Friday, 31 August 2012

an american in Helsinki

Mark hasn't stopped talking since we arrived and carried our bags up to his fourth floor appartment.  It's years since we've chatted to an American and we have forgotten what it's like.  It's like the movies. The flat is in a low-rise block, one of many, in that socialist utopian style we've seen in Sweden.  And, like Sweden, it feels and looks good.  We're out of the centre here but the bike paths have made it easy to reach.  Mark's appartment has been decorated by a graffiti artist - with a wall in each room spray painted to great effect - even featured in a magazine, which Mark proudly shows us.  Mark doesn't stop talking and it doesn't take long for Lily, his daughter, to also start chattering, and before we know it we're eating tea and feeling like we've known them for years.  Why are Americans so uninhibited? 

Perhaps this is the wonder of Couch-Surfing - we are hosted by someone who is ready to greet strangers into their home and life and although in the 'normal' world this would sound like madness, in reality it is the most natural and affirmative act.  Mark makes us laugh.  He tells us about his work as an artist - he's a photographer - and how he makes a living as a free-lance copy writer/editor, doing smooth American voiceovers (his voice is perfect for this), and also promoting the work of other local artists by connecting them with local businesses with work-place exhibitions.  He is undoubtedly a full-time networker, as he has to be, and has lived here for 14 years.  It's easy to see why - the city is wonderful.  Inevitably though, as with all the Nordic countries, we wouldn't envy the long winter.
Mark and Lily ready to join the fray on the busy bike paths

We ride into the city the next day with Mark and Lily, who has just started kindergarten.  We are shown the scenic route along the coast through green parkland before we join the madding crowd over a long bridge into the centre.
Gayle had to explain this to me: 8 bikes take up only the space of one parked car
We mooch about and act like tourists for a couple of days here.  There are still plenty of other tourists around and the cruise ships decant more each morning, but the city's big enough to cope and there are not too many 'hotspots' where everyone gathers and coaches stack up to belch out another mob of gawkers.

The mornings are misty and the days sunny.  By the time we leave on the boat to Tallinn, we are feeling very relaxed and slothful......

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

the Finnish line

Rolling up and down along a busy small road I start to think I’m in England.  On a sunny summer’s day.  We end a long but good ride at a crossroads, wondering where to eat and where to camp.  There’s a church and a cemetery to the north so we head over there and find a tap to draw water for cooking.  Rain is threatening and there are benches under the tall trees overshadowing the graves, so we decide to cook here and now.  Pasta in a tomato sauce.  Bit of oregano.  The chef does a fantastic job of it.  We wolf it down happily.  An old lady comes past as we are eating.  There are a couple of people visiting graves.  The cemetery, like all those in the Nordic countries we’ve seen, are tidy and well kept, with lots of new headstones regardless of the year of the deceased.  She stops on her way back and talks to us a little, explaining she is Swedish-speaking, like many in these parts.  The Finns are known for being rather taciturn, but when we ask for directions or help they're fine. 

all in the same direction?
The next day we ride another long day, and in the late afternoon arrive in a town full of bike paths that are all sign-posted.  We find the one that will lead us out on to a quiet road towards Helsinki.  We cook on a tempting piece of neat grass under trees beside a small factory.  Dark thundery clouds are threatening to the east, where we are heading, so we quickly cut off the road and down a forestry track where we pitch the tent in a small clearing.  In five minutes, while we are still unloading, it pours down.  We get soaked but at least it stops whilst we settle in.  But during the night we are awakened by thunder and the flash of lightning.  Now, anyone who knows about our escapade in the mountains of Romania, will know that I'm a tad wary of thunder and lightning.  And here we are, lying in our tent, next to a big pine tree (how big? is it the tallest? are we on a hill or in a dip in the forest?) as the storm approaches.  I lie awake for ages, counting the gaps between the flash that lights the tent and the rumble and roar of the thunder (One elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four elephant, five elephant. okay, five seconds. Now, is it one mile per three seconds or three miles per one second?) I can't remember how to calculate your distance from the lightning.  Eventually I nod off while still trying to remember the formula.

The morning is horrid - it's still raining and the storm still launches a crack of lightning now and again.  We wrap up, pack up, and set off in the rain.  I hate this - can't see out of my glasses, have to look over my specs through the narrow gap up to the brim of my hood.  Feet are soaked within seconds of riding.  We plod on along the forest road and pass the most alarming roadkill - a wolf, eyes and mouth open and red with blood. (A wolf! There was probably a pack of them prowling around the tent last night.) Gayle asks me "Did you see the dog?" Oh, what does she know about these things.

It rains all day and we're fed up, but if we knew then what we now know two months later we'd have laughed the whole day long and danced in the puddles - this is to be our worst weather day for a long time.  It's not so bad when we find a garage with a cafe selling hot drinks and, although it's only 10.30, a buffet lunch of meat cuts and mashed potatoes and gravy gets laid out.  A load of hungry workers soon turn up and we join in the eat-as-much-as-you-can-stack-up-on-one-plate.  At noon we roll out of the place and get going again.

The ride into Helsinki is painless.  As we get closer to the city a bicycle path appears.  We follow it until it joins another, and then another, and then we get stuck because there seem to be hundreds of the damn things going in every direction.  We hail another cyclist and Gayle charmingly mugs him of his Helsinki Bike Path map.  The sun is out when we roll into the city centre.  It looks wonderful in the afternoon sun.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

float, float on

It's almost two months later (October 18th) as I write to record all the fun and hi-jinks we had in the Åland islands.  Hang on, let me just check the photos on, no, no hi-jinks there.  Fun, you ask?  Are you kidding? In Finland? Well, okay, it's not really Finland.  These islands are inhabited by a rowdy bunch of Swedish speakers who have their own government and their own flag.  I'm thinking of the Isle of Man - another Viking stronghold of yesteryore.
Keep your distance on the Aland Islands
My lasting impression from Mariehamn is the modernist architecture of the public library.  Light, airy, bright white.  Coffee machine. Toilets with hot and cold water. Full of all the good things libraries have - books, newspapers, internet, magazines, music and films.  I think I'm not overstating it when I say that this is the kind of place I could live.  Undoubtedly it says a lot about how we are travelling and what our needs are that this remains a highlight from the islands.  I guess in the end we felt that now familiar nagging push to carry onwards.  This is something to do with being on the bicycles and feeling like we have to propel ourselves to the next significant destination - Helsinki in this case.  We cycled for a couple of days along country roads with scenery that didn't really startle us - light, airy, bright green - and then, instead of the planned island hopping across the archipelago, we took the ferry the whole way across to Finland proper.

Somewhere I turned 45.  I can't remember where now.  That's okay with me. I'm past caring about birthdays. But while I reflect on my passing years, take a look at this here feast and consider how hungry you might be after a days' cycling through rolling countryside:

the recipe for this dish can be found in Jamie Oliver's latest book
"Cracking Nosh On The Go"

Thursday, 23 August 2012

commando camping

The ferry from Stockholm leaves at the end of the afternoon.  We are allotted our own car lane to board the ship and discover why when we disembark - we're the only ones getting off at Mariehamn in the Åland islands.  The boat is continuing on to Helsinki with everyone else.  Arrival time is scheduled for midnight but Frederik assures us Mariehamn's a village and we feel sure we'll find a place to pitch the tent quite easily. 

The ferry is a ten-deck ship with no seats.  It's mostly cabins or you can sit in the cafe or restaurant or bar or casino or basically anywhere where you might want to spend some money.  I'm wondering if I could spend 8 hours sat on the toilet.   We check at the Information Desk (deck 6) - are there really no seats on this boat?  We are directed to a room on deck 8 next to the Conference Room.   The room is 2 metres by 5 and has no furniture.  There are six other travellers lying on the floor with their bags.  We sit down next to a plug and check if there's a wi-fi signal for the netbook.  We've got eight hours on a ship full of Swedes, Finns and Russians who might be tempted to have a duty-free drink or two, but this room is a refuge from the on board madness.  Success! A wi-fi signal.  Well, sort of.    It ' s     v e  r   y              s  l   o         w          .

As we sail out along the coast and through the maze of islands that surround Sweden we try and get a street view on Googlemaps of Mariehamn to check for potential camping spots.  I find a little park at the end of a street near to the port here.  Fantastic - this will do us for the night.  I can't get the full 360 degree view because the connection is so slow.  Never mind.

On a walk around I discover there's hot water available in the cafe and if it's very busy in the cafe and you can't pay the 50 pence a cup price because none of the other passengers will let you in the queue to the till, then no matter.  I take enough water to brew up in our furniture-less safe haven.

Sitting next to us is Ali, an Iraqi whose mother is Spanish, and Adell, an academic from Tehran.  They chat in a little Arabic and some English and we tell Adell how much we enjoyed travelling in Iran and how we hope to visit again.  In the far corner is a loud Austrian couple and a young American who tries too hard to show he's not stupid by telling the Austrians lots of things they didn't know about lots of places he hasn't been to.  Ultimately, he fails in his efforts.  Sleeping in the middle is a young Japanese man and a young African woman.  Outside this room the Nordics and Slavs are getting rowdy and raucously drunk in a nautical bacchanalian frenzy.

'round midnight there's an announcement. We look out at the lights of the port and hurriedly say our farewells.  Along the corridors, and down five flights of stairs.  On the car deck there is no-one but us.  We are surrounded by trucks and buses, penned in at the back and there's an awful grinding noise from the keel below us. It's hot.  There's no crew in sight.  The announcement had said only a 5 minute stop.  What's going on?   Finally we clamber back up the stairs to the information desk (deck 6).   The woman looks alarmed and tells us to hurry back down.  We must disembark immediately!  We run back down and through the identical corridors of cabins - it's a nightmare scenario.  Back on the hot and claustrophobic car deck with our bicycles we are alone again.  The loud grinding noise is worse than before.  Surely, something is wrong?  The ship has run aground.  But no. Two crew finally appear and signal us to the ramp.  They lower it and we are released from our temporary hell.

The dockside is empty and a man in dayglow overalls points us to the exit.  We cycle away through the port and out through a wide gateway.  Now, all we need to do is find that little park........Hang on a minute.  This is it.  The park is at the port.  It's next to the ferry terminal carpark.  It's in full view of every bugger that drives in here.  We hesitate for two seconds before quickly putting the tent up behind the column of stones in the middle.  Inside we nod off immediately.  What a great way to arrive in a new country.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

water water everywhere

....and not a free wc to pee.  Stockholm is a a great capital city.  It's got a fabulous collection of buildings dotted around the harbours and waterways that surround and cut across the city:

The old town is charming in that lovely cobbled and narrow way that can suddenly feel claustrophobic when a cruise shipload of tourists meet you coming in the opposite direction.  Green spaces.  Trendy neighbourhoods.  More cycle paths than roads, almost.  But nowhere to get a free pee.  You even have to pay in McDonalds.  What's going on?  One afternoon I even find myself in the reading room of the national library opening cleaning cupboards in the search of a toilet...

a great brand
We're hosted in a quiet neighbourhood by Frederick and Phim.  They have a tiny appartment but are still generous enough to share it.  They are planning to emigrate to Australia but want to first explore the country by bicycle.  Phim's from Thailand and we are wondering what it must be like to try and adapt to life here in Stockholm.  The lure of Australia is obviously great for both of them.  

Our last days in Sweden remain reliably sunny and we have great fun riding around the city and doing touristy things and photographing silly things.  


A couple of the many museums advertise free entry so we visit the History Museum and the Ethnography museum - it's only on the way out that we see that free entry is on a different day.....Unfortunately we'll miss Mr Soul & His Marshmallows.  Our plan now is to head through the Aland islands and over to Helsinki, island hopping along the way........

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

uptown Uppsala

It might be the law in Sweden, we're not sure.  Already, judging from some of the towns we have passed through, there's the hint of what a successful communist state might look like.  Lots of functionalist residential blocks, lots of public parks and sports facilities.  But what's the thing with the lawn-cutting?  We stop for an ice-cream at a caravan site by a lake on a quiet road.  It's end of season - school starts today.  There's only the old folk left here in their caravans.  A few of them have low picket fences, garden furniture marking territory.  Behind one fence a man is mowing the lawn around his caravan.

Later on Ben tries to explain the pros and cons of living in Europe's most socialist country.  He and Rebecca  came to live here from Germany  a few years ago and are bringing up their two year-old daughter Telma in a country with one of the best provisions for child care.  They will both get generous time off work to look after Telma. They live in a modern apartment in Uppsala, one of Sweden's largest cities, a traditional and possibly conservative university town.  Rebecca confirms that despite a large student population there's no real alternative scene here.  The old centre is full of grand and lovely buildings and it's green and fairly peaceful.  Bike paths everywhere.  At every single junction we don't know whether to look left, right, up or down.  

our first barbecue of the summer
We have a lovely time here looked after by Rebecca and Ben.  Telma speaks German at home with her mum and dad and has just started kindergarten (in Swedish) so is frustrated that now everyone's speaking another bloody language.  They've all just had a summer on the road to Norway and back by tandem - Telma riding in a trailer.  I'm always a bit nervous in the presence of other cyclists - judging by the collection of bikes hanging in the hallway they've pedalled a bit. In a tiny cupboard under the stairs Ben harbours a whole bicycle workshop and as we later discover, an ambition to build his own bike frames.  When Gayle gets a puncture and it turns out to be one I repaired ineffectively I feel quite inadequate.  Our bikes are mountain bikes - not really made for touring - and they're hardly well-maintained.  But maybe I'm with Lance Armstrong on this one - It's Not About The Bike.  No, it's the EPO, the pasta pesto pasta pesto pasta combo, the steroid injections, the jaffa cakes, the blood tranfusions......

But Ben and Rebecca are quite special people - and not at all judgemental.  We get a great buzz of enthusiasm from them for the joys of biking.  And they also turn out to be dedicated hikers.  Inspired by the king of Go Lite, Ray Jardine, they have even put their hand to making clothing and equipment for trekking long distance with minimum weight.  To be honest, there's something very German about their dedication to their hobbies , but I mean this in a very positive sense.  There's a great wave of excitement when a parcel arrives with Telma's first bike - a balance bike (one without pedals) - and after her six-week trailer ride she cannot get enough of her own two wheels.  

We say our farewells and merrily head off to Stockholm with instructions to find the quieter roads into the capital.  A few days later we discover a large bar of chocolate has been smuggled into our bags...

Monday, 20 August 2012

days of heaven

We emerge from the trees and out into rolling farmland.  Fields of wheat everywhere.  

At each town we ask for directions at the tourist office for the next.  One day we find ourselves cycling on the edge of a motorway.  Traffic's a little fast, the verge is a bit narrow. We get lost only once on the way to Uppsala, which seems remarkable when you think we're using a map of Scandinavia and Finland to get around.  Each night we try and camp in one of the fields where the crop has already been cut.  

Wheat, lots of wheat. Barley.  I'm Richard Gere to Gayle's Brooke Adams.  The roads are flat and we manage some longer days.  Even the night we camp next to the railway tracks we sleep solidly.

It seems remarkable to us but the sun just keeps on shining.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

the wood for the trees

We fairly motor across the border into Sweden, only stopping in the rain at the last supermarket to glug some free hot drinks and stuff our faces with the chocolates also left out for customers.  Whilst we're doing this, two fellas who've been out training gun dogs on the moors sit down and share a packet of biscuits with us.  As if by magic, the weather improves as soon as we cross the border.  Maybe this is one of the rewards for paying higher taxes?  We camp on a disused track near to a church out of sight of anything going past.  At least until about 9pm when some bored teenager zips past on his stupid little motorbike.  The next day we cycle on fairly flat roads through forest, or what remains of it.  Again, we camp on a disused track out of sight of the road and miles from anywhere.  Just as we're putting the tent up, a dog-walker comes past.  It seems you're never alone in Sweden.  The weather is sunny and hot and we are no longer worrying about rain clouds coming over when we cook our tea.  Instead we have to fend off the midges and mosquitoes.  It seems you're never alone in Sweden.
despite the carnage, Sweden plants more trees than it cuts down
The next week or so passes in a blur of trees.  It feels like we're going down hill all the way to Uppsala.  We turn brown in the sunshine, enjoy lunchbreaks in small towns watching the locals drive around in large numbers of old American cars from the 50s.  In fact, it feels like how I imagined 1950s mid-west America to have been like.  All the teenage boys look bored and faintly rebellious and enjoy drag-starting their cars on the roads, doing handbrake turns, leaving pretty patterns of burnt rubber over the tarmac.  This country must be so perfect and so... dull.

We spend a leisurely afternoon at Sweden's "best 'rest place' 2008" where we do laundry, bathe in the bathroom and enjoy a tea of pasta and something.  There is the hint that we are in a more culturally developed country - although it's possible that there are more museums than you really need for a country of only 10 million people.

we passed on this one

The art installation by Per Henrikkson we came across struck a more discordant note.  From the description in the regional tourist office in Dalarna ("the heart and soul of Sweden") he is critiquing life here in rural Sweden and the way that society and the individual interacts:

Sadly such innovative and accessible art was copied all the way to meaninglessness on the road to Uppsala...

Thursday, 16 August 2012

the border run

Okay, we've succumbed.  To the south west are some of Norway's most dramatic fjords and the highest road in northern Europe which is described as one of the best cycle rides in....oh, somewhere.  But we can't face any more rain, so instead we're heading south east into Sweden and down to Stockholm, where the sun is shining, the weather is sweet, makes you wanna move your dancin' feet.  Or have we just been listening to too much Bob Marley?

We follow a wonderful wide salmon river south of Trondheim and turn eastwards with it as it climbs into the high plateau on the border.  It takes us a couple of days or so to reach Roros, all uphill, and we start to get a feel for Norway's inland forest scenery.   The river is popular for fishing and the first night we check out a fishing spot for a camp.  It's now absolutely chucking it down and a young Norwegian/American fisherman puts us off - telling us the landowner would chase us off.  We can't be bothered arguing our rights. Tea is cooked and consumed on a tiny railway platform in the shelter.  Then Gayle goes for a wander in the rain, knocks on a door and Christian answers.  He's in an old school that's now an arts centre.  Yes, of course we can camp on their huge lawn.  Would we like a shower?  We can use the kitchen and the lounge too.   Perfect.  After scrubbing up we chat with him most of the evening and sleep comfortably on the kind of lawn we can normally only dream about.

Roros is an old copper mining town full of the traditional wooden houses built in its 19th century heyday - all fairly well preserved.  Even the slag heaps are UNESCO listed. The town sits on the edge of what feels like a high mountain plateau - a fairly bleak and unpromising place now visited by large numbers of tourists.
a cheeky stag takes a peek up Roros' high street
We meet Marie-Ann and Benya here, also cycle touring, and we share a nice camp by a bathing place with pit toilets and picnic benches.  Living the high life.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

staying in Frank's lavvo

We know we've arrived in a city because there are bicycle lanes.  But this is Trondheim and in Norway bike paths aren't always what you want them to be.  Sometimes they just disappear.  Or they end at high kerb.  Or they take you off in a direction you don't want.  Or they're covered in gravel and sand.  And we're English - we don't know what cycle lanes are.  So we ignore them as we ride around and explore the city, using the roads because they are flat and well-maintained and sign-posted.   And we're not alone - there are locals doing the same.   Frank tells us later there's a war going on - between the cyclists and the drivers.  Apparently the cyclists lobbied for bike paths, so the city council has invested in a huge network of signed pathways only for the cyclists to turn their noses up and continue to use the roads.  As we ride across the city we are unknowingly winding up some of these car drivers.  In our defence we did go and ask the tourist office the best route to Frank's house and they directed us to cycle along what turns out to be a motorway.  They pointedly do not give us a map of the cycle paths - we have to find one ourselves in the library the next day.  

We're couch-surfing with Frank in Trondheim and he's a great host.  He has already explained in advance that, because his house is rather crowded, we will be sleeping in his lavvo.  It strikes me that this puts a new angle on couch-surfing 'sorry, I don't have a couch, but you can sleep in the lavatory' - but he seems like a nice fella.   And he is, in spades.  What's more, the lavvo turns out to be a tipi.   Fabulous.

another civilised meal with Frank and Brage
We are fed and watered well at Frank's.  Gayle is sent off to pick blueberries one afternoon and we're treated to blueberry pancakes.  His house is on the edge of the city, and it seems like a model of suburban living - set up on a wooded hill, view of the fjord, lovely garden full of fruit trees and bushes. Abba the dog (she's Swedish) pads around quietly, sniffs about for the hedgehogs in the borders.  We leave our bikes in the front drive and never lock them.  Frank's garage, resembling Aladdin's cave, is often left open.  It seems that there is no crime in this country.

When we're thinking about heading off to bed, Frank is heading out to work - cleaning supermarkets with his teenaged son, Brage, to earn a little money.  He's re-training to be a nurse and also has some income from a tenant on the ground floor of the house - a common practice in this growing university city where accomodation costs are high.   We catch a little of the Olympics on the telly - the big event is the women's handball: Norway versus Sweden.  We are only Frank's second guests.  His first, a fella called Ota whom we happened to have met in Tromso, left his library language cds with Frank so we offer to return them to the library - not realising there's a huge overdue fine to pay.*
hmm......this isn't on our map
In the end we are sad to leave - but as Frank has already worried that we might be enjoying his hospitality too much it would be rude to stay any longer.  We are better behaved when we leave the city - using the cycle paths to head southwards. 

*only kidding Ota

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

the stone house

It's been a glorious sunny afternoon.  We've had a fairly short day but it's been up and down on little back roads and we get slower as the day progresses.  On one hill we are overtaken by a woman who is power-walking.   But the final descent is fast and furious down to the sea and the quayside for our last ferry ride.  There's a small town on the other side of the fjord - can it be Trondheim?  We have arranged to Couch Surf with Frank but we are a day early and so we think about camping before we reach the city.  But it's hard to find anywhere as all the farmland is being used for wheat crops.  We take the ferry across and ignore the campsite at the quayside there.  It looks like a car park for camper vans, and hey, we've had absolutely no problem wild camping so far.

Half an hour later, we're riding along the main road in the wrong direction checking every field and woods for a spot and feeling a bit desperate.  There's a back road that will take us back to the ferry port and we might just find a spot....... It's all uphill.  Not just a little bit, but all of it.  There's no sign of anywhere to camp - all wheat fields or houses, or not flat enough.  We're sweaty and weary and feeling a bit daft.  I've just got off my bike to push when a car slows down and the woman driving asks us "Are you lost? Can I help?"  We tell her we're looking for a free camp for the night. After a brief pause she invites us to camp in her garden.  "We live in the stone house at the top of the hill - you can't miss it"  She speaks with an English accent but she's not English.  However, she can read our minds.  "My husband's English", she explains.

At the top of the hill, surrounded by the now familiar typical Norwegian wooden houses, is a stone house. The Stone House.  Trude meets us when we arrive and introduces us to Chris, her husband, and Jenny and Lewis, their children.  It turns out Chris' parents are over on a visit too, but despite this, we are invited in to shower, share dinner and sleep inside too.  Their spontaneous hospitality is warming and affecting and we have a lovely evening chatting till late. It turns out Chris is a stone mason for Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.  This cathedral is the focal point of the Christian church in Norway, built for the Viking King Olaf who was killed whilst trying to introduce christianity to Norway. (Mind you, some say he was asking for it, as he liked to convert by the sword.)  The church is still a pilgrimage site to this day and it strikes us that Chris has found himself a top job.  The house he built himself using all his spare time and effort and resourcefulness.  It's a grand accomplishment and has become a bit of a landmark for folk all around.  The Norwegians don't build stone houses, they build wooden ones.

an Englishman's home is his castle

In the end we stay up late talking about cycle touring (they have both done cycle trips and Trude has cycled the length of Norway), Chris' adaption to Norwegian ways and language, and on and on into the night.  When we set off in the morning after farewells we cannot help but feel so lucky and happy that Trude stopped to help us this evening and welcomed us into her family. And we wonder how many people would do the same for strangers?