3rd July – 7th July
More damned trees
Finland is a country that requires a little perseverance. Barring the impressive views of the never-ending forests afforded from the Aavasaksa hillock, adjacent to the Swedish border where we entered the country, the scenery is monotonous. There are few vantage points from which it is possible to see more than thirty yards in any direction, such is the ubiquitous vegetation. You literally cannot see the wood for the trees.
The weather doesn't really help our spirits, taking a turn for the worse the moment we cross the border, struggling to top 12C during the daytime for the next three days, and as for 24 hour sunshine, forget it!
On our second night here (4th July) having explored Oulu, a modern hi-tech city that made its fortune as the centre of Europe's pine tar industry in the 19th century (essential for waterproofing old ships, apparently), we drive south past the sizeable Lake Oulujärvi, peering through the interminable rain in the hope of finding a campsite, or even just a nice flat piece of land suitable to camp on.
But campsites are seemingly non-existent inland here, as are suitable free camping spots -over half the country is covered in trees, most of the rest is covered in water and the small bit that remains is fastidiously and conscientiously farmed by the Finns (they leave far greater and more frequent wild verges than UK farmers). So by 7.30pm we are tiring and struggling somewhat – though it would be impossible to panic when fully stocked with provisions and in such a safe country, this is definitely irksome.
Welcome hospitality, and a sauna
Finally, St Christopher smiles on us - our third enquiry at a stranger's door about utilizing a nearby field results in us meeting Pirkko (pr. Bierkka), a kindly, retired biochemist who lives alone in a vast wooden house, on the outskirts of Maaninka, some 90 miles beyond where we intended to stop for the night. We have lucked in. She smiles kindly, replies in perfect English that we may use her field, would we like a tour of her house, perhaps a sauna? The weather is terrible; would we rather use one of her spare rooms? After our less than moderate camping experience the previous night, we can’t believe our luck – and appreciatively accept the offer of her sauna, a little outhouse in the garden. There is one sauna for every three Finns and we had been meaning to try out a proper local one at some point, but one to ourselves for free – bingo!
Feeling like new people after this bit of spoiling (and a damned good shower) we thank Pirkko profusely and end up chatting for a while. She is a fount of information, and happily imparts some of her extensive knowledge of her country’s history to us. I have absolutely no qualifications as a historian so please excuse any factual errors or omissions in the passage below:
Previously unaware that the Finns played a part in WWII at all, she informs us rather bashfully that they initially sided with the Germans, presumably as a result of Russia’s invasion of Finland in 1939: ‘The Winter War’. Unfortunately for the Finns, Stalin’s betrayal of Russia’s non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1941 (to the relief of most of the Western world) resulted in the Germans launching their own invasion into Finland (during The Lapland War in 1944 – 1945 the Finns forced them out again); furthermore the Finns were forced to cede possession of Finnish Karelia: an area equating to roughly 10% of its land including the strategic port of Vyborg, to the Russians, resulting in the evacuation of some 400,000 Finns further west into the remnants of their country. This enormous upheaval, and the social strife that inevitably followed, more than touches a nerve amongst Finns old enough to remember. But despite the UK's proximity to these countries, almost no mention of this is made in any historical teachings we can remember.
Tampere and Lenin
The following morning, after reiterating our thanks (though we did not take up Pirkko’s offer of a bed) we continue south, in search of a little warmth and sunshine. First the uninspiring, utilitarian town of Kuopio in the centre of the inland lake region, then the surprisingly attractive and atmospheric city that is Tampere, Finland’s industrial centre. We reach Tampere's Lenin museum shortly before closing time, allowing us the briefest of glances at Finland’s proud association with this revolutionary - Lenin orchestrated much of the groundwork for the 1917 October Revolution from Finland, and one of the first foreign policy decisions made by his Congress of Soviets was to recognise Finland’s right to independence, in November 1917.
The following morning the sun is shining, at long last! We head to Turku, Finland’s old capital before the Russians moved it to Helsinki. A pleasant enough city to wander around, with a bustling market, domineering cathedral and remarkably intact castle (though sadly closed on Mondays). Exhausted after driving through this country so rapidly (not enough spectacular spots to stop and admire), we only make it a dozen or so km out of the city before finding a friendly, elderly farmer with a small piece of scrub land we can camp on.
At last, something to look at
Finally we reach Helsinki, our last European capital and by far the most architecturally impressive of Finland’s conurbations. It’s grand, neo-classical streets and enormous cathedrals – one Lutheran and one Russian Byzantine but both equally impressive – are a breath of fresh air after some of the staid, concrete cube towns we have seen so far. Functionalism has been the buzzword of Finnish architecture for the last 75 years (during which time 90% of all Finnish buildings currently standing were built), but thankfully in Helsinki, it does not mar the city greatly.
There is much to like about the Finns. In our unavoidably brief experience, they are gregarious, inquisitive, hospitable and display an excellent, sometimes very dry sense of humour. They love motor racing, ski-jumping and (very) heavy metal and have a distinct sense of their own style - which, though it may not be to everyone's taste, they adhere to rigidly. There is little to dislike about these people, except, perhaps, some of their architecture. But then again, it's a style thing.
This is our last day in Finland and Europe, and whilst we will be happy to leave behind the secure, friendly, yet only fleetingly impressive Finland, we would be economical with the truth to say we are not nervous about the border at Virolahti tomorrow.