a brilliant accompaniment to the food they serve. You get chatting with people at the next table and before you know it, you’ve exchanged details about your life with complete strangers. Getting away is the hard part and Lili insists on drinking a small, yes homemade, raki or firewater with you which settles the tummy and sends you on your way with the best of memories. Don’t give up on finding this unique spot – just keep asking and eventually you’ll stumble upon it.

Lili’s Homemade Food – keep trying until you find it
You’ll not go hungry (or thirsty!) at Lili’s

The climb up the mountain to the Castle is a trek but needs to be done to see the sweeping views over the city and the Byzantine churches. On the way back, take a break from the super-slippery stone road to see the Ethnographic Museum which constitutes an enormous home of a former rich Muslim landowner and gives you a glimpse into the daily lives of the citizens of Berat. The archways are low so be careful of your head.

Ethnographic Museum, Berat

The Boulevard or ‘strip’ as I might call it, fills up with the people who live in this city in the evenings. Well turned out families buy ice cream for their kids, young guys try to catch the eyes of the stunningly, sexy girls while the elderly amble along enjoying the cool, breeze and the social chumminess of it all. Tolerance is a word that springs to mind when you know that Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic all live and have lived side by side for many centuries here which is the oldest, continuously occupied city in the world.

Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics live in perfect harmony in Albania

Links:

Airbnb – Petrit Sheshaliu

Ethnographic Museum

Lili’s Homemade Food

Butrint – City of Occupations

A 45-minute bus ride from Sarande will get you to Butrint for 100 lek (0,76EUR). Entrance fee will set you back another 700 lek (5,50 EUR), every bit of it worth it. Its history has seen all kinds from pre-historic man to Romans, Greeks, Christians, Byzantines, Venetians and finally Ottomans. It tells a tale of civilisations and how they lived but also enables you to take a walk through the National Park of Butrint on the banks of the Vivari Canal. Historical monuments, nature and landscape all make it a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Eucalyptus trees line the entrance to the ancient city of Butrint

In spite of cars and tourist buses blocking traffic to and from the entrance, it has remained remarkably untouched by development. There’s a little kiosk inside that sells some handicrafts from the area but mostly people are lining up for the cold drinks from the fridge. The restaurant close by is the only one and no one crowds the sidewalks with made-in-Taiwan trinkets for sale.

An avenue of massive eucalyptus trees provides much-needed shade as you begin your walk. It takes you through the Chapel of Asclepius, Greek god of healing whom the frail and ailing would worship in hopes of a cure. They would sleep in the area and relate their dreams to physicians and medicine men eagerly proffering interpretations and selling them herbal concoctions to make them well again. The ancient Theatre was established by the Greeks but later re-modelled according to the Roman style. Today the International Theatre Festival Butrinti2000, held in July, fills the stone seating with audiences applauding drama, orchestral and dance performances in this magical setting.

What is left of the cult of Asclepius, on display in the museum.

The Baptistry and the Great Basilica attest to the Episcopal or Christian period albeit a cult establishment from the 6th Century. A staircase through the medieval Lion Gate leads you up the hill to the crowning glory where the remains of a Venetian castle, beautifully reconstructed in the 1930s, houses the museum. If you’d been wondering what had happened to the archaeological finds dug up over the years, this is where you’ll see the intricate sculpture of the Greeks, the fine glassware of the Romans and the primitive flint tools of the ancients. It is an excellent collection with easy to read explanations of each period. In praise of the Greek period are the inscriptions alluding to manumission or the freeing of slaves and that done by women who, unlike their Greek classical counterparts, were able to own and release them at Butrint.

The Baptistry
The Great Basilica

This ‘microcosm of Mediterranean history’ as mentioned on the UNESCO website, survived occupations by the Byzantines and the House of Angevin or Anjou, English kings also known as one of the four royal houses of the Plantagenets. Who would have thought their empires in the 13th Century would extend so far east? Fortifications kept on getting bigger and stronger until Ali Pasha, the notoriously cruel Albanian Ottoman, built a new one in the 19th Century. After the decapitation of the ‘Lion of Yannina’ by the Ottomans because of his separatist attacks, Butrint was abandoned.

Fine Roman glassware

What is left is a rich legacy of a long period in time which stands as a testament to history, architecture, sculpture, theatre, science and domestic life.

Links:

Butrint

 

Sad in Sarande, Albania

From Corfu to Sarande, the ferry takes about 30 minutes. A nice, easy ride across the Adriatic gets you there but upon arrival I was shocked by the hotchpotch design of the city perched against the hill facing out over the bay. Electric cables join some pleasant looking buildings with some half-finished construction sites and if it weren’t for the boulevard and its palm trees, all would be lost.

Flowers Room – a haven in the heart of Sarande from Airbnb

The streets and steps, and there are plenty of the latter, are fairly decent but veer slightly off the beaten track and you notice so much trash and litter with rubbish bins overflowing and not a hint of recycling in place. Then you find out that tap water is undrinkable and that you need to buy bottled water to survive the hefty heat in the summer. Too much plastic, too much waste and very little urban planning is turning this seaside town into a concrete jungle with little more to offer than clear water and wall-to-wall beaches, a lot of which are private ones where you’re required to rent a lounger and umbrella. Top of the awful pops music blares and one bar competes with another as to choice and volume.

Ksamil islands – ‘commercial’ takes on a new meaning

You can’t say it’s not cheap, cheap it is in every way possible. Few shops have anything of value to offer and the restaurants have the same menu wherever you go i.e. ‘country’ salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish, seafood and meat. My country salad consisted of deliciously fresh veg and lettuce with feta cheese and olive oil salad dressing but the lamb ribs which I was looking forward to, came piled high on a plate with no more than a wedge of lemon. Ribs they weren’t, just random cuts of meat.

Too much plastic and trash

Everyone recommends Ksamil Islands but if you think Sarande is commercial, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Every inch of beach is lined with the ubiquitous sunbeds and umbrellas all costing something albeit cheap in comparison to other Mediterranean countries. Trash decorates the sidewalks with not a collector in sight.

My saving grace in Sarande was the haven of peace and beauty called Flowers Room which I booked through Airbnb. Besmir and his family couldn’t have been kinder or more generous and the smell of herbs and foliage filled the night air. Air conditioning meant that you could close out the sounds of honking hooters and get a good night’s sleep. I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot.

Kristiano Wine Bar – a must-see

Having said what I’ve said so far, there is one spot which is worth a mention – the wine bar called Kristiano, way up high on the hillside and perhaps impossible to find if it weren’t by taxi. The interior is elegantly rustic complete with stuffed animals and the terraces outside look out over the bay. Sip a glass of wine and just take it all in, including the huge cruise vessels that stop in during the summer months. My hike down the mountain was made all the more pleasant when I joined a mother, her child and grandmother who took me down a shortcut through bush and thoroughly uneven terrain. What amazed me even more was that granny and daughter were both wearing wedge-heeled sandals leaping across boulders and rocks with the sure-footedness of gazelles. We waved a friendly goodbye to each other when we hit the first tarred road.

View over the bay from Kristiano Wine Bar

Friendliness, smiles and generosity are in ample supply in this city and while English doesn’t trip off their tongues, they make an effort to understand you and to get you what you want. Here’s to the locals, in every way! My advice on food – go to the market, buy the freshest of ingredients and cook your own. The fish and seafood from the fish shops is excellent as is the meat from the many butcheries scattered across town. With a lathering of olive oil and green herbs, you’re your own best chef. One more thing, the internet works well in cafés and restaurants.

Links:

Flowers Room

Kristiano Wine Bar

 

Me, Me, Me

As modest as the Finns may be, selfies have caught on here too, dating all the way back to the 19th Century. The exhibition Me: Self-Portraits Through Time is a collection of 160 works by 102 artists from Finland ranging through the Finnish Golden Age to noteworthy contemporary ones.

In the early days they were called self-portraits and perhaps the focus was slightly different from today’s aren’t-I-stunning approach. ‘The eyes are the window of the soul’ is an expression we’re all familiar with, but what if you’re too shy or simply don’t want to reveal it to the onlooker, but you still want to be immortalised? Is it about immortality or just vanity?

Otto Mäkelä: Self-portrait (1929)
Alexandra Frosterus-Såltin: In the Studio (1858)

Thank God for Justus von Liebig who invented the mirror in 1835. Without it, some of these would never have existed and while they all used it, only a few admit to the fact and show it in their pieces. But even mirrors can be too self-revealing and hence reflections come into distorted focus in the metal of blenders as in Pauliina Turakka Purhonen’s Oaig, referring to the only visible letters on the cardboard Laphroaig box in which she keeps her paintbrushes. Or could it be a groan, an utterance of loathing? Or the sculpture in wood of 84 year-old Radoslaw Gryta strangely staring out at you from the backdrop of honeycombs.

Pauliina Turakka Purhonen’s Oaig (2010)

As a foreigner, I find the Finnish style rather intriguing. Seeing the exhibition as a whole, shows that most of these are realistic in the way they bare themselves to the general public. Some are perhaps flattering, some are distinctly distorted, others horrifying and abstruse. While you wonder about the character in the painting or photo or sculpture, it also brings you to a point of self-searching and your own reaction to it. The creator must have had this in mind and while they couldn’t predict the response, they could control it to an extent. This is where emotion comes into play. Seeing the irony and humour in Sampsa Sarparanta’s The White Man’s Burden, the Heidi man-girl ridiculously laughing back at you, the grotesque Last Man Standing evoking fear, the sadness, the playfulness, the sorrow – it all draws you into their world and their feelings at the time of execution. Finally, you walk out with a bag of mixed emotions to sort through and the memory of faces you never knew but will never forget.

Sampsa Sarparanta’s The White Man’s Burden (2015)
Last Man Standing – Stiina Saaristo (2007-2008)

Me: Self-Portraits Through Time is on show at Kunsthalle Helsinki from 27 May until 6 August 2017.

Kunsthalle Helsinki

Nervanderinkatu 3, 00100 Helsinki

Tickets +358 40 450 7211

Tue, Thu, Fri 11–18

Wed 11–20

Sat-Sun 11–17

Mon closed

€12 / €8

Under 18s – no charge

It’s a Wild Ride at Linnanmäki Amusement Park, Helsinki

The locals lovingly call it ‘Lintsi’ and when the first rays of sunshine start appearing after the long winter, the kids are already tugging at their parent’s nerves to take them to this summer attraction. It’s a happy place and something sincerely has to go wrong for it not to put a smile on your face. Even better, the proceeds go to Finnish child welfare work. It’s the kindest thing you can do for not only your own children but also those less privileged.

Magia for a heady ride

A new year brings new stuff to explore starting with Ice Age in 4D with arrows whizzing passed your head, water spraying lightly in your face and plenty of bumps and jumps for you to get the full effect. This is included in the wristband. Magia will take you on a whirl that reaches the heavens while you look down vertically at the ground below, spin you and settle you down back to earth before it all starts again. There’s wild and gentle for the not so brave and if you’re not interested in the rides at all, there’s the wheel of fortune which will add yet another soft toy to your already overflowing collection. Lots of the kiddie rides are free of charge and there is no entrance fee so if you just want to come along and watch, that’s possible too. The American Diner will satisfy your hamburger needs and there’s a lot more besides that. Caruzello has a family buffet while the Sports Restaurant has finger food to go with your beer.

Starting with the Spring Carnival, Linnanmäki has special events happening at times when the park might not be that crowded. Between 2 – 14 May, clowns, ventriloquists, and music are put on to entertain the crowds and you can even take a twirl on the dance floor if the mood hits you. At the beginning of September Iik!week brings zombies to scare you and other eerie phenomena to keep you intrigued. The Carnival of Light is a show to behold with plenty of design teams working on displays to light up the dark time of year.

Linnanmäki is open from 28 April until late October but do check the website if you’re planning to go in September or October.

Links:

Linnanmäki Amusement Park

A Walk on the Wild Side

A train and bus ride takes you a world away from the hustle and bustle of Helsinki city where you can experience Finnish nature, virtually and physically. Haltia Nature Centre transports you within its environmentally friendly wooden walls to the treasures of Finland’s natural wonders. Everything is well done and attention to detail is stunning.

Nou hätä – no panic but the real caption says, “If anyone asks, you haven’t seen me.”

Look up, look down, look around you as you go through a winter wonderland where a bear is feeding on the meat of a ‘fallen’ reindeer, where you can listen to the sounds of nightlife in the forest and experience the rush of rapids and see what goes on underneath the water’s surface. The panorama display keeps on changing, revealing all 5 seasons from polar night to summer. Enter the giant Duck’s Egg and see Osmo Rauhala’s installation of white swans playing chess on a randomly-changing board. Pat the snoring, sleeping bear in its den and look through the bird hold to see who the next visitor might be.

‘Now this sucks’ – part of an hilarious exhibition at Haltia.

It makes you hungry for the real thing which is easy to find since the Nuuksio National Park is right there surrounding you. Lake Pitkäjärvi is large and when the water is open, you can rent a canoe from Solvalla Sports Centre to see the forest from a different angle. The reception staff at Haltia will be happy to help you book one. Cycling, sauna, swimming and feeding reindeer at the Nuuksio Reindeer Park, are all options whether you’re there for a day or overnight. But it’s hiking that’s really the thing to slow you down, get you meditating and communing with nature. The slow pace brings peace and calm within this cathedral of birch trees with moss-covered primary rock and its here where you’ll listen to that inner voice that brings rest and a healthy mind. Stumbling upon a barbecue is not uncommon and wood is usually in plentiful supply. Take your own sausage and dry matches with you.

Osmo Rauhala’s swans playing chess
Cosy up to baby bear in his den

This paradise is easily reachable from downtown Helsinki: https://aikataulut.reittiopas.fi/linjat/en/b245.html

Haltia Nature Centre is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30 – 5 pm: https://www.haltia.com/en/

A comprehensive guide to facilities and activities at Nuuksio National Park: https://www.nuuksioresort.fi/en/