Finland: May 31st

I’m at the airport. I’m at my gate. It’s 2:31 and the flight is at 4 so I’m pretty comfortable that I’ve made it in time and I’ve had lunch on the other side of passport control and bought korvpuustia.

I got up, did my packing, returned my bottles to K-Market and used the euro I got for them to buy some more cheese for today’s lunch. It’s not as good as the cheese I had last time.Then I took my luggage to the lockers under the station and went out in Helsinki. I wanted to go down to the harbour, walk around the island and see the icebreakers. They’re very impressive. Finland claims to have built 60% of all the icebreakers in the world and to have designed 80% of them. It was breezy but there was a little bit of park opposite the big ships which was fairly shaded and that was nice for a while. Then I sat outside Allas again. Bit more souvenir shopping, found the big food hall, sat on the sculptural thing and looked at the harbour from that side and then decided it was breezy and chilly and time to find something else to do. I’d considered Seurasaari but Google Maps said it would take about 45 minutes to get there and with only three hours, it didn’t feel worth it. I took the tram back to Lasipalatsi and went in the Forum centre to look at – and not buy – anything Moomin-related, then I went downstairs to McDonalds and had a small chips partly because I fancied some and partly as a reason to drink the entire bottle of Fanta I kind of wished I hadn’t bought last night. Then I reclaimed my luggage, found the I train and came to the airport. I’ve done the rest – security, lunch, korvapuustia, gate.

I’ve made two studies while I’ve been here. The first is of Marimekko. I conclude that the clothes aren’t worn that much, not by people who are out and about in the city centre anyway, but lots and lots of people have the bags. Lots of them are plain black bags with the name all over the strap. Lots of them are more tote bag-shaped, with the name written all over them. I’ve seen a few in the colourful patterns but they’re definintely in the minority.

The second, obviously, is of the language. I’ve not done a lot of speaking Finnish – I’m still not big on speaking at all – and I tend to panic when faced with Finnish, even though I’m quite capable of asking “Anteeksi, puhutteko te englantia?”. But I can pick out words I recognise and occasionally that’s enough to figure out roughly what’s being said. At least, I caught enough words when the plane landed to realise that they were talking about the local time and temperature. I can read a little bit as well. Not books or magazines but signs and the sides of buses and so on. If I was going to say it out loud, I can put together little sentences about what I’m doing. That’s all I really wanted from Finnish, to get to the point where I can see something other than vowels, double letters and umlauts. The Swedish still makes more sense than the Finnish but I’ve been trying to make an effort to ignore the Swedish and pay attention to the Finnish.

Moi moi. Se on ohi. Tee se uudelleen!

Finland: 30th May

I started today with a tiny revelation: the easiest way to get to Lidl for my fresh breakfast bread is to walk down the road and along instead of up the road and along as the bottom end of the road is flat. Then I wanted to cross some more things off my to-do list.

First, Uspensi Cathedral. The 7 tram takes me directly from just up the road to Senate Square and then it’s a short walk across to the cathedral. This one was more what I expected. It’s small, both cathedrals are very small, but it was decorated more or less how I’d expected. Lots of saints, lots of lettering, lots of patterns and colour. Then I walked back up to the nearest tram stop and took the 4 north to the Church in the Rock. I knew it was out of the city centre but I hadn’t realised it’s only three or four stops from the central station. It’s not exactly in a cave, as some places would have you believe. There’s a big dome of rock in the middle of a square with Art Deco apartment blocks on each side and the church has been dug out of that, with a big copper dome over the top held up by concrete supports. Yes, it’s in the rock but effectively – at least as far as the rock is concerned – it’s entirely open at the top.

I took the tram back to town for a little souvenir shopping, mostly for postcards and stickers for my scrapbook although I also invested in a sauna cover of my very own. Then I walked down Esplanade and stopped in the park for an ice cream. When I’d eaten that, I continued down towards the harbour where there were boats doing sightseeing tours. Well, that was on my list so I got on the first one, a city tour leaving at 1.30. The inside was pretty much full but there were only two or three people sitting outside on the top deck and the ladies who were selling tickets assured us that the clouds were disappearing and they had blankets. I claimed a blanket before I’d even picked a seat and was glad I had it. It was chilly on the water, even before we set off, and we hadn’t left the harbour area before it started to rain. Well, I’d say “‘drizzle”‘ but the few raindrops were the big heavy kind. Not enough for those of us on deck to take cover but enough for us to pull the blankets over our heads. By the time we’d made our way out past Sirpalesaari and seen Loyly in the distance, the rain had stopped and we could feel the warm sun again. We went past Suomenlinna, under the new bridge and past Laajasalo and Kulosaari and then did a big circle around Mustikkamaa, the leafy island where most of the embassies live, past Korkeasaari and round to Katajanokka. From Korkeasaari yesterday I’d seen a fleet of large ferries moored off Katajanokka and wondered about them. Now I discovered they’re actually Finland’s icebreakers, who don’t have a lot to do this time of year. As we headed back into the harbour, a freezing wind came up. I wished I had another blanket. Ten more blankets. Funny how the temperature skyrockets when you’re back on dry land.

I walked home (I hadn’t measured any walking today and needed my 2km) to finish off my bread and butter, dump my shopping and pick up my jacket ready for that trip to Suomenlinna I keep saying I’ll do. This was helped immensely by the walk back from the harbour only being 1.9km. I needed to go out to do my extra mileage! So at last I made it to Suomenlinna for a proper late afternoon/evening there, without the worry about the wind warning or the giant threatening cloud. I sketched the swimming bay, ate a korvapuusti I bought yesterday, panicked that the Tallinn/Stockholm ferry was going to plough into the island at speed, finally found the King’s Gate, discovered that Strava didn’t record my walk around the island properly and finally got the 8.40 ferry back. Then it’s five or ten minutes up the road to the tram stop, ten minutes for the tram to arrive and it delivered me to the top of the road.

Tomorrow I need to be on the airport train by about 1pm so I’m going to leave my luggage at the station again and decide what to do later.

Finland: 29th May

Breakfast this morning was (slightly stale) baguette left over from last night before going up the road to get the tram to the station where I had to find the 16 bus out to Korkeasaari, which is the island with a zoo on it. First Helsinki bus, discovery that my cardboard five-day ticket has some secret electronics inside it as it makes the ticket reader ping when I hold it against it, and twenty minutes through some very cobbled streets and some open roads only to discover, as I crossed the bridge to Korkeasaari, that the cathedrals are just a couple of hundred metres away. There’s a new bridge being built and I later found a sign explaining all the works: in 2027, they’re planning to open a new light railway which will run along the bottom of this island, connecting it directly to the city centre. I’m not entirely certain why this light railway means Korkeasaari is getting its own tram stop but whatever, it’s going to get easier to get there.

I was expecting something more like an Alpine wildpark, a semi-open place where mostly native animals roamed and the shores of the island were always visible. And there were bits of shore, mostly roped off because of nesting barnacle geese, but it felt a lot like a normal zoo. There was a tiger and three camels and some wallabies (these come under the title kengurut in Finnish) and monkeys and moose-like things and yak-like things and everything you’d expect in a zoo except elephants and giraffes. It’s a labyrinth and between the rocks, the enclosures and the trees, it’s mostly very easy to forget you’re on an island rather than just in a zoo on land as normal.

I didn’t take the bus all the way back to the city centre. I hopped off after about four stops and got the metro back instead. Not because there was any particular reason to, just because it was a method of transport I haven’t used yet. It turned out to be a good idea – I spied some empty seats from the platform and when I went to sit on them, I discovered that some of them were empty because there was an enormous black and tan dog asleep under them. He looked up when a small poodly thing boarded and had a good sniff but stayed down and stayed quiet and when it was out of sight and he’d sniffed enough, he went back to sleep.

Back at the station, I got in a bit of a tangle about finding a tram down to Senatintori, Senate Square. It would have been quicker and easier to walk. Trams leaving from the central station, I think, take a bend around the shopping centre to get to Aleksanterinkatu and so go in the opposite direction to the one I expect. I got there eventually. This is really Helsinki’s main square and it seems the done thing is to sit on the steps up to the cathedral. So I did. It was a warm day (I went out in shorts!) but it’s breezy and apparently the steps are immune to breeze. It’s the warmest place in Helsinki to sit and the stone is warm from the sun as well.

I wanted to go into the cathedrals. The white one is Helsinki’s main Protestant/Lutheran church. It’s a big white confection with corners and domes and gold and it is utterly underwhelming inside. Even St Paul’s isn’t as bare and boring. Oh yes, you can see the inside of the five domes but they’re all sponged in pale blue with no decoration at all. Uspenski Cathedrall, the big red Orthodox one, is closed on Mondays and still apparently the place to have your Helsinki photoshoot. As I walked around it in the hope of figuring out which door is in use, I spied the shop/pier on Korkeasaari through the buildings behind the cathedral. I compared the distance to the distance back to the main station. If you could walk on water, it’s not more than a mile away. Easily walking distance. But you have to go around the edge of the bay and you have to walk through a giant construction site and so taking a bus right out of the city is still the best way to get there.

What else was on my to-do list? The big wheel. That’s just down by the sea. I’d go and see if I could get on. No reason why not – it was going round and with no one on board. Surely SkyWheel couldn’t say “too busy, come back in 45 minutes”? They didn’t. They gave me a ticket – an actual ticket, not a receipt! – and sent me round to the queue, which was the two groups who’d been in front of me at the ticket office. We had our photos taken and I must remember to download my photos, and then I boarded from gate 4.

I had no idea how many times we were going to go round. It seemed to go pretty quickly and I was glad, and not surprised when we went a second time. Not surprised at the third. I was surprised when we went round a fourth time, though. Obviously I had a cabin to myself so I could hop from side to side depending on what I wanted to see. Views over the bay and out to Suomenlinna. Eye-level views of Uspenski. Birds-eye view of Allas Sea Pool. I saw the hot tub down below and finally found the sauna cabin four or five in front of me. I think I’ve had enough sauna but if I was here with a few more people and it was worth the money, I’d definitely go for the sauna/hot tub/SkyWheel package.

By now I was hungry and tired. I wanted some food and I wanted to swap my shorts for trousers so I could go over to Suomenlinna for the evening again. I took the tram up to Stockmann and did a little shopping – ok, I did a little wandering around feeing that this place is too big and too expensive and is full of things I don’t particularly want to buy anyway, but eventually I found the big gourmet supermarket hiding on the minus second floor and stocked up on bread, drink and korvapuustia and came home.

I knew what would happen. I ate my bread, I charged my phone, I changed into my trousers and then I lay down on the bed to wait for the bread to settle down and here I still am. I am never getting up at 2am for a flight again. It just isn’t worth it.

What are tomorrow’s plans? Well, I still have plenty on my to-do list. Uspenski and the Church in the Rock are the main things to cross off. I might go over to Seurasaari but I’ve been there before and with limited time left, I might find another island, or go to that beach, or find another sauna. Can I be bothered with another sauna? Carrying wet swimming things around just to sit in a small room that’s too hot? I know and appreciate that it’s a Finnish tradition but I really prefer the Icelandic tradition of sitting in warm water. That’s virtually unknown here. I wish the nice pool up the road was open because that would be the perfect last-evening thing to do. Maybe I’ll go back to Suomenlinna tomorrow night.

Finland: 28th May

I was quite chuffed last night that I went to bed early thanks to the time difference. It didn’t occur to me until this morning that it worked the other way round in the mornings – when I woke up at just gone 9, that’s 7 in time I’m used to. Going back to sleep wasn’t an option: I had a booking at Loyly at 11:15 and I had to have breafast, get ready and figure out how to get there. I didn’t have much in for breakfast. I had a cup of apple juice while I was getting dressed and I thought I’d walk to the supermarket and get some more ciabatta. It’s a bit of a pain but it’s like living on a campsite, where you walk to the shop and get your fresh bread in the morning. I made it all the way downstairs before I realised it’s Sunday at which point my phone informed me that the K-Market wasn’t open until 10am today. No fresh bread for breakfast. I made do with TUC biscuits and a couple of pieces of chocolate. It’s not breakfast but tomorrow I can fetch my fresh bread for breakfast from the Lidl I’ve discovered literally two streets down the road. If you use the self-service, you have to scan your receipt to open the gate to leave, which is a novelty.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. After my imperfect breakfast, I gathered what I needed, put suncream on my face and walked three streets down the road to the 6 tram which would take me within a four-minute walk of Loyly. Four minutes for a snail, perhaps. I had a better idea after Allas about the Finnish feelings about time so I knew that at 10.45, I’d better entertain myself enjoying the view and the sun on the shore instead of trying to get into the building just yet. Blue sky, sunshine and warmth is such a novelty here for me! From my chosen rock, I could see the sauna side of Loyly’s deck and the famed Baltic swimming spot. It might have been warm and sunny but it was breezy and I suspected there wouldn’t be many swimmers today, not with the sea as rough as that.

Most of the building is actually a restaurant and cafe. The sauna occupies only about a third of it. As yesterday, there are maybe thirty lockers and just enough space for half a dozen people to change at once. On the other side are the showers and the then beyond that is the sauna area. Both saunas – both public saunas, anyway – are massive six-foot metal boxes. You lever the lid off with a foam-insulated handle two feet long and then use a massive ladle to tip water in and again, you feel the temperature shoot up the second the water hits the stones inside.

The second sauna is visible inside, in that you can see the corner squared off where it must be but the door is actually outside. This is the smoke sauna. It didn’t feel any different except that it’s dark – the main sauna has a glass wall and a big glass door but the only glass in this is a single window upstairs on one side. Your eyes so adjust but you can see every single newcomer struggle to figure out where there are seats. The other clue that this is the smoke sauna is that you can occasionally see people with patches of soot on them.

In between saunas, you can use the showers or you can sit in the lounge or you can do as most people do, sit outside on the deck. I did that for a while – sunbathing on the edge of the Baltic! – but I was acutely aware that it was sunny and I was lying in the sun and I’d only put suncream on my face. It occurs to me now that I took it with me, so I could have gone back to the lockers and put some on but at the time I was just vaguely aware that I didn’t want to get burnt by deliberately lying out in the sun.

You get two hours, which is plenty for me. When I was dried and dressed, I went to the restaurant. While I was figuring out how to get into the sauna, I’d spied a huge plate of korvapuustia, Finnish cinnamon rolls . Actually, I spied them in the supermarket yesterday but really wasn’t in the mood for trying something new. Now I was. I took my korvapuusti and my Coke and went out onto the deck, only to decide it was too bright to sit in the sun and find a seat in the shade where I could actually see what I was eating. The korvapuusti was tasty. Very sweet, not overly cinnamonny, a very good idea. Just twice the size I could manage. For future reference, I’ll be carrying around one of the little paper bags I brought my bread rolls in just in case I need to transport half a korvapuusti home again. This time I had to put it in my hat.

I’d spotted the Lidl on my way to the tram this morning so I stopped for fresh rolls for lunch and I’ve been writing this so far while eating those. Then I had a little rest – I got up at 2am yesterday! – which became a longer rest and it was getting on for 5 by the time I packed up my stuff and headed out again. I thought I’d go to Suomenlinna. I watched the ferries going backwards and forwards from the pool yesterday so I knew there was plenty of time. Bonus: the ferries are zone A in Helsinki public transport and therefore are free with my 5-day ticket.

Suomenlinna, which is the Castle of Finland, is a former fortress guarding the bay from invading Swedes/Russians, depending on the year. These days it still seems to be home to a naval training place but a lot of it is mixed open air museum and old buildings turned into cafes. If you’re there betwen about 10am and 5pm, there’s somewhere for a drink and a snack approximately every five minutes across the entire chain of islands. Afterwards, next to nothing, although there’s a kiosk on Susisaari that was still open as I was walking back. After 5pm, it’s quieter than during the day – you’ll still have someone walk in on you every time you think you’ve found a spot to take a selfie undetected but it’s not busy. It’s a nice place to amble, especially the last island, whose name I’ve forgotten. I know it’s a lot of military buildings with turf roofs and cannons pointed out to sea but it looks like Hobbiton and there are ponds and geese in the middle. Unfortunately, Helsinki had a wind warning at the time so it was chilly (well done me for bringing that packable jacket!) and there were threatening-looking black clouds. I nearly turned back and ran for home at the sight of those but when I stopped to look, they seemed to be heading away from Suomenlinna and towards Helsinki so I stayed.

An hour and a half after I boarded the boat back, the sky is so clear and blue that I’m half-tempted to go out again. It’s quarter to nine and I want to go to bed early tonight. I made plans for various places to get fresh bread on the way home but there’s a mini supermarket by the quay on Suomenlinna. I got in, got bread and juice (raspberry, pear, strawberry & lemon) and made it back to the quay before the incoming boat had docked, so I’m sitting at my desk with my orange juice and a plate that I’ll wash up tomorrow. I stayed out longest on the boat. I was still there when we docked and everyone else had retreated inside. It was chilly and my hands were cold from holding the camera out but I can survive a cold breeze for 15 minutes. It was a lot warmer back on the mainland. I walked up to Senate Square and took the 7 tram all the way back to the top of the hll again. So that’s three things crossed off my to-do list plus one I didn’t now existed. Zoo Island tomorrow and I’m hopefully going to squeeze in at least the two cathedrals afterwards and maybe finish the day on the big wheel.

Finland: 27th May

2am is a bad time for an alarm to go off, even to go to Finland. I made it to Heathrow with no problems: well, I made it to the edge of the airport with no problems. A mis-reading of the satnav led me to the gates of the staff car park with no easy way to escape. It’s effectively a slipway off the road that runs around the airport so you can’t just turn round and go back to the traffic lights you shouldn’t have turned right at. Obviously I couldn’t go in and straight to the exit because I’m not staff so there were a few panicked minutes of “What do I do???” before I spied the gap in the bollards between the entrance lane and the exit lane and managed to reverse to it without hitting the handful of incoming cars.

Next problem: got through security just before 5am to find my gate wasn’t announced until 6.30. Excellent. That gives me a leisurely hour and a half for breakfast! But at that time in the morning, there was nothing open except Pret, and they don’t do toast. The pink place with the “Instagrammable Lattes” menu opened but they only had pretty toast, not proper toast. Spuntino’s does proper toast. The internet eventually told me it opens at 5.30 but it didn’t actually open its doors until 5.45 and then I had a second lot of toast and I was still desperately trying to catch my waiter for the bill at 6.27 so I was rushing after all.

I snoozed on the plane until Denmark. Followed the west coast up to Skagen, across to Sweden, all across the south of Sweden, across the Gulf of Bothnia, across lots of tiny scattered islands that actually weren’t the coast of Finland and then we were in Finnish airspace and making our descent. I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed a desceent quite as much as I noticed that one. It felt like a long, controlled dive. Which it is, but usually it’s fairly gradual and you don’t feel it.

Vantaa is a fairly small airport, at least in comparison to a lot of capital cities. There were 21 passport desks and only four open – two for people with real passports and two for the rest of us so that was a bit of a queue (and then she stamped my passport in the back instead of the front!). Lots of food places, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets etc in arrivals. I got some crisps and chocolate for the journey, since breakfast was fairly early and I’d missed lunch. I found the station, which is down at least four floors in an open-fronted lift that just plummets into the abyss (I did it twice, once because I needed to and once because I wanted to film it) and then went down to the platform. I’d planned to get a five day AB ticket but Vantaa is in zone C and it worked out cheaper to get a five day ABC ticket than my planned ticket plus a separate ticket from and then back to the airport. It’s a nice easy train, much easier than figuring out (or checking in advance…) which bus to get.

I sat in the sun outside the central station to eat my little lunch and then, since my room code wasn’t going to be delivered for another two hours, I left my luggage in a locker and walked down to the harbour. There was Allas Sea Pool, sparkling in the sun. I’d considered bringing my swimming things and spending the afternoon in the pool but in the end, it seemed easier not to pull my suitcase apart on the floor of the luggage room at the station and I hadn’t bothered. I did get a ticket for the Flying Cinema, though, since it’s right there. It’s a bit like FlyOver Iceland – a drone film of spectacular scenery and they swing you around in a big chair and spray you with water to make you feel like you’re up close to waterfalls. It’s not quite as good as FlyOver, though. For one thing, just as you’re starting to feel like you’re zooming across a landscape, it abruptly changes. The movement is sometimes jerky and it really felt like it was struggling up one mountain. And FlyOver lifts you up so your feet are off the ground and you’re sitting above a huge concave screen that fills your entire vision, whereas Flying Cinema leaves your feet on the floor, the screen is the usual big rectangle and you have to wear 3D glasses to feel like you’re in it, which is awkward for those of us with glasses. But it was a good way to fill 15 minutes and I do recommend it.

I checked my phone when I came out and I had my message from the hotel. Room code! So I walked back to the station, retrieved my luggage and walked up to the accommodation, not helped by my phone refusing to use the mobile data. The map that I followed halfway there abruptly decided it wasn’t going to work so that was good. I knew by that point that I had to walk up the top of the hill, turn down that road that I can see from here and it’s a street or two down on the right and I soon came across the street sign so I knew I was in the right place.

Once I was in and could be bothered, I went out for some real food. The tiny supermarket across the road didn’t have anything except too many people so I put the chocolate and the basket back and went to the big one up the road, which is indeed big and laid out bewilderingly. I got everything I needed eventually. Finland is big on “tummaa leipa” which is dark rye bread and anything else is hard to find but there are ciabatta rolls which go nicely with the butter I found. You have to weigh them and print the label for them so thank you to the people I witnessed doing that.

When I’d eaten, I decided to go to Allas for the evening. It was still sunny and warm. I got down there, queued in the shop to be told (at 7pm) that they were full and only had slots for 7.45. Pool closes as 9, which means they lock the door. You have to be out by 8.40, so I’d only get an hour instead of the three hours you usually get. Fine. I went back to the rooftop bar to look at it while I waited. This is full? I have had baths that are more crowded! No one in the sea pool, two people in the kids’ pool and maybe eight people in the geothermal pool. No one sunning themselves on the decking anymore. Unless the saunas were packed like sardines, Allas has a very odd idea of “full”.

I understood a little better when I finally got in. They’re very short on changing space and lockers. That’s definitely something they need to improve because if a dozen, maybe a couple of dozen, people on a sunny Saturday afternoon constitutes “‘so full we’ve closed our ticket office”, that’s a problem. This is a glorious geothermal pool right in the heart of the capital of the country that invented sauna. This place should be heaving! The Blue Lagoon would laugh in their faces.

They could learn a lot from the Blue Lagoon. I didn’t even try the cold sea pool. The kids’ pool was lukewarm, which is cold when you’re on the edge of the Baltic in a swimming costume. The geothermal pool was better but I’d expect heat, not warmth. It was warm enough to drift back and forth as the sun went down but definitely not the “‘geothermal heated pool” I’d expected. The sauna was quite pleasant and definitely warmed me up quickly, after scurrying the entire length of the decking back to it.

I didn’t stay for the full hour. It was about 8.35 by the time I decided the sauna was getting too hot. I got changed, I walked back to Senate Square and took the tram back to the top of the hill above the little tree-filled square opposite my hotel and when I’d hung everything up and eaten some chocolate, I went to bed. It was only about 10.30 when I turned off the light but that’s 8.30 at home and that’s a good thing after getting up at 2am.

Sunday 18th: Frankfurt day 6 (Wiesbaden)

Yesterday I bought my ticket for Wiesbaden (technically a day pass for an extended zone of the local public transport) and so today I went to Wiesbaden. I took the S1 and it was a pleasant journey – not too busy and a lot of winter wonderland scenery along the way, although there was a lot of ugly industrial stuff too. Some nice fences, blue ombré and then green layer on.

I’d checked the Therme situation and the big famous one is closed to save energy. The other is open but its bubble bench and whirlpool are closed because it’s proving impossible to get replacement parts for them. But there’s an indoor pool and an outdoor pool and I thought I’d go for it.

I could have taken a bus because it’s three and a half kilometres from the Hbf but I wasn’t sure which bus or whether my day ticket was valid and anyway, I needed my 2km so I walked. I’m glad I did – once I was across the busy main road it was pretty much parks all the way, all white and frozen, with frozen lakes and weird unfamiliar geese. It took 55m to walk up to the Therme and I decided the walk alone had been worth coming here. Frankfurt is very nice but I haven’t had much opportunity to roam in crunchy snow in parks.

And the Therme! I saw it billowing steam from the other end of the park. There’s an indoor area linked to an outdoor area. The indoor one is mostly full of children and then you swim outside and it’s all green water and steam and half-frozen gardens and it was amazing. I did have to keep going back inside to defrost my nose but it was wonderful. Very worth the trip and the walk.

I came back through town. Not much in the way of Christmas market here but also, it was Sunday afternoon and the town was closed. I was delighted to discover my hair had frozen – frozen far more stiffly than it did that time in Longyearbyen. I don’t think Germany is colder than the High Arctic but it was a longer walk back to the station than it had been from the pool to the hotel in Svalbard. I detoured to see the current hot spring. It’s inside a fake stone building, locked away behind a chipboard door but there are manholes nearby and those are steaming adequately.

Now I’m on the S8 home. I looked up the timetable: 56 minutes back to Frankfurt Hbf so I thought I’d use the free wifi to write today’s blog.

Saturday 17th: Frankfurt day five

I went out pretty early this morning. The market was calling and it turned out there was a lot I hadn’t found, including the Pink Market. It’s pretty pink but it’s not so much a market as a square full of places to eat and drink – absolutely dead at 10.30am. Further on was the Red Market – or that was how I translated it. Nothing particularly red about it. The Pink Market was very pink. The Red Market was also dead at that hour but there was a Lindt shop behind it so I invested in some Lindor.

Then I went home to drop off my shopping and fetch my swimming stuff. If I was in Iceland I’d have been to the pool every day. Now I knew how it all worked. On the other hand, it’s Saturday so a lot more children. I knew they’d turned the temperature down 2 degrees but today I could feel it and I wasn’t entirely unhappy to get out. I took the tram route up and back – much quicker and quieter than the long journey on the U1.

I came home and warmed up in a hot shower, had some food, wrote yesterday’s blog etc and then went back to the market. I’ve seen it all and you can’t see anything in the evening because it’s just too busy but it calls me and so I went. Had a wander and a shove, a cup of hot chocolate, got a glimpse of fireworks which turned the misty sky bright red and came home. There was a concert on the roof overlooking Römerberg.

On the way back I discovered Wiesbaden is on Frankfurt’s S-bahn. So I bought a day ticket for tomorrow so I guess I’m going there, whether I swim or not.

Now I’m catching up on blogs and watching Netflix.

Friday 16th: Frankfurt day 4 (Cologne)

Today is Saturday but I haven’t written yesterday’s blog yet.

I woke up quite early, had my breakfast and was out not long after 9. I went to the station because I wanted to go to Cologne. Why didn’t I come here when Germany still had the 9 euro train tickets thing? Well, the cheapest way to get to Cologne was on a few haystack trains which would take three and a half hours each way. Not worth the effort. The second cheapest way was to book specific and non-flexible tickets. The 10:09 out and the 18:18 back.

The 10:09 was delayed but only by about seven minutes. It was packed until the airport and then a lot quieter – I got two seats to myself! The countryside was very pretty – snow in Germany appears to cling on where feet and wheels don’t disturb it. It snowed in Frankfurt on Wednesday morning and there’s still a car down the road with an inch of snow in it, although as more and more people write in it, it’s getting less and less. The countryside was the same. Fields and trees all grey and white and glittering and absolutely winter wonderland-perfect.

My train was to Cologne Messe and I decided I hated Cologne. How do you get to the Hauptbahnhof? I found the S-bahn but there was no way of buying tickets. I found the U-bahn. Also no way of buying tickets and no map. Ticket machines, luckily, were lurking right down on the platform and although there were still no helpful signs telling you which direction the train was going, I found a city-wide map and eventually figured out a) where I was b) where I was trying to get to c) what combination of trains I required for that d) which direction those trains needed to go. It shouldn’t be that difficult!

I planned to change trains so I bought a day ticket. But when we arrived at the change station, it was basically a tram stop, right in the middle of the street, and there was a Christmas market between me and the Dom. So a walk! Walk through the Christmas market!

This was the old-fashioned market. All the stalls had matching wooden fronts, half the stallholders had old-fashioned costumes on, there was an ice rink and the mugs were dark red with yellow insides and round bellies. I discovered eventually that the end of that market led on to the Dom Christmas Market and they had different mugs and their stalls were higher and brighter and marked with shooting stars. Lots of the same stalls, though. Lots of the same stalls as in Frankfurt.

And here was the Dom! It was free to go in and it was breathtaking. Soaring Perpendicular Gothic, so ornate on the outside, so simple on the inside and such glass! Every single window was stained, even the high ones where you need to zoom in with you camera to be sure that’s colour up there. The south aisle had windows full of yellow glass – this is a more recent innovation, which is why I’ve seen other cathedrals remark on it. Those turned proper gold with the midday sun coming straight through them. It was all incredible.

And then there’s the tower. It cost 6 euros to go up the South Tower and signs say “No lift. No joke”. It’s a lot of steps. It’s five hundred and something spiral stone stairs You get a brief respite at the belfry and then up you go again. When you think you’re there, there’s a metal staircase in the middle of a room and because they’re open, even though there’s only about ten of that going up and up, it’s somehow more terrifying than the 500+ stone stairs, and those were terrifying enough. There are windows on the south side, which help you keep track of how many circles you’ve done and lots of them have no glass in them. They’re less than six inches wide, you couldn’t fall out if you tried but it’s still scary that high up. At the very top, you walk around the top of the tower. It’s all confined by fences and wire and all the usual but it’s very high. It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered it’s the highest double-spire church in the world and the third-highest church of any kind. I climbed that!

Back down, I now took some time to explore the markets. I got a cup of hot chocolate in the old-fashioned market and discovered there are at least three variants of that dark red round mug. I wandered down almost to the river through medieval streets that were deserted – leave the markets behind and there’s no one else in the city. I found a Catholic church with an overly large and ornate tower on an otherwise fairly non-descript church. I bought some things. I searched the city for a cloth badge, preferably with the towers on and found no such thing.

By now it was getting cold. A thick mist had descended and if you climbed the towers now, you wouldn’t even get a view for your efforts. It was cold. I took shelter inside the cathedral but who’d have thought: a massive stone medieval building is not warm! It was somewhere to sit down – my feet were tired, especilly after the long climb – but it wasn’t warm. No, for warmth I resorted to Burger King inside the Hauptbahnhof which is right next door and also where my train departed from. No time spent faffing around trying to figure out how to get back to Messe station. But I still had two hours to kill before I could use that non-flexible “cheap” train ticket. There’s nowhere really warm in Cologne Hbf. Cold air drifts down from hundreds of tracks above and it’s open at front and back. I popped into shops. I contemplated blue ceramic doorknobs and white boots like lace-up wellies and explored German scifi and fantasy books. Helpfully, when you buy a train ticket from a DB machine, you can print out your timetable. It’s useful to know exactly which train you’re allowed to get on but it’s really useful that it tells you the platforms. 4 A, B and C.

It was delayed! Only by about 10 minutes but the result was that the 18:27 to Frankfurt left before the 18:18 arrived and I couldn’t get on it. It was at platform 4 D-G which is normally fine but as it was still sitting there when my train was approaching, we had to move to platform 5. It was reasonably quiet. I guess anyone whose tickets had flexibility jumped on the 18:27.

I think we got into Frankfurt at 19:41 which meant home by 8. Quite a long day and the one with the most exercise. So I didn’t write my blog and I didn’t do my Finnish lesson either.

Thursday 15th: Frankfurt day three

I didn’t sleep very well last night. My watch beeped at 1am, which surprised me – I accidentally set it to go off at 8am a while back and so now it beeps at 9am. But it was too dark, surely, for it to be 9am? It was! It was in fact 1am. Then I woke up and smelled toast. Was the hotel on fire? Or is there something wrong with a receptor in my brain?

So I didn’t even stir until housekeeping came round at ten to nine. I had breakfast enthusiastically, although the breakfast room was so busy it was hard to find a seat. Then I had a slightly slow start to the day. I decided I was going to go to the pool today. There’s a hammam in Frankfurt, there are ordinary boring pools but I decided to go to Titus Therme, which is more of a waterpark.

It’s in north-west Frankfurt. I had the choice of taking U4 or U5 one stop to Willy-Brandt-Platz and then going virtually the entire length of the U1. Or I could take tram 16 to its terminus and then go two stops on either the U1 or the U9. I haven’t been on many trams and it also looked like that was the quicker way. So I bought my day ticket from the tram platform at the end of the road instead of under the Hauptbahnhof.

Titus Therme is right next to a fairly big shopping centre. It has a Primark and a Decathlon and the biggest supermarket I’ve ever seen in Germany. But I was trying to make my way out and up to the surface and find the pool. I stopped at the entrance to check the map. It’s past McDonald’s and Decathlon. Where are they? I’m at the red dot but what’s that thing off to the side? I can see McDonald’s but… there it is! I can see it!

I’ve really felt the fact that I don’t speak German the last couple of days. People either can’t speak much English here or they won’t. I speak other languages, I’m not an English monoglot, but I don’t speak German. So I had no real idea where was going on. I seemed to have paid 5.50 (still can’t figure out the euro symbol) for 90 minutes access to the pool, but I wasn’t entirely sure about that. Neither was I sure how to get to the changing rooms, or that I was in the right changing room and then I couldn’t find the pool. There aren’t enough signs and the few signs are in a language I don’t speak. And there it was at last!

It’s quite a big place. There’s a bubbling pool, two hotpots, a lane pool with a diving board, a huge play pool that has bubbles and a lazy river which turn on and off on a circuit of about 10-15 minutes each. Behind that is a quieter pool with three jets and a slide and a cave. Interestingly, the lights under the water in all the pools and pots are pink which makes the pool look purple. It also can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a proper pool with square white tyres or whether it wants to be a jungle oasis – it’s decorated with fake columns and arches and statues.

I got out after 90 minutes. I could have stayed in a lot longer. I’d done circuits of the lazy river and nearly drowned. I’d sat on bubble benches until I was completely boneless. I’d had my neck pummelled by a very powerful jet. But my 90 minutes had expired.

Yes, they had. German efficiency! I had a plastic card and when I scanned it at the exit, it told me I’d overstayed and needed to pay an extra 50c.

Once I’d escaped, I went in Decathlon. I didn’t particularly need anything but I always like to go and have a look. I popped into Primark too – my mittens are so nice and cosy but I can’t manage the camera with them so I bought a pair of thin gloves. Then I finally found the big Rewe, which is downstairs and technically over the road. One thing was astonishing me: it’s ok and entirely normal to smoke in the U-bahn station and in the shopping centre. It’s the tail end of 2022 and you can still smoke inside in public places??!!

Anyway, I did some shopping and took U1 home, via Willy-Brandt-Platz. I was correct to take the tram out this morning; most of the length of U1 was slow!

I came home and had lunch which became a long afternoon in the room. Then I went back out to the market. It’s manic by evening – it’s just people crowded into the square drinking hot wine and eating interesting things. I had a cup of hot orange juice (actually hot this time and I returned the cup and reclaimed my pfand) and took it across the road to the river to drink. Orange juice isn’t all that tasty when it’s hot but I wanted something clean and wet after my long lunch.

I rambled around the market until I’d done my 2km. I didn’t particularly want to do any shopping – it was my third visit and there’s probably not much more I want to buy but I like to have a look around. There are always stalls I have’t spotted, always things I want to take photo of. I wanted to check whether the tram that goes through the middle of the market would take me home. I’ve always taken the U-bahn so I wanted to see central Frankfurt by train, if I could.

There are three trams leaving from that stop. All three go to Hbf and two go to my local stop. Of course, the one I got on was the one that doesn’t, and its Hbf top is technically on the street next to the Hbf. That meant in the dark, with glasses steamed up over my mask, I didn’t realise that was where I was supposed to jump off. The next stop was further away than I expected so I got off, crossed the tracks and got on the 21 back in the other direction, back to my local stop.

And now I’m home! I’ve had a shower and washed the chlorine out of my hair with conditioner that smells amazing. No plans for tomorrow yet – Cologne? Wiesbaden? Something interesting around Frankfurt?

Wednesday 14th: Frankfurt day two

I started today lazily because yesterday started so early. I had breakfast downstairs: buttersemmel and orange juice although there was other bread available, and cheese and meat and little packets of jam and Nutella. Then I went to the market.

I remembered my mask this time! I’d calculated last night that a day ticket for general Franfurt use is cheaper than two singles so I bought my day ticket, got the U5 to Dom/Romer and emerged. It had snowed this morning and by now everything had a nice coating and it was falling thickly enough to see on camera. I roamed, starting at the Domkirche, which isn’t actually a cathedral. I think there was some kind of school service about to start in there; as I was leaving, they closed the gates across the nave but we’d been allowed to wander around until then. It’s a pink church, like the one in Neuchatel but perhaps more spectacular from the outside. It seems to function as a cathedral, it just doesn’t have someone of the right status attached to it to actually make it a cathedral. Very nice, anyway.

Then I wandered through the market again. It was still busy but there was at least room to move this morning. I had a cup of hot chocolate, not because I particularly wanted hot chocolate but because I wanted the red mug. On close inspection, it’s the same as yesterday’s black mug except the pictures are all in gold. Later I found them for sale in the various stalls that sell pottery and ceramics, four euros each. I have a Euro symbol on my keyboard but I can’t persuade it to appear. I just keep turning this paragraph into a heading. The pfand for a mug is three euros. So now I have both the official mugs. If I wanted to, there are at least three others I could collect but I won’t.

I found more of the market than last night. Well, I found it last night but I decided because it was cold and dark, I’d leave it for daylight. I did a bit more shopping. Yet again, I resisted spending a couple of thousand euros on a spectacular stable set that wouldn’t fit in hand luggage and settled for the cutest little wooden moose and a little snowflake with a nativity scene in the middle. I bought actual candy canes because what’s Christmassy about hanging them from the tree if you ignore the edible ones? And I found a badge for my blanket at the station on the way back.

It snowed quite spectacularly. The market looked so Christmassy with snow on the roofs and in people’s hair and the steam mugs of gluhwein made so much more sense – well, they do anyway but everything just looks so much more festive in the snow.

I came home for lunch, and also because I was a bit concerned about accidentally smashing the mug. Better to get it safely back to the hotel. That turned into a couple of hours of lounging about and then I decided to go to the Christmas Garden light trail. I have a pre-booked flexible ticket and tonight seemed a good night. The snow had stopped and the sky was absolutely clear but there was still snow on the ground. I looked up how to get there. The S Bahn seemed easiest, in that it’s a five minute walk to the Hauptbahnhof but then it’s apparently a 40 minute walk at the other end. So I had to find out where I could get tram 21. The end of my road, it turned out. Easy. You can’t miss Stadion either. It’s the end of the line.

I had a minor problem on arrival. I’d printed my payment confirmation, not my eticket. For some reason, I don’t have mobile data here. It’s constantly on E, which Quora describes as “direly slow data connection”. That meant I couldn’t get it from my emails. There are three wifi networks in the park but it wouldn’t let me register with the only free and open one because there had already been 100 API calls. ?. So I went off to the box office. The nice lady there found my booking and told me to tell the men on the gate that she’d said to let me through. Don’t worry, they’ve been briefed. No, they hadn’t. They let me through but succeeded in making me feel like I’d conned my way in. I had a ticket! Box office knew I had a ticket! I just couldn’t access the ticket!

Anyway, it’s a big light trail in the stadium park, which features the stadium itself as the biggest light canvas. There’s nothing more festive than colossal blue letters looming over everything proclaming DEUTSCHE BANK.

It was all very pretty. The rainbow path was good. The Polar Express was good. Itsy Bitsy Spider was good. Carillon was popular and made great photos. But my favourite was Miracles Happen. At first it’s just a fountain lit in blue. You glance at it, you move on. But I happened to realise that on the other side of the hedge was an empty and frozen swimming pool and that distracted me long enough to still be standing there when the miracle started. I felt a wave of heat, turned around and the blue fountain was on fire! Actual fire! It was quite incredible. Fire and water and blue light and no one else had seen it. Worth the price of admission alone, that.

It was getting on for 7 by the time I got back on the tram. Late enough to have been very dark for a long time, not so late that I felt like I was out and about on my own at night. And then I came home thawing out my poor frozen nose inside my mask and I might have a shower.

I looked up the price of a train ticket to Cologne today. 99 euros return or 78 each way! So, not to do that tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll have a swim, maybe, and see if I can get that price down by unselecting “‘allow ICE trains”.