Astuvansalmi on the shore of Yövesi in Saimaa was our ancestors' favourite place thousands of years ago. After the ice age, the hunter-gatherers settled in the area, on the best shores of Lake Saimaa, caught fish and hunted in the surrounding forests. The neolithic settlements on the shores of Yövesi as well as the mythical rock paintings in Astuvansalmi and Uittamonsalmi are evidences of ancient habitation in the area.
The ice age left many marks in Lake Yövesi and Astuvansalmi in Saimaa. The rugged and steep rocks of the shores are reflected as dark shadows from the surface of the lake, thus giving the lake the name Yövesi, "night water". After the ice age, the melting waters of the ice sheet formed also fine sandy beaches in Yövesi.
At Käenniemenselkä in Yövesi, the forces of ice sheet carved the deepest point in Saimaa in the bedrock at the bottom the lake. The place is known as Käenniemen kaivo, the "well of Käenniemi", and it has a depth of 86 meters. The 49-meter deep Haukkavuorenselkä, the 44-meter deep Mustansaarenselkä located near Ristiina, the 71-meter deep Salonelkä and the 55-meter deep Lehtisenselkä are other deep basins carved by the ice age.
In the basins of Yövesi, at a depth of more than 30 meters, lives a giant lake prawn, a relic of the ice age. Like other Saimaa rarities, the prawn got captured in Lake Saimaa when the water level dropped after the watercourse of Vuoksi burst open and the melting waters ran towards southeast after the ice age. Other rare Saimaa specialties that thrive in Yövesi are the Saimaa lake char and the Saimaa ringed seal.
Astuvansalmi rock paintings, the largest rock art site in the Nordic countries in Ristiina, Mikkeli, is a unique Saimaa Geopark site. The rock paintings were painted on the face of a sturdy, majestic rock located along a natural waterway. The place exudes peace of nature. The rock resembles the face profile of a sleeping person, like a sleeping giant god, which probably made the rock a sacred cult site. The mystery of Astuvan Ukko, "the old man of Astuva", is enhanced by the strange echo reflecting from the rock cavern when you approach the rock from the lake.
As the meltwaters of the ice sheet packed towards the southeast after the ice age and finally the Vuoksi watercourse opened, the smooth rock face of Astuvansalmi was revealed. The ancient inhabitants of the region painted pictures on its surface using strong red mullet that symbolises life. They were able to reach the rock face either from a boat or by standing on ice in winter. As the level of Lake Saimaa dropped by several metres over the millennia, the figures were painted at different heights.
The oldest paintings on the cliff face of Astuvansalmi are about 4500–6000 years old. Altogether about 80 paintings include mythical figures of moose, humans as well as paw and palm prints. It is assumed that the figures represent our ancestors' life, relationship with nature as well as their worldview. The figure of Astuvan Samaani, "Shaman of Astuva", a horned human figure, as well as Astuvan Vene, "Boat of Astuva" represent the connection with the spirits of nature and the afterlife.
There is also one completely unique figure among the paintings: Astuvan Artemis, "Artemis of Astuva" which looks like a female standing with a bow in her hand. Only four female figures have been found among the Finnish rock paintings two of which in Astuvansalmi, one of them the Artemis of Astuva. It has been speculated that the Artemis of Astuva represents an elf of the forest or of an animal species, or a spirit associated with fertility.
Divers have also found ancient amber jewellery at the bottom of the lake in front of the Astuvansalmi cliff. One of the jewels is a pendant resembling the human face of the Astuvansalmi rock.
These figures are unique to Astuvansalmi rock paintings: Astuvan Artemis (Artemis of Astuva), Astuvan Ukko ("Old man" of Astuva), Astuvan Samaani (Shaman of Astuva), Astuvan vene (Boat of Astuva), Astuvan kämmen (Palm of Astuva) and Astuvan hirvi (Moose of Astuva)
Yövesi, "Night water", in Saimaa has been an important waterway for thousands of years. On the opposite shore of Astuva island, accross Salonselkä, is Himalansaari island on which our ancestors dwelled thousands of years ago. Due to its height, the island was also one of the only possible places to live when the water level was high after the ice age. Himalansaari island was a busy village along the inland waterway right until the early 20th century.
The village and county of Ristiina situated on the shore of Yövesi was a significant parish in the Middle Ages. In 1649, Peter Brahe, a Swedish statesman, Count and Governor-General of Finland, separated Ristiina as an independent parish and made it the center of government of his fief. Ristiina was named after Per Brahe's wife Kristiina, and in time, the initial K was dropped from the name.
Brahe built the Brahelinna castle mansion as the center of administration in the village of Pyrhölä on the Linnanmäki ridge. The building fell into disrepair during the Greater Wrath, and today, only part of the foundation and the ruins of the wall that surrounded the main building remain on the site. The ruins of Brahelinna are a Saimaa Geopark site.
Between 1777 and 1779, a new Brahelinna mansion was built in the center of Ristiina. The building housed the first cadet school in Finland headed by Count Georg Magnus Sprengtporten.
Per Brahe also built the first church in the area in the 1650s. The current church of Ristiina was built in its place in 1775. In the church, you can see the authentic portraits of Per and Kristiina Brahe originating from the 1600s.
Yövesi is the most wonderful resort area. One of the most famous holidaymakers in the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s was Emil Nestor Setälä, professor of Finnish language and literature, and politician.
In 1896, Setälä built a beautiful national romantic style villa in Kallioniemi, Ristiina, along the Louhivesi–Someenjärvi–Yövesi waterway. Setälä spent summers in Kallioniemi with his family and invited also many of his contemporaries, such as the famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, to enjoy their summer holidays there.
Kallioniemi is one of the most famous and charming villas in the region, from which a beautiful waterway leads to Astuvansalmi rock paintings.
It was here in his villa that Setälä is said to have written Finland's Declaration of Independence on November 30, 1917.
The Pien-Toijola Open-Air Museum in Ristiina is a rare cultural environment where you can take a journey to the rural life in the 1800s. The oldest buildings date back to the 18th century and the estate has been owned by the same family since 1672.
All 28 buildings of the estate are in their original locations and you can find a rich collection of nearly 900 original farm tools and items inside the sheds and other buildings.
Pien-Toijola has been selected as one of the nation's significant built cultural environments and it is one of Saimaa Geopark natural and cultural sites.
Lake Yövesi with more than 360 islands is about 27 km long and 10 km at the widest. The ice sheet shaped the landscape in the direction from northwest to southeast and the meltwaters filled the depths of the lake. In the southeast, Yövesi connects to the larger lake basin of Great Saimaa.
For travellers, the islands, straits and canals offer facinating waterways to explore. You can get to Louhivesi from Yövesi via the canals of Nikinsalmi or Kirkkotaipale and with a small boat or canoe, via the beautiful Vuoltee canal.
Ristiina Rock Art Centre, Finland's only information and visitor centre specialising in rock art, will be established in the premises of the historical cadet school in Ristiina.