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.

Finland 2014: Rovaniemi

Yesterday I went into town because I haven’t actually done that yet. Finished with town in less than ten minutes. There’s not much there and what there was appeared to be half-closed. I found myself at the river again – even prettier now because it’s frozen. Or at least, it’s frozen down by the barbecue hut and it’s semi frozen further up – great big sheets of ice flowing down the river and crashing into others and it was all very wintery and very dramatic and I stood there for so long that I nearly froze over.

I decided to warm up at Arktikum, the polar museum which appeared to be just around the next river bend. Well, it is but it’s not accessible from there by foot. I had to cross a fairly major road junction which is not meant for pedestrians.

Arktikum is not hugely exciting. I lay in the Aurora Theatre and watched the Northern Lights and the Finnish and Inuit beliefs about them and then wandered around the western exhibition room, which is on at least two floors with a sloping walkway and covers everything from animal fur to oil to indigenous populations to sledge-building.

The eastern gallery has a display of Sami clothes and possessions and jewellery upstairs, a gallery about two local women and then downstairs various Lapland-themed things – more Sami, some stuffed animals (the moose is enormous!), a petrol station cafe (important social gathering place up here), Bronze Age artefacts, display about the war etc.

By the time I trudged through town to get home, the sun was setting and I followed a road pointing directly at the setting sun. I could hear cars but I couldn’t see them coming at me. Found the town centre fairly easily – the shopping centre is next to the sports centre and that’s just next to the big roundabout and my supermarket and then home is just a few minutes further on.

Getting to the airport is entertaining. There does appear to be a bus running Sundays at the right time but I’m not sure it runs today. There doesn’t seem to be a dedicated “airport bus”. So I called (for booking online needs to be done 24 hours in advance) the airport taxi people. €7 seems reasonable, that’s how much I’d expect the bus to be. They’re going to pick me up at 9.30am which strikes me as a bit late for a 10.45am flight but they know best. After all, Rovaniemi airport is unlikely to be on the same scale as Heathrow.

I woke up this morning to snow. And my room being very hot. This place is interesting. No bin in the room, it feels weird disposing of cheese and chocolate wrappers in the bathroom, no TV (not that I’d be watching it but I like it to be there), the communal kitchen closes at 9pm, which is a bit early. Reception, supposedly open 7.30am to 9pm is never open during the day and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to just open the door and come in. I have a key obviously so I can get in but it feels weird to have to use it every single time. Every day there’s a note on the front door – “if you have a reservation, check the mailbox behind you”. Do they really never ever greet a guest personally? I know I was an exception because I arrived pretty late but it kind of looks like letting yourself in is normal.

And now, to the airport!

Finland 2014: The Northern Lights

Since Rovaniemi city centre isn’t the most beautiful place in Lapland, I decided to head for the river. On a clear bright day – bright in an Arctic way with a blindingly bright but low sun – it was very pretty, everything frosty, the river half frozen. I followed the river and came to a barbecue hut – just a little wooden shelter with wood stacked under the benches and a fire pit outside, with a view between the trees over the river. I would love to come there at night and have a fire but it did perfectly well as a picnic spot.

I carried on, crossed the main road and went into the church park, where an inlet of the river forms a lake and walked round, meeting dogs and contemplating that Rovaniemi doesn’t really have any soul and what I’d do with the new Kiruna if I could, to turn it into a winter wonderland.

By now I was getting cold. Even in winter clothes, the cold gets to you after a few hours outside so I decided to head back into town in search of warmth – a cafe maybe. I came to the church and thought I’d shelter in there, since apparently there are things of interest inside. It was locked.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the city centre so I decided the best course of action was to go to the supermarket and then home for a while to warm up before I went back out. On my way I met two Mormon missionaries (Elder Garrett and Elder Johnson, from the USA – I got confused by Elder Johnson because on his badge, it looked like he had a Finnish first name. It took a long time to finally realise that’s just “elder” in Finnish) and after a chat, they invited me to their Halloween party. Finland just doesn’t seem to do Halloween, I haven’t seen any sign of it here whatsoever.

Outside the supermarket, I met a white fluffy dog I’d met in the park. It was tied up and barking like crazy so when I’d bought lots of chocolate, I went to visit it. Like the huskies, it wanted my pompom and when I took the pompom away, it jumped on me and I hugged it and its fur was so thick!

I sort of intended to go to the party but when I got back, I noticed the Northern Lights leaflets and it was a really clear day and I thought it was something I should do so I booked that instead.

I was half-expecting to be the only one on the trip – it’s not exactly high tourist season but there were seven of us – a Chinese couple, a Portugese woman, a couple that sounded Russian, Nicola, a nurse from Derry working in Finland for a month and me. Our guide was Anthony – an Englishman who’s been living here for ten years.

We were taken to the office first for warm clothes – extra socks, real snowboots, padded quilted overalls like I wore snowmobiling, warm mittens and red furry ear hats. We had a stripy bag to put our own clothes in and then we headed out.

We stopped on the way to base camp at the side of the road to watch the lights. They were a bit pale but visible – streaks across the sky that got a bit brighter and a bit dimmer, a sort of pale blue to the naked eye but bright green on camera, sometimes a cloud, sometimes several bands. The sky was absolutely clear.

We drove on when the lights faded, to our base camp, an old village school, where we left all non-essentials and climbed a hill – Katkevaari, I think – Wolverine Fell. We stopped regularly and the lights made a nice wiggly S in the sky behind us. But at the top, they just stopped playing. There was a very pale arc across the sky from south to north – lights, but really not exciting ones and they didn’t come out on my camera at all.

When we’d all got tired of staring at the stars, Anthony took us into another barbecue hut, just like the one I went in in Sweden, where he had a fire lit. I cooked oat bread on a fork and then tried to melt some Finnish Edam in it while everyone else cooked Finnish sausages – these are precooked and then sealed up so you can throw them in a bag and carry them around the wilderness perfectly safely for a couple of days before warming them up over an open fire and eating them. But they do look raw at first. The bread didn’t work brilliantly but I ate half of it, until I got down to the bit that I’d burnt (in fact, at one point I set it on fire) and the cheese had softened to the point that it became rubbery and almost unchewable.

Hot chocolate and sweet dried bread biscuits were better and then we told our fortunes. We were all given two little tin/lead horseshoes to melt on a big spoon over the fire. When they were melted, we tipped them into a bucket of cold water and then you hold a light up to them and look at the shadow to see what you can see in the shape. Mine came out very silvery – everyone else’s came out covered in little grey bubbles that means money is coming. One of mine – the biggest and therefore the only one relevant – looked like a dragon or a chicken or a mermaid, depending on how you turned it. The smaller piece looked a bit like an animal’s head.

Then we were about done with the campfire. The lights still weren’t playing and it was late so we headed down. Now, climbing the hill was no problem but getting down was. The top is covered with loose rocks and they are covered in ice crystals. When you’re wearing an LED headtorch, it looks like you’re climbing over massive gemstones and it feels like you’re going to slip, all the time, even though they actually weren’t very slippery So progress was slow.

When we reached the school. Anthony told us all to turn out our lights and look at the sky. The Northern Lights had come out to play! Green vertical lights like clumps of pencils, just above the trees, dancing and moving and putting on a lovely display. I couldn’t really get them on camera but it was the best display of the night and posed so prettily over the trees.

We changed back into our own clothes and got back in the bus for the long ride back to Rovaniemi. The last excitement of the night was a mountain hare hopping along in front of the bus – it was huge and it was absolutely pure white. No moose, no reindeer, no wolves, no bears. Apparently we were in bear territory and evidence of bears has been seen up there. I had no idea there were wild bears still livingin Europe! Anthony said it’s extremely rare to actually see one because they avoid humans, he told us about people who work for the Finnish equivalent of Ordnance Survery, who spend all their time outside in the mountains, seeing so much fresh evidence of bears but never actually seeing one in their entire lifetime.

We got back about 2.30am and it was so cold that I had to go and sit on the radiator to thaw out. The radiator is in the shower so that was comfortable.

Finland 2014: The Santa Claus Village

First impressions of Rovaniemi by daylight: good. Or at least, this end. There are little clumps of trees around the roads and between the houses, Lapland-style mini forests of pine and birch and it all feels lovely. A sprinkling of sparkly ice is very pretty.

Breakfast of bread and rolls and some kind of slightly odd-tasting fruit squash that I can’t identify and cold chocolate (don’t put sugar cubes in it, however cute sugar cubes are, they just don’t dissolve) and then I packed and headed off to the bus station in search of local bus no. 8.

The bus station, as it so often is in these parts, is for long distance buses. Fortunately, the bus stop for the local bus is right next door. Of course, bus 8 actually starts from the railway station which is even closer to home. I managed to interpret the timetable which is written entirely in Finnish – not even any Swedish to help me out – and decided that although the timetable says “to the Arctic Circle” rather than the Santa Claus Village, that’s probably because they don’t want to admit to the existence of the Santa Claus Village. I had 45 minutes to wait for my bus so I went across the road to the supermarket.

In Finland, it’s hard to get nice bread. 95% of it seems to be either this black rye bread or just plain tasteless slightly plastic sliced white bread which is inedible unless toasted. The guesthouse does have a toaster but it’s not as if I can take it out with me for the day. I eventually settled on some rolls like the one I had for breakfast – a bit nothingy, almost taste a bit like they’ve been boiled rather than baked but the best of a not-brilliant selection. I did linger over the skyr because it’s weird to see something Icelandic and therefore something sort of homey (apparently I’m now part Icelandic) somewhere that’s not Iceland. I bought some chocolate, Swedish Marabou which is very tasty, a bar of the Finnish chocolate like my new friend gave me yesterday, only I got the plain stuff rather than the raspberry yoghurt stuff and some pringles. Finnish crisps do look interesting but they also come in the biggest bags I’ve ever seen.

I checked with the driver that the bus definitely went to the Santa Claus Village (see? learning from yesterday’s mistake), was given a return ticket despite confused incoherent babbling that made me certain I’d accidentally bought a single one and off we went, through Rovaniemi. It doesn’t look like a particularly inspiring town. Its history, in short, is that it was nice here until the war, when the Germans burnt it to the ground as punishment for the Finns working with Russia, as far as I understand. If by “working with” you mean “occupied by despite holding out against them longer than should have been humanly possible”. This is my understanding of it. After the war Rovaniemi was rebuilt on a grid system, with modern uninteresting buildings. But behind the town are two rivers and that all looked very pretty. Parts of the rivers are frozen – not enough that I’d even think about trying to walk on it but then I won’t walk on the Tjornin in Reykjavik even when I can see the locals playing on it.

The Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle are actually about ten miles out of town, or at least that’s what the sign said. But maybe the sign meant a hiking trail which doesn’t take the direct route the road does. It’s a little way out of town, anyway.

The Santa Claus Village is an odd place. It’s open all year round but I suspect it makes most sense in December, when the ground is thick with snow and there are hundreds of overexcited children there. On a grey morning in October, it just feels a bit weird. The main attraction is Father Christmas, hiding in his office and then the second main attraction is a long low gallery of shops – some souvenirs, some local handicrafts, bits and pieces – like the entire tourist shops of a fairly large city all squashed into one corridor. And half of them weren’t open. There were a few cafes and restaurants but not all of them looked open either.

The first thing I did was find the posts marking the Arctic Circle and take a photo of myself with them. The second thing I did was take photos of myself with the line painted on the ground. My guidebook says “give yourself over to this indulgence and snap away – it is one of the few signs marking the circle”.

I did enjoy Santa’s official post office. The staff were all dressed up as elves and didn’t seem to mind at all, there were postcards of all kinds, Christmas decorations, Finnish bits and pieces, Moomin things and plenty of tables for writing your postcards before picking a postbox for them. There was a “now” one and a “Christmas” one, depending on when you wanted your postcard delivered. Everything that goes from this post office gets an official postmark but what amused me is that this also goes for the normal postbox outside, which is used by locals, as demonstrated by one pulling up outside in his van and dumping a handful of letters in it.

There was also the holiday village, where you can either stay in the hotel or in one of the cottages and then at the other side, a showroom for snowmobiles and log cottages. And at the back were the activities. There was the reindeer enclosure – the reindeer were kept out of sight but there was a Sami tent and a little woodfire which smelled amazing and then they would bring out a reindeer and a sledge on wheels for a run round the forest for an extortionate price. I lurked to watch the reindeer – a little girl fed it a handful of reindeer moss – I have no idea what it’s actually called in real English – and its nose! It woffles its nose as it hoovers up the moss and it was adorable!

Next door was the snowmobile track. Nothing you can do with a snowmobile when it’s not snowy. With a dog or reindeer sledge you can use wheels instead of runners but all you can do with a snowmobile is swap it for a quadbike and then it’s not a snowmobile. A bit further down was the husky park.

There are hundreds of them! When they’re not running, they’re kept in round fenced enclosures, two to four of them together and they’re very alert and very keen when visitors come round. Every single one of them took a liking to the pompom on the end of my long-tailed hat so I teased them with that until at last I met a dog who could climb the fence and hung over the top, at which point I tucked the pompom away in case she jumped down and went for me. Fortunately she didn’t but I definitely backed off once she was hanging over the enclosure.

There was a puppy – three and a half months apparently – and she was the exception to the “don’t put your hand in the wires” rule. We were encouraged to play with her. I tried making a video of playing pompom with one group – they had a wooden board covering part of their enclosure to about my eye level and I soon discovered that if I waved the pompom above it, they’d jump up. I tried videoing it but because this camera videos a bit weirdly, I didn’t get anything.

So many dogs to play with! Pure white ones, mostly black ones, wolf-coloured grey/brown ones. Brown eyes, blue eyes, one of each eyes. I don’t think I really realised how many colour variations there are in puppies.

I bought a t-shirt in the shopping area and when I came outside, much to my delight, it was snowing. So obviously, the best thing to do is run back to the Arctic Circle lines and take more photos because snow is brilliant.

I investigated Santa’s office – there were more shops! One was a tablewear outlet, where I hovered over Moomin mugs and plates, one was jewellery, one was one of these design shops where everything looks lovely but is a bit pointless and one was the Santa shop. Mostly it was just bags with Santa written on them but I was very tempted by a hoodie with the coordinates on. However, I have a t-shirt with them. I went to the very last shop, upstairs, and was tempted by enamel Moomin mugs. And then I decided I’d seen everything there was to see, done everything there was to do and was getting cold so I got the bus back to Rovaniemi.

The snow had turned to a sort of drizzy dampness so this morning’s glittery ice was all gone and replaced by a grey miserable damp town. I came home instead, picnicked on my bed, found the guest kitchen (having arrived late last night, I haven’t actually had a tour of the building) and braved the shower with a radiator in it.

Finland 2014: The Great Train Adventure

The moral of today’s story is this: if you have a bad feeling about something, listen to it.

I got up nice and early, packed and walked to the station via the seafront and the main shopping street. Bought a couple of bottles of drink, looked at the departure board and saw my train at Track 11. I went to Track 11.

Now, first of all there was no information on the board at the head of Track 11. But there was a train there. There was no information on the signs by each door. I was a bit doubtful but other people were getting on, so I got on.

Do you see where this is going? I didn’t but as it turns out, it was not Rovaniemi, where I was intending to go. Ten or fifteen minutes before we were due to depart, there was an announcement. Everyone else in my car jumped up and started grabbing luggage. I didn’t know what was happening but I copied – clearly we were getting off this train for some reason. Except that we were only given about ten seconds notice and then the train started moving. Within a few minutes, the six passengers on board had all congregated in Car 2, some of them were on the phone and most of them were laughing. I, obviously, don’t speak a word of Finnish but I gathered that something was up. Eventually I asked and was told that this train was taking us to the depot. It’s fine, we’ll just take a taxi to the next stop.

Oh no we won’t. We crawled through the outskirts of Helsinki and came almost to a stop just outside Pasila. I was still following everyone else so when they started gathering by the door, I went too. I think the plan genuinely was to jump off a moving train. Moving extremely slowly but still, a moving train. I almost wish we had – that would be a story to tell. However, modern trains have inbuilt safety mechanisms to prevent passengers doing that.

We began to crawl through the depot and then we went into the train wash. That was the point at which everyone started laughing hysterically, because it’s a ridiculous thing to accidentally go through a train wash. For the record, it’s a lot like going through a car wash except that the brushes stay still and you move. Then we were into the building and now getting desperate. It was somewhere around this point that my new friends discovered I don’t speak Finnish and had no real idea of what was happening. The nice man – a journalist, as it happens – had phoned VR, the train company, two or three times and tried to explain that there were six passengers on an out-of-service train but they seemed intent on believing someone had left some luggage on the train and he couldn’t get through to them that it was people left on the train. By now we were inside the depot and starting to pass people. We banged on the windows, then banged with an umbrella. I wasn’t sure whether they were trying to get attention or actually trying to smash the window. Trying to attract attention, trying to make people realise that there aren’t supposed to be passengers on this train, didn’t seem to work – mostly they just waved back.

Finally we came to a stop. The lights had gone out in all the other cars and we were starting to get desperate when finally it dawned on someone outside that we were trapped. A phone call was made and at last the door was released from the outside to free us. I think the others were quite enjoying the adventure but I was quite scared – no Finnish, no idea what was going to happen to me, whether I was going to get to Rovaniemi tonight or at all, how I was going to escape the depot. Fortunately, my friends, now fluent in English and making sure I knew exactly what was happening, pulled me along with them. Across the depot we went, past lots of men in fluorescent clothes looking curious at six passengers with suitcases who are obviously not supposed to be there. We were taken into one of the non-train buildings, where they seemed to store mattresses and pillows and lockers and a man in a fluorescent jacket and matching cap made arrangements for disposing of us and one of my friends handed round chocolate – just like Professor Lupin on the train after the Dementors. Chocolate helps, as did the news that we were going to be taken to Pasila, the nearest station and the first stop after Helsinki Central and that trains to Rovaniemi run all day.

We walked through the tunnels of the depot and were at last released, when the keys to the gate turned up. The day-glo man called us a taxi and off we went to Pasila for €2.77 each. There we went as a group to the ticket office to get our tickets changed. That was no problem – the nice lady even asked if I’d like an upstairs or downstairs seat so I brightened up a lot at that (upstairs, obviously!) and then I went off with two of the ladies to have lunch – or in my case to have some hot chocolate, since I had no intention of explaining the food thing to two strangers, even two strangers who’ve just helped me escape from a train depot.

I have never felt so helpless. I like to think I’m a reasonably competent and capable traveller, if one prone to minor catastrophes but if I’d been on my own on that train, I have no idea what would have happened. Mind you, I wouldn’t have been on it on my own because I was only stupid enough to get on it when I was sure other people were. I’ve also never felt so monolingual. Of the five Finns, four of them definitely spoke English – one sounded properly fluent but the other three could make themselves understood and meanwhile, I don’t speak a word of Finnish or very much of any other language. My French is nowhere near as good as it should be, my Spanish is almost non-existent and as for German, Icelandic, Swedish/Norwegian/Danish, I can recognise and read things reasonably well considering I’ve never had a lesson in any of them but I can’t say a sentence in any.

At 13:12, three hours after I was supposed to depart, I got on my train. And thirty seconds later, the journalist man came to join me. He’s very friendly, full of Finnish history and tales of the places we’re going through and making phone calls to relatives in Rovaniemi to suggest places I should visit but mostly I just wanted to be left alone to eat – I hadn’t actually eaten a thing today, intending to have breakfast on the train at 10am which didn’t happen – and get out my computer and look at the scenery. He finally left me at Tampere, after nearly two hours of trying to keep up an increasingly one-sided conversation. He took all our phone numbers and email addresses and he’s written an article about our adventure. I’m not entirely sure it’s really “news” but still, apparently his boss was excited about the story, so maybe it’ll go in a Finnish newspaper and he’ll send it to all of us.

By 5pm, I was sick of the whole thing. It was dark, there’s only so much fidgeting you can do and although the train has wifi, it’s a bit hit-and-miss (although much better than the wifi on the plane) and it’s getting tedious now. The train I was supposed to be on will be slowing down for its arrival into Rovaniemi right now and I’ve still got three and a quarter hours to go. I’ve seen nothing but darkness from my window for over two hours already.

I counted down the hours from about the time it got dark – I was actually doing a little dance in my seat when it got down to half an hour, half an hour on the train (vaguely to the tune of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain – if you saw any of those updates on Facebook, I was singing them) and then went to explore a little bit – just the lockers behind me (they have lockers! This is very sensible!) and a peculiar little alcove with a small door up two steps and a rod across the top like a wardrobe but with no hangers and then I discovered there are actually three levels in this particular train because halfway down the stairs was another compartment of seats.

Now I’m on solid ground again, taking the train to the Arctic seems sort of magical again. I was fidgety but I was never really uncomfortable, I mostly had the whole seat to myself, I had the internet, I had a perfectly pleasant time as somehow Helsinki turned into Lapland. Due to the morning’s issues and the fact that I was arriving late, I emailed the guesthouse to say I’d be in about 10.30. They did not say “poor foreigner arriving in the dark in a strange place, we will be waiting for you”. No, they said “Reception closes at 9, we’ll leave your key in the mailbox outside”.

I had had the sense to look up where the place is – I’d had the sense to print a map with my route drawn on it. The only bit left to chance was which side of the station I’d come out on. I wanted to be on the north. And we arrived on the north side! Actually, it transpires the south is some kind of yard and getting across to it would be pretty difficult so I’m very glad about that. The four lane road was exactly where it should have been and when I crossed it (all sparkly with ice, despite the nice journalist man’s niece saying there is no snow here – well, it’s winter wonderland enough for me for now) there was a sign pointing to my guesthouse. The small housing estate took me by surprise but I could see my building – a lit up sign with a picture of a bed on it was a clue so within five minutes, I’d retrieved my key from the mailbox and was swearing at the lock. I have no idea how Finnish locks work. It’s certainly not as easy as “put key in lock and turn”. I don’t know what I did but eventually the door opened. The same upstairs in my room. But I got in. There is a radiator – set to maximum heat – in the shower. Not just in the bathroom, it’s actually in the shower. I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with that. But the room is adequate. I don’t know how big my bed is – bigger than single but not as big as double. I have blinds as well as curtains to shut out the light. And they serve breakfast here! Since there’s a guest kitchen, I was expecting to have to forage for myself but no, I will have to appear at breakfast at least tomorrow to hand over my guest card. So there we are, I’ve finally made it to Lapland.

Finland 2014: Helsinki

Helsinki is a jewel. I think I’d forgotten that.

I drove up to Gatwick last night with no problems other than the realisation that my snow boots are much heavier than they look and surprisingly tiring to drive in. Got safely to my pod.

This morning I checked in using the self-service – checking in at a screen is normal, self-service bag drop – and getting to shoot my own bag with a laser gun! – is still very much a novelty, as was breakfast overlooking… well, nothing more exciting really than a road.

Flight went ok. We followed the M25 along the south of London so if you looked across to the left of the plane you could see the skyscrapers in the centre. That Shard is very hard to spot from that distance. It’s hard to make any of them out properly but the Walkie-Talkie is relatively easy to see. The Shard is just a needle and almost invisible.

Once I’d landed at Helsinki, I did a little bus trip out to a suburb called Tikkurila before going into the city centre. I was dropped at the main station – the front is covered in scaffolding but the figures with their globes are left uncoverd – and I walked down to my “hotel” via Stockmann, the main shopping street and the big white cathedral because apparently my memory of Helsinki’s geography is pretty good.

Not something I can say about the hotel. As I was shown my room, I was asked “Have you stayed here before?” I said no politely but thinking “No one has ever or will ever say yes to that because no one in their right mind will come back here”. If I was planning to stay a few days in Helsinki, I think I’d probably be looking for somewhere to move to tomorrow. It’s on the fifth floor of a slightly creepy building with a 1920s style cage lift that scares me and my room is… on the basic side of just about functional. Separate shower and toilets out in the main corridor but on the bright side, there is a kitchen. I am eating bread and butter on my bed rather than actually use it although it looks like the best room in the whole building. And it has wifi.

I went into Helsinki in search of said bread, via the red cathedral on the seafront, a purple ferris wheel that’s sprung up in the last six years and a pack of concrete turtles (the point at which I said out loud “Helsinki, you’ve got cute!”). I went into Stockmann, which has set out an entire Christmas floor which isn’t open until Sunday, into the bookshop to look wistfully at English-language books – it remains my favourite bookshop in the entire world apart from possibly Waterstones at Piccadilly Circus. And finally I found a supermarket near the station, although I seem to have gone in completely the wrong door and missed most of the bakery section.

I’m taking the train up to Rovaniemi tomorrow so there didn’t seem much point in getting more food than will last me tonight and tomorrow.