Friday, 7 October 2016

Ferry - Hook of Holland to Harwich - Thursday, 6 October

This morning, we drove about thirteen miles across beautiful flat farming countryside, through villages, with canals sometimes running parallel, to reach the town of Gouda, famous for its cheese. Although we have seen plenty of wind turbines in The Netherlands, there are still some old-fashioned windmills and we actually saw one working today which was a fine sight to behold.

Plunging right into the centre of the town, we suddenly found ourselves driving along narrow tree-lined, cobbled roads, one way along one side of a canal and, on the other side of the canal, traffic going the other way. Needing to park, we found a space next to a canal and I very cautiously reversed into it, being very careful not to end up in the canal. I'm sure that vehicles get fished out of canals from time to time.

We wandered along picturesque streets, amazed by the number of bicycles being ridden by people of all ages. In a town such as Gouda, where the roads are absolutely flat, it makes so much sense.

We went into the tourist information office, occupying the ground floor of a historic building, constructed in about 1686. Here, we paid to visit the cheese museum on the first and second floors. We were the only visitors and were given a personal potted history of the building by one of the museum curators. Upstairs, there was short film about the cheese-making process. Going back downstairs, we sampled various examples of farmhouse Gouda. Gouda, together with Edam, are cheeses that I tend to avoid at home as they are generally rubbery and tasteless. I assume that those are factory-made rubbish. The cheeses we tasted were delicious and we parted with some cash.

Around the corner from the museum was a traditional cheese shop and we couldn't resist going in just to have look. Well, that was the idea. There were so many Gouda cheeses to try and we were persuaded to buy some, saying that it could go in the freezer for Christmas. We have Gouda flavoured with green pesto, red pesto, Gouda made from goats' milk, from sheeps' milk, young and mature. In chatting to the lady owner, we established that her in-laws live in the same very small village in England as our son.

For a late lunch, we made our way to Toko Ina, an Indonesian shop that sells all sorts of spices and food ingredients, together with cooked Indonesian food to take away. They also have tables providing seating for just six people to eat in. We each chose a meal comprising rice, two meat dishes and two vegetable dishes, together with a drink, all for €11 each. It was a cracking good meal and a fine way to round off our tour of Northern Europe.

We then drove through rush hour traffic to the ferry terminal, in plenty of time for the night crossing home, following signs for Hoek van Holland and then Engeland. Disconcertingly, the check-in opened a good hour earlier than scheduled and we were in our cabin by 7.30pm, the time check-in was due to start. Just before take off, the captain announced that we would have a "moderate to rough, but steady, crossing" but hopefully being horizontal will make it bearable.

Last posting from foreign lands - well, foreign seas to be exact because we are already aboard the ferry at Hook of Holland.

It has been a lovely last day. Woke to a beautiful, bright, chilly autumn morning, and we could have been on the Norfolk Broads. (I have to make a correction to yesterday's posting; we are beside the River Ijssel, not a canal). It is a splendid site.

Gouda, halfway between Ijsselstein and the ferry port, was the obvious choice for a last day of exploring, and proved to be an excellent one. It is like a mini Amsterdam, really lovely. We found ourselves in the old centre very quickly, all one way roads beside canals, and decided to park in one of the canal side parking spaces. I vetoed the first one Geoff wanted to go for - very, very close to the edge of the canal with no barrier at all, and we found one with a little bit more room to manoeuvre, but not much! The parking fee was gulp-making, but it was very convenient, and our last day! The meter refused two of our cards, but happily accepted the third. No idea why.

It was a short walk along the canal and down a narrow, picturesque lane of interesting shops to the Markt, with the rather ornate Town Hall in its centre. It was market day too. We first checked out a place Geoff had discovered online, where we fancied having a late lunch, of which more later. Then St Johannes Kirke, which was like a Tardis, and is particularly famed for its stained glass windows. It apparently has over half the surviving 16th century stained glass in the Netherlands.

From there we returned to the other side of the Markt, to the Cheese Museum. Here we had our own "guides" on each of two floors in what was originally built as a warehouse in the 17th century, climbing up two long spiral staircases. We learnt how Gouda cheeses are made, and saw all sorts of cheese making paraphernalia. Of course they were selling cheese, and yes, of course, we bought supplies. This tastes nothing like the Gouda Cheese available in England. One is a Goat's cheese, and there are others at various stages of maturity.

The lady guide, being rather disloyal, had told us about the best other place to buy cheese. We found that one, of course, and it was amazing. We were getting a bit peckish by now, so tasting all the cheeses available was very pleasurable. We had to find a basket to collect the ones we wanted, and the choice was difficult. We got chatting to the lady in charge - manager or owner, not sure, but she referred to "my cheese'' - and it transpired that her parents-in-law live in the same very small village in West Sussex as James and Natalie! Small world!

Then it was time to eat properly so we decided to leave the town museum, with its Erasmus exhibition, for another time. The little Indonesian place was a real find. It is a shop, selling all sorts of Indonesian ingredients, and also ready cooked Indonesian dishes. It also has a nicely laid out table which can seat up to six in the window so that you can eat there. There were lots of different meat and vegetable dishes to choose from, and we had the set price meal - two meat and two veg dishes with rice. It was all very tasty indeed.

Strolling back to the campervan, we agreed that this was a place we would be happy to revisit.
An hour's drive along the now familiar horrendously busy A20 and we were at the Hook of Holland by 5.30, very early for check-in which wasn't scheduled to open until 7.30, but happy to be in position and make ourselves comfortable in the camper with a cup of tea. We were then taken by surprise when they opened the check-in at 6.30, and by 7.30 we were all aboard and settled in our cabin. Which even has a double bed!

With so much unexpected time here, we grabbed the DVD player to bring on board with us in case we fancy an episode or two of Mad Men.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

IJsselstein, south of Utrecht - Wednesday, 5 October

An early morning walk around Bad Bentheim made a good start to the day. The satnav took us to Lidl but only to where it used to be. We eventually found the new one not far away. We got various odds and bits of wine and beer. A lot of it is ridiculously inexpensive. The beer, for instance, (good German beer) was €1.99 for six 500ml bottles.

It was then only a few miles to the border into The Netherlands. We took the motorway towards Apeldoorn and then Utrecht and the traffic was horrendous. Bunches of articulated lorries and then having to wait for a space to move out to overtake. Then, exiting, in no time at all, we were on a single carriageway road and then on a single track road to our camperstop. It is a marina on the River IJssel. There are just seven places and it all seems quite new. We are parked looking out on to the river.

First stop today Lidl to stock up on wine. It will be interesting to see what prices are like in Holland where we won't have to do calculations to compare different currencies. A lot of things are really inexpensive in Germany compared to home, which comes as a bit of a surprise. Beer and wine especially so.

The motorway from Bad Bentheim to Utrecht, two hours plus but felt like more, was pretty manic and packed with lorries again; the Utrecht Ring Road in particular was like the M25. Geoff was very pleased to turn off it and immediately we were in quiet country roads and peaceful countryside, and only a few minutes drive from our night's Camperstop at Ijsselstein. This canal side area, with a marina just the other side of a pedestrian bridge spanning the canal, appears to be brand new and is splendidly laid out with facilities for just seven campervans, and moorings for boats. There is also a smart modern restaurant, and foot/cycle paths aplenty across the flat open countryside. The weather has been beautiful, if a bit on the breezy side, and there was a lovely sunset complementing the almost new moon.

A very nice setting for our last night before the overnight ferry back to Harwich tomorrow. But we still have a full day to enjoy, and only an hour's drive left to the Hook of Holland.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Bad Bentheim, Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) - Tuesday, 4 October

Nienburg didn't detain us this morning, although I'd gone out for a walk into town before breakfast and found some excellent wifi in the high street. We chatted with an older couple from Schleswig Holstein. He was most impressed with our compact camper van. We told him he was not the first! He said that he prefers rather more space and comfort at his age. Will we feel the same way in a few years time?

Having experienced some odd noises from the camper yesterday, we espied a VW garage a few miles out of Nienburg. I thought it was a wheel bearing noise. The garage was very helpful and in no time a mechanic drove the camper with me as a passenger and then got it up on a lift. It seems that it isn't wheel bearings but uneven tyre wear and this is causing road noise. Certainly, there shouldn't be a problem in getting home so nothing to worry about. There was no charge for which we were extremely grateful. What excellent service.

Today was mainly a driving day. We drove to a Lidl and bought a few odd bottles of wine. We are particularly interested in German red wine so bought two bottles with a view to having a tasting this evening.

We ran into some very slow traffic for a while but then some rather scary autobahn. Overtaking was OK but it was necessary to check the near side mirror very carefully as cars tended to hurtle at breakneck speed in the outside lane.

We arrived at Bad Bentheim late afternoon. The Camperstop is in a car park just below a castle. There are about a dozen others here. There are loos nearby and we even have free wifi in the camper, all for €8. We took a walk into the village this evening and it is really nice. Apart from the castle, there are also museums and rather nice bars, restaurants, etc.

We had our wine tasting and will find another Lidl tomorrow (which isn't difficult) to buy some bottles to take home.

There was no great hurry to get away this morning to do the next leg of the journey across Germany, aiming tonight for somewhere not far from the Dutch border. We chatted to a distinguished elderly German gentleman and his wife who were interested in the camper. Not luxurious or spacious enough for them though. Cosy, he called it. Which it is, of course.

We made a couple of stops on the 25 mile stretch to get to the motorway. The first was at the Volkswagen dealer and service garage which we came across conveniently located just outside Nienburg. We had both become aware yesterday of what we at first thought was road noise, but it didn't go away. Nothing too alarming but a definite rhythmic grumbling. Geoff thought it might be a wheel bearing, and had been undecided as to whether we should get it checked out. So we did.

The manager was very helpful, immediately got a mechanic, who took the camper out for a drive with Geoff, leaving me with my coffee and the paper comfortably settled in the showroom. He could hear the noise, jacked the camper up and investigated , and diagnosed it as uneven tyre wear. Definitely not wheel bearings. And not a problem. No charge, and we were on our way again.

The second stop was at a Lidl to pick up some German wines for sampling tonight before deciding which to buy in slightly larger quantities to take home.

Once we had got through a very slow diversion just after joining the motorway, the journey was not too bad, although the traffic was quite heavy and there were a huge number of very large lorries. We arrived at the Camperstop at Bad Bentheim around 5 o'clock. This is another municipal site, and has to be the most surprising. It consists of 25 spaces within the car park for the castle, and is well equipped. We are right next to the castle, which is built high on the sandstone rock for which the town is known, and is really quite big and impressive, surrounded by lovely formal gardens, and right in the centre of town. This evening before supper we walked the circuit around the castle, through the town and back through the gardens. Very pleasant. As an added bonus there is town-wide free wifi which we can access in the camper. It is no wonder that these municipal Camperstops are so well used.

There is a Town Nightwatchman who does the rounds at night telling local stories, like the one in Ribe, in Denmark, right at the beginning of our travels way back in July. Sadly, not on a Tuesday night, though.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Nienburg, Mittelweser (Germany) - Monday, 3 October

We breakfasted on the ship, having prepaid, and disembarked around 8am. We headed straight into Lübeck, only a few miles, although as it is on the south of the city, it seemed that we went quite a long way round. The city was very quiet for a Monday morning. We parked by the river and had a wander round. It was very pleasant, people fishing, sun shining. It was all a bit too early so we moved on. We wanted to avoid the inevitable traffic around Hamburg so planned to take a route south to Lüneberg.

Before we left Lübeck, however, we located a Lidl. As we drove into the car park, we realised it was virtually empty. I went over to the entrance and saw that it should be open. What was going on? As I walked back to the camper, a lady came over and said today was a "feiertag" (holiday) and so the shop was shut. Anyway, we found a garage open and bought some long life milk and a few bread rolls so we wouldn't be destitute. Amanda went online and ascertained that today is German Unity Day, a public holiday, presumably since 1989.

On we went, a very pleasant drive down to Lüneberg. Parking was a problem initially as there seemed to be a disproportionate number of "parking houses" which are out of bounds to our camper, unless we want to lower the roof. However, going down a side street, Lüner Straße, we found a space just by the church. It was then just a short walk in to the centre of the town. Here, our ears were assailed by the sound of live music and found a crowd gathered round a band, Lazy Beat Bones. They are a school band whose members are disabled and able bodied and were rather good.

Going on to the town square, there was more music and suddenly we were among numerous stalls. Far more (and better) than a Christmas market. It was a three day event, the fourteenth annual Lüneberger Sülfmeistertage, celebrating the town's history and heritage of salt mining. There was music, food and beer stalls, crafts and all sorts of other things. We grabbed our lunch for later, one roll each of brown shrimps and Bismarck herring. Apart from these festivities, none of the shops were open.

We had a quick look round the church of St. Nicholas, just over the road from where we were parked, an impressive building dating back to the 1400s. Neither this, nor any other buildings in the town suffered damage in WWII. Lüneberg is noteworthy for being the place where Montgomery accepted the German surrender; also, Heinrich Himmler's ashes are buried in an unmarked place somewhere in the surrounding Lüneberg Heath.

We planned our overnight stop at Nienburg and had a meandering drive across country to arrive here around 4pm. We are amongst other camper vans alongside the River Weser. I took a walk into town, pleasant enough but not particularly noteworthy.

A very civilised start to the day, with breakfast from 7.30 to 8.30 included in the overnight charge, then disembarkation at 9 (still on Finnish time) and the weather is lovely. Although we wouldn't want to do such a long journey again for a while, it has been a very good experience. Once again, the old fashioned feel suited us. Peace and quiet, very restful. Geoff did go a little stir-crazy yesterday, but a trip to the gym helped.

We drove straight to Lübeck, having put our watches back an hour. Even so, it seemed terribly quiet for 8.15 on a Monday morning. Was this rush hour? We parked by the river, and strolled back towards the Tourist Office, admiring the old red brick buildings. No shops open yet, but that was not surprising, and we decided not to wait another ten minutes until the TIO opened at 9, as we were a bit uncertain about the lawfulness of our parking place.

The decision had already been made to avoid the motorways around Hamburg this time, so we headed south, putting Lüneberg in the satnav - a random choice. After two days on the ferry we had an empty fridge, so stopped at Lidl. No cars in the car park, and no sign of life. It was now getting on for 9.30. As Geoff went to investigate, it dawned on me that it must be a Bank Holiday of some sort. A kind lady meanwhile had approached him, and explained in German that he was able to understand that it was indeed a public holiday.

As we continued on our way I used a day's data roaming allowance ascertaining that today is German Unity Day, a celebration of Unification, and everything is well and truly shut. All Day! I also did some research into Lüneberg, and learned that it had much of historical interest, old and relatively new, to offer, both as a Hanseatic town which had not suffered in the war, and of significance in relation to WW2. Montgomery took the German surrender here, the town hosted the Belsen trial, and Himmler committed suicide here.

We were fortunate to find a garage with a shop, and there we purchased one of two remaining cartons of UHT milk and half a dozen rolls, the best on offer, and enough to see us through. We do have a few tins of stuff remaining in our dwindling store cupboard.

Finding somewhere to park in Lüneberg proved a bit of a nightmare - all roads led to car parks with height barriers - but then, in escaping from one of said dead ends, we found a two hour roadside parking space next to St Nicolas Church, and right in the middle of the old town.

Lüneberg is a particularly attractive town, and we were already enjoying it when we came into the Town Hall Square to the sound of singing. A school band/choir, called The Lazy Beat Bones. They were very good and I will see if I can find out more about them when I can get internet access. We strolled on down the next street, where there were a few street food stalls. And then we emerged into the main town square to a full scale street fair going on. Think German Christmas Market without the Christmassy tat, just loads of great food stalls and some really nice craft stalls. It was the last day of a four day annual Town Festival. We made some purchases, some edible, some not, and got back to the camper with just enough of the two hours left to look around St Nicolas Church, which was really well worth the visit.

The satnav led us through what seemed like a rather circuitous route, which may have been to avoid a closed road, and was also in obedience to instructions to avoid motorways, to the Camperstop we had picked out at Nienburg. One very strange thing we noticed as we drove is that autumn hasn't arrived here yet, and all the leaves are still on the trees. So different from Finland, where they are settling in for the winter. It was an enjoyable meander through quiet roads and small German towns, but it is possible that the motorway may beckon tomorrow!

Nienburg itself is an unremarkable place, but the municipal Camperstop, on the banks of the river Weser and a short walk from the town, is very pleasant. And it has electric hookups, an essential requirement tonight to chill the fridge!

On board Finnmaid from Helsinki to Travemünde - Sunday, 2 October

At sea.

Relaxing at sea.

All day.

And evening.

Arrived Travemünde, Germany 10.30pm Finnish time, 9.30pm German time.

Night on board in dock.

Monday, 3 October 2016

On board Finnmaid from Helsinki to Travemünde - Saturday, 1 October

Not an eventful day, which is no bad thing once in a while. On going to empty our on-board loo (part of the deal is that this is my job), I surprised a red squirrel only four or five feet away. It froze for a few seconds and then scampered away. I have seen a few others on and off on this trip.

We left the site for the ferry terminal via Lidl. Fortunately, the terminal is only about three miles from Rastila Camping. We got there nice and early around 1pm. Check-in opened at 1.30. No problems and we were directed to lane 5 and it was another one and a half hours before we were able to board. This was done in batches by convoy. The ferry being very much a cargo ferry, we went quite a windy route of about a quarter mile to where we went on board.

Cars are loaded on forwards and, on unloading, will drive to the end and go down the other side and then off. As there is a bulkhead towards the end, we and other higher vehicles, had to reverse into position. I made rather a hash of it.

Our cabin is absolutely fine with a large rectangular window. The ship is in the process of being facelifted and modernised and so facilities were a little limited and the duty free shop quite small and also limited. Leaving just after 5pm, the weather was fine but breezy. We went out through the archipelago, enjoying the views. It is a 29 hour journey and very calm so far.

Very little to report today - and tomorrow will be even quieter! We left the campsite at 12.30 for Hansa Terminal, the city's eastern ferry terminal, just 10 minutes away, but allowed time for a stop at Lidl on the way to stock up with supplies for the voyage. We had decided not to go for the meal package, preferring to play it by ear. Check-in was easy, but with a lot of sitting in vehicles. It opened at 1.30 and closed at 3, two hours before departure. The Finnmaid is a vehicle and cargo ship, and loading up is probably quite complicated, as is the journey through the docks - vehicles are led through in small convoys.

I hadn't known what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised by the cabin. Once again we have beds rather than bunks, one of which converts into a settee for daytime use, all pretty basic but it is perfectly adequate. The ship is a complete change from yesterday's ultra modern catering for the masses. Relatively small, with just one small bar/cafe and one restaurant which has one sitting for dinner, all utilising one open space, it has an old fashioned air about it. The sun deck is just one large open space with a helicopter landing pad, and overlooks the cargo deck, full of containers. It also afforded magnificent views over the archipelago as we left port just after 5 pm with sunshine and blue skies. One last look back at Scandinavian scenery!

We ate in our cabin - very tasty prawn and smoked salmon open sandwiches from the bar, supplemented by Lidl purchases - and are now intending to settle down for a couple of episodes of Mad Men. What a brainwave to bring the camper's DVD player to the cabin! It will help to pass the time until we disembark in Germany on Monday morning. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Rastila Camping, Helsinki - Friday, 30 September

Up really early to get to West Harbour by tram and Metro. Our ferry to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, left at 8.30. We had a cabin, reserved as we went in, and it was nice because it was quite a choppy crossing and I find that the best thing to do when the ship is heaving around is to lie down. Anyway, if I'm going to be sick then I'd rather have privacy. However, all was well.

We walked into Tallinn, which wasn't far from the ferry terminal. We had a few sights to tick off. First was St. Olaf's church, a massive structure completely hemmed in by closely packed streets all around. Then we were in need of a pick me up. A café beckoned, the Bogapott. Here, we had excellent coffee and a slice of Tosca cake each. This was a meld of dried fruit and nuts on a marzipan sponge base. Definitely one to be replicated at home.

Next was the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, onion domed, and filled inside with icons and lots of gold. We then walked through to the Raekoja Plats (town hall square), lined with ancient pastel-coloured buildings, most of which seemed to be restaurants which spilled out into the square. The sight of the restaurants reminded us that it was lunchtime and we didn't fancy eating later on the ferry, particularly if if was going to be choppy. Nor were we tempted by any of the restaurants with photos of the meals on offer and/or where staff tried to get us to go in.

Having rejected a few others, we liked the look of the menu of the Olevi restaurant in Olevimägi, entered by descending steep stone steps into a cellar. It had a slightly eastern feel to it but we took to it right away. We both started with a lovely fish soup.  I then had stewed wild boar (a casserole) topped with mashed potato and a side dish of red cabbage and berry sauce. Amanda had Estonian pork cutlet. We were both very pleased with our choices and stayed quite a long time feeling very relaxed.

Emerging from the restaurant, we though we would gradually make our way back to the ferry terminal but I was attracted by another church to visit. This was the church of Saint Nikolai the Miracle-Worker, orthodox and all very ornate inside; not mentioned in Lonely Planet but it ought to be.

The ferry back to Helsinki was actually a little calmer than this morning. All in all, an excellent last day in Finland. Tomorrow we take the ferry over to Germany.

We were up at 6, and away before 6.30, on a very dark and blustery morning, to take our now familiar Metro and tram route to the Vastra Terminal, in slight trepidation this time given the weather. When we got there I went straight to the Eckerö Line Desk and booked us a cabin for both legs of the trip. Look at it as an insurance policy, I told Geoff.

It was definitely a good move. There was plenty of rolling motion for most of the two and a half hour crossing to Tallin, and it was much more comfortable to be able to lie down and enjoy the peace and quiet. The ship, MS Finlandia, can take 2000 passengers, and all the bars and restaurants, where nearly all the available inside seating is to be found, were looking pretty full. We have been so spoiled on our quiet ferry journeys!

Once we had arrived, it was great to be able to walk from the ferry terminal straight to the Old Town. The few spots of rain quickly passed, and we had alternating cloud and patchy blue skies for the rest of the day. Our first stop was St Olaf's Church (Protestant), with a roof as high as many cathedrals. From there we wandered the streets, making our way towards the Upper Old Town, where the Orthodox Andre Nevsky Cathedral and the castle are to be found. Visitors enthuse about Tallinn, and understandably so, but in some ways it is little different from other lovely towns we have seen around the Baltic.

Where it is unusual is in the way the medieval city walls, and their turreted towers, are all mixed in with the later buildings, and the large number of churches in such a small area. As well as the Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic cathedrals, there are numerous churches of all three denominations.

Coffee was much needed by this point, and we came across Bogapott, a shop, cafe and pottery studio, quirky and delightful. There we enjoyed a large coffee, and a slice of Tosca cake, a Swedish speciality that was new to us and quite delicious, all served in and on pottery made on the premises. From there it was a steep climb through an entrance in the wall and up a cobbled hill to the Orthodox cathedral.

From there we followed our noses down to the Lower Old Town via steps going in all directions and on to the Town Hall Square, with its grand buildings and restaurants, and along Pikk, the Main Street of old merchant houses.

By this time we were on the lookout for somewhere to have a late lunch that would see us through the evening as well, not wanting to risk a meal on the ship in case the crossing was a bit rough again.We looked at a few places that didn't really grab us, but then stumbled across Olevi Restaurant where a dive down some steep stairs into a cellar took us into another world; smart, dimly candlelit and comfortably furnished. The traditional Estonian menu was appealing., and we were the only ones there, although two other tables were filled while we were eating. Stefan, our waiter, was excellent. He is clearly called upon to handle any English speaking customers. We both had an amazing fish soup, then Geoff had a wild boar dish, and I had an Estonian pork dish, both very good. Strong coffee rounded the meal off nicely, and it was all very leisurely and comfortable.

We made a conscious decision not to try and do museums today, and contented ourselves with spending a while longer pottering through the streets, and a look inside St Nicholas Orthodox Church. Then it was time to brave the Friday night crowds, waiting to board the ferry, which was 30 minutes late arriving. Great to know that we could retire to our own little haven in our cabin, have a shower, and relax for the duration of the journey. Plenty of movement still, but not as much as this morning.

It has been a very pleasant and memorable way to spend our last day before starting the journey homewards, and Tallinn is definitely worth seeing. With at least three ferries doing three return trips each every 24 hours, not to mention the cruise ships, it must be a bit of a nightmare in the summer, though. The ferries are well known for their weekend booze-cruises and hen/stag parties!

Back 'home' by 10.30, and after a welcome mug of tea, ready for bed after a long and satisfying day.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Rastila Camping, Helsinki - Thursday, 29 September

Not quite such a calm crossing as going over yesterday but it wasn't too bad; certainly it didn't stop us sleeping well. We got up and were ready to leave the cabin just as the ship prepared to dock.

We took the opportunity to book our passage tomorrow for a day trip to Tallinn. Camilla joined us for coffee in the terminal café. Neither she nor we were in any hurry so we had refills until we ran out of excuses not to be on our way, us to get the no. 9 tram to the Metro station at Kampi, she to walk into the city centre. We came straight back to the camp site where we have been all day, although I popped down to Lidl for some essential shopping. Meanwhile, the weather steadily deteriorated as the day went on and we have had rain on and off all evening with no sign of it stopping.

Well, I slept like a log all night, the best night's sleep for years, but I overheard someone this morning talking about the storm in the early hours!

We had disembarked and gone through customs, etc. back in Helsinki by 8.30, and went straight to the Eckerö Line desk to book return ferry tickets for a day in Tallinn tomorrow. Then we spent the rest of the morning in the cafe chatting with Camilla, our Swedish friend from yesterday. None of us had pressing plans for the day and we were happy to talk over our St Petersburg impressions, world politics, today's news and all sorts of other subjects! We eventually got going, and had an easy journey back to Rastila, where we spent the rest of the day quietly, and had a walk in the surrounding woods, conserving energy for a long day tomorrow.

It is now nearly midnight, and we have to be up at 6 to catch the 8.30 ferry. It has been raining and very blustery all afternoon. I will be sure to pack all the sea-sickness antidotes!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Princess Maria en route to Helsinki - Wednesday, 28 September

Reaching St. Petersburg around 8am, we left the ship to go through a rather stern passport control and then take the last two available seats on a provided minibus into the middle of the city, St. Isaac's Cathedral to be precise. It came as something of a shock to the senses to be in such a busy, noisy city. Helsinki is calm and quiet as a village by comparison. Once we got our bearings, we headed for the Hermitage, possibly the principal unmissable attraction of the city. Passing the statue of Peter the Great, we made a rather haphazard way to the Hermitage.

Apparently, the director of the Hermitage once said, “I can’t say that the Hermitage is the number one museum in the world, but it’s certainly not number two.” With over three million works of art and treasures, it is amazing. I read that it would take eleven years to view all the exhibits and that much as can be seen in the museum, there are twenty times more in the vaults. We had about three hours, once we had found the correct entrance (we first started queuing at the entrance for organised groups), then negotiated the queue to get in and then the queue for tickets. The entrance fee of about £7 was very reasonable.

We had a note of the must sees so plotted a route around the many rooms. These were the Peacock Clock, a remarkable golden peacock. A revolving dial in a toadstool tells the time and, as it strikes the hour, the automaton peacock spreads its wings and toadstools, an owl and a cock come to life. In fact, this performance only takes place once a week but it is shown happening on an adjacent screen.

Next was the Great Church, a dazzling sight of gold, recently restored and then the room containing a good number of works by Rembrandt. Not having done much research, we failed to find the Italian rooms featuring Da Vinci, Canaletto, Michaelangelo and Raphael.

After this, we walked across the Palace Square to the General Staff Building where we first of all found a café to have a reviving coffee and pastry. We then went into the gallery housing many works of art. The building itself was quite a shock. From the outside, it was a long period structure built on a curve. Inside, was a completely ultra-modern building. Our main purpose was to view the works by Monet and but there were also rooms featuring Gaugin, Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Picasso and many others. It was all quite overwhelming.

The Nevsky Prospekt is probably the most well known thoroughfare in St. Petersburg and we cut through and walked along it for a little way, if only to get a flavour of it. We next walked alongside a canal to see the Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood, so named because it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881. Its distinctive coloured onion domes and mosaic facade make it a popular sight but, unfortunately, it was closed today.

Time was beginning to close in. There were three hourly minibuses back to the ship and we were warned not to risk relying on the last one in case there was no room on it. Therefore, we boarded the last but one but one. Here, we started chatting with Camilla, a Swede who lives in Stockholm, who was travelling for a few days before going back to work. She was easy company and we put the world to rights.

This evening we ate Italian on board as the ship started to make its return journey to Helsinki.

The day started in a downbeat manner. The disembarkation process was slow, but not too bad, the officials at passport control severe and a bit intimidating. We were lucky to get the last two places on the shuttle mini-bus. The driver was scary, the area around the ferry terminal was not the prettiest, and the 30 minute drive weaving through rush hour traffic without seat belts not the most relaxing, but we were delivered safely to the centre, just by St Isaac's Cathedral (closed on Wednesdays!). It took us a while to get our bearings, but we set off in the direction of the Hermitage Museum, although it was only 9.45 and it didn't open until 10.30.

Far too much has been written about the wonder of St Petersburg for me to try and do it justice describing it here. But I will say that the only word to sum up my first impression is 'overwhelming', Noise, crowds, busyness, sheer size of everything. When we finally found the correct entrance to the
Hermitage the queues were building up. We queued to get inside, only to join a slow-moving queue for tickets, and then another to go through security! Here I was pretty miffed when Geoff's bag with a bottle of tap water from the cabin inside it passed through ok, and my paid for and unopened bottle of mineral water was confiscated! I was so taken by surprise that I didn't even think to drink some before I gave it up.

By this time it was getting on for 11.30. We found a quiet corner to hide in and make use of 15 minutes free wifi, and then, having regained my equilibrium somewhat, we braved the masses and made our way up the marble staircase. Apparently it would take 11 years to see all the exhibits, and we only had a couple of hours, so we agreed that we would seek out Lonely Planet's "don't miss" list , and just do our best to absorb the other staggering rooms as we passed through them on our way. So we made our way to the dazzling Church via the equally dazzling Peacock Clock and the Rembrandts. I had forgotten that his "Return of the Prodigal Son" was here. A definite highlight! Henri Nouwen's book inspired by the painting is one I love and return to. I was touched when Geoff later surprised me by appearing from one of the museum shops having purchased a postcard of it for me.

We wanted to see the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Collection, which has recently been moved to the General Staff Building on the other side of Palace Square. What a contrast. Inside, the building has been transformed into a stunning, ultra-modern gallery, with huge neutral spaces and rooms - and it was almost empty of people, quiet and calm. First, we had a much needed coffee break in the gallery cafe. The excellent coffee and a very tasty but filling Apricot Danish each, plus a bottle of water to replace my lost one, total cost less than £6, were enough to keep us going until we returned to the ship The rest of the day was spent walking, taking in the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, the Church on the Spilled Blood - again closed on Wednesdays but extraordinary from the outside - canals, squares and parks, back to where we had started six hours earlier, to pick up the shuttle bus back to the ship.

A grey day had not managed to spoil the colours and magnificence of the city. In the minibus and later over coffee back on board we enjoyed chatting to a teacher from Stockholm. She had done the trip that utilises the full 72 hours visa free.

A simple supper in the Italian Restaurant proved just what was needed,, and we then spent our remaining roubles in the Duty Free shop. The ship really feels quite empty tonight, and I am hoping for as calm and quiet a crossing as last night's.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Princess Maria en route to St. Petersburg - Tuesday, 27 September

A lazy morning on site at Rastila Camping. I walked to Lidl, fifteen minutes each way to get some ciabattas. Around lunchtime, we took the Metro into Helsinki and then the no. 9 tram to West Terminal. We're beginning to feel like locals now on the public transport system.

At West Terminal, we went through a couple of passport controls and boarded the Princess Maria ferry bound for St. Petersburg. We boarded early and had plenty of time to familiarise ourselves with the on board facilities. Our cabin is functional; it is Russian, after all. There are a couple of restaurants, one Italian and the other, Russian/European (The Explorer). There is also a buffet restaurant and a cafe/bar. For our evening meal, we reserved an early table in The Explorer which proved to be a good move. Although the ship is by no means full, there was a bit of a rush shortly after we sat down, maybe due to the fact that we didn't depart for forty five minutes after the scheduled time.

It was an interesting menu. As starters, Amanda went for the Finnish cream of salmon soup; I had the Ukrainean borsch. Both were good. For the main course, we both had pike perch fillets. These were excellent. Unlike in the UK where chefs can't seem to cook fish without drenching it in butter, these were just lightly grilled and were perfect. We had a very good bottle of dry German Riesling.

We wandered round the duty free shop. Purely for cooking back home, we bought very inexpensive bottles of brandy and dark rum. Also available were litre bottles of vodka for as little as €2.50 (much cheaper than lighter fuel!).

I was never quite sure whether this bit of the adventure would actually happen, but here we are, foot passengers on the good ship Princess Maria on our way to St Petersburg! TripAdvisor reviews of this visa-free two night, one day cruise varied significantly in their assessment of the ferry, so we boarded with an open mind. Yes, she is a bit faded and old-fashioned, and not absolutely huge, but all the better for all that as far as I am concerned. Our basic outside cabin is just that, but totally adequate with two berths rather than the bunks I expected. And, of course, a treat to have our own shower and loo.

We were warned to check in in good time because the formalities took some time, so got to the terminal (by Metro and tram) soon after check in opened at 3 pm. It was a breeze, all very quiet, and we were through and boarded in no time. This left us with plenty of time to explore while the ship was pretty empty, although it is still fairly quiet, and by no means full. It also meant we had time to do some reading up on St Petersburg and attempt to plan the best use of the day tomorrow.

We booked a table at the smartest restaurant, with an a la carte Russian/European menu, although there is a good choice of restaurants and it all sounded appetising. We ate early, just as the ship left port at 6.30. It was a very good meal and bottle of wine indeed - nice surroundings, good service and a window table so we could watch the sunset.

After an unrushed meal, a walk around the deck and a browse around the duty free shop, where Geoff bought some bargain rum and brandy for cooking purposes, and the casino (where we confessed that the closest either of us had been to a casino was James Bond films!) and we are settled back in our cabin and just about ready for bed! We are due to arrive at 8.30 am.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Rastila Camping, Helsinki - Monday, 26 September

We took the Metro to Central Station and then a tram to the market place quayside. It took longer than anticipated. Amanda took charge of identifying the right tram and we did almost a complete circuit of the city instead of just three or four stops. Still, we saw parts of the city that we wouldn't otherwise have seen.

On the quayside, we went back to the covered market that we visited last week and bought some freshly sliced smoked salmon and prawns in mayonnaise. These went in some ciabatta bread I'd bought earlier. It was an amazing lunch.

We ate lunch by the terminal for the ferry across to the fortress of Suomenlinna, a journey of about fifteen minutes. This sea fortress is a Unesco World Heritage Site, constructed from 1748 on islands, now linked by bridges. It has played a role in the defence of three states, Sweden, Russia and Finland. It was bombarded by an Anglo-French fleet during the Crimean War. Now, the buildings there are a visitor centre, museums and places to eat. There is also a church, originally Russian Orthodox but now Lutheran. About 800 people live on the islands which have 800,000 visitors a year.

Today a short ferry trip, just 15 minutes from the central Market Place in Helsinki to Suomenlinna, a Sea Fortress dating from 1748 on a cluster of four islands, and a World Heritage Site since 1991.

First we purchased 5 day travel passes to cover us for the rest of the week. All very civilised, they not only cover unlimited use of the Metro, trams and buses, but also the ferry today. It was just as well we had them, because I was overconfident when boarding a tram from outside Central Station, (where we had just exchanged some Euros for Russian roubles ready for tomorrow's adventure) to take us the four stops to the Market Place, and we ended up going in the wrong direction and accidentally covering the rest of the figure of eight tour on the number 2/3 trams which we did some of last week! Good job we weren't in a hurry, but we did end up seeing a lot more of Helsinki! The mistake was quite understandable, honestly, but too complicated - and boring - to explain further here.

When we eventually arrived at the Market Square by the harbour, we followed Lonely Planet's instructions and bought stuff from the Old Market Hall for a picnic to take with us. Delicious smoked salmon and prawns to fill Ciabatta rolls. As we were by now past lunch time, and had just missed a ferry so had 40 minutes to wait for the next, we had our picnic there and then, hiding from the seagulls, who were hovering expectantly.

The weather has really brightened up, perfect for sitting outside on the ferry and enjoying the view of Helsinki from the sea. And the rather daunting sight of the enormous Silja Line and Viking Ferries, one on either side of the harbour, dwarfing the buildings in the background. When we returned later in the afternoon, they were just on the move, and even more daunting as we passed very close to the Viking one in our little ferry.

The islands which make up Suomenlinna are rather like a big park incorporating the old buildings and fortifications. It is also a living community of 800 people, and there is a church, a school and a grocery store as well as a number of museums, cafes, restaurants and craft shops, and venues which can be used for weddings and corporate events. And it apparently has more than 800,000 visitors a year!

We followed the walking route along cobbled paths, through a tunnel and over a bridge, which runs the length of the three main islands, and then wandered over and around the fortifications and bunkers around the original bastion fortress, and the artillery emplacements dating from the time of Russian rule in the 19th Century. There are views from cliffs into little coves and harbours, and a swimming beach.

It was a really good day out, and we returned to the campsite on foot, ferry, tram and Metro, this time seamlessly and without incident!

Monday, 26 September 2016

Rastila Camping, Helsinki - Sunday, 25 September

A very quiet night and woke to another dull, overcast day. Driving round Kouvola, we drove south down the E6 to where it meets the E7, which took us to Porvoo (Swedish: Borgå). We passed through Porvoo last Monday on our way along the coast. It is Finland's second oldest town and is well worth a visit. We parked just the other side of the river bridge and walked back. Our first sight were the brick-red former warehouses along the river. Lonely Planet told us that they once stored goods bound for destinations across Europe. The other ends of the warehouses front on to cobbled streets and house antique, gift and craft shops. There are also a good number of cafés and restaurants as this part of the town is definitely a tourist attraction.

We hauled ourselves up a steep cobbled street to the Tuomiokirkko (cathedral), white painted, of stone and timber construction. It is where the first Diet of Finland assembled in 1809, convened by Tsar Alexander I, giving Finland religious freedom. Damaged by fire in 2006, the church has been completely restored. It has a free-standing bell tower. This was similar to the arrangement in Lappeenranta. We managed to get in just before a 12 noon service in Swedish. We weren't able to look around properly and listened to the first five minutes. The pulpit was pretty impressive.

Wandering around, we came across Lilla Chokladfabriken, a tiny little shop with a kitchen viewed through a glass panel where they make their own chocolate. Of course, it would have been rude not to have bought some.

We then felt the need for coffee and Sachertorte in Café Fanny although this was only an excuse to get some free wifi.

We woke to a dry and not so chilly morning. The car park had served us well for our last night in the beautiful lakes and autumn forests. The trees are quickly losing their colours and their leaves.
As planned we stopped at Porvoo, about 25km from Helsinki, to see what we had missed earlier in the week as we passed through. Lonely Planet enthuses about the old town, and not without reason. It is absolutely lovely, and we spent a good hour or two (I lost track of time!) wandering around the cobbled streets of pastel coloured buildings, sitting awhile in the cathedral - a small and lovely old, simple building with a steeply pitched roof and separate belfry, unlike any cathedral I have seen - visiting a tiny chocolate factory and shop, and stopping for coffee in a nice little cafe on the square.
Now we are settled back at Rastila Camping in Helsinki, booked in here for the rest of our time in Finland, feeling very civilised with a return to a heated shower block, and having made use of the excellent laundrette and drying room. Standards may have slipped just a bit over the course of the last weeks, but it is nice to have clean towels and pillow cases again, as well as knowing that all our clothes are clean! We shall be based here until next weekend with some interesting things planned for the coming week.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Camperstop at Herransaari, north of Kouvola - Saturday, 24 September

Today was mainly a day of travelling, generally heading towards Helsinki, although we are not planning to be there until tomorrow afternoon. We aimed for the area around Kouvola. Here, there is a campsite but it is a large one with an amusement park. Not at all our sort of place, particularly as their charge would be around €32.

I had identified on Pocket Earth a possible wild camp. We drove there and it is fine. It is a parking area surrounded by woodland, close to a beach. Pocket Earth only shows a path going to it but this couldn't be right. Anyway, there is a road and there have only been a few other vehicles here for short stays. There is a single earth closet WC. The GPS co-ordinates are 60.92648°N 26.74552°E.

I walked the paths around the car park. Along one, there are some weekend cabins but the path goes west right to the end of the spit of land there. In the other direction, east, there is a beach walk for a quarter mile. In the summer, I should think the car park would be full, as it would take at least fifty cars. Anyway, it's now 8.30 and in the last hour there have only been two cars going to/from the cabins. An occasional flock of geese has gone overhead rather noisily.

Time to head back to Helsinki. We are far enough away to want to break the journey, but could find no places of particular interest on the way. The obvious place, Kouvola, didn't seem to have much to offer except a large water park and amusement park with attached campsite, which may or may not be open, but which didn't appeal anyway, for some reason.

As this would be our last night in rural Finland I was happy for Geoff to find a possible wild camp where he could do a little bit of walking. Some trial and error work with the Pocket Earth app came up with the spot where we are now. Just northeast of Kouvola, and on the southern edge of the Repovesi National Park, he found a car park on the edge of a lake, which looked on the map to be in the middle of nowhere. In fact there is a little hut WC of the earth closet variety, and paths leading through the trees to the beach where there is a changing hut. In the summer it is obviously very popular - probably room for a hundred or so cars in the car park - but it is empty now.

After lunch Geoff went off and did a number of walking circuits in different directions, I joined him for one, through the woods and along the long sandy lakeside beach strewn with fallen pine cones and needles. Although there is a track along the edge of the car park which seems to go to some houses, I should think it will be a quiet, and dark, night.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Huhtiniemi Tourist Resort, Lappeenranta - Friday, 23 September

We went into Lappeenranta. The centre of the town wasn't at its best as there was major construction work going on. We were able to admire from the outside the wooden Lappee church, built in 1794, having a 'double cruciform' floor plan, the only one of this kind in Finland. It was locked, of course. It has a separate bell tower a short distance away.

We had planned lunch out today and made our way to the Wolkoff Restaurant, of which Lonely Planet says:

"This grand old-world restaurant utilises organic produce and seasonal ingredients to create gourmet Finnish cuisine with adventurous flavour combinations like reindeer tartare with Dijon mustard ice cream, and duck breast with plum, sweet potato and dark wheatbeer sauce. The laden lunch buffet is a veritable bargain."

Fortunately, the reindeer tartare wasn't on today. We went for their lunch buffet and the main course was chicken wrapped in saltimbocka on a bed of sliced runner beans and quinoa. Quite delicious.

The restaurant is named after a Russian merchant family who lived in the adjacent house from 1872 until 1986. For much of the year (until August) it is open to the public furnished as it would have been in the late 1800s.

Having been a cold, dull and overcast day, it had started raining while we were in the restaurant. We there drove over the cobbled road that passes through Linnoitus, a very large fortification which was begun by the Swedes and finished by the Russians in the late 18th century. On either side of the road, are galleries, craft workshops and museums, including the South Karelian Museum, Cavalry Museum and Lappeenranta Art Museum. Its Orthodox Church, pale blue with a green roof, Finland’s oldest church, was completed in 1785 by Russian soldiers.

Saimaa is Finland's largest lake but it has numerous islands within it. We took a delightful drive, a circular route across some of the islands. The autumnal colours of the trees added to the enjoyment, despite the rain.

I think that, at this point, we are probably at our farthest distance from home.

Today it has been raining. We have been so fortunate with the weather that we can't even remember the last time we had rain! We had already decided that today would be a rest day, i.e. minimal driving and two consecutive overnights in the same place. Off late morning into Lappeenranta, only just over 2km away, but we took the camper so that we could explore a bit further as well. The town (or is it a city?) feels pretty big, and has a population of 72,000. We wanted to try lunch in a place recommended in Lonely Planet. We have not found LP particularly helpful in the main, but occasionally it comes up trumps. This was one of those occasions. It describes Wolkoff Cafe and Restaurant as an old world traditional Finnish Restaurant serving gourmet Finnish Cuisine from fresh local organic ingredients. Although the main menu is a bit pricey, it recommends the buffet lunch as excellent value at 15 euros. It was indeed. Field mushroom soup with lovely crusty bread, salad buffet, a main course of Chicken Saltimbocca on a bed of runner beans and quinoa, and coffee and crisp biscuits to finish. The restaurant was small, unpretentious and friendly, and clearly full of locals. A very pleasing experience.

The main attraction in the town is Linnoitis, a fortress on a grassy mound overlooking the harbour, started by the Swedes and finished by the Russians in the 18th century. The old buildings now house a range of museums, craft shops and cafes, and it is all very attractive. We contented ourselves with a drive along the cobbled street running through the middle, and enjoyed viewing the buildings in the dry, feeling a bit wimpish!

Emerging on the other side we continued north out of the town to drive a little circuit of about 20km across some of the islands in the lake, all linked by bridges. It was well worth it to enjoy a glimpse of this Karelian Lake District, which stretches on northwards and is renowned for its beauty. The islands are all densely tree covered, and the autumn colours absolutely stunning - brilliant golds and reds. Even in the rain, there were some beautiful views as we crossed each bridge.

Then back to the campsite to hunker down with mugs of tea and the heater on, and catch up with some reading. Venturing out for showers was a bit of an effort, but now we are settled again for the evening, with scrambled eggs on toast and a couple of episodes of Mad Men to look forward to.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Huhtiniemi Tourist Resort, Lappeenranta - Thursday, 22 September

Leaving the campsite, we went for a meandering drive towards the Russian border. It was a gravelled road, no other traffic and just the odd farm house. We stopped by a sign headed "STOP" and, in several languages, "Border Zone - No entry without special permit". Across the road was a wooden tower which I climbed but there was nothing to see except trees towards the border. At one point, we were only 100 metres away but still only trees. We drove up to the main road leading to the border crossing. Here, there were a couple of shops. One was a discount store, clearly catering for Russians who presumably couldn't buy the goods at all or at the prices. It was rather a shabby place. We went in and our way was almost barred by stacks of vehicle tyres. Also, coffee is probably in short supply in Russia, judging by the range and quantity.

There were a couple of shops selling nothing but fish and caviar. I went in one out of curiosity. There were large whole fish (species unknown) and salmon vacuum packed.

The rest of the day was spent immersed in Finland's experiences during the Winter and Continuation Wars of 1939-1944. We went first to the Bunker Museum. I knew that it had closed for the year at the end of August but as I thought much of it was outdoors, it was probably worth taking a look. We weren't disappointed. The main building and ticket office were closed but we were able to walk around.

Part of the Salpa Line was visible, as well as some wood lined trenches and military hardware. The Salpa Line was constructed after the Winter War (against Russia) in order to secure the new border. Terms of the truce involved Finland ceding parts of its eastern territories to Russia. Knowing that Russia would come back for more, along a line of 1200km, rows of jagged rocks were embedded in the ground, making the line impregnable against tanks and other vehicles. In the event, in 1944 Russia launched a massive offensive, avoiding the Line. However, it remains in place and is regarded as one of the strongest and best preserved lines of fortification in Europe built during the Second World War.

We went on to the Salpa Line Museum in Miehikkälä, which was open. Here were far more fortifications, trenches, underground bunkers and hardware. We also watched a short film telling the history of the Salpa Line. Altogether a fascinating day.

We finished with a longish drive to Lappeenranta, a town on Lake Saimaa, Finland's largest lake. We haven't seen anything of the town yet as our stop for the night is 2km east and we bypassed the centre. Huhtiniemi Tourist Resort is a large site comprising two hostels, self catering apartments, cabins and pitches for campervans/caravans and tents. Apart from two caravans nearby with no apparent occupants, we have this part of the site to ourselves.

A proper autumn morning, but we did enjoy the view out over the Gulf of Finland. The trees have changed here so quickly, and it is beginning to look more like winter than autumn.

First aim today - to get as close as we could to the Russian border. We took a loop road from the site, and at one point were just 100 metres away. The woods by the roadside had 'entry forbidden' signs on them. Back on the main road we decided not to get too close to the border control, and turned left rather than right. We couldn't resist a stop at a group of roadside buildings, two of them selling "fish and caviare" and the third a sort of Cash and Carry, presumably aimed at Russians coming over the border. It was an Aladdin's Cave, packed with all sorts of stuff in large quantities. First thing we saw was a huge pile of car tyres! There were vast amounts of tea and coffee and soap products, and just about everything you might want, including just the right size cool bag that I had been after.

Then on to our planned stops, The Bunker Museum (closed but we had a mooch around the outdoor part) and the Salpa Line Museum, in Miehikkälä. Here was another opportunity for me to fill a big gap in my knowledge of history, this time more modern. The Salpa Line was a massive defensive front line constructed along the border during the Winter War and the Continuation War, 1941 to 1944. A helpful short film, in English, was shown for us first. There are trenches, dugouts, bunkers and great stone barriers designed to keep tanks out, all there to be explored. Although it was never put to the test, it is reckoned that the reason was that it was known to be impregnable; so it served its purpose.

Tea and cake in the very nice little cafe was welcome after the time out in the cold. Then we set off in a vaguely northerly direction to our overnight destination, Lappeenranta, the capital of Southern Karelia, and an all year resort. The campsite is large, and part of a complex which includes hostels and self catering units. There are very few people on the campsite itself. We are settled amongst trees, and the lakeside (Lake Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland) is not far away.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Vaalimaa Camping - Wednesday, 21 September

We drove the short distance into Hamina, parked at Lidl (to shop there later) and walked into the centre of the town. Hamina is an interesting place and has long been a military town. It was founded in 1653 as a Swedish outpost, its fortifications were begun in 1722 after Vyborg fell to Russia but Hamina was later captured by Russia in 1743. Work continued and construction was eventually completed in the early 19th century but the fortress was closed in 1836 once it lost its military importance. Much of it was dismantled over the years but there has been a steady repair and restoration, largely completed by 1998. At the north end is the restored central bastion of the fortress, which hosts the annual Hamina Tattoo and other events, covered by an enormous open sided canopy.

The centre of the town is based on an octagonal grid and the streets radiating out are dotted with churches, houses and other buildings built in the 1700s and 1800s, painted in various pastel shades.

Both the Lutheran and Orthodox churches were locked but the town museum was open where we were welcomed by the lady curator who said they didn't get many English visitors. She gave us a guide to the displays (and a torch because some were badly lit!). One of the rooms was set up to represent how it would have been when there was a historic meeting there between King Gustav III of Sweden and Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783.

From Hamina, we took a minor forest-lined road to Virolahti, then the E7 for a few miles before turning off to take the road to Vaalimaa Camping, a rustic year round site looking out to an inlet of the Gulf of Finland. Reception was not manned but I rang the number given and the lady site owner said to settle in and she'd be along later. I went off for an hour exploring forest paths nearby.

A peaceful night! and a dull and chilly morning. The winter clothes bag has come out from where it has been hidden for nine weeks and scarf and gloves extracted.

This morning gave a better chance to see the site properly. Although the smallish area for caravans and campervans is fairly nondescript, it is totally adequate, and has a very nice view across the water. The harbour and small marina, with the facilities to which we had access, are really quite smart and interesting, with some old buildings dating back to Russian times, and a little boat moored here which has its own fascinating history through wartime and later as a tug and an ice-breaker, and is now licensed for pleasure trips.

The town of Hamina itself was a real discovery, only made because the Camperstop book had taken us there. It was built as a garrison town in the 18th century, based on 16th century fortress principles, like an eight pointed star. As with so many of the fortifications we have seen, the fortress was built in fear of attacks that didn't happen, fell into disrepair, and has been restored relatively recently. A part of it is now used as an event arena, and holds a Military Tattoo annually, and other spectacular sounding shows. Very impressive. The centre of town has many interesting old buildings, dotted around the streets which radiate out from the Town Hall in the centre in an octagonal spider's web pattern. We enjoyed a visit to the little town museum. Money had been spent on it, but it didn't seem to get many visitors, sadly. The Russian influence shows in everything in this part of the world, not surprisingly, as we get closer to the border. It is a shock every time to see St Petersburg on the road signs!

We took the back road close to the coast to reach our campsite destination for the night, between Virolahti and Vaalimaa. Our camping places have all been so different, and the variety is part of the fun. We never know quite what to expect. Last night's proved to be much nicer than anticipated. Tonight's, an 'open all year site', we have read described as a 'straightforward little site'. My immediate reaction was that was being kind to it! It has all the necessary things, including the mandatory sauna, and is in a lovely location, looking out over the Gulf of Finland, but feels uncared for.

I decided not to brave the showers - in an unheated little hut with corrugated plastic roof - and regretted our decision to skip showers last night. Instead, while Geoff went for a walk in the surrounding woods, I put the heater on in the camper, closed the shutters, boiled a kettle of water and had a nice wash in the warm! But we are thankful to find a campsite open, the position is great, and we are a mere five miles from the Russian border.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Rampsi Marina, Hamina - Tuesday, 20 September

We didn't have to be off the site till 3pm and our 24 hour transport tickets were valid until then as well so we took ourselves back into the centre of Helsinki. The Hop On Hop Off red double deckers doing city tours with audio commentary cost €30 for each of us so, being the cheapskates that we are, we had ascertained from Lonely Planet that the number 2 & 3 trams did a circuit of the city and we obtained a leaflet detailing the sights to see from the site reception. The cost was covered by our 24 hour tickets so, effectively, nothing.

We had gone only a few stops before Amanda pointed out Café Ekberg, apparently the oldest café in Helsinki. We were right outside at the time but the tram was moving off so we got off at the next stop and walked back. We ordered coffee and a very ornate (and expensive) pastry to share. Getting back on a tram outside, we continued on our tour. It was pleasant enough just watching the city go by.

Having time to spare, we wandered round the square beside the station which was occupied by numerous stalls flying national flags and selling food from their countries. There was a British flag, the stall selling a vast range of fudge, teas and china ware. Feeling peckish, we opted for a Finnish stall and enjoyed a plate of tiny battered fish like whitebait, fried potato and vegetables.

Later, leaving the site, we made our way to the nearby ferry terminal for our passage to Travemünde in two weeks time to check out where it was and also to reserve a cabin for the night the ferry arrives in Travemünde as we are able to disembark the following morning, rather than leave late evening and then have to find somewhere to park the camper overnight.

We then headed east to Porvoo where I had thought there was a camperstop but I must have had the wrong co-ordinates so we carried on, switching to the motorway E18 towards Hamina and covering fifty miles in good time. There is a campsite a few miles beyond Hamina (called Hamina Camping, not surprisingly) but we weren't sure if it was still open. However, we had the co-ordinates for what we found to be Rampsi Marina (60.55911°N 27.18329°E) and found it open. It is on a little peninsula beyond a car park and café. We are in a gravelled area, with hookups, overlooking water that ultimately becomes, I think, the Gulf of Finland. Anyway, it has only cost €15 and facilities are very clean. We are about 30 miles from the Russian border.

Checkout time at the site was 3pm, but the helpful girl at reception said there was no rush - 4pm, 5pm, they weren't full! Geoff had already asked about next week and, again, being off season, they are happy for us just to pay the reduced pitch fee for the camper without people or electricity for the two nights we will be away; excellent!

We set off back into the city on the Metro, using our 24 hour passes purchased yesterday. They also enabled us to use buses and trams, and we had discovered that you can take the number 2/3 tram in a figure of eight from Central Station, which gives you a tour of the city, getting on and off wherever you like, AND with a free leaflet guide which points out all the buildings on the way. A very good alternative to the expensive tourist tours.

We hadn't gone very far when the guide pointed us to Cafe Ekberg, said to be the oldest cafe in Helsinki, 'on your right'. We quickly alighted at the next stop and went back for coffee and a shared pastry. Although it was not yet noon the place was full of people enjoying the buffet lunch - three courses and coffee, which was about 10 Euros, I believe. The place was smart and comfortable, and we spent far longer there than we had intended.

Back on the tram we covered more of the city, before getting off to walk back to the square in front of Central Station for a meander through the outdoor international food market. By now it was nearly 2 o'clock, so we shared a plate of tiny fried fish (even smaller than whitebait), fried potatoes and veg from the Finnish stall before catching the Metro back to the site, where we packed up and left just after 3.

On our way, we went to the Ferry Port from where our Finnlines ferry to Travemünde will depart in order to amend the booking slightly so that we can stay in our cabin for a second night in port at
Travemünde, rather than leave the ferry and try and find somewhere to stay at 9.30 pm. It was also good to find our bearings in the Helsinki North Ferryport, which was rather confusing. Both missions accomplished, we emerged from the Finnlines office to find that the camper had gained another admirer. This time it was a chap who wrote for a caravanning magazine (he said). Again he was impressed with its compactness, and kept saying "you have a lovely car". Like the earlier admirers, he couldn't believe it was eight years old.

Moving on, and heading east, we had intended to stop for the night in or near Porvoo, but quickly abandoned what looked likely to be a fruitless search for somewhere suitable. Maybe we will stop there during the day on our way back to Helsinki. Quick decision made, and we got straight on the motorway to get to our next possibility, just over an hour away, at Hamina, on the coast. Here we found the small site open. It is near the town, on a lake, with simple clean facilities. It will do very well. Some boy racers on their buzzy mopeds have been a minor irritant, but hopefully they have beds to go to! 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Rastila Camping, Helsinki - Monday, 19 September

On the move again, we set our sights on the capital, Helsinki. Rastila is a year round site, very convenient for the city centre. We had an uneventful drive of 98 miles, arriving early afternoon. On the way we saw a road sign to Pietari/St Petersburg, an indication that Russia isn't so far away. After a brief lunch on the site, we headed for the Metro station only five minutes walk away. The journey time to the Central Station stop is twenty minutes.

We went straight to tourist information and made enquiries about trips by ferry to St Petersburg. The price was very reasonable for two nights in a cabin and various necessary add-ons - a total of €164. We decided to go for it and we depart on 27 September.

We had nothing else we particularly wanted to do this afternoon. We wandered around the stalls in the Market Square, then sat on a bench from where we were able to see the Uspenskin Katedraali (Uspenski Cathedral), an imposing red-brick building which stands on nearby Katajanokka island. Built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1868, it features classic onion-topped domes and now serves the Finnish Orthodox congregation. Maybe we will have time to visit it tomorrow.

Much closer to where we were was the Vanha Kauppahalli, an ornate market hall, built in 1889 and recently renovated. Inside were numerous stalls, most of which were selling food, much of if traditional Finnish, but all sorts of other things as well. We saw tins of bear meat; also elk, reindeer and many different kinds of smoked fish.

Making our way back to the Metro, we went inside the domed Tuomiokirkko, the Lutheran cathedral, very spartan inside but its lofty position overlooking the city and striking white stonework made it impossible to miss.

We took the direct route to Helsinki, including motorways, but it felt like a long journey. Not difficult, though, and the roads were pretty empty until we got to the Helsinki ring road, which took us all round the city as Rastila Camping is on the east side. This is a proper all year round site serving the city, and has a lot going for it. Although urban - there are a lot of blocks of flats around - it is very green, and all the individual bays have shoulder high hedges around them. Although not full, there are plenty of motorhomes and caravans here. It is also close to the river, although we haven't found that or the "beach" yet. Or the wifi, for that matter, but we had been warned on TripAdvisor that the wifi was underwhelming.

No matter. The best thing is that the shower block is actually heated! And the Metro station is just round the corner. Twenty minutes, and we were right in the City Centre, with just time to get to the Tourist Information Centre before it closed at 4. Our mission - to find out about the visa-free overnight cruises to St Petersburg. We are duly booked for next week. Really, we had to give it a try. St Peter Line offer an overnight cruise with cabin there, a day in the City with a ticket for a shuttle bus that you can get on and off, and cruise and cabin overnight back. Total for the two of us 164 Euros. Given that a ninety minute bus tour of Helsinki would have cost 54 Euros, it sounds like good value, even if it is pretty basic. All the security bits and warnings do sound a little scary, though. We shall see.

We then spent a couple of hours around the harbour, market place and Senate Square, with the imposing Lutheran Cathedral mounted high above and overlooking it. It had lovely clean lines, inside and out. Very unfussy, especially inside, and all bright white outside. The old Market Hall, a covered market, was also interesting, with its fixed wooden stalls now housing a fantastic array of very modern delicatessen counters. A lot of them were fish, but Geoff noted some rather exotic sounding meats.

We hopped back on the Metro and were back "home" in no time. We are just booked in here for one night, but plan to return next week and make this our base for the last few days before we get the ferry back to Germany. It has been good to have the opportunity to suss it out, and a bonus to discover that the ferry port we need to get to on our last day is only 10 minutes away! 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Camping Silversand, Hanko - Sunday, 18 September

A relaxing day today and the weather continues to be dry, clear and sunny - war is but definitely not hot. We hear of monsoon and flash floods in the UK and we haven't had a drop of rain for at least two weeks or more.

Before breakfast, I took a walk out of the campsite and into the adjoining forest, following a clear path which eventually led to a waymarked path to a rocky outcrop with clear sea views to the north of the Hanko peninsula. It was maybe a mile each way.

All that we had on the agenda today was a walk around Hanko. We had a delightful little booklet that provided a route taking in some of the more notable turn of the 20th century buildings, mainly large villas, the Regatta Hotel and what was a restaurant and dance hall (now a casino and sushi bar).

Hanko is a very popular summer resort and we have been very fortunate, helped by the good weather, to have been able to enjoy it when it is quiet. We shall be moving on tomorrow.

As promised, a quiet day. The weather is still lovely, and much warmer than expected after yesterday evening's chill. We spent most of the day in Hanko, following the Architectural Walk trail - half before lunch and half after. We are so fortunate again to be seeing the place in lovely weather but with no crowds, when it is looking absolutely its best. Hanko is situated at the end of a peninsular, so there are little rocky coves and bays wherever you go, and wooded walks between the villas linking them. It is quite delightful.

The few families who were on the campsite seem to have gone now, leaving it very quiet indeed. We cooked and ate in the kitchen again, and again there was a beautiful sunset.

Tomorrow we head for Helsinki. We have been doing some reading up in advance, but are not very good at planning city visits. Hopefully things will fall into place when we get there.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Camping Silversand, Hanko (Swedish: Hangö) - Saturday, 17 September

We set the satnav for Camping Silversand and overrode it to make sure that we went by what we thought would be more interesting minor roads and we were right to do so. It was a delightful drive with very little other traffic. Inevitably, we had to join the 52 main road for a few miles but then turned off at Tenala to return to minor roads, before following the 25 for 33km to Hanko.

We went straight to Silversand and were pleased to find it open. In fact, as the owner/manager told us, rather proudly, it is open all year. It is a lovely site and the unenclosed bays are dotted amongst tall conifers. We are by no means the only occupants but it is far from being busy. Behind reception is a cafe and behind that is a "pub", both of which are open. We had coffee and pastries whilst using the wifi. The beach is about 100 yards away and then the Baltic.

We then drove the 4km into Hanko. It's an interesting place. It was a well to do Russian spa town in the late 19th century and opulent seaside villas from the era line the principal road into the centre of the town. As the southernmost town in Finland, Hanko was a strategic base well before its foundation as a town in 1874. It was also a point of emigration: between 1881 and 1931 about 250,000 Finns left for the USA, Canada and Australia via its docks. At the end of the Winter War, the March 1940 peace treaty with Russia required the ceding of Hanko as a naval base. Its inhabitants evacuated as the Russians moved in with a garrison of 30,000 and constructed a huge network of fortifications. Hanko was isolated from the Russian front lines and eventually abandoned in December 1941. Citizens then returned to their damaged town and much restoration work was carried out.

Many of the buildings in the centre of the town also date back to Russian times. Outside the centre are a number of blocks of flats which have an Eastern European feel to them.

Slowing down on seeing a crowd gathered and a woman addressing them on a microphone, with a police presence, we were told later that it was a protest against the transporting of live pigs to or from (not sure which) Finland and Poland/Hungary.

We parked outside tourist information. Although it was shut, the building was open as it also housed a gallery. Nevertheless, the TI could be accessed as it was in an open bay; it is simply not manned at weekends out of season. In the gallery, there were two separate photographic displays, one of wildlife and the other of black and white photographs taken in Rio in 2008. Both photographers were present manning their exhibitions and gave us personal tours of their work. The photographs were for sale, either framed or unframed. We could have been tempted.

We have decided to stay a second night here and will explore more of Hanko.

Leaving our strange little overnight place behind - the 'workers had arrived back in three identical pick up trucks yesterday evening, cooked in the 'summer kitchen' and gone again by the time we were up this morning, but not disturbed us at all - we drove along side roads to our next destination, Hanko, the most southerly town in Finland. By now the camper is used to getting dusty on rough unmetalled roads, and Geoff's eyes positively light up at the chance to get right off the beaten track. Pocket Earth is also proving more help so far in Finland than it was in Sweden.

We were surprised and very pleased to find Silversands Campsite, just outside Hanko and right on the coast, open for business. It is a big site, but there are few visiting units scattered among the trees. There are also the usual little cabins dotted around. We had coffee and cake in the little cafe, whilst doing the internet stuff. Wifi, though free, is 'unreliable' - the owner's words - and patience was needed.

Hanko is an interesting place. It was built as a spa town in the late 19th century, and was a popular place for the Russian nobility; there are rows of large, faded, once glorious, villas in tree lined roads to be seen. The centre of the town and the beach areas are also very attractive, with small green parks, tree-lined squares, and pleasant buildings. We visited a photographic exhibition in the TIO building, part of the Town Hall. The photographer and his wife live in North Karelia, and his photographs - some wildlife, some views - are taken near their home. We very nearly bought one, and would have done, I'm sure, had we not each fallen in love with different ones. We are planning to visit South Karelia, to the east of Helsinki, next week.

A quick walk up to the church, where a wedding had been taking place as we arrived, but was now closed, and a massive water tower, and we resolved to stay an extra night and explore more tomorrow.

Outside the areas already mentioned it is all quite drab and utilitarian. It very much has an Eastern Bloc feel to it, and is very different from the rest of Scandinavia - indeed Finland does not consider itself to be part of Scandinavia. The language is totally different. Most signs are in both Finnish and Swedish, as Swedish is also an official language. And whereas we found that pretty much everyone spoke English in the other countries we have visited, here those who do, do so much less fluently.

We shopped in Lidl, and cooked in the campsite kitchen near the beach, whilst watching the red sun set over the sea, and looking forward to a Sunday rest day here! Although we managed to eat in the outside covered area by the kitchen, it is decidedly chilly. On our return to the camper, (torches required to find our way through the trees in the dark) a quick blast of the heater was very welcome, and hot water bottles may be required.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Ylönkylä, Southern Finland - Friday, 16 September

Getting up quite early, I went for a stroll before breakfast, walking along the waterfront parallel with the street Läntinen Rantakatu, passing under two road bridges busy with morning traffic. I could have gone much further but needed to cross the river so went across on a pedestrian bridge. I then followed the waterfront path alongside the street Itäinen Rantakatu, going past where the camper was until I came to the passenger ferry. This runs every day from 6.15am to 11pm, back and forth endlessly. It only takes a couple of minutes. By the time I arrived back at the camper, all the parking spaces either side of it were filled. The city had come to life again and was quite busy.

We went to the maritime museum hoping to find free wifi but there was none. We took the opportunity to have a closer look at the castle, which was open but we had no particular inclination to go inside and shall find out more about it later. Here is what Lonely Planet has to say:

Founded in 1280 at the mouth of the Aurajoki, mammoth Turku Castle is easily Finland’s largest. Highlights include two dungeons and sumptuous banqueting halls, as well as a fascinating historical museum of medieval Turku in the castle’s old bailey. Models depict the castle's growth from a simple island fortress to a Renaissance palace. Guided tours in English run several times daily from June to August. Swedish Count Per Brahe ruled Finland from here in the 17th century, while Sweden’s deposed King Eric XIV was imprisoned in the castle’s round tower in the late 16th century. He was moved to several prisons including Åland’s Kastelholms Slott to prevent his discovery by rebels. Today most Finns recognise its distinctive architecture as the logo for Turun Sinappi (Turku Mustard).

We set the satnav to help us exit the city. As the route took us past tourist information, we went in to take advantage of their wifi. Having missed the entrance to their car park, I went in through the "no entry" exit, no problem.

Having found Sweden such a meticulously clean country, Finland is a bit more like the UK, judging by what we've seen in Turku.

Once we left the city's environs, the countryside we drove through was really attractive. Many fields where grass had been cut or arable fields ploughed and the rest was forest, but all quite open and not at all oppressive. It came as something of a shock to see that Autumn has arrived here. The silver birch trees had turn a golden colour and were beginning to shed their leaves.

Our Camperstop book provided details of our overnight stop, where we arrived early afternoon. It is a slightly odd place, close to a road junction where we have been very aware of traffic noise although we son got used to it. There is a cafe here where we went in to pay. The food smelled delicious but we were not aware of any customers during the day. We are the only camper van. There are three touring vans which are unoccupied and seem to be permanent. There are showers/loos and also what was described as a summer kitchen. This is a part open sided building with full cooking facilities but rather on the shabby side. We were told that some workers (who were at work) were using it and inspection showed this to be the case. I remarked that it looked as if they had been abducted by aliens as food and all sorts of things were left out as if they had left in a hurry. There were pans with cooked food in them and, notably, a whole salmon, minus its head but still quite large, marinating.

We took a short walk to see what there is of Ylönkylä and the answer is, not much. A few houses, a church that doesn't look like a church and a monument, with no indication of what it commemorates. It is a rough red granite monolith some fifteen feet high, with probably machine made scores on one side.

The workers, maybe up to six in number, returned from work around 6pm. Apart from being manual labourers, judging from their three VW pickups, have been very quiet and spent the evening in the summer kitchen.

It was an entirely peaceful night after all, and I slept very well. We went to bed with empty parking spaces all along the Strand in both directions, and emerged this morning with them all full. Free all day parking for people working in the City!

Before leaving Turku we did a circumnavigation of the fortress, on foot. It was worth seeing properly from the outside, very similar in style to other castles we have seen, but much bigger. Although it has
grass and some trees around it, it is basically surrounded by the Ferry Terminal! Imagine building a full-scale Ferry Terminal all around Bamburgh Castle!

A quick visit to the TIO, and we left the city behind and set off to explore the countryside towards the coast between Turku and Helsinki. First priority for tonight was much needed showers and electric hook up, so we headed for a Camperstop which had these. Our Camperstop book has been of limited use since we left Denmark, and has only two pages of entries for the whole of Finland.

The countryside is a huge change from the blue-green of Sweden. More open fields, and the wooded parts have a lot of deciduous trees. The trees are beginning to change colour and it is looking autumnal, but it is still warm and sunny. So with the colours of the trees, the brighter green of fields mixed with some harvested fields and the sun, everything looks very golden.

Our stopover has proved adequate for our needs; in the car park of a roadside cafe place, it is not dissimilar to where we spent our second night in Sweden all those weeks ago where we had to decamp! It is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, at Ylönkylä, although the road is quite busy. There is a 'summer kitchen' which we can use if we wish. Inspection showed it to be a building with large unglazed windows, looking as if it had been deserted in mid meal. There were pans of food on the stove, a large fish marinating in a saucepan and various foodstuffs and piles of kitchenware stacked up. We had been told that it was used by 'workers', people who lodged there but were out at work all day. We think we will give it a wide berth.

We had a walk into the "village", which consists of a wooden church which just looks like a house, a 'monument' which gives no clue as to what its purpose or claim to fame might be, a monstrosity of a modern house with some menacing black cars parked outside, padlocked gates, and signs warning of security cameras, and a very few other dwellings. A very strange little place.

Fortunately we had found a good supermarket on our way here, and have a nice supper of some fresh fish, and the lovely fresh tomatoes we bought yesterday,cooked with fresh herbs to look forward to. When I can stir myself to prepare it!

Friday, 16 September 2016

Turku waterfront - Thursday, 15 September

We had a leisurely start to the day. A bit cooler than previous mornings. On looking at our surroundings in daylight, we saw how lucky we were to have chanced on this place last night. For anyone wanting to find it, the GPS co-ordinates are 60.18130°N 21.63705°E, taking a turning to the left just before reaching the bridge and following the roadway that drops down parallel to the bridge.

We went to see what lay the other side of the bridge. It is an island called Wattkast, largely forested with just one road going through it and ending at a holiday complex of log cabins near a lake. On the way back over the island, we stopped at a large greenhouse-like building used for growing tomatoes and other salad vegetables (yes, I know the tomato is a fruit). We bought two types and a cucumber at their serve yourself, enter the amounts and prices in a book and put the right amount in a tin. It was refreshing to know that we would be trusted to do this and everyone else would do the same. We found a similar mentality in Sweden as well.

We then headed towards Turku, a recent European City of Culture, of which I had never heard before we started planning this trip. On arrival, we headed for tourist information for wifi and details of what to see here. We liked what we saw of the city centre, based around the river which flows through the middle. We went in search of the Sibelius Museum ( which happens to be very close to the cathedral, dating back to the 1300s. We both had a look round this and were impressed by its Lutheran plainness. I went to the Sibelius Museum on my own. In fact, I was the only visitor there. I was expecting to learn much about the composer and his life but was disappointed. The museum, under a different name, was originally established in 1926 by Otto Andersson as a repository for musical instruments, sheet music, letters and pictures. Over the years, manuscripts and much Sibelius material was gifted to the museum. I spent my time looking at the many musical instruments covering much of the main part of the museum and its ground floor but, for the life of me, I couldn't find anything specifically relating to the man himself, and his life, which was my main interest. Unfortunately, when I wanted to ask about this, the girl on reception was nowhere to be found. A bit of a disappointment in retrospect.

We then went to locate motorhome parking on the waterfront. There are no facilities but the location is good at GPS 60.44197°N 22.24823°E. There is a loo about 200m along the waterfront towards the road bridge. We went for a walk towards the castle and maritime museum (with a number of historic vessels of different kinds moored nearby). There is also a large "sculpture" of a daisy and long green stem.

Close to where we are parked is the Esposito, a bar on an old ship which also does food. We sat on the deck on wooden benches and table and ate fish and chips. Not the best I've ever had but quite edible. We have spent the evening just watching the world and many of the city's inhabitants go by on bicycles, motor bikes, roller blades or just walking and jogging. It looked as if it might get rowdy earlier when a noisy crowd came across the river on the pedestrian ferry but they got on to some coaches that were waiting for them. They will have come from the city's football ground which is quite close.

There are museums here worth visiting but we feel "museumed-out" at the moment.

Well, it was an excellent spot to spend the night, although Geoff says he thinks he heard a moose snuffling around at one point!!

The last eleven days in Åland have been amazing. It's strange to think that until a few weeks ago we had not even heard of the Åland Archipelago, let alone planned to visit it. Our intention had been to take the overnight ferry from Stockholm to Turku; we would have missed so much!

So we are now in the Turku Archipelago. First we crossed the bridge to have a look at the island on the other side. A long road ran across it with very little to see - except a large tomato growing concern which we passed going one way and stopped at on the way back. There were great boxes of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, and a serve-yourself shop. We helped ourselves, filling bags with tomatoes and baby plum tomatoes, and a cucumber. There were scales and a calculator provided, with a book to enter what we had bought, and a large cash tin full of plenty of change!

We then drove the 75km to Turku crossing a number of islands - I lost count - linked mostly by bridges, but with two ferries needed. The first was just a quick hop, but the second covered a mile. Both were in position for us to board immediately. We were very fortunate. Still free!

We set the satnav for the Tourist Information Office, right in the centre of Turku, (the second city of Finland, and once its capital under Swedish rule) and paid for an hour's parking just outside. This gave us time to do all the necessary internet stuff, gather info and maps, have a quick wander to look along the riverside "strand", and have a sandwich lunch in the camper. Geoff fancied the Sibelius Museum, not too far away. The satnav took us to parking right outside the cathedral and next to a park. I was happy to stay there while Geoff did the museum, checking up on possibilities for the next few days, and spending some time in the cathedral. When Geoff got back we both did a proper visit of the cathedral, the mother church of the Lutheran Church of Finland.

Next we needed to check out a possible overnight stop along the riverside strand which joins the city centre and the castle. And the ferry port. We decided to stay here, rather than head on out of the city, although we have done all we want to here. We tend to get a bit grumpy in cities, although we know we should be more appreciative, and it has been particularly difficult to adapt to city pace after the unrushed peacefulness of Åland. But I felt Geoff had done enough driving, both on country roads and through city traffic, and all nearby campsites were closed.

After a reviving cup of tea and slice of cake, we went for an early evening stroll along the river towards the castle. It is all very pleasant, but really could be any city waterside development. The large Maritime Museum included several interesting ships moored along the river. We could just see the castle peering over the trees and buildings, but are not concerned to visit, both feeling quite castled out at the moment. I suspect that the best view of it is on the sea approach. But we enjoyed the walk there and back, remarking on several modern sculptures.

Just near where we are parked is a little open air boat bar and cafe offering, amongst other things, fish and chips. We decided to go for it, and it hit the spot. First chips since we left home!

I don't expect it will be an entirely peaceful night, and the earplugs may be needed, but it does add yet more variety to the range of places we have found ourselves sleeping in. Imagine being able to stay in London free overnight in a campervan parked on the Embankment!