Celebrating Finnish Nature Day – Viikki district, Helsinki

2017 sees Finland celebrate its 100th birthday and the year is being marked by a series of national events.  100 days ahead of the 100th independence day it was Nature Day’s turn in the celebratory calendar and we happened to be in Helsinki to take part.  We were staying with a friend in Viikki district, a suburb to the west of the city centre and which turned out to be an excellent place to take part in the day’s activities.  Viikki, despite recent housing developments is still home to large areas of farmland, part of which is used by the University of Helsinki for its biosciences, veterinary medicine and forestry and agriculture departments.  There is also a designated conservation area of forest and marshland which, on Nature Day, was hosting bird watching classes.

We chose to join in the family focused fun taking place in the park around Vanhankaupunginlahti rapids.  A children’s fishing competition was underway, with a prize for the person who caught the most species.  Rods were for hire so all could join in, even those still in buggies as you can see in the photograph above.

For anyone wondering what the catch might taste like, fisherman at a stall were demonstrating filleting skills and cooking up samples of fishcake for visitors to try for free.

Other stalls were run by governmental agencies such as the fisheries and wildlife department, who were selling fish and mushroom identification books and postcards and displaying the different varieties of crayfish that can be found in Finland.  As it was crayfish season (click here for more crayfish related antics) this was a popular attraction.

For some it may seem a little strange that the focus of Nature Day leant towards consumption, but an understanding of the Finnish psyche puts this all in to perspective.  These are people who have retained an understanding and a respect for their environment, who, unlike many in my home country, still forage and fish and grow their own, even the city dwellers.  There is a balance here, founded on a solid education.  When you live in a country that for many months of the year is wild and inhospitable you quickly learn that you cannot manage, cannot control or suppress nature.  Instead you must live alongside it, use what it offers sustainably and protect it to ensure that, next year, it allows you to continue.  It is a lesson that we all should heed.

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Seeking out the little details – a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia

It has been six years since I spent a memorable few hours in the company of a couple of hundred drunken, karaoke singing, tango dancing Finns as our ferry cut its way through the ice encrusted sea between Helsinki and Tallinn (you can read about that trip here).  In the intervening years a new, and rather beautiful, ferry terminal has been built in Helsinki and a new fleet of faster, shinier boats have been commissioned.  As a result travel time has been reduced to around two hours and for a mere 20 Euros return it was an easy decision to make to take a day to see what the Estonian capital looks like without the snow.

The trip does involve some considerable time at sea but fortunately there is plenty onboard to keep you entertained with a choice of bars, places to eat, indoor and outdoor seating and a duty free shop big enough to get lost in.  For the highly taxed Finns the Estonia’s cheaper alcohol prices are one of the main reasons for making the journey and the boat is well stocked.  You can even buy a special trolley, the right width to hold beer crates, to carry your purchases home.

Once docked in Tallinn it is a short walk up hill from the port to the Old Town.  The first thing I noticed was that the city felt significantly busier than on our previous visit, perhaps something to do with the 20 degree difference in temperature.  The main sights remained as beautiful but just a little less magical as one of a crowd.

Time to re-evaluate our objectives.  If everyone else was focused on the big, the viewpoints, the ornate cathedrals, the restaurants and the main square, we would seek out the small, the back alleys, the details, the over-looked. And once we started looking there was so much to see.

Let’s start with the doors.  I could have filled an entire memory card with doors.  From the grandest carving to the most modest flaking paint, every building we passed had a door worthy of recording.  And it didn’t stop with the doors.  Gates, ironwork, even mail boxes clamoured for attention.

I was also pleased to discover a rise in street art.  In the right place I am a fan of graffiti and fortunately most that I saw in Tallinn was in the right place, supporting and enhancing not defacing.

I found the location of the piece above particularly appropriate.  It is written on a wall at one of the most popular view points, a place where people are busily trying to capture the present it is fitting to be reminded of that memories are more than just our photographs; you cannot fix feelings on film.

At the market in the main square my eye was drawn not to the nesting dolls, fridge magnets and other souvenirs but to the wonderful milliners stand, not so much for the hats but for the models.  We rounded off our visit with a fantastic (and incredibly cheap) meal in a bar full of locals, made the obligatory stop at the alcohol store to replenish my Finnish friend’s supplies and boarded the ferry back to Helsinki.  As the sun set, rather dramatically, on a day well spent, I was thankful, as I so often find myself, for the little things.


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Nature’s Bounty – Foraging in Finland

The first time I visited Finland the forest had been covered in snow.  This was not the light dusting that softens the edges of my home city on rare winter days, but a thick eiderdown, disguising shapes, hiding obstacles, obscuring paths.  The frozen lake was our playground; a trip out on to the ice to check the nets laid beneath, a whirl on the snowmobile or a slow, flat trek on skis across what, in the summer would be open water.  On land we stayed close to the cabin.  We kept away from the forest.

Returning in August I was keen to experience what I had been unable to before, to lose myself in the verdant heart of the island.  And lose myself I might.  Here paths appear and disappear, the terrain changes rapidly from bog to meadow to boulder field, the light, filtered through the dense canopy is muted and misleading.  It would be easy to imagine yourself the protagonist of a fairy tale, witch or wolf waiting in the wings, but the forest does not exude malice.  It is a home, a resource, a friend.

With the guidance of our host we learnt to see beyond the green, to spot the yellow, the black and the brown of fungi.  And once our eyes had adjusted our baskets quickly filled.  With supplies so plentiful we were able to dry some of our haul to take home, the forest still providing many days and many miles away.

After the mushrooms came berries, punnets of blueberries and lingonberries, staining our fingers and our faces with the evidence of abundance.  Made in to jam, cooked in to pastries, the forest’s fruits felt full of flavour compared to their supermarket kin even topping slightly burnt pancakes cooked on the campfire.

For all the bounty of the forest, the lake was not ignored.  The nets provided fish for the table more than once and I could not detect the muddiness sometimes found in those that inhabit freshwater.

But perhaps the highlight were the crayfish.  These tasty little crustaceans are the centrepiece of the traditional rapujuhlat or crayfish party, held in homes across Finland and Sweden in late summer.  Pre prepared crayfish can be bought in supermarkets but we were lucky enough to catch our own.  They are cooked in a brine seasoned with dill, served simply with bread and washed down by copious amounts of schnapps to the accompaniment of drinking songs, a memorable experience, if perhaps a rather hazy one!


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Embracing calm at the cabin – Finland

There are times when the world seems to stop for an instant, everything falls silent, we find ourselves able to breathe more deeply, and a flood of contentment rushes in with the fresh air.  In these brief windows of calm I am overwhelmed by gratitude for life, for the series of random events that have led to me being who I am and where I am, for the here and the now.  Past worries are forgotten, pressures of the future pushed aside, the present is allowed to exist in all its glory.

I had one such experience last month as I sat, slowly cooling, on the porch of a sauna, surrounded by woods and looking down to the water beyond as a tranquil evening descended.  How lucky I am to be here I thought.  Here being the immediate geographic, an island on Lake Päijänne, a little over two hours north of Helsinki, Finland, here being the temporal, at the precise point the sky moved towards the ‘blue moment’ as the light began to fade in the shortening evening of Northern late summer, and here being the philosophic, the chance encounters that brought me a Finnish friend.

We who have the privilege to travel, we lucky, fortunate few, who by some twist of fate, some chance of circumstance, have been born in the right place, the right time and whose luck has held beyond the success of our birth, need times such as these.  We need to step back and take stock, to appreciate the now.  We need to forget the next destination, the ticking off of lists, the collecting of experiences and instead, actually experience.  There is great richness in the simple things, in peace and quiet, in time spent with friends and family, not doing but being.

Travel teaches us many lessons.  It makes us tolerant of difference, it provides insight in to our strengths and our weaknesses, it makes us appreciate what we have, if only we stop for a moment to let it sink in.


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Artà and Ses Païsses – Medieval and Bronze Age Mallorca

The town of Artà lies nestled in a valley in the rural north east of Mallorca.  It is not easily accessible without your own transport and as a result has remained largely untouched by tourism despite the treasures it has to offer.

A warren of Medieval streets winds inexorably upwards, culminating in 180 steep steps which lead to the town’s heart and highest point, the walled Sanctuary of Saint Salvador.  From here any efforts exerted in the climb will be rewarded with uninterrupted views across Artà’s terracotta rooftops to the mountains beyond.  There are plenty of shady spots to regain your breath and a café serving refreshments as well as a small modern church, built on the site of a 14th century original intentionally burnt in the early 19th century after it was used to treat patients during Europe’s last outbreak of bubonic plague.

Just below the Sanctuary squats the imposing church of the Transfiguration of the Lord whose bold, neo-gothic bulk dominates Artà’s skyline.  It is to the side of this church that the steps to the top of the hill begin, flanked by stone carved angels.

Artà is also home to a number of museums, including the interesting and eclectic Regional Museum whose exhibits range from natural history to archaeology.  It was at the museum we first learnt of Ses Païsses, the foremost Bronze Age site on the island which, despite its importance, is not particularly well known or indeed easy to find.  Armed with directions from a friendly curator, we drove our car to the outskirts of town, identified the correct side street and followed it through farmland to a clearing amongst trees.  A very reasonable 2€ entrance fee paid, we continued onwards to be greeted by the impressive mass of the settlement’s stone gateway.

Beyond the protective curve of the outer wall a number of structures survive, including an atalaia or watchtower.

As with so many ancient places, Ses Païsses exudes an atmosphere heavy with history.  The past is palpable; you can feel it in the stones, worn by centuries of human touch, hear the whispers of memories in the rustle of the surrounding trees.  It is the trees that for me brought the most magic, life in a place so long abandoned.

And so our visit to Mallorca ends.  Next up we head north, to the forests of Finland.

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Roman Ruins and Medieval Walls – Alcúdia, Mallorca a town full of history

Alcúdia, just in land from the north coast of Mallorca, is a history lover’s dream.  The atmospheric, winding streets of the old town are a great place to lose yourself, camera in hand, amidst the higgledy-piggledy, colourful architecture; every crossroads opening up to reveal a new and enticing path to explore.

Alcúdia is encircled by a fourteenth century late Medieval wall, built to protect the town from pirate raids.  It is possible to walk along sections of the wall and out on to the tops of some of the towers that stud it.  Here you get a bird’s eye view of the maze of streets and jumble of roofs below, catching glimpses of everyday life, washing on a line, a TV set framed by half closed shutters, children’s toys discarded.

Like many Mallorcan towns, Alcúdia is host to a market which takes place twice a week on Tuesday and Sunday mornings and is a mix of fresh produce and stalls selling crafts, souvenirs, clothing and other goods.

Whilst most visitors to Alcúdia will walk the walls and perhaps poke a head inside the stocky and squat seventeenth century church of St Jaume, not everyone will know that metres away, on the opposite side of the road from the church lie an impressive collection of Roman ruins.

Scattered amongst peaceful fields of flowers are the remains of Pollentia, founded shortly after the arrival of the Romans on the island in 123 BC.  Chosen for its views over the surrounding countryside, and down to the sea beyond, the site today can be categorised in to three, the walls and columns of the residential area, known as La Portella, which lies nearest to the entrance to the site and consists of the skeletal outlines of a number of private houses and the roads linking them, the Forum where commercial, administrative and religious activity would have taken place and, furthest away, a theatre.

The theatre is remarkably preserved, with tiers of seating still present if eroded by time, and it is possible to walk amongst the stones and sit, as so many so long ago once did, and imagine the performances that would have taken place.  It is hard not to imagine the ghost of voices in your ears so direct is the connection to the past here.  It is an experience well worth the entrance fee.

For the previous post from my Mallorcan trip, click here.  Next up a visit to Arta and the 3,000 year old settlement on its doorstep.

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Steps, side streets and sunshine – exploring Pollenca, Mallorca

Pollenca, not to be confused with the nearby seaside resort of Port de Pollenca, has lain in a steep sided valley in the foothills of Mallorca’s Tramuntana mountains for centuries, with occupation at least as long ago as the Roman presence on the island.  You can feel the age of the place in its narrow and winding streets, which wrap themselves tightly around the rising slopes, sharp corners and switchbacks occasionally opening, unannounced, in to large open spaces.  It is a labyrinthine town best explored on foot.

At the heart of Pollenca is the Placa Major, or main square.  Here you can pull up a seat outside one of the cafes to revive yourself pre or post wanderings or seek shade from the sun inside the tranquil grandeur of the imposing 13th century church of Our Lady of the Angels, with connections to the Knights Templar.

On Sundays one of the larger, and more authentic, markets on the island is held in the square, with stalls spilling out in to the streets beyond.  Arrive early to beat the crowds and the heat.  If your visit doesn’t fall on market day Pollenca offers an eclectic range of boutiques offering art, crafts and tasteful souvenirs and a free to enter art gallery, Museu De Pollenca, housed in a former convent.  For those content simply to explore the streets, there are plenty of hidden treasures to uncover.

Pollenca is perhaps most famous for Calle de Calvari or the Calvari steps, a street of 365 stone steps which climbs steeply from the town centre to a small chapel at the summit.  The views back down the steps across the rooftops to the mountain on the other side of the valley are certainly worth the effort.  At the top make sure to follow the path away from the chapel to a view point over the plains towards the sea before heading back down the hill for a well earned refreshment.

For the previous post from Mallorca, click here.  Next up the treasures of Alcudia.


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