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Finland: Helsinki, Oulu, Rovaniemi, Tampere
Finland: Santa Claus calling
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
I will be honest with my ignorance. I knew nothing about Finland except of course that the country is the birthplace of Santa Claus. I had 12 days available with me and an option - should I tour just Finland or like most of the tourists package Finland with other Scandinavian countries - Denmark, Sweden & Norway.
My bet was on Finland. And looking back, I have no regrets. Welcome to land of thousand lakes, reindeers, Northern lights, Santa Claus and not to forget Nokia!
I decided to spend 3 nights each at Helsinki, Tampere, Oulu and Rovaniemi. Sokos Hotel chain was my choice. Sokos hotels are strategically located all over Finland. Since I had planned my dates and the cities, it made sense to book the hotels in advance. I was there in July, one of the busiest months, so I avoided trusting luck. At Helsinki I stay put at Sokos Presidentti, a short walk from the railway station.
Finnair has a direct flight from Mumbai into Helsinki. With just a few passengers on board we had the entire aircraft almost to ourselves. But the return leg made me feel like sardines packed in tight cans. Well, I used flights only to get there and back. The rest of the tour was trains and lots and lots of walking… that's the best way, I believe, to explore and smell the soil.
Finland's capital Helsinki, is home to fine architecture and art. I am not the museum kind, but for the enthusiast you will find a museum for almost every subject under the sun. Sadly, I did not visit any of the museums save for the science museum in Oulu and the Artikom in Rovaneimi.
We explored Helsinki streets, shopping malls but more importantly spent plenty of time at the famous cathedral and the market square. Being a weekend, the market square was bustling with activities. Artisans offering paintings, sketches, handicrafts and chefs offering freshly cooked local delicacies that were a combination of potatoes, reindeer meat and fish. I foolishly avoided it all. Digging into reindeer meat on day one of the trip was kinda no-no. I didn't want to shock my wife Vrunda who is a strict vegetarian! She had her set of problems finding vegetarian food. Fries at McDonald's and veg supreme pizza at Pizza Hut saved her from starvation. By the way, we visited world's Northest McDonald's. Be careful with your food. Sea gulls have practiced the art of snatching it from you… I lost my scoop of ice cream! And the birds there, I am told, don't mind appetizers and entrees either.
At the market square pier I realized that I could take a cruise to Suomenlinna fortress built on an island just of the coast of Helsinki and a speed cruise to Estonia - country I knew nothing about. I decided to do them both. A 2-day Euro 12 pass gave me access to the cruise to the fortress and also unlimited travel on Helsinki's excellent city trams. It's a good idea to hop on Tram T that circles the city. Then hop on. Hop off. Till you drop dead but not before soaking in all that the city has to offer.
The next morning we headed off to Suomenlinna, a historic sea fortress, a popular attraction and a place where people live. It's a unique monument of European military architecture. Suomenlinna was built during the periods of Swedish and Russian rule. We walked around the parks, enjoyed the sea and the nature of the archipelago. Suomenlinna has six museums; there are guided walking tours, exhibitions and quality handicrafts. I did none of them… just walked on my own.
On our third day we boarded the Nordic JetLine that took us across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn in Estonia in about 90 minutes. Because we traveled from Finland, we didn't require any visa formalities. We were advised by the liners to keep our passports with us. But nobody bothered to check them. So be it. Just so you know, Estonia has its own currency - The Estonian Kronner. I was intrigued at the money exchange counter at the Estonian pier that advised us that we cannot exchange our Euros in the town. I wrongly believed them and changed my Euros and coughed up 20% exchange commission! Later, as I walked around town I could see many currency exchange booths that charged no commission. Suckers.
Since I just had about 6 hours with me to explore Tallinn, I rightly avoided the city and headed straight to the old town. A comfortable 20 minutes walk saw me at the edge of the old town. I was transported back a couple of centuries. Churches, cathedrals, tree-lined paved streets, beautifully painted homes; the marketplace was all a feast for our eyes. Time just flew past. Back at the pier to board the catamaran to Helsinki. At the Tallinn pier make it a point to buy booze. Every Finnish person on board had bought loads. Thanks to high import levies in Finland, buying booze in Estonia is a ritual for the Finns.
On the fourth day we boarded the Intercity from the Helsinki railway station that took us to Tampere (1 hour 46 minutes; Euro 53 for 2). Since Finland is flat land there was not much to see save for lakes that gave a pleasing break from the jungle all around. While on the subject of railways, Finland's fast trains, called Pendolino, that took us from Tampere to Oulu (4 hours 15 minutes; Euro 123 for 2) did not live up to its reputation. Our coach was not very clean and the train was delayed due to track work (I hope my experience was an exception). Contrary to this, the Regional train from Oulu to Rovaniemi (2 hours 30 minutes; Euro 49 for 2) was a pleasant surprise. Was pretty fast and efficient. So you can see we spent a total of Euro 225. That worked out to be cheaper than opting for the pass. It's a good idea to research fares across types of trains and travel passes.
We were lucky to get a room with a view on the 10th floor at the Sokos Ilves. Our window opened to a river front and a lake. Since it was summer, I could see around till about 11 in the evening. I was lucky to see a hot air balloon past my window!
The day we arrived we spent exploring the town. The next day we spent at Sarkanniemi Park. The rides in the park and its location was outstanding. The park is a must for all visitors to Tampere. The entry is just Euro 8; which we opted for. The costs for the ticket will be more should you want to enjoy the rides too.
At Oulu we stayed at Sokos Arina. Right in the middle of town. Good location. Oulu is a nice little town. Make it a point to visit its science museum, marketplace on the banks, town hall, children's traffic garden and of course the famous city icon - a police statue standing guard - protecting the town.
Our final destination was Rovaniemi. Just 8 kms away from the Arctic Circle and the birthplace of Santa Claus. For a change, we stayed at Hotel Santa Claus. Amongst the must at Rovaniemi is the fantastic riverside walk, the 2-hour river cruise and of course a day at the Santa Claus village (bus number 8 takes you to the Santa Claus village in about 20 minutes.) Had it been winter, I would have witnessed the Northern Lights, the reindeer and husky farms and a sledge ride on the snow pulled by huskies and reindeers. Ho! Ho! Ho!
On the day of our arrival I was lucky to witness the Rovaniemi Marathon. The finish line was just beneath our hotel!
At the Santa Claus village, bang on the Arctic Circle, obviously everything revolves around Santa. The old man has its office, a post office for himself (he receives over a million letters every year - out there everyday is Christmas). I made it a point to post greetings to my family back home. When I was back, my greetings followed… triggering off the happy memories.
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