A Travellerspoint blog


Hiking to the Arctic Circle in search of Santa - Finland

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 %ยค#"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.

Posted by TheWandera 12:39 Archived in Finland Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Happening Helsinki!

Fun and fungus in Finland

It has been great to 'hit the ground running', though in this case it's been more like hitting the ground walking...and walking!
The first afternoon of my arrival - Saturday, I stuffed a little map in my back pocket and headed off walking and exploring Helsinki. I headed down the street I am staying on until I got to the waterfront and followed the waterfront for many kilometers, in and out of harbours, as the bays weaved around the city. Helsinki is on a penninsula surrounded by an archipelago, so waterfrontage is not in short supply. I discovered many intersting things and got a nice feel from this city. Perhaps it was because I found a garden full of tulips, my favourite flowers or perhaps it was because the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
'Architecture in Helsinki' is the unusual name for an Australian band, and it was they who inspired me to check out Helsinki and it's architecture. What a treat it's been. Food and photography, not architecture are passions of mine, but here in Helsinki, I have really enjoyed the variety of buildings around the city centre.
On arrival in Helsinki, I had a special moment at the central station in the city centre. I was exhausted, after a 24+ hour flights from Perth, having caught my airport bus into town, but yet to locate my accommodation. As I stood there with my backpack, I reflected that this trip, so long in the research and planning, was actually happening and here I was in FINLAND with nothing but my backpack for the next 3 months. I had a sense of freedom and exhilaration as I looked forward to the adventures that will unfold over these coming months and carrying only a backpack of goodies, I was reminded how little we really need to get by, despite the quantities of possessions we often think of as necessary. I asked a passerby to take my picture there at the station, and they ran off with my camera! Just kidding!
My accommodation is fantastic. Right in the city centre, everything is just a short walk away. As a bonus they bring me breakfast to my room.
Wandering around Helsinki that first afternoon, the sun was shining and Finns were out and about enjoying some of their first rays of sunshine in awhile I'm told. After wandering for several kilometres, I took the hint and stopped at a waterside cafe for a coffee and my first Finnish 'meal', a smoked salmon on rye roll. How Scandinavian is that? Scandinavians do make the best rye bread.
I continued exploring the city on foot and discovered all sorts of things, one of the most memorable being the Russian Orthodox cathederal. Amazing architecture and artwork, but it was the 4 person choir singing mass that had me stuck respectfully to my seat as I listened in quiet appreciation to their voices. No photos allowed, this experience is in my memory only.

Sunday - Thought I'd start with an 'official' bus tour of the city to get a feel for things. Turns out I did a pretty good job of it yesterday on foot. Many of the places were repeated, only this time I knew what they were.
After a lunch of pickled herrings on rye, I caught a ferry to a centuries-old island fortress not far from the city centre. It's called Suomenlinna and is UNESCO heritage listed. The island is chock-full of battlements and all sorts of intersting nooks and crannies to explore. I took many photos once the weather behaved. Weather? It started the day cloudy, then chilled right off, went really grey and actually snowed! That elusive snow you can see falling, but everything is just that little bit too warm for it to settle anywhere. An hour later the clouds cleared, the sun came out, and I had a pleasant afternoon exploring Suomenlinna. I had wanted to rest my feet after yesterday but I have now walked in excess on 20 kilometres in two days!

Monday - time to relax a little and enjoy being on holidays. I explored the city centre some more, and then later in the afternoon I had a pleasant time sipping beers in the sun outside a bar in the central square watching the world (or at least Helsinki) go by. The sun was warm, the beer was cold and I was happy! As I sat basking in the sun, I wondered if perhaps just a part of me is reptilian? But unlike a lizard, I got more lethargic the longer I sat.
Tonight I had a very special dinner. A huge steak of dill-rubbed smoked salmon, served with baby pototoes in mango chilli creme fraiche, with fresh Italian fennel sauteed in butter, on the side. Fine dining? Yep! It was my favourite restaurant. I had access to a kitchen, so, inspired by the local produce in the markets (I love fresh food markets!), I cooked a gourmet meal for one. Unique meal, happy customer and the price was good too.

On Tuesday I did a day trip to Porvoo, a town near Helsinki that claims to be the 'second-oldest town in Finland'. (I still can't find out which is the oldest!) I travelled there by boat, giving me an enjoyable three and a half hour journey through the Finnish archipelago surrounding Helsinki. Bridges across narrow channels between islands swung to let us past, and people's cottages on forested islands were some of the sights that drifted lazily by our slow boat. The sun was shining and I warmed myself on the top deck of the small boat reading my book. I stopped for a moment and thought, 'for someone on holiday who runs around a lot and checks out as much as he can, I sure do still find time to relax.' A little slower pace than usual for me, this trip has been a happy blend of both so far.
On arrival in Porvoo in the early afternoon, I was starving and set out in search of food. I passed a few places selling pizza and the like, but despite being in Scandinavia, I had this silly idea in my head, "I'd LOVE a Thai meal." As if it was meant to be, before I could say, "Died and gone to heaven." There I was sitting in the sun with a delicious Thai meal in front of me, beautiful Scandinavian women around me, Perth-like weather sunning me, and a cold beer in my hand. The 4 things I know are in heaven. I had to pinch myself to check I wasn't there already. Seems I'm still alive, but I do have a silly grin.
Bad timing moment - Amazing that for a town so old, the five-centuries-old church burnt down only yesterday! (It smelled like smoked salmon, only without the fish smell.) If they'd let me know I would have visited the day before! All the Finns are a bit upset. Seems they liked their old church. They are on the hunt for an arsonist, so perhaps it's good to have an alibi, as I was in Helsinki. Living up to my blog name of TheWandera, I enjoyed a pleasant afternoon exploring - wandering around Porvoo with no map, just a sense of wonder about what might be in the next street or around the next corner. I also wondered if people from Porvoo are called Porvooians, or Poos?? Steep cobbled streets and old buildings around a centerpiece of riverfrontage, make this a nice place to spend a few hours.
Tonight I had a fun evening that only travel and learning another language can bring. In the common room back at my digs, I conversed until late with a Spanish girl. Her English was as bad as my Spanish, but together we had some fun, coaching each other as we went. We switched seamlessly from one language to the other when one of us got stuck on a word. Once I got into it, I was surprised how much Spanish I remembered from South America in 2004 and Elisa and I had a fun time that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Recordo mucho Espanole.

Wednesday - my last full day in Helsinki. Wanting to purchase some food to cook myself a meal at dinner tonight, I went to the fresh produce markets by the harbour waterfornt in the middle of Helsinki. On a mission, I wandered around inspecting foods like a French lady at the Paris markets, only I'm not French, or a lady and I'm in Helsinki, but you get the idea.
On my first afternoon in Helsinki I'd bought a chunk of smoked cod for an afternoon snack from a fishmonger in the market.Over the following days, I had wandered past his stall several times and bought things to taste, or just looked, and he'd fed me all sorts of flavoursome goodies. Today he sold me some fresh salmon, then rubbed it with fresh dill and rock salt. Mmm! In addition to the range of spring vegetables, the vegie stalls were all selling a wild Finnish fungus called "False Morels". I should have heeded the warning labels on the display, but curiosity got the better of me, and armed with elaborate cooking instructions so as not to poison myself, I purchased some False Morel mushrooms to go with dinner. New season asparagus and marble-sized potatoes finished my shopping, which I then stashed back at my accommodation.
Today it is time to explore this city a different way, and again, let's not be a cliche tourist. Let's go "tram-hopping" - a Malcolm speciality. I bought an all-day ticket and during the course of the day, travelled every metre of Helsinki's seven tram lines. For no extra charge, I experienced my first ever tram smash. The tram's horn was followed by a satisfying 'crunch' as many thousands of Euros damage was done to the front end of a BMW that thought it could beat us. Everyone knows it was Socrates who said, "He who fights with a tram, usually end up second best."
I travelled to the suburbs of Helsinki right to the end of each tram line, getting off any time I saw something that piqued my interest. Wow! I certainly found things that aren't in the tourist guides. Quaint housing groups, suburban statues and quiet waterside parks all to myself. The best though, came last. I noticed some little garden plots with very tiny houses on them. Upmarket slums? I decided this warranted further investigation, and did. Beautifully manicured gardens but such small dwellings? People were on the plots and I got chatting with someone, as I do. Turns out these are places people come to to garden, but not live. The litte houses are stayed in occasionally but that is not their purpose. They don't get tourists, so I was a novelty for them. I was intorduced to a lady who showed me their 'museum' an original cottage from 1930, then she took me to her cottage and showed me around it and her garden. She was justifiably proud of it and we conversed as two people with a shared passion for gardening. As for her cottage, it could have come straight out of a Vogue Living mag and turns out she is the editor-in-chief for Finland's equivalent. For me, it was one of those special travel moments that I get because I follow my curiosity instead of a guide book. I jumped back on the tram and continued to explore Helsinki.
The salmon had just started to cure and dinner was absolutely delicious. I thanked the chef personally for a job well done.
I'm still getting used to the light in these northern latitudes. The sun doesn't set until after 10 and it only gets twilight dark for an hour or so before getting light again. Wandering the city late at 'night' in sunlight is a strange sensation. Sleeping? I have my trusty eye mask at the ready.
The light however was not the reason I awoke in the small hours of Thursday morning. The abdominal cramps and pains warned me all was not well inside. Before long I'd lost weight the quick way.
How about this as a promotion line for selling False Morel mushrooms - "Cheaper than Jenny Craig and quicker too". Or perhaps, "False Morels - tastier than a suppository!" I'm not sure which part of the cooking process I got wrong, but I think I will stick to the real Morels in future, not these false ones.

Is that a metal staircase or a broken escalator?

The Gastronomic Gallivanter is off and galloping! Tasting anything that comes my way is one of my favourite things about travelling. Some of the fun foods I have tried already include:
-smoked cod
-pickled herring in mustard sauce
-cured salmon gravadlax
-crispy fried bluebait
-cold barbecued sardines, crunchy but tasty
-pickled herrings in creme fraiche on rye bread
-smoked beef tongue
-smoked salmon
-fresh salmon
-reindeer - sorry kiddies, behave, or Santa's next! (I AM going near the North Pole and I figure a red suit will stand out against a while background. There's only so many places he can hide).

Helsinki with its wide cobbled streets is a people-friendly city, and a city of friendly people.

I've had a great time here, but that's Helsinki for me for now. I will stay here again for one night on my way travelling from Russia to Sweden by train, but that will be a story for another day and another blog.

Keep smiling.

I am off to Estonia next................by helicopter.

Posted by TheWandera 23:45 Archived in Finland Comments (2)

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