Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Wooing season

The weather finally turned warmer and we’ve started frequenting the seaside to observe the spring progressing. In the last few days, it has been the wooing of barnacle geese that has caught our attention.

They can be seen moving around on all kinds of beaches in pairs. Everyone seems to have found their mate by now.

The chances of male grass snakes or water snakes (Natrix natrix) to succeed in mating are much more slender. It takes the females one year longer to mature for breeding than for the males and in our weather conditions they only reproduce every other year. There will always be several males trying to win a female by wrapping themselves around her and rubbing the bottom of their head against her. We were lucky to see such a peaceable bundle thanks to a few fellow hikers who had spotted the wooing process at a sunny spot under a shrub. There were at least four males in peace and harmony competing over the female, the largest one in the bunch.

Sunday was May Day, which marks the official opening of the mating season called spring also for the girls and guys in our northern corner of the world. In our country, May Day   or vappu as we call it   is a carnival-style holiday, no longer that much for workers but for everyone, especially for students. On the eve, students flock in the streets celebrating spring in their faculty-specific overalls or party-going gear, depending on where they are planning to spend the evening after the opening ceremony of the feast.

In our present hometown, the students traditionally start the festivities by gathering to the street leading down from the Art Museum. A front man or woman of the local students’ union will deliver a speech from the steps of the museum. A students’ choir or band, or a few, will perform. Finally, all students – both current and former ones  – will simultaneously do the capping, ie put their white student’s cap on. That is the moment when the celebrating really kicks off and the crowd starts to disperse. The rest of the night will involve loud merry-making with champagne or sparkling wine and often stronger beverages, too.

On May Day, the carefree celebrations will continue more or less in family style. Some political parties are having a parade or street event with speeches and music, which passers-by tend to ignore. Picnicking, strolling around the May Day market, treating your kids and yourself with goodies and the like are the priorities on everyone’s agenda.

Happy wooing to all those who still haven’t found their match! Blissful coexistence to all those who have!

PS. Should you ever visit Finland, please do not arrive on the evening of April 30. You’d believe you have landed in the middle of a crazy epidemic that has closed all the services (except for bars and restaurants) and turned everyone slightly insane.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Chilly April

We’ve had rather a poor April, at least the latter part of it. Earlier this week, the temperature dropped close to the freezing point and we even had some sleet. It’s been a long season for the daffodils the town planted on the pedestrian Theatre Bridge and elsewhere in mid-March.

Every once in a while, we’ve also seen some sunshine. So far, very little of it has been of the warming kind but nevertheless we’ve ventured out a few times with hubby’s binoculars and some snacks tucked in his backpack.

Recently, we’ve had our afternoon coffee, for example, once at the top of a lookout tower and twice sitting on the rock at the foot of one.

There is not much to observe yet I’m afraid. Judged from nature, it would be hard to guess whether it is spring or autumn. You’d have to descend literally to the grass-root level to be able to tell. That’s the kind of April we generally have. It is feeling desperately long now that we didn’t travel anywhere. I can’t wait to get rid of it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Clinging to a cliff

Back to last October and Stresa (my previous post here) from where we took a ferry across Lago Maggiore to the hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, Saint Catherine of the Rock.

The hermitage is perched in the middle of a cliff clinging to it 18m above water level like a terrace carved in stone. Because of its unusual location it is only visible from the lake.

The sanctuary used to be accessible only by climbing about 60 steps from the lake or by descending a stairway of 51m or some 270 steps winding down the side of the cliff. Today, you can also take a less troublesome way to the site by an elevator that was dug into the rock a few years ago.

Needless to say, there is a singular legend behind a historical catholic shrine at such a spectacular location. According to it, a merchant by the name of Alberto Besozzi was shipwrecked in the region in the 12th century. He prayed to Saint Catherine of Alexandria  an early martyr who was one of the most popular saints in the late Middle Ages  vowing to dedicate the rest of his life to worship if he were saved. A wave washed him to a rock and he fulfilled his promise living the rest of his life at the location as a hermit.

Alberto had a simple chapel built to Saint Catherine. After his death in 1205, people continued to visit the place for prayer. The monastery with two more chapels – Santa Maria Nova and San Nicola – was built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The first residents were Dominicans, followed by more than 350 years of Ambrosians and finally Carmelites until the last brothers had to leave under suppression in 1770.

All through the following century, the hermitage was abandoned and almost lost to ruins until it was declared a national monument in 1914. Its current owners, the Lombardian Province of Varese, finally opened it to the public in 1986 after a period of extensive restoration.

The present church is a unique merger of the three chapels that were built separately at different times with traces of each one visible inside. Most of the interior, however, is in 16th and 17th-century baroque style, which was surprising to us. We were expecting something simpler and more down-to-earth at a secluded hermitage.

The church is rich in frescoes spanning from the 14th to the 19th century. There are also several frescoes visible on the exterior under the porticoes as well as some fascinating paintings, fragments of frescoes and ornamental murals in the so-called fireplace hall of the southern convent. Those were more pleasing to our eye than the rather confusing interior of the sanctuary, I must confess.

However, nothing could ever beat the spectacular location anyway. Compared with the natural beauty outside, the inside of the church is just too much to take in. You are bound to return to the courtyard sooner rather than later to admire the magnificent setting and the panoramic lake views. They will outbalance everything else there is to see at the hermitage for sure. Bellissimi!

Today, Benedictine oblates are managing this monument and the monastery shop located at the top of the cliff. Holy Mass is being held on Sundays and holidays at 4:30pm. More information including the opening hours under this link.