After over three years of hoping, we finally had to give up on the idea of taking the trans-Siberian Express across Russia.
COVID and the unjust & appalling war put paid to our journey from Baltic to Pacific, from Helsinki to Vladivostok.
So what to do with our flight to Helsinki? We decided to head west instead of east to journey in Nordic lands and to relive inter-rail trips of over thirty-years prior.
I was travelling with my old school buddy Poll, with whom I had undertaken my first European train adventures in 1987 & 89.
I loved piecing the itinerary together, booking trains through Omio and direct with Finnish & Norwegian railways.
So it was the Finnish capital up first. I had spent a week of work/leisure there in 2019 so was very familiar with the layout of the compact city.
We took our first train of the trip, the slick regular service from the airport to the central station.
After the usual less than efficient attempt to find our hotel we went for a stroll and a reasonably priced chicken salad & beer before returning for R&R.
It was Poll’s first time in Helsinki so I arranged a free tour through the aptly named Free Tours, which we did next morning.
The two-hour tour is highly recommended for giving a good insight to the city and providing other ideas for wider exploration. You can tip whatever you like at the end.
Finland only gained its independence in 1919 from Russia and much of the architecture of the city has a distinctly Russian appearance.
I asked why the central streets had creatures depicted above the street names. To assist the illiterate came the answer. Very caring of the Finns.
Our guide was great and had a topical joke for us. “Finns are notoriously private people who like their own space.
When the government recently advised that we no longer needed to spend two metres apart most people gave a sigh of relief and thought thank goodness for that, we can go back to five metres!”
In 2019 my sister joined me for the weekend and a highlight was taking the ferry to the former military island of Suomenlinna. This was where we headed after our tour, once I had devoured some delicious fish soup at the quayside.
The ferries are very regular and only cost a few euros. Much better value than the tourist boats that charge over €20 for the privilege of a commentary.
We spent a happy few hours wandering about the military compounds. With the weather a lot better than three years previously we circumvented much of the island for some very impressive coastal views and a display of huge canons.
We journeyed back gratis as the ticket machines were not functioning and headed for the university library and it’s impressive ceiling.
We left the Hotel Finn early next morning for the train to Kemi. Our functional hotel was less than ten minutes to the main station, giving us plenty of time for a wake up coffee & croissant before our departure time.
So instead of four hours east to St Petersburg, we headed seven hours northward to Kemi on the Bay of Bothnia, close to the Swedish border.
Before we boarded I took my customary photos of our train. The adjacent carriages were adorned with characters from Finland’s most famous animation called Moomin.
I used to watch as a kid so they represented a nice trip down memory lane.
I had pre-booked all the train tickets to get the best possible price. The single in the downstairs section of the two deck train costing us £xx each.
We sat back in comfort to enjoy the view from our window seats. Finland is famed for its lakes & forests and we seemed to pass a fair few of them on the journey on our way to Lapland (the train’s final destination was Rovaniemi, the home of Santa).
We arrived into the small Kemi station right on time, pulling up alongside a long line of carriages designed for transporting the abundant timber for export.
Kemi is laid out on a grid system, making it extremely simple to locate our apartment. After a quick cup of tea it was time for an orientation tour, food and supplies for the morning.
We walked past the main church and down the tree-lined hill to the water’s edge. The autumnal air was sharp but the sun shone brightly over the blue bay.
Kemi’s highlights focused on nature so we ventured along some of the trails through the forest and out to a wooden observation tower overlooking the bay. The thoughtful Swedes had also installed a wood burning barbecue and pizza oven for common use.
The following day we would be leaving Finland for Sweden but we had not been able to exactly nail down how we would travel to Lulea. We had to get to Tornio/Haparanda bus station on the border, but there did not appear to be a convenient bus to get us there.
The twenty-minute taxi journey was prohibitively expensive and was marked down under the ‘last resort’ column.
We then struck gold. There was an early morning train to Tornio/Haparanda, from where we hoped to get a far cheaper taxi or would need to walk for 30 minutes or so. We therefore booked cheap tickets and hoped the walking option would not be a necessity.
We arrived fifteen minutes early at the crack of dawn only to find that our train, an overnighter from Helsinki, was 30-minutes late. Grump! Standing in the cold air of early morning, we were extremely grateful when our warm carriages honed into view.
As luck would have it there was a taxi stood at the remote station to meet the arrival of the train. It had been booked by other passengers, but phoned through for one for us that duly arrived a few minutes later.
We had expected a 90-minute wait for a bus to Lulea but had not reckoned for the one hour time difference between the Nordic neighbours. We therefore just had time to buy tickets before our transportation pulled up.