I woke up this wintery Sunday morning with a sudden desire and enthusiasm to « Finnish » our blog post on Finland. Whether the desire was fueled by wanting to have closure on this particular adventure, in order to open the door to future ones, or by friends and colleagues asking about what happened after Norway, I don’t really know. My instinct simply told me that an opportunity like this is just too good to pass up…..so here we go!
After spending the entire month of August in Oslo with mechanical problems, we only started heading north on August 30th, and were absolutely ecstatic when we reached North Cape 3 weeks later. However, what goes up must eventually come down and we still had a lot of kilometers ahead of us as we started our south-bound journey. We entered northern Finland on September 19th and departed from the south on October 5th, hence the name of this article « The Finnish Flash. » For those of you who are hockey fans, you will know that this name has been borrowed from the Finnish hockey legend, Teemu Selänne, who started his carrer in the National Hockey League during the 1990s in my hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, with the Jets.
The timing was perfect and we were treated over the next two weeks to bright autumn colors, which we followed all the way from Lapland to the Southern coast. The subarctic region of Lapland covers the most northern third of the country and is characterized by barren highlands and vast forests. There were many opportunities to hike in the well preserved national parks and to overnight in beautiful forest locations. Northern Lapland is home to the Sami, an indigenous population also living around the arctic circle regions in Norway, Sweden and Russia, and we spent one morning visit a dedicated open-air museum and an excellent craft center.
The forests were similar to those we saw in northern Norway and some of our most memorable moments were spent strolling along trails cutting through the spongy moss covered ground. At this particular time of the year, the forests were bursting with berries, and mushrooms were still plentiful. The contrast between the different shades of green, red and purple was a feast for the eyes. We set aside some time for berry and mushroom picking and made a large batch of blueberry jam! The Finnish love affair with berries is evident from visiting any indoor or outdoor market during the season, where berries are sold in enormous quantities. Supermarkets also have huge jam sections where one can choose from seemingly hundreds of references!
Camping in Finland is pure joy. Many wild camping spots have fire pits (complete with a supply of wood) and sometimes a shelter is built nearby. Finns are avid fishermen and there are often possibilities to spend the night next to fishing spots. Otherwise, it is easy to find your own place in a forest clearing, along a river, or next to a lake.
After about a week travelling through the forests we were ready for a change of scenery and headed south along the Gulf of Bothnia coastline. Although mostly rather ordinary in terms of scenery, there were a couple of places that really stood out. One was the coastal area just west of Jakobstad with a beautiful stretch of beach, wooden walkways through the woods, and killer sunsets. The other was the Kvarken Archipelago (extending to Sweden), a Unesco World Heritage Site, made up of over 6000 islands. A geological phenomenom called « post-glacial island uplift » causes these islands to gain approximately 8 mm of land per year! The resulting scenery is very unusal and is described as « washboard-like. »
A trip to Finland would not be complete without visiting the lakes region which covers most of the south-eastern part of the country. In fact the whole country can be considered one big lakes region as there are almost 200,000 lakes scattered across Finland. However, the largest concentration is found in this particular part of the country. Driving by a lake does not automatically mean you will see anything however. Many of the lakes do not have roads right next to them, so you somtimes have to leave it to your imagination, even on the so-called scenic routes!
For a sparsely populated country, there are actually a lot of cities and towns in Finland. Some are known for their historical wooden houses such as Porvoo, Naantali, and Rauma. Others, like Vaasa, have excellent museums and art galleries. Turku is a beautiful university city along the southern coast with a medieval cathedral and castle. In the lakes region, the Olavinlinna Castle in the town of Savonlinna, is a medieval Swedish-built fortress which is also home to a summer opera festival. Then there is Helsinki, the capital, with its 1.4 million inhabitants. We experienced a city with a cosmopolitan and big city feel to it, yet also a laid-back atmosphere. We particularly enjoyed the seafront market area with both indoor and outdoor markets, and the Finnish design stores. The Russian-influenced architecture was a bit overpowering and oppressive however, especially when visiting on a rainy day!
We left Finland by ferry, from the port of Naantali to Kapellskar in Sweden. The trip in itself was worth it for the experience of travelling together with truck drivers from Russia, Finland, and Eastern Europe, and their extra-long trucks which we had not seen before entering Finland. Passing these vehicles on the road, especially with our beloved Tommy, was often challenging. Even more challenging was arriving in Sweden after nightfall, driving in the dark and under the pouring rain, until our chosen overnight spot. But that’s another story.