From Hanko to Karesuando
Blue water, white birches and lilac flowers
Along the Gulf of Finland and via countless Saimaa lakes to the Gulf of Bothnia, crossing the Polar Circle at the Swedish border. In the summer, nature is exuberant here: blue lakes, fields of lilac flowers, white birches and rivers teeming with fish. Above the Polar Circle also mushrooms, lichen and reindeer.
Travelogue & photos: Mariet Arts
After a wonderful and luxury crossing of the Gulf of Finland in 22 hours with the Superfast ferry from Rostock in Germany to Hanko in Finland, we move our watches an hour forward and drive to Helsinki.
We spend our first night in an SRM-hostelli (Suomen Retkeilymajajärjestö or: Finnish family inn) in Porvoo, about 185 km from Hanko.
It's drizzling. The roads are wide and in good condition. Signs have the names of towns both in Finnish and in Swedish.
We pass Ekenäs and Lohja and decide to skip Helsinki and stay on road #25. We cross Espoo, the city which is the location of the world's largest producer of cell phones, the Nokia Corporation; we get a view of their buildings from a distance.
We exit to road #55 and then to the E18. We arrive in Porvoo, a nice town with 18th century houses in its center. It's late, so we look for our hostelli.
There are signs with a bed on them that read Porvoon Retkeilymaja. That should be it, because it matches the address on the map we printed from the internet.
We follow the signs and a little later we arrive at a big red building. The manager tells us that it used to house a school for midwives. Enjoying a can of tasty, cold Finnish beer, we watch tv in our room and try to pronounce and remember some Finnish words.
On the King's Way to the Flower Coast
Next morning, a pale sun and birds singing in a tree near our window wake us early. Because it started to rain, we won't drive to Helsinki, but continue our drive to Kotka.
We drive on the Kuninkaantie, the King's Way, one of Northern Europe's oldest roads, on which in the past kings, merchants, artists and pilgrims travelled. It begins in Turka, on the south-west coast of Finland and ends in Vaalimaa on the Russian border. The road is recognizable by brown shields with a yellow crown on them.
We pass Loviisa, where the famous composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), who wrote Finlandia, The Swan of Tuonela and the Karelia Suite, spent the summers when he was young, with his grandmother and Aunt Eveliina. A few years later, inspired by the surroundings here, he composed the Kullervo Symphony. His grandmother's house is a museum now, which is open during the summer.
We approach the Blomsterkusten (Flower Coast). The six cities we will pass each have a flower as their symbol. To our right is Kotka, which has a rose. We would have loved to climb the 90-years-old watchtower in the Haukkavuori mountains to get a view of the surroundings, but it's raining very hard and, judging from the black sky, it's not likely to stop any time soon.
We drive on and arrive in a star-shaped city, Hamina, city of the henbane, also known as stinking nightshade (a rare and toxic plant). It has a gorgeous round Orthodox church. Or, as it is described in Swedish: De heliga apostlarnas Petrus och Paulus ortodoxa kyrka. The Swedish name for Hamina is Fredrikshamn. In it harbour, eight huge cormorants sit on a large boulder which is covered with their shit.
After Virolahti, the farthest south-eastern city of Finland, whose flower is the sweet pea (lathyrus), we see a road sign that says St.Petersburg 203 km.
In Vaalimaa on the Russian border we have a cup of coffee and at the border exchange office we see Russians change their rubles for euros to go shopping in Finland.
Saimaa Lakes area
Savonlinna was built on three islands
We exit the E18, which continues to St. Petersburg in Russia and take the direction to Lappeenranta in the Saimaa Lakes area. There one can make a cruise to Russia from the port via the Saimaa Canal.
We stop twice because the windshield wipers can't deal with the amount of rain; the view is less than 50 meters. We have to drive very slowly. Eventually the rain stops and the sun breaks through the clouds.
Meanwhile we also passed Imatra and Parikkala. We feel like stretching our legs and visiting a city. We exit road #6 to road #14 toward Punkaharju, which lies between lakes. In Kerimäki we see the world's largest wooden church.
Savonlinna is also called the brightest pearl of the Saimaa Lakes area and is located between Lake Haapavesi on its north and Lake Pihlajavesi to the south. The city was built on three islands, which are connected by bridges. When we cross a huge bridge into the city center, we see in the distance the majestic Olavinlinna castle and decide to spend the rest of the day in Savonlinna.
We visit the city on foot and spend our time wandering around in the city center and browsing very modern stores.
There is hardly any traffic
Next morning we drive north on the #471, between wild hills. After Enonkoski we have to stop all of a sudden and wait for the ferry which will take us to the other side, betwen Lake Haukivesi and Lake Orivesi, at no charge.
In one of the villages we pass through, we see a well-preserved old bridge, built with piled-up stones which were cut from the surrounding mountains.
There is hardly any other traffic, which isn't actually all that surprising, given the fact that only 13 per cent of Finland is inhabited. The rest of the country is 67 per cent woods, 10 per cent water and 10 per cent is cultivated.
At the end of the #471 we turn right onto the #476 to Joensuu, the capital of North Karelia. We see lakes with clear blue water.
We arrive in Joensuu by 11 AM and follow the signs to 'keskusta' (center). On the market square is a big flower market. Also the adjoining park has many flowers.
We have coffee on a terrace where a group of musicians intensifies our vacation mood; we listen to the people around us, but don't understand a word of what they're telling each other in Finnish. We try to have a conversation in English with some elderly people at our table, but they don't understand English. A little later we succeed with a group of youngsters. We have lunch in the Teatri building next to the market square; it's a theatre, but also has a good restaurant.
We order Finnish lunch, which is fried 'ströming', a small fish, warm potato salad, vegetables and Finnish bread with herb butter. For dessert we have coffee with Karelian pastry.
We take a walk in the city and see several stores with Karelian needlework. The Art Centre Ahjo, with North Karelian art, on the market square, is closed, unfortunately. After a visit to the Avant Art Gallery we walk back to our car and drive in northern direction out of the city.
Around Lake Pielinen
Meadows full of cow's parsley, lupin and pelargonium
After a few kilometers on road #6 we have to choose: drive left around Lake Pielinen and go hiking in one of Finland's oldest tourist attractions, Koli's National Park, or drive right around the lake to the Ruunaa rapids and possibly see salmon fishers in action.
It's 26 degrees centigrade, so we think it's better to look for the salmon fishers. Just before Kontiolahti we turn right onto the #73 to Lieksa. Lake Pielinen is the fifth largest lake in Finland. It may get boring to read, but again we drive through wonderful natural surroundings with sky-blue lakes.
In Lieksa we take a right toward the Russian border. Here and there a house sits between huge fields of cow's parsley, lupin and pelargonium. But there isn't a person or an animal in sight, everything is quiet and deserted.
The road takes us close to the Ruunaa river where one can fish for salmon, trout and greyling. We see a few fishing boats and on the other side of the river is Russia. We're out of luck: there's not a fisher in sight.
We drive back to Lieksa and then on road 73 to Nurmes. We stop a few time to enjoy the wonderful views of Lake Pielinen. And, curious as we are, we look for a Bomba house as soon as we arrive in Nurmes.
The wooden houses are constructed without nails
We end up in Bomba park and see a Spa hotel, a restaurant, swimming pool, apartements, a Bastu (Finnish sauna) and... a Bomba village. The receptionist tells us the story of Bomba.
Jegor Bombin, a Karelian farmer, built a huge house for his only son Dimitri in the summer of 1855 in the town of Suojärvi on the lake of the same name. The house was built with thick round poles, was approximately 25 meters long and 10 meters wide. The only tool he used was an axe and not even one nail or other metal part was used in its construction. Everything was joined together with wood.
In one part of the house lived the large Bombin family, which at the time had 24 members. The other part of the house was inhabited by their cattle. After Dimitri Bombin's death in 1915 the real estate was divided among his five sons.
The house was torn down in 1934 and the poles were divided among the five brothers. Three of them used their poles to build new houses.
The idea to rebuild the Bomba house came from former inhabitants of Suojärvi. In 1974 a committee was installed to find a good spot to rebuild the house and in 1975 the plan was introduced to build it in Nurmes. At first, the plan was to build only one house, but it soon was revised and it was decided to build a village. The Karelian village was finished in 1978.
We take a walk in the village and suddenly see trees with round crowns which we saw several times during our trip here, but of which we don't know the name.
We spend the night in one of the houses in the Bomba village, which was built completely in original Bomba style. Next morning, after a large breakfast in the Bomba restaurant, we drive back to road #6 in northern direction.
On a dead-straight road, all alone
After Valtimo we arrive in Kainuu province. We drive for kilometers on a dead- straight road, all alone, it's an incredible experience. One feels like racing, but the signs along the road with a picture of an elk and the extra yellow line in the middle keep us from doing that.
By 11 AM we arrive in Kajaani. We drive to the town center, but because it's Sunday, it's completely quiet and deserted. We mail our picture postcards at a Posti and then have to choose whether we'll drive left or right around a lake, this time Lake Oulujärvi.
We choose left and arrive via road #831 in a flat agricultural area with huge fields of flowers. Also here we have great views of sky-blue lakes.
At Vaala we take road #22 westward and pass Utajärvi and Muhos and then arrive in Oulu, which is the largest city of North Scandinavia with its 123.000 inhabitants. It's a high-tech city with a university, cathedral, discotheques and modern supermarkets.
On the market square sit several 18th century warehouses which are renovated and now house cafés and restaurants. We leave Oulu and arrive in Haukipudas, a beach resort on the Gulf of Bothnia.
We call our friends in Kalix, just over the Swedish border, who we want to surprise with a visit tomorrow. As soon as they hear where we are, they succeeed in convincing us to get there this night.
It's still early, so we decide to take their offer and return to the E75. We stay on this road until we reach the Finnish border town of Tornio, which we don't want to skip.
We wander around, but this city is also deserted because of the Sunday. We cross a bridge over the Tornio river, cross the border and arrive in the Swedish border town of Haparanda, the only town in Sweden where one can pay in euros.
Our friends are already looking out for us when we arrive on their property half an hour later. We use the evening to catch up.
A breathtaking area
Houses are completely hidden behind flowers
Next morning we drive back to Haparanda and just before the Tornioälven (river is älven in Swedish and joki in Finnish) we turn left northward and arrive in a breathtakingly beautiful area: blue water, white birches and lilac flowers like pelargonium and pincushion flower.
Houses are all but hidden behind flowers. Flowers which you'll find in small quantities in gardens or which are protected in The Netherlands, stand in enormous numbers along the road and in meadows.
A little later we arrive at Kukkolaforsen, ("forsen" are rapids), another paradaisical area. A few fishermen stand by the water with hand nets on very long sticks. From boats, from landings or from the banks they try to catch fish. Not everyone is allowed to do this; the rights to catch sik, a houtachtige fish, are sold by auction.
We still drive north on the Swedish side of the border, but at Övertornio we cross the border and arrive in Ylitornio on the E8 and Finnish territory.
Above the Polar Circle
Two reindeer cross the road leisurely
We cross the Polar Circle and browse an enormously huge souvenir shop, which of course carries kitsch, but also practical utensils and different kinds of Sami clothing.
We drive through vast woods from Juoksenki to Turtola. All of a sudden, on an open patch, we see a red barn on the side of the road. We stop and walk toward it to see what it is that we see through its windows.
We can't believe our eyes: the barn is filled with elk and reindeer antlers. We know those animals live here, but we haven't seen even one so far, alive, that is.
When we have passed Pello and approach road #83 to Rovanimie, it crosses our minds to visit Santa Claus in his workshop in Santa Park at Rovaniemi. He returns there every year after his travels around the world to read the letters that are addressed to Joulupukin (Santa Claus) and which he receives every year from over 700.000 children all over the world. But we decide to stay on course to the north.
The Torniojoki river, which we can see all the time, sometimes close by, sometimes far away on the Swedish side of the border, changes its name here and now is called Muoniojoki. It is the only river in Sweden and Finland that changes its name; when we get farther north, its name will be Konkamajoki.
And then, all of a sudden, there are two reindeer on the side of the road, ready to cross. We stop.
From the other side, a huge truck approaches, honking loudly. The two reindeer stop in the middle of the road, hesitate for a moment, but then return and wait until the truck has passed. Then they cross the road leisurely and disappear in the forest.
We are near the town of Muonio and cross a bridge over the Muoniojoki river. After crossing the border, we are on Swedish territory again. On an island, 13 km from here, is Muodoslompolo with a camping site and stuga park Rajamaa.
We're lucky, there is a cottage available. Lars Malmstrom, son of a minister and owner of the park, tells us that his stuga village was built where there used to be a Sami church - the Muonionalusta church - which was destroyed by fire. The original belltower and a memorial with the names of the ministers keep the past from being forgotten.
We take a walk on the island and bring fishing gear with us. After a few minutes we arrive at the Muonioälven river, which at this point is very wild. For people who love rafting, that of course is a good thing.
But it's also a paradise for fishers, with all this water around, with trout, arctic trout, greyling and salmon. A few fishermen sit on the river banks. We try to catch fish for dinner.
But soon I get bored and walk into the forest. Despite the fact that it's still summer, there are a few mushrooms along the path.
A little later, when I walk deeper into the forest, I see gorgeous lichen, fungi, clavaria (cladonia floerkeana) and also different kinds of mushrooms, like russula, fungi and boletales.
Next morning we visit Muonio. We don't see a living soul, but the long row of red mailboxes in the street proves that people actually live here.
All the way north
Warm woolen sweaters, coats, mitts and socks
When we drive farther north, after two days of relaxing in the forest and on the water, we see two huge Sami souvenirshops opposite each other along the road.
We stop at the store on the right side of the road and on entering are hugged and welcomed by a Sami woman; some Sami men are drinking coffee and carving animal figures in wood. They are all animals which live in Scandinavia.
The store is filled with tables on which merchandise is stacked high and the cabinets are overstuffed with mostly warm winter clothes, like warm woolen sweaters, coats, mitts and socks and objects made of reindeer skin or birch bark.
The area is bare and flat, but when we drive on, it changes into dense forest. We stop several times to look at reindeer.
We pass a woman in traditional Sami garment. Later we find out that only some old people wear this on a regular basis; others wear it only for tourist attractions or festivals.
When we cross the border at Karesuando an hour later to continue our trip in Swedish Lapland, our Finnish adventure has ended.