We have the luxury of time to travel slowly. But it’s not limitless.
We want to be a long way south by late autumn, and so we had to resist the temptation of taking root in our well placed Oulu car park.
It’s hot when we move off. The van shows 36 degrees at one point, and here in Finland roadside readouts tell you the air and road temperature – I guess that becomes important in the cold months.
Today the road’s a scary 50 centigrade.
At 65 degrees north – only a degree off the Artic Circle.
It’s good for ice cream sales, and memorable holidays – but we should all be concerned.
Heading south and west we remark on how low the landscape is. I later read that other than in the north of Lapland there’s hardly a bump in Finland that would qualify as a hill, let alone a mountain.
That’s particularly noticeable at the seaside.
We pull into a little beach car park at Tauvo, about 80kms from Oulu and need to get into the water to cool off. After 50 metres walking straight out to sea the water’s barely over our ankles and people in the far distance are standing too.
I joke about walking the dog over to Sweden.
It appears that the last ice age pushed the land down under the weight of the ice, and it’s still re-emerging, with new islands popping up at a (geographically speaking) fast rate. If man’s still around in another 2000 years that walk to Sweden might well be possible.
Cabins. Plots. And biting beasties.
Tauvo has a little café, a car park for a hundred or so cars, composting toilets, and a few very nice cabins and summer houses.
Polly and I discover many more holiday homes in the woods, well spaced (hundreds of metres apart, these gardens are huge).
There are even plots for sale. At good prices.
Now it takes a lot for me to walk past a plot without a hundred plans sparking off in my mind, and a call to the estate agent. But these, even in this beautiful part of the world, I’m not in the least tempted by.
Our evening walks take us through pretty places, generally in woodland, often with a beach at the end of a trail. And while we’re walking we’re rarely troubled.
But stop for a moment or two and that all changes.
Flies descend from nowhere to feed on delicious Cornish skin. Mossies, house flies, huge flies, and infinitely tiny flies alike.
Stop for a wild wee and your flow will be interrupted by the constant need to swipe at attackers from the sky.
Stand still and listen and you realise that the noise you’ve been aware of like a distant train is actually the humming and buzzing of a million tiny creatures of the forest.
No wonder so many birds fly so far north to breed – food is plentiful on the wing.
Bitey bastards spoil so many beautiful places in summer, West Coast Scotland, North Wales, and huge tracts of lakeland across the world.
And they’d stop me ever wanting to live near the woods here too.
The sleepy coastal town took off when the Strenberg Tobacco Company opened up. Tabs are no longer made here but the lovely buildings of both the factory, and the wooden old town behind it are well preserved.
The 300+ ancient houses are all a few centuries old, and with their unfinished streets they must be a film maker’s dream.
We parked by the marina and watched kids on the high diving boards, the boats coming in at sunset, the birds feasting on the flies.
Best café (so far).
The Skogen Bakery, in the Skata old town of Jakobstad, is a beauty. A good garden, quaintly rustic inside, and strong grain breads that made our sandwich breakfasts. The coffee wasn’t strong, but had more flavour than most of that available in Scandinavia.
Birthplace of Finland’s greatest architect, Alvar Aalto. A city inspired by him, and largely designed by him.
The Friday cruise.
But for now I have to put all that architecture aside and remember Friday night.
By way of context – it’s worth knowing that Finland is rock music mad. Many people know it’s the least populated of all the European countries. Fewer know that it has more Metal bands per capita that any other country. And far more Metal fans.
We pitch up at a campsite on the edge of town. Then for a few hours I have some sort of heat and fatigue meltdown. Lying in the shade is all I can cope with. I’m revived a little by a cycle into town, and revived a lot by what we saw there.
This is cruise city.
It’s a long time since I’ve seen scores, maybe even hundreds, of cars obviously cruising.
At one ridiculous end of the spectrum there’s an old guy in his white Hummer, on the cooler side are the American classics, many just as huge as the Hummer. Then there are the Aixams. You may never have encountered one of these anachronistic French freak cars before. They make Smart cars look big, and fast. They are truly awful when new, and deteriorate quickly from there. Yet here in Sienajöki I’ve seen a bigger collection of them than exists anywhere outside the factory where they’re cobbled together.
The cruisers are a right mix too.
The beautiful American classics tend to be driven by older guys who can afford to run such wonderful, but crazy, beasts.
Aixams are usually driven by tiny old couples in France – but here they’re driven by young kids happy to put up with the embarrassment of a 45mph top speed for the convenience of 90+mpg and no license requirements.
Our favourite car of the night was by no means the most glamorous, a self deprecating gang of lads, cruising in a stretch W123 Mercedes limo.
The Finn. The ultimate oxymoron?
The fat Finn is alive (but perhaps not well).
We worry about our seriously overweight friends in Britain, but wow, here in Finland there are so many bruisers! Danes in general were beautifully tanned, fit and healthy looking, at every age. Sweden felt a bit rougher, but still outdoor focussed. Norway, they were all matchsticks running up huge hills as if they were a flight of stairs. But here in Finland, despite their reputation for the outdoor life, it seems that beer and burgers hold sway over the Nordic walking poles.
Next afternoon in Seinajoki we cycle to town to visit Aalto’s church.
I expect my favourite English architect John Pawson is a fan.
This is minimal on a comfortable level.
I have never sat on a more amenable church pew.
And I’ve certainly never fallen quite so in love with lighting in a church before.
This is the bit worth paying attention to.
The church warden was about to leave and asked if we needed help.
We said we’d like to go up the tower.
So she took us there, let us in, and asked us to shut the doors after we’d been to the top.
That was it.
We could use the ancient cage lift. Be unsupervised at the top of the 65 metre tall tower, and then be trusted to shut up shop after we’d seen our fill.
And so it was. Even in the first rain that we’ve seen in a couple of weeks.
Strong beer. Stronger women.
Cycling home from our religious experiences we slipped into the Kvavla Brewery for a couple of light ales.
While most of the pubs sell pish, this brewery creates some serious ales.
My first, True DIPA, weighed in at 10%, and had a wonderful relaxing effect.
Minty’s Double BOCK was no slouch either.
Even more impressive that the beers was the team serving it. Five girls. A slip of a thing learning the ropes, and her four heavily tattooed sisters each knocking the needle way past triple figures on the scales.
When I complimented one on the beer she answered “Why make bad beer?” Exactly – now try telling that to a lot of breweries.
Lafrowda from afar.
We haven’t forgotten what the third Saturday in July is all about and we’re about to have a social media fest watching Lafrowda films from way back home in St Just.
Paul Woolcock was in our thoughts too. The first person I’d previously never met who welcomed us to St Just.
Jyväskylä – breezing through.
Finnish towns are optimising their waterfronts, and here in Jyväskylä it’s no exception.
Tasteful towers soar around the lakeside, the blocks are well spaced with views for everyone. Bars, cafés and restaurants are following fast.
This is the town Finns revere for its hosting of the World Rally Championship when 500,000 descend on this fairly modest town. They’re preparing for it now and the proportion of Mitsubishis and Subarus on with wings steroids is growing fast.
We visited the Aalto museum, in a building he’d built, then moved on to a lakeside out of town to overnight with a couple of German vans, and a Lithuanian.
A thought on Finland.
As we wandered the streets of bustling Tampere, between two beautiful lakes, we mused on Finland’s predominantly modern urban scape.
This country was under Russian rule until 1917, and only began industrialising after WWII. Until then it was a predominantly agrarian society.
As a consequence, pretty much everything we see was built in the last 60 years. And in the cities they’re building lots more right now.
Towns are easy to navigate on modern grid systems, although they lack the romance and history of say York or Bath.
What they lack in old world charm is easily made up for by their urban plan.
Small cities are compact – most people live in low rise apartments, all with large windows, all with outside space. I reckon ten families live in comfort here on the same space as a reasonable English house would occupy. Most have super efficient shared facilities including heating, laundry, even occasionally kitchens. How much more sensible that seems – I feel my grand urban design taking shape. All I need is a one hundred million pound windfall.
Parkland and city greenery is plentiful, and nearly every big town has a lake, or at least a river, for recreation too. It’s all blissful in the sunshine – I do wonder what it’s like in winter when it’s minus 20 degrees, with a howling wind and has been dark for weeks.
Cathedral of ghosts.
Tampere’s attractions are many, for me the cathedral is the ultimate (2ndchurch in a week, and I’m wearing a cross, don’t worry though, my faith is in humanity, nothing in the clouds).
Tuomiokirkko was built in 1907 in what’s called the National Romantic style. It was a difficult time in Finland’s history, and the depiction of the artwork in the church is both brave and hunting. Twelve childlike ghost apostles carry a clearly ailing tree of life. An angel is stretchered off from the resurrection, the colours are mournful lilacs. Even the stonework is disturbing.
After the simple minimal beauty of Alvar Aalto’s church in Seinajoki the contrast was all the more stark.
This place will stay in my memory, though I’m not sure it’d encourage my religious attendance.
Hot in the city.
The hot nights are harder than the cold in a van, sleep has become a weird thing. I’m sure it happens, but some mornings it feels like it has evaded me altogether. We’re heading back to the coast today. Pori (missed Nick Cave there last weekend) or maybe a bit further to Rauma.
The Quiet Finn.
Guide books prepare you for the quiet Finn.
Even a Finnish one jokes that there is no small talk, and friends might sit together having a great evening, while hardly saying a word. Feels like I’ll fit in very well!
I am used to greeting folk though, anyone I pass in the street. Jack (my dad) set me on this path and I like it.
Here very few people even catch your eye, and a spontaneous “Heja!” greeting is almost unheard of.
Perhaps that’s why their suicide rate is so high – literally no one knows each others’ state of mind.
We hit Rauma at the ideal time, it’s lace festival.
The UNESCO listed old town of typical wooden houses is nothing like as old as much of Britain, but makes a great contrast to the modern city all around it. I’m particularly taken by the communal courtyards that eight or twelve houses are built around.
While we didn’t buy a lot of lace, we did enjoy the International Food Market, and the best (German) pretzel we’ve had to date.
A folk music concert at the lighthouse around from our shady hollow where we’d parked was an experience. No clapping between numbers, even though the audience clearly enjoyed themselves. Commentary from the singers was pretty minimal too. Cape Singers it wasn’t.
Soup à la van.
Listening to the food programme inspired me to make a tomato soup – the supermarkets re groaning under a glut, so I wanted to help.
Now here’s a thing. Remember buying prawns by the pint? Here many vegetables are sold by the litre. Potatoes in litre or half litre boxes. Peas similarly, but from jugs. Potatoes seemed to be prized and are far from cheap on market stalls.
The tattoo that ate itself.
Fashion, by its very nature, must move faster than its proponents.
Even today when big retailers can turn around collections in days (Zara), the creator of a style will be somewhere else before the masses start wearing it.
Becoming fashionable is the death of the tattoo as a rebellious statement.
Here in Finland even the most benign, middle of the road mum is likely to have a tattoo. There are more of them than you’ll see even in Manchester or Brighton.
So what does the Hell’s Angel’s statement say today?