480 nights : 18,739 miles travelled : countries visited: 23
“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”. Mahatma Gandhi
Many times along the trail we have crossed borders that were moved or created in recent history. This summer we have passed over borders that do not exist, through lands that are not properly recognised. Sápmi stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and is the homeland of Europe’s northernmost indigenous people, the Sámi. In Karasjok we visited the Sámediggi, the parliament for the Sámi people of Norway which addresses issues that impacts their lives, language and culture.
The architecture of the Sámediggi references the traditional temporary shelters of reindeer herders and the town is also home to NRK Sami Radio and Sámi museums. But we got the most interesting perspective chatting to John Daniel who approached to say hi to Kipper. It was his 18th birthday and he told us about life where the temperature can range 70 degrees between seasons, an unending fascination with the northern lights and the joys of riding snowmobiles in winter….fast. His enthusiasm for speed and his efforts to restrain his colourful language reminded us of teenagers at home!
It was a short drive to the national border with Finland and we drove through miles of Mountain Birch to Inari, which has the parliament building for the Sámi in Finland and the excellent Siida museum where we learned more about the life of reindeer herders.
We learned of battles with national governments over the damming of rivers which ruin fishing livelihoods and modern forestry techniques which disrupt reindeer herding. The situation is improving but the Sámi in all four countries still face discrimination and threats to their identity. We thought about the benefits of ‘progress’, like more and improved roads, that we have enjoyed without considering any threats to the environment or traditional livelihoods. Throughout the rest of our trail through Finland, we noticed the large forest clearings and thought about the double edged effects of the hydro-electric dams that we crossed.
There was further cause for reflection at the Arktikum museum in Rovaniemi which highlights developments in the Arctic region. Climate change has occurred before but never at the pace it has now and the effects of worldwide pollution carried north in the wind and sea have yet to be fully realised. It was very sobering.
A welcome contrast was a visit to the Santa Claus village just up the road. Initially it all felt a bit bonkers, the sun was shining with the whole place milling with bemused grown ups. Tinny Christmas music is piped into the air all day and night…we know, we slept on the car park! This is not how we imagined Lapland. Initially we managed to preserve our normal cynicism. No we weren’t going to see Santa unless he agreed to sit on our knees. No we weren’t going to waste money on tacky souvenirs at overblown prices. But there must be inaudible brainwashing qualities in the tune of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, because it wasn’t long before we imagined the magic and embraced the silliness, which included meeting Rudolf…minus his red nose which was on it’s summer break!
We came back down to earth with a bump as we drove south through heavy rain. The windscreen wiper motor suddenly stopped working. We were lucky to be able to pull into a clearing in the trees and call for help almost immediately . Fortunately we had not long crossed a dam which helped our breakdown insurance provider find us. The blessings that come with travelling in Brian include the ability to make a cuppa and fill a hot water bottle in the hours before help arrived. We were taken back to Rovaniemi to wait until the weekend was over to visit a garage for repairs. More time with Santa!
We feel very fortunate that this is the only time we have needed to be rescued in this way which is great going for a 13 year old snail!
The forests of Finland are home to wolves, lynx and to brown bears and all can be seen at Kuusamon Suurpetokeskus. We were there to see the orphan bears who have been adopted by Sulo Karjalainen. He is famous in Finland for the close bond he has with these huge animals; it was fascinating to hear about their different personalities and to see how the offer of fruit can have the same effect on bears that cake has on me. I must remember that tongue out is not a good look!
We followed the Russian border south, travelling further east than we have been so far and felt closer to what might be called wilderness than anywhere else in Europe. We had to tear ourselves away from a lovely campsite in a peaceful Hossa and then pursued the animal theme with a night at a husky farm. The lodge offers holidays and the opportunity to try dog sledding.
It was a quiet day between guests and I was asked if I would like to join the puppy walk. WOULD I?!
On the surface Finland is about trees and lakes. Trees and lakes. Crystal clear waters reflect the forests to make a big country seem endless. Driving along straight flat roads, trees took on a meditative quality as they flicked past our peripheral vision. And the weather swung like a pendulum; one day sunny, two days rain. Two days sun, one day rainy.
A map of Karelia is laced with yet more lakes.The promise of a high viewpoint drew us to Koli National Park for a rare chance to look down on Finnish scenery.
The sauna is central to Finnish culture and was offered at almost everywhere we stayed. Graham tried it only once where he knew we would be the only bathers. Even then he was horrified when I joined him topless. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get a burkini for Christmas!
Olavinlinna was the oldest building we had seen for a long time. The 15th century castle is surrounded by water in the pretty town of Savonlinna at the heart of the Lakeland area. Water water everywhere!
Helsinki was as far south as we could go and once again we found a free waterfront pitch.
We loved Helsinki. It has all the buzz of a capital city without leaving you feeling frazzled.
We bought the ingredients for a picnic at Vanha Kauppahalli. There was a wide range of speciality food stands offering an impossible choice of goodies. Somehow we ended up with smoked reindeer baguettes and licorice vodka!
We took our lunch on a ferry to Suomenlinna, the ‘fortress of Finland’. This is set on a group of islands linked by bridges which still has a community of 800 living on them.
Back on the mainland, we enjoyed the art-nouveau buildings and Mr Kips enjoyed the quirky Esplanade Park….and his first beer….alcohol free of course.
It seemed strange to be ending our time in Finland in a city, when so much of it had been driving alone through forests. After the drama of the landscape in Norway, Finland feels like the quieter cousin, which offered the time and space to reflect on how wonderful the top of Europe is. The biggest skies, the widest waters, the fattest rainbows. We are so lucky to have seen it all.
M & G xx
Treat of the week: Without fail and whatever the weather, the Finnish evening sky was lit with the most beautiful palette of colours.