Saturday, August 29, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 7

It was raining in Inari today, thus continuing our amazing streak (which ran all through last year’s New Zealand trip) of always arriving just after or departing just before the bad weather. We had breakfast and took a brief final walk along the river. As always, the fishermen (I think it’s always been men) were out there – in one place we spotted a little collection of chairs and rods where the fishermen presumably gather and have a beer over stories of the one that got away. On that point, we’ve yet to see any sign that the fishermen ever actually catch anything. Maybe the pleasure is all in the state of mind.

Anyway, the rain would certainly have hindered our walks today. That aside though, we felt quite attached to the place. Looking at a map in the hotel lobby, we reflected again on the wonderful arbitrariness of being there, the endlessly fascinating experience of dropping into a place and having it go from tourist-guide abstraction to a very specific, if necessarily, short-lived home base (stay anywhere for more than one night and you find yourself starting to develop a routine). We’d ordered a place on the group taxi to take us back to Ivalo airport – based on today's experience, it gets you there an hour and forty five minutes before the flight departure, which seems over-cautious for an airport with (today anyway) only one destination. The current section of the trip is a little choppier than we would have chosen (four nights, four different hotels) but there wasn’t any other way to make it work. It wasn’t possible to get back from Inari and catch a flight to Reykjavik on the same day, hence triggering another night in Helsinki, and the lodge where we’re staying in Iceland had limited availability, necessitating splitting our time in Reykjavik. On the other hand, the transit between locations won’t take more than a few hours on any occasion, so every day should yield a more than adequate amount of fun and stimulation!

Actually we did have a tiny amount of adverse luck today because our flight had to circle Helsinki for an extra forty minutes or so, due to a big wall of bad weather (which at least is optically interesting, seen from above). But it didn’t really affect anything. We got to our hotel and took off almost right away, catching a ferry to the nearby (15 minutes) island (actually six linked islands) of Suomenlinna. This is on the UNESCO World Heritage list as an unusual monument of military architecture – a sprawling sea fortress from around 1750, which at various times has been controlled by the Swedish and the Russians as well as the Finns. Some of the fortress itself is in disrepair now, and you feel like you're wandering around a much older ruin. But other parts of Suomenlinna, containing much newer, painstakingly well-maintained buildings in pastel shades, have something close to a toytown feeling. You can easily wander round for a couple of hours, following the coastline, walking down to little beaches or exploring the inner streets, absorbing one postcard-worthy view after another. People live there too, so the ferries go back and forth for about 22 hours a day. It felt like every prime spot on the island had already been staked out by some couple or group – it’s easy to imagine many of them would still have been there well into the night.

I mentioned on the first day that we didn’t overhear a lot of English, and now it seems this reflects how we weren’t really following a tourist track there. Today we heard plenty of it, very often being used within diverse groups of people apparently drawn from all over (I also heard one young English woman muse on the disparity between “trash” and “rubbish bin”). I still doubt that Helsinki is a major destination in the scheme of things, other than for those making brief excursions as part of a cruise (two big ships docked side by side today – the London Eye thing is positioned exactly to sweep up the passengers as they disembark). It’s a difficult city both to photograph (everything’s so big and multi-faceted) and to sum up (being a place of many small pleasures rather than a few obvious major ones). But if you plunge into it with all that in mind, I doubt anyone should ever be disappointed. Not in summer anyway.

Suomenlinna has plenty of restaurants too, but we came back around 8 and chose a restaurant on the mainland – a place called Strindberg, on a strip which seems to model itself after Paris (not the only such strip in the city) – wicker chairs arranged in two rows, all facing the same way, etc. We ate inside – Ally had croque monsieur and meatballs; I had asparagus soup and Caesar salad with crayfish (all pretty good, but I probably had the better luck there). When we left, the annual Helsinki midnight run was in full swing – through most of dinner, we could see people heading over there in blue shirts. It starts and ends from the square in front of the cathedral; I mentioned that we’d had the space entirely to ourselves after dinner on Tuesday – tonight was just about the complete opposite, filled with sponsorship booths, music stages, and of course enormous hullabaloo around the finish line.
We saw some of the front-runners cross the line and then returned to the hotel. To mix it up, we’re staying this one night in a different location – the Skandic Grand Marina. In most respects it's not as good a choice as the earlier one, being a little more off by itself and with a rather bland conference-type ambiance, but even this paid off because on our entire walk back we were able to watch the main pack of runners (the race has 11 staged starts), accompanied by excited crowds, fireworks in the bay, blaring music, and the London Eye thing (I guess it has a proper name, but who cares what it is) all lit up. It seemed like one of the happiest, most trouble-free cities you could imagine. And so with that experience happily under our belts, and given that we hadn't had a proper nap today, we more or less wound down our final night here, even though Helsinki had plenty more to give.

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