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  1. We had so much fun in Lapland last year that we knew before we had even got home that we wanted to come again this year. We also knew that we wanted to maximise our time in the snow as much as possible, so back in January I started researching whether it would be possible to fly directly to Kittilä, which is the nearest airport to our favourite destination of Äkäslompolo. Researching flights to Kittilä turned out to be a very frustrating task, because there are hundreds of flights from the UK around Christmas time, including from airports close to where we live, but they are all charter flights for people going on Thompson holidays. The only airline which seemed to be selling direct scheduled flights from the UK to Kittilä was Monarch. I looked at their website longingly for a while, but the December 2017 prices were already exceptionally high (around £400 each) and we decided that we couldn't justify spending that kind of money. That turned out to be a great decision, given that Monarch has subsequently gone bust! I was convinced there must be a quicker way than flying to Helsinki and taking the overnight train though, and in the end we found that it was possible to fly from Gatwick to Helsinki and from Helsinki to Kittilä with Norwegian. The only catch was that both of those flights seemed to run every other day... and they don't both run on the same alternate days... so we would have to fly to Helsinki one day and get a second flight to Kittilä the next day. Also the flight to Helsinki was on Boxing Day, which felt like a strange day to fly. We deliberated over it for quite some time but it really did seem like the best option, so in the end I went ahead and booked. As Tim pointed out, flying on Boxing Day didn't mean that I needed to spend Christmas Day packing my suitcase; most of the things I needed for Lapland would be outdoor winter wear that I could pack in advance, as I definitely wouldn't be wearing them in the UK Flying from Gatwick on Boxing Day actually turned out to be a really good idea. Our flight was at 09.40, so we left home around 04.30 and beat all the shoppers for the Boxing Day sales, with the result that we were able to enjoy completely clear motorways. The airport itself didn't seem too busy, and our flight boarded and left pretty much on time. Amazing! We arrived in a chilly Helsinki just before 3pm. The majority of the flight had been too cloudy to see anything, but as we came down to land we were able to see a tiny sprinkling of snow on the countryside outside Helsinki. As our second flight from the airport was quite early the following morning, we weren't planning to go into the centre of Helsinki itself (the airport bus fare is quite expensive, and by 3pm it was almost getting dark anyway!) so we had booked to stay in the Holiday Inn at Helsinki airport. I'd chosen the hotel on the basis that it started serving breakfast from 5am and it had a free shuttle bus to and from the airport. There was no information about the timetable of the free shuttle bus online - or indeed any official information about where to catch it from - so we left the terminal building and began surveying the rows of bus stops outside. Luckily we found it quite easily and the bus seemed to run every 20 minutes or so, so we didn't have too long to wait. The Holiday Inn was only a couple of kilometres away and we were dropped off right outside it. Check-in was easy and we even got some free chocolates, which was a nice bonus We relaxed in the hotel for a while before going out to try and find somewhere to eat. My experience of eating in Holiday Inns previously is that their restaurants are quite expensive, so I had done some googling in advance and found out that there was an out-of-town shopping centre and entertainment complex about five minutes walk away, so we set off in search of that. The thermometer told us that it was minus 1 degrees outside and it began to snow slightly as we left the hotel and made our way towards the shopping centre. We found the building quite easily, but spend a while walking around it until we managed to find the way in. Once inside we found various restaurants and settled on an Italian one, which didn't seem too expensive by Helsinki standards. We each had a lasagne, which cost around €17, and stuck to drinking the free tap water We were in need of an early night after our early start for the flight to Helsinki. Another early start awaited us on Wednesday, as our flight to Kittilä was at 08.45. Although it was only an internal flight, we needed to check in our luggage again, so we wanted to make sure we were at the airport for 06.45. Counting backwards, that meant that we needed to catch the free shuttle bus at 06.20 and get up at 05.30. Breakfast at the hotel was quite plentiful, although it was so early that I didn't feel like I had the appetite to do it justice. We caught the correct bus and were at the airport well ahead of schedule. Check in had to be done via self service machines, which print the boarding passes as well as the labels for your luggage. I've always been rubbish at putting those labels on so Tim did both of them and then we made our way to the self service baggage drop point, where we had to scan the labels on the baggage and send the suitcases off down the conveyor belt. This is where things started to go wrong. Tim successfully sent off his bag, but when I went to lift mine up onto the belt I realised that my label had disappeared. Soem frantic looking around revealed that it had fallen off a few feet away. Tim tried attaching it again and this time managed to get more of the sticky stuff attached, but it was too late to do anything about his bag, which had already disappeared. We then tried scanning the label on my bag but got an error message from the machine saying that the bag was too big (despite the fact that it weighed 14kg and we had an allowance of 20kg). Tim eventually managed to get the attention of a member of the check in staff, who explained that the machine meant that the bag was too big (as in, too large) and not too heavy. This made zero sense because my bag is physically smaller than Tim's bag, which the machine had already happily accepted, but we went off to the oversized backage desk and successfully deposited my bag there. I was starting to feel a bit worried about whether we were ever going to see either bag again! Security went well at least (I even got through the scanning machine without taking my walking boots off!) and we found a nice quiet place with comfy armchairs to sit and wait for our flight. This one left remarkably on time as well, despite the fact that it had been snowing in Helsinki overnight and there was definitely a significant amount of snow waiting for us at our destination. We landed in Kittila on time at around 10.20, and stepped outside into the biting cold of minus 14 degrees. Wow. Kittilä is only a small airport, so it didn't take long for the luggage to start coming off the baggage track. Helsinki to Kittilä is not the sort of flight where people travel with hand baggage - most people were waiting for suitcases and skis - so there was a lot of baggage to unload, and it came down the conveyor in fits and starts. After about 15 minutes I was starting to get nervous that neither of our bags had arrived, but there were still other people waiting which was reassuring. Eventually we caught sight of my blue bag coming along the conveyor, and Tim ran off to retrieve it. Still no sign of his, but there was another group of people waiting as well. We waited and waited and waited. Eventually the baggage carousel was completely empty, but it still continued to run so we didn't completely lose hope... until it came to a complete stop. Oh dear. Tim went off with the other man to try and find a member of airport staff, and was eventually given a lost baggage form to fill in. Once completed, this form had to be deposited in a sort of post box, which didn't completely fill us with confidence; who knows when someone was going to come and open the postbox to follow up on it?! This all took some time and while I stood waiting, I caught sight of the airport bus to Äkäslompolo driving away. This wouldn't necessarily be a huge problem at any other airport, but we were in the Arctic, in a country where a taxi could potentially cost my life savings, and the airport bus doesn't have a timetable as such; it just turns up to meet scheduled flights and leaves when it judges everyone on the flight has collected their luggage. My mood as I contemplated this problem was not greatly improved by a man who walked into the baggage reclaim area dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and, together with another man on a guitar, started playing what appeared to be Jingle Bells in Finnish. Was this some sort of weird Finnish stag do tradition? No, it turned out to be part of the welcoming party for a TUI flight that had just arrived from the UK! Once Tim had posted his form and we went through customs, we found the main hall of the airport full of TUI reps dressed as elves. We found a coffee shop and Tim bought us a drink while I checked the website for the airport bus. Luckily it turned out that there were three scheduled flights to Kittilä today; the one we had been on, one in the late evening and one which was due to arrive at 11.40. There would therefore be another bus, probably departing around midday. Phew! We also consulted the Norwegian website, to see whether there was anything else we could do about the lost baggage. It turns out that the politically correct term is "delayed" baggage Norwegian said that we needed to report the delayed baggage to a Norwegian representative at the airport and that they would give us a special reference number, which we could use to track the baggage and to make any claims on our insurance. This sounded good, but Kittilä is a really tiny airport and there were definitely no Norwegian representatives there. Tim tried a live chat on the Norwegian website but struggled to make them understand this problem, and in the end we realised that it was 11.50 and we needed to go outside to try and find the bus. Happily the bus was there and the driver let us get on board straight away A return ticket for two people set us back €54 (so I definitely need to make sure I don't lose the return portion!). The bus sat and waited at the airport for a while but ultimately it turned out that we were the only passengers. I'm not sure whether I was more surprised by this or the fact that Tim said the driver was reading the newspaper as he drove us along the snow-covered roads towards Äkäslompolo. It's around 50km between Kittilä and Äkäslompolo and the journey normally takes just over an hour, though it was a bit quicker today because we didn't have to stop at lots of different hotels for other passengers. It was around 1pm when the driver dropped us off outside the main shopping centre in the middle of the village. Our favourite restaurant that we ate in a lot the first year was open, so our first move was to go inside and get lunch. I had an absolutely enormous pizza, while Tim had a burger. Once again we drank the free tap water, so in total the meal only cost us €30. Our next stop was the supermarket, where we wanted to get both some supplies for the apartment and some replacement items for Tim. He had to spend more than he would have liked to, but did manage to pick up some new gloves, some underwear and a toothbrush. Luckily he was already wearing most of his warm weather clothes in anticipation of getting to Äkäslompolo, so we haven't had to buy even more expensive items like a coat and boots! It wasn't quite 3pm by this point and we weren't supposed to check into the apartment until 4pm, but we decided to try our luck with checking in early. There is no reception at the apartments and the keys are kept in little key safes outside the door. The company who owns the apartments are supposed to text you the number of your key safe a few days in advance, so I had been a bit stressed on Christmas Day when I realised I hadn't received mine. I emailed the company and got a response to say that they'd sent it to the incorrect phone number (they'd missed off the UK country code), but they didn't seem to resend it. Eventually after a frantic email last night, they sent me the key code via email. Let's say the email told me it was 1131. We got to the apartment and Tim dialled the number into the key box. Nothing happened; it was still most definitely locked. I started desperately searching for a phone number for the rental company and eventually found one, but my phone decided it didn't like the cold weather and died. Tim tried calling the number, but got no response. In the meantime, an elderly Finnish couple who were staying in the apartment next door arrived and tried to help us out, but we were hampered by the fact that they didn't speak a word of English. In the end they gave up and went indoors, while Tim set off on foot to find the office of the rental company, which was a short walk away near one of the main hotels in the village. I stood and waited, getting periodic visits from the elderly Finnish couple who kept coming outside, looking at me and saying things in Finnish It turns out that they were trying to ring the rental company for us as well. They eventually got through and were told that our key code was 6131. The man came outside and tried this in the key safe, but nothing happened; it still appeared to be locked. He and his wife started hitting it, perhaps thinking that it might be frozen shut, but all to no avail. While this commotion was going on, a big van pulled up in the car park outside and a representative of the rental company turned up, announcing that the code was indeed 6131. She tried it, and it didn't work for her either. Almost simultaneously, Tim arrived on foot, having made it to the office of the rental company and been told the code was 6131 as well. There were some heated exchanges in Finnish, and then the rental lady announced that the code was 7131. This one worked, and after thanking the Finnish couple as best we could, we were finally able to get inside the apartment Everything was as we expected when we got inside, except that the Internet isn't working properly and so I can't post the blog That's a problem to try and sort out tomorrow! All in all it's been quite an eventful day and not exactly what we'd planned for our arrival in Lapland (did I mention that I've acquired a sudden cold?!). Coming here for our third time, we thought that everything would be straightforward but I guess this is a reminder that there's always scope for things to go wrong when you travel. Here's hoping that tomorrow is going to be a better day!!
  2. We had such an amazing time in Lapland last winter that we knew we wanted to return. It's definitely not a cheap destination, but despite our best attempts, we hadn't managed to see the northern lights last year, and so that seemed like a good justification to plan another trip We wanted to replicate last year's travel plans, flying from Gatwick to Helsinki and travelling onwards from there to Äkäslompolo in the north via train. The only part of last year's holiday which we didn't want to repeat was the stress of nearly missing our flight out from Gatwick when I massively underestimated how many people would be on the roads on 27 December. Our flight on Tuesday was at 18.45 with airport parking booked from 16.00, so we decided to give ourselves what should have been a ridiculous amount of time for a journey Google said would take two hours, and leave home at 11.30. Unfortunately in our excitement at setting off we blindly followed the initial instructions of the Sat-Nav, realising too late that it had opted to take us down the M1. We had wanted to go down the M40, which would necessitate less time on the M25 later on, so had a moment of indecision while we weighed up the inconvenience of backtracking to find the M40 against the risk of getting stuck in horrific jams around London. Ultimately the M1 made the decision for us; as soon as we drove onto it we found it was virtually a car park already! We came off at the next junction and about halfway to the M40, Tim came up with the cunning plan of setting the Sat-Nav to avoid motorways altogether. This turned out to be a really good idea and we had a much more scenic and much less frustrating trip south than last year. With the exception of heavy traffic in some of the outer London suburbs, we hardly got stuck in any jams and arrived at the airport parking at 4pm on the dot Gatwick was nice and calm and we were flying with Norwegian, which is always a pleasant experience. The flight took around three hours, so the two hour time difference in Finland meant that it was about 23.45 when we landed in Helsinki. Everything had been going swimmingly well, but unfortunately there was a technical glitch with the baggage carousel (it mysteriously stopped halfway through unloading the bags from our flight, before starting up again nearly half an hour later), so we missed the airport buses I'd been hoping to get and ended up on the 00.40, which is the second last one of the day. Luckily at that time of night there was hardly any traffic, and by 01.15 we were arriving in central Helsinki. A big difference to last year was that there was no snow in Helsinki, but this was actually a positive because last year it was very slippery on the city streets. We made our way to the hotel (which fortunately has a 24-hour reception) with the aim of getting as much sleep as possible, while waking up on time to make the most of the breakfast buffet. It turned out breakfast was served until 09.30, so at 09.00 we were downstairs trying to get our money's worth. Everything in Finland is really expensive, especially with the Euro exchange rate being worse than last year, so we wanted to fill up. Luckily it was a good breakfast buffet with eggs and bacon, plus some pastries filled with rice. It sounds weird, but they were actually really nice This was our third time in Helsinki so we already had a good idea of the main sights. When we left the hotel, we walked in the direction of the sea first of all, and soon came across the familiar view of Helsinki's Orthodox cathedral. We strolled along the coast for a while... ...making the most of the limited daylight. Helsinki seems like a very green city, with lots of parks and expanses of water. We walked through one of the parks, which we had remembered as being pretty from when we visited Helsinki in summer 2013. The paths were a bit more difficult today though, completely covered by ice in places, so it was pretty slow going. Eventually we arrived at the Winter Garden, a large glasshouse on a slight slope above the city. There were some lovely views back towards where we'd walked from. Behind the Winter Garden is the Olympic Stadium, which hosted the Olympics in 1952. They seem to be doing some renovation works on it at the moment, so we skirted around it and started walking back through the park towards the main city, on the opposite side of the water this time. This part of the lake was frozen and we spotted a man standing out on the ice (he seemed to have made a hole to fish through!). The path was very slippery again, and so we copied what other people were doing and walked along the bike lane instead, which seemed to be better gritted. Fortunately there weren't many cyclists out and about! We were pretty cold by this point, so we found a nice coffee shop where we were able to sit for a while and thaw out. €16.60 enabled us to get a cup of coffee and chocolate cake each. Finnish prices definitely take some getting used to, but in fairness once you had bought the first cup of coffee you were allowed to get subsequent refills for only €1 more each. By the time we set foot outside again it was starting to look a bit twilighty already. While there was still daylight, we wanted to see the beautiful Lutheran cathedral in the city centre. There were some pretty Christmas decorations in the square too, so we decided we'd have to return once it was properly dark. We stocked up on some provisions for the train and found ourselves in the lovely Esplanadi park just as the Christmas decorations there were starting to light up. This display in the centre of the park is my favourite... ...especially the reindeer Darkness had fallen properly now and there were Christmas lights everywhere. We returned to the main square and found the cathedral beautifully illuminated. We were freezing again by this point so walked back in the direction of the train station to find a Nepalese restaurant that we'd eaten at last year and hadn't seemed too expensive. Happily it was still there and we were able to stretch out the meal a bit to make the most of the warmth. The food was filling and one nice thing about Finland is that you can always have free tap water with your meal, avoiding the expensive prices of drinks After a final stroll around we returned to the hotel, where the receptionist had kindly let us leave our suitcases behind the desk all day, saving what I think would have been €6 each for a locker at the train station. Our train to Kolari was due to depart at 20.52 and we were at the station in plenty of time. I was excited because we had a compartment on the upper deck of a double-decker carriage. We found it with no problem and settled in for the journey The compartment was really very nice, with proper duvets and pillows, plenty of sockets to charge things and our own ensuite bathroom. We departed Helsinki on time and within the first hour of the journey, we could start to see a sprinkling of snow through the window Tim may admittedly have drawn the short straw by getting the top bunk again, and unfortunately he got woken up fairly early in the morning by a loud snorer in the neighbouring compartment! By the time I had woken up and got dressed it was starting to get light outside and I had glimpses of the very snowy landscape outside through the window. Tim had been sitting in the train's dining car, where he'd discovered that the train was running about half an hour behind schedule. That was fine by us, as we weren't able to check into our apartment until 16.00 and so were in no hurry to arrive. The train had free Wi-Fi so we were able to check our position on Google Maps, and by 10.48 - which was our scheduled arrival time - we were still 70km from Kolari. We ultimately pulled into the station there just before midday, a full hour late. As we had got closer to Kolari, we had views of huge piles of logs by the side of the tracks, and we were passed by several trains which looked like they were transporting logs southwards. As we got off the train in Kolari, we were pleased to see that there was just as much snow as we remembered from last year Lots and lots of snow There isn't a lot at Kolari and it's definitely not the sort of place where you'd want to be stuck for long. Luckily the buses which were meeting the train seemed to be aware that it was running late, and the bus which we were planning to catch to the little village of Äkäslompolo arrived a few minutes after we did. It's an expensive bus journey - over €12 each for a ride of about half an hour - but we are just glad there is a bus at all in such a remote neighbourhood! We had a pretty journey through the snow, and the bus driver dropped us not far from the main supermarket in the centre of the village. Our plan had been to go to a nice restaurant that we'd eaten at several times last year and where they hadn't seemed to mind us taking a long time over a meal, but to our surprise we found that it appeared to be closed. We still had three hours to kill before we could get to the apartment and these aren't the sort of temperatures where you want to loiter outside for long, so we needed to find somewhere else. Luckily there was a pizza place on the opposite side of the main road, so we decided to give that a try. The menu was... interesting! I ultimately had a chicken and pepperoni pizza, which was nice, but several of the other pizzas on offer included reindeer meat and two of them also featured bear meat That aside, it was a nice restaurant and the pizzas were enormous, so we were legitimately able to spend an hour or so working our way through them. After lunch we did a bit of shopping at the supermarket and then decided to try our luck and see whether we could check into the apartment an hour early. It's a slightly complicated system which involves the owners texting you a code for a little black box which has the key for the apartment in it and last year we had some problems because they sent us the code for the box, but didn't tell us which number apartment we were in. This year it thankfully all worked smoothly and our luck was in, because when we arrived around 3pm we found the apartment was all ready and we were able to get inside straight away It's a basic apartment, but warm and comfortable which are the most important points! We settled in for a while, catching up on the blog and sorting out all our cold weather gear, ready for a stroll in the snow later this evening
  3. Clare

    Day 2: Helsinki

    Morning seemed to come very quickly, although it was still dark in Helsinki when we woke up at 08.30. Tim announced that the guidebook recommended saving money by abusing the breakfast buffet if you were lucky enough to have breakfast included in your hotel rate, because food and drink in Finland is so expensive, but when we went downstairs to breakfast we found the buffet was rather difficult to abuse on account of being rather sparse. A bit of scrambled egg and stale bread later, we set off to explore the Finnish capital. We had already been to Helsinki once before, on a spontaneous daytrip by ferry from Tallinn in 2013, but that was in the height of summer, and everywhere looked extremely different on a freezing December morning. Our first stop was the train station, where we were able to leave our suitcases in lockers for the not-too-extortionate price of €6 each. The station building itself is very imposing from the outside. The square outside the station was looking quite wintery, with a large ice rink and a huge pile of cleared snow by the side. We couldn't remember the direction that the main centre of town was in. I chose a direction off the top of my head, which turned out to be the exact opposite of the one we wanted and took us through a park and down to the waterside. It was fun to walk through the snowy park though (and much easier than walking on the streets, which were a bit icy). If we carried on through the park we might have ended up going a long way out of town, so we retraced our steps back towards the station. Luckily on the horizon we soon caught sight of a large white dome, which we recognised from our previous trip. Within a few minutes we found ourselves outside Helsinki's beautiful Lutheran cathedral. The white of the cathedral looked particularly stunning against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. The cathedral is located at the top of a steep flight of steps, which are slightly intimidating at the best of times. Luckily they had grit on them today so despite the snow we managed to make it down without breaking our necks. As we walked away from the Lutheran cathedral, we caught a glimpse of the shining golden domes dof Helsinki's other (Orthodox) cathedral in the distance. This cathedral is equally stunning, being situated at the top of a rocky cliff. We climbed the steps to the top of the cliff... ...and from there also had a view back towards the first cathedral. We had succeeded in finding central Helsinki now, and everywhere we went was beautiful. Some of the Christmas lights and decorations looked very special, and we couldn't wait to see them in the dark. The temperature was just below freezing and we were starting to feel chilled through, so we stopped at a steakhouse for lunch. Steak was well outside our budget, but happily they also served spaghetti bolognaise for about €15. That may be the most expensive spaghetti bolognaise we've ever eaten, but by Helsinki standards it seemed quite reasonable. One of the good things about Finland is that it seems to be socially acceptable to have a jug of tap water with your meal, and so you don't have to spend additional money on soft drinks if you don't want to. The other good thing about Finland is that people seem to speak excellent English, so ordering food isn't the nightmare that it would be if it were dependent on our non-existent comprehension of Finnish After lunch we walked back down to the waterfront and enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the coast. The sea was frozen in places, which was exciting to see. It started to get dark after 3pm. We spent some time indoors drinking coffee and warming up, then visited a supermarket to buy some provisions for the train. Once it was properly dark we were able to see the Christmas lights in their full glory. The station building was illuminated and the Christmas trees lining either side of one of the main shopping streets were really pretty. Some of the lights were low key, but tasteful. The cathedral, of course, looked amazing against the night sky. And the square below looked beautifully wintry. This square was my absolute favourite... ...particularly these wonderful reindeer! There was just time to fit in an evening meal in a restaurant near to the station before our train to the north was due to depart at 20.52. We got to the station and retrieved our luggage on good time and although I was worried that something was going to go wrong (recalling our rather stressful experience on the train back from Kiev to Bratislava when a stranger had unexpectedly been sold an extra bed in our compartment!), the entire process of getting the train couldn't have been easier. The ticket was a printed pdf which I had downloaded from the railway website and which detailed the coach and compartment numbers. We found the correct place without any problems and were really pleased to see that the compartment was more spacious and luxurious than we'd experienced in Ukraine. The beds were genuinely comfy, though I was quite relieved when Tim agreed to take the top one. The ladder reminded me of one from my Sylvanian families bunk beds The train departed exactly on time and moved slowly through the suburbs of Helsinki, stopping at various local stations. Once we had left the town behind us and pulled out into the countryside, the ticket inspector came around, scanning our tickets and providing us with a key card to swipe back into the compartment if we left it. The compartment door locked automatically when closed and there was also a double catch to turn once you were inside, so it was all completely safe, and there was plenty of space under the lower bunk for our bags. We settled down for a good night's sleep, knowing that when we woke up in the morning we would be approaching the Arctic Circle!
  4. Clare

    Day 1: Home to Helsinki

    When we returned from the last of our summer holidays in Croatia and Slovenia in September, our thoughts quickly turned to planning a winter holiday. We didn't have any firm ideas about where we wanted to go. It always seems difficult to choose a destination for a winter trip, because the normally affordable flights to countries in central and eastern Europe become prohibitively expensive around Christmas and New Year. Last year we couldn't find any affordable flights at all, so we ended up going to Belgium on the Eurostar. The year before that we found very cheap flights to Oslo, but that turned out to be false economy because we could hardly afford to eat or drink when we got there! We spent some time researching various options. We ruled out a trip to Hungary for a New Year's Esperanto event because the flights were over £200. To our surprise, we noticed that there were some comparatively cheap flights to Iceland from some of the London airports and we invested in an Iceland guidebook. That may have been an expensive mistake, because while we got a good deal on the guidebook from the Bradt website, Iceland itself must be one of the priciest destinations in the world. The pictures looked absolutely amazing though and there were some really cool trips you could do from Rekjavik to see the Northern Lights. The main problem was timing, because the affordable flights were either at really awkward times or would have necessitated us staying there for a week, which might have been too long in the depths of winter when most of the transport infrastructure appears to shut down. It was with no inconsiderable amount of regret that in the end we had to give up on the idea. Our next plan was to go to Denmark. This was motivated not by any particular desire to see Denmark, but more by the availability of very cheap Ryanair flights. We went so far as to purchase a Denmark guidebook, but it failed to generate any genuine enthusiasm in us. The most exciting thing I could find about Denmark was that it would be possible to take a train to Sweden, but about two days after reading this I saw an article online explaining how such trains had been disrupted and/or cancelled as a result of the migrant crisis. Back to the drawing board then! All the talk about Iceland had made me quite excited about the idea of trying to see the Northern Lights, and so I started researching other places where it might be possible to see them. There are some amazing trips available, so long as you have unlimited money and can take holiday in January or February. Sadly not falling into any of those categories, I started browsing the websites of some of the tour operators who run package tours to Lapland from the UK. These are mostly aimed at parents wanting to take their children to see Santa, but I did find a couple of destinations in Finland which were described as offering good chances of seeing the lights. There were even direct flights from East Midlands and Birmingham and spaces free for short breaks between Christmas and New Year. I knew that Tim had always wanted to go to Lapland and I did have some extra money to spend as a result of an unexpected work bonus... but I wasn't sure if I could bear to go on a package holiday. Reviews on Tripadvisor said how brilliant it was to be met by reps dressed as elves at the airport and I thought that might be more than I could handle! In the process of failing to make a decision, I decided to buy a copy of the Bradt guide to Lapland and see what it recommended. To my surprise, within the first few pages the author stated how easy it was to travel independently in Lapland. I had automatically assumed that it wouldn't be possible to travel independently to somewhere as cold and isolated as Lapland, but it seemed that this might not be true. Hmmm... One thing which particularly caught my attention in the chapter about Finland was the mention of a train line which ran from Helsinki to a place called Kolari, north of the Arctic Circle. I investigated the Finnish railway website and discovered that sleeper trains run every night in the winter season, to take Finnish people to the cross-country ski resorts in the north of the country. Flights to Helsinki are quite thin on the ground as it isn't a Ryanair destination, but I found some that were fairly affordable from Gatwick with Norwegian Air. The Bradt guidebook mentioned that a special bus meets the trains arriving in Kolari to transport people to the ski resorts, so I started researching where we could stay. On booking.com I found a basic apartment for about £65 per night (which seemed reasonable by Finnish standards) in a village called Äkäslompolo. Although a small place, this was part of the bigger Ylläs ski resort area and thus on the bus route from Kolari station. The internet confirmed that it had a supermarket, an alcohol shop and a lake which was a good place to visit at night when looking for the Northern Lights. A plan began to form in my head! After a few days of deliberation, I decided to bite the bullet and book it. I also decided to surprise Tim with the destination on his birthday. Little did I know how difficult it was going to be to keep the secret for three months (especially because he decided he would rather be told at Christmas than on his birthday!). In the meantime I set about buying thermal underwear, head torches and other essential Lapland equipment. Christmas Day came and went and luckily Tim was extremely pleased with the surprise Our flight to Helsinki was at 18.45 on 27 December and I had the airport parking booked for 16.00. The internet suggested that just over two hours ought to be enough time to get to Gatwick, and we decided to leave at 13.00 so that we had an extra hour in case of bad traffic. We carefully planned our route to go down the M40 rather than the M1 and thus reduce the length of time we needed to spend on the M25. I didn't think that there was scope for anything to go wrong; it was a Sunday afternoon, just two days after Christmas, so who on earth else would be on the roads?! It turned out that this was rather a naive assumption and it would have been easier to list the people who weren't on the roads. The M40 was an absolute nightmare, with congestion at seemingly random intervals for no particular reason. The jams were particularly bad around the junctions for Oxford and again for the junction by the High Wycombe retail park. It was then that the penny dropped; everyone must be going to the sales! When it got to 15.30 and we were still on the M40, I began to get a little nervous, but I thought that everything would still be okay if the traffic was free-flowing on the M25. Hahahahahaha. Is the traffic ever free-flowing on the M25? We sat in traffic jam after traffic jam as we edged our way from junction to junction. 16.00 came and went, as did 16.30. At 16.45 it was now only two hours until take off and we were still on the M25. I didn't think there was any way we could still make it. We had to find our way to the airport parking, check in there, wait for the transfer bus, travel the 6 miles to the airport in the bus and then navigate our way through Gatwick - an airport we had never been to before but which I assumed would be large and chaotic. It just didn't seem like it was going to be possible. I started wondering whether my travel insurance would cover me for any refunds if we missed our outbound flight. Just when we were about to give up hope, the traffic cleared a little and we were able to make our way from the M25 to the M23 and then onto the road towards the airport parking. Fortunately the sat-nav took us to more or less the correct location and by 17.15 we had arrived. After our experience with nearly missing a flight from Luton earlier in the year, I was worried that we would have to queue for ages for a transfer bus, but to our pleasant surprise we found that not only was there a bus sitting waiting but the driver took our suitcases and loaded them on for us while we registered and handed over the keys. Before long we were on the bus and shortly after 17.30 we had arrived at the terminal building. Phew! I had expected the worst from Gatwick but it actually turned out to be a really civilised airport. We found the correct check-in desk with no problems and joined the queue, which was an actual queue and not sort of scrum which characterises the Ryanair check-in at Stansted! Then we only had to wait five minutes before we were checked in by a very competent clerk, who explained that our flight was actually running delayed by 30 minutes. The departure boards said to await further information at 18.30, so we made our way through security and after all the rushing found ourselves in the unlikely position of actually having enough time to get a pre-flight meal Ultimately the flight was delayed by around an hour, apparently as a result of some strong head winds and turbulence which had slowed the journey of the incoming aircraft. The Norwegian aircraft was very pleasant, seemingly with enough space for everyone's cabin baggage to actually fit in the cabin, and with screens showing cartoons and nature programmes during the flight. There was a slight moment of anxiety at the start of the flight when the pilot explained that one of the engines needed for take-off was broken, meaning that he was going to be using a spare one which was slower and noisier, but everything passed off without a hitch and we were soon on our way to Helsinki. Finland of course has a two-hour time difference from the UK, so the result of the delay was that our scheduled arrival time of 23.30 was pushed back to 00.30. As the plane began to descend towards Helsinki, I noticed to my surprise that we were coming down into a white landscape. There was either a scattering of snow or an extremely hard frost covering the fields and roads, so it must be colder than the Google weather forecast had led us to believe. Sure enough, the pilot announced that it was a nice evening in Helsinki with temperatures around -9. Not sure -9 is most people's definition of a nice evening, but after the mild weather that we've been experiencing recently in the UK, we were relieved to find that in Finland winter was still properly cold. Thermometers we later saw in the town suggested that the pilot may have exaggerated slightly, with the temperature actually being more like -5. A consequence of landing late was that we'd missed the train we were going to catch into the city centre. From memory I didn't think the trains were very frequent - and I didn't have any information about how late they ran - so we decided to investigate the airport bus instead. Finnair run a bus from the airport which goes directly to the main train station in Helsinki, and luckily we were just in time for the final bus of the evening at 01.10. I dread to think how much a Finnish taxi would have cost if we had missed it! When the bus arrived it turned out to be rather hi-tech, with free Wi-Fi and an electronic display showing how far we were along the route and the expected arrival time at each stop. The journey through the outskirts of Helsinki into the town centre took around 30 minutes, so it was just before 01.45 that we stepped off the bus in central Helsinki and had to take care not to fall over on the extremely icy pavements. The hotel I'd booked for Sunday night was only 300m from the station on the map, but we hadn't arrived on the same side of the building as I'd expected when planning to take the train, so it took a while for us to figure out exactly where we were. We arrived at the hotel around 2am and were extremely relieved to note that they hadn't been lying when they said they had a 24-hour reception! Breakfast was served until 09.30 the next morning, so we settled down to get as much sleep as possible in preparation for a day of sight-seeing in Helsinki on Monday.
  5. Clare

    Day 8: Helsinki

    The final day of our holiday was one of the most exciting as we set off on a spontaneous trip to Helsinki. I was slightly apprehensive about how we might fare without a map, a guidebook or a single word of Finnish, but it was definitely going to be an adventure if nothing else! Our ferry was due to leave Tallinn at 10.30 and arrive in the Finnish capital at 12.30. The instructions on our ticket implied that it was advisable to be at the ferry terminal an hour before the boat departed, to make sure that there was enough time for check-in and boarding, and we weren't completely sure how long it would take us to walk to the terminal from our hotel, so our intention was to have breakfast in the hotel as soon as it opened at 8am. We arrived at the breakfast room at 07.59 only to find it completely full of what appeared to be a tour party. Every single table was taken (in what wasn't a very large room to start with) and it was clear that we didn't stand much chance of getting a seat within the next 20 minutes. How annoying! We ended up adding Estonia to the list of Eastern European countries in which our lives have been saved by McDonalds and having breakfast there en route to the ferry. The journey to Helsinki was extremely pleasant. It was a big ferry and although there was a large crowd of people waiting to board it, we managed to get find seats by a window with a great view. As the boat pulled out of Tallinn, we were able to see some of the landmarks along the coast which we had visited during our trip to Kadriorg the previous day. We passed some small islands off the coast of Estonia and then there was nothing but miles and miles of blue sea. The Baltic was beautifully calm and so we really enjoyed our trip. We arrived at Helsinki's western ferry terminal, which is a bit outside of the city centre. There was a helpful display of local leaflets in the terminal building, and we picked up a brochure for an open-top bus tour, thinking that this would be the ideal way to get an introduction to new city which we knew very little about... until we saw that the tickets were priced at €25!!! Wow, what we've heard about Scandinavia being an expensive place must really be true then. We were fortunate, however, that the leaflet for the bus tour featured a useful map of all the main sites and the route the bus would take between them. We decided to save some money by travelling along the route by foot and seeing what we could see. There was some sort of tram between the ferry terminal and the main part of the town but there was such a horde of people waiting at the stop that we decided to give it a miss and walk in instead. The route was well-signposted and we were rewarded with some nice sea views as we made our way around the coast and into the town. Soon we were on what appeared to be Helsinki's main street and were able to get a proper town plan from Tourist Information. So far, so good. Our main aim at this point was to find some lunch, but the main street didn't seem the best place to do so because we assumed the prices would be a lot higher than elsewhere. We struck off down some side streets and somehow managed to walk for an hour along a route which missed every single eating establishment in Helsinki. We did find some beautiful cathedrals though The impressive white church above is the Lutheran cathedral, the main symbol of Helsinki. It was built in the nineteenth century as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and known as St Nicholas' Church until Finland became independent of Russia in 1917. The equally striking red church below is the Finnish Orthodox cathedral, built on top of a rock on the eastern side of Helsinki. The largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, it was originally a Russian Orthodox church and a symbol of Russia's domination over Finland. Just around the corner from the Orthodox cathedral we finally chanced upon a restaurant - yay! Even better, there was an English version of the menu and amongst all the slightly unusual fish dishes which I guess are normal in this part of the world, we found a regular burger and chips meal. Excellent... except for the price! Tim's face was a picture when he realised that beefburger and chips was going to set us back €17 - each. Wow. Luckily there was a jug of free tap water on the table, so we were able to save some money by not buying anything to drink. The meal was nice when it came, but it felt like incredibly poor value compared to Vilnius, where we had had two main courses, half a litre of wine and two beers for the grand sum of €14 earlier in the week. Finland is definitely the most expensive place I have ever been. Lunch over, we had four hours left until our return ferry so we set off to see as much of the city as possible. Dodging occasional showers, we strolled around the main sights in the city centre which included an imposing railway station, a pretty blue town hall and numerous tree-lined squares. This rather grim-looking building turned out to be the Finnish parliament. Not far from the parliament building was the start of a beautiful park, where we were able to walk alongside the shore of a lake with great views back towards the town centre and the cathedrals. We found Helsinki's Olympic stadium, as well as the Botanical Gardens, and then proceeded to get rather lost looking for the Sibelius monument, a sculpture dedicated to the famous Finnish composer. Despite being one of the key sights in Helsinki, it didn't appear to be signposted at all and we are indebted to two separate locals who saw us looking confusedly at a map and gave us directions. The monument is hidden away in another beautiful park and our route back towards the ferry terminal took us past some gorgeous stretches of coastline. At times it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a capital city. Having somehow walked another 15 miles, the ferry back to Tallinn was a welcome excuse to sit down for two hours. It was slightly rowdier than on the way out, filled with Finns evidently looking forward to a cheap night out in Estonia. I don't blame them; if I lived in Helsinki I think I'd sail to Tallinn every time I felt like burger and chips! If you're ever looking to do a similar trip, it's worth noting that although there are multiple ferry companies which sail between Tallinn and Helsinki, several of them have timetables which are only geared to doing a daytrip from Helsinki to Tallinn (rather than the other way round). Our brief research indicated that Tallink was the best company to use in the less popular direction, and it certainly worked out cheaply for us. It was after 10pm by the time we got back to our hotel - a late night considering that we had to be up at 04.30 to catch our bus to Riga airport - but it had been worth it. We were rewarded by this wonderful view of the sun setting over Tallinn; a perfect end to a perfect holiday.
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