Finland happened quite suddenly. Parul had a client meeting in Helsinki I decided to join her there. We planned a week long trip, with the first 2 weekdays reserved for Parul’s meetings when I could work out of the hotel. Then, we were planning to take the rest of the week off and see a bit of Finland. The planning of this trip was an adventure of it’s own. From booking flights on a short notice to making a special trip to Pune just to get my passport for applying for the visa; Finland, from the very onset promised of adventure! Then the visa processing got delayed and arrived just a couple of days before our flight out!
All said and done, we boarded our flight from Pune one Friday night and reached Delhi airport where we spent the night before catching the flight out to Helsinki the next morning. Arjun and Vaishali were also joining us in Finland. We were catching the same flight to Helsinki but that was one of the few common agendas on our itinerary. The Finnair flight was comfortable enough and I spent it reading a book that I had recently started (About Time), sleeping intermittently and watching a movie (Captain Fantastic). This was my first time flying Finnair and I was quite impressed. It did not have the typical national airlines dullness and the food was really good! After a shortish flight of seven and a half hours, we were descending to the airstrip in Helsinki airport.
Welcome to Helsinki
The immigration process in Helsinki went smooth enough. Everything seemed ordered and there was a very visible lack of crowd, two things that I have always connected Europe with despite never having been there. We proceeded to grab our baggage and made plans with Arjun and Vaishali to meet up later that evening. Then they caught the train towards the hotel that they were staying in and we caught a bus to our part of the town. The Helsinki airport is to the far north of the town, some 30 kilometer or so away. However, their transportation to and from the airport is sorted so you rarely have to spend on a cab. There is even a website that lists transportation options from one area to another but it is difficult to use if you do not know the names of all the areas in Helsinki. So the simpler option is to use Google Maps which, I still maintain, is God sent for people like me.
It was only when we walked outside that I fully comprehended how far up north on the world’s map we were. The sky was dark at 3:30 in the afternoon, a time when the sun burns your skin in India. A gentle snow shower intermittently made us wary of the overhanging clouds and the cold wind left me with a smile on my face. How I loved and missed the cold weather!
We got a two day pass which would cover us for all the public transportation in Helsinki. Though not exactly cheap, it was an extremely good bargain as well as a very hassle free experience. Interestingly, you need to pay extra if you buy tickets from conductors. There is an extra charge for involving another human being when a machine could well do that job! The bus dropped us near the hostel which we found without much difficulties. We checked it, dumped our bags and got ready to go meet Arjun and Vaishali in the city center.
Art and Skating
The city center is a place full of activity. Lots of shops and malls, an ice-skating rink (seasonal, of course), museums, casinos and what not. We walked around without a specific agenda and tried to get a feel of the city. The pavements were a bit slushy with the melting snow, which was probably the reason not many people were out on the streets.
Peace out, bro!
We found a nice place to eat a buffet and then sat in a pub to drink our first Finnish beer. Weirdly, it is difficult to find traditional Finnish food in Helsinki. It has an abundance of fast food joints and restaurants serving burgers, pizzas and Mexican food.
Kevin was definitely having a blast
Tired from the day’s travel, we called it an early night and returned to our respective hotels.
The next morning we met Arjun and Vaishali at their hotel. We were supposed to change hotels ourselves that day (we were shifting into Parul’s company sponsored hotel ?) so we dumped our bags in Arjun’s room and left to explore the town. We wanted to go to the local market but it’s closed on Sundays. So we decided to take the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress which was an island a short distance away from the mainland.
Killing time at the pier
Parul and I stood on the deck on the ferry. The cold wind and low temperature froze me to the core but I was enjoying cold weather after a long long time. It was only upon reaching Suomenlinna that I came to know that this was a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
The island was dressed in white like the rest of Helsinki but, unlike the city, had the charm of a hamlet.
Scenes from the island
We walked till the far end, fooling around in the snow and clicking pictures. The sun broke out of the dense cloud cover at times and provided a much welcome warmth.
There were artillery guns lined along the rocky circumference of the island. This fortress island provided Helsinki defense against naval invasion. Beyond lay the Baltic, beautiful and endless to sight. We spent some time inspecting the guns and sitting along the ramparts. I think part of the beauty was the lack of tourists cramping up the space.
Guns and ramparts
We eventually headed back to the pier and caught a ferry back to the mainland. Then we quickly checked into the new hotel and dumped our bags in the room.
Returning to the mainland
Back in November, Parul and I had gone on a short trip to Mirissa Beach in Sri Lanka. On one of the nights, We had found ourselves sharing the dinner table with three other tourists. They turned out to be from Helsinki! Back then Parul’s business trip had been talked about so we had bombarded them with questions and they had been really helpful in giving us a vague idea of what to expect and what to go for if we were there for a week’s time. Parul had stayed in touch with them, Mirke, Tanja and Jukka, and we had planned to meet them on Sunday evening to walk around the city. Helsinki had the Lux Festival going on and thought it would be a nice idea to see it together. The streets were jammed with people and Jukka told me that this was highly unlike Helsinki to see so many people out on the streets! I suppose everyone was out to enjoy the light show, which was quite nice. Jukka also told me a lot about Finland’s history as we walked around the city center.
A lit up Helsinki Cathedral
We ended the night with some burgers and beers for dinner. Parul had a “Vada Pao” burger as her only vegetarian option in that place! ? She found it better than the actual vada pao but the coincidence was quite hilarious. In Mirke’s words, it is rare to meet again the people you have come across while travelling. Such events are rare but this makes them all the more amazing if they do happen. We ate up a night out of their weekend but we are so thankful that they took out the time to meet us! ?
Working From Helsinki
The next two days were spent in a rather routine manner. The first agenda of the day used to be a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel’s dining area. I loved the breakfast with it’s fresh bread, cheese and meat. There were quite a few vegetarian options as well. However, you need to like the concept of cold breakfast and salads in order to be excited about this kind of food every day. Fortunately for me, I like all kinds of food. ?
Kevin, the glutton!
Parul used to leave for her meetings and I used to work till late in the afternoon. The hours worked well enough for me with the time difference allowing me to get off work by late afternoon, Helsinki time. The sun would have dipped below by horizon by then, leaving the city in a grayish-blue hue. It would not be completely dark till later in the evening but the lack of sun was something that I was becoming consciously aware of. I wondered why kind of psychological effects such lack of light would have on the lives of those who loved here. I suppose one gets used to it after a while but I found reason why people in this part of the world were not as cheerful as they were in the tropical countries. Not that they were not friendly! We had even met a woman on the train who had offered to pay for our tickets! It was just that you barely saw anyone smiling and the sound of laughter was definitely missing on the streets.
I used to go for walks in random directions after work. I crossed random parks and buildings. I liked the entire feel of this city. It was not very vibrant but had a quiet charm of it’s own. I walked along walkways through parks and along graveyards; I went to a rather glum beach that was covered with snow; made my way to some popular tourist attraction or the other; sat in a random cafe and then returned to the hotel in time to meet up with Parul and plan something for the evening. The two days went by quickly.
Evening walks around town
Wednesday marked the beginning of our short vacation in Finland. We caught a flight up to Ivalo in the Finnish Lapland region. This was REALLY north. Up here, the sun rose at 11:30 and set at 13:30. The entire region was covered in snow and just a day before our arrival, the temperature had been negative 22 degrees Celsius! The plane landed on an airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Snow covered every inch of ground and a few trees stood out claiming to disrupt the monotone. We walked off the airplane expecting it to be freezing cold, but to our pleasant surprise, the weather was quite nice. A comfortable negative 2 that we had already become used to in Helsinki.
Sea of cloud
The primary reason we were here was to try and sight the Aurora Borealis. But as we had become well aware over the past few days, sighting was going to be difficult because of the weather. All the information we could gather told us that Aurora activity was particularly strong at that time in this part of the world but the weather reports did not show a single hour of clear sky till Sunday evening, more than a day after we were supposed to leave. Never the less, we decided to make most of the time we had managed to salvage from the daily routine; with or without Aurora sighting.
We were going to spend the first two days in Saariselka, a small resort town around 30 kilometers away from the airport. Saariselka was famous for it’s skiing slopes and we were staying there because it had the cheapest accomodation that we had managed to find in the region. A bus took us to the town and dropped us right in front of our hotel. The hotel looked breathtaking with it’s snowy coat.
Our snow covered hotel
We checked in quickly into a comfortable room and tried to figure out how to best spend the two days that we had here. We decided that we could keep in touch with the Aurora hunters for probable schedules and meanwhile use the day to do something fun like Husky Safari. Here again we were met with a rude surprise. The kennel that served Saariselka was booked till Sunday! While the Lapland sees few tourists, it also has a similar small number of enterprises serving them. It suddenly made sense why Mirke and Tanja had been telling us to make all our bookings in advance!
We walked around the small town that evening to check our options. I wonder if Saariselka even qualified as a town. One could go around the entire circumference in less than an hour! The roads were all white and it snowed lightly all the while. We checked out the local supermarket, saw an extremely pretty restaurant that we planned to dine in the next night and returned to the hotel and sat in the pub.
Veg ? and Reindeer ?
It was bingo night and we decided that it would be fun to join the locals for a game. It turned out to be tambola rather than bingo but we had fun losing anyway. ? We also made the fortunate discovery of the Long Drink which, though not a local drink, is extremely popular with the people here. One sip and I could immediately tell why! It was quite delicious; a mix of gin and lemonade and some fizz to top it up!
Chillin’ in the pub
Saariselka has a lot to offer even if one is unable to see the northern lights. There is the ski slopes which seems to be the primary motive for tourists out here. Then one can take husky or reindeer safaris or go snowmobiling in the forests around. One could even rent out snowshoes and go on one of the numerous nature trails that start from the town. We chose to go on a short hike on a short circuit.
Hiking around Saariselka
As we approached the town from another direction, we came across a small slope where children were pulling up sledges and sliding back down on them. It looked so much fun! We came back with Arjun and Vaishali later that evening to give it a shot and I slid down the slope twice. ? Simple joys of life!
Saariselka also has some really pretty restaurants and cafes to offer. We sat in a really small and cozy one next to our hotel. This was Cafe Porotupa, run by a Finn guy who had worked in Israel for a while and then quit his job to manage the cafe. His tropical experience showed clearly as a big warm smile on his face.
Pretty and cozy Cafe Porotupa
Later that evening we bid farewell to Arjun and Vaishali who were going to fly out the following morning to Norway to continue their vacation. We went back on the hiking trail after dark, armed with knick-knacks to eat and a few cans of the Long Drink. We had seen a really pretty Aurora cabin where one could catch sightings of the Aurora. Though it was still cloudy, we liked the location and sat there a while. The cabin has a room where tourists can sit at ease while waiting for the aurora to present itself. Currently there was a Dutch couple there playing Yahtzee and we joined them with our drinks.
A fireplace kept the place warm and we waited, hoping that the sky would clear for a bit and give us a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. However it was not to be and we returned to our hotel in a few hours. On a brighter note, we had managed a booking for Husky safari with a kennel near Ivalo for the next morning. It had cost us a bit more but we were glad to have found the option.
We woke up early the next morning and packed our bags. Our pick up was waiting for us outside the hotel right on the appointed time. We had some breakfast, checked out and sat in a car that took us to a small kennel a little before Ivalo town. I have never been to a kennel before and I was somehow expecting it to be a bit different. Perhaps a bit cleaner and less smelly. But then that was probably just because of the standards I had been seeing in Finland all along. Of course there will be a mess where there are these many dogs!
We were introduced to our guide, Mira and she quickly provided us the gear. Apart from us, there was just one more group, a Belgian couple. Mira quickly told us about the basics of handling a dog sledge. It seemed simple enough, so we were good to go almost immediately. There were five eager dogs howling to get started and one can only imagine the ruckus all around.
We rode out of the kennel and into the wide open jungles. Vegetation was sparse, as was to be expected at such a latitude. The dogs pulled relentlessly at the sledge. Driving the sledge was simple. Brake when you have to slow down, on turns or when you are about to collide into the sledge in front. Steering required minimal effort. What was the most exhausting was when you had to help the dogs by pushing the sledge uphill and then jump back on before the dogs ran away with it. ?? Every sledge had one driver standing at the end and one passenger sitting like luggage in front.
We went up to a small wooden cabin in the middle of nowhere. Here we broke for lunch and got friendly with our dogs. There are such humble creatures! The ones pulling us were Alaskan huskies. These, as per Mira worked harder than the Siberian ones. We sat in the hut and talked to the Belgian couple about their life in Belgium. They told us how Belgium has three distinct parts, one Dutch, one French and the other German and all three places, understandably, have different dialects. The girl was studying somewhere to the south of Brussels and the guy was a software engineer. We asked Mira her story as well and it turned out that she was actually from Norway and had come here for the first time to work at the kennel for the winter.
Cabin in the woods
Fraternizing with the dogs
Mira cooking lunch
The sky had cleared while we had sat eating some delicious fish soup and bread inside the hut. We went out to see the dogs curled into themselves getting cold due to inactivity. The sky presented a lovely orange that told us that the sun was setting on the horizon. It must have been just one in the afternoon. We rode the sledge back to the kennel, me taking the role of the passenger and Parul controlling the sledge. My feet were freezing but I was enjoying myself a bit too much to care.
Riding back with a setting sun in a clear sky
Back in the kennel we took some time to play with the puppies and Parul shot some photos. It had been quite and experience, one that will stick with me for a long time.
True Love <3
We were dropped at the Ivalo Hotel where Greg from Aurora Village picked us up. We had booked an aurora cabin for our last night in Finland wishing to end in style. This was before the weather foiled our plans for seeing the northern lights. ☁ Since it had cost us a fortune and canceling would have refunded just half the amount, we decided to go ahead and enjoy our time in the cabin despite the cloudy skies. Greg was the manager at the Aurora Village and took out hunts himself. He assured us that tonight was not a good night for a hunt and if the sky did clear that night, we would be able to see the aurora right there out of the cabin’s glass ceiling. Greg was an American and managed the property with his Finnish wife, their infant daughter and an adorable Chow Chow.
We settled into the cabin and experimented with the fancy light switches. The property was really nice and the cabin was lovely. There was a free nespresso machine as well! The window took a little getting used to but once that was done, we were quite comfortable and cozy in the cabin.
Glass ceilinged cabin
We left for the town once towards the evening. It was half an hour walk away and we crossed the frozen river to get to the other side. Both of us were walking warily on the frozen ice expecting it to give way under us suddenly, while snow mobiles raced on it this icy highway. Parul wanted to get some souvenir shopping done but it turned out that Ivalo closed down earlier than Saariselka! So we ended up getting a bottle of wine, some local vodka, chocolates and some random things from the local supermarket. Then we went to a restaurant that had been recommended to us by a local and had some amazing dinner. I ate a salmon coated with rye and Parul had some beetroot cutlets. Both the dishes were lip smacking marvellous!
The beautiful Ravintola Kultahippu
Kevin was ecstatic about the salmon and beetroot cutlets!
We returned to the hotel and Parul decided that she wanted to make a snowman. Like with all other projects of hers, I started from the sidelines, providing vodka shots for warmth and then ended up joining in because of the dismal progress that she was making. ? We ended up making a rather impressive snow-woman which was decorated to give it an Indian touch. ?
Unfortunately, despite waking up to regular alarms set throughout the night, we were unable to see the skies clear to show us the Aurora Borealis.
We grabbed an early morning breakfast the following morning and then caught a cab to the Ivalo airport. We had an early morning flight to Helsinki and then a late evening flight from Helsinki to Delhi. We were thinking of finding a cloak room around the airport so that we walk around the town without bordering about the luggage. We ended up finding a better option. Finland is an automated country. At the airport we got the option of checking in our luggage then and there. There was no CISF jawan checking tickets at the gate and allowing passengers in only 5 hours before flight departure. We were asked to go to a kiosk that printed out luggage tag, which we put on our bag. Then we got our boarding passes and headed to the baggage drop counter. Here again, we were supposed to scan our baggage tag ourselves, send the bag on it’s way on the conveyor belt. That done, we were free to do whatever we pleased till the flight was due!
We caught a train to the center of the city and spent the day roaming about in random directions. There was the local market we needed to check out in order to buy a few souvenirs. We also checked out the Helsinki Cathedral, an iconic place in the city that we had previously seen as a part of the light show.
Helsinki in a better weather
Then there was the Orthodox Church, Upenski Cathedral, that we had been meaning to see for a while. It looked really pretty and very Russian in it’s architecture. The inside was all gaudy and overwhelming. We walked about and then returned outside, unimpressed.
Next we went to the Old Market Hall which we had somehow skipped before. It was quite pretty and full of tempting options for food and drinks but we were, unfortunately, stuffed from a buffet that we had hit as soon as we had reached the city. We were making our way to the southern end of the city which was a big park but we could not make it till there. Intermittent flurries interrupted our way and we gave up and wandered some more in the city center.
Old Market Hall
We returned to the airport to catch a flight back to Delhi. Finland had been amazing in many ways but our adventures were far from over. We had an uneventful flight back to Delhi and decided to pay an unexpected visit to our homes. We had a couple of hours to spare but we were sure that we could do it.
Vikings invade Delhi!
Turned out, we could not. We missed out flight and spent the entire Sunday in Delhi airport. Finally Parul got a flight back to Pune around 9 in the night and I had to wait till 3 in the morning to get mine. Back in Pune, and more than a month later, I still retain fond memories of Suomi.
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And here is the complete album of the Finland trip.