DAY 48: CRUISING THE BALTIC SEA


Farewell Finland – we’re off to Sweden!

Our week in Finland is up already and tonight we’re sleeping aboard the Tallink Silja ship “Serenade”. The Serenade is one of a fleet of ferries that go between Stockholm and Helsinki, across the Northern Baltic Sea. It’s a huge ship – 12 floors above the waterline, a host of restaurants and shops on board, and enough berths for almost 3,000 passengers. It also holds up to 450 cars, which is A LOT! We’re up on the top floor and have an external cabin with a window to the outside world (my choice – I can’t stand the thought of being locked in an inside cabin, with no view out to the world and no way of knowing what time of day it is). The cabin is small but comfortable and we got an authentic Swedish “dinner viking” (translation = dinner and drinks buffet) included with our ticket, so what’s not to love?!

The internal promenade of the shop. This is where all the shops and restaurants are.

Us on the internal promenade of the ship. Some of the cabins have windows to the inside of the ship, as you can see behind us.

Leaving the Port of Helsinki this afternoon.

Tonight’s abode: our cabin on the Tallnik Silja “Serenade”.

We have a map of the North Baltic Sea in our cabin. It shows the route the ship takes on its journey to Stockholm. Shane is kindly indicating where Helsinki is on the map. We’re going all the way to the far side.

Watching all the cars queue up to drive into the ship from our cabin window.

Watching the world go past from our dinner table on the Tallnik Silja “Serenade”.

We boarded the ship in Helsinki, after catching the train in Savonlinna this morning. Murphy’s Law being what it is, given that we were leaving Savonlinna today, the rain stopped. It was still cloudy, but there was no Arctic wind to freeze our eyelids shut. Despite the clouds, it was lovely watching Savonlinna Castle, Lake Saima, forests and farmlands go past from the train, and then to see Helsinki fade into the distance as we sailed away this afternoon.

Watching Savonlinna Castle go by from the train.

Watching lakes and rivers and forest zip past from the train.

Passing views of Finnish farmlands.

Watching as we left the city of Helsinki behind.

Sailing out of Helsinki harbour, past its many small islands.

Leaving the final piece of Finland behind.

Even though we have only been in Finland a week, there are a few memories we will definitely take with us from this unique country, including: 

  • The language. Finnish is entirely alien to us and was difficult to develop an ear for. The words are not at all familiar and I just thank God that Finns speak English so well! There were words that when said, bore no resemblance to how they’re written. Verbs have 17 possible conjugative forms and there are way too many “k’s”! Finnish just doesn’t sound like any language we know (and we know a few between us), it’s not structured like any language we know and it would take some real effort to learn even the basics I think.   
  • The food. We’ve concluded that Finns like their food to be densely nutritious. Their bread is like their toilet paper: dark, thick and hard. The rye bread is so dense that you need to chew it very thoroughly to be able to get it down. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very nutrient-dense I’m sure and better than the super fluffy white rubbish bread we had in Japan, but man is it solid. Finnish rye bread is designed to last the winter, the WHOLE winter. As well as dense bread, Finns like their berries, milk products and oats a lot. Every breakfast buffet had porridge at breakfast, with yoghurt and berries of course. And when we went to buy yoghurt, it came premixed with oat flakes OR with oats and berries. As well as yoghurt, they have a few different types of fermented milk products like kefir; and there are loads of different cheeses here that we never see at home in Aus – including the juustoleipa (translation = baked cheese) that Shane loved so much. There’s not much in the way of added flavourings (i.e. chilli, garlic, onion, herbs, salt, pepper), but what’s there is very filling.   
  • The cold. It’s summer and yesterday the MAXIMUM temperature was 10C. In winter it gets to -45C. Need I say more?
  • The beauty. It’s just so pretty! All the lakes, rivers, forests and national parks make this a paradise for hikers, boaters and campers; and towns like Helsinki and Porvoo are great examples of well preserved, attractive European architecture.

We would love to come back to see more of Finland’s wilderness. Shane is particularly keen to embark on one of the multi-day kayak or canoe trips we’ve seen advertised throughout the Finnish Lakes Region. You basically pack all your stuff into a canoe at one end of the lake and paddle 15-20kms a day for 2-7 days with a guide to ensure you end up in the right place. It would be a great way to see some Finnish wilderness, but the fact that you have to camp each night on the lakeshore puts me off. I guess Shane will just have to find another friend to take on that trip!

There’ also a whole lot of Northern Finland that we didn’t get to see this time, so that’s the list for next time too. We’d love to go right up to Inari, far above the Arctic Circle, to learn more about the Sami and how they live their traditional lives as reindeer herders so far North. On the way I would also like to go to Rovaniemi, the “official” terrestrial residence of Santa Claus. For now though, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with what we’ve seen of Finland so far, because tomorrow we wake up in Sweden! Good night until then, from somewhere out in the middle of the Baltic Sea…

DAY 47: REFLECTIONS FROM SAVONLINNA


10°C + 30km/hr wind + rain? No Finland – no!

Today was not the summer’s day we expected. It has been cold, wet, windy and most un-summerish, at least by Australian standards. Guess one of the consequences of being past the 60th parallel (Savonlinna is 62° North of the equator) is changeable weather and the occasional summer’s day that chills you to the bone. Given how inclement it was today, we decided to forgo our planned lake cruise and stayed in instead. It was actually great to rug up under the doona and spend the day reading and chilling out. We ventured out only to hunt and gather (at the local supermarket), and quickly returned to the warmth of our apartment. The wind is icy – fresh off the Arctic and cold enough to freeze snotsicles to your face. Not a fun day for any kind of water sports or hiking! So I’m afraid we have nothing to report today. We did nothing of interest today; nothing! We looked at some of our pictures from the other day though – remembering longingly the wonder of Savonlinna blue…

 

Dreaming of Savonlinna blue…

We did, however, have lots of time to chat and reflect on all the travelling we’ve done so far. It’s been 6.5 weeks since we left Brisbane with our worlds packed into a couple of backpacks. In some ways the time has really flown and it’s easy to see how years could pass in this way, if one had the means to keep travelling. In other ways, it seems like ages since we landed in Osaka and had that first disastrous cold, fishy breakfast! We’ve done so much new stuff in the past few weeks, certainly so much more than we would have if we’d still being working and going about our lives back in Aus. We’ve seen some amazing stuff, had some unique experiences, learnt a lot, had some great food, and met some really interesting people; we’ve also been pushed outside our comfort zones and had to navigate our way through some rather challenging situations. But that was always the appeal of travel for us – to experience things we never could back home, to learn and to perhaps shift our perspectives a little.

Certainly we’ve found that we’re quite enjoying living very simply and our experiences so far have made us realise how liberating it is having minimal amounts of stuff to worry about. That freedom is precious to us and we really don’t want to re-clutter our lives with stuff. The flip-side of owning so little and being so free is that we also don’t have a home or much stability in our lives at the moment. 47 days in that’s still not a problem, but perhaps it will be in a few more months; the key will be finding a way to live and enjoy a balance between stability and freedom. For now though, we’re quite happy changing cities every 3 or 4 days, seeing new sights, trying new foods and meeting new people all the time.

We’ve been particularly fortunate in our travels so far to have met some great people. For example, on the train from Aomori to Osore-zan in Northern Japan we met Russell, a British gentleman who has been living in Japan for more than 11 years. He has married a Japanese lady and teaches English. We spent the whole 3 hours train journey chatting to Russell about his experiences living in Japan and about his insights into Japanese cultural norms. It was really enlightening and interesting, and gave us the opportunity to understand a bit more about the Japan, beyond the superficial things one sees when travelling. Most of all we really appreciated Russell’s generosity in sharing so much of himself, his experiences and his thoughts with a couple of strangers on a train. 

In Russia too we were lucky enough to have in our tour group a family from South Africa who had been heavily involved in the anti-Apartheid movement. The patriarch of the family had been part of the ANC and had served as a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government. He had been to the Soviet Union in 1985 as part of an ANC political delegation and had brought his family with him to see the wonders he remembered from his previous visit. As a member of the ANC he had been forced into exile from South Africa for 26 years and had travelled extensively throughout the world (including in Australia), trying to garner support for the anti-Apartheid movement. It was fascinating talking to the family about their experiences and their perspectives on South Africa – how far it has come, and how far it still has to go. To meet people with such passion for their convictions is humbling.

It’s also been quite humbling seeing some of the sights we’ve seen; being in the presence of immense natural wonders such as the volcanic mountain of Osore-zan, Lake Shikotsu-ko, or the 500 year old cedar trees of Togakushi in Japan, can definitely make you feel small and awe-struck. Some of the man-made wonders have been pretty awe-inspiring as well, but in different ways. In places like Koya-san and Pskov it was more the sense of history that affected us; whilst in the Hermitage and the palaces of St Petersburg it was the overwhelming display of wealth and artistry. So much of what we’ve seen and experienced though has left us with a deep, abiding sense of wonder. The world is most definitely an amazing place – and we’ve yet to see so much of it! We’re very excited to see more!

 

Some of the more memorable natural wonders we’ve seen so far….

 

Some of the more memorable man-made wonders we’ve seen so far…

So nothing new to report from Finland, just that we are well and, despite the Arctic summer, are still enjoying our travels. Tomorrow we’re catching the train back to Helsinki and then boarding a ferry for an overnight trip to Stockholm. So tomorrow evening’s blog will come to you from somewhere out in the Baltic Sea….

DAY 46: EXPLORING SAVONLINNA


Cloudy, windy and cold…what happened to Savonlinna blue?

We woke this morning to a cloudy and windy day, with an outside temperature of barely 13°C. What happened to our Savonlinna blue? I guess we can’t have perfect weather every day… Despite the chill we still wanted to explore a bit more of this beautiful lakeside town, so we had a hearty breakfast, rugged up and went out exploring. We walked into town and all around the main island of Savonlinna (not hard as it is only 5km around). On our way around we stopped to watch as the main bridge onto the island opened to let a number of tall-masted sailing ships through. It’s a feat of engineering seen all over the world, but an impressive one to see up close none-the-less.

Watching the bridge rise to let tall masted sailing ships through.

“Now that’s one impressive act of engineering.”

Once the bridge had lowered once again we were able to continue our walk and decided to cross over onto Sulosaari Island – a tiny forested islet just North of the main part of Savonlinna (see map below). 

A map of Savonlinna. The blue star marks Sulosaari Island where we went hiking.

As we walked around Sulosaari Island as saw lots of boats sailing past, and a few moored in sheltered bays around the island. Seems sailing is a popular summer sport here in Finland; not that you can blame them – with so much flat, navigable water everywhere, it seems like the perfect way to spend a summer’s day. Especially as the day was gradually warming up (to a balmy 19°C)and we even got a little bit of sunshine!

“Look at all this natural wonder!” Shane enjoys the serenity of Sulosaari Island.

Wishing we had a way to get this camp fire going…

Looking back towards the main island of Savonlinna as the sun showed itself.

As we walked back to Savonlinna, the sun really began to shine and the beauty of the lake became even more obvious.

After our exertions, we decided to head back into town for a coffee and a nice warm lunch. We found a stall at the waterfront markets that sold lortsy (translation = a type of traditional Finnish pie or turnover). They were available in both sweet varieties (e.g. raspberry, strawberry, cloudberry and apple) and savoury varieties (e.g. mince beef, salmon, smelt*). We each had a liha-lortsy (meat turnover), which was very tasty and filling, but obviously not that filling because we also managed to share an omenalortsy (apple turnover) over coffee. 

*Smelt – a type of small fresh water fish found in the lakes here.  

Fresh lortsy! Get your liha-lortsy, kasvis-lortsy or omena-lortsy here!

Shane tucking into his lortsy. Not a bad setting for lunch hey?

Unfortunately not long after lunch, the skies darkened with rain clouds and we hurried back to our hotel just in time to avoid being cold and wet. The rain has set in for the afternoon so we’re tucked in, warm and dry, in our little apartment watching movies. Not a particularly exciting day in the end, but it’ still nice being here and being able to enjoy the uniquely Finnish summer weather. Hopefully tomorrow will bring some warmer weather and we’ll be able to share some more adventures with you.

DAY 45: WE DISCOVERED A NEW COLOUR – SAVONLINNA BLUE


Finland’s spectacular Lakes Region.

Evening blog fans! We caught the train to Savonlinna today, a small town 340km North-East of Helsinki in the Lakes Region of Finland. It took us 4 hours to get here from Helsinki, with a train change at Parikkala (see map below), and lots of beautiful scenery along the way – especially as we got close to the Lakes Region and forests and fields gave way to vast expanses of water. 

Our train ride today took us from Helsinki (A) to Parikkala (B), then on to Savonlinna (C). You can see why this Eastern part of Finland is called the Lakes Region.
Our train ride was very comfortable, though the train was packed with holiday-makers. We had Finnish, Spanish, Swedish and German people in our carriage. Oh yeah, and Australians of course (i.e. us)!
Watching fields and farms go past from the train.
Until we reached the Lakes Region and farms gave way to vast expanses of water.

When we finally arrived in Savonlinna we had to figure out how to call a taxi because our hotel for the next few days is a fair way out of town (everything else was fully booked). Thank goodness Finnish people speak English because it made the whole taxi experience very easy and within 5 minutes we were at our hotel. I guess the term “hotel” can only be used loosely here – we’re actually staying in a set of uni dorms. In the summer when all the students are off, they rent the rooms out quite cheaply. It’s very basic and about 3km from the main town centre, but it’s clean and comfortable, and we have a kitchen! This may not seem very exciting to those of you who have a home and a kitchen of your very own, but we haven’t had the luxury of being able to cook our own food for 6 weeks and it’s a welcome change. Also, given how expensive Finland is, it’ll be good to save a bit of money on food by just buying groceries at the supermarket, rather than dining out at cafes and restaurants all the time.

 

Our home for the next few nights. Basic but comfortable.
Look we have a kitchen! A whole kitchen!

Savonlinna is built across 6 small islands, in the middle of Lake Saimiaa, which is Finland’s largest lake (area = 4,400 square kilometres). It’s surrounded by forest and is built around a saw mill and paper and wood pulp factory; Savonlinna has a permanent population of just 25,000 but doubles in size in summer when thousands of opera fans descend for the Savonlinna Opera Festival*. Unfortunately we are NOT opera fans, but we arefans of beautiful lakes and gorgeous scenery and Savonlinna has a reputation for being one of the prettiest lakeside towns in Finland. It also has a castle worth seeing, so we had to come! As you can see from the photos below, this is a gorgeous spot. We had a fantastic afternoon strolling along the waterfront, watching people swimming (we stuck a toe in – way too cold for us!), and enjoying the long hours of sunlight.

*Fancy attending the opera in a castle? Well then you must come to Savonlinna! The Opera Festival here runs for 4 weeks every year during summer and performances are held on an open-air stage within Savonlinna Castle. Apparently the festival is quite well-known amongst opera fans and performers and people book tickets and accommodation a year or more in advance. This is why we ended up having to stay a little way out of town.

 

It took us about 30 minutes to walk into town along the lakeshore. You can just see the main town of Savonlinna behind us.
The beautiful lakeshore of Savonlinna. The water was so flat and smooth – it looked so inviting!
“Come on! Let’s go for a swim!” Suggests Shane. He stuck a toe in and quickly changed his mind about THAT!
There are parklands all along the shores of Lake Saimaa, and we saw lots of people sun-baking and picnicking on the grass.
Our first glimpse of Savonlinna Castle…

Even though we didn’t get to go into the castle and see the opera, we still got to admire it from the outside. It’s an impressive fortification, made all the more impressive by how well it has been restored. Savonlinna Castle was originally built in 1475 by the Swedes as a defensive post. Due to its proximity to Russia, the castle was often the site of skirmishes and sieges, but is today used as a tourist attraction and as the site for theatre, musical and opera performances. The castle was our last photo stop for the day before we walked back to our hotel (via the supermarket) for some dinner, a shower and now, some well-earned rest. So hyvää yötä (translation = good night) and hoo-roo until tomorrow!

Savonlinna Castle sits on an island of its own, linked to the other islands by bridges. 
Originally built as a defensive fortress in 1475, the castle was fully restored in the 1960s.
The central courtyard of the castle is hired out to theatre companies, and for music performances. I think it’s a great way to make the castle useful and generate income for Savonlinna.


 

DAY 44: GREAT VIEWS IN PORVOO


Porvoo may just be a contender for “Cutest Village in Finland”!

Evening blog fans! We thought today, being Sunday, would be a good day for an outing – a “Sunday drive”, Finland style. So we caught the bus to Porvoo (or Borga as its known in Swedish*).

*Why settle for just one language, when you can have 3?! Turns out most Finns are trilingual: Finnish (hardest language in the world to learn), Swedish (Finland was part of the Swedish Empire for 700 years so I guess that legacy makes sense), and English (modern and progressive as they are, the Finns realised the value of ensuring everyone is taught English in school and as a consequence the majority of people are pretty fluent). Amazing when you think how many Aussies struggle with just the one language.

Today’s adventure took us 52km out of Helsinki to Porvoo.

Porvoo is a tiny town, 52km out of Helsinki, famous for its historical town centre, old wooden buildings and the chocolate and sweets factory that has been there since 1871. Named after the river it sits on, the Porvoonjoki, this picturesque village was first established in the 13th century as a trading centre. Built at the junction of the sea and the river, the township soon grew to become Finland’s second largest. The wealthy merchants built large houses for themselves, riverfront warehouses for their wares, and a town hall and a church for the village. Many of these buildings have been preserved, as have been the narrow cobbled streets of the old town. Today many of these buildings have been converted into cafes or souvenir shops, and the town is a popular destination for Helsinki-ites on weekends. “When in Helsinki“, we thought, “do as the Helsinki-ites do!”. So off we went to Porvoo.

The bus left from Helsinki’s Kampii Bus Station and, like all thing Finnish so far, the whole experience was easy, clean, comfortable and extremely tourist-friendly. I love this place! It’s even easier being a tourist here than it was in Japan ’cause more people speak English. It only took about 20 minutes for us to get out of Helsinki and into the countryside, where we saw lots of pine and birch trees, lakes and rivers, and fields of wheat. There was a lot of farmland; interestingly Finland is almost self-sufficient in terms of agricultural products, with major exports being dairy products and paper products (lots of trees around here!).

Driving through the Finnish countryside past fields of wheat.
Bus trip to Porvoo: such a civilised experience!

Less than an hour later we were there, wandering the streets of Porvoo and taking our photos along with all the other day trippers and tourists. It was a great way to spend the morning, especially since Finland is currently experiencing an extreme heat wave and it was sunny and 28C today!

The wooden waterfront warehouses in Porvoo were especially picturesque. 
The central square in Porvoo.
Most of the houses were wooden and very brightly coloured. Makes it easy to find your house in the snow I guess.
Many of the old houses have been converted into restaurants and shop but are still very cute. 
The streets in the old town are still cobbled which makes for very pretty photos but hard walking (they’re so uneven!).
The main church in Porvoo was originally built in the 13th century.
Look at all this cuteness! Oh the excitement of spending a perfect summer’s day in Porvoo!

We’d brought a picnic lunch along with us and found a lovely spot in the park to enjoy our sandwiches, though we both still had a small, chocolate-sized gap in our bellies after lunch. In order to rectify the situation, we made a bee-line for the Brunberg Candy & Chocolate Shoppe. By the time we had sampled a little bit of each type of chocolate they had on offer, we were so full that the thought of buying any chocolate just didn’t appeal!

The Brunberg Candy & Chocolate Shoppe – highly recommended for anyone visiting Porvoo!
The view from the park where we had our picnic lunch. Not bad.
This house was tucked away by itself, up the hill behind the park where we had lunch. Very pretty scenery to enjoy whilst picnicking.

Well satisfied we then headed back home for a shower and an afternoon nap. On the way home Shane decided he was hungry (sitting on a bus for 55 minutes will do that to you I guess) so we stopped in at the K-Market and bought one of the weirdest snacks ever: a quarter slice of Finnish juustoleipa (translation = baked cheese). This is cheese made from reindeer milk that has been curdled, set to form a round disk about 2cm thick and then baked. It’s traditionally served with jam and is vaguely sweetish, but very rich and creamy. At first Shane wasn’t convinced, but one bite and he was hooked! Not sure you’re supposed to eat a whole quarter slice in one go, but even without jam, apparently juustoleipa makes a great snack.  Let’s see what other Finnish delicacies we can discover over the next few days in Savonlinna – our next destination! 

“Juustoleipa hey? Looks like cheese…. Better be cheese!”
“Yup, it’s cheese. MY cheese!” Shane not sharing his new cheesy love.

DAY 43: CRUISING HELSINKI


Two Aussies, Happy in Helsinki…

Another glorious summer’s day in Helsinki and we were lucky enough to be here to enjoy it. We spent our day getting to know Helsinki better, wandering the streets and soaking up the vibe of the place. Our verdict: Helsinki is great! Very relaxed, but quite stylish and funky at the same time. People are friendly and laid back, the streets are green and clean, traffic flows with no honking of horns or near-death experiences (ahhh – memories of Russia)… it’s just lovely. There are lots of cafes, restaurants and bars in our neighbourhood, and due to the long hours of sunlight everyone is out and about until well into the night, creating a generally festive air. 

Scenes from the Helsinki harbour front. A lovely place for an early morning stroll.

Everyone speaks flawless English, with many TV shows actually being in English with Finnish subtitles (thank goodness – apparently Finnish is the THE hardest language for native English speakers to learn – it is completely unrelated to other Nordic languages and is more closely related to Hungarian than any other modern language). Best of all though: we can drink the water in Finland! It’s amazing how something so simple can have such an impact on your day – not being able to drink tap water in Russia meant we always had to make sure we had enough to last us the day before going out, and it certainly made things more expensive. Clean, fresh water is the simplest of life’s necessities and we’re so lucky back in Aus to have it on tap. 

Helsinki is built across a number of islands and there is ocean on almost of every side of the city.

Neither of us knew much about Finland (or Suomi as Finns call their own country) before coming here – it was just a matter of convenience: the train from St Petersburg stopped here, and it was on the way to Sweden, so we thought “Why not check it out?!”. It’s been great to learn a bit more about this sparsely populated land of lakes, reindeer and pine trees (with a total population of just over 5 million people, Finland is the 8th largest country in Europe but the most sparsely populated with just 8 people per square kilometre). We learnt today that, from early in the 12th century until 1806, Finland was a part of Sweden. It then became an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire, until the Russian Revolution in 1917 when it became an independent republic. This mixture of historical influences is evident is some of the architecture; for example, Helsinki has both a Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a Lutheran Cathedral. Both lovely, but very different.

Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki’s Russian Orthodox centre of worship.

 

Helsinki’s Tuomiokirkko Lutheran Cathedral.

According to a 2011 Newsweek magazine article, “Finland is the best country in the world”! With a per capitaincome of just over $50,000AUD, Finland is one of the world’s wealthiest nations in the world,with one of the highest quality of life ratings. It has the best educational system in Europe and has recently been ranked as one of the world’s most peaceful and economically competitive countries. Sounds a lot like home really, just VERY cold! The most severe winter days in Finland can see the temperature fall down to −45°C, with winters lasting for about 200 days with permanent snow cover from about mid-October to early May. Summers are quite short, only 2 or 3 months, but can still see maximum daily temperatures above 25°C during heat waves. Yikes! Lovely now, not so sure about any other time of year!

We woke nice and early this morning (what do you expect when the sun is up before 4:00am?) and took ourselves on a walking tour of Helsinki for a few hours. Along the way we took heaps of photos of the cityscape, especially the 19th century buildings and harbour-front areas. Helsinki became the capital of Finland in 1812 and, after a devastating fire early in the 19th century, was rebuilt along similar lines as St Petersburg. The result is a lovely, distinctly European city built along the shores of the Baltic Sea with cobbled and tree-lined streets.

The Helsinki cityscape.

After our early morning stroll we had breakfast and then caught the ferry across to the Suomenlinna Islands. This cluster of 4 small islands is only about 15 minutes by ferry from Helsinki harbour and is a popular weekend picnic and swimming spot for Helsinki-ites. There used to be a fortress on the island, a defensive measure built originally in 1748 by the Swedes and then used by the Russians; today the remnants of the fortress have been preserved, with some sections converted into cafes and restaurants and others left to be gradually worn away by the wind, rain and sea spray. We spent a few hours happily strolling around the islands, watching the locals swimming (crazy Northerners – don’t they realise how COLD the water is?!) and enjoying a picnic of our own (we found a supermarket and have discovered a way to feed ourselves for less than 20 EUROs  – Finland is expensive and finding food at a reasonable price is tough).

 

Catching the ferry across to the Suomenlinna Islands.
We passed a number of little islands like this one on the way. Apparently people have their summer holiday homes on these islands. Too cute!
Remnants of the Suomenlinna Fortress.
We had great fun exploring what’s left of the fortress.

 

You can just see some people swimming in the freezing waters!
The views from the southern-most tip of the islands, across the Bay of Finland.

For dinner we went out to a little Italian restaurant and enjoyed a very non-Finnish meal of pizza and salad. Tomorrow night we’ll have to go out and try some of the amazing fish or reindeer dishes we’ve seen advertised everywhere, but for now we’re fed, bathed and definitely ready for bed – despite the sunshine pouring through the window! Huomenna tavataan (translation =  until tomorrow) blog fans!

Dinner at an Italian restaurant in Helsinki. Not very authentically Finnish, but yummy.

 

DAY 42: DO SVIDANIYA ST PETERSBURG & HYVAA PAIVAA HELSINKI!


Our Russian adventure is already at an end…, but our Scandinavian one is just beginning!

A week goes by so quickly when you’re having fun, and our week in Russia was definitely exciting. A little nerve-wracking at times (i.e. any time we were in a car or bus weaving in and out of traffic), awe-inspiring and magnificent in some ways, and yet so dirty, unkempt and disappointing in others. I’ve never clutched my purse quite so tightly as on the Moscow Metro, and have never seen so much gold and opulence as in the palaces of St Petersburg; I’ve never encountered so many grim-faced people, or so many wildly passionate, loud and boisterous people. The contrasts in Russia were quite stark, but all together our experiences created a kaleidoscope of colour, sights, sounds, smells and tastes that is Russia for us.  

Some of the things we will always remember about Russia:

  • The people. Far from unfriendly, we found Russians to be quite friendly; though they don’t smile much and can seem to be quite grim. If you happen to touch on a subject they’ve got an opinion on though, they get so passionate! Speaking of passion, we’ve also seen more young couples in love trying to devour each other, face first, on the streets of Russia than anywhere else in the world. I guess young love can’t wait ’til you get home… 
  • The fashions. If you love 1980’s haircuts, perms and mullets, Russia is for you. If you love tacky, sparkly clothes coupled with LOTS of make-up, Russia is for you. If you think the best way for women to dress is just shy of whorish, consider Russia. Not everyone dressed like they were in a 1984 episode of Dynasty, but enough that it was definitely noticeable.  
  • The music. The sound of Russia, in case you’re wondering, is bad Euro-Pop. Everywhere we went, the music was always thumping Euro-Pop, played nice and LOUD (just enough to make conversation awkward). 
  • The dodgy factor. There is a reason all the guide books tell you to take extra care in Russia; there is definitely a dodgy element to be aware of. Not that we saw anything ourselves, but we saw signs of businesses and people trying to live with crime. For example, our hotel in Moscow had multiple levels of security – the hotel was behind a big fence with a guard at the entrance, you had to show the security guard at the elevator your room key before you could go up to the rooms, you had to swipe to get onto your floor and then swipe to get into your room. What were they protecting us from exactly?? Guess I’d rather not know. And in all the restaurants and shops we went to, when we paid with a 5000 Ruble note (about $165AUD), they ran it through an X-ray scanner and/or a UV scanner. Seriously! Is counterfeit money THAT common? Yikes!
  • The food. Everything we ate in Russia was so tasty and filling, though the Russians do seem to have a penchant for dill. Seems they can’t serve you anything without adding generous amounts of dill. So if you’e wondering what Russia tastes like: it tastes like dill. Lots and lots of dill. 
  • The crazy driving. Wearing a seat belt is not mandatory in Russia, but it is very highly recommended. So many of the cars we saw parked up on the kerb and driving around had lots of dings and scrapes so obviously their driving style does have some consequences from time to time!
  • The history. The main reason we wanted to come here was to see what’s left of the mighty Russian Empire, one of the greatest powers of the last 1000 years; and to see something of the Soviet era as well, one of the super-powers of the the 20th century. Whatever Russia may be today, it definitely has an epic history and was absolutely worth visiting. Hopefully we can come back one day and see more of it, but for now, we leave with our minds and eyes well satiated and happy. Thanks Russia!   

We left this morning by train on the Finnish Helsinki-St Petersburg intercity train. What a modern wonder that was! Not quite a Japanese shinkansen, but not far off. We sped along at 220km/hr, travelling from St Petersburg to the Russian border town of Vyborg, where the Russian immigration officers came on board and checked everyone’s passports and visas. Quite painless actually. We were quickly through and on to Vairrikala, the border town on the Finnish side. Here the Finnish officials came on board and checked our passports and stamped us into the Schengen area (as Australians we don’t need a Schengen visa, but we are limited to staying in the Schengen area (basically Europe) for a maximum of 90 days). Again, quick and easy. From there it was another 2 hours or so to Helsinki. Along the way we passed some beautiful Finnish countryside – lakes, pine forests as far as we could see, and the occasional village and town. 

Us on board the train from St Petersburg to Helsinki. All very modern and comfortable. You’ll note that Shane is pulling his best retarded monkey face. Charming ain’t he?

 

Vyborg – last town on the Russian side of things.

 

Vairikkala – border town in Finland.

 

Watching the Finnish scenery go past. Lots of beautiful lakes and rivers.

 

We saw lots of pine forests and green farmlands as the train sped through Finland.

 

One of the many lakes we passed on our way to Helsinki. Apparently Finland has more than 188,000 lakes!

We arrived in Helsinki at 2:00pm, quickly found our hotel and checked in. The hotel is a tiny boutique lace near the train station which occupies the top 2 floors of a lovely 19th century building. We have a great room, facing the street, with our own miniature ensuite bathroom and 3 windows to open and enjoy the long days (sunrise is at 4:30am, sunset at 10:30pm). There are cafes and restaurants below us and the waterfront is just a few hundred meters away. 

Foyer area of Hotel Finn, our home for the next few days.

 

Shane getting ready for bed. Don’t be fooled by the amount of light – this is 10:00 at night!

As soon as we’d dropped our bags off, we headed straight for the ocean and found a lively market with stalls selling everything from basic clothing, to real fur coats, hunting equipment and fruits and vegetables. Best of all where the stalls selling berries – punnets of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, red currants, black currants, gooseberries and some berries we’d never seen before: cloud berries. We had a great afternoon snack of fresh berries and a relaxed stroll around the Helsinki waterfront.

The lively waterfront Kaartinkaupunki Markets.

 

Kaartinkaupunki Markets – so many fresh berries!

 

Kaartinkaupunki Markets – need some furs, reindeer leather or hunting knives?

 

Kaartinkaupunki Markets – so many fresh flowers!

 

Relaxing at the Helsinki waterfront.

Helsinki is a very pretty city, lots of well maintained 19th century buildings and wide streets. There’s a big park through the middle of town that we wandered through; it was funny to see people lying on the grass sun bathing when it was only about 22C. I guess when winters go down to -30C, +22C must seem pretty warm! We’ve got the whole weekend to see more of this cute city, so we’ll tell you more about it tomorrow!