Wednesday 13th August 2008, Rauma, Finland
On the coast about sixty miles north of Naantali is the town of Rauma. This is reputed to be the most extensive wooden town in Scandinavia, having survived the fires that have ravaged so many similar towns at various stages in their history. Somehow Rauma has survived not only fires, but all attempts at modern planning. Since it is now on the Unesco World Heritage list, its future seems secure.
Deciding such a place merited a detour, instead of heading for Helsinki we drove off in the opposite direction through the grey mizzle that has returned again today. Our route took us through flat, open arable land, passing regularly through areas of forest and woodland. The road was completely straight with little traffic. It looked safe enough but there were regular warning signs that elk may wander out from the woods. The ice action that formed this landscape is very evident. Frequently there are huge, smoothed granite boulders amongst the forest trees or in the middle of a field of grain. Beside the road are numerous gigantic boulders that have been carried by ice and deposited there during the thaw. There were areas where groups of boulders cluster together, with the same orientation, each smooth and rounded on one side, straight and rugged on the other. Presumably this indicates the direction of the ice flow.
Rauma itself has a population of about 38,000. Most people live in the modern town that surrounds the original wooden town. It is clean, open, bright with parks and a river running through. It is though, a functional town with little of architectural merit. It has a massive, modern library that communities in England many times larger than Rauma can only dream of. It is brimming with books and computers. It has a huge children's section, the shelving, furniture and soft furnishings are bright and comfortable and very Scandinavian, and there are plenty of staff who seem to find time to play games on the unused computers to while away the afternoon. Not that we wish to be critical, we are just envious. We were allowed an hour on one of the computers which was just long enough to send another blog and download a few emails. We have had great difficulty in Finland. There are no internet cafes and although libraries offer access for free, they are frequently closed and there are always strings attached – such as one hour maximum per day and no USB sticks. Of course there is the added difficulty that everything is in Finnish and it's quite impossible to make guesses. Several times our texts have simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
Most of the afternoon though has been spent exploring the 600 wooden houses in the old town of Rauma. Street after street is lined with pastel painted wooden houses, their windows beautifully dressed with gingham or lace curtains, each vying with its neighbour to have the prettiest window display. The streets have large, rounded cobbles that make it difficult to walk and look around at the same time. The layout of the town is mediaeval while most of the buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries. The town is renowned for its lace making and there is a statue to the lace makers in Helsinki Square. The square is no more than a pleasant green area of rose bushes and flower beds surrounded by pretty cottages, but, in 1550, when Gustavus Vasa ordered the inhabitants of Rauma to establish the new town of Helsinki, it is said that those who were to leave, assembled in this square.
This evening we have found a campsite beside yet another of Finland's many thousand lakes. It may even be the sea as the coastline is so fragmented it's difficult to work out where the land and lakes end and the sea and islands begin. Either way, it's very pleasant and the campsite office is in a beautiful wooden building overlooking the water.
Thursday 14th August 2008, Kökkö, Finland
Scandinavia does not seem to have commercial places for accessing the internet so we returned to the library in Rauma this morning as we still had masses of work we needed to do. We are reliant on the internet for keeping bank accounts up to date and paying bills. It is a lifeline as we travel around. We discovered that you can only have one hour a day on the library computers and it starts exactly on the hour. We arrived at 10.40 but were told that although there were at least 13 computers standing idle, the set-up wouldn't let us use them until 11am. We didn’t get all we needed done within our allotted hour but that was all we were allowed. There is no charge for using the computers and as we are guests here we have to accept it all with a smile but it would be so much better if we could simply pay for the service and use it as we wished.
Yesterday we searched in vain for a bank. At the campsite somebody showed us the funny symbol they use to indicate the presence of an ATM machine and directed us to one nearby. After paying our campsite bill we only had nine euros between us so it was a relief when we finally found a "pankee" and refilled our purse. Next we tried in vain to buy diesel for Modestine. It's surprising how silly you feel on a garage forecourt with a fuel nozzle in you hand, kicking away at the machine which stubbornly refuses to deliver. Eventually someone took pity on us and explained that the sign staring us in the face actually said we needed to use a credit card inside the building and pay in advance. Everything we do here is a challenge.
We drove north, stopping at a picnic area for lunch. Next to us was a van which, judging by the pictures on the side, belonged to a sauna installer. We've found saunas everywhere in Finland. There are said to be one for every three people throughout the country and they are fitted into all sorts of odd corners of homes or out in wooden sheds in the garden. All the campsites have one. We assume the text on the van informed customers they were expert sauna installers, no place too difficult and that "If anyone can, the sauna man can" - to paraphrase the well known advertising slogan of a double glazing installer in SW England.
Deep in the woods at Sammallahdenmäki there is another, unusual Unesco World Heritage site. Piles of granite stones are all that remain of bronze-age burial tombs from around 1500 BC. Ian of course was eager to find them, somewhere along a rutted muddy track deep into the heart of the woodland. When we arrived there was nobody around and nothing but a box of leaflets in various languages and an earth closet for those in need. We'd never actually used one before but have to say it is a deal more pleasant smelling, clean and hygienic than many a French facility attached to the town halls of major provincial towns.
It was interesting enough following the way-marked path around the cairns but the real joy was the pleasure of walking through an isolated area of Finnish woodland. The forest floor was the bare smooth granite bedrock with trees, shrubs and flowers growing in every possible crevice and fissure. We gathered a couple of jars of wild blueberries from beneath the silver birch trees, and wandered the paths between rocks covered in grey-green lichen. Heather, rosebay willow herb, cranberries, bright red mushrooms and shallow, mossy pools, coupled with the complete silence made it an impressive experience. We saw red squirrels but, hope as we might, no elks. A wind blew up, tossing the tops of the pine trees and causing the leaves of the birches to tremble in expectation. This was the furthest north we have ever been and the limit of our travels on this journey.
A few kilometres back along the road at Lappi we found a beautiful wooden church surrounded by its grassy cemetery. Amongst the graves were pretty rowan trees and slender birches scattering their dried brown catkins as the wind continued to toss their branches. Here we found a Finnish War Graves cemetery with rows of headstones for the young men who had lost their lives fighting the Winter War and the War of Continuation against Russia between 1939 and 1944. Each grave had blue and white flowers blooming – the colours of the Finnish flag.
We turned now and made our way towards the south. The wind became stronger and soon we ran into violent, torrential rain. The empty roads were awash with water and it was impossible to see ahead. We pulled to the side and waited for it to pass. Suddenly the black clouds were replaced by dazzling sunlight and a beautiful, double rainbow arched across the sky directly ahead of us.
Although we couldn't understand the road signs, we knew there was a little museum about Finland and its role in WW2. Somehow we found it in the unlikely setting of a small isolated trading estate attached to an army surplus store selling off outdated Finnish military clothing. We knew we'd arrived when our way was blocked by Russian army tanks and Finnish gun carriages. We were dragged inside with enthusiasm and asked to sign their visitor's book – the only ones today. Only one person spoke English and that was hesitant, but they eagerly showed us around and tried to explain the complexities of Finland's undoubtedly difficult situation during WW2 and its impossible attempts to stay neutral. Wedged between the might of the USSR on one side and Germany on the other it was invaded by both at different times.
We were shown tools, weapons, army rations, clothing, guns, tanks and much more. They handed us Russian rifles to test their weight. It's the first time either of us has held a gun. They were extraordinarily heavy. They even unearthed an old American news film for us to watch about US aid that was sent to support the Finns. We didn't learn as much as we would have liked but could not have coped with the captions to the exhibits without guidance and it was good to experience such friendly, enthusiastic people. The young man was obviously delighted to have coped with successfully speaking in English for so long. He told us his grandfather has served in the Winter War. All the Finns who fell were returned for burial in their home communities. The bodies were collected from the battle scenes and his grandfather's responsibility was to thaw out the frozen corpses, clean them up, dress them in clean uniforms and arrange their transportation home on tiny sleds pulled across the snow by horses – the main form of transport in winter Finland at that time.
Yesterday we acquired a useful booklet of Finnish campsites and found one marked not far from our route south. When we arrived it was to discover it is deep inside one of the forests and apart from an Estonian couple in a nearby log cabin, we are the only people here. When we asked at the house if we could stay, nobody spoke English but the lady smiled widely, told us she was called Anja, shook our hands and by use of signs and much laughter, we managed to understand that we could camp, have electricity, use the showers, WC, sauna and kitchen for 13 euros a night! This is amazing value but presumably it's because it's so isolated.
So here we are, camped beneath the swaying pine trees with the rain pattering on the roof, far from street lights or sounds of human activity. We've cooked our bilberries which are cooling outside, and there is still the possibility that we will wake tomorrow to find an elk peering in at us.
Friday 15th August 2008, Helsinki, Finland
Made it! We have finally coped with the various ring roads around the city and are settled on our campsite which, we are assured, has easy public transport access to the city centre.
It was just so perfect at last night's campsite that we lingered until nearly lunchtime enjoying the tranquillity and loath to face the hassle of the drive through the centre of Helsinki. Sitting in the sunshine beneath the trees of a forest in Finland eating a breakfast of bilberries and custard can be recommended as a way to spend retirement. It's even better when it doesn't really matter how long you spend as there is no real reason to rush on and no urgent appointments to return home for.
We eventually moved on, stopping at a little town to do our shopping. As we couldn't understand a single word on any of the labels we discovered later that the "cakes" Ian chose were actually pastry filled with rice and cheese – very nice but unexpected. The shrimps turned out to be meat pate and there are still several interesting but unidentified items in the fridge for tomorrow's lunch. We think we have bought salmon steaks but who knows.
Stopping for lunch at a deserted spot at Torronsuon, one of the Finnish National Parks, we discovered it was actually an area of bog, a quaking bog in fact. Moss, roots, tendrils and branches had covered the surface of a shallow lake turning the entire area into a wetlands bog with birch saplings, pine trees and bushes taking root. It all looked fairly solid but was several metres deep in some areas and in others if you trod on it water oozed up around your feet between the heather and grass. Shake a tree and the whole area began to tremble. The bog covered the entire area of the former lake and a walkway of split pine trunks had been laid right across it, stretching some 2.5 kilometres. We set off to explore, first through fairly definite woodland until the trees thinned out and we were facing a flat area of bog, heather, moss and bushes stretching away into the distance. In the complete silence, with nobody else for miles, it was both eerie and beautiful. We don't think it was particularly dangerous. We did step off the walkway a couple of times to experiment. Our feet sank into the ooze but the thick matting of roots ensured we didn't sink. On the other hand, long branches could be pushed down until they simply disappeared.
As we walked along the tree trunks above the surface of the bog, newts, that had been sunning themselves on the warm wood, scuttled from beneath our feet to the safety of the underside of the logs. Blue butterflies fluttered amongst the blueberry bushes and there were many species of wetland plants ranging from reeds to carnivorous plants. It was quite different from our forest walk yesterday but just as pleasurable and again, typical of the countryside of Finland.
We continued our drive down to Helsinki. The rest of the country may be deserted but on Friday afternoon the main roads out of the city are completely snarled up with people rushing off to spend the weekend in the peace of the countryside. Ian had managed to pick up a free map of the city on our way in so was able to direct us easily to the campsite where we are surrounded by German camping cars, most of whom say they have just arrived off the ferry from Estonia. Unlike Oslo and Stockholm, we saw no other "foreign" vehicles on the motorway and certainly nobody from England.