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Finland (and northern Swedish coast)

FINLAND | Saturday, 14 June 2008 | Views [1627] | Comments [2]

If you're anything like me you'll have the Finland song by Monty Python in your head by now, as I have every time I've turned my mind to planning this trip for the past few months.  The main point of this trip - apart from seeing more of Scandinavia (though Finland is not technically part of Scandinavia which comprises Sweden, Norway, Denmark and (sometimes) Iceland, but rather the Nordic countries which comprises Scandinavia and Finland) - was to visit Roveniemi, the city in Finland on the Arctic Circle that the Jakku clan originally came from before moving to Sweden after Emma's father was born but before Anders was born.

We'd originally planned to rent a car and drive up the Swedish coast and into Finland, but Emma's uncle Anders and cousin Anna decided to come along and we used Anders' car instead.  This not only saved us a bucketload of money, but also meant that we didn't have to adjust to driving on the right while sightseeing and navigating around a foreign country.  So yet another big thanks to Anders and to Anna for being the amateur travel agent and tour leader extraordinaire.

(Warning, this post got a little long, but I've added helpful headings along the way in case you want to read it in stages, like the following.)

Northern Sweden

The first day took us through some Swedish forest to the coast road and north to Sundsvall.  Not a lot happened that day (that I remember, it was 2 weeks ago), but we did get to see the Big Dalahäst (a Dalahäst is a small carved wooden horse that is very traditionally Swedish, this was a big one in the same vein as the Big Pineapple and the Big Banana).  We also got to try out the small alcohol stove that Anders had brought along to boil water for coffee and soups on the way - the basis of most of our lunches on the road which allowed us more time to sit and feel the countryside instead of speeding past it in the car (something we didn't get to do on the Kumuka tour).

Sundsvall itself (you may want to open Google Maps or grab an atlas for this blog so I don't have to describe where these places are) reminded me a bit of Townsville.  Now, I'll be likening a few of the towns along the way to places in Australia to try and give a vague idea of my perception of the vibe there (building age, size, remoteness, prosperity).  They are of course unique and the climate is obviously totally different.  If you pick up a guide book and open to any random town, more likely than not it will contain a sentence along the lines of "After the great fire of 18__, the town centre was totally rebuilt..."  There were probably regular fires up till then, but maybe the 1800s saw the development of more fireproof buildings that prevented a recurrence and therefore are still there.  Anyway, Sundsvall's baptismal conflagration happened in the 1860s which is possibly why the buildings reminded me of Townsville, which was probably built around the same time.  It was dragon festival time in the city and the mall was lined with dragons painted by local artists for different local businesses.  The dragon is the mascot of Sundsvall - its church has dragon gargoyles and they're supposed to guard against another fire.  Then, after going up the mountains to the north and south of the town (the north one has a cool rabbit-crossed-with-a-pidgeon slipperyslide, the south one has an actual ski slope) it was time to hit the sack.

Next day took us to Höga Kusten (the High Coast), a 100km or so section of the Bothnian coast north of Sundsval with lots of lovely islands and such.  Entry to this area is by the long and only recently completed (within the last decade anyway) suspension bridge (not unlike the Golden Gate Bridge) across the Ånger river.  Before then, traffic had to go a fair way inland to a narrower point of the estuary, which is possibly why Höga Kusten is a bit more untouched and less populated than other parts of the coast.  Anyway, after seeing the lovely scenery, we drove through and on towards the northern university town of Umeå, or more specifically past Umeå, via the supermarket, and on to a picnic spot near Sävar on the site of the last battle fought on Swedish soil (against the Russians in about 1807).  It was quite interesting to read the details surrounding the battle, and the changing alliances in northern Europe that were a bit of a sideshow to the Napoleonic campaigns going on on the continent.  I won't go into the details, but Sweden, Russia and Denmark have long been rivals for power and territory up here and many of the continental wars (from the 30 Years War of the Reformation, through Napoleon and even to WW2) have given them an excuse to join different sides and duke it out for a bit of extra territory.  The Napoleonic campaigns found Sweden on the good side and Denmark on the wrong side, but at the time Russia was with the French (pre the 1812 invasion) and used it as an excuse to flog Finland off the Swedes.  Interestingly, the Swedish crown was being jostled over internally with at least one king deposed and the general of Napoleon who lead the campaign for the Danes against the Swedes (Jean Baptiste Bernadotte) ended up switching sides and being elected king of Sweden and founding the current Swedish Royal Family - and a quick look at the records suggests that none of his descendants married a Swede so the current king of Sweden has no Swedish blood (apart from the Swedish bloodlines that may have previously been introduced into foreign dynasties I guess), but the Swedes love their royals all the same in their great accepting, laid back way (OK, so I did go into the details just a tad). 

Sorry for not writing more about the scenery but there's only so much you can say about it so far.  It was lovely, the conifer forests were becoming a little smaller and more sparse (not sure if it was because we were closer to the coast or further north or if they'd just been more recently harvested) and there were more birch trees, which are a white tree with light green leaves that look a bit like a cross between a wattle and a willow, and which seem to grow quickly wherever there's room (a bit like wattle).  So the effect was a bit reminiscent of Australia in parts.  The other main feature was the granite, which is ever present in this geologically ancient region.  The area around the Baltic (Sweden, Finland and neighbouring areas of Russia and Poland etc) are is one of the oldest parts of the earth's crust, a bit like the Pilbara in Australia, and consequently is weathered down to the older bedrock.  That, and the icesheets of the ice ages have made it a very flat region (the mountains along the Norwegian border are more recent, but still older than the Atlantic, with the same mountain range making up the Scottish Highlands and Appalacians in the USA).  UPDATE:  I forgot to mention one other cool thing about the drive north was that we overtook spring along the way.  We saw flowers and new leaves on the birch trees that we'd seen in Rockhammar weeks and then months earlier, it was a bit like going back in time as we went further north.

We ended the day in Skellefteå.  The soft "sk" sound, when followed by front vowels, is pronounced a bit like a posh person pronouncing the "wh" in "white" - sort of like you're saying an "h" while simultaneously blowing a fly off your lip - but the real sound doesn't exist in English.  So the town is pronounced a bit like "whel-LEF-tee-aw".  Anyway, after a quick walk around the town centre, we decided it must have been destroyed in the great fire in 1965, because the buildings all had that rather horrible 1970s country town look.  Luckily though, after dinner Emma and I went for a walk up the river to see the church and attached church village.  We were glad we did because we saw a lovely wide river with meandering channels, islands, willows and the whole youth population in various groups having a few beers by the river on the Saturday night (a-la quite a few country towns I could think of in Australia).  We then went past the church village, which was rows of log cabins set up not unlike a scout summer camp where the outlying farmers would stay when they attended their obligatory church service (every week if you lived within 10km, every 2 weeks if you lived 10-20km away and every 3 weeks over that) in centuries past.  Then we saw the church, which was a huge Lutheran job with a truncated "+" sign shape (without the long nave of Catholic churches) with columns on all 4 ends and a big dome on top.  We had a looksy around the graveyard that surrounded it and were interested to fine that most graves were quite recent - I got the idea that maybe they reuse the plots after 150 years or so (when the previous occupants are well and truly done with them) because there were almost no graves from before that, even though we were pretty sure the church was a fair bit older than that (1700s maybe?).  After that we walked home to the hotel at about 9pm through the late afternoon sun.  The whole town gave me a Lismore or Ayr kind of vibe for those keeping score.

Next day it was north again.  The lovely sunny weather up till then had given way to a broodier cloud that gave a bit more character to our journey as we continued into the remote exterior.  More lovely birch and granite scenery, though this time with the odd reindeer grazing near the road (I forgot to mention that we'd glimpsed an elk on the first day near the road - the animal that a Canadian would call a moose).  First main stop was the Gammalstad church village near Luleå.  This was another church village, but whereas the cabins near Skellefteå were unpainted and with a lovely rustic feel, these wear all painted in (you guessed it) the lovely Falunröd gingerbread colours of Swedish houses all across the country.  Just gorgeous.  The Luleå village is World Heritage listed due to its size and important representation of the church village lifestyle.  Not only were the cabins used for church, they were used whenever the family came to town to go shopping or for festivals.  This meant that the church village was a place where you never had to work (unlike on the farm) and probably had a great social holiday vibe where older people would catch up with friends and younger people would court each other (use your imagination).  I got the feeling from what I read that maybe this was a start of the idea of having a summer cottage to relax in away from your work-a-day residence.  In the middle of the village was the old stone cathedral, which had a great link to the ancient churches with its barn-like appearance with a separate belltower at one end.

From there we continued along the coast (heading more eastwards now) towards the border.  Last stop was in Haparanda, the sister city to the larger Tornio across the river Torni that forms the border.  Haparanda was built after the Russians took Finland in 1807 and the Swedes decided that they needed a new town on the river.  As a result not a lot happens in Haparanda.  We did stop to see the new cathedral which was opened in 1960 to a public outcry and has since been voted the ugliest church in Sweden (probably not a hard thing to achieve, they're mostly gorgeous).  But the lure of the ugliest church drew us there and were greeted by a structure that looked a bit like someone had built a large Monopoly hotel out of black corrugated iron and then stretched it to be about 3 storeys high.  The guide book described it as a cross between an aircraft hanger and a highrise apartment block.  It was monstrously beautiful in its own way, but I can see why you might not like to have your wedding there.  The inside wasn’t too flash either, looking a bit like a schoolroom or office training room.  The graveyard surrounding it had many of the graves with the occupation of the occupant marked over their name in an old traditional style, which made for more interesting reading, except that most of then were "borderguard", indicating the main industry of the town.

I might take a quick paragraph to explain our odd interest in churches, given our general lack of interest in organised religion - and you don't get much more organised than whacking up a great big building on behalf of the community.  But it's this fact that churches are built on behalf of a community that makes them so interesting, especially when you're travelling around and get to see lots of different ones in a short enough space of time to compare them.  A church is the single piece of architecture and art that represents how a community of people want to see themselves (usually the inside) and how they want others to view them (usually the outside).  It's built mostly with local money and local people probably have a big say in the design.  The other interesting thing is that each church building has started with the same specifications, namely to build a hall where people can gather to hear a priest and to witness the personal milestones of their friends and neighbours.  It usually has the same overall design, with the altar at one end of an aisle of seats, usually with a high ceiling and nooks around it for chapels or choirs or organs, a belltower out the front and various recurring designs and themes inside.  The really interesting thing is to see what the local people (or artists and architects working on their behalf) have done with this framework - a bit like revelling in what different musicians have done with the same 12-bar blues structure.

Anyway, after Haparanda, we crossed the Torni river and the border it represents and entered...

Northern Finland

After crossing the border, we followed the coast for a few km before joining the main north road to Rovaniemi.  Rovaniemi is the main town in northern Finland and lies a couple of km south of the Arctic Circle where the Ounasjoki river meets the Kemijoki ("It's just like Barryoke, but it's actually a river in Lappland").  The centre of the city is quite modern, on account of the occupying German force burning it to the ground when they were chucked out at the end of WW2 (a little mean given that Finland was actually on the German side in that war - but only because they needed help against their traditional enemy Russia, who had used the war as an excuse to try and recapture their former territory).  The weather was grey and a bit grim, which added nicely to the feeling of arctic isolation I was hoping for - though the other 40,000 inhabitants, shopping centres and major highway north did counter that slightly (one shopping centre was called “KKK Market”, and appropriately, 1k north there was one called “KKKK Market” – there was also a burger chain called Hesburger for those who know Kathryn’s husband).

On our full day in Rovaniemi, we visited the Arcticum museum, which had some nice exhibits on life up there and a great indigenous Arctic peoples section, focussing (appropriately) on the Sami (the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia who used to be referred to as Lapps).  I personally find this presence of an indigenous people here very interesting since the Nordic and Finnic people from southern Scandinavia are (most likely) also the indigenous people of that region (give or take a bit of blending with European neighbours).  So it’s not like the Australian (or NZ or USA or Canada) experience of a foreign people coming from across the sea and colonising a country, but the latest stages of the gradual movement of farming cultures into areas formerly the domain of hunter gatherers (and reindeer herders).  So I guess this makes the change wrought on their culture a bit slower and has given then a little bit more time to adapt – a lot of what I read on their future emphasises that they see themselves as modernising while keeping their cultural identity, rather than trying to live in a time warp (the use of snowmobiles, helicopters and GPS in their reindeer herding is a frequently cited example) – though there has still been a lot of pressure on their culture in typical 19th and early 20th century style.  Anyway for those interested, while the Sami are by and large indistinguishable from the European population (with very white skin), there did seem to be a tendency to brown eyes and darker hair in many of the photos I saw (though many are blue eyed blondes), as well as a tendency to be shorter and stockier than their countrymen further south, with fairly round faces, broadest towards the bottom (sorry if this sounds like the worst sort of 19th century scientific ethnographic stereotyping, but it is honestly the sort of question I’d ask you if you were writing this).

After the museum (and being indoors for the worst of the weather), we had lunch at the world's northernmost Subway (we assume, Anders and Anna went to the official northernmost McDonalds and we couldn't imagine a town with a Subway that didn't have a McDonalds).  Following this we went to the Santa Clause Village on the Arctic Circle (about 5km north of Roveneimi).  This IS where he lives for 364 days of the year and we even met him in person to prove it.  Due to the natural wobbles in the angle of the Earth’s axis (which my first year uni Physics lecturer explained to me once) the Arctic Circle (technically the points above which the sun doesn’t set on the summer solstice) moves slowly over time and is now about 1km north of the official line.  We therefore drove about 5km north to make doubly sure we’d entered the Arctic.  We had a nice cup of tea by an Arctic lake in a nice little picnic area (though this time with enclosed wooden teepee-like structures with a fireplace in the middle for those there in winter) and a walk through the birch forest.  In case you were wondering, the treeline must be a fair bit further north because you wouldn’t really think you were in the Arctic where we were with no tundra in sight (and a surprisingly busy highway north nearby).  It was a magical experience nonetheless.

Then back to the hotel for a sauna (gender segregated and nude – on the male side at least) and a few beers before waving to Agnete (Anders’ wife back home) on the webcam in Lordi Square – that’s right, the central mall in Rovaniemi is named after their favourite residents, Eurovision winning monster rockers Lordi.  We did have an interesting encounter with a drunk Finnish AJ (Army Jerk, not Anders Jakku) who was trying to be mean to the two Swedes but ended up having to be polite to the two Australians who, only partly aware of the Swedish-Finnish tension, started asking him all sorts of polite questions in English.

Next day we started south again in the bright sunshine, down the middle of Finland through Ranua, Pudasjärvi, Kajaani and ending in Kuopio, with only two short separate side trips towards Kuusamo when we kept missing turnoffs (after that Anders put his GPS on and the navcom lady told us where to go in her cute Finnish accented Swedish) – though at the end of one wrong turn, just as we were about to backtrack, we saw an elk in the wild (I got a great photo of elk habitat after he ran off just as I got the camera out).  The countryside reminded me oddly of a rural road in western Queensland (in winter) with bright sun, long narrow road and fairly dry country. We stopped off early in the day at the Ranua zoo to see just about every species of Finnish bird and mammal (and rock) and were in a bit of a hurry after that, arriving in Kuopio at about 9pm.  We took a quick walk to the woodfired sauna (the largest in the world) but got there half an hour before closing time and couldn’t work out where to go in so didn’t bother as a sauna is not something you can rush anyway.  It was a nice walk though around the lake and through the forest.  It was, of course, still light at this time – sunset in Rovaniemi was about 11:30pm and even in Rockhammar at the moment it sets after 10pm.  Even after it sets the sky never loses its just-after-dusk blue from the suns rays diffracting over the arctic from the north.  As a result we haven’t seen any stars since we got back from the Kumuka trip, despite being out of the cities most of the time.

Lake Region

Next day we went up the local TV tower in Kuopio to see the Finnish lake district from above.  The land between Kuopio, Tampera, Lahti and Savonlinna mostly isn’t, it’s a huge and bafflingly complex network of lakes caused by the glacial icecaps grinding the land fairly flat and depositing the rubble at the furthest extent of one iceage in a large moraine that forms the southern coast of Finland (and from my untrained eye seems to extend from Vyborg in Russia, through Helsinki, the Ǻland Islands, Stockholm and mid Sweden).  The guide book said that in some areas one third of the land is covered by water, though I saw plenty of smaller areas where 100% of the land was covered by water.  At Kuopio, we said goodbye to Anders and Anna, who continued driving towards Turku and the ferry back to Sweden, and hopped on the bus to Savonlinna.

Savonlinna is great.  It's a smallish town spread over a few islands between a few more lakes (with a few more islands in them).  It's got a great holiday vibe to it and I got the feeling there were more visitors there than locals.  The main drawcard for the town is the Olavinlinna castle, built in 1480.  As one guidebook put it's "perched on a small island and looking like some great grey sea monster surfacing from the deep".  It's really the old fashioned towers and walls castle that Prague couldn't seem to manage.  It sits on a granite rock on the main channel between two of the main groups of lakes in the region (and corollarily on the main land route where the lakes aren't if you think about it).  It's also in a fairly fast flowing channel of water that doesn't freeze in winter, making it impossible to employ the old northern trick of waiting for winter and simply marching over the ice.  It was built for the Swedes by a Dane and named after a Norwegian (St Olaf), during the short period of the Kalmar Union when everyone seemed to enjoy being unified (although no-one asked the Finns what they thought) - and was built to guard against the expansionist ambitions of Russia. The irony that it was actually built on Russian territory at the time appears not to have been lost on the builders, but it was just such a great place for a castle they thought they'd sneak it in there anyway. 

Our B&B was on the shore of the lake looking right at the castle, so much so that at one point I was lying on the bed watching TV (only briefly I assure you) when I realised that one of the towers of the castle was neatly framed in the doorway.  Sometimes you get lucky with accommodation.  Aside from the castle there's lots of great Finnish woodland to walk through and lakes to look at.  I tried jumping into one, but it was so cold I almost rebounded out before I had a chance to get fully wet, though after a sauna it would probably be perfect.  We also went on an old fashioned steamship for a 2 hour tour of the lakes, complete with surprisingly listenable accordion driven maritime music over the tannoy.  The boat was gorgeously fitted out with wood panelling and red fabric seats and the lakes just kept coming (you'd see a bay up ahead that would gradually deepen into a channel before revealing a whole ‘nother lake with yet more islands).  Great place to visit, highly recommend it - though if you do go there, remember that the main street through town is also the main traffic route through the whole region, so get off it asap and walk around the harbour instead - the two could not be more different.  Oh, and the church is nice - with pictures along the ceiling inside that look like they were done in crayon by a group of extremely gifted schoolchildren (and I mean that in a positive way, it gave it an open simple vibe).

After Savonlinna we got the train down to Helsinki (via Parikkala, Lappeenranta and Lahti for those tracking our route).  Gotta love those finnish placenames.  Gotta love the language too - I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before, but it soulds remarkably like a Swede speaking Greek, with all it's Ks and tightly rolled Rs.  I think it might be the almost total lack of voiced plosives (no Bs or Gs and almost no Ds) that gives it its distinctive clipped cadence, but also the women (at least) seem to speak it with a slightly higher pitched (almost shrill but not in a bad way) voice.  The people (OK, my aesthetic eye does tend to fall more often on the female locals, not in a wandering way but for the simple fact that women are nicer to look at than men, and you get funny looks if you spend too much time looking at men) have a certain look to them too.  The ones that didn't look like Emma's sister Karina (I think she maybe got slightly more of their father's looks than Emma and her brother) look oddly like my friend Zoe, who has no Finnish heritage that I know of.  And they all wear the same sort of glasses too, which is really weird.  The Swedish influence made itself a bit more noticeable as we moved into the bigger cities along the coast.

Helsinki

We arrived in Helsinki and walked our bags to the hostel, which was a student dorm for most of the year.  It had a really institutional vibe - totally lacking in charm but everything worked OK and it was reasonably central.  We spent the rest of the day doing laundry, shopping and having a supermarket dinner and generally readjusting to big city vibes and prices.

First stop next day was the Temppeliaukio kirkko (love those Finnish names), a modern church carved out of one of the outcrops of granite bedrock that dot the city, like the earth's bare skin showing through.  It's a lovely place, more like a pagan temple than a church, with a round floorplan.  Despite the sign at the front in about 17 languages asking people to be silent, many of the tourists were still blabbing away like their tiniest thoughts were more important than the peaceful atmosphere (I've noticed that, aside from the Yanks, the Japanese are the main offenders here, so next time you're in a Shinto shrine, feel free to sing some karaoke or something - there were also quite a few Finnish offenders, but I figure they can do what they like in their own country).

Next we hopped on the tram that does a loop of Helsinki and saw a lot of the city in one hour or so (to get an orientation).  Unlike in Vienna, this tram understood the concept of "loop" and dropped us off near the Central Railway Station.  This building is one of the icons of Helsinki (known for its architecture before the Australian indie band) with a front edifice including four giant statues holding the streetlamps.  Then, walking past a Finnish busker dressed in his best funk finery and wailing away on an electric guitar and wahwah pedal ala Jimi Hendrix (the Finns do have a good sense of the silly), we headed for Senatori Square.  Here we found another icon of Helsinki, the Lutheran Cathedral, a giant white building with a copper roof (yay) that sits on a hill overlooking a smallish square surrounded by buildings that the guidebook raved about but which we thought were a little underwhelming.  We didn't get to see inside the cathedral because there were weddings going on.  The square itself was seemed small, but it was full of preparations for some sort of mardi gras, including a stage full of skinny blonde Finns performing African dancing - luckily their skill made up for their melanin deficiency. 

Next it was on to the market square next to the harbour (Kuapatori - you can definitely see that a lot of words have been borrowed from Swedish and then Finnished), which was covered in stalls selling mostly fruit, seafood and souvenirs (I liked one fur stall whose sign read "Fox, Mink, Bear.  Also Knives").  Finland seems to be holding on to the tradition of having a market square in every town that is just a cobblestone square where market stalls are set up, we saw the same thing in Kuopio, Turku and Savonlinna and they're not just tourist junk either.  After a reindeer kebab (nice but could easily have substituted lamb and I probably wouldn't have known) we went up to the other cathedral in town - the Orthodox Cathedral (biggest in Western Europe), reflecting Finland's Russian history.  The guide book described the outside as drab, I strongly disagree.  It was a perfect blend of deep red brick and copper roofed domes with gold (looking) spheres at the top of each dome/spire that caught the light making the whole thing a little like a giant birthday cake just waiting for "Happy Birthday" to finish.  And it's on a huge natural boulder with the granite visible beneath it.  And (unlike those antisocial Lutherans) we got to go inside this one even though there was a wedding on - there were heaps of sightseers, it wasn't just us and we didn't realise there was anything on until we got in.  The inside was blinged up in that great Orthodox way and a priest and choir were chanting/singing the service.  It was freaking amazing (and for once people were shutting the hell up). 

Next we hopped the ferry to Suominlinna (the Finnish name meaning "Finnish Castle", you might have heard of it by its Swedish name "Sveaborg" meaning "Swedish Fortress"), which is an 18th century fortress built across 5 islands off Helsinki.  It is World Heriatage listed because it is wonderfully representative of 18th century naval architecture.  Unfortunately though, 18th century naval architecture is not known for its aesthetics (think of an army base) and the fortress is not really a singular entity, so it lacks a certain amount of "thereness" - you can't look at it as a singular site and say "there it is, it's wonderful".  That's not to say it wasn't nice to visit, I just felt like there were other, better things we could have been seeing with our time.  The locals have a totally different perspective of it though - they get off the ferry with a carton of beer (some people had eskies on little trolleys) and go sit in the parks and windswept hills or rocks and enjoy a day out.  And the ferry ride gave us a nice view of Helsinki with its twin cathedrals and twin huge ferries to Stockholm (Viking Line and Silja Line) that were almost as big. 

On the way home from the dock, we passed the parade that must have been what was being set up in the Senatori square earlier, which consisted of hundreds of blonde blue-eyed young Finnish ladies dancing in unison along the street.  Although this was just how Nazi Germany started, they were probably saved from totalitarianism by the samba music and rainbow umbrellas they were twirling (and the fact that they had a civil war in the 1920s between the far left and far right and, after a few tens of thousand dead, decided that consensus politics was a lot easier).

That night (Saturday night) we went out to a jazz bar near our hostel.  Emma had a cold so sitting watching jazz beat drinking and clubbing.  On the bill was the very unimaginatively named "Swing Cats" (which is like a rock band called The Rockers) from the Netherlands (a sextet of which only two were from the Netherlands).  Luckily though what they lacked in nomenclature they more than made up for in musical ability, with a Dutch frontman looking like Mayor West from Family Guy (complete with suit) and an American guest on trumpet who looked and acted like Steve Garret (a swing dancer) if he aged 20 years and stopped exercising.  After the first set was over, Emma said we should have a dance, but the first song of the second set brought the Finns out of their shells and onto the dancefloor, though they were out drunkened by a bunch of middleaged Australian women who tried to form a handbag circle but ended up just dumping them on the stage before falling over a few times.  We stayed there till dawn (ie 12:45am) before walking out into the soft light of a city that knows it doesn't have to go home just because the sun is up.

Next day we were a little tired and Emma still had her cold and we were probably going through a bit of a "2 weeks travelling" dip in energy.  We walked up to see a few more sights to the north.  Finlandia hall was a modernist masterpiece by Finland's eminent architect (Aavo Alto) according to the book, but all we saw was an ugly building from the 1970s that looked like QPAC in Brisbane.  The Opera house was equally unattractive.  The Olympic Stadium was allowed to be a bit small since it was built for the 1940 Olympics that got cancelled when Hitler took the Pole Vault a little too metaphorically - they made up for it by having them in 1952 and then hosting the Equestrian and Sailing for the 1956 Melbourne Games.  The view from the tower was nice.  Next we walked to Sibelius Park, celebrating the famous Finnish composer to see the sculpture made in his honour that looks like a large collection of burning organ pipes, and possibly represents his music.  I wouldn't know, but it was nice nonetheless.  Our final stop was at Helsinki's main beach, which with its cold, lifeless water and view of high tension power lines going across the bay has all the qualities a Finn might see in Queensland's skifields. 

The way back took us through the main cemetery where the who was who of Finnish society for the past 150 years are buried, including ex presidents.  It was a surprisingly nice middeground between a chaotic overgrown old cemetery and a regimented overtrimmed lawn cemetery.  The gravestones each had their own character like sculptures representing the occupant's life and work and the surroundings were green and alive and natural looking - a nice place to spend a short time or an eternity and the one place befitting the overcast day.  We got home and Emma decided she didn’t want to go out again, so I was allowed out to find the fabled free bikes provided by the city (you put in a 2 euro deposit to unlock it from the rack and got it back when you returned it).  Armed with a vague map I walked off to find a bike rack and take a bike to the big park in the south of town that we hadn't had time to visit.  After an hour of looking for the bike racks (and not really knowing what I was looking for) I discovered why they're free, they don't exist.  I found 3 different racks with not a single lime green bike in sight.  I could have walked to the park in the time it took me, but at least I gave it a shot.  I went home after that.  Poo.  On the whole though, I liked Helsinki.  It's got a surprising amount going on given that its population is only a few hundred thousand, and it's got a nice laid back kind of vibe (though so does most of Finland).

Turku

Anyway, next day it was on the train to Turku, the old capital of Finland before the Russians took over in 1807 and moved the capital away from Sweden a bit.  For some reason the Swedes call it Åbo, which doesn't sound remotely close.  First stop after checking in to our B&B was to take the bus to the port to pick up our ferry tickets, followed by a short walk to the castle.  Turku castle may look like a stone barn on the outside, but it is dripping with history and it's very castley inside with a cool courtyard, places to throw people they didn't want running around causing mischief and a tower to keep the ladies safe if they were attacked.  Of course it's burned down a few times and spent the last hundred years of its pre-restoration life as a prison, but it's been nicely restored and was just lovely (even to our rapidly travel-tiring eyes).  We then took the bus back to town to see the other symbol of Turku's former power, the cathedral.  This was built about 700 years ago (about the same time as the castle) and looks like a small stone country church, except that it's freaking HUGE.  When you look at the photos, note how big the people in front are.  While we were there, tiptoeing around trying not to disturb the silence, the organ suddenly burst into life (the organist was presumably practicing) giving the place a great atmosphere. 

That night we walked to find a jazz club that was a bit like the Brisbane Jazz club, a small affair near the river with a nice enough Dixie-land group.  We had a dance and then the band took a break.  We wanted to get to dinner so we left at that point and walked along the river to the Viking Harald Restaurant.  And we're glad we did, OK so it was a bit kitchy, but they did it with such a great spirit, with roughly chiselled wooden furniture, a great menu with a cute story made up about each dish and meals served on things like slate, wooden platters and swords (albeit small skewer-like swords).  I had various local animal parts in sausage form (reindeer and elk) and finished with pine tar icecream, an odd dish that smelled like medicated shampoo but tasted nice - smokey and sweet at the same time.  The waitress (who was also good fun in an understated Finnish way) said that it is made by roasting pine root without air to (presumably) christalise the resin or something.  She said there is a Finnish saying: "If it can't be cured with pine tar, vodka or a sauna, forget about it, it's fatal."  Although we only spent one day and night in Turku, we really liked it.  It's got two universities (one Swedish speaking and one Finnish speaking - wonder how they get along) which add to the relaxed, laid back vibe the town has.

Åland

Next day it was off early to catch the Viking Line ferry to Mariehamn on the Åland Islands.  The ferry ride was very cheap (only 39euro each to get all the way to Stockholm), but I guess they make their money in duty free alcohol sales and pokies (for the Gambling team at work, I saw a poster which translated as "Pokies: more fun than you think").  The ship itself was lovely, a sort of floating seaside shopping centre with 3 restaurants, 2 dance floors, a bar and, most importantly, wonderful views of the islands floating past as the Finnish coast slowly disintegrated to gradually reform as the Åland Islands (pronounced "OR-land") - an archipelago between Finland and Sweden that is culturally Swedish, technically Finnish and mostly autonomous.  They have their own flag (like the Swedish flag, but with a red/orange cross inside the yellow one), speak Swedish and use the Euro.  It's a bit like Norfolk Island in Australia I suppose.  Because of the autonomy, ships that go there from either side technically cross international waters, allowing the duty free booze and pokies.  As a result, many people from each side get on the ferry to Åland just for the trip and return without setting foot on the islands themselves.  We were treated to the interesting spectacle of two ships docking in Mariehamn from each side, and everyone (except for about 6 people out of hundreds) getting off each ship and walking along the special walkway onto the other ship going right back where they came from.  No wonder the tickets are so cheap.

Mariehamn was a wonderful little town by the sea that reminded us of Magnetic Island off Townsville.  A few streets of lovely little Swedish houses, a little church, a linden-lined avenue and a free bus service that swerved around like it thought it was a mini-moke.  And everywhere was close to the sea and green and granity.  We wanted to rent bikes to have a bit of a look outside of town, but the very helpful lady at RO-NO ("What's that Scoob?") told us that we'd be wasting our money since they had to be back by 7pm (and it was already about 4pm) and directed us to the aforementioned bus service.  So if you're ever in Åland, rent your bikes there, they're very honest.  The weather had not been great the whole voyage and we got caught in a few rainstorms in Mariehamn, but there was enough intermittent sunshine to see how gorgeous it would be in the right weather.  It'd make a great boozy overnighter from Stockholm too, as a couple of groups of teenage boys proved, though they didn't bother us way up the other end of the cheapest hotel we'd stay in the whole trip.

Next day was still ordinary weather, so we checked out the museum ship "Pommern" anchored in front of the hotel.  The Pommern was the last sailing ship in the world to take commercial cargo, and spent its last few years in the 1930s taking wheat from Australia to England.  It was great to have a look around, especially after reading so much shipboard fiction by Joseph Conrad when I was younger.  The written descriptions of each room were mercifully brief but informative (unlike this drivel - assuming you've read this far) and it was interesting to see how alternately cramped and spacious it was.  After that it was time to hit the more modern ship onward to Stockholm.

The Stockholm run was another 5 hours or so, but this time we brought our dancing shoes and tried some of the cheapish drinks being served at the bar.  The band was OK, but the music they played during the breaks was more danceable and they had moving stars projected onto the dance floor that made for a lovely effect (along with the alcohol).  At one point we did start to stagger sideways, but realised that it was because the ship had turned, rather than any internal lack of balance - the ship was normally so smooth you forgot you were on one.  So we saw the outer Stockholm archipelago and then had dinner and missed a lot of the inner archipelago before coming back on deck to see the ship come past the last few islands into Stockholm.  During the whole 11hr trip from Turku we’d only been out of sight of islands for about half an hour.

Stockholm

It started to rain as we disembarked so we cabbed it the short distance to the hostel, on board another ship anchored on the southern side of the lake - the 6th boat we'd been onboard since Savonlinna.  After grumbling a bit about the big city prices and the fact that our room overlooked the dock rather than the lake, we headed to Chicago - the swing dance venue in Stockholm we'd been to while in Stockholm a few months before.  This time they had a live band and Emma and I decided that we couldn't be arsed asking people to dance if they weren't going to ask us, so we danced with each other and watched a few of the locals strut their stuff, and frankly we had a great time watching people dance.  It reminded me of when I started back at the Mustang just enjoying the spectacle - it's a fun dance to watch and I haven't really had the opportunity to just watch it for a while (especially with people I hadn't seen dance a million times before).

Next day the sun was shining and we went up the Katarina Lift to see the view of Gamla Stan from the top.  Unfortunately whatever twit built it put the lift in the way of the view once you're at the top.  But it only cost $2 and meant we didn't have to climb the stairs up the cliff to Södermalm, where we looked around the old wooden houses for a bit before wandering back down to Gamla Stan.  I was pleased to discover that Stockholm really is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe - I was a little worried I'd only thought that earlier because it was the first European city I'd seen.  We enjoyed another meal at the Hermitage, a very reasonably priced vegetarian buffet restaurant in Gamla Stan oozing charm and friendliness and (metaphorically only) bloody good food before grabbing our packs and walking to the bus station to get the shuttle to the airport to meet Chris (Emma's mum who was coming over for a few weeks) and Anders (who was picking us all up for the drive back to Rockhammar).

Midsommar week in Sweden

On our return it was lovely to watch Chris meet Agnete - they'd known each other for years, but had never met in person before (Anders had visited Australia a couple of times).  This was followed by a lot of talk about birds (they're all avid bird watchers).  After a couple of days we drove up to Finnafallet, Anders and Agnete's summer cottage - a 4 room cabin on an isolated forested mountain top at the end of a remote dirt road with no electricity or running water but more luxury than you could imagine.  Being summer, it was also surrounded by wildflowers, huge buzzing bees and twittering birds.  After a "night" partying and celebrating Chris's arrival we walked down to one of the nearby lakes to see the mist rising off the surface (and Michael and Anders splashing into it for a quick dip).  Next day we BBQed and ate and soaked up the nature before Anders drove us into Örebro so we could catch the morning bus to Stockholm for the day.  Anders then went back up to Finnafallet where they stayed for the next few nights - they go up there at every opportunity and I can now see why.

The day in Stockholm was spent at the open air museum "Skansen", where we saw lots of example buildings from Sweden's past - farmsteads from different parts of the country, animals both wild and domesticated in the zoo, a Sami village, a town hall from the 1920s, a schoolhouse where the teacher lived and worked (and kept bees to supplement his income) and a lovely red wooden church with painted wood interior.  It was staffed with people in period dress who were lurking (unobtrusively) to answer any questions anyone might have.  After that we got the ferry over to Gamla Stan, but the weather turned a bit ordinary and Chris was already suffering from a cold so we got a hot chocholate in a cafe in a gorgeous red building on Stor Torget (it's the one on the left in one of the photos) before again revisiting Hermitage before the bus home at 6pm.  It was a nice day and only cost about $20 for both bus rides of 2.5 hours.

A few days later it was time for Midsommar.  The Swedes celebrate the summer solstice with maypoles and traditional dancing and a big meal with family, not unlike an Australian Xmas without the presents.  Anna and her partner Magnus joined us for a fun evening of beer and snaps and food and guitar playing and singing followed by a late night walk up to Lustholmen ("Pleasure Island" as Anders enjoys translating) for an impromptu dance lesson in Swedish traditional dance on the deserted dance floor there.  After dancing till dawn (again, not as late as it sounds) we youngsters went for a midsommar dip on the local swimming spot before coming home to sleep till 2pm and spend the next day watching TV movies and nursing the inevitable midsommar hangover.  Emma did finally get a chance to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 – A Space Odyssey” – or more accurately ran out of luck avoiding it (her metaphorical vox pop at the cinema door at the end was the common “What the fuck?”)

Yesterday we drove to Örebro to see the city park, voted Sweden's best in 2004 and Europe's 5th best in 2006.  And it deserves it, with flower beds and lovely sculptures (including a recently completed chainsaw sculpture of Örebro made from the stump of a recently deceased tree, still rooted in the ground - something Brisbane City Council should consider doing with the jacarandas they have to remove) and green, green grass.  And it's also got its own open air museum (Wadköping) of buildings from before and after (you guessed it) the great fire of 1854.  So, with two cathedrals, a mediæval castle, a free viewing tower AND a terrific park, Örebro has even more of the things we looked for in the great cities of Europe.  If it had a swing dancing scene it would be perfect.

So that's us up to date.  Sorry it took so long, but as you can see we kept having much better things to do than blog.  Sorry also that it's soooo loooong.  As one friend said, I've been blogging like a teenager on ice (I assume she meant the amphetamine and not the frozen water because the mind boggles if she did (-:).  But I wrote it as I remembered it, you'll just have to mentally edit it by only remembering the interesting bits and look forward to the point in every blogger’s career when he just can't be arsed anymore.

Comments

1

Hey kids, sounds like you've managed to see and do more in a couple of months than I did during my entire time away. I guess that's what happens when you have more planning and saving time, ja?

However, it could just be the dangerously comprehensive updates that lead me to this conclusion. I confess that I did a bit of skimming on the one above. But I'm sure if you had more time you would have written less, right? Right?

If you happen to run across a good CD of Swedish folk music, I would love to get my hands on one. All the folk music I brought back was on MiniDisc, that sadly outmoded technology which was only ever used by sound techs and the occasional gullible musician such as myself.

Mark B

  Mark Jun 25, 2008 3:24 PM

2

Hi Guys,

Thanks for the history lesson Michael I have been wondering how you keep yourself enteratined while on holiday so long and now I know!! I am loving all the castles and cathedrals you have been to. I keep thinking of the two weeks we spent in Japan and all the castles and temples we saw there. They are all so different but all the same (if you know what I mean).

The scenery is just georgeous everything is so green and lush.

Glad to see you are getting some dancing in. I had a laugh at the handbag circle image and also at the dancing on the ship. We had a funny time on the trip to Alaska when we tried to Bal during large seas. Very hard to get your down holds going when the floor keeps coming up to meet you!!

Look forward to the next instalment guys. You sound like you are having a great time.

Trina

  Trina Jun 29, 2008 9:42 AM

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