Thursday, 29 November 2018

Rovaniemi, Helsinki and Tallinn

On arrival in Rovaniemi, we checked into our hotel right near the city centre and later went out for dinner. Would you believe we ended up in a very nice restaurant, run by Turkish people with background Italian music. Delicious food though! Walking back to our hotel, we watched Christmas trees being decorated with lights all along the street. Very pretty in the dark.

Our last day in the Lapland area of Finland and, of course, we had to visit Santa's Village just outside the town. I had two special letters written by grandsons Huon and Mitchell, to deliver to Santa. The whole village area is very well set up with just about every Christmas decoration and souvenir imaginable.

We joined the queue for Santa and slowly made our way up through his house to where he sat. What a lovely man he was. He was very interested in reading Huon and Michell's letters, but laughed when he read that Mitchell didn't want 'girl Lego'. Lego is for everyone, he said and he asked us to tell that to Mitchell. Lots of photos taken and also a video if wanted - we did! Later on we were able to download the photos and a video to our computer. 

Plenty of souvenir shops (of course!) at Santa's Village, but also a post office for sending messages home.

Reindeer sleds for rides - but as there was only a circuit of man-made snow, it was a short ride. When snow sets in there are also snowmobile rides and other very energetic activities that we passed by. 

Communal knitting for charity in hotel foyer.

After a light lunch, we caught the Santa's Village Shuttle bus back to the city, packed our bags, had dinner and sat in the foyer to wait for the time to catch the late night train.
The overnight train to Helsinki was quite an experience - we had a first class 2 berth sleeper cabin booked  - or so we thought. Found the carriage number and discovered we were in the 'gentlemen's carriage' and in two different compartments! Totally confused and with no conductor to be seen we stood in the corridor to try and work something out. Luckily a lovely Asian man in 'my' cabin volunteered to move into the other one freeing up a cabin for Peter and me. It wasn't until the train had moved out of the station that a conductress came along and agreed there had been a mistake and that we should be together. She was all smiles when she learnt we had sorted out the problem for her. Not good enough service, Bentours!

The sleeper carriages were all double storey and very modern with their own little shower and toilet facilities. The ride, too, was very smooth and not at all like the very bumpy train ride from Melbourne to Sydney on which we travelled earlier this year. 

After 12 hours we arrived on time 12 hours next morning in Helsinki. Luckily our hotel had our room ready for us and so we were able to have a quick breakfast before getting settled for our last days in Finland.

Early next morning saw us boarding the 8.30 ferry for the two hour trip over to Tallinn in Estonia.

We and another person had a guide to show us around for several hours, then we had plenty of time to ourselves to wander through the beautiful old town area and have lunch at a traditional Estonian restaurant 'The Golden Pig'. We shared a platter of different sausages, potatoes and sauerkraut and it was delicious washed down with a beer for Peter and warm Glogg for me. 

We then wandered through the Christmas Market to buy a few Christmassy souvenirs. 

After the ferry ride back to Helsinki, we collapsed for an hour, then tidied up and walked across the road from our hotel to the beautiful, and very popular, old Fazer Cafe (opened in 1891) for a light evening meal and coffee and decadent cakes.  

With all the Christmas lights up and twinkling, Helsinki was very pretty for our last day in Finland.
It, too, had a Christmas Market but not as big as Tallinn's market. We took it easy for our last day, just browsing for a few (very cold) hours in the half light before heading to the Airport to begin our long journey home.

Summing up - We loved these three Scandinavian countries and bought flags to fly at home as a memory of our trip. There is a very nice and welcoming feel here. It took us a while to get used to the very short hours of daylight and the intense cold which we don't experience in Australia and it was a bit of a disappointment that the snow was so late this year - even in the Arctic Circle it was scarce but it was all something new for us and we enjoyed it. And we did see the Northern Lights which really was a delight.

Sad to leave after such an enjoyable four weeks. Now to start saving up again for our next trip to who knows where!

Thursday, 22 November 2018

From Kirkenes at the top down to the Arctic Circle.

We disembarked from the Nordkapp at Kirkenes (pronounced Kick-en-ness), and had an overnight stay in the Scandic Arctic Hotel. During the day we ventured out and had a browse and lunch in the small shopping centre there. Kirkenes was severely bombed during World War Two, and so all buildings are what I would call 'utilitarian' style.

After breakfast just as it was getting light at 11.45am, we were picked up in a mini-bus - along with 3 other Aussies - and were driven about 4 hours over the border to Finland and deposited in the dark at Hotel Kultahovi at Inari. This is a 'traditional' Lapland hotel where we stayed for 2 nights.
Still no sign of snow, however it was very, very cold outdoors.

Next morning when it finally lightened up with took a walk around this small spread-out town.

There is an extremely good SIIDA Museum there giving a very good display and detail of the original Sami people who lived this far up in the Arctic Circle.

Inari is a very small and remote village although the admin centre for the region, but I think the SIIDA Museum is the major attraction.

Walking back it was fun to find the iced up puddles and pretend to ice-skate.

Darkness fell very early so the afternoon was spent reading by the hotel fire.

Dinner on our last night at this traditional hotel was Sauteed Reindeer with mash, pickled cucumber and lingonberry jam. We think this might be the national dish! Delicious.

Picked up by bus next morning we
were driven by very comfortable public bus (with free wi-fi!) down to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort where we were to have an overnight stay in a glass igloo.

The main reception area is amazing built of large logs like a gigantic log cabin. Very impressive.

We got settled in our igloo, then rugged up again for a walk down to the main reception/dining room for a really lovely dinner.
Mindful of my allergy to shellfish, they kindly provided me with a chicken dish rather than the salmon with seafood/shellfish sauce.

After dinner we joined a 'Hunting the Aurora' horse-drawn carriage along with 5 others, out into the darkness to search for the Northern Lights. Very fortunate we were, as almost as soon as we reached the high area shelter - with a fire and hot drinks - the sky began to colour up with pale green movements. This continued for about an hour before we headed back down to the resort and tramped back along the frosty road to our igloo. The spectacle was impossible to photograph without nigh-on professional cameras, so we just enjoyed the experience.

In our igloo - nicely warm and with adjustable beds, we had the  most comfortable position to watch the Northern Lights accompanied by the very beautiful Solveig's Song from Peer Gynt playing softly on my tablet. Just magic.

Woke several times during the night to see if the Lights were still around, but the sky had clouded over and when we walked down to breakfast there had been a very light snow fall. The first we had experienced. We have continually been apologised to by the Finns/Laplanders for no snow. They say it is three weeks late this year. Just our luck.

All too soon we had to leave our cosy igloo, and join another local bus for the trip down to Rovaniemi - the main city situated right on the border of the Arctic Circle.  We knew we were getting back to civilisation (!), when we saw the Maccas/KFC/Subway signs. More on Rovaniemi and our visit to Santa Claus Village in the next post.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Hurtigruten ship 'Nordkapp'

We boarded on Saturday evening and after a buffet dinner, sailed at 10.30pm. Everyone was keen to check out their cabins and we were pleased with ours - midship and a bit larger than average, it was still small but beautifully fitted out and quite cosy.

I must say that everywhere we've stayed, the heating has at times been far too hot for us. We are continually piling on the warm outdoor clothing, then peeling off as soon as we're indoors. Just opening the front of your coat doesn't work either and you're soon perspiring in 21C degree heat.

Anyhow - shipboard life has been fine. These Hurtigruten ships daily ply the eastern Norwegian coast up and down from Bergen stopping at 34 ports along their 6 day trip (return 12 days). They are primarily freight and some vehicles and stop daily at each of these rather remote settlements up and into the Arctic Circle. Some stops are only for 15 minutes and often these are during the night. One stop per day is usually longer 3-4 hours and sightseeing excursions can be taken. Of course nowadays the trip is popular so comfortable cabins are provided for a capacity of 691 passengers. No entertainment is laid on, so you bring your books, tablets, knitting, etc., and entertain yourselves. We do get a talk daily with subjects like the Northern Lights, King Crabs, Excursions, etc.. Meals have been very good, with a lot of Norwegian Coastal foods provided. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, but evening meal is a 3 course set menu with starched linen napkins. Always beautiful.

First stop for us was on Sunday at Alesund for 3 hours. We had a walk around town but there was not much movement being Sunday. Met a man walking his Border Collie, so of course we had to greet him and his dog and talk about Charley. The town itself was rebuilt, after a fire, in Art Deco architecture and there are some beautiful buildings remaining. However modern Architects have ignored this beauty and now there are ugly concrete, steel and glass buildings. What a shame - if only they could have continued the Art Deco theme, Alesund would be stunning.

The third largest town in Norway - Trondheim - was our next stop and we took an excursion via bus around the town and up to the very impressive 11th century Nidaros Cathedral dedicated to St Olav. There is a large University here and from a high lookout there is a wonderful view of the city.

Next day was Bodo, and finally Peter had something to interest him with the very, very impressive Aircraft Museum. They had civilian and military planes from many eras and many countries with a good few from World War 2. Both the extensive modern building and the quantity of planes displayed was quite amazing.

Tromso was next and although we arrived at 2.15pm the sun had already departed and so we wandered the vibrant, bright streets of this lovely place as though it was night-time. Found a few souvenirs and other items to buy including some absolutely beautiful Norwegian knitting wool (only 2 balls!).

Peter now calls me 'Michelin Woman'
Finally on our last full day we took an excursion to the North Cape - the northern most point of the European Continent. Again at the Cape there is an impressive building with excellent facilities. Of course everyone heads through the building and out again to take photos at The Globe which had been erected in 1977 to mark the spot. We were lucky in that the weather (apart from bitterly cold wind) was quite clear, so after photos were taken we retreated inside the building to view a 20 minute film of the area in all seasons, learn about local birds, view the tiny but beautiful St Johannes Chapel and see the room commemorating the King of Thailand's visit in 1907. Immediately afterwards we looked out to find the weather had changed completely. Low cloud, fog and misty rain! We were lucky.

Back in Honningsvag on our way to the ship, there was a souvenir shop (of course!). All through our Norwegian stops, we've tried to buy a large (flyable) Norwegian flag. No luck - none available till next summer. However finally we managed to get a Norwegian Vimpel (a long pennant-shaped flag), so Peter is happy!

On our last evening on board, we managed to change our dinner seating and so were able to sit with friends we had made on the voyage. Later we sat in the Explorers Lounge for an hour or so chatting before bed time.

We had been anxiously waiting each evening for the Northern Lights to appear, and on the last evening - just as we'd settled in bed  - we heard an announcement that 'a little bit had appeared'. Peter wasn't moving, but I wrapped up in my thick red coat and padded to the windows in the deck foyer. Not a glimmer was to be seen so sadly back to bed.  We disembark tomorrow morning at Kirkenes to continue our trip down through Finland where we hope to have better luck with the Northern Lights.