A Travellerspoint blog


Line Up the Last of the Summer Houses

Boring stuff first: In 2006, there were 475 051 summer cottages in Finland. 475 051. So when I tell people that we have one, they assume we're rich. We're not. We're Finnish.

There are just over five million people in Finland, which means that pretty much every extended family has a summer house, summer cottage or a little wilderness hut of some sort. We're far from the rest of Europe, and so we sometimes have to spend holidays at home. A summer house, in fact, is nothing fancy- a little hut or house by a lake (preferably), outdoor toilet, no running water. Most have electricity, some have heating, all have a sauna. Because in Finland, a house is only worth as much as the sauna in it.

Having spent the whole summer in Finland, I got invited to a lot of them. A lot, I tell you; as a Finn, you're also obligated to like it, even if you don't. You have to row a boat on the lake; you have to light up the wooden grill and grill a sausage; you have to chop wood and play board games and drink strong coffee with pulla, a sweet dough-like bun. Telly is not permitted, neither is the internet. Everyone takes their turn in emptying the outhouse (ugh) because everyone works at the summer house. It's not leisurly, no. There are chores to be done, and so urban Finns with all possible appliances at home, spend the summer hand-washing clothes in the lake, heating their water on stove and raking leaves. Because that's what you do on holiday; that's what everyone does on holiday, and the country grinds to a halt for pretty much the whole summer.

Famous and wealthy Finns have summerhouses too; they might have running water and a three-car garage, but nevertheless, it's a summer house, a small timber cottage painted in cheery red or yellow. In what other country can you see a famous athlete, IT millionaire or even the president standing infront of a tiny house, wearing wellies and an unflattering, baggy jumper, whilst the headline screams, "Even so-and-so carries in their own bathing water from the lake". Being average is desirable in Finland. Even the super-talented, super-rich feel the need to take themselves down a notch and promote their normalness by having a little summerhouse, completed with fishing rods hanging off the wall whilst the garden gnomes look on from the front porch. Forget Big Brother; Finland is controlled by the ubiquitous garden gnome.

Nevertheless, I like summer houses. They're dotted all along the countryside, especially around the lakes, and they do provide a great get-away from the city. I even like swimming in the lake and knowing that a world-famous racecar driver has a little cottage very close to where my parents live. Not Monaco, not St.Tropez, but Nowhere, Finland. But I've had my share of melted ice-cream (because summer houses never have freezers) and internet black-out. I've always been an urban kinda person, and welllies and tracksuit bottoms don't really suit me. And so I'm dusting off my stilettos, because everyone, next week I'll be in London.


Posted by Ofelia 12:41 Archived in Finland Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

When the Light's Finally Switched On

A full three hours of sleep the previous night on a random sofa in Helsinki, I almost missed my bus to Rauma. After spending years (yes, my gosh, it is years now) in developing countries, I'd forgotten that buses leave on the minute. So, hot and breathless, I caught up with the other girls at the bus station, and even got a student discount on my ticket (people are so honest here. If you say you're a student, they believe you are one. I almost felt bad before I remembered that I am, actually, even poorer than a student).

Rauma is an old seafaring town. The old town is now a Unesco world heritage site, and very deservingly so; colourful, cute, cottage-like houses line gravel streets, and it looks wonderfully run-down; not so much that it desperately needs much repair, but enough to lend to the turn-of-the-century, relaxed ambiance of the place. Beautiful, iron-wrought balconies and bright flower arrangements, and windows which each play a role- the curtains are of old, delicate lace (Rauma is still famous for lace-making as well) and every windowsill has a carefully-thought arrangement of little boats, messages in bottles and seashells. I felt like I walked through a little art gallery.


In Rauma, we finally caught up with the rest of the guys. What started off as a trip for five people, ended up somehow expanding, and there we were, ten of us, buying enough food to keep a small country well-stocked for a year or two. After a bit of drama at the ticket booth (and big, sad eyes from two of the girls), we managed to buy enough ferry tickets to get all of us to Kylmäpihlaja, a small island and our destination for the night.


I'll gladly admit that although I think Finland is beautiful, I never really thought it was exceptional. Sure, there's some nice scenery in Finland; I just thought it was rather boring. However, once we'd unloaded our small army of bags (and we're all backpackers! We should know better!) and had a quick look around, I realised I loved it. Just a tiny lighthouse, big enough to have two little rooms on each floor and a dining room below, large rocks by the seaside, wonderfully heated up by the hot, sunny day, water lapping gently, and really, what else could you want? We used the lighthouse sauna for free, and ventured into the ocean for a dip (although I really only went because I couldn't be the only one who didn't. That would just be cowardish.). About a hundred SLR's were brought out as the sun started setting- an exquisite sight as the sky was completely cloudless. We sat outside, barbequeing, drinking and telling stories until the light was finally switched on at the lighthouse, casting a faint yellow light on the rocks. When the wind finally picked up too much, we snuggled into the common room of the lighthouse to finish the dregs of the wine, still telling stories and listening to the wind.


The next day looked much like the photos I remember from my parent's photoalbums from the sixties; distant sail boats, wild flowers, swans in the sea, lots of happy people sitting on the rocks, sunning themselves.I felt a little nostalgic for no reason, and rather like to think we looked like a post card.

Fred obviously came along, as an honorary member of our little backpacking team

A ferry ride back, relaxed, tanned (OK, slightly burnt) and still with a single lonely cider in tow, we parted two-ways, one group heading to Tampere and beyond, one to Helsinki, happily waving to each other. Sunday night and still sunny. Who on earth thinks Scandinavia is always cold and snowy?

(and yes, I'm very much aware I was going to stop writing this blog. But a friend, whom shall remain nameless, asked for an entry on Rauma, very particularly. So there you go. And I'm still unemployed and bored with my life.)

Posted by Ofelia 12:27 Archived in Finland Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Beach Life at the Arctic Circle

After a long debate, many calendar- checkings and phone calls, emails and instant messages later, my two friends Paula and Susanne, and at the last minute, Susanne's boyfriend Emppu and I finally set the date for the long drive up to Oulanka National Park in Kuusamo, which borders on Lapland and criss-crosses close along the Russian border. We'd mainly wanted to go because this was the year we all turned 30, and we all had a long list of things to do before thirty. Unfortunately, we realised that it was now too late to actually write a Nobel-winning novel or to get a record deal. So we had to scale down our aspirations and instead, went for something we'd always wanted to do: trekking 63 kilometres of the most beautiful Finnish scenery there is.

Now, I am, by no means, a hiking/ camping/ wilderness -type of girl. I much prefer complicated cocktails, seeing up-and-coming bands or trying on clothes I can't afford. But I seem to do these things, mainly because the scenery and the experience is almost always unforgettable, and also because I kind of like to push myself a bit. Anyway.

Oulanka national park was recently featured in the National Geographic due to it's unique soil, ecosystem and scenery, so it seemed like a great way of seeing a bit of our own heritage. All of us, Paula, Susse and I have never really travelled in our own country, too busy roaming around abroad, so one sunny afternoon in Southern Finland, we packed up a car with (other people's) camping stuff, and drove 750 kilometres to Kuusamo.


The trail, called Karhunkierros, which roughly translates to The Bear trail, or Bear's Loop, has various starting/ finishing points, and is altogether 80 kilometres long. I'd been adviced by a friend that the last part of the trail is actually quite boring, so we decided to skip it, mainly because I occasionally have to work and therefore it's a good idea I'm in the right town, and Paula has two small daughters. So four days on the trail it was.

Upon arriving, it rained and because, to our outrage, you had to pay for the camping grounds, we decided to camp on the parking lot. As you do. We lit a disposable grill and prepared a few sad-looking sausages. It wasn't the greatest start, but at least the raincoat my mum had forced on me came in handy.

Camping at the parking lot

The fantastic thing about Oulanka is that it is completely free. There are no entry fees, and the camping grounds, traditional leaning huts, lappish teepees and wilderness huts are free to use. According to the ancient wilderness tradition, and the strange finnish logic, it works on a "last to arrive, first to be served" -basis; a person arriving first should always give their space to late-comers, because the last person to arrive is usually the most tired one. Hmm. I wasn't buying that; last one to arrive is probably last because they spent the previous night drinking and therefore hike slow, and deserve to be eaten by huge, mutant-size mosquitoes. Luckily, it never became an issue as there was always room.

Traditional leaning hut

Four days of hiking in a sunny, humid, but essentially cold forest is not always easy. At the start, the ground was flat-ish, with lots of marshes and lakes, and not a lot of other people. We carried all our food for the four days, filling water bottles in the streams, and so every steep rise uphill was bit of a battle- some of them so steep we literally went up in all fours. The first day was also the roughest- 17 kilometers before we arrived to a beatiful little hut with a campfire already lit. As a little extra evening work-out, we climbed up to Oulanka Canyon, with stunning pine-forest views across the park.


Surprisingly, we all felt quite good about the hike the next day; as an unexperienced hiker, I'd been a bit worried about coping with lots of walking- they'd said on the brochure that the trail requires good basic fitness and some camping experience- basic fitness? Camping?? Does camping in the backyard when you're seven count??

First off, we crossed a few hanging bridges, a source of lot of photos and fun- Fred came out from my backpack and joined in on the fun. We followed the trail up along a big cliff, looking down on the river and the endless forest below, before finally seeing some people, and more hanging bridges suspended over rapids.


What we loved most, though, was the deserted campsite on the second night by the fast-flowing river Oulanka. Not only was it wonderfully surrounded by the forest and hidden from view, but it had, to our surprise, a sandy beach lined with flowers. As it was a sunny evening, and as the sun never sets in Lapland in july, we spend ages jumping in and out of the, admittedly, freezing water.
Finnish people have a saying which means a place where the soul rests. This was it. It was perfectly still, quiet and harmonious. We felt like we were the only people in the world.


oulanka canyon


The last day of hiking was by far the hardest. I'd ran out of clean shirts by then and everyone complained about having smelly socks. We'd stocked up on food, but as we had heavy tents and torches (clever move in a country where the sun really doesn't set in July), we'd left the clothes to a minimum. Even then, it didn't really matter- we've all been friends since early school years, and seen each other looking and smelling far worse. The only exception might have been Susanne's new boyfriend, but then again, he's a bloke so he probably didn't care.
The trail followed the river for a few kilometers, sometimes disappearing almost completely- it was the first time we actually had to look for the yellow markers which line the path. We crossed a dozen fallen trees and climbered up cliffs, all the while trying not to fall to the river. Getting to the campsite felt like a wonderful achievement that night, and we celebrated by having a drink by the fire, and cooking all the rest of the food we had- a lovely mixture of noodles, soups, soya pieces and raw carrots. Fred also had a drink and got a bit rowdy... bad giraffe.

It wasn't the easiest of routes...


Fred celebrating the final day of hiking

The last day was an easy stroll from the last wilderness hut to the car; we hardly counted that as hiking at all, although it did include some of the steepest staircases up. We'd deliberately stayed in the park for the last night, as we had no intention of camping at the gloomy parking lot again, nor did we want to pay for a campsite at Juuma, where the trail ended. The last 10 kilometres joined in on the pieni karhunkierros, or Small Bear Trail, which is essentially a 12-kilometre loop around Juuma, meant for day trek. It felt almost polished in comparison- steps, proper river crossings, and yes, lots and lots of people, looking glowy and happy and carrying small daypacks. We felt like some sort of forest gnomes, emerging from the woods without having seen a hairbrush in days. They also seemed stunned that we'd walked all the way from Hautajärvi- do we really look that unfit?? People seemed, as they always do, intrigued by Fred, asking if he was a bear-repellant. Which was odd. At least three people said that. I've never known inflatable giraffes to repel bears, but there you go.

So, Sunday morning at the local petrol station, again in the drizzling rain that had miraculously stopped while we actually walked, we took stock of the whole trail. Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was challenging enough without being too extreme. Yes, the huts and the campsites were well looked after. But although we liked it, I felt like it didn't quite hold enough to be stunning. I don't know why, but scenery-wise, I was left wanting just a bit more. Something really stunning and unique. Or maybe it's just because I am finnish and therefore used to the scenery. I don't know, but I'm very willing to go to Lapland again, maybe to another national park, and give it a second go.


Posted by Ofelia 02:22 Archived in Finland Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Beautiful People

Remember the days back in your teenage years when a really beautiful bunch of trendy girls and boys ruled the school? They were impossibly fashionable; they had highlights when you still wore scruntchies and they co-ordinated their pens to match their nailpolish. The boys were athletic and popular, the girls giggly but grown-up. I spent most of my school years in the art classroom, elbow-deep in oil colours, sometimes squinting as I came out of the dark room after developing "artistic" photos of leaves and other interesting things. Then, after school, you say your good-byes and never see them again, right? Wrong. I met the whole posse on Saturday. For the first time in eleven years.

I went to Lahti, the ugliest city in Finland and possibly in the world (and I have, after all, visited Coventry and Leicester) for a friends' wedding. Lovely as the day was, the city was drab and forbidding. Every second person carried around a dirty plastic bag of cheap beer, the buildings reminded me of the charming soviet style which was so popular in Finland some decades ago. Everyone looked as if doomsday was just around the corner. I met some of the other wedding guests in the tiny hostel (ran by a russian woman whose face seemed somehow distorted- like it was put together by Picasso) and decided to go for a walk before getting ready for the ceremony. Everyone at the hostel (staff as well as the guests) seemed horrified by this. For a walk? In Lahti? Surely not.

There is indeed something seedy about the city. It has all the same coffee shops, pub chains and shops as most large cities in Finland, but they seem almost fake- like they are not really expecting to sell anything. I wouldn't be surprised if all the fancy bits were simply card-board cut-outs, planted by the city commission to make Lahti more appealing to tourists. And, when the beautiful, popular girls arrived, the dark city offered a magnificient backdrop for them; they are still, very much so, beautiful. And the same. Now, everyone has the latest little mobile and more professional highlights, but they are, essentially, the same. I felt like an awkward adolescent all over again. At thirty, that's not good.

The wedding took place slightly outside the city, luckily, in a small island-type setting on a lake. The happy couple got married under birch trees, and the whole ceremony was short and sweet and informal. Just my kind of wedding. In a true Finnish style, instead of a car, they had a rowing boat awaiting which took them to the restaurant at the tip of the island.

At one point there was cheesecake involved, but I won't get into it now as it's hardly the point of this blog entry.

The beautiful people have done well in life. All but one, they are married, and we are expecting the last remaining one to get married any day now. They all have mortgages, few have kids, all have careers. Not jobs. Careers. And unlike most beautiful, successful people, they are actually nice.

Dancing, eating and (quite a bit of) drinking later, and one of them told me how she had always expected I would be a bit different to the rest of them (elbow-deep in paint at school wasn't enough of a hint?) and how, compared to me, they were all so middle-class. I haven't yet figured out if she meant this as a bad thing. I didn't take it as such.

We got drenched in the pouring rain walking back (me to the hostel, they to an all-inclusive hotel) at 3am, and the next morning, although the sun shone, it did little to improve my outlook on the city. I wouldn't want to come back. I put my nice dress in my backpack, said bye to my gorgeous school friends, and headed back home from what was a very surreal weekend.

(and yes. I know. I'm no longer travelling, so I shouldn't really write a blog anymore. But i'm hoping domestic travel does count, at least a little?)

Posted by Ofelia 04:14 Archived in Finland Comments (3)

Bring Back Africa

Odd, isn't it? Being somewhere utterly familiar after a long time away. I wandered around the house for a week, clicking on random machines and turning on taps, just to see water flow and electricity come on. My mother followed after me, annoyed I was turning on a half-empty dishwasher or playing six CD's on random just because I could. I was amazed to find I had a wardrobe, and spent a great afternoon staggering around in four-inch heels like a six-year-old. Doing laundry was a simple task of putting things in a machine, and whoops, out they would come, an hour later, almost dry and cleaner they'd been in nine months. The fridge had exciting stuff, like food, in it. I had music, books, free internet (broadband!) and it was all so easy. So easy, in fact, that it's no longer fun.

One of the brilliant things about travelling is how the small things make it all worthwhile. One of my favourite things is to wander through supermarkets, seeing what people load in their carts, and marvelling at things like Monkey Gland Sauce and Beef-Beer powder. Like in France, you get aisles and aisles of cheeses; in Argentina, the meat counter is monsterous, but no one's ever heard of tofu. In the States, you can find a frozen version of everything; ini Zambia, everything is made out of maize- drinks, crisps, bread, sweets. In Finland, you find the bread section takes up half of the supermarket. There's four things you are likely find in any Finn's shopping cart- bread, milk, potatoes and beer. Possibly a cider if it's a girl. And chocolate if it's me.

Everything is too simple. I no longer have to look at a map to find the post office nor do I need to do quick currency conversions to find out if something is cheap or laughable. There's no edge in anything. And, in a way, I suddenly find all this spending incredible- yes, I know, a fairly normal side effect of coming back from a working stint in a developing country, but oh so true. Inexplicably, I'm suddenly saving 2 three-week old shrivelled potatoes telling my stunned family that they're still "perfectly edible". My niece and nephew are drowning in toys they don't even play with, whilst every single auntie and uncle brings in yet another red fire truck or a pooping and peeing doll. And I think of my little Zambian kids, who have no toys, and who got excited when I gave them pens and pieces of my notepad to draw on. Although kids are wonderful like that- I asked my nephew what he would like for his birthday, and after thinking a little, he said he'd like to go for a picnic in the forest with me and granny. Now this kid would get on in Zambia.

I also have way too much energy. I should be sightseeing, catching buses, walking around hot and humid city centres and getting lost. This is not the way it's meant to be. Bring back Africa. Or Somewhere Else. Anywhere.


Posted by Ofelia 12:48 Archived in Finland Comments (0)

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