When it comes to travel and sightseeing, being scorched by the sun is better than being cold, wet, and blown away, but only marginally so – especially in a country which is so unused to that kind of weather. And of course, our car fares worse in anything but ideal conditions; the heat affects the mechanical and the electric systems just as badly as last year’s rains.
Still, mustn’t grumble! We plod on, stopping once in a while to cool down ourselves and the engine. One of these stops is in the town of Hamina – or Fredrikshamn, as the GPS insists, having suddenly switched to Swedish placenames. “Hamina” means simply “harbour” in Finnish, but the town is a former fortress rather than a cosy marina. Built on a spider-web’s grid, it’s refreshingly pretty, clean and organized after the chaos of Vyborg.
But the chief destination of the day is Porvoo, and it’s a fine day indeed to visit the riverside town. The old district, rebuilt after an 18th century fire, is one of the most picturesque in all of Scandinavia, certainly the best in Finland; the famous line of bright red, tar-smelling warehouses, (one of them houses a coffee roastery, the rest are now antique galleries) is its highlight, but the cobbled, undulating streets beyond are just as worth a casual stroll, culminating in the cathedral hill (where Finland’s first parliament had gathered in the 19th century). There are still more signs of the nearly cult-like popularity of Alexander I, who lived in the town’s most prominent building, and more stories of fair Finnish maidens attracting his attention.
We reach Helsinki in the evening, and stay there for a few days with our family; we know the city all too well, so like in Tampere, there will be no sight-seeing this time. We don’t have energy for that, anyway. It’s now 30 degrees in the shade – of which there is little in a city which for most of its history was preoccupied with getting as much sun and warmth as possible, rather than vice-versa.
Of course, in a city as happening as Helsinki, even if you stay at home, the attractions will eventually come to you, and so the next day we are treated to a WRC rally under our very windows; for the Finns, rallying is a national summer sport (it’s ski jumping and hockey in winter), and massive crowds have gathered along the street course to see their heroes (for those who know anything about WRC: the event featured, among others, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen; for those not aware of the sport, that’s like coming to a charity basketball game with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird).
We are leaving Finland on a ferry to Tallinn, on a long return road to Warsaw. This has been the longest stage of this year’s journey – 1700 miles in 19 days; and possibly the best. We drove mostly through wild forests and bogs, and pretty wooden towns; we saw reindeer, elk, and some rare birds; we met some of the friendliest people of the North, and many like-minded travellers, like the Finnish-English couple, travelling in a reverse direction in a car nearly as old and battered as ours, or a woman hiking the length and breadth of Finland on her own. Even the stout, silent old men (and women) of the northern forest proved surprisingly friendly in the end.
There are some signs of economic decline, especially in the East: closed-down campsites, hotels and petrol stations. Not sure if it’s just temporary, due to lack of Russian tourists this year, or something a bit more ominous. We struggled against the heat and the mosquitoes (each night we had to make a decision whether we wanted to stew in the car with closed windows, or get eaten alive). But we will miss Finland, and we wish we could return to it some time soon.