Chapter two finds us on the most extraordinary flight of our lives thus far.
We were 11.5km plus above the most awe inspiring, vast ‘wasteland’ in the inhabited world. We were like gobsmacked little children with our faces smushed up against the airplane window, watching the wondrous whiteness, but in the back of our minds hoping not to crash somewhere in this endless, frozen Siberian nothingness. We are so grateful for the stewardess that broke the rules and let us plebs into that empty business class section to view such an amazing sight!
We arrived 9 hours later & only 3 hours after our departure, in Helsinki – the World Design Capital for 2012, not knowing quite what to expect apart from SNOW! In what seems to be our now habitually snail-paced way, we established a route to our hostel in Katajanokka, a little foot sticking out into Helsinki’s gleaming ice filled harbour.
After an encounter with an unpleasant tram driver, we were confronted with a dismally unimpressive door that was so inconspicuous amongst the other beautiful architecture that we nearly missed it! Apprehensive about our choice of accommodation, we were relieved to find that on the inside lay the sublime comfort of clean fresh (single) beds in a quiet friendly little establishment. Here, despite all intentions, we stretched out for a bit, surprised to wake the next day fully clothed. Just a little jetlag!
Helsinki, originally a convenient sideline perk to Alecia’s bucket-list hunt for the northern lights, proved to be made for us. Intimate and approachable, filled with beautiful architecture, cool design & museums, amazing food and quirky details such as a myriad of carved stone bears and gargoyles.
Excited by our first experience of the crunchy, grotty urban snow under our feet and accompanied by the amazing design & food savvy tips from Alecia’s uni pal; Stef (thanks Stef!!), we continued to pound the cobbled pavement, ultra blue skies following us everywhere we went. Along the freezing harbour promenade, we quickly established the need for ridiculous fluffy earmuffs & gloves – gumboots & runners did the job for the meantime – and we meandered through our first real experience of the antiquity & craftsmanship of a European city.
Between our trusty Triposo iPad travel app & Stef’s recommendations we were led through the understated design district, the city’s small but distinguished centre and to many amazing food spots where we sampled signature Finnish foods such as delicious salmon soup, the best cinnamon scrolls ever, almond and pear chocolate (YUM!), full-on rich sauteed reindeer with lingon berry sauce. And of course… beer!
UFF cool vintage clothing helped remedy some of our post Tokyo style anxiety for cheap and while the personal style of the average Fin was not as conspicuous as in Japan, the design of objects, architectural details & structures was all encompassing, and thus a reinstated fascination with interior goodies, doors, windows and facade details was instant. Vast gleaming Alvar Aalto buildings, cool bicycles, delectable Iittala glassware, ‘scando’ furniture & lamps, Marimekko everything (being a much loved design inspiration for Alecia), “viking” details (Jugend architecture if you want to be proper) and vibrant easter paraphernalia permeated everywhere.
After our cliche’d sprint for our super-dooper sleeper train, the twilight view of endless, monochromatic pine forests, ghostly snow flurries and blanketed lake huts, lulled us & saw us awaking the next morning in the Arctic Circle capital of Lapland, Rovaniemi.
Pretty ordinary at 6am and minus 5 degrees but able to promptly kit us out with breakfast & “space boots” before Hamish could execute another spectacularly public stack on the ice.
Relieved that our gear was suitably warm & ice-worthy we ventured another 260km further north, via bus, into the dreamscape of Lappish wilderness;
Outside our window, recklessly defiant snow-mobile tracks cut across the roads & lakes, winding dainty reindeer and bunny tracks, the dark sinuous snare of the melting river and marshmallow roads delivered us to where our powdery winter wonderland was waiting.
Our bags were delivered by sled-porter to our glass igloo lodgings and while during our stay the Aurora evaded us, we were touched by Lappish magic in other ways in the form of graceful roadside reindeer, soft perfect virgin snow in many forms, a powdered sculpture garden, Hamish’s overconfident sled driving and a “definitely” response to Alecia’s much discussed but completely unexpected proposal of marriage.
Back in Rovaniemi our love of dogs was inflated by the riotous joy & cuteness of our Husky sled teams. Here Hamish, newly engaged, developed a bromance for our blokey, 7-language-speaking, campfire-building, husky-breeding-and-racing, bear-researching, joker of a Husky guide. Followed soon after by a slighty strange reindeer farmer and their storytelling pixie guide, Arktikum & Pilke museums, the ski-ers superhighway & super sandwiches.
After some more in depth exploring in Helsinki we are satisfied with our experience, but left with a yearning to return and a deeper curiosity for other nordic regions. The hunt for the Aurora shall continue…
SPECIAL JOYS & FASCINATIONS OF OUR STAY WERE:
- The craftsmanship in buildings & industrial design
- Northern Exposure vibes everywhere we went in Rovaniemi.
- Our waitress told us of her plan to get a personalised ramstein autograph tattoo, right next to the ones she had for each of her kids. Noice!
- Food was always a balance of yumminess & naughtiness. Everything came with salad as it should and we found great coffee. YAY!
- The concept of a cloakroom & coat racks everywhere you go… hey, we’re aussies! who ever needs a coat that big that you couldn’t wear it to dinner?!?
- Messed up & dirty ‘luxury’ car brands
- Generally a design conscious place but not in a pretentious designer label status-symbol way, but in the considered, designed-for-a-purpose & beauty kind of way – its a great attitude that is not as prominent in Sydney.
- Proud owners of Reindeer driver’s licences.
- Hot berry juice.
- Hamish threw a pushy salesman a real ocka sentence that completely bewildered him. Nice one!
- A railway system that is unrivalled in our experience!
- ‘space boots’! like paddles – no left or right shoes!
- Dogs on public transport.
- Taxi driver opened the door for Alecia… such chivalry!
- Accidentally booking our accommodation in a brilliant ski lodge.
- Hamish struggled with finish words & so referred to most destinations in Finland by similar sounding pasta names. (ie Rovaniemi was Ravioli for much of the trip)
- Average Fin height is much closer to our own so good legroom etc.
- Marimekko fabric for our new place when we get home! Yes thanks!
FRUSTRATIONS & HINDERANCES:
- Manala Restaurant Cloakroom Henchman forced us to remove our coats & then informed us of the compulsory 2.5 euro coat room charge associated with it!!
- Urban snow: crunchy, grotty, gravel filled and often used as a bin for cigarette butts, small rubbish & piled into giant mounds all around the place.
- A terrible drowned Kantong chicken dinner served up by our hotel on the evening of Alecias’s proposal. Not part of the plan Jan!
- Our trip to the Iittala outlet was a bit depressing because we realised we couldn’t really afford to buy the Alvar Aalto vases we were pining after. Luckily we can buy from the outlet online! Phew!
- In a teepee, our quirky pixy guide (Hamish calls him a ‘tripper’) put charcoal dots on our forehead, where our reindeer antlers would supposedly grow. Hamish felt slightly paranoid that he may actually experience bad luck if he wiped them off. Lucky he could cover them with a beanie all day.
- Daylight saving in Rovaniemi made us nearly miss our husky ride!!
- Hamish’s ice tackle left Alecia with a sore lower back for weeks.
- Strong heavymetal pop culture in finland that we did not experience. Thank God!
- Average Fin height is much closer to our own so Hamish fears he’s lost his edge.