An amazing discovery in the Finnish forest

I went on an island adventure the other day. Well, I walked to Lauttasaari, an island about 3km from the city centre and connected by a wide bridge.  The sea looked amazing as I crossed over, the mild temperatures evident in the partially frozen water.

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Home to just over 20,000 residents and the Finnish Sauna Society, Lauttasaari is about 4km square in size. I walked around one side and back along the coast relishing the rarely shining sun.

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And then the most amazing thing happened. I came across a village of mini houses, set amongst the trees.

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I was stunned. Painted in different colours these tiny houses were set evenly apart and looked well-loved but as though all the residents had simply up and left.

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I marvelled at how tiny they were, just a minute’s walk from the beach and it was surprising to see that some even had chimneys!

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They are of course kesämökit (summer cottages), a huge part of Finnish life. Helsinki city empties over summer as nearly every Finnish family heads to theirs. Even with the long winters, on average Finns use their summer cottages 80 days of the year. 

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It’s amazing to see photos of the same cottages in summer here – the difference in the landscape is incredible and you’ll even see this cottage with the same dress hanging in the window.

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Apparently in the 1920s, the City of Helsinki offered poorer residents tents so they could experience summer vacations. Soon people began to ask to be allowed to build something sturdier and in 1946 an architect created a single design for the cottages, which were allowed to be 12 square metres in size. The residents own the cottage, there is no electricity, water is only turned on in summer and there are shared outdoor toilets (Source: Green Hearts).

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We’ve yet to experience a holiday in a kesämökki and I can’t wait to see inside – although these tiny cottages are not typical of most summer cottages in Finland. But I’ll be sure to visit again in summer when the leaves and grass have grown back and they are once again full of life.

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City Cottage – Inside a modern-day example of one of these summer cottages

Little House on the Baltic – the story of the owners

The Essentials of Cottage Life – Visit Finland

Walking through a winter wonderland

There are so many new traditions for us here in Finland, especially around Christmas time. On Sunday we headed over to Seurasaari for our first Christmas path.

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2.30pm Helsinki – just before sunset

Seurasaari is an island connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge. We caught a bus there full of families, babies in strollers, children and dogs. We squashed in together and there was a feeling of excitement in the air.

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The bridge was decorated and there was a tree where children could hang homemade decorations. I’m not sure of the significance of these bundles of wheat but they seem to be popular at Christmas time and Saint Lucia holds one in her arms.

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Seurasaari is an open air museum that features buildings in original styles from around Finland. You can wander the island for free or pay to enter different museum exhibits.

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Upon arrival we were greeted by women handing out maps and Christmas cards and there was also a group of carollers.

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The Christmas path followed the main walking track around the island with special events dotted along the way amongst the old buildings.

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Before long we came across a group of forest animals handing out piparkakut (ginger biscuits) to the children.

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Back off dad – kids only

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Soon we came across a sign pointing the way to ‘Lasten puuro’ (children’s porridge).

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I’d read on the website to bring a bowl and spoon and so we lined up like Oliver Twist and Miko was spooned out a share. We joined other families at long tables set with milk and cinnamon mixed with sugar.

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With warm bellies full of rice porridge we set off again and came across a row of buildings bedecked with ginger-bread. Check out the foundations on these houses.

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Look at foundations on these buildings!

The path was decorated all the way around the island with handmade crafts and traditional Finnish pieces. Colourful scarves were tied around tree trunks to show the way.

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 By 3.30pm the light was beginning to fade but lights and candles brightened the gloom.

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Around the next corner we came across a large group of people singing Christmas carols. There was also a large area where people could burn candles.

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Many Finns will visit the cemetery on Christmas morning to light candles just like these on the graves of loved ones.

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Along we walked until we came to a clearing with stalls selling glöggi (mulled wine) and a woman leading children in traditional songs and dances. Best of all was the chance to see Joulupukki (Santa Claus) and his wife – and despite the amount of people – no queue!

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After staying for a while and enjoying the moment we walked on as the sun had dropped quite low and taken the temperature with it.

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We walked through a maze made out of hay bales, but the best was yet to come! We came across a field full of people cooking over fires. We were handed a stick with damper on and found our cooking spot.

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It’s a Christmas miracle that Jonny’s hair did not catch alight

It was soon time to leave and make our way home. We had one of those amazing experiences where, despite the large crowds, a bus pulled up just as we arrived at the bus stop and we managed to get a seat.

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This was a free event and one we all really enjoyed. I would highly recommend it if you’re in Helsinki this time next year.

We will be celebrating Christmas on the 24th December here in Finland. I send a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read my blog this year, commented, added information and advice. As well as staying in touch with friends & family back home I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of meeting some great Finnish people through my blog and I’m very grateful for these new friends and how they love to show us Finnish life, often inviting us to places & events they know we’ve never seen before.

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I get a few emails from people travelling to Helsinki and have been asked by a teacher if she can share my stories with her Russian students. I also love hearing from people who have lived here and like to share memories about their life in Finland. I’ve even been contacted by a doctor in Israel asking where to buy ice skates in Helsinki! Thank you for all your input.

Wishing you all a very Hyvää Joulua!

xx

Bringing Cricket to Finland

Trip Advisor is a good way to find things to do in your city. I recommend it even if you have lived somewhere for a long time. A recent browse led me to Pihlajasaari (Rowan Island) – a small island 3km off the coast of Helsinki.

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After fearing summer would never come, July has been amazing and it was on a very sunny day that Miko and I walked to Ruoholahti and caught the boat across. They seem to leave every 15 minutes in summer. The return fare is 6 euro and as usual, children under seven travel free.

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Pihlajasaari is actually made up of two islands connected by a footbridge. It has an area of about 26 hectares in total and has no permanent residents, although you can camp on the eastern island. There is also a restaurant and a sauna you can hire.

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Back on the main beach there’s a gorgeous row of wooden changing sheds. Pihlajasaari is also home to a unisex nudist beach, one of only two in the whole country. That beach apparently has very little sand though and is not suitable for swimming….

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The view back to Helsinki is of Länsisatama (West Harbour) where some of the big cruise ships to Tallinn and St Petersburg berth. It’s quite astonishing to be relaxing on the beach, hear a loud noise and then see a huge 3000-passenger ferry the size of a large building come sliding into view.

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Miko slept for two hours in the stroller so I enjoyed the luxury of reading my book before he joined me in the water. It’s quite different to the beaches we are used to, as although it is the sea, it is not very salty at all, there is no surf and swimming is hardly affected by the tides.

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As we got off the boat on the way home Miko dropped his cricket bat about 10 feet down into the water. I was ready to kiss it goodbye but a small rescue effort was deployed which ended up involving a man in a fishing boat coming across and hauling it out for us. A small cheer went up from the crowd that had gathered, which was really nice considering some may have not even known what a cricket bat was!

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A Little Island Paradise – in Helsinki

Saturday morning was spent buying paint and supplies for our new apartment. With no car and a two-year-old in tow we felt we deserved a slice of pizza and a drink in the sun once our mission was complete.

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Ravintola Skiffer on Liuskaluoto

We walked down to Meripuisto which looks out onto a few small islands in the Gulf of Finland. You could almost swim across if you had to but its a busy waterway and still pretty cold. We saw loads of boats go by, including a large wooden one with a sauna and benches on the back deck to sit on while you cool down.

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We caught a small ferry across to an island where there are a few jetties, a shop for boaties and 24-hour diesel pumps. Just further along is Skiffer, an outdoor bar with a menu specialising in wood-fired pizza.

The bar and outdoor seating at Skiffer

The bar and outdoor seating at Skiffer

It felt so good to be outside, sitting in the sun and enjoying the atmosphere which was not unlike that of an Australian beer garden. The music was good, Miko played happily, it was the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

I'm glad I spent it with you...

We stayed a few hours before catching a ferry back. They seem to run every ten minutes or so with the last one on a Saturday being at midnight.

I think this is a floating wood-fired sauna

A floating wood-fired sauna

The next day the temperatures plummeted and we bussed to Ikea in freezing rain, only to realise on arrival that it didn’t open for another hour. With temperatures lately forecast to reach a ‘high’ of 12 degrees we have learnt to savour moments like we had at Skiffer and to make the most of the nordic sun while it’s here.

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Looking back to the city

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An island of animals never before seen

Helsinki Zoo (Korkeasaari)  is one of the oldest in the world and is home to a treasury of animals that seem very exotic to us Southern Hemisphere folk. Established in 1889 it is housed on an island which you can access by ferry or bus. On a sunny but crisp spring day we took the bus, as like many things in Finland the ferries are on limited service until June.

The bridge to Korkeasaari

The bridge to Korkeasaari

The girl in the ticket office told us no balloons were allowed inside the zoo so we had to hand over the one Miko had been given at Helsinki Central Railway Station and leave it in the office with my name on it. I thought this was a good idea as I do worry about balloon skins being left around where birds or small animals can eat them.

Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?

Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?

Like most people I have mixed feelings about zoos but if they’re for education this zoo really did provide us with an opportunity to see animals we have never seen before or have only seen in books. It was wonderful, like walking around Dr Doolittle’s island or a world where new animals are invented. Some animals looked familiar with just a slight difference about them – like the Mongolian horses or Hemione who were no doubt offended by us mistakenly calling them ‘donkeys‘.

Idyllic setting for crazy nesting birds

Idyllic setting for crazy nesting birds

We were greeted at the front of the zoo by a sign warning us about the Canadian geese on site. It’s breeding season here and they are aggressively protecting their nests at the moment. Built at ground level the nests are quite large and dotted throughout the zoo gardens.  One bird will sit on top of three or so eggs while its mate fiercely launches attacks on hapless passersby. It made for a day of much dodging and squealing as these large birds bore down on people honking and flapping their wings while the nest-warmer smugly changed position on top of its brood.

Not much further now Shirley...

One mongoose, two … mongeese?

Due to the cold temperatures here some animals are moved inside for winter and so there are no elephants, giraffes or zebras like we see at home. Inside the Tropical House we saw lots of crazy little moustachioed tamarins that could fit comfortably in your hand if they would sit still long enough. They are named Keisaritamariini in reference to the moustache favoured by the German Emperor at the end of the 1800s.

A jurt (yurt)

A jurt (yurt)

We spent most the day saying ‘What is that?’ and searching for the names of each species of animal on its sign. We saw Brazilian Aguti, Patagonian Mara and Vicuna, Bactrian camels with two shaggy humps and Pére David’s deer which looked a bit like reindeer to us. It was really hard to take photos that do the zoo and its inhabitants justice but I really recommend checking out the Helsinki Zoo website which includes information in English and pictures of ice sculpting and other events.

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Kind of like an Ibis in a red dress

And what of the balloon? Well, I dutifully approached the girl in the ticket office and said ‘Um, there’s a balloon here for Mel?’ and gave it to Miko who then saw the ice cream stand and in his excitement let go of the string. We watched the balloon immediately head high up in the sky, giddy with new found freedom after listening to the girls in the office for the last three hours, and can only hope it headed back to the city and not to Korkeasaari.

www.korkeasaari.fi