Finland – Buried in snow

Landscape, Snow, Finland

We had had already 2 Christmases without snow, so it was about time to go and enjoy some winter landscapes for my birthday. On an innocent Wednesday morning in the end of January, we were heading to the Brussels airport, to catch a flight to Amsterdam and then further to Helsinki.

In the meanwhile Mother nature had had the brilliant idea of giving us some snowy landscapes in advance. You should know, that snow in Brussels airport means a state of paralysis for the first hour or two.  We were stranded, well aware of the very short time we had in Amsterdam to catch out flight to Helsinki. Eventually we got up in the air just 30 minutes behind schedule, and arrived to Amsterdam just in time we ran to the next gate with about 20 seconds to spare and got to Helsinki safely.

Our first stop was Tampere, to say hi to our Armenian friends Ana and Yuri. The evening was spent with sushi, wine and laughter, until we had to start heading further up to north.

As we drove on the snow around the road got deeper and deeper and the air colder and colder. Every now and then, there was an oasis of light in the middle of darkness, as some lonely house spilled its light on the snow covered land. The road was calm and we were quickly at the half way mark, where we stretched our legs and sniffed the brisk, frozen air.

I was happy when we finally reached home. The familiar red house was sitting there as always. Blanketed in snow, underneath the massive pine tree. The sauna was still mildly warm, but we headed directly to bed, falling quickly to sleep.

The morning came and we woke up to an amazing landscape. Everything was covered with frost, the temperature was somewhere around -20°c and the soft light was making it all light up and glitter in pastel colors. This was winter at its best.

A quick breakfast later we headed out. To see our cottage of course. The road to there had not been plowed for the whole winter, so we had to waddle through knee deep snow for the small kilometer before reaching our little summer home.

It looked peaceful out there. Our small huts sitting on their small hill. Surrounded by pristine snow and the wast whiteness of the frozen lake. Inside the hut it was just as cold as outside. The distinctive scent of wood and smoke had disappeared too, in to the freezing cold. Everything was just waiting for the summer to come and the frost to thaw away.

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I had missed this. A true, white, cold and snowy winter. The sound the cold snow makes under the feet and the frost that clings onto everything, making the trees wear jewelry. For Waffle this was the first time experiencing temperatures below -20°c. Luckily he had bought a super warm jacket to cope with the Finnish winter. The next days we strolled around, taking in the full wonders of winter, visited some friends and family, hunted the northern lights, stuffed a 55 inch TV into a Toyota Aygo and celebrated the birthdays of me and my dad.

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The time to go back to Helsinki came all too soon, even though we were looking forward to seeing the friends there too. We drove down in a blizzard, the visibility was very low at times, making the journey quite stressful. I had already forgotten what a snowy weather can be to drive in.

Luckily we got to Helsinki safely and ran directly into a restaurant to eat and enjoy some of my dear friends. I had randomly picked a very nice Indian restaurant in the heart of the city. The food laid a good base for the beers that followed.

The following day we spent wondering around Helsinki. I wanted to show Waffle the frozen sea, maybe to take him walking on the ice. We headed to the Uunisaari island right next to the city center.  We reached the shoreline of the island and quickly decided that walking on the ice wasn’t an option. The “ice” was heaving up and down, slowly and sluggishly as the waves beneath it pushed to the shore. We would have gotten a chilling swim.

After a while, the wintery chill of the sea wind got too much to bear. So we headed back into the city. There is a new library opened in the city center, called Oodi, and I was very eager to visit it. They organized a competition to design the thing and all, so my expectations were high.

To start of with, library is a small word to describe the building. First of all, it looks cool. Secondly, it has swallowed a whole world of things from movie theater to cafes and interactive, immersive spaces. People can come there to use 3D printers, sowing machines, format cutters, studio spaces, game rooms and learning environments and to borrow books. Free of charge. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Well done Helsinki!

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After the awe the Oodi left us with, we headed to the airport again. Back to home, back to work, back to looking into new travel ideas. Vercors, The Netherlands and things like that are on the drawing table.

 

 

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Fuerteventura – Beyond the beaches

It was in Cologne, Germany where we lost the touch with mother Earth this time, as we headed for a holiday. It was Christmas eve and we were heading for Fuerteventura to spend the holidays living like hobos, in a tent, wandering around the island for about a week.

We arrived well before noon, which left us with quite some time in our hands to dive into the maps and books to find the perfect place to see the sun rise on Christmas day. And quite a spot we found. There seemed to be plenty of beach on the western edge of the southern part of the island, called Jandia. Just a short drive over a mountain ridge and we would be there.

So we set off. First winding up onto a view spot over the Atlantic. Over there we got the first idea of why the island was called Fuerteventura – Strong winds, as we were almost blown from the face of the Earth. A bit further down on the other side of the ridge, we found a road / riverbed, heading to the sea. Looked perfect for us, especially as the violent wind left the river at peace.

We took our tiny rental car as far down as we dared and walked the remaining bit to the beach. It wasn’t the perfect beach weather; the grey clouds were hanging low to the mountaintops and the sun seemed to have gone somewhere else to enjoy its Monday. We didn’t mind. The scenery was beautiful and there were more than enough places to put our tent to.

So there we stayed. We strolled around the beach, letting the wonderful feeling of being on a holiday sink in. We enjoyed a cheap wine with our dinner, while watching the light fade and disappear behind the mountains and into the sea. Leaving behind the magnificent wonder that is the Milky Way.

 

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The spot we had thought to be wind free was far from in reality. We noticed that pretty soon, as the cooler night air allowed the wind to sink down from the mountains. The wind came in violent rolling gusts, beating our tent. Our tent then was happy enough to transfer the beating to our faces. Jolly.

Initially we had been planning to do a long distance hike on the GR131 crossing the island. But after realizing that it would be practically just a desert walk, and neither of us was feeling too much like dragging along liters and liters of water, we tossed the idea.  Instead our days were filled with walks across the arid landscape and searching for the perfect sleeping spots.

That wasn’t such a bad idea. After the first night, the days that followed pampered us with clear skies and the mild temperatures of the Canarian winter. We ended up finding some nice, hidden beaches in the midst of the holiday villages, perfect for us to camp at and swim in.

 

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A few magnificent sunsets later, we decided to head further to the north, driving through the central parts of the island. On the road trip we got a welcome break of the touristic centers. They were replaced by hills with a tint of green and small farming villages. Soon we got first glimpses of the islands old volcanoes too.

On the go, we got to some natural pools at the shoreline. The water there is warmer than the ocean itself,  perfect for taking a small dip. The clear, cool water was such a relief for our tired hiking feet. The pool was home to all sorts of creatures. Small fish and shrimp came to nibble at our feet as hermit crabs were trying to find shelter from our camera lens. Quite amusing all of it, we had some true David Attenborough -moments looking at those tiny fellows going about their lives.

 

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As we headed on, we noted the north end of the island to be a much more pleasant place compared to the south. There were hippies hanging around mixing up with surfers and more shoreline free of all-inclusive hotel complexes. The hotels were replaced by randomly scattered camper vans and mobile homes.  Our tent fit right in with them.

We were nicely right at the foot of some of the volcanoes, so we decided to hike them. We found a loop trail, walking us up a couple of the higher domes. The trail, as most of the trails on the island, was easy. More like a road than a trail.

We wobbled upwards pretty fast and soon a great panorama over the island opened up before us. As the skies were clear we also saw the neighboring islands Lanzarote and the tiny Isla de Lobos. The volcanoes themselves were also an interesting sight. I have always been somewhat fascinated about the marks of volcanism. How they tell the story of the earlier times on this earth.

On the way back we got a fun surprise as we were surrounded by dozens of curious little chipmunks! The hungry buggers had clearly learned that tourists pockets often have something for them to eat, so they were eager to investigate us too.

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After the volcanoes and chipmunks we headed back to the shore, to camp at a small sandy bay.  There were some other groups of people too, scattered between the bushes and dunes. Before long, we noticed a sound of sniffing coming closer to us from the dark. And a bit later someone stumbled over our car. And then over our tent and a pile of stones.

It was a dog. A blind little fella, who was apparently trying to find a way back to his family. The dog kept running in circles, aiming for anything with light on it. Poor thing, we couldn’t leave him running around like that, so we went to find his owners.  Luckily they weren’t far, parked with their mobile home a 100 meters away and as they called for the dog named Toby, he came home, and was clearly relieved. The owners were wondering though, how we had figured out that poor Toby was blind…

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A few days were still remaining of our holiday, so we swam and hiked a bit more. For the last day we found a loop over the higher hills of the central part of the island, leaving from the town called Vega de Rio Palmas and heading over to Pico Lima. That turned out to be a refreshingly challenging hike, taking us to smaller trails and steep hillsides, twisting in between huge aloe vera plants.

The hike was rewarded by a great view over the island. There was a nest of a hawk hidden away under a slab of stone, and we stopped for a while to watch the parents come and go, taking care of their crying young.

On the way down we descended into a beautiful terrace garden, with fruit trees and cacti. From there an eroded river bed took us to the same village where we left from. An old lady who had seen us setting off on the trail was surprised and happy to see us back in town. How sweet.

With that hike we said goodbye to the island and headed for the hotel we had booked for the last night. Fuerteventura doesn’t make it to the list of my favorite destinations. But after the first shock of seeing all the all inclusive hotel  villages filled by Germans, the island did manage to show us a beautiful side too. Can’t possible complain about the great sunsets and the pretty beaches, never the less, I was happy to return home for the New Year’s party with Waffle’s family.

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All of the pictures are here!

 

 

 

 

Finland – Home, Hiking and Friends

For a change, I headed to Finland alone. Waffle has fewer holidays than I, so I am sometimes obliged to get out of Belgium without him. It always is a bit of a weird feeling to climb onto the plane on my own, there is nobody to be silly with and keep me company. I was missing him throughout the holiday.

Finland in the darkness of October is not the most comfortable, romantic or pretty destination on Earth, but with luck, it is not raining the whole time and there is still some fall foliage left. As the plane came down to Helsinki, it was evident that I was in luck. It was sunny and the trees were still having a golden coat of leaves.

I didn’t really spend any time in Helsinki. Just bought some wool and knitting needles to keep myself busy in the train and headed to the Northern Savonia, to our cottage and my parents’ place. The sun had set a long ago as I arrived to the quiet train station of Siilinjärvi. My dad was waiting there to take me home.  As we drove away from the street lights,  in the dark northern sky we could see the pale green pulse of the aurora’s. A group of three elks passed us by too. Magical!

The first night I slept in the summer house of ours. Dad had heated the sauna and the open fireplace, so a gentle heat welcomed me while the impenetrable darkness had surrounded the world around. The cottage has a very distinctive scent to it, of wood and lingering smoke. That hit me deep to the emotions and the full extent of my homesickness rushed over me. Sometimes it is in the small things.

The morning came with a substantial chill to it. The night temperatures were approaching zero and on the inside of the hut, the warmth from the sauna was only a fading memory. It took some courage to stick my toes from under the blanket and get going to find something warm to wear.

The world outside was pretty; damp and gray and cold but still, in my eyes, pretty. The golden leaves in the trees framing my view to the lake and the surrounding fields and the still lake mirroring the sky can be very soothing. The silence out there is amazing, too as the birds have left for the south and the life on the surrounding farms is slowly halting. I felt a bit lost out there all by myself. The hut is something me and Waffle have together and it really felt like something crucial was missing without him.

On the agenda for that day was to pack my parents, me and the dog to a car and drive to the east, to the town of Lieksa and the National Park of Patvinsuo. A few hours in a car followed, through the vast emptiness of the Finnish countryside, under the heavy grey sky and low hanging clouds. Finnish melancholy at its best. 

I had rented a log cabin via Villi Pohjola from the edge of the park, at a lake shore, in a pine forest. It was a tiny thing with two bunk beds, a kitchenette and, most importantly, a sauna. It was conveniently close to the hike around Suomujärvi, which I was aiming on doing the following day.  We heated the sauna, the most brave of us even tested the lake water then it was time to cook. Everybody went off to bed fairly content, drowsy from the sauna and food. 

Nothing much had changed the following day. A soft cloud of moist was sticking to the pines, and it was difficult to see further than a couple dozens of meters. The forest bed was soaked too and the plants drooping over the tiny trail made my shoes and pants wet in no time. 

My parents and the dog followed me for the first kilometers before turning off to a shorter loop. Before leaving me alone into the woods they saw it proper to mention that the area had a hefty population of bears. Probably at least 70 of them roaming between me and the Russian border. Yay. 

So with a slight chill down my spine I went on my way, through swamps and magnificent forest of pines. It was endless. The forest went on an on, I could not see an end to it. Every now and then the trail took me to the shoreline of the lake Suomujärvi, which has over 20 kilometers of softly curving sandy beaches. I was really taken aback by the beauty of the nature there. Sometimes I was hoping it would be a bit warmer, so I could take a dive. 

It had been a long time since I had been in a forest all on my own. I had been missing it, sometimes planing on going on a multiple day hike alone. This was just a days stroll in the nature, but still it gave me a touch of the peace and self-secureness I had been looking for. I was probably a little more sane when I excited the hike. 

My parent’s met me again at the nature center of the national park, we made coffee on campfire; something that unites us all Finns: love for the little bit smokey coffee, made on living fire, in a pitch black pot. They days are short in October, and soon we were forced to return to the cottage. 

 

The following day it was time to return home, through the same, soaked and grey landscape. I still had a full day to spend with the family up there in Savonia, before heading to Helsinki. I prepared the cottage to be ready for winter (some appropriate raking happened too) and my aunt made sure I was well fed, before heading to Helsinki. 

For the stay in Helsinki I had found a lovely little accommodation from Airbnb, a boat! The Nikoali II, docked at the old market hall in Helsinki. It was most certainly a special accommodation, a slight smell of oil and a soft swinging were the most distinguished features. 

Before I got to crash in the boat’s bunk, there were food and friends to be enjoyed. I was happy enough to go full tourist mode in my former home town. I was gawping at the old buildings and the beautiful parks and soaking my nose in the smells of the old market hall. It is a funny feeling, to be a stranger in your old home. All the places are familiar, you know the streets, shops and boutiques, but every time you find something that has changed or is new.

After all the gawping it was time to dip my fork into the creations of a Finnish contemporary fusion kitchen with some friends around the table. There we dined and talked and laughed, until the evening grew long and people had to head home. 

The next day it was time for me to return to Belgium. Bag packed with some Finnish goodies I headed to the airport. Sad, again, to leave Finland behind but happy to return to the normal every day routine, with my dear Waffle. 

This year I won’t return to Finland anymore. There is no time for holidays and for Christmas our path takes us to a very different winter destination. More on that later!