Helsinki and Vantaa in Late November. I: Central Helsinki

Merisatamanranta Quay, as seen from Uunisaari Island. Helsinki, Uusimaa Region, Finland

If there is one city I love the most in the world, that would be Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Stockholm might be a close tie, and it’s, objectively speaking, prettier and has more sights, but still, I love Finland more, and thus I love Helsinki more. It looks perfect to me in nearly every way imaginable, specifically perfect as a place to live in. And when I’m talking about Helsinki, I usually mean Greater Helsinki, the whole metropolitan area. Helsinki proper has a population of 630,000, but with its suburbs it’s closer to 1.4 million. The closest suburbs are Espoo and Vantaa, which pretty much completely blend into Helsinki from the west and from the north respectively.

I’m actually not all that familiar with Helsinki; my go-to places for weekend trips are smaller towns and natural sights within reasonable driving distance from the Russian border, and on my vacations, I try to go much farther north. Still, back in March I had a marvelous trip, when I just walked all the way from the center of Helsinki to Espoo (Espoon Keskus area) alone on foot, and got to see a pretty significant slice of Helsinki and Espoo on my way. Last weekend, in late November, I decided to do pretty much the same, only with Vantaa this time. Just walking around, not trying to see any particular sights, just enjoying Finnish streets and suburbs.

For the first time in nearly two years, I decided to choose a different mode of travel than my car. I’m not a fan of winter driving. Road conditions probably weren’t that terrible, but it just takes up a lot of time, and daylight hours up here in November are pretty short. So it’s either waste these precious hours on driving (at least 4.5 hours from St. Petersburg to Helsinki one way), or drive before/after dark, which is twice as exhausting. In the end I decided to buy tickets for the Allegro train.

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Nord Norge 2016. I. What Northern Norway is all about


Lyngen Alps Mountains from afar. Gaivuotna-Kåfjord Municipality, Troms County, Norway

  • Introduction
  • I. What Northern Norway is all about
  • II. Our trip in brief
  • III. Kola Route
  • IV. Petrozavodsk
  • V. Murmansk
  • VI. Varanger. Vadsø
  • VII. Varanger. Vardø
  • VIII. Varanger. Hamningberg and Kiberg
  • IX. North Cape. Honningsvåg
  • X. North Cape. The Cape itself
  • XI. North Cape. Kirkeporten and Knivskjellodden
  • XII. Alta
  • XIII. Lyngen Alps. Steindalsbreen Glacier
  • XIV. Lyngen Alps. Blåvatnet Lake
  • XV. Tromsø. Downtown
  • XVI. Tromsø. Museums and Storsteinen Mountain
  • XVII. Senja
  • XVIII. Treriksröset
  • XIX. Return Journey

So. This is Norway:

One thing you can immediately notice is that it is the northernmost country of Europe, even excluding Svalbard, those islands very far up north (actually a shared Norwegian-Russian possession). A large fraction of Norway in fact lies beyond the Arctic Circle.

Another thing you can notice is that its coastline is very rough and irregular, which is very obvious even on such a small map. The irregularities are in fact the famous Norwegian fjords. The whole country, excluding only the very south, pretty much consists of fjords, mountains, and mountain plateaus. This is in fact the consequence of its northern location. Most of modern Finland, Sweden, and Norway was completely covered by a huge glacier in the Ice Age. The glacier ended up shaping these countries to what they are today. In Finland, for example, it scraped away the relatively thin sedimentary layer to expose the bedrock and gouge innumerable lakes. But Norway is very much unlike Finland in that it has actual mountains, the Scandinavian Mountains, formed 400 million years ago. The glacier carved enormous precipitous valleys between these mountains, which, once flooded, became fjords. Accidentally, it turns out these fjords are among the most beautiful places in the world.

It’s hard to say how many fjords there are in Norway, as they vary enormously in size, and many major fjords in fact branch into numerous arms, forming a fractal-shaped landscape. The best known fjords are located in Western Norway, but from the map you can see that the very north looks also quite fjord-y as well.

Continue reading “Nord Norge 2016. I. What Northern Norway is all about”

Nord Norge 2016. Introduction


Hamningberg Road (Finnmark Country Road 341), going to Hamningberg village along the northern shore of Varanger Peninsula in the extreme northeast of Norway; the most beautiful road I every drove on. Vardø Municipality, Finnmark County, Norway

  • Introduction
  • I. What Northern Norway is all about
  • II. Our trip in brief
  • III. Kola Route
  • IV. Petrozavodsk
  • V. Murmansk
  • VI. Varanger. Vadsø
  • VII. Varanger. Vardø
  • VIII. Varanger. Hamningberg and Kiberg
  • IX. North Cape. Honningsvåg
  • X. North Cape. The Cape itself
  • XI. North Cape. Kirkeporten and Knivskjellodden
  • XII. Alta
  • XIII. Lyngen Alps. Steindalsbreen Glacier
  • XIV. Lyngen Alps. Blåvatnet Lake
  • XV. Tromsø. Downtown
  • XVI. Tromsø. Museums and Storsteinen Mountain
  • XVII. Senja
  • XVIII. Treriksröset
  • XIX. Return Journey

Year 2016 has finally been the year I had both the time and the means to make a kind of journey I really always dreamed about. Sure, Sweden and especially Lapland last year were quite nice, but Sweden felt too rushed overall, and Lapland trip, while a completely surreal experience for me, still had a rather limited scope. So I allocated a pretty huge sum of money for the summer of 2016, and booked three vacations in a row at work. And the first one, in July, was going to be the longest. Two weeks, or 16 days, including the preceding weekend.

This time my only companion was my friend Olga. We originally wanted to do a trip to Iceland. We drew up an itinerary and all, but ultimately, decided to go with something else. While in theory we could afford Iceland, the margin for error was going to be rather thin. Plane tickets to Iceland cost a lot, and then of course you have to rent a car there, or you’re not going to see much of Iceland*.

* Actually, there is a way to visit Iceland while driving your own car. There is a ferry line connecting Iceland with Denmark, via Faeroe Islands. The ferry trip is long and costs a fortune too, though, and just driving to Denmark isn’t a very small undertaking in itself. Of course I still want to do this someday too!

Well, our next choice was Northern Norway. We had had only a fleeting experience with Norway before, just enough to know it is utterly amazing and really the most beautiful place on earth. On my Lapland journey I actually drove a bit around a small bit of Northern Norway, but didn’t have the time even for a small bit of hiking. Well, we intended this time to be quite different!

As a matter of fact, there are two ways to drive to Northern Norway from St. Petersburg, Russia. First, you can go through Finland. It’s a pretty safe bet; the quality of the roads is very nice, the traffic is fairly light, and there are many routes you can choose. There are six border crossings from Finland to Norway. The only downside is that driving through most of Finland is relatively boring. Apart from some parts of Lapland and Karelia, the views are decidedly unimpressive. Unless you happen to like trees a lot, I mean.

The other option is, of course, going through Russia! I got my driving license in January 2013, and clocked at least some 70,000 kilometers by July 2016, but I was still very wary of driving extended distances in Russia. Narrow and sometimes poor roads, lots and lots of suicidally reckless drivers, and usually quite significant traffic with a lot of overloaded trucks do not really make for a nice driving experience too. Still, the St. Petersburg — Petrozavodsk — Murmansk — Norwegian border road, the Kola Route (signposted as M-18 or more properly R-21) was, as far as I knew, a fairly nice one as far as Russian roads go. And we’d get to visit two major Russian cities we would be unlikely to visit otherwise: Petrozavodsk and Murmansk!

Continue reading “Nord Norge 2016. Introduction”