Category Archives: Finland

Week 43 – From the Baltics to Scandinavia – Tallinn to Helsinki

This week we had a couple of days doing the touristy thing in Tallinn before taking the ferry to Helsinki to start the Scandinavian leg of our travels.
We said ‘cheerio’ to the friendly Finns we’d met at the campsite which was way too far from Tallinn to visit the city…..
…after chatting to them about Vdub stuff because they have a fleet of ’em. Well, the winters are long in Finland, you need a hobby, they told us.
We parked right on the harbour front….
…next door to Mareika from Germany. (Ah now I see it… we wondered why the Jehovah Witness collared us in Turku because he thought “the black cross”  on  our van was a sign we were religious. He did look a bit crestfallen when we told him it was just a duct tape repair over a broken window.)
We headed into the Old Town….
….which is very compact and easy to explore and has good pubs….
…including this Scottish one which brought back memories of ‘One Team in Tallinn’, the story of the most bizarre football match in history. In the Hell Hunt pub, the barman told us he was supposed to be going to that 1996 World Cup qualifying match between Scotland and Estonia except Scotland had already played the match earlier that day. All by themselves. I believe they won…..
Tallinn has some good restaurants …..though maybe not this one…….
….including the ‘Chakra’ where we had our third curry in our travels this year. You know after family and friends, curry is what we miss most.  We’ve packed enough teabags to make sure we can always have a decent cuppa because even in ‘Maiasmokk’, the oldest cafe in Tallinn which serves excellent cakes…..
…you can’t be sure of getting a decent cup of tea.
I present the evidence.
And for the rest of our time in Tallinn, we had a wander among the exhibits in the city’s flower show, browsed in the vintage shops inside the very smart Balti Jaama market…
….and had a walk along the harbour front where in 1980 the sailing programme for the Moscow Olympic Games was staged…
…..though today the enormous Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport constructed for the Games is looking pretty desolate…
 ….but still spectacularly Soviet.
At the Troika Russian restaurant overlooking the central square, our Texan neighbour was desperate to chat. But the frown, the hands over the mouth…it’s not going too well. Maybe his ‘Make America Great’ hat should have given us a clue.
At first it was strangely fascinating to meet someone who actually voted for the creepy clown currently inhabiting  the White House. But the novelty quickly wore off the longer his bonkers rant went on.
We made our excuses and left for another bar beside another beautiful Tallinn building….the city’s oldest cinema.
So goodbye to the Baltics after more than six weeks travelling through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The verdict? We found the history of these three still young  independent countries fascinating and the story of how they gained their independence from the Soviet Union genuinely moving. It was hard not to have a lump in the throat watching footage of the 1989 ‘Baltic Way’ when two million people – two million!!! – held hands in a human chain stretching from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn to protest against Soviet occupation.
And we’ve really enjoyed seeing the capital cities but, but……we were left seriously underwhelmed by the flat and unchanging landscape and we are now ready for something new in Scandinavia.
And now to Scandinavia: 
Our first stop is Finland. We took the two-hour ferry crossing from Tallinn to Helsinki….
….which was like a cross Channel booze cruise complete with live band….
..and paying 3 euro for a bottle of water on board prepared us nicely for the sky-high Scandinavian prices we’ve been warned to expect.
The campsite a few metro stops from the centre of Helsinki charged 35 euro a night, the same price we paid for a hotel room in Albania. It was time to put strict new budget measures into effect.  So lunch next day consisted of homemade sandwiches sitting beside the city’s most famous landmark Havis Amanda….
….the mermaid who provoked controversy when first unveiled in 1908 because of her nudity and the sealions which looked a bit like leering lusty men….
That did mean we missed out on the platters of fresh salmon being served up at the harbourside stalls which was a shame as they looked delicious as well as being reasonably priced.
 We’ve only a short time in Finland and our chief mission was to have a traditional Finnish sauna – or sow-nah as the locals call it. Luckily Helsinki has just the thing – a traditional wood-fired one which has been operating as a public sauna since 1928.
We headed to Koltijarn which you couldn’t really miss….
Inside, we paid the 16 euro each and parted ways. Stuart went off to join the brotherhood in the very busy men only one. I went upstairs to the women only one.  I put my clothes in one of the old wooden lockers, had a quick rinse off in one of the lines of showers then pushed open the door into the huge sauna which was like nothing I’d seen before. ..a huge concrete warehouse with tiers of concrete steps. There was no one else there. Still with my towel round me,  I sat on the bottom step and got hotter and hotter.
Meanwhile Stuart was enthusiastically joining in the full Finnish experience. All towels had been cast aside – the rule apparently as one young Japanese guy, still clutching one round his waist, was told firmly ‘excuse me Sir, you must be naked in the sauna’.
Following the lead of the locals, Stuart joined in whacking himself with birch twigs and occasional trips out to the street for a cool down and a slug of beer.
Back in the ladies sauna, things were livening up. I finally had some company, including the Japanese partner of the be towelled man. She was wearing a bathing costume which would have been modest in the 1950’s. Three Chinese ladies arrived, no swimsuits, but towels. And then at last a local to show us what to do…..a Finnish woman strolled in, no towel and went over to the floor to ceiling steel oven in the corner and asked us all if we’d like more heat. Yes please, us tourists chorused politely. She pulled the lever and my ears started burning.
I left the sauna for a bit and booked the scrubber….
…and for 10 euro had 42 weeks of van life exfoliated off with a mitt. Then it was back into the heat where following the local lead, I left my towel in the changing room. Why, I was practically Finnish. And now with a female ally, I too felt brave enough to join the boys in the street for a cool down beer.
All in all, we probably spent about four hours in the sauna and came away buzzing from the experience. We’ve got the sow-na bug and now want one where we can jump into the sea afterwards.
And the rest of our day in Helsinki, we filled visiting the National Gallery to see the exhibition dedicated to the work of architect Alvar Aalto.
We had a wander along the harbour front…..
…past the Orthodox Church…
….and the cathedral…
 …and obeyed the sign.
 On the road again next day, we headed back through Helsinki city centre, getting another view of the stunning Art Nouveau Central Railway station we’d walked round the day before.
 We stopped off at museum which marks the front line in the Finnish war against the Soviet Union and then pitched up for the night at a campsite near the small town of Hanko.
First thing we walked the 8 km trail to the southernmost tip of mainland Finland….here we are….

Today it’s a well laid out nature trail though parts are still fenced off because of contamination from the Finnish-Soviet war and along the way are wrecks of the cabins which over the years have in turn housed the Red Army, the German army and up to the 1960’s women convicted of drunk driving.


We stopped off in the small town of Hanko which is charming. It’s chief attractions are the grand 19th century villas  from its days when it was a popular spa town for wealthy visitors from Tsarist Russia….

…and this lovely beach where we spent the afternoon before heading off to Turku to spend the night before catching the ferry to the islands between Finland and Sweden.


We spotted another van parked up on the harbour. When in doubt about whether wild camping is allowed, join another van. We struck lucky. They pulled over to make room for us …..

….and then opened up their impressively extensive bar and invited us to pull up a couple of deckchairs.

Cheers to all though we never got round to introducing ourselves. So whoever you are, thank you so much for the whisky and safe travels!

Next stop the Alland Islands.