Winter in the North

landFinimg_5779HBO has copyrighted the phrase “Winter is coming”. How selfish is that? But then again, it seems like we do not really need that phrase as nowadays everyone seems to be just saying “Winter is late”. Finland got snow early in November but it all vanished before the winter really even begun. Birds started to sing and willows were trying out their spring outfits. Not okay.

Luckily Finland reaches far to the North way beyond the Arctic Circle. You can always relay in Lapland. Enter the train in Helsinki and after an uncomfortable night in a small cabin with a bunk bed and an orange sink, you wake up in Lapland surrounded by snow and darkness.

Äkäslompolo in Ylläs is a bit touristic holiday destination nowadays. However, it is quiet and beautiful: small houses, two roads, a frozen lake and a starry sky. A fine place to spend midwinter. We (a combination of 4 families) arrived on the Christmas Eve ready for a cosy holiday. The hired cottage got a festive atmosphere when the Christmas tree was brought in and candles lit up. As there was approximately 3 hours of daylight and 20 minutes of sunlight a day, it was important to have a comfortable place to spend the remaining time by reading, playing games and, of course, eating. We had the first Christmas dinner with fish, casseroles, meats, rosolli and all the other traditional treats, at a local restaurant Rouhe. Second, homemade dinner, lasted for three days and filled the stomachs of hungry skiers.

Ylläs has a good cross-country skiing network that goes around the lake and fjells. The route maps are rubbish though, and the signs guide the way to the places that are not shown on the map. Nevertheless, the tracks were in excellent shape and skis glided brilliantly. Even my American friend, Ethan, enjoyed cross-country skiing of which he tried for the first time in his life. The swishing of the skies in a quiet wintry forest is amazingly relaxing.

There are also paths for snowshoeing. At least the path up to Kuer-fjell is good and well marked. The view over the village and lake from the top is beautiful. Those who want the view but no exercise can go up to the top of another, higher fjell, Ylläs, with a gondola lift. Ylläs has also downhill skiing slopes offering more excitement. If the weather is mild it is a good place to do some snowboarding or skiing. However, it can get very cold in mid winter (down to – 30C) and the wind can be very rough on the top, blowing the snow and blocking the visibility.

If the cold is not an issue rolling in the snow or taking a dip in an ice cold water are things to try. We hired a proper sauna for one night (our cottage only had an electric sauna and that is not good enough for us). The sauna was sitting by the lake, preheated and ready to take in 15 people. Warmth crept first to the toes and gradually to the heart. When the sweat was running down the back, it was time to sneak out, walk on the snow to the icy ladder that vanished into a large hole in the ice. Ice swimming (or dipping if your hands refuse to let go of the handrailing) is a Finnish thing. Possibly mental but absolutely wonderful tradition. Dipping into frigid water in the middle of winter might not sound fun, but it does feel great. The blood circulation gets a boost and the whole body feels fresh.

Once again Ethan decided to be brave and had a try. He was rewarded with the most amazing way. When he was getting up from the water, gasping and shivering, he looked up to the sky. Northern lights were drawing their fresh green lines in the horizon. Soon after the sky was lit up with the dance of the Auroras.

Now the winter has finally arrived in the South as well. Snow fell a few days ago, temperature touched -23C and the water pipes in the Sauna building are now frozen.

Festive Stopover in Oslo

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Trying to find a cheap flight can be difficult. Especially if you can not get to the airport too early, and need to take luggage, and want to fly in December. You might end up with a six-hour layover in Oslo.

Now, six hours at the airport is a long time so I decided that even a few hours in Oslo is better than sitting at the airport doing nothing. The train from the airport to Oslo Sentralstasjon (Central station. Half prize student return ticket is 180 NOK = 20€) takes 25 minutes so getting to and from the town requires an hour. Passport control (I came from Britain), security check and general wandering around the airport trying to find the train or the departure gate takes some time as well. So, in the end, I was left with 3 hours and 15 minutes in Oslo.

It is the festive season so I decide to check two Christmas markets in Oslo. The first one is at Youngstorget. The walk from the station along the mains street Karl Johans gate to Oslo Domkirke (Cathedral) is nice and there are lots of stores, cafes and bars. Oslo Domkirke is open for visitors if the shopping centres feel too busy. From the Domkirke another pedestrian street, Torggata, leads to Youngstorget. The street is decorated with Christmas lights that create a starry sky above the people. There is also a fun cafe where I have lunch/dinner. Cafe Sør offers soups, salads, sandwiches, coffees, drinks… It is a cosy cafe with small tables and mismatching chairs.

Christmas market at Youngstorget is nice and relaxed. There are several fire pits with stools around them so that visitors can take a break and warm their toes and fingers. Little stalls are filled with handicrafts, gifts and treats. It might be better to have cash, but some do have card machines as well. The prices are quite high everywhere in Norway so be prepared to spend a lot if you go shopping there.

After Youngstorget, I meander towards det Kungelige Slott (the Royal Palace) passing by National Gallery and Historical Museum. The park around the palace, Slottsparken, is dark and quiet at night, almost magical. Lamp-posts around the palace shed some light but darkness surrounds the park. I can hear footsteps on the path and sometimes hear quiet conversations but there are no loud noises. So different from the streets beneath.

The street from the palace leads straight back to the Sentralstasjon. The Christmas market in Spikersuppa is on the way. This market is larger and busier. More people, more stalls and less room to move. I buy a hot cup of glögg, add some almonds and raisins in it, and sit down to observe the market and the people. Tourists and locals mix together at the market. Ice rink where a few kids are skating and some teenagers messing around shines a white light and behind it colourful Ferries Wheel reaches to the sky. Time to go back to the airport and continue to my final destination.

Up we go

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Where is the next red hold? Oh, there it is: around the corner. In order to reach it with my left hand, I have to secure my right foot, let go my left foot hold and swing my body over. Caught it. My hands are sweating: I’m getting tired. I glance down at my climbing partner. She smiles at me some 10 meters below. I’m not even halfway up the wall. It is not the time to get tired. I turn my head forwards and focus on the red dots above me. Up they go forming a nice vertical path. I take a breath and start following them.

“I wish I could like climbing”, my friend said when I took him climbing with me over the summer, “but I just don’t feel good on the wall”. It is normal to feel uncomfortable above the ground. The studies show that the human beings have naturally a slight fear of heights. However, a little bit of nervousness and adrenaline is fun. The feeling when you have not been climbing for a long time and take that first fall with an auto belay is wonderful. Is it really going to secure my fall or am I going to drop down like a rock?

Even though acrophobia, the fear of heights, is claimed to be one of the most common phobias (I could not find credible sources to verify this statement circulated on the internet) there are plenty of people in the world who enjoy heights. Enough so that it is profitable to build an indoor climbing centres. The world’s largest indoor climbing arena is located near Edinburgh. Of all the places they build the largest one in Scotland! That actually makes sense, since the outdoor climbing season in Scotland is short and dispersed because of the rain and cold.

Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, just call it Ratho, has hundreds of climbing routes for sports climbing and bouldering. There are routes ranging in difficulty from 2 to 8b (French grading) something for everyone from a first timer to a competent climber.  Over there a father gives instructions for a little kid who dangles on the wall. On the wall next to them a teenage girl spurts up making her friend grin as she tries to keep up with belaying her. Two walls to the left an experienced climber warms up with a 7a route.

The highest routes in the arena reach 28 meters, promising a good exercise for any sports climber. People on the walls move upwards like little ants following a set route. When they reach the top they mimic spiders and lower themselves down with the rope. Every now and then sudden chinking fills the air when someone falls from the wall and the rope catches the bolts and tightens in the hands of the belayer. There is no shouting or aggressive behaviour. Just focused faces, tense muscles and wide smiles. Well, there is some shivering as well. Being an old quarry, the climbing arena is rather chilly. Big hall does not store heat well and the only way to keep yourself warm is to move. To climb.

Even though I’m already too tired to climb, I tie myself to a rope. I am wearing a wool sweater and leg warmers: not a very sporty outfit. I’ll climb this easy route up and then belay my partner. Maybe the rest of our group is ready to go after that. If not, I’ll just choose another super easy wall to keep myself warm, or maybe I should retreat to the cafe and buy a steaming hot cup of tea…

Sunny Woods

 

img_5581“The sun is shining!” Do you know what that means in Scotland? it means that people in the room turn to gaze through the window and say: “Ay! It is beautiful, isn’t it”.

On a sunny day Scotland is charming. That is the time to go outside and take a wee walk. Right next to Stirling there is a small town called Bridge of Allan. It is an old spa town but there are no spas to be seen. However, the town has a space perfect for relaxation – the relaxation of the mind. The soft hills behind the town are covered with parks and forests. They provide a calm green space and offer a break from the traffic, noise and stress. You don’t have to go far, you don’t have to stay long, and you don’t have to pay a penny for it.

The woody area has several sections: Mine Woods, Mid Woods and Low Woods. Maybe there are more to be found if you explore the area very carefully. The Mine Woods is a popular area for locals to take their dogs for a walk or trainers for a run. In the midst of the woods there is an old disused Wolf’s Hole Quarry where local climbers go bouldering. These high rocky walls offer a great place for a fun vertical exercise.

The easiest way to get up to the woods is from the far end of the Bridge of Allan. Nearby the train station, before crossing the bridge, there is a stone fence on your right hand side. In that fence, there is a gap that takes you to a path. The path starts climbing the hill through the woods. Soon there is a sign welcoming you to the Mid Woods. Then it is up to you, where you want to go. You can follow the main path and end up to the park. Cross the park to the Wolf’s Quarry and head to the Mid Woods and check out the golf course which is on the other side of the woods. When you decide to leave the  woods you’ll get to walk on the streets of a little wealthier neighbourhood. Large Victorian houses and their high stone walls with iron fences are almost as interesting as the woods itself. Those houses live on the hills above the town, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.

Definitely a good way to get some fresh air and enjoy the Scottish nature. Mind me, it is a thing to do on a sunny day, and autumn in Scotland is no autumn in Hawaii. If you say “the sun is shining” in Hawaii, the people will look at you: “I know. It always is”.

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Different sides of London

img_5510It is dark. Distant rumble echoes on the walls: a train is approaching in the tunnel. A boy crawls on all fours on the rails. Few people are leaning on the wall, waiting for the train. The rumble grows louder. The boy is trying to catch his pet rat. He almost gets it. Now a bystander notices him. “What are you doing? Get out of there!” A man, followed by a young woman, run to the edge of the platform reaching for the boy. The boy ignores them. “Get out now!” the man is panicking. The train is roaring. So close that you can see the headlights. They are lighting up the faces of the people on the platform. Terror. Fear. The man gets a grip on the boy’s arm and tries to pull him up. The woman grabs the other arm and together they haul him to the platform. Lights flash as they whoosh by and enormous blast shakes the people. Just on time. They are all safe. Even the rat got out of the way.

Except, there is no rat. There is no train or a tunnel either. Just three actors in a square room. The audience has been immersed into the spectacle of lights, sounds and thoughts. This is Gielgud Theatre in London. And the play in question is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Friday night show is full even though the play has been running for over four years. After the play, I overhear an exchange of two members of the audience: “a fanTAStic show. AmMAzing set really” “Yes. Especially the second half was no falling-a-sleep-business at all”.

Is it worth travelling all the way to another city or even another country to see a play? Although there are great plays in every other city, London is famous for its musicals and plays. If you want to travel, why not pick a play and construct the holiday around it. It takes only one night, but it gives something to talk and think about, both before and after it.

Travelling to London just for one night sounds a little silly, though. A weekend in London sounds much better. How about arriving at Heathrow on Friday afternoon and cutting the neck of the terrible hunger in a cafe before heading to Kew gardens. Fresh air, big green grass fields and massive trees. Palm House is worth visiting. What does a black pepper plant look like? What about carambola tree? There is also a little aquarium presenting underwater plants underneath.

After the hot and humid greenhouse, it is nice to walk the treetop trail and let the breeze cool you down. Kew garden is a beautiful garden but it can not be called peaceful: the air-traffic overhead disturbs the atmosphere. A boat will take you from Kew gardens to Westminster Pier, the heart of London. Then it is time to have some dinner before the anticipated show begins and you dive into the fictive London.

Saturday is a new day with new plans. London is full of museums which are worth visiting more than once. V&A, Victoria and Albert museum, is free but some exhibitions, like the Undressed: A brief history of underwear, cost a little. Might still be worth checking out. Natural History Museum and Science Museum are wonderful as well. Spend as much time in the museums as you wish, but save some for window shopping and aimless walking. Harrods is a classic. You don’t have to buy anything; just look at the building itself. Liberty is another absolutely charming shopping centre and Foyles is a place to go if you are looking for new books. In the evening it is time to head to the Chinatown for dinner. It is busy on Saturday evenings and you might have to wait in a line, but its worth it. Then a visit to a pub is a must because you are in England. It will not be difficult to find one. Just step in and blend in.

There is still time to explore the city some more on Sunday. If the day is nice, take a walk. Or better even, take an underground to Camden Lock. That queer alternative to Westminster and Piccadilly circus is a popular place to spend a weekend. There are bars and restaurants, but most importantly there is an outdoor market. Old stables and alleys around them are filled with little stands and shops that sell everything. Cheap b-class clothing, hippy jewellery, used leather jackets, homemade ice-cream sandwiches… Old and new, cheap and expensive.

After you have had enough of the busy market place head to the canal. Regents Canal walk reveals yet another side of London. The Nice walking route that the locals, as well as the tourists, like to walk and cycle follows the canal past the London Zoo all the way to the Little Venice. That little hike is perfect to prepare you for the flight back home.

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Peaceful yet lively Regent Canal

Autumn at the Summer Cottage

img_2244The yellow cottage sits on the top of a hill looking to the lake. Smaller red buildings scattered across the site are the outhouse, sauna and wood shed. A narrow path runs from the cottage to the sauna and to the beach. Trees hang their branches lazily and moss lolls on the roof of the cottage.

The summer is officially gone. At least in Finland; September in Finnish is “autumn month”. People have returned to work and got back to their everyday lives. When you ask a Finn how did he/she spend his/hers summer holidays you might get an answer:
“At the summer cottage. You know, just relaxing”. Statistics Finland counted 501 600 summer cottages in Finland in the year 2015. There are a little less than 5.5 million people in the whole country. Seems like we can talk about a tradition here.

Driving up to Jyväskylä, where my summer cottage is, can take up to 5 hours. Got to stop for a lunch, maybe for a coffee also and to buy groceries. List of the things we need to buy is always long: Food for two dinners, three breakfasts and two lunches. Some beer for the sauna. Batteries for torches… And Remember to buy enough water! There is no running water in the cottage. No electricity either. Gas stove and gas fridge are luxuries. The toilet is a practical simple outhouse.

The cottage has to be heated up with the power of a single fireplace. While you are lighting the fire inside you should start heating the sauna as well because this proper big wood heated sauna takes three hours to get ready. The wood has to be carried there from the shed and the water for washing up is reeled up from the lake. When the darkness enters to the small rooms, candles and lanterns provide some light. If you are still in the sauna, be careful not to burn yourself on the stove. And don’t trip over when you are going skinny dipping. At the cottage, there are no televisions and no need to bring a laptop in. You can read only until you eyes fail you and the darkness invites you to the bed.

Does it sound relaxing?
It is. Calm and quiet. Only firewood cracking in the fireplace. Trees, Lake, rain and sunshine. Few good books and something to eat. If you want, you can go to the forest and pick blueberries and lingonberries for the morning porridge. Or maybe start the day by rowing around the lake.

Finns don’t have to travel to south in the summer. It is the autumn when we want to escape the darkness and fly to Spain.

Summer Town Porvoo

IMG_5386There they are: red riverside warehouses. That row of small red cottages by the river is Porvoo’s trademark. They appear on postcards and school textbooks and welcome visitors to the town, just like they did already hundreds of years ago.

Porvoo is an old city located on the southern coast of Finland. Its history dates back to Middle Age and the old town attracts tourists with its narrow streets, wooden houses and old-fashioned atmosphere. Pebble streets lead to the medieval church or climb up steep hills turning to the doorsteps of some friendly house with red door and linen curtains on windows. Painted houses lean to each others creating colourful wooden walls which hide inner courtyards with apple trees and garden swings from the passers-by.

It is a windy day. The end of summer is near but Porvoo is still busy with tourists. The town is a summer town and visitors from elsewhere in Finland as well as foreigners come to check out its sunny streets. It is time to take summer dresses for a stroll! Little boutiques and shops line the main streets. Open doors invite to finger handicrafts on offer and multiple antique shops are bursting with cups and bowls and all sorts of treasures. An absolute gem for every vintage fan is a vintage shop Doris & Duke. Fifties dresses, high heels, suede jackets, tin cans…

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Among the shops, there are countless cafes and restaurants in the old town. Every one of them looks worth stepping in, but a normal person only needs a cup or two of coffee a day. So it is impossible to sample each of them. A cashier of Teetee shop (where one might leave with a ball or two with bright yarn and an inspiration for new wool socks) recommends a cafe just outside the old town. Cafe Gabriole stands by the marketplace. It offers a lunch buffet and cakes and coffees. Dark wooden furniture, large windows and high ceilings added together with live piano music create an almost royal environment. Quite a classy lunch.

Because of the abundance of cafes in town it is better to have lunch in one place and coffee in another. Say, for example, in Lilla Chocoladfabriken which is a cafe of a tiny chocolate factory. Handmade cakes and chocolates. Even chocolate coffee! Of course, Porvoo is also a home for an another chocolate factory: Brunberg. It has a factory outlet in the old town as well where they sell their products with a little lower price. Brunberg’s Suukot/Kisses are what childhood tastes like. Also their rice chocolate is a safe choice.

There are definitely enough places to eat and drink and shops to roam around in Porvoo old town. However, maybe the best thing is the atmosphere. The town looks old. The town feels old. Walking around the streets without certain directions is nice. Walk by the river on the other side of the town and you will get the view of the warehouses. Drop by the church which represents the willingness to preserve the town and the history: the church has been burned several times, last time in 2006, but it has always been built again. Wonder around the blocks where the people live. There are low wooden houses and beautiful gardens to be admired. And some people live there.

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Two children disappear around the corner with their bikes. What is it like to grow up here? The whole place reminds me of Mauri Kunnas’ Koiramäki picture books (especially  the one where the children go to town) which told stories of the life in 1800s. Porvoo has maintained its old face while it has kept up with the modern life.