Category Archives: Travel

A visit to Villnäs (Louhisaari)

Villnäs (Louhisaari))

About 30 kilometres north of Åbo (Turku in Finnish), on the southwest coast of Finland, lies an unusually grand manor estate tucked into the local landscape and well hidden between long avenues of old trees. Villnäs as it is called in Swedish (Louhisaari in Finnish), is one of the country’s finest and grandest manors and thanks to a particular Finnish national hero it is also one of the most well known.

Villnäs lies near a local bay with access to the Gulf of Finland, a strategic choice in the estate’s early history which dates back to the 15th century and probably meant that the main house was situated next to the water for most of its existence. The estate of Villnäs passed into its first (in the future famous) hands in the middle of the 15th century when Magnus Fleming married Elin Nilsdotter whose family possessed it.

Today’s corps-de-logi of Villnäs stands in a barren renaissance style, it was finished in 1655. The owner and builder was Baron Herman Claesson Fleming af Lieblitz (1619-1673), a man from a prominent family in royal service who was born in Finland and after a great career with many positions of state receded to Sweden’s eastern country-half (Finland) as its Governor-General after the death of King Karl X Gustav. Villnäs then remained in the Fleming family until 1791 when a heavily indebted descendant had to sell.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)

Villnäs’ corps-de-logi has two wings, one on either side of the cour d’honneur, and there is a sense of strict symmetry and simplicity in the style and layout. A few kilometres away from the manor lies the church, once under patronage of the estate owner, which was erected around the same time as the manor and is seen from the air connected to the main buildings via straight lines.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)Above the wooden door to the corps-de-logi is the only break from the otherwise barren renaissance facade; a portal of sandstone where, although most of the text is unreadable, you can see the construction year of 1655 written. The corps-de-logi of three floors (plus a cellar underneath, dating back further than the construction year) is built of bricks and is after hundreds of years of function as a home that has been adapted to suit the inhabitants and times, much of its present condition is restored to the original 17th century state.

In 1795 Baron Carl Erik Mannerheim (1759–1837) bought Villnäs. The Mannerheim family originally came from the Netherlands or Germany to Sweden and Carl Erik became the first member of the family to permanently take up residence in Finland. He first used Villnäs as a permanent home and later as a summer home and Carl Erik held important positions when Finland became Russian and was later raised to comital stature by Emperor Alexander I of Russia.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)In 1867 Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867–1951), The Marshal of Finland, was born at Villnäs. He spent his first years living at the estate and later spent many summers there. The Marshal is the reason why Villnäs is today so famous and attracts around 30.000 (or so I was told) visitors per year.

The Mannerheim family held on to Villnäs until 1903 and after that it passed through the hands of various (non-noble) hands until it was donated to the Finnish state in 1961. The donation came from the delegation that raised funds for the mounted Marshal Mannerheim statue that stands in Helsinki, they managed to raise so much money that there were enough left over to purchase Villnäs and give it to the state as a museum.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)Between 1962 and 1967 the corps-de-logi and wings of Villnäs were transformed into a permanent museum. The first and third floors of the corps-de-logi were largely returned to their 17th century state. The first floor was previously used by servants and as storage, today it is used to exhibit simple time-typical items, for local archaeological finds and as a lecture space. There is no sign other than an open fireplace of the old kitchen. The third floor which originally held the ceremonial rooms has, because of its later old fashionedness and lesser importance, been well preserved and is now largely decorated with items borrowed from The National Museum of Finland.

The second floor, where the families of Villnäs used to live, displays the styles from the 18th to 19th centuries and is the only of the manor’s floors where one can feel some familiarity. This is also where there are some pieces left from the Mannerheim era and rooms have been re-created into what they were when some family members had their own bedrooms there and so on. The interior decorating styles vary with the times; from rococo to Gustavian and biedermeier. In the dining room one can admire the family’s dinner sets; one for everyday use and one for more special occasions. In the Count’s library the original book cases still remain and a quick glance at the original book collection shows very clearly that Finnish was not often spoken or read in the family. Portraits of members of the Mannerheim family give the rooms the most feel of originality and many of them were donated by the family to The National Museum of Finland some decades ago.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)

The interior of the two wings is very simple. In one of them there is a billiard’s room (moved from the main house) and a room that displays the various handicraft women devoted themselves to, in the other there are traces of an old kitchen and laundry room plus a museum office and shop.

Villnäs (Louhisaari)

Villnäs is surrounded by a large English landscape park. There are gravel paths surrounded by tree avenues in different directions and large trees placed here and there in the park and on the backside of the corps-de-logi. There is a beach pavilion or bathing house from 1825 and a playhouse used by the Mannerheim children. Earlier traces of a kitchen garden, walled gardens, apple orchards and other kept gardens are largely gone. In front of the manor there is a wonderful map of the estate for the blind, they can feel the layout and also read where everything is situated.

In the park of Villnäs there is a monument in memory of Marshal Mannerheim, leaving visitors with one of his concluded wisdoms for Finland and other countries:
– A small country’s greatest strength is its unanimity.

To see more of my photos from Villnäs, please visit my Flickr stream.

A visit to Lobkowicz Palace

One of the two highlights of my recent trip to Prague, the Czech Republic, was definitely the Lobkowicz Palace inside the Prague Castle complex. The palace is the only privately owned part of the castle and is one of many residences that members of the Lobkowicz family has managed to get back from the state. And at Lobkowicz Palace they certainly have done the most of it!

Lobkowicz Palace

In the most wonderful audio guide I have ever listened to, Prince William Lobkowicz, occasionally joined by other family members, takes visitors on a personal tour of the palace as well as the family’s history.
– Probably the most remarkable thing, certainly in the past 100 years, is that we’ve lost everything twice, and gotten it back twice, William says at the beginning of the tour when one has climbed the stairs to begin a wander through a suite of rooms. What a way to start, I thought! The audio guide goes on to present both the items you view as well as the family’s history in an excellent way, nicely paired with some background music from composers of the time.

– Even after 50 years of exile, I have vivid memories of riding my bike down the long galleries of Roudnice Castle, feeling the weight of my disapproving ancestors looking down on me, Prince William’s father Prince Martin tells visitors in front of a painting of the castle. In 1939 Prince Martin fled the Nazi occupation with his family, leaving behind the family’s thirteen castles and a large collection of art and other objects.

In 1945 the Lobkowicz family could return to a liberated country and reclaim their property but only three years later, in 1948, they had to flee the communists who seized everything once again. The Lobkowicz family couldn’t return until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the restitution of some of their properties and collections has been a process going into the 21st century.

The collection at Lobkowicz Palace is beautifully presented both in the way the exhibitions are made and how the audio guide gives a personal presentation of many items. There is a very impressive collection of family portraits, paintings, porcelain, armoury, religious items, dog portraits and musical instruments and scores. For lovers of classical music it’s a real treat to see original instruments and scores by Beethoven (who left personal dedications to Lobkowicz family members), Mozart (including his re-orchestrated version of Händel’s Messiah), Haydn and Guck.

One instantly recognizable piece at the Lobkowicz Palace after last year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom was “The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day” by Antonio Canaletto. The painting, of circa 1750, was on loan to the exhibition “Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames” at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a good part of 2012 and featured in many reviews and articles about the Thames Diamond Jubilee flotilla. Also this painting, which is the second of two in a series, has an interesting story of how it came into the Lobkowicz family – but I’ll let you visit the palace to hear about that (I don’t want to spoil all the gems of the audio tour!).

Prepare to spend quite a good amount of time at the palace and when you’re done what better place to sit down and relax than the palace’s café, featuring beautiful views down over Prague? The establishment has a small but good menu, the food is of good quality and taste as far as I could tell. My travelling companion and I both tried the carrot cake from a family recipe and it was excellent.

I ended up spending quite a long time at Lobkowicz Palace and when I left there was only one thing itching me – why is there not a good English or bi-lingual book about the family? I asked in the palace shop if they knew of any books about the family being published but to no avail. With such a rich and fascinating history as well as some very charismatic family members who are good at telling stories, a good comprehensive book about the Lobkowicz family and their properties and collections is long overdue.

Lobkowicz Palace café's terrace

A week in and around Prague

Walking from from Prague Castle

Prague façadeRecently I spent a week in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. After hearing and reading so many good things about the city it was time for a visit, so off I went and was very happy that a Danish friend with similar interests was able to join me there.

I arrived to a city pouring with rain and with grey skies looming. When I stopped at the reception desk to check in, after some trouble finding the hotel as the streets were quite empty of people (to ask directions from) as the worst showers came down, a small puddle of water formed around my feet. The lady behind the desk probably thought I looked miserable and immediately upgraded me to a double room and gave me a free drink ticket.

After installing ourselves at the hotel we grabbed our umbrellas and left to explore the city. At Náměstí Republiky, one of our first stops of the trip was the magnificent art nouveau Municipal House which is the home of the 1918 declaration of Czechoslovakia’s independence and today a concert venue and the place of a very elegant restaurant. We then passed the Powder Gate, an original city gate and former gunpowder storage site, and walked into the Staré Město (Old Town).

The Powder GatePrague’s old town is the most crowded part of the city, its narrow cobble stone streets require comfortable shoes and a good helping of patience if there on a day without rain – but when we fist came there the rain had cleared the streets of the huge crowds and it gave us a chance to really see the buildings.

In Prague in general, everywhere one looks there are the most amazingly beautiful façades. I quickly learned that one could spend the entire stay with the nose pointing towards the sky (looking at façades) and that taking photos is best done only occasionally as one could easily fill memory card after memory with photos of beautiful buildings.

Our first dinner was eaten at Hotel U Prince at the Old Town Square, looking onto sites such as the astronomical clock, the Jan Hus monument and the Týn chuch. When we’d finished our dinner it was quite late but despite the rain and our hotel not being situated on a very public street it was quite a nice walk back and I never felt unsafe or worried. It didn’t take long to feel that Prague is not too big to feel ungraspable, wherever one is in the city it’s never difficult to find the right way back to where one wants to go.

View of Prague Castle from Belvedere

My first morning in Prague I woke up to more pouring rain and grey skies. We took tram 22 through a very scenic route with great views up to the hills of Prague Castle, a site you can easily spend a day exploring. Apart from the many buildings, exhibitions, churches and scenic walks you can make at the castle, it also remains the seat of the country’s head of state. The President of the Czech Republic has his/her official representation premises in the New Royal Palace and this part of the complex is only open during one or two holidays per year.

St. Vitus Cathedral & New Royal Palace

At Prague Castle we visited the St. Vitus Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece that might not be as old as it looks in all corners, the St. George’s Basilica, the Old Royal Palace, the Golden Lane and Lobkowicz Palace. The Golden Lane is a scenic street of low picturesque houses along the castle’s northern wall, once housing the site’s craftsmen and guards but today home to tourist shops. All though the visit I only dared to take out the camera a few times and it wasn’t easy to handle while trying to juggle an umbrella in the other hand, hence the photo quality.

Old Royal Palace

The highlight of the visit to Prague Castle, and really one of the highlights of the whole trip, was Lobkowicz Palace – the only privately owned part of the castle complex. In the most wonderful audio guide I have ever listened to, Prince William Lobkowicz, occasionally joined by other family members, takes visitors on a personal tour of the palace as well as the family’s history.

After a very long wander though the apartments of Lobkowicz Palace the rain had stopped for a short while and we sat down on the terrace of the palace’s café, featuring beautiful views down over Prague as well as excellent service and eats. We both tried the carrot cake from a family recipe and it was excellent.

Lobkowicz Palace café's terrace

Prague Castle has some very nice gardens surrounding it on the hill, I want to go back and visit more of them. We left via the royal gardens, where the Belvedere (Royal Summer Palace) is also located, and walked all the way down from the castle to Malá Strana (Lesser Town) and the Charles Bridge.

Belvedere garden

Five of the following days of our trip was spent on day trips to castles outside of Prague and we also stayed overnight in Náchod in north-eastern Bohemia, a few hours from the border to Poland. I will tell you about the castle visits in future separate posts to this one.

Café ImperialIn the evenings, when we returned from our castle excursions outside Prague, we often had quite a big dinner as we only ate snacks during the day. One evening we went to the Café Imperial, a place with amazing art déco interior that I just happened to spot through the window when passing one day. I can highly recommend a visit there if you’re ever in Prague; it offers great décor and atmosphere as well as excellent food and service.

Picking a restaurant in a big and crowded city is never easy, especially when you just want a good meal but don’t really know what places to visit and how to avoid the tourist traps. One evening we found the Pizza Coloseum, which is part of a chain of restaurants that offer fresh western-style food, near the Wenceslas Square boulevard in the Nové Město (New Town). They had a nice view over the boulevard, a good selection of different food and good service. We went there twice and I would return again.

On the second-last day in Prague we spent the first part of the day in Josefov, the Jewish quarter. We visited the Pinkas Synagogue were 80.000 names of Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust are written on the walls and an exhibition of children’s drawings made in Theresienstadt are exhibited. We also walked around the Old Jewish Cemetery which consists of thousands of graves in many layers and was in use from the 15h to the 18th century, and finally the Spanish Synagogue.

Old Jewish Cemetery

From Josefov we took another scenic tram and went to the Strahov monastery. On one (out)side of the monastery complex there’s a restaurant that has amazing scenic views over the city, we sat down there and had cake. Walking back down the hill we spotted the Swedish embassy, complete with a Midsummer pole that had been used for the recent celebrations. In the afternoon we went into the famous Týn Church, it can be a bit of a puzzle to find the entrance (as there’s an outdoor serving area in front of it) but we found one via a music shop on the left side of it. That evening we had dinner with a local Prague inhabitant who we know from an online forum, it’s always nice to meet people who share your interests and we all had a great few hours together.

Restaurant/café at Strahov monastery

Times flies when you have fun, which I certainly did in and around Prague. I still have a long list of places I’d love to visit and I liked the beautiful architecture, rich history and friendly atmosphere so much that I will definitely have it on my list of cities to return to in the future.

To see more of my photos from Prage (and later from the other places I will post about), do visit my Czech Republic album on Flickr.

A little summer holiday in Finland

Evening at summer cottage

I have just had a little summer holiday in Finland. Spent some time at a summer cottage where I swam, went to the sauna, read and listened to a lot of radio on my new iPod. During our stay at the summer cottage we took a day tour to Savonlinna (Nyslott in Swedish), in the heart a countryside region with lakes all around. On the way there we stopped at the Retretti Art Museum, an art centre with some exhibition rooms interspersed in caves below ground. The most unique museum experience I’ve had so far. They have both modern and classic art. In the evening we attended the Savonlinna Opera Festival at the medieval fortress Olavinlinna where the Swedish Royal Opera performed their production of Figaro’s wedding. It was my first visit at the opera festival and it was a wonderful experience, despite the hot humid air which was hard to cope with during the day.

Olavinlinna/Olofsborg/St. Olaf's Castle

On our way back from the cottage to the capital region we stopped at our favourite summer shop, located on one side of a bridge that crosses a river in great lake that characterizes the area.

Summer shop stop at Miekankoski

Every summer in the Finn-Swedish parts of Finland, youth organisations stage summer plays. So back in the Helsinki region we went to see one of them and although it wasn’t easy to understand all bits of the local Swedish dialect it was a great way to spend a summer’s evening and the hobby actors were all great.

"Brudvalet" at Lurens summer theatre in Pernå