Due to Orca’s venerable age and less-than-stellar condition, one crucial factor that determines our route is the quality of roads and ease of driving. Uniquely in the North, Finland’s roads are all flat, straight, and (mostly) wide, so after some deliberation it became obvious the Finnish part of the trip will be by far the longest and furthest. Our target: the Arctic Circle.
We drove from Tampere due north, almost without stopping, before reaching the coast near Kokkola; the final 10 km to the campsite was our first – but sadly, not last – taste of the unsealed, gravel roads that link the motorways with the smaller settlements in the bogs and forests of northern and central Finland. The car survived it, driving at the brisk walking pace, but we ended up looking like a Camel Trophy vehicle rather than a stately old camper 🙂
The middle of Finland is a rough, post-glacial landscape, dense “timber factory” forests growing on rock-rubble; there isn’t much farming or pasture land to be found between the boulders and marshes, and what little there is, sustains only some oat. The settlements are tiny and far between, and it’s surprising to suddenly emerge, three hundred km later, onto the fairly densely populated coastal strip.
Historically, this is a Swedish-speaking country, which some of the inhabitants mark with yellow-on-red flags (similar to flag of Scania) on their houses. After our adventures in Northern Ireland last year, seeing flags segregating neighbourhood by language spoken brings back chilling memories, but luckily, the Scandinavians are too relaxed about their differences to turn them into anything violent.
There are populous towns all the way from Vaasa to Oulu and beyond, towards the Swedish border. Many of them are locally famed for their well-preserved timber old towns – Rauma being the largest of them; there is one in Kokkola, nicely set along a river, and we pause here to see one of the most unique sights in Europe. Everyone knows (or should know) about the Winter War, but here in Kokkola’s riverside park, was another, older proof of why you shouldn’t mess with the Finns: the only Royal Navy vessel still in foreign hands. Rather underwhelming up close – just a small, battered 9-men sloop hiding in a glass shed – this is a remainder of the Battle of Kokkola, when, during the Crimean War, a British invading flotilla was forced out of the harbour, with heavy casualties, by a handful of local militia supported by two ancient cannons.
Oulu is a large and rich city by Nordic standards, and holds a number of records, due to its northerly location; for one, it’s the northernmost 100k city outside Russia. Its oldest part, centred on a red brick market hall and marketplace, surrounded by timber warehouses, reminded us strongly of Hakodate: not surprising, really, as they both started out as trade outposts on the edges of Russian Empire. It’s the first – but by no means last – clear reminder of the vastness of Russia linking Finland and Japan together. Maybe that explains why we travel most to these two places…
We stop at a confusingly named town of Ii, just before Lappland, in an old campsite in the middle of another historical harbour village, Hamina, transformed into a living museum. The information plates mention the Tsar, Alexander I, struck by the beauty of “local girls”. We’ll later find out it’s a cliche common throughout Finland. Alexander I seems to be treated in Finland with no less celebrity than John Paul II in Poland; the only person mentioned more often in local histories is Mannerheim, the uber-marshall of the Winter War.
We cross the Lappland border the next day, and after a brief stop at the Kemi harbour – nice cafe in a red-paint warehouse overlooking the sea – we drive full steam towards Rovaniemi. The Arctic Circle crosses through the Santa Claus Village (you know, where Santa lives), a few miles north of the city, and this is where it’s easiest to make the crossing; as you can imagine, July is the lowest of low seasons for a Santa Claus-themed attraction, and the village is mercifully empty and quiet, comparably – there are still a few bus-loads of tourists, but nowhere near what this place is prepared to cater for.
We cross the marker, and drive for a few hundred meters more, to make sure Orca has actually visited “the Arctic”, before turning back and heading east. Everyone we spoke to before and after tells us that by not going further we missed out “the best part” of Finland, but in truth, we’ve already strained the car, the budget, and the timeline as much as was possible to get even this far – and it would still take a few days more to reach the true North.
It seems to be the National Day of Closed Campsites, as we approach Kuusamo. The first address on the map is missing entirely – we simply can’t find it anywhere; the second one, as the proprietor, a distinctly Tomte-like tiny old man in a blue Smurf hat explains, has “mumblemumbletoiletproblemmumble”. He gives us the address of another nearby place, on the shores of Samojarvi Lake near Ranua. This one looks empty and abandoned too, until the landlady comes out. She speaks little, and none of it in English (even though the place is advertised in the English brochure), sipping from time to time from a near-empty vodka bottle; but at least we are offered a place for half the usual price, with electric and something resembling a toilet. As the polar night “falls” around the lake – the sun never truly sets, and before twilight can come, the new dawn already begins – the buzzing mosquitoes and the haunting cries of the arctic loons lull us to uneasy sleep.