Sunday 29th July 2012 Toysa, Finland
Well we are now on our way heading north-west towards the Ferry crossing to Sweden from Vaasa, Finland. We have booked our journey for Tuesday morning 8.00 am.
It's been busy and I haven't had much time to write up our blog so I will try and fill in the last week or so's activities and impressions the best I can.
After Latvia we travelled up to the coast of Estonia and decided to catch the ferry to the large island of Saare and at 11 Euros for the crossing we thought it might be a change of scenery.
We drove straight across the island to Kuressaare, a well known holiday town with lots of wooden buildings and a small castle, we arrived late in the day and found a small campsite close to town. The next morning we rode our bikes into town to see the sights., it was relatively quiet and we found our way to the very old castle that is the highlight of the town. It wasn't open yet so we went for a short ride to the marina and had a look at the coast. We enjoyed looking through the castle, it had a museum set up that displayed not only the ancient history of the castle but also the Tzarist period and communist era. We found it very interesting, but after we had a coffee we decided we had better move on. After leaving Kuressaare we visited the meteorite crater at Kaali, the windmills of Angla and the cliffs of Panga. We found a lovely secluded beachside spot to stay for a night and woke up to the peaceful sight of the Baltic sea.
We now had to drive to Tallin as we had booked our ferry crossing to Helsinki and this gave us one day to see the sights of Tallin. We found the city campground behind some office/commercial buildings, again it looked like they decided to use the carpark of these commercial buildings, but as we were only there to see the city and then catch the ferry it was the most convenient place to stay. (they also had free wifi, a bonus for us) We again took to our bikes to visit the town, Tallin has some good bike ways but they sometimes disappear and you are left with a choice of riding on the busy road with all the cars and trucks or riding down the narrow walkway and having to stop and start for the pedestrians. Still we have found it a mostly easy place to get around and we had a nice time wandering the streets and looking at the sights. We did decide to have lunch at a really nice African restaurant and sat on the roof enjoying the views to the harbor and the sunshine. The food was really good with enough spice in it to satisfy our need for a little something with some zing.
We had to catch the ferry early and so we decided the last night in Tallin would be spent in a carpark near the ferry terminal, so fortunately we were able to leave the campground late in the day, do some shopping and move to the carpark when things in town were quietening down. Luckily for us this was a peaceful carpark and after having dinner, watching some TV we had a good night's sleep ready to cross the Baltic sea first thing.
We arrive in Helsinki and drove off the ferry quite near to the centre of town. As in most cities, the roads aren't always straightforward and as we were planning to go west, it seemed east we must head. We needed to get onto the city ring road and unfortunately missed the turn off, but just as well our trusty Tom Tom succeeded in rerouting us in the right direction. Our plan for that night was Hanko, the most southerly tip of mainland Finland and a nice seaside resort town.
We had one day until our planned trip to St Petersburg, this we had booked a few weeks ago and was our main reason for hurrying though the Baltics to get to Finland. What to do with our camper while we were away for the 3 days was something we were not really sure about until Riga. While camping at the City Camping there we were approached by a Finnish Man called Ari and he was interested in what we were doing and when we talked about St Petersburg he kindly offered to look after our van at his home 30kms north of Helsinki. A very generous offer and something we had to think about but as the time came closer we decided that if the offer was still valid we would take him up on it. Nice to have it parked out of the city and in someones yard rather than a city car park. We couldn't have been made to feel more welcome when we drove in to Ari's yard. He quickly made us feel at home, introduced us to his lovely wife Eija and later to his son. We had a lovely evening with them, Ari cooked some salmon in his homemade baking oven, and after a very satisfying meal we were asked if we would like to use their sauna. I think every finnish home has one, I think I heard there is 1 sauna for 3 people in Finland so they take their sauna's seriously. Well what to do? Ewout quickly agreed and as it was going to be men first then later ladies I thought why not. One thing I have to mention, they do it with no clothes on and it is a quick way to get to know people when you sit naked with them in a sauna. I swallowed my reservations and took a turn with Eija and she was so relaxed and nice about it, that it made it easy.
The next morning we were going to catch the bus into Helsinki, do some sightseeing before we caught the ferry in the late afternoon, but as it had started raining Ari decided it was too wet to work in the yard and took us in and gave us quick "tour" of the town. I'm amazed at peoples generosity and we were very grateful to Ari for doing this as he made sure we knew where to get the ferry and dropped us off there so we could be sure we were at the right place. We had a few hours to wait before check in and so we put our bags in a secure locker and took the bus into town to have some lunch and see a bit of Helsinki.
Our ferry ride to St Petersburg was pretty uneventful, after having a drink in the lounge as it pulled away from the dock we had a walk around the other decks and retired early to our cabin for a quiet night in.
Tuesday July 24th, (my birthday) Welcome to St Petersburg
We arrived at St Petersburg at 9.00 am, we left our cabin to wait patiently to disembark. We couldn't see the point of jostling to get to the front of the line so we held back while others made the mad rush down the step and into the line of the customs. Well maybe it is an advantage to be one of the first, but after that it is a long wait in the queue to get though immigration for Russia. I don't know why it takes so long, but of course it seemed we got on the wrong queue and as we watched people push in ahead, other people in other lines passing us by the frustration just mounted and I was starting to feel quite cranky.
After an hour and a half we made it through and then had to wait for our transit bus to arrive, which dropped us off in front of one the iconic sights of St Petersburg, St Isaac's Cathedral. We had an address for our hotel "The Northern Lights" but couldn't understand the street signs so we had to ask friendly bus helper who pointed us in the direction. It was the direction, but we didn't quite understand the instructions and as we don't read Russian we were still confused and frustrated until a friendly English couple recognise our body language as lost and suggested we ask the staff in the hotel where they were staying as they spoke english well. We did and they helped us, we were almost there, but we had to go out the back of their hotel and turn right and it was two doors down. We made it, we had booked this hotel on line, as it looked pretty good, had some good reviews and it was pretty central to the city. Our first impression wasn't good, admittedly that had nothing to do with the hotel, but unfortunately it is situated on the 3rd floor of a pretty run down building and the stair well was pretty awful, damp, musty and very depressing. In my tired and emotional state I wasn't prepared for the 3 flights of stairs hauling our luggage. Well we made it, and found the hotel to be very nice in the end, a small boutique hotel you might call it, with no extra's like restaurants or cafe's but it has comfortable clean rooms, friendly staff, and really good wifi. (I might go on a bit about this but for some of you who won't know, our daughter Jade is about to give birth ; due 27th July, and we want to be able to skype them when it happens and it is a great way to keep in touch with all our family) Unfortunately we couldn't check in until 1.00 and it was only 12, so we were directed across the road to a cafe which the receptionist recommended as good food and good price. Another disappointment as unfortunately, they were booked until after 1.00 so we went looking further down the road for another cafe, we came across a very basic eatery which served pretty basic food but good value and all we needed for now Then it was back to the Hotel up the 3 flights of step to check in to our room.
To cut a long story short, we had a very busy couple of days in St Petersburg, we had drizzling rain, bright sunshine and everything between. We did the hop on hop off bus to get our bearings, but the English tour information was pretty sparse and sometimes didn't really co-ordinate with what we were seeing. We walked the streets and found that consumerism is alive and well in modern Russia, McDonalds, Subway and Kentucky Fried have found their way here as well as the trendy boutiques and expensive accessory shops and seem to be embraced by tourists and locals alike.
We ate some amazing meals, we had dinner at the Restaurant across from the hotel and it was very good.. (a pity my mood wasn't, I have to admit to a mid trip melt down, probably caused by homesickness, concern for my pregnant daughter and the overwhelming feeling of being in a country where even a simple sign is hard to understand)
We also had dinner with a wolf, well a dummy one, it was the only table available in the non-smoking section and at least we had a window view. Oh yes we were the window view too.
The highlights of the trip to St Petersburg were: The Hermitage museum (who could not we awestruck by the Summer Palace of the Catherine the Great, and her amazing collection of art work and artefacts.) the Church of the spilled blood, (even from the outside it looks amazing, but it was closed the day we stopped by. Finding a display of Buddy Bears in the park all lined up and in a myriad of designs from all over the world. For those who don't know Buddy Bears are a series of painted, life-size fibreglass bear sculptures originally developed in Berlin, Germany, the United Buddy Bears, is an international exhibition that travels around the world and gives a message of peace, international understanding and tolerance among the nations, cultures and religions of this world.
We said farewell to St Petersburg on the Thursday evening and took the ferry back to Helsinki, another overnight trip and then an easy passage through customs into the Euro zone. Then it was catch a bus back the 30 kms to Nurmijarvi where Ari picked us up and brought us back to his home and our van. We didn't stay again with them as much as we probably would have liked it, so we said our thanks and goodbye as we have still a lot of kms to go and the weeks are flying by. There is still Sweden, Denmark, Nth/West Germany and Holland to travel though until we fly home in early September.
After we said farewell to Ari we took his advice and drove north east towards the Russian border where there is a lot of lakes and a interesting old castle. Finland so far has been an easy and comfortable place to visit, pleasant to drive through, endless forests, farmlands and lakes scattered everywhere. It's so green and the wildflowers are beautiful on the sides of the road, but why wouldn't it be lush and damp when even in the middle of summer a sudden thunderstorm can send a downpour of rain and catch you unawares. So now we drive a few days in an north west direction, stopping in campsites or secluded parking areas, so that we are able to catch the ferry on Tuesday for our next destination Sweden.