Friday, 22 December 2017

Art Hunt in Backwoods Paradise

Art Town Adventure is a series of art-based adventures and unforgettable experiences in and around Finland's world-class Serlachius art museums of Gustaf and Gösta in Mänttä-Vilppula, just 1.5 hours from Tampere or 1.25 hours from Jyväskylä. The very first adventure was Art Hunt in Backwoods Paradise, and it took place on 12th-13th December 2017.

Travel bloggers, tourism travel students living in Finland or abroad, and internationally oriented individuals with a passion for Finland who love seeking adventure and sharing their experiences with others via blogs and social media were encouraged to participate in order to win join a 2-day, 1-night unique, all-inclusive, free of charge Art Town Adventure in Mänttä-Vilppula, during which we would see and experience the most interesting locations and sights of the Art Town! An advantage was having plenty of international contacts, friends, and followers on social media who are willing to share our Art Town Adventure with. I shared my application video on this event page explaining who I am, why they should choose me for this amazing adventure, and how I would share my experience (good or bad) with my networks and the world.

The deadline had originally been 23rd November, and the winners were chosen on 24th November and announced on this event page, but luckily, it was extended, so I had the chance to enter on 28th November. Their panel selected 9 applicants who had the best ideas for how they will use this experience to help them promote and share Art Town Adventures with the world in their own networks. Invitation letters including all the details were sent to all winners on 27th November, and I was selected. Miraculously, I had these two days free.

This tremendous event-filled adventure began on 12th December at 10:50am at the main door of Tampere Railway Station, where we met our private guide, Heidi Savolainen, from the programme adventure company Adventure Apes/Seikkailuapinat. Heidi seemed relaxed, helpful, and friendly. We went by the Serlachius transfer bus to the Art Town Mänttä-Vilppula. We were showed an introductory film to the history of the town and its museum, which lasted almost the whole bus ride. I really enjoyed it, and it made the trip feel faster. There were nine of us in the group: three from Russia, two from Japan, one from South Korea, one from Vietnam, one from Brazil, and myself, as well as Heidi, and the photographer/ videographer Joni Heinonen from Videotiiviste Oy.

At 12:30, we arrived at our accommodation in Art Hotel Honkahovi with welcoming drinks (apple juice, I guess it was too early to drink!). We then had some time to take our luggage to our rooms and settle in. By chance, I was given the ‘Kuninkaan huone’, the ‘King’s room’ where the King of Sweden has stayed, probably when he comes to Mänttä-Vilppula to shoot pheasants (as mentioned over dinner at Ravintola Gösta). I was under the impression that I would be sharing with someone else, but I had the whole room to myself! My room was incredible, and it had a beautiful view over Melasjärvi lake! There was even a bath (the biggest one I had ever been in), which isn’t as common in Finland as in the UK. Just to be safe, I left the key at the hotel!

At 13:30, the Art Hunt began in this Backwoods Paradise began with a Nordic walking trip in the locality from Art Hotel Honkahovi to Mäntän Klubi, where we had lunch. We went past a pink wooden house, where it was said that the ‘pink lady’ lives. It was a really nice idea to walk after sitting in the bus for some time, and I felt that I saw more of the area that way. However, it took a while to get ready because some of the Nordic walking sticks were broken. The lunch was fantastic and my vegan dietary requirement was very well-catered for. It was good to eat after working up some hunger by walking there. I had salad, pulled oats with pasta, and raspberry and rhubarb sorbet. A member of staff (who we had also seen in Art Hotel Honkahovi who had gotten there before us, and who said she worked in both when I asked) gave us a tour of Mäntän Klubi, including Göstä’s room where former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen and the King of Sweden have stayed, and a secret room. However, the schedule felt rushed, partly because of the ‘skull hunting’, during which we searched for a skull which had a question (it was found in the secret room). It was fun and an interesting way to learn more about the history of Mänttä-Vilppula. However, I think the tour would have been still been great and even less rushed without the skull hunting (perhaps that would be better for younger guests or children). It felt like there were too many people so I didn’t even get to read all of the questions when the skull was found. Maybe I’m becoming too Finnish, but some of the galleries and activities also felt too crowded with all of us there. On several occasions people kept backing into me and treading on my toes and apparently didn’t even notice, or didn’t bother apologising if they did. Therefore, I think it would be really important to adapt and personalise the trip according to age and group size. On the other hand, having to hurry and compromise is probably a normal part of participating in a group tour.

Next, we walked to Serlachius Museum Gustaf. The employee started talking about the museum, when it was interrupted by a woman (Rebekka Tolonen) in costume who was pretending to find suitable jobs for us all in those times. Rebekka was absolutely fantastic and her tour captured my attention. I later found out that it was the first time that she had performed in English, which surprised me because it was so good. She quickly took us around the museum, and then we were able to try papermaking. Apparently my paper wasn’t too shabby, as I was given the job title of ‘press boy’, and a badge to prove it! We then had some coffee and cake (my vegan version also had delicious cherry and chocolate sauces), when Rebekka came in her museum work outfit after changing out of her costume, and I hardly recognised her (the glasses made a big difference!). We were then given a chance to take an audio tour through the ‘Paper Devil’ exhibition that tells the story of Gustaf Adolf Serlachius, who established a paper mill in Mänttä, and then find the skull. However, we didn’t get to spend much time in the exhibitions, although perhaps this worked well for some people, because generally I spend much more time in exhibitions than others.

We were then taken by bus to Serlachius Museum Gösta (we again had to hurry because the bus had a schedule and seemed to be available to the public). Rebekka gave us a tour around the older part of the museum and its extensive art collection (including a Monet painting!), and were then given wine and a snack of bulgur and potato (others had venison) in the old basement/cellar that was decorated by a 16-year-old girl in the past, which was lovely. It felt really personal and VIP that the museum and shop stayed open later for us. I really enjoyed the refugee exhibition and the screen where photos of our faces could be put into artworks. However, there wasn’t much free time at the exhibitions, and I was more focused on looking at the exhibitions than trying to find the skull. Serlachius Museum Gösta is currently showing the exhibition by the political artist Riiko Sakkinen called 'Closing borders', which "explores a turning, fortunate Europe". Last year, he travelled around European external borders. He visited Melilla, a Spanish city in North Africa on the Moroccan border, where I lived for one year. For me, his most interesting piece of work was one that was created on paper from one of the hotels in Melilla, which were enlarged and modified for the exhibition. It was interesting to me because I could understand his message to some extent based on my own experience, and I have never heard of such an exhibition in Finland.

We were wined and dined at Restaurant Gösta in the same building, and joined by the Museum’s Development Manager Päivi Viherkoski (the ‘pink lady’ who lives in the pink wooden house). The dinner was fantastic and my vegan dietary requirement was very well-catered for. I was even given oil for my bread instead of butter. For the first course, we had a creamy pumpkin soup seasoned with Christmas spices. For the second course, I had roasted cauliflower with nori, pickled chanterelles and lovage mayonnaise. For the third course, I had black bean patty and aubergine with Jerusalem artichoke, and for the fourth course, I had raspberry sorbet with mango and vanilla-soy cream. The Hungarian chardonnay served before dessert was delicious. I liked how the menus were placed on the tables after the meal, so we could have a souvenir and remember what we ate (and find it if we wanted to eat it again). The meal was prepared by Henry Tikkanen, Finland’s Chef of the Year in 2001, who has represented Finland in several international cooking competitions. He came to talk to us, and afterwards I thanked him for the amazing food! It was good to relax and not feel the need to rush. Before leaving the museum, we discovered a screen where our faces could be placed into old artworks, which was fun.

To end the day, we had a walking trip through the forest on the Lemmenpolku/Path of Love with Heidi at the front, Päivi at the back, and Joni filming somewhere in the middle. I really enjoyed walking in the nature. It was nice to walk after being inside for a while and sitting down for a long time for dinner. I’ve never walked in such deep snow, and in the dark. It was more difficult to walk, but good exercise for the legs. We were given headlights, but encouraged to only use them when really needed to (or when Joni needed us to have them on for filming) so that we could enjoy the silence and the darkness (it’s possible to see due to the light reflecting from the snow). It was thoughtful that socks and rubber boots were provided, otherwise the snow might have even ended up inside my winter boots. Luckily, I was walking quite towards the back, so I was able to walk in the footprints of those in front of me. On the other hand, it became a bit slippery, and someone behind me fell down. I thought we had almost arrived when Päivi announced that we were halfway. It turns out that the ‘short’ walk was 2.5km.

When we made it back to the hotel, I enjoyed a long soak in my bath before going down the common room to chat with the others. I felt a little bad because not everyone had their own bathroom and I had said that someone could use mine, but I ended up spending a long time in there.

On 13th December, I didn’t want to get out of bed because the room was a bit cold. At 9:30, we started the day with breakfast, and then a Honkahovi presentation at 10:00. It was thoughtful that a soya yoghurt was provided for me at breakfast. However, there could have been a bigger variety of food at breakfast, for example, vegan cheese could have been provided for me.

Breakfast with a view!

At 10:30, the Art Hunt continued in the area of Art Museum Gösta. We worked together to solve the ‘Christmas path’ challenge that gave us a whole new perspective on the featured exhibit and introduced us to people from the past. For this, we went around Taavetinsaari island, where Rebekka opened boxes and read questions about Finland’s Christmas traditions that we needed to answer. I learnt that she was also a Master’s student and is writing her thesis (apparently at the same time as raising four children and working!) about letters that her grandparents wrote to each other during the war time, which sounded very original and unique.

We then had lunch at Autere Cottage. At the bottom of the ‘Christmas path’ quiz sheet we were able to write our details and post it in a box to be in with the chance of winning items from the museum shop. I almost forgot to ask for the answers to the questions. It turns out that I only got one wrong, which was about how many people sent Christmas cards in Finland in some year in the 19th century. I chose 10,000 because I thought the population in Finland wouldn’t have been so big back then, but the answer was actually 100,000, which makes sense because each person usually sends multiple Christmas cards. It was really lovely to have an outside activity before lunch and going home, and I felt that I learnt new things. I liked the opportunity to enter a competition. However, the answers to the questions weren’t clearly announced to everyone at Autere Cottage. Again, the lunch was fantastic and my vegan dietary requirement was very well-catered for. I had pumpkin soup, salad, roast vegetables and cabbage, a beetroot patty, and some kind of raspberry dessert. ‘Santa’ made an appearance and we were all given gift bags, which was a lovely unexpected surprise.

The adventure finished at 12:45 when we returned to Tampere by train from Vilppula, arriving at 13:45. The train consisted of only one carriage, and it was the smallest train I’ve ever seen, so I couldn’t help laughing when I saw it. The train was a bit too crowded. I preferred the bus, even though the train was slightly faster. There seemed to be a lot of snow in Mänttä-Vilppula, although I realised that it had also been snowing when we got back to Tampere.

Afterwards, we were asked to provide honest feedback and a detailed description of our opinions and views on the whole trip and its programme, including all of the different activities and tourism attractions. Our comments and suggestions of improvement regarding the overall experience about what we liked best and what needs to be improved help them to develop the whole package of services and events. Overall, I really enjoyed the experience, I appreciate the opportunity, and I felt that we were cared for because it was so personalised. We had unforgettable experiences in and around the world-class art museums Serlachius-museums Gustaf and Gösta, enjoyed the finest food we can imagine from Mäntän Klubi and Ravintola Gösta, and slept like a king in the amazing hotel Art Hotel Honkahovi next to a pure Finnish lake. Inevitably if I had paid for the trip (I estimate several hundred euros per person), maybe I would be more sceptical. When I mentioned the trip to many people they seemed surprised that I had gone to Mänttä-Vilppula and they had negative prejudices about it. I think it will take a lot of work to change this. Hopefully they will be able to find more open-minded people who like to go somewhere more local and less ‘mainstream’, and who are interested in art.

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