Luxury in the land of the Midnight Sun. Does it EVER get dark? NO!
I left you last as I caught the train from St Petersburg, Russia to Helsinki, Finland.
They call the train 'Rapin'. If you think it sounds like 'Rapid', think again. This is a Russian train and the journey was anything but rapid. In comparison, to the journey from Estonia to Russia, this journey was much more scenic with green fields, forests and colourful houses, unlike the grey Soviet/Estonian ones.
I had a window seat and there were 5 international travellers in our compartment. (One Aussie - me, one Icelandic, two Seppos and a young Russian guy who spoke great English, and told us a thing or two about Russia and St Petersburg that we wouldn't have known otherwise.) We had interesting conversations on our way to Helsinki and the books we had ready weren't needed.
Breakfast was served on the train and in true Russian style and so as not to disappoint, They served beer with breakfast!
Gotta love those Russians and their unashamed embrace of alcohol. If you are awake why aren't you drinking?
Arriving in Helsinki main train station on the Russian train it was amazing to see the difference between the working museum piece we had travelled on incongrous amongst the modern Finnish trains also parked at the same station.
Back to Helsinki a city I spent some time in only a week ago. I dropped my bags back at my room, right near the city centre, and then spent awhile at the central train station booking my trip to Sweden. When you have to connect 3 trains, 2 buses and another 2 trains to get where you want, each little change in plans has a cascading effect. Then one of the buses you need runs every day EXCEPT the day you want! Gotta love Murphy! The travellers friend. I did get it all booked and headed back outside. It was then that I realised that just because the sun is out does not mean it is warm.
Why am I the only person in shorts and a t-shirt?
I popped back to my room for more layers, then headed to Kiasma, Helsinki's museum of contemporary art. If the Hermitage in St Petersburg is all about beautiful art, Kiasma is more about art that challenges your way of thinking, or perhaps for me some of the displays were just the artist's self expression, whether anyone else 'got it' or not.
I was reminded of a whole unit of study during my Certificat of Photograpy that was called "What is art?" Of course, there is no real definition, but it challenged us to think about that, and so did Kiasma. The contrast to the Hermitage was what I needed and there were pieces that were inspiring in their own way. A favourite installation, and the one I returned to, until they were closing and kicked me out, (I see a pattern here) was a video of the "Helsinki Complaints Choir".
The composer took a list of complaints from the people of Helsinki and composed a beautiful song with them. Then got 100 people to rehearse the piece and sing it in various locations around Helsinki. What a crack-up. The gripes ranged from the universal, "Why are vacuum cleaner cords so short?", to the uniquiely Helsinkian, "Why did our ancestors choose such a cold place to live?" To hear these complaints sung with such enthusiasm and joy took all the 'complaint' out of them and it had me laughing in many places. (It was song in Finnish but subtitled in English.)
If you can laugh at the niggles in your life perhaps you are on the way to real happiness?
I like Helsinki and despite being the world's second-most northen capital and one of the coldest, I like it a lot. Perhaps they should call it Heavensinki instead? I think so.
I must admit though, the cobble-stoned streets make me glad I didn't bring my high heeled shoes.
Let's go on a long-distance train journey north to Rovaneimi, the capital of Lappland. Yeah! Let's! Midnight Sun? Count me in!
I could have flown for less money, but that's not the point.
At 10am, parked by a window seat, I settled in for 10 hours of Finnish country-side passing by.
Some of my best travel experiences have been long distance train rides and I think that trains are a great way to travel.
This journey nearly 1000km north offered a countryside rich with birch forests and wheat fields studded with barns and farmhouses. They were all postcard-perfect red wooden buildings with white trimmed gables and window frames. We also passed many lakes, including some with white swans. Apparently Finland has 187,888 lakes. I think the person who was paid to count them, made up the number and took off with the money, knowing no one would really know, or bother to check.
Have YOU ever counted to see that Kleenex really give you 500 tissues in that box? Or 1000 sheets of toilet paper? Thought not.
Unlike the boring monotonousness of a plane, 10 hours on a train passes by quite quickly. In addition to appreciating the passing views, which were the majority of my time, I had a good book, some Sodokus(thanks mum), meal and beer in the dining car, and there's always looking out the window and daydreaming.
Those who only dream at night don't know what they're missing.
Arriving in Rovaneimi (pronounced rover-near-me) I caught a cab to the Hotel Santa Claus, my luxury **** abode for the next two nights. I'd pondered on the train why most hotels don't have baths, when guests have more time than usual to sit and soak. Hmmm!
Bingo! Santa Claus answered my wish and there was a lovely big bath just waiting to be filled, which was the first thing I did! I enjoyed that bath a lot.
The second thing it did was refill it and use it to wash all my clothes! (They have a hotel laundry service Mon-Fri = no use to me.) How good is a big bath for a bit of hand washing? Very good and the heated towel racks were even better for drying everything on. Priorities sorted, dinner and drinkie-poos followed.
Bonus! Dinner came with salad buffet. After Estonia and Russia with their dearth of any fruit and vegetables, I wasn't sure if it is a cold or scurvy I am coming down with.
Small world moment - the first person I got talking to in the hotel bar was an Aussie from Perth, from the next suburb to me! She's staying a the Hostel Rudolf next door!
I had a fun night out on the town and went to a few places and met some nice people. Midnight sun at the Arctic Circle? It does your head in when you are changing bars at midnight, and it is still fully daylight!
WOW! I've seen a few hotel breakfast buffets, but this one is the best ever! Sides of cold cooked salmon, fresh berries, MYO waffles. If you could wish for it - it was there.
Cheesey town? Santa's Village. Santa's Cave. Santa's School and Santa Park. There's even Santa Lotto downtown.
Yep! This town has taken over ownership of the fellow with the red suit a beard and made a tourist industry out of it. Not minding the odd bit of tourist cheese, this town promised some and had served it up in droves. Santa peeks out at you from every street sign and shop name and it was then that I realised that this town has sold their soul to Santa. I wonder if they realise santa is an anagram of Satan!
Today I hiked to the Arctic Circle.
Buffet conquered, I went wandering, as I do. The river was close and that was fortunate because it was not so scenic that I would have walked any distance for. I was looking for the 3 places in town that rent bikes so I could ride to the Artic Circle, 8 kms away.
What's wrong with this place! It's a 'tourist town', but they haven't worked out that tourists are on holidays and therefore weekends are irrelevant. All three of the hiring options were only open Monday to Friday, like almost everything else in this place! It's gone to sleep.
The bike option unavailable, I took Shank's pony and hiked the 8 km from Rovaneimi to the Arctic Circle. The path was pleasant and passed through birch and conifer forests and birds chirped in the trees. Let's work off this cold!
Today I shot a reindeer.
Yep! I knew I was carrying all that camera gear for a reason and my long lens came in handy for this assignment.
It was a nice long walk and no one else was around....until some geriatrics came barrelling down the cyclepath in their campervan! That's why, in Australia, we have bollards blocking cyclepaths! Keeps the idoits on the road!
The Arctic Circle has been commercialised. There's a shopping village and all sorts of touristy stuff including Santa's Post Office. Hungry from my walk, I had an 'Arctic Burger'. Not surprisingly, the lettuce was iceberg! :-)
Santa is here if you want your photo taken, but I reckon he's from the same school of imposters that fill shopping centres at Christmas, least he looked the same. Plus, despite Rovaneimi's claim on the man with the red suit, we all know that Santa is at the North Pole. I am going very close to there later in this trip,(See first blog 'departure chat' for my itinerary.) so I will report back about the REAL Santa.
I discovered something about the Arctic Circle that I never knew. I'd seen it on maps as a dotted line, but now I have been there I know that it is actually a solid line with *Arctic Circle' written in it. Amazing but true! I have the photo of me standing over it to prove it.
Photos taken I needed to head back to Rovaneimi to see Artikum, the Lappland museum before it closed, but if I walked I would not have time. Ah! Ha! I have not hitch-hiked since doing it through Europe and Africa in 1992-1994 and this time reminded me of the emotions you go through. Frustration as motorists who could give you a life don't, despair, "WIll I ever get a lift?" and elation as not only does someone stop, they go out of their way to drop you at your destination. I spent 2 hours at the museum until they closed. Very interesting and I'm learning so much trivia that I am expecting all of you to invite me to your next quiz night table.
On leaving at 6, the sun was as high and warm as it gets around here. I took a hint from the locals and sat and sunned myself while drinking a couple of beers.
Dinner tonight was at the restaurant recommended by some people I met last night. I had a Lappland tasting plate, the highlights of which were cold smoked reindeer and smoked reindeer tongue.
I DO have a cold which is not surprising, but nonetheless an unwelcome annoyance. Today I travel to Sweden. I will take a train, 2 busses, and two more trains to reach my friends in Arboga west of Stockholm.
Dodgey bus connections aside, I am now in Lulea as I write this to you. Where is Lulea? It is in far north Sweden, at the top of the gulf of Bothnia. It is an important shipping port and icebreakers keeps the lanes free in the many months of the year that this place is %¤#"ing cold! But today is not one of those days. I have 6 hours here before my night train to Stockholm. I stashed my pack and, armed with a map from the info office, I wandered! would you expect less of me? There was a path that meandered through the parks along the coastline and I could not believe my eyes. The Swedes were out in drove in bikinis sunning themselves on the grass by the waters edge, or just out for a jog or a bike ride. Swedish babes in bikinis?
WOW! I am liking Sweden already!
I tell you the 8 km walk was for the exercise, but I'll let you decide that one.
Two 8 km walks in two days. Time for me to spend tonight and tomorrow on trains. I am in for a 16 hour journey as of 9 pm tonight.
Sweden - here I come!
Finland is a country full of Finns and I am finished with Finland.