This trip was a purely solo whim, timed for when my wife was on a girly trip elsewhere in late June 2015. I had always wondered what the midnight sun experience might be like and had a desire to visit Scandinavia as a tourist. This trip popped up on my computer screen as a suggestion from a tour operator I had travelled with before. But, eventually I booked it through a small company in Finland, Vastergard Outdoors and my contact there, Tom C, could not have been more helpful.
The Archipelago Trail is a circular tour of about 250km, island-hopping around an area of the Baltic Sea containing, according to one source, 20,000 islands (http://www.visitfinland.com/article/cycling-the-archipelago-trail/).
I started the tour in Turku; the oldest and, for hundreds of years, the most important city in Finland. Turku is the usual place to join the tour. I was self-guided and self-supporting, using panniers supplied with the bike to carry everything. The tour operator arranged all the accommodation, 6 B&Bs and one full board, and gave me the travel details and ferry times, and one ferry ticket; the rest were free.
I flew to Helsinki from Heathrow by Norwegian airlines. The flight took two and a half hours and at £103 for the return trip. I thought it was very reasonable but I did book very early. Finland is further away from UK than I had imagined and is in a time zone 2 hours ahead of UK. Helsinki airport was very busy and I was surprised by the apparent lack of security. I was walking round for nearly an hour and did not notice any troops or police at all. Buses for Turku were easy to find. By the time I had worked out which stop and number bus I needed I had just missed one so I had time to visit an in-terminal convenience store and get something to eat and some emergency bars for my tour. I was told that I had to change buses at IKEA – where else!- and this worked fine.
Turku is just under 200km from Helsnki to the north west. The bus used motorways most of the time and two things struck me. First was the prevalence of lupins on motorway verges and, as I discovered later, virtually everywhere else in Finland. They are mostly blue or pink and I have just found a song written about them ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6hCAmCTvq0). (Incidentally Lupins are not native to Finland they are all aliens, escapees from gardens and exceedingly successful.) The other thing is signboards on motorway verges with two temperatures displayed. One was clearly the air temperature; when I arrived it was about 22C. The other was much higher 37 to 40. Later I discovered that this is the temperature of the road surface, not much use in summer but in colder months…
When I arrived in Turku, at the bus station, I had only a name of my hotel. Luckily I spotted a city map on a notice board but on my way to the map I looked up and saw my hotel right before my eyes, even more lucky. My bike was stood outside the hotel and inside I was given my panniers and last minute instructions. It was almost 7pm so, after a quick shower, I went out to find something to eat and take a look around the city. I set off towards the River Aura that joins the Baltic at Turku and walked past Turku Cathedral
The Cathedral is considered to be the most important religious building in Finland. The earliest building on that site was built in the 13th century. The river is lined by eating- houses and bars, quite expensive and mostly shutting when I was walking past. I was very amused by the giant eider duck floats in the river nearby.Time was pressing and I was not having any luck in finding a suitable place to eat so I ended up in a Macdonalds close by my hotel.
I planned to have an early start and make the most of my time but waking to full daylight at 4am was not part of the plan. I knew that breakfast was available from 06.30 and eventually went down at 06.45 and was startled to find at least six people already well into their meal. The schedule for the day was only 40km and I had planned a couple of detours but my route finding, following the guidebook, was not perfect and I think I actually rode about 70km in all.
I set off just after 7. At first I was following the instructions alongside the river and looking at the attractive buildings and old boats. I took a ferry across the river rather than using a bridge further on and was pretty pleased with things. Then it unravelled. Town and street names in Finland are given on signs in both Finnish and Swedish and, it seems to me, that Finnish, at least, glories in using as many letters in a word as it can. So when the tour instructions said “Turn left into Artakaistenata” I did not realise it is not the same as Artakaistentie. (Though as I type this I realise what a fool I was!)
I need to make a short digression to explain a couple of points in that last paragraph. About 10% of the population of Finland speak Swedish and at many points in Finland’s history it was ruled by Sweden. In fact Finland’s history is extraordinarily complex and bloody, an excellent shortened version can be found at http://www.localhistories.org/finland.html. I may be very wrong about prolific letter use in Finnish but I offer two examples to make my point. The Finnish word for balcony is parvekkeelle, from hotel room instructions, and that for “to garden” (a random pick from Google translate) is hoitaa puutarhaa.
After passing through a dockland area of Turku, I took an intended deviation onto the island of Ruissalo. Although very close to Turku, Ruissalo is almost all open country, farmland and forest. It is about 7km long by 2km at its widest and I read somewhere that the population is around 100. The island has some excellent bike trails passing through woodland and open country. When I was there one field had a massive tent and other facilities for what looked like an open air festival. (I have just discovered this was for Ruisrock a concert by Amorphis – sorry never heard of them! but they must be popular because it was a massive area with very substantial fencing.) This is a picture taken on Ruissalo but the scene is very typical of the countryside on tour and it could have been taken on any of the islands I visited.
After returning to the mainland I unintentionally went completely off-piste. Eventually I had to resort to using the sun to guide me in a roughly north west direction and found a cycle path heading towards Naantali a town on my itinerary. Naantali is a very pretty town and a tourist magnet. It has a fascinating old city centre with many old wooden buildings and narrow roads next to the harbour and water front. I spent quite a time looking around these streets trying to locate the correct way out!
On the correct road out of Naantali I crossed over the Naantalinsalmi strait on two bridges to reach the island of Kulturanti. My overnight accommodation was in a large resort complex, still being created with a golf course, marina, hotel and new houses and apartments. Despite my detours, intended and otherwise, I arrived in the early afternoon and had time to look around and mend the wifi in my room, although, there was not actually that much to see. The resort was on a single road that cut through forest, there were a few houses being built and the golf course, but little else. However, my room was very comfortable and well appointed and the golf clubhouse had a reasonable but quiet restaurant where I ate that evening. My room was on the first floor of the rather austere block shown below.
The wildlife and flowers on the whole tour were outstanding. The wildlife highlight of my first day was spotting hares in open fields and around my hotel block. Another notable natural feature of the entire trip was the widespread presence of glaciated rock exposures; huge expanses of smooth curvy rock surfaces usually with abundant lichen growth.
After my early start and a delicious fish and chip supper with a beer in the golf club bar. I was in bed by 9 but woke early again around 5. Breakfast started at 8 so I was all ready to leave around 8.30 on my second day on a rather gloomy morning.