Just a two and a half hour ferry ride from Tallinn in Estonia is the Finnish capital city of Helsinki. From there it’s easy to access one of the world’s coldest and most isolated regions. I may have mentioned before that I really hate the cold. Why had I spent a couple of weeks heading north into Finland in the middle of winter then? Two words: Aurora Borealis. I’m a sucker for pretty lights. So began a new adventure; chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland – Helsinki to Kemi.
I wasn’t confident in my camera’s ability to capture scenes very well, so I made a friend who is a photographer take the trip with me. On the off chance that I would be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the spectacle that is the Aurora Borealis. We had gotten the 6 am ferry from Tallinn, which got us into Helsinki bright and early. Actually, not so bright really. It was still pretty dark by the time I got outside the terminal building at 8:30 am.
Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland – Helsinki to Kemi. Wandering Helsinki
Not far from the port I got the first taste of what would be awaiting me in northern Finland. You know, that white stuff that covers the north for about half the year.
Luckily, that was all the snow I saw in Helsinki. In fact, the city seemed to be surprisingly free of it. I don’t know if this means that Helsinki doesn’t get as much snow as I had imagined. Or if they’re just really good at hiding it. Mind you, I’ve been in Canada in the winter and snow isn’t something that can easily be hidden. So I’m going to run with my first thought; Helsinki isn’t the winter wonderland I thought it would be.
Easy to Navigate City
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bloody cold! Almost too much for my warm weather body to handle. But my only choice was to suck it up and walk. Helsinki is an amazingly walkable city. There are wide footpaths and cycle paths everywhere. The signage is also pretty great. I think it would be a pretty difficult city to get lost in.
One thing I noticed while wandering around Helsinki, was that the Finns seem to have quite a sense of humour. Whether it’s a sign at the entrance of a fast food joint
Or sculptures like this one, called Naughty Boy
Speaking of sculptures, there was no shortage of them around the city.
I guess it was a sign of the season that I saw some temporary ice sculptures too. Or half sculptures. It looked like one of them could’ve been Snoopy, but someone made a mistake while sculpting it. I mean, there’s no way it could’ve melted in that weather!
Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland – Helsinki to Kemi. Oodi in Kansalaistori Square
A well-known building in Helsinki is its central library or Oodi as it’s known locally. It’s located in Kansalaistori Square, which is right near the city centre. Oodi bills itself as “A meeting place, a house of reading and a diverse urban experience”. It certainly is an experience. It also seemed like the place to be on a dull winter’s day. We thought we’d go there for the warmth and WiFi. Everyone in Helsinki had the same idea, it seemed. It’s the most crowded library I’ve ever seen.
The outside of the building is striking, with a three storey glass facade. Each of the three floors of the building had different areas. The third floor had all the books, along with a children’s play area. We found a terraced area with powerpoints on the second floor. There were loads of people just hanging out there. A wander around the second floor allowed me to watch a 3D printer in action. Oodi had several 3D printers for public use. The geek in me was happy. Yes, this was definitely no ordinary library.
Oodi also had sewing and embroidery machines, studios and editing rooms, games, music and meeting rooms as well as a restaurant and a cinema! Of course, there was also WiFi available, as there is everywhere in Helsinki. You see, Finland decided back in 2010 that internet access was a right and should, therefore, be available to everyone. That means free WiFi is everywhere. You don’t have to go far to get connected in the city.
Quirks in the City
Helsinki is a beautiful and clean city that’s easy to navigate, but it does have it’s quirks. Firstly, I’m not sure if they get to see the sky in Winter there. It seemed to be perpetually overcast. Or dark. I only managed to get a few photos while it was light. Not because I was wandering around late at night but because it got dark at around 3 pm!
As much as they believe internet is a right in Helsinki, they don’t believe that relieving yourself is a right. If you want to use the toilets in many establishments, you have to make a purchase. All the toilets have security codes which are printed on the receipt you get after you pay. You’d wanna hope that you don’t end up in a huge line when you really need to go.
Another interesting concept in Helsinki is night prices at fast food places. If you want to get something to eat after 9 pm, the menu prices increase and the specials disappear. Even if the place is due to close at 10 pm, they’ll switch to night menu prices for their last hour of trading. And those prices will possibly continue for their first hour of trading the next day, depending on their opening time.
Also, it seems that a lot of things are Lactose and Gluten free. I even saw Lactose free sausages!
Some Northern European countries are well-known for their exorbitant prices for everyday items. While I was expecting Finland to be more expensive than the Baltic countries I had just come from, I wasn’t quite prepared for how much the prices did jump. Some things were more than twice the price! It was just as well that I’d run under budget in the Baltic countries.
The only other country I’ve come across in my travels that is more expensive is Norway. I figured that prices might get worse the further I headed into the north. With that in mind, I stocked up all the cheap(ish) non-perishable stuff I could get my hands on at the Kamppi Centre.
Interestingly, the Kamppi Centre was one of the biggest redevelopment projects and the largest construction site in Finnish history. It took four years to transform the area in downtown Helsinki into the hub that it is now. It has almost anything you could need, like a huge shopping centre with nightclubs, offices and residences as well as local and long-distance bus terminals.
Overnight Bus to Kemi from Kamppi
The buses that I took in the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), especially in Vilnius were quite luxurious and had complimentary hot drinks. This was not so with the Finnish overnight bus that we were taking to Kemi in Finnish Lapland. It was the least comfortable of all coaches taken thus far, despite being comparatively more expensive. I had mistakenly assumed that things would get more luxurious in Finland. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all.
I stared out the window of the mostly empty bus as we made our way out of the city. For the first hour there was no snow to be seen. Then I watched the amount of snow slowly increase on the road, until about 2 hours out of Helsinki where everything as far as the eye could see was covered in several centimetres of snow. Including the road! I thought the bus driver might slow down at that point but he did not. As terrifying as it sounds to me, driving on snow is the only way you get anywhere in the winter in Finland.
Arriving in Lapland
I had actually managed to sleep a bit on the way, as the ride had been pretty smooth. We pulled into Oulu, the biggest city in Northern Finland at about 7 am. But that wasn’t the end of the journey. There we had to wait a short while for the bus that would take us onto Kemi in Lapland. That two hour journey continued on snowed over roads until we were finally in Kemi.
Follow the continuing adventure in Kemi
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