Thursday, 9 September 2010

Finland 2 - The South

Just look at the map. See that huge swathe of blue running from central southern Finland east towards Russia? The part where only slim, scattered slivers of land break up the vast bodies of water? That’s the lake district, and after what seemed like endless forest in the north, we were glad to see the landscape opening out to a mix of farmland, woods and water. The land in this central belt may be hilly, rocky even, and forested, but sooner or later the roads all dip down to the lakesides, or cross them on causeways or bridges. There’s even the occasional ferry. These are living waterways too, and a series of strategic canals have been cut between the bigger lakes to allow larger vessels to avoid the stony riverbeds and rapids that connect them naturally. Along with the many pleasure craft, large barges still ply cargoes of piled-up logs from the forests of the interior to pulp mills and ports for export.

Our route through central and southern Finland

The climate became milder as we travelled south, and with that came a marked change in vegetation. The bilberries had gone and a mix of grasses and shrubs had replaced the low, juniper-rich ground cover of Lapland. The summer season was clearly longer, even though tourist attractions began to close from mid August onwards, but a chill on even the sunniest days announced that we were heading into autumn.

It’s not called the “lake district” for nothing – Landscape near Karvio and living waterways

Most towns had some sort of trace of an older 19th century core of wooden buildings, although the post-war square blocks and recent supermarkets looked the same as anywhere. One curious phenomenon we noted was an apparent competition between parishes around the 1840s to build the most enormous wooden churches, on a scale that far outweighed the number of people likely regularly to attend them. Kerimäki claimed to have the largest wooden church in the world, and, with a double tier of balconies lining each side of the spacious basilica and a capacity of 3000, it may have been true. But then Mäntyharju claimed to have the second biggest, and apparently Mikkeli it has one of the largest too…

Churches – they liked to build them big round here – Kerimäki and Heinävesi churches

Every culture has its strange traditions and in Finland it has to be carpet washing. Parked up in the harbour of Kerimäki, we noticed a row of large, steel sinks, a flat wooden area and the biggest mangle we’d ever seen. At first we thought it was something to do with cleaning fish, having seen areas on quaysides in Norway for just that purpose, but why the 6ft mangle? Later that evening we saw a woman scrubbing her rug with a long handled broom, and decided it was some odd carpet cleaning business. The next morning, however, a series of different people came along and washed their carpets, feeding them through the giant mangle and hanging them over the wooden railings until ready to pack them up into their van, car or, in one case, bicycle.  We soon realised that at almost every lake or seaside town there was a station set up for rug washing, and these (mattolaituri) were obviously well used. Many of them looked pretty new, though how long these will survive who knows, as environmental groups are apparently lobbying against them due to the risk of detergents and pollutions entering the nation’s waterways. I suppose you can understand the concerns, but it does seem a shame that an old tradition, which doesn’t seem to have harmed the environment over the years, has to stop.

Carpet washing at Kerimäki and Ekenäs

After Nurmes, we stopped for a few days at a campsite at Karvio, by a lock on a canal leading into the Kermajärvi lake system. We used their grill hut for barbecues every night, and probably annoyed a Finnish group who waited patiently for about half an hour while we boiled water and cooked potatoes. They only wanted to grill a few sausages! Luckily the campsites, and all other tourist facilities, were very quiet in the last week of August, which is well into the tail-end of the Scandinavian holiday season, otherwise we’d have had queues of frustrated Finns waiting for us to stop hogging the grill huts.

Karvio – Charlie dog hogging the grill and the general environs around the campsite

Near here we visited Valamo monastery, which belongs to the small Finnish orthodox church – we don’t know when or how they split from the Russian orthodox, but the older icons were clearly annotated in Russian. The original Valamo stood on an island in Lake Ladoga, or Laatokka in Finnish, north of St Petersburg, but this lake has stood since 1940 behind the Soviet frontier. The Finns, in the interval between apparent victory in the Winter War at the end of 1939, and defeat and the loss of East Karelia in 1940, decided to dismantle the entire wooden structure and move it with all its treasures westwards into a more secure part of Finland, and it was reconstructed in a remote part of the Heinävesi district. A new, larger, church was added in the 1970s and it is that which forms the main focus of the complex today, but the older wooden church is still standing, and conveys a feeling of simpler times, before the advent of coach parties and souvenir shops.

Valamo monastery – new and old

Another stop was the town of Savonlinna, where the main tourist pull is Olavinlinna castle, one of a string of fortifications built by the Swedes in the 17th and 18th centuries to strengthen the border against Russian encroachment. With its looming grey stone walls and round towers it seems to grow straight out of the bare granite island at its base. In actual fact though, impressive as it looked from a distance, neither of us are great castle buffs, and we contented ourselves with visiting the free outer areas, and gave the inner chambers and history lecture a miss. The whole town of Savonlinna is located on a string of islands between the Haukivesi and Pihlajavesi lake systems, and has a quay for the many aged steamers that carry tourists around the lake, but had started to look distinctively out-of-season by the time of our visit. The town centre was itself rather modern and bland, with only a scattering of older buildings, and seemed at odds with the other attractions here.

Savonlinna – Olavinlinna fortress and lake steamers

The next few days saw us meandering slowly south-westwards through the lake district. One of the prettiest parts was a stretch called the Lietvesi road, which lies on highway 62 west of Puumala. Here the road crosses another necklace of tiny islands and isthmuses between glittering lakes, and is apparently used to illustrate many tourist brochures of the region. It being a sunny day, we stopped for a swim by an old ferry quay, and had it been later in the day it would have made an ideal spot for camping.

Lievesi bridge panorama

Lievesi bridge area – great for picnics and swimming

We wild camped for several nights, and found that further south in Finland it does not have to mean sleeping in a parking spot beside a main road. Harbours proved to be good places and we stayed one , despite a sign, in Finnish only, forbidding us from lingering on the site after 10pm – our German neighbours were not concerned, so why should we be? We were amused to see cars arrive throughout the evening there containing middle aged and elderly ladies in their dressing gowns who’d driven down to take their evening, presumably post-sauna, dip.

Kerimäki - Puruvesi lake from harbour

Another time we found a flat spot on a gravel track by a lake, which must at some time have served as quay for loading barges with logs, and here we swam in the lake in the morning. Then there was the former campsite behind a service station, where the overgrown pitches were still discernable and a sign (in Finnish again – thank heavens for that dictionary) stated that we could camp at our own risk. We were a little perturbed, however, the next morning, when at 9 a.m. a JCB appeared and drove around the van to rip up the wooden planking from an unused fishing jetty.

Puumala – Swimming by overnight spot

Just as in Norway it was always worth checking on the old road where it had been replaced by a tunnel, in Finland it proved that under bridges often provided good camping spots. One such spot, right at the water’s edge, lay below a bridge on the Pulkkilanharju ridge, which is a long thin finger of land that runs across the foot of Päjäinne lake. It is pierced in a few places by the water, and the road crosses these by bridges and causeways, but for 6 kilometers the water is only meters away on each side of the road, behind a thin screen of pines. There we managed to have a small fire, in a pit to protect it from the wind, and preserved yet another evening’s worth of gas.

Pulkkilanharju ridge at Karisalmi – bridge and fire building underneath

The Pulkkilanharju ridge is a classic example of an esker, a long snake of stone and soil deposited in the bed of a watercourse running beneath a glacier, and which then stands above the surroundings as the glacier recedes. Our journey through Scandinavia has shown us a whole textbook of glaciated land-forms, and I (Rob) am thankful now to Mr Blake who drummed these facts into me in geography lessons at a 1970s grammar school. Growing up in suburban Surrey, it was hard to believe in eskers, drumlins and terminal moraines, let alone erratics, (although holidays in Snowdonia convinced me about U-shaped valleys), but I have now seen them all, and after Pulkkilanharju am a believer. A quick internet search on these will provide a wealth of information should you be so inclined!

Tappuvirta ferry on route 468 and pavilion at Mäntyharju summer art gallery – for some reason they had a collection of pavilions in different styles, but we never found out why because summer apparently ended the weekend before we arrived!

As we travel through different countries we often notice small details to do with people’s daily lives that are a mystery to us for a while, like the yellow boundary marker balls on posts in Norway. In Finland it has been row upon row of electric points in the car parks of factories, apartments and even shops. Obviously they had not been conveniently placed there for roaming motorhomes to plug in to and we speculated as to their use. We hadn’t seen an electric car on the roads, so ruled that out. None of the electric points were being used while we were there in August, so we guessed they were for winter use. Snowmobiles came to mind, but we rather thought they ran on petrol. Eventually, with a bit of internet searching, we found that they are to run engine block heaters (lohkolämmitin), which, apparently, many Finnish cars often come equipped with. They are used to preheat the engine, and often the interior of the car, before use on those days when the temperature is so low the car would struggle to start, thus prolonging the battery life, saving fuel, de-icing windows and providing a cosier start to a journey. Since it must be just as cold in Norway at these times, I (Lesley) wondered why we didn’t see rows of electric points there?

Large stone church at Ingå/Inkoo – separate bell towers are a very common feature throughout Finland

On the British bank holiday weekend, from Friday 27th to Monday 30th August, we had visitors. My (Rob’s) sister Liz, her husband John and two of their children flew out to Helsinki for the weekend, and together we hired a typical Finnish wood cabin at a village called Ikkala, some 70 km from Helsinki. It is what the Finns would call a mökki, or the Swedes a stuga (or the Nowegians a hytte for that matter), but a feature of the Finnish version is that it will always come with a sauna and a rowing boat on a nearby lake. Our mökki sat in a strip of woodland that sloped down to a small lake, and down the hill were the wood-heated sauna, and a jetty with the inevitable rowing boat. After some trial and error with getting to the right temperature, we made full use of the sauna, going as far as the Finnish custom of running out of the sauna for a dunk in the cooling lake, although being a group of Brits we stopped short of the local custom of communal nakedness in the steam room. It was a lovely, relaxing weekend where we just chatted, cooked, ate, laughed, swam (a bit), rowed (a bit) and sauna’d together. Lesley and I read a whole week’s worth of old British newspapers to try and piece together what’s been happening in the last 4 months. But sadly it was all too soon over and we had to pack up and leave on the Monday. We didn’t part ways immediately though, as we went with them to Helsinki to do some sightseeing together before they went to catch their plane home in the evening.

Family fun at Ikkala cabin

The central historic core of Helsinki is very self-contained. You can easily get a good feel for the city in a few hours, which is exactly what we did. Unfortunately, the cathedral and the orthodox church were both closed on Monday 30th August, but we strolled around the indoor (luxury) food market on the harbour, and ate lunch on the outside market stalls, where everyone found something to their particular tastes. Helsinki struck me (Lesley) as a city where you could easily enjoy a short break. There are loads of fashionable shops, an excellent bookshop in an extension of the famous Stockmann department store, and lots of museums and galleries. The Stockmann store is worth a visit. We managed to replace the rubber seal on our ancient expresso coffee pot there, which was proof to us that the claim of being able to buy anything in Stockmann is true. The city had a very cosmopolitan feel, especially around Esplanadi, which could have been a street in Paris, lined, as it was, with pavement cafes. Wandering around the shops and the central residential areas rewards you with a wealth of fascinating architecture from the late 19th century onwards, especially if you look above the height of the shop frontages, where you will see bears, Egyptian gods, art deco floral decoration, gothic turrets and mock castles – to name just a few of the details to be found on the buildings which are reminiscent of Berlin.

Helsinki – elegant streets

Helsinki – Lutheran and Orthodox Cathedrals

Helsinki – art nouveau details

Helsinki – Art installation promoting world peace (England not yet unpacked!)

Our final bit of Finland was a few days on the south coast, to the west of Helsinki. Many parts of this area have a majority Swedish-speaking population, a fact that goes back centuries and pre-dates the foundation of the Finnish state by a long way, and in the most solidly Swedish districts the Swedish language takes priority over Finnish in all public signs and notices, even in national chain shops. This was great for me (Rob) as at last I could understand notices easily again, and talk to people in their own language, after three weeks of almost complete speechlessness since we left Norway. Finnish seemed at times impenetrable, but now Swedish felt straightforward and familiar by comparison, and I tried my spoken Swedish far more in southern Finland than I ever had in Sweden.

Swedish rule OK! On parts of the Finnish south coast anyway.

We stopped first at Ekenäs – it is called Tammisaari in Finnish, but that seems almost irrelevant for such an overwhelmingly Swedish town. It was also the most attractive town we saw in Finland, and unlike any other we visited in the country. The centre was an almost perfectly preserved ensemble of wooden houses dating from the 18th to the early 20th centuries radiating from a stone church. The central square was dominated by a fine stone-built town hall or Stadhus – no Finnish used here – with an art nouveau feel, and we would guess from about 1900. Beyond the centre, expensive-looking villas spanning the last 100 years spread out towards the woods and the lake until comfortable modern timber housing took over. The several harbours were full of pleasure craft, largely moored here now for the winter, and the dominant feeling was of a well-off, fashionable seaside town drifting into autumn. An English guy we met while looking round, who now lives in Finland, confirmed this, saying that there was some serious money invested in the creeks and islands of this attractive coast, which attracts Finland’s wealthy and beautiful to mess around in their boats in the warm months.


Hanko, or Hangö in Swedish, lies at the tip of the peninsula, and is another of the resort towns along this coast (although also a major port). We arrived at it via a long road through the sandy forest, much of which seemed to be used for military purposes. Indeed, the whole peninsula had been coveted by the Russians as a post-war naval base. We stopped briefly at a Russian war memorial at Täktom, before heading into Hanko/Hangö. It was an appealing town and the many large villas in the old centre were proof of a very wealthy heyday as a popular holiday resort in the late 19th and early 20th century. Apparently house prices are booming here at the moment, and the marina was full of expensive boats, so it looks like the town is set to enjoy another period of prosperity. It certainly has an attractive setting, with a pretty bay dotted with massive pink granite boulders, beaches of soft, clean sand with quaint white beach changing huts as well as parkland and promenades.

Hangö seaside villa and Täktom soviet war memorial on Hangö peninsula

We had an interesting drive around this convoluted coastal area, across causeways and islands and around bays. We got to the end of the road on the Skataudden headland, surrounded on three sides by other land, some a mere 50m away by water but probably a 50km drive to reach by road. We passed signs of industry - some historic as in the former iron-smelting works at Fagervik, complete with its own workers’ village, and some current, like the big plant belching red smoke near Hanko. At Stagsund we saw a little boat lift, whereby small craft could be transported across the road on rails, although we were not sure if it was still used. The lakes and inlets were all very inviting, but mostly the shorelines around here, as in the rest of Finland, seemed to be taken up by private plots, making getting to any water-side difficult. We found we could park up at places marked for bathing, and, it being out of season, no-one seemed particularly bothered if we stopped to picnic or sleep for the night. It was too windy for swimming, unfortunately, but these bathing beaches would have been lovely in the right weather, though I guess that under better conditions it may have been too busy to park the van there.

Stagsund boat lift and detail on miner’s cottage at Fagervik

We returned to Helsinki on Saturday 4th September, to catch a ferry the next morning to Estonia. The city seemed much quieter at the weekend, and we had a comfortable and relatively peaceful night’s sleep parked up beside a seafront promenade looking out on a marinas – all free, as parking charges are waived at weekends in much of the city. For motorhomers this fact is worth noting!

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