Memories of Finland

0202-2020 until 09022020

I have fond memories of cross-country skiing in Norway. For about 2 and a half months I was based at a hotel at Venabu, in the Rondane hills just north of Lillehammer, and skied everyday. There was one week when I had no clients and felt rather lonely until I made friends with a German – Joachim – with whom I skied part of the Troll Loype, as well as in a blizzard. I’ve written about that elsewhere (and I wish now I’d replied to his postcard sent several months later).

So when Tricia and Helen from my running group – Head Torches round the Tarn – said ‘how about going skiing’, I suggested cross-country skiing in Finland. As it turned out Tricia couldn’t come – she was invited on a holiday to Morocco – but Helen, Penny, Anne and Mark and I booked on.

Christmas came and went and suddenly it was February and time to get up in the early hours and drive down to Manchester airport. Despite being at work so early and having to deal with people’s incompetence (e.g. me driving into the wrong car park), all the airport staff were really friendly, cheerful and helpful.

Landing at Kittila was interesting as the runway was a bit snow-covered. I wondered whether pilots brake more gently and try to touch down earlier, so they can take longer to come to a stop, and don’t skid? We also had an engineer on board – apparently normal when you’re going to ultra-cold snowy areas.

A minibus took us to our hotel, driving along snow-covered roads with deep snow-covered landscape and trees around us. The trees looked slimmer than at home due to the weight of snow on the branches, and they’re more spaced out, in part as they grow more slowly. Even though the sky was grey, the light reflecting off the snow made everything seem lighter than it would on a rainy English day: and of course we felt positive and excited due to our early-holiday-excitement.

Our rooms at the hotel were great, and having unpacked we walked out to visit the local supermarket. I really liked the look of a Finnish skincare range called Lumene; the others stocked up on crisps, nuts and tonic water (Helen and Penny had already bought gin in Duty Free and we had brought wine boxes with us). As we walked back to the hotel Mark and I were saying how surreal Lapland seemed; it still felt a bit like Christmas, or Narnia, in a lovely non-commercial, unspoilt, way. Back at the hotel our good moods continued with pre-dinner drinks and we headed into an early dinner ready, after our long day travelling, for an early night.

Waking up on Monday it was still pitch black and we commented on how short the days were going to be: at home we were just about beginning to feel spring-like – as I walked from the office to the station a few evenings earlier I had noticed that it was only just growing dark, rather than already dark. In Finland – especially this far north, inside the Arctic circle – sunrise was at about 8.30 a.m. and sunset about about 4.15 p.m. Our feet crunched on the snow as we went into the dining room for an enormous breakfast. On the way back we went into the ski room to fetch our skis.

Boots have changed a bit since I skied in Norway – 25 years ago – when I had leather boots, but I was excited to see that the skis were much the same and are still waxed. I love the smell of the warm wax!

Once the skis were ready we walked down to lake Akaslompolo to try them out. I was relieved to find I was still relatively competent – I wasn’t sure if whether, after a gap of 25 years, I might have completely forgotten what to do – and the others were picking it up quickly. After a bit Anne said “let’s ski all round the lake” – so we did, clear blue skies above us and crisp white snow at our feet. We had booked a lesson for the afternoon and so at 2.30 Kimmo, our teacher, took us up and down some little slopes and then out along the ‘floodlit trail’ which goes around part of the lake. We didn’t get far but he told us some good routes to do the following day.

Our final ‘experience’ of the day was to go to the sauna. The accepted practice is to go in naked but, unlike when I was in Austria, at least the Finnish have single-sex saunas. It also seems quite normal to leave the sauna wrapped in nothing but a towel to walk back across the snow to your room (cabin): something we weren’t to try until a bit later in the week, although Anne and Mark embraced it sooner than the rest of us.

It became our daily routine to go to the sauna after skiing and then go back to the rooms for pre-dinner drinks, followed by dinner and then more drinks and cards after dinner. It sounds like a lot of drinking, but in fact there was a plentiful supply of water and juices in the dining room and I found that I was drinking water more than anything else. Despite a glass or two of wine each day and sometimes a gin, and despite an enormous breakfast and dinner of several courses, I felt healthier than I had for ages.

On the Tuesday Mark and Anne said they’d rather do their own thing in the morning than feel bad about holding the rest of us up, so we agreed to go our separate ways for the morning and then meet up at lunchtime. Penny, Helen and I skied along the side of the lake and then took a trail up through the trees, which Kimmo had recommended. It was hillier and prettier than we’d skied before, and included dropping down over a frozen river – where we stopped for photos and realised that it was so cold – minus 28 degrees C – that even our eyelashes were icing up!

Before long we arrived at Navetta Galleria, a cafe which had been recommended as a good stopping point on this trail. We loved it: we made the mistake of not only having a hot drink but also cake. Mine was a doughnut-type thing called a Munkki (one thing I’ve noticed about Finnish is its love of double vowels and double consenants). There were also crafts and artwork for sale, and the history of the building as a family home was told in panels and pictures. Going outside into the cold with full stomachs wasn’t appealing…

We liked the cafe so much we decided that Anne and Mark really needed to come up there too, and we felt sure they’d cope with the shorter return journey as an ‘out and back’; they did love it and Anne bought a Father Christmas/gnome-type felt figure. Helen, Penny and I skied up there, via a different route, the following morning as well.

Dinner on Tuesday evening included a very tasty and quite delicate Elk Meatloaf. Later in the week I had Shoulder of Elk in (I think) a game sauce. I am a complete convert to Elk meat! We also had reindeer, and Arctic Char – a delicious fish which of course in the UK is incredibly rare (it apparently occurs in some Lake District lakes, although has become extinct in some, and also in lakes and lochs in Scotland). In fact the food overall was absolutely superb, and Anne and Helen generally had 3 different desserts each night!

Despite sunset being relatively early each evening, we never quite managed to ski back along the illuminated track once the lights were on – it took until the last day of the holiday, when Helen went out on her own, for anyone to do so. But we were out for plenty of sunsets, all of which were absolutely gorgeous – varying shades of pink looking lovely against the white snow, the hills silhouetted against the pale sky. And then of course we were hoping to see the Northern Lights…

On the Thursday Anne and Mark were planning a long walk (they had only had 3 days of ski hire anyway), so Penny, Helen and tried out another new route in an easterly direction, towards a smaller lake – Kesankjarvi (‘jarvi’ I concluded, means ‘lake’). It was snowing lightly and there was a breeze blowing snow in shallow drifts across tracks, so coming back we had no choice but to go up a ‘red’ trail uphill rather than along a blue. Penny took her skis off and RAN the last bit!

The reward was a glorious, roller-coaster ‘blue’ run straight downhill – until a wiggle at the end where Helen fell over and Penny, unable to avoid her, then fell over too. A lot of mirth ensued and, looking back at them, I then fell over going uphill! Before long we had arrived back in Akaslompolo where we went into a bakery near the supermarket and had – you’ve guessed it – coffee and cake – before going into the supermarket to pick up some presents.

After dinner we played our regular games of contract whist (I kept losing) while one or the other of us kept nipping outside to check whether the northern lights had appeared – we’d missed them at midnight the night before (which was annoying as I’d actually been awake but hadn’t even thought of looking outside). At about 10.30p.m. Mark came back in and said – in a very low-key, calm, English manner – “you may all want to come outside”.

To start with the aurora wasn’t actually all that impressive – it just looked like some wispy white clouds. However as we watched it grew, brightened and moved, even changing colour and ‘dancing’. Helen and Penny both got some great photos; and from speaking to people later it was apparently a really great example of the Lights. We were so lucky to see them.

The following morning – Friday – Helen, Penny and I had booked on another lesson. I was rather hoping it would be Kimmo, our male teacher from earlier in the week, but it ended up being a girl called Elke who English was absolutely excellent. Penny turned back early in the lesson as her foot was hurting, and Helen and I had quite a snappy lesson past Navetta Galleria, over the bridge and frozen river, and back down between the trees.

We’d worked up some warmth and Helen had the sense to have a shower and get into dry clothes when we got back: I didn’t, which turned out to be foolish as that afternoon we were going to a husky farm to go dog-sledding. I had done this one evening in Norway for a short distance, my main memory being of falling head first off the sleigh into the snow and the dogs being so well-trained that they all pulled up short immediately. The others were really keen to go and the experience entailed a 9km drive/ride through the snow. I got colder and colder and so when it got to the halfway point I was more than happy to let Penny carry on driving while I stayed wrapped up in the sledge!

We’d promised the Head Torches bunch at home that we’d go for a run in Finland, and had all packed running shoes, so when we got back from dog sledding Mark, Penny and I headed out along the floodlit trail. I turned back after a short distance but the other two continued and did a short loop. Running on snow, even fairly hard-packed snow, isn’t all that easy (and I was beginning to feel quite tired by this stage in the holiday).

By Saturday Helen and I were the only two wanting to ski. Mark and Anne did a hilly 25km walk while Penny walked to Velhonkta and back: Helen and I skied along some lovely red and blue trails to get there as well, where there was another cafe. In total we had skied about 12 km when we got back again and I was ready for a rest: Helen then went out to the supermarket and skied back along the floodlit trail, this time actually lit up.

At dinner time we had been discussing the best and worst points of each day: over our final dinner we debated the best and worst points of the holiday. There were very few low points. That evening we all went to the bar, where I tried to learn some Finnish – not that easy for an English-speaker to learn as it’s so very different in structure and sound from most of the languages we learn. I think the only word I can now remember is ‘kiitos’ (thank you).

As we eventually took off from Kittila on the Sunday – late, as storm Ciara was raging over England and parts of western Europe – I felt quite tearful. I had loved being in Finland: it’s one of those places where I felt I’d really like to spend more time and live, rather than just visit. However next time I’d like to travel there by train (and bus – the train lines stop at Rovaniemi or Kolari): something which was confirmed when landing in Manchester was slightly hairy due to storm Ciara.

I was glad we landed when we did: storms buffeted Britain for most of February, resulting in endless rain and flooding. And then of course by early March we were facing coronavirus and the possibility of a global pandemic, restricting travel world-wide. We were lucky to get to Finland and back when we did.

Please note – not all the photos were taken by me, but I can’t remember who took them all!

Surrealism on holiday

Travelling is weird. By its very nature it has to be: a holiday should take you out of your comfort zone and away from normality and routine. How far you step out of your comfort zone is up to you: there are those who still want to feel comfortable, who want British bars and pubs in English-speaking resorts, and for whom the main change is warmer, drier weather and no work.

At the other extreme are the explorers: those who spend weeks or months (maybe even years) travelling, perhaps in some discomfort and in challenging conditions.

I’m somewhere in between. I want to experience something of a foreign culture, and I love hearing a foreign language or languages around me.

It starts often with the outgoing flight. I’m not quite sure why so many holiday flights leave so early in the morning, but there’s an other-worldly quality to getting up in the middle of the night and making your way to the departures desks. Airports by then are wide awake and bustling, while the rest of the (local) world sleeps. I’ll always remember walking across the car park from the airport hotel at Newcastle with my parents and three small children, when we went to Chamonix. Edward, at just 4 years old, insisted on pulling a suitcase. Going to Finland I drove into the wrong car park at Manchester: instead of a grumpy, surly, half awake voice, a cheery male voice just told me to drive back round to the exit, and then gave me directions to the right car park.

Flying itself is then also surreal. You’re either up above the clouds in bright blue sky and could be anywhere and nowhere, suspended in time and space; or you can see the earth laid out below you like a map. Personally I prefer the latter as I like trying to work out where I am. Sometimes there’s a bit of both: you look down through wispy clouds and see the snow-clad summits of the Alps below, or the clouds briefly part and you realise that the white down below is not more cloud but the snow covered landscape of Norway, Iceland or Greenland. Twinkling lights below highlight motorways or the coast, or cities: I remember flying along the south coast of England at night towards Bournemouth, seeing Gatwick to the north and a chain of illumination along the south coast.

Sometimes the sun rises as you fly. I always prefer a window seat: perhaps because it takes my mind off the worry of flying.

Within hours you have given up your regular everyday life for somewhere new. There’s the excitement, mixed with a little apprehension, an arriving. At Kittila there appeared to be no transfer to take us to our hotel: a helpful rep. from Inghams chased it up for us and before long we were on our way, bowling along snow- and ice-covered roads which would bring traffic to a halt in the UK, our driver regaling us with stories of how part of the road is used for emergency aircraft landings. Already we’re out of our comfort zone as he zips past lorries and coaches coming in the other direction on what seem like narrow icy tracks.

Finland – or rather Lapland – is very beautiful. It’s so easy to see why it’s the home of Father Christmas. A thick layer of snow and ice covers everything, the trees looking elegantly slim with their white coats weighing down their branches. Fairy lights twinkle around the airport, the hotels, the log cabins set among the trees; Moomintroll-like figures loom out of the snow clumped into curvy sculptures. You expect any moment to fur-clad bewhiskered reindeer drivers, or for the White Witch to appear, Narnia-style.

Putting skis on your feet for the first time or after a long break is also strange. They slip and slide away from you with a mind of their own, and going downhill can feel scarily out of control. I was glad and relieved that I could basically remember what to do and that skiing began to feel again like a normal, and sensible, way to travel around on snow (if at times it felt like hard work). We have so little snow and ice in the UK that we rarely have to learn to glide rather than to step.

Walking and skiing among the trees is a little like being in Cumbria, although the trees are naturally more spaced out and are all spruce, pine, etc. I love the Scots Pines: their twisty golden branches in contrast to the bendy spruce. The fells are not as high as the Cumbrian fells, but are gentle knolls – the highest near us was about 700m. Even so, it’s hard work skiing uphill, even if you’re not going very high.

There are also the sounds. The gentle thwack and glide of the skis; the silence when you stop to listen; or the alien quality of Finnish, which has no relation to languages such as German, French or Italian and yet which the Finns chat away in before switching easily to English. We are incredibly spoilt, us English-speakers, but it’s still nice when travelling abroad to pick up some of the local words. Unfortunately the only word of Finnish which stuck in my head was ‘kiitos’ (thank you), despite having been told ‘cheers’, ‘very good’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘goodnight’ (I also realised that ‘jarvi’ is ‘lake’ and I bought something called a Munkki, which is a type of doughnut). I’m very curious now to know what the grammatical structure is like as apparently it’s similar to Japanese – in other words completely and utterly alien to any language I have ever learnt.

A renowned Nordic custom is of course the sauna. Initially we were rather hesitant about going in the snow afterwards, but the day the outdoor hot tub was on we had to walk from there across the snow to the sauna. Unless you don’t mind wet shoes (or have flipflops), then the quickest and best option is just to make a semi-naked sprint for it. Having done that, walking back from the sauna to our room wrapped in a towel and nothing else other than boots, socks and pants, was actually very refreshing. It’s also not at all the done thing to be British and wear a swimsuit in the sauna.

In terms of food, while there are plenty of cloudberries, ligonberries, reindeer and elk on the menu, the cuisine is, not surprisingly, quite mixed – and delicious. Once when I went to Munich I was incredibly disappointed by the food, which seemed to consist mostly of meatloaf or cake. In contrast our hotel in Finland had a superb range of salads and fruit as well as fish (Arctic Char was lovely), meat and potatoes.

As the plane leaves the ground to come home I often feel a little tearful: partly from relief that we are safely off the ground and partly from sadness at saying ‘goodbye’. Some places you know you won’t visit again: Finland is one of those I hope very much that I do.

p.s. several years ago a friend of mine went to Helsinki for a running race, with a group. He came back saying how very friendly the Finnish were. I wasn’t sure I believed him at the time, as why should any one nation be any friendlier than another? However it’s true – a lot of the Finnish have friendly, smiling faces, and they seem to be ready to smile and to help at any time. Even the ‘ski etiquette’ signs say you should always stop to help someone who needs it.