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! 

 

 

 

 

 

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The last steps in the Pyrenees

The previous post is here!

It was a restless night, we both kept searching for a comfortable position, listening to the sounds outside.  As the wind ruffled the tent, I was happy to be tucked in my wonderfully warm sleeping bag.

The morning came, as it always does, brisk and clean and all new. The sunlight smacked my sleepy eyes and forced me awake. A graving for coffee was next in line and soon enough the stove was set up and water beginning to boil. After some hot breakfast and coffee we were ready to head off.

This would be our last day of hiking. The trail, which had appeared in front of us yesterday would follow the ridge all the way down to the GR10 again. The beautiful undulating ridge was basking in the sunlight, promising an easy way home.

And easy it was. Beautiful as well. We were so relieved to see the more demanding parts of the trail disappearing behind us. The trail walked us past a few smaller peaks, until leading us to a magnificent broad saddle, littered with tiny blooming heathers and other small flowers. I have never seen such a large saddle, it was like walking across a football field, high up on a mountain ridge!

After useless loitering on the wide open plain, we had to start going again. Up onto the last peak of the hike. It was a gentle mountain, that one. Not so high anymore, soft and round. But from the top we got a great overview of the whole trail and all the peaks we had conquered.

On the other side of the peak the ridge continued to be beautiful. With softly tumbling meadows on one side and plummeting cliffs on the other. All this was topped off by a small herd of young horses wandering around the mountain meadows, all wild and free.

The downwards journey advanced swiftly, soon we found ourselves below the tree line and in the middle of wild blueberries. The best hiking snacks there are! all in all our descent was fairly uneventful, we started to meet some other hikers, going the opposite way, and on GR10 it got almost crowded. I was starting to feel increasingly ill. A loud humming in my ears, blocked nose and difficulties to find my balance were making the last meters to our car little bit less of an enjoyable journey.

I was happy to see our car again. Always after a hike it seems like a promise of comfort, at least a soft seat to lay your buttocks on. But it is bittersweet happiness, since the car takes us away from the mountains too. Plus it is so hot you could bake eggs inside.

As we drove down the serpentine, my ears were blobbing between blocked and open and blocked again. Waffle was demanding I go to a doctor. I hate going to doctors, but Waffle went on and found one in a tiny village called Piolenc, the capital of garlic. We were confident that a doctor, even in the south of France, will speak English. We were wrong. Plenty of confusion, translating and hand signals later I got a diagnose of ear infection and a long prescription for all sorts of medicine. Maybe indeed I had been sick enough for the doctor’s visit.

That turned our the planning for the rest of our holiday upside down. I always become extremely feeble with antibiotics, so hiking was pretty much off the menu. Luckily we were not too far from the second home of Waffle’s parents’, which happened to be empty at the time. We retreated there to medicate me in peace and comfort.

The house is in the beautiful gorge of the Ardèche, so the situation was not bad at all. We spent a couple of nights there and during the days we searched for places to skinny dip in the rivers. And there are plenty of those! Every corner of the river hides new secrets. The water is crystal clear and and there are plenty of small pools created by water to the soft limestone. It is nicely refreshing to take a dive in a small pool of cool water in the heat of over 30 degrees. From the northern areas of the nature park of Monts d’Ardèche we even found a beautiful set of cascades!

This holiday was creeping to an end and once again we had to get onto the road and off towards home. We were on the move early enough to make a stop and be tourists. I had realized with my antibiotic-infused brain, that our route went via the Burgundy wine region. Hooray, something new for us! Quick Googling pointed out one excellent, small vineyard, Parigot et Richard, making Crémant de Bourgogne in the town of Savigny-lès-Beaune.

Turned out, Savigny lès Beaune was not at all shabby village. The houses were very French, built out of pale stone and the streets were tidy and after every corner you walked by a vineyard or two. We wandered into one of those, just by random.

We were welcomed by a man, a happy man who apparently had been in the process of tasting his own produce. He sat us at his table and started pouring wine. White and red, fairly dry, both of them. He was clearly not in favor of mixing grapes, so all his bottles were containing 100% of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Aligoté. Perfectly good wines, so we walked out of there with a couple of boxes and left the man himself giggling in his own reality.

After that, we actually managed to get to the house I had found earlier with Google. They were busy at work; the harvest had started ahead of time, thanks to the exceptional weather. But they did manage to squeeze us in, when they heard we were in the region only for that afternoon.

And oh boy, was I happy they did! Their selection of sparkling wines was exquisite. Bottles containing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Aligoté in harmonious quantities offering quite refreshing tastes.  Waffle accidentally compared the product to Champagne, which was a mistake; these people clearly have a pride of their own. The wine maker was slightly insulted, remembering to mention, that the grapes of Champagne are actually from the Burgundy region! After chatting and tasting we left happily with a few boxes of sparkling gold.

After a the wine found its way to the car, we went for a walk to clear our heads, so we could hit the road safely again. We circled the town, found some vineyards and plenty of old war planes deposited into a garden of a castle. Quite a surprise that was!

An hour or so later, we got driving again for the last leg of our journey to home. Car full of wines, heads full of happy memories. We were both so glad that we finally got to do a longer hike in such a beautiful setting, even though the start of the holiday hadn’t been too promising.

Hiking the Pyrenees (Canigou – Puig dèl Roc Negre)

Canigou, Pyrenees, Hiker

Read here the first two days!

After a couple of days of hiking, sleep tends to come quickly. This time however, we had managed to put our tent up onto a slope and we kept sliding down and sideways on our mattresses. So neither of us was extremely fresh or well rested the following morning.

The morning seemed to mock our sad bearings. It was ridiculously beautiful, fresh and well rested. We dragged our dreary bodies out of the tent to the chill air of the morning and looked around in awe. The world looked different to the one we had left behind last night.

The rising sun brought about a hunger as well, the stove was lit and soon I was sipping my hot coffee, warming my fingers around it. I had the feeling, every bit of energy was going to be needed this day as we were planning on climbing two peaks, which meant quite some meters up and down, partially off trail.

We started hiking around 9 am, which left us plenty of time to take it easy. The climb up to Canigou was even irritatingly mild. The perfectly serpentine trail was easy to walk and we were up in no time. The view up there was humbling, as it always is. That is one of the key reasons you climb to the peak, rather than just wobbling pass it. Canigou is the first higher peak of the Pyrenees on the Mediterranean side. With good weather your eyes can reach all the way to the sea in the east and far across the mountain range to the north and west.

Followed a chocolate munching session and a viewing of the landscape to determine the route down and then up again. We would have to scramble very steeply down before reaching a wide serpentine trail down to the bottom of the next valley, somewhere there we would separate off to our own way.

A bit later it started to get crowded op there on the peak, so we headed on… or well, down to be more accurate. The trail went through a gap in the rocky neck of the mountain and plummeted vertically for a few meters. With the backpacks it took some careful planning to get down from there. Waffle had to take his pack off and swing it down ahead of him to get through the steepest bits. We were both extremely happy for it not being wet.

Slowly but surely we advanced in our descent, and about ½ hour later we were past the vertical and back on something that looked like a trail. But the next issue was not far from us; water. Our map didn’t show us any sources for the rest of the hike. We might have to wobble all the way to the next refuge, which would mean additional meters up and down and a few extra kilometers in distance. That would mean that we would probably not make it back from the trail before it would start raining. What to do?

As normal responsible adults we moved on, to leave the decision to be made at the last possible moment.  In the wondrous scenery around us it was easy to forget a small detail like that. The valley we were descending to was one of those fairy tale mountain valleys, with meadows, lakes and a winding trail in the middle.

Then when we actually did happen upon a spring, right on our route, flowing with water, we were thrilled! No need for extra meters up or down. Furthermore, at that point we still had plenty of time in our hands, so we treated ourselves to a picnic, under a boulder. Hot coffee, plenty of water and cookies helps a long way!

In the meanwhile the sun had passed the midday point, the temperature was more tolerable for walking. Soon we found the point where we left the path and headed towards the Porteille de Leca, which would take us to the approach to the Puig del Roc Negre.

We ended up to a paradise of meadows, lakes and streams, just calling your toes to dip in. Some hippie looking people had been camping there with donkeys and a pony, those lucky people! I hope to return to that spot myself one day!

Our route went from one lake to another, over boulders and marsh. We even saw some marmots! Even though there was no real trail, there were cairns here and there, so we could find our way. We just had to make sure to follow the right ones so we would end up to the correct side of the cirque, and on the correct ridge further on.

Soon we left the small lakes and streams and marmots behind and started climbing higher, through patches of grass, scree and boulders. Waffle’s pack was full again, with all the water and he was starting to suffer as I navigated from cairn to cairn, higher into more and more difficult terrain. We advanced slowly but the climb was steep, so it wasn’t long before we reached the saddle between Puig del Roc Negre and Très Vents.

It is tiring, this type of hiking, where you have to be constantly alert, firstly not to get lost and secondly not to break your ankles. Neither of us was particularly fresh as we started the walk up to the Roc Negre. Neither of us was particularly happy to find out that the cairns disappeared and all we had in front of us, was huge slabs of rock piled together in a pretty unwelcoming manner.

So the hike didn’t really get any simpler and Waffle was getting visibly tired. We scrambled higher, slowly and fairly unsurely, until we ended up to a spot where we didn’t immediately see a way forward. The peak was just a few meters above us, but the slabs had gotten bigger, more vertical and the gasping holes in between them were terrifying to wobble over.

Well, we couldn’t stick there for a long time; I went to look for a solution. I found one, a bit further, on the other side of the ridge. If we just crawled over the sharp edge we would get some sturdier ground under our boots, what a relieve was it to see that! The fear of not getting there was subsiding. The journey started advancing again, as we didn’t need to check and double check every single step we took.

We still needed to make our way around a boulder or two. Then, the greatest sight ever: a trail! The ridge towards Batère reached to the distance in front of us, wide, soft and grassy. Alongside it a trail! The relief dropped me through my knees. Waffle was beside himself. We would be able to make it back to our starting point without hassle!

A few steps further, we found a saddle, with meadow. A camping spot in our language. Such a good feeling it was to get off of your feet, wrap yourself up warmly (the wind was icy!) and just wait for the sun to set and get resting for the next day.

It was such a straining day, both physically and emotionally.