Global Warming in Finland

The heat wave continued the entire time we were in Finland. None of the cars we drove or the hotel rooms we stayed in had air conditioning. The windows opened in all the rooms, but mostly to provide an opportunity for mosquitoes to enter. The mosquitoes weren’t too numerous (except on our long walk in the woods, where we slathered our skin and clothes with bug spray, twice) but the ones there were were annoying.

We followed the instructions from our airbnb host, taking a bus from the train station, which stopped directly in front of the apartment. The room was minimal, with no air conditioning. After awhile, we headed back into town, walked around the beach for an hour or so, then found a really nice restaurant, Juuri, with “Finnish tapas”. The first thing that happened is they brought free tap water to the table. In Russia, water at restaurants was quite a profit center: since St. Petersburg tap water is sketchy, healthwise, people generally drink bottled water. Restaurants always managed to find some imported water in glass bottles to maximize their revenues, especially on the hot days we were there. In Helsinki, the tap water, besides being completely safe, has won several taste tests compared with bottled water, so restaurants serve it as freely as in the US. We started with what they called a “blackcurrant mojito”, using blackcurrant leaves instead of mint. The “tapas” were actually quite tiny; we ordered six of them without really filling up at all. There was a trout sausage, a carrot with tarragon, a pate, and a couple presentations of herring. The main course was a very flavorful trout served with potatoes which tasted like butter, and tiny bits of morels. We then ordered the cheese plate, tiny bites of four interesting cheeses from Finnish farms; then dessert, yogurt pudding with a distinct licorice flavor that appeared to come from crystals of salt sprinkled on it. It hasn’t been topped by any meal we’ve had since, even at more expensive places.

Tuesday morning we went back into town for breakfast and stamps, then returned to the apartment to get our stuff, and to the train station to go to the airport to get the rental car. Unfortunately, we soon found out the rental car (despite having less than 10000 km on it) had a non-functional air conditioner: it probably used more gas to have it on but it made no difference in the temperature. So we turned it off and cracked the windows somewhat. Our mission was to get to Kuopio, about four hours northwest of Helsinki, but we decided to go look for one of the points in the “Struve geodetic arc”, a series of carefully surveyed points on land, stretching from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea, from which one could, in the 19th century, measure the curvature of the earth — it was discovered that it bulges somewhat in the middle. Now you just look at Google Maps. Our experience was driving to a marked parking lot on a lake beach, looking for a trailhead, getting lost, looking some more, almost giving up, and finding a trailhead, walking about a kilometer to a sign in the woods, and walking back. It was a nice walk, and we found wild blueberries on the trail. We had a conversation with a man and his son who live there and had ridden bikes down to the lake. Then we got back onto the road and headed to Kuopio.

The Finnish countryside is beautiful. It consists almost entirely of forests, interrupted in the south end by farmland, and further north by lakes. If Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, Finland is the land of 10 million lakes. After seeing the lakes up north, returning south many of the fields of rye and wheat looked like green and brown lakes filling in between forested hills (which are presumably piles of massive boulders built by glaciers, covered with soil and trees).

When we arrived at Kuopio, we found we had dithered too long: the hotel had a “smoke sauna” and a traditional Finnish dinner only on Tuesdays, and by the time we got there they were basically both over. Whatever: we’re not big sauna users anyway, and in the hot weather it seems even more pointless. We found some other modest restaurant in town, featuring vendace, a kind of sardine native to Finland.

Wednesday morning we backtracked to Verkaus, home of a mechanical music museum, run by a quirky German guy. The most amazing thing about the museum is that practically every machine in it is functional: the guy would tell some political or ethnic joke, then turn the next machine on for 30 seconds or so. It was a lot of fun. The most modern machine there was a PianoDisc, which allowed tempo changes and transposition, via remote control, of the music played by the attached piano.

We then headed to what has been for me one of the high points of the trip, a six-mile walk in the forest outside Kuopio. Near the trailhead we found a few wild strawberry plants, which had the most intensely flavored tiny strawberries we’d ever had. Before long there were tons of wild blueberries, which for awhile distracted us so much I worried we wouldn’t complete the loop. As usual, there were lots of plants we’d never seen. There were only a few birds, like grouse or something, who were eating blueberries as we walked by, causing them to fly several feet away. We walked by a perfectly serene little lake. We noticed a car parked by a campground, and then found a couple rummaging in some bushes; it turned out they had little scoops designed to pull blueberries off plants. Much more efficient than pulling each berry off individually with fingers. As we neared the end of the loop, we came upon a newly-constructed wooden fire lookout tower, which we climbed and appreciated the view from. Ray asked “are they going to burn it Saturday or Sunday?”

After the walk we followed signs to a place that seemed like a winery: it had the word “viinitila”, and also “ravintola”, the word for restaurant. Since it was so close by (and already almost 8pm), it seemed worth checking out. The road to it was suddenly interrupted by a ferry crossing; the place was on an island. There were signs saying the winery/restaurant and ferry both stop at 9pm. We decided to see how much we could eat or drink or buy in 60 minutes, really hoping we’d get off the island in time. The ferry just goes back and forth if there is someone who needs to cross. There were no questions about tolls — either the state or the island residents pay for it. The winery, Alahovin Viinitila, turns out to make wine from berries: white and black currants and strawberries, mostly. They also make wonderful apple cider. They gave us one of each of the dinner items they were serving: a cabbage soup with sheep meat, a beef/pork stew with mashed potatoes and salad, and fresh strawberries with whipped cream. That and some cider. We bought some blackcurrant wine which we will probably drink in Sweden somewhere. We left the place at 8:54, easily made it onto the ferry along with two other cars, and sat there for 15 minutes while a half-kilometer-long flotilla of logs got tugged through the strait. I suppose the poor ferry driver has to keep ferrying as long as anyone is there.

Thursday we packed up and left and drove toward Rauma, passing other iconic Finnish towns such as Nokia and Lappi. Just before we got there, we stopped at Sammallahden Maki, a neolithic archaeological site consisting of several large piles of rocks, determined to be burial sites. Two formations were called the Church Floor and the Long Wall. That is pretty much the extent of the descriptions about what is known about this site. The signage is fairly nonexistent.

Rauma has one of the largest preserved “Old Town” neighborhoods in the world, with several buildings dating back to the 1680s. The town has a great architectural consistency, for the same reason that all consistent towns do: it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt all at the same time. As we arrived, we found ourselves unable to follow Google Maps’ directions, because a street fair next to our hotel (with no air conditioning) had blocked the roads. We improvised another route and parked. The fair was an “international street fair” with food booths from several countries (Germany, Italy, Spain) and trinket booths we didn’t pay much attention to. I was happy to see an Italy booth with a cappuccino machine, since I hadn’t really seen much in rural Finland.. We went to a place in Old Town for dinner (“goto Kök and Bar”). As we wandered back, we found a telephone museum, which was opening itself to the public for one week. It’s not really a museum so much as it is one guy’s collection, stored in an old building. The owner’s son arrived just as we stood there and stared, and he let us in and pointed everything out. There was an old-fashioned switchboard that was connected to several of the old phones: you could crank from one, and a switchboard connection would pop open; you could hook it up to another and crank from the switchboard, and the other one would ring. Most of the phones were from the pre-rotary era, but there was one section of rotary phones, and even one little shelf of ancient cellphones. Almost everything there was made by L.M. Ericsson’s company — nothing by Western Electric.

Friday morning we returned to the Italy booth for breakfast (and several other places that served various sweets and pastries). Then we walked around Old Town a bit more, which had several Open Houses for its annual Lace Week celebrations, mostly people having yard sales. After awhile we hit the road back to Helsinki, stopping in Turku to see the Sibelius museum. We had about 45 minutes to see it before it closed; it had a pretty impressive collection of old instruments, particularly keyboard instruments. One room highlighted Sibelius’ life and works.

Driving in Finland was a little nerve-wracking: there are speed cameras everywhere. And the speed limit is constantly going back and forth between 80 and 100, and it is annoying to have to keep such close track of which one it is currently at. The cameras are very ancient-looking, like the ones I saw in South Africa in 2001. For awhile I figured the cameras facing me were the ones to worry about, but later I decided it was the ones across the road facing my rear. Hopefully not every minuscule transgression witnessed by every camera results in a hefty fine: while many people seemed as intimidated as in Australia, driving at the limit plus 5 or so, there were still many drivers who didn’t seem to worry about going 20 over the limit. I hope there isn’t a pile of mail after I get home. The freeway from Turku back to Helsinki didn’t seem to care so much about the speed: it was 120 almost the whole way.

We dropped the luggage off at the Eurohostel (no air conditioning), returned the car to the airport, picked up our three-day Helsinki Cards, and took the airport bus back to town. We found a restaurant with “Lapland food”, a large appetizer plate with reindeer jerky, smoked reindeer, salmon tartar, sardines, etc., then went back to the hostel to prepare ourselves for using the Cards as much as possible in the next 2.5 days.

Saturday we headed straight to Suomenlinna, ruins of a fortress on a group of islands just off of the mainland. The ferry is part of the same system as the buses and trams, and was included on our cards. The place was packed with locals taking advantage of the hot weather to sunbathe and picnic. Our cards also entitled us to a guided tour (we were the only ones on the English-language tour). Ray found it a bit odd that our guide, a journalism student who gave us a good overview of Finnish history, recounting the wars which caused transitions between Swedish rule to Russian rule to independence, didn’t seem to know which side his grandfather was on in the Finnish civil war. We had a little picnic with pretzels and German salamis we’d gotten in Rauma, and visited a military museum and a submarine.

It was fairly late in the afternoon when we got back, but we squeezed in a visit to the Design Museum. Design is one of the things Scandinavians are famous for, especially furniture. The museum had its permanent collection downstairs, with many beautiful objects. Some are timeless, like Fiskars scissors, unchanged since the 1960s. There was an exhibition upstairs featuring the life work of Ilmara Tapiovaara, whose career was spent designing furniture and interiors for applications ranging from low-cost postwar student housing (Domus Academica), hotels, and Finnair planes.

That night we went to Postres, a one-star restaurant which was pleasant and tasty and interesting, and quite expensive. It didn’t compare to Atelier Amaro in Warsaw, though. They featured a variety of aquavits: we tried about three of them. A Norwegian double-cask was the most interesting, served with the meatballs.

Sunday we went to two museums. The Amos Anderson museum was opened to showcase the collection of Mr. Anderson, a businessman, politican, and art enthusiast. Now it features various temporary exhibitions as well. The Big Picture was about large art, where the artists were all asked what they thought about the factor of size of an artwork. (My favorite answer, from Jarmo Kukkonen, was that a large artwork makes the viewer look small.) Another included the life work of painter Beda Stjernschantz, who made various portraits and landscapes in what she called the symbolist style, around the turn of the 20th century. I think you’d have to be Finnish to know what they symbolized. Another featured art about people working. The funniest was from a group called Icelandic Love Corporation, and was a portrait of Mr. Anderson made out of tights material (essentially serving as large round pixels).

Kiasma, the contemporary art museum nearby, had a floor where several Marimekko designers made various works: one favorite was a little glass shed containing hundreds of various green objects. A retrospective of their permanent collection had thousands of ribbons hanging from the ceiling, which one was invited to walk through. I liked a room containing a table, a bench, a lamp, and a mirror, except that you couldnt’ see yourself in the mirror, only the other objects. Strange. The other floors featured Alfredo Jaar, a South African artist most of whose works draw attention to the first world’s neglect of the continent, and worldwide social injustice just generally. After finishing the pretzels and another salami, we felt like we needed salad, which we found at a Moroccan place a little bit away from the center of town. We also walked over to examine two cow sculptures we’d noticed earlier from the car: they were made entirely out of parts of wrecked cars.

Monday we went to the airport, and flew to Mariehamn in the Åland islands. They are basically the San Juans, but they are much smaller and more numerous (6000), and are completely flat. They are officially part of Finland, though they are ethnically Swedish, which is the official language. They have their own postal system, license plates, and Internet domain (.ax). There are buses in town, but none at the airport, and very sporadic service around the main islands. So we took a taxi (4 km for 15 euros) to the hotel (with no air conditioning), walked the 1.5 miles to town and back the first day, and rented a car the second day. We found a nice enough restaurant in town, and took advantage of an increasingly rare opportunity to have some foie gras.

Tuesday we walked into town and picked up the car (the only one available had no air conditioning), then headed up to Smakbyn, a distillery on the next island over. Their dinner menu looked good, but we had other plans; we had a simple lunch there, including a salad with smoked-not-cooked lamb pastrami. They distill a rum from sugar cane, and they make several fruit-based liqueurs, served in gorgeous bottles with a blown representation of the fruit inside. We tasted the pear version, which was delicious. There is another variety I saw at a store with a moose head in the bottle instead of a fruit: the only Google hit I found on its name called it a “moose eau de vie”. (Today we found a bottle of the pear liqueur at the local Alko (the government alcohol store; supermarkets sell only beer and wine) — it was impressively expensive. After it’s all gone, I’ll keep the bottle as art.)

After lunch, we went to Bomarsund Fortress Ruins, the ruins of a large defensive compound the Russians started building in about 1830, shortly after they took control of what is now Finland, including the Åland islands. Unfortunately for them, the English destroyed it in 1854 in the Crimean War: my favorite line from the info panels was “The enormity of their plans was perhaps its greatest weakness”. I’m sure there are software projects that could refer to. There was a 3-mile trail around the area, passing by fragments of the original buildings, buildings whose foundation had been built, and buildings which had only been planned. There were drawings of the plans displayed, obtained from the Russian archives. The outside of the main fort was made by carefully interlocked pieces of stone, looking much like the construction style at Macchu Picchu. In addition to the fortress itself, the walk provided excellent views of the archipelago: just as the Finland mainland has tons of lakes, so Åland has tons of islands. When you see them by flying over them, it’s a smooth transition from Finland Proper to the Turku Archipelago.

We had a little time left to visit Kastelholm, ruins of an old stone castle from the 1600s. Drawbridge, keep, all the usual stuff. An info panel said some prince “was to be kept in custody, in a style befitting royalty”. Like Lompoc, I guess. The castle is open until 5 all summer, and until 6 in July; stupidly, the adjoining parts of the complex were closed by the time we got to them at 5:15. When will Europe learn that the gift shop should always be the very last place to close?

We had made reservations for a dinner tour of the Stallhagen brewery. There were the two of us, another party of four, and a woman from Åland who now lives in Chicago, hosting a party for 39 of her family members. It felt like we were wedding crashers. But the tour was interesting. Their beer says “Slow Beer — Hand Made”, and the guide explained that they let beer ferment for up to 18 weeks, while big “chemical” brewers might let it ferment for as little as 18 hours. He also said that they get hops from the Czech Republic (for bitterness) and the US (for aroma) but that global warming is allowing them to consider growing their own. They served half-glasses of four varieties with four tiny hors d’oeuvres, and another full glass of our choice with dinner. The guide said that some beers improve by sitting in a cellar for a few years, and that they were asking the government for permission to label a beer as “Best After” a certain date. All the beers we tried (standard, dark honey, lemon/ginger, and dark vanilla/cinnamon) were fairly lightweight but still had interesting flavors. Now we are on the ferry to Stockholm, and I just had their IPA, which has a nice amount of bitterness but is still fairly light.