Monday 11th August 2008, Naantali, Finland
Today we have discovered that we are not simply linguistically challenged, we are linguistically Finnished! We don't understand a word we see anywhere. In all the other countries we have visited there has usually been sufficient similarity of language to hazard some sort of guess, but Finnish is like nothing else at all. There is a substantial minority of Swedish people living in Finland and to them we must be grateful, as signs are frequently written in both Finnish and Swedish. You can well imagine just how helpless we must be, reliant on the Swedish text to understand anything! Helsinki may be different but here we have encountered no English speaking visitors yet. When we have asked local people for help though, they have always been able to reply in English and one lady took the trouble to teach us how to say a couple of words in Finnish, including "thank you".
It wasn't a very auspicious arrival. We drove sleepily off the boat at 7am – Finland is two hours ahead of British time – into a dank, misty, deserted town of largely unprepossessing blocks of flats. We did have a frisson of excitement however seeing a road sign pointing to St. Petersburg. We parked and set off on foot to discover Turku just as the rain began in earnest. It just never seems to cease in Scandinavia.
The citizens of Turku were setting out for work as we jumped over the puddles that collected amongst the broken flagstones of the pavements and in the potholes along the roads and cycle paths. It really was a miserable day and we began to wonder why on earth we bothered doing all this when we could have been comfortably at home in Exeter. It all looked so drab, wet, and uninviting. We were on one side of the river and the city centre was on the other without a bridge in sight. Through the rain we saw people with bikes boarding a ferry so joined them for a 90 second crossing through torrential rain. Our second ferry of the day and it was not yet 8am.
Without a map, guide book or ability to ask for help we somehow found the unimaginative city centre with its monolithic blocks of socialist-style flats with shops below. Altogether an uninspiring place with the roads dug up and cables being laid all along the main street. A few wooden buildings had somehow survived, dwarfed by the concrete slabs around them. On the central square, market traders were setting up their stalls amongst the puddles. They were all selling the same things – berries. There were strawberries, gooseberries, cranberries, bilberries and several nameless others too. Surely the Finns eat something else! But maybe not, for later we saw the cake shops selling fruit tarts, gateaux and pies, all filled with berries.
Further along we eventually found the cathedral which had just opened for the day and gratefully went inside to dry off and read something of the history of Turku and its cathedral from an English leaflet we discovered. We even found a WC there which solved one of the many problems experienced when arriving in a new country with no small change and no understanding of the language to even know which word means men and which women.
Inside the 13th century brick-built cathedral we found the tomb of the only queen Finland has ever had, Catherine, wife of Erik XIV, so they regard her with great affection. By the time we came out the rain had eased and we discovered we were in a rather attractive area of stone and brick buildings dating from the early 19th century. Nearby were the buildings of the Swedish University in Finland and the Sibelius museum. The former was very pleasant but the other is the most ugly building imaginable, especially when purpose built for the nation's greatest (only?) composer of world renown.
Singing the words of the Monty Python song "Finland, the land where I quite want to be" to cheer ourselves up, we returned to the town centre where we discovered the impressive new public library building complete with the latest in Scandinavian furnishings, offering back issues of the Times and free internet access. By the time we emerged we were considerably more cheerful and the sun had come out. In the market hall we discovered tasty Finnish pasties for lunch, followed by coffee and a mixed berry tart with cream. From then on it has been a great day! We are so glad we stuck it out rather than driving straight on towards Helsinki. Everything looks different in the sunshine when you are comfortably full on the inside and have dried off on the outside! We explored the castle, which used to be the seat of power in Finland during mediaeval times. Like the cathedral, it looked a bit battle scarred with patched brickwork from various changes and restorations. As Ian said rather eloquently – both buildings wore their history on their faces.
Down by the river we discovered some more superlatives. There was, allegedly, the oldest wooden three-masted sailing brig in the world. Of special note though was the world's first electric Azimod propulsion unit! We were fascinated to discover that this very appliance, with a power rating of 1,500 kW, pioneered the development of azimuthing electric podded propulsion units, leading, by 2004, to a new era of power equipment in Arctic patrol ships and drilling rigs!
By now, considering we had been awake since 4.30am, we were beginning to flag and decided to make our way along the coast to Naantali to camp for the night. If you followed our travels around Greece earlier in the year you may recall Modestine meeting up with her Romahome friend Erik in the Peloponnese. By one of those coincidences that sometimes happens, Erik is also in Finland at the moment, attending a world rally for lady motorcyclists with his owners Lesley and David. He and Modestine had hoped to meet up here but Erik has been dragged off northwards to cross the Arctic Circle while we are heading eastwards to the Balkan States. So we all miss each other by a few days. Modestine is convinced she is settled on the very pitch so recently vacated by Erik. He in turn will make his way up and round into Sweden and will probably end up on Modestine's old pitch at the campsite at Bredäng near Stockholm in a week or two.
There is another reason though why we opted to come to Naantali. It's where the Moomins live! Do you remember those strange, shapeless white creatures in their top hats, and their adventures in Moominland? Created in the story books of Tove Jansson they are still as popular today in Finland as they were back in the 1950 and 60s, and tomorrow we will seek them out!
The campsite is set in woods, the pitches standing amongst granite boulders, overlooking the fjord we entered on the ferry this morning. In the grounds is a memorial to over 300 sailors of the Finnish Navy who died during several combats here during the Second World War. Finland was in a difficult position at this time, caught between two aggressive nations, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It was invaded by Russia whose armies it held at bay during the Winter War, but it eventually had to sign a peace treaty in 1940. Further attacks by the Soviets forced a country that was not happy with Nazi ideology into siding with Germany, and Britain declared war on Finland in 1941. A second peace treaty with the Soviet Union was signed in 1944 but under very harsh terms.
Most of the people here are Finnish with a few Swedes, but also some Russians. A huge, state of the art mobile home with Russian writing on the side has recently settled here for the night. Now though, it's time for us to have an early night – not easy when the sun is still shining at 9pm.
Tuesday 12th August 2008, Naantali, Finland
We woke to bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. At last we could attack the festering heap of rain-soaked socks and grubby clothes we've been carrying around with us for so long! Soon the surrounding forest was festooned with towels and dripping jeans while Ian's pyjamas graced the branches of the nearest pine tree.
While they dripped we walked through the woods and along the path above the fjord, down into the old part of Naantali. Scandinavian woodlands are wonderful to walk through. There are numerous outcrops of ice-polished granite pushing through the undergrowth, frequently with shallow basins of boggy water where bright green mosses flower. The trees are mixed. There are the inevitable pines and birches but also sycamores, oaks and rowans, with their clusters of bright orange berries. At ground level there is a thick covering of hardy, stunted green bushes covered in red and black berries, usually cranberries and bilberries but many more that we do not recognise. Wild strawberries, purple vetch and many other forest flowers add colour to the dark green undergrowth.
The old town of Naantali is a delightfully picturesque place and has remained unspoilt by its proximity to Moominland on a little island just off shore, linked by a causeway.
We wandered the little streets of old wooden houses where we discovered the Moomin shop and bought Deyvika a dayglo reflective top with Moominmama and Moominpapa on the front to wear when Neil takes her for rides on his bike. (As Neil's cycling outfit has a reflective skeleton on it they should be fairly noticeable as they make their way through the Oxfordshire countryside together.) Down by the water's edge we found beautiful luxury homes, still traditionally built in wood, with expensive yachts moored up near their front doors.
Searching for somewhere to upload our Stockholm blog we made our way into the modern part of the town. This is very mediocre, being just an uninspiring, functional little town completely lacking in character, but then, it has the old wooden town for that. Unfortunately neither the internet place, nor the library were geared up to enable us to use our USB sticks so it was all rather frustrating.
The Finnish President has his holiday residence here. No doubt the Moomins help him relax after a busy season running the country. The flag was flying above his home, presumably indicating he was in residence.
During the afternoon we strolled along the marina, past cafes and ice cream places. Children we passed all had moomins painted on their faces after a Grand Day Out on the island. Crossing the causeway we were delighted at the setting for one of Finland's greatest entertainment centres. It was all very low key and rather quaint, nothing like the brashness of Disneyworld. The entire island is run by moomins and we were free to wander down to the beach to see where Moomintroll goes fishing and to peep into Snif's summer cottage. Near the entrance there is a little theatre where we were lucky enough to see several of the moomins on stage in a performance of a play written and directed by none other than Moominpapa himself!
We'd enjoyed our day so much we decided to stay an extra night here. Unfortunately there is a plague of wasps on the campsite and they are inordinately fond of Cabernet-Sauvignon. It was too hot inside Modestine while supper was cooking but fortunately Swedish campsites frequently provide a large dining area and kitchen where guests cater for themselves. So we were able to take refuge in there.