Monday, 30 August 2010

The Bear's Ring

We’ve spent the past four days walking the Bear’s Ring, a 70 km trail that runs through Oulanka National Park in north-east Finland, close to the Russian border.

The route was beautiful, with a well marked path winding through birch and fir forests, passing rivers, deep canyons, waterfalls and lakes, with wobbly bridges over the rivers and raised boardwalks through the boggiest sections. Between the trees the ground was covered in fruiting blueberry bushes which provided a very tasty addition to our meals.

Being surrounded by trees also insulated us, keeping us out of the wind so we were warmer than we would otherwise have been and – although over 150,000 walk at least some of the trail every year – making us feel for most of the time like we were the only people there.

We spent the first two nights in wilderness huts which were wonderful: free to use and well equipped with tables and benches, spaces to sleep, double glazed windows and a wood burning stove, with well stocked woodpiles, saws and axes outside. The first hut was so nice and warm we were even tempted to go for a swim in the nearby river – though the water was so cold we didn’t swim long. Yesterday we walked a less popular stretch of the trail with fewer huts so we camped at night next to a small lake and ate our supper by a campfire, the only people for miles around.

Now we’re back in civilisation and warm and clean we’re heading out for pizza tonight – our first cooked meal in 4 days.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Lapland: Home of Santa and the Sami

We’re now in Rovaniemi, capital of Finnish Lapland and official residence of Santa himself. And the whole town seems slightly obsessed: there’s a Santa Claus Hotel (and Rudolf Hostel nearby), and even the shopping centre apparently comes recommended by the man in red... so this morning we made the pilgrimage to the Santa Claus Village 5 miles north of town and bang on the Arctic Circle.

Although the bus was full of tourists (some even wearing Santa hats!) it was clear that we’re here out of season when we got to the village: not much was open other than a string of souvenir stalls selling the ugliest tack imaginable (all at typically outrageous Scandinavian prices) – so no Christmas gifts for anyone from there I’m afraid. Still we got our 3 minutes with the man himself who was suitably portly, bearded and charming. No photos though I’m afraid as prices for an image of the moment started at £30...

Other than the-Santa preoccupation, our first impressions of Finland are mainly of trees and lakes. Since leaving the barren Northcape landscape the countryside here has been unremittingly wooded, with a mixture of birch and pine trees, interrupted only by lakes. And after the mountains and fjords of Norway the landscape here seems incredibly flat so none of the stunning views we’d got used to although the woods are still pretty in their own way. It’s just a shame it’s so much colder than we – perhaps naively – expected: the temperature over the last week have stayed firmly in single figures so we’ve been living in fleeces, hats gloves and scarves! With the low temperatures and the leaves turning golden it already feels like Autumn’s on its way.

Between Nordkapp and Rovaniemi we spent a couple of days in Inari: a small village on the shores of the largest lake in Lapland, and the most important Sami (indigenous Laplanders) settlement in Finland, as well as home to the Sami Parliament and a fascinating museum about Sami history and culture.

As well as visiting the museum we walked out to an old wooden church a few miles outside Inari. The walk – inevitably – took us through pretty woodland (apparently with bears, wolves and elks lurking somewhere out of sight!) and past lakes (much too cold for swimming here!) and it was lovely to be able to walk for several hours without having to climb any mountains!

Reindeers and the Northcape/ Nordkapp

Our final stop in Norway was in Honningsvag, the most northerly town in mainland Europe. It is a fairly desolate little place with a heavy oil industry presence, but we stayed in a wonderfully cosy little guesthouse with DVDs we could watch, which made the continual mist and cold wind bearable!

And more importantly Honningsvag was the best place from which to make a trip to Nordkapp (or Northcape), the most northerly point of Europe (at 71 degrees north). However the mist continued to thwart us and from the cliff top viewing point we couldn't see much at all......not even the sea immediately below. So we walked 10 miles down to the beach, where we camped for the night, and managed to catch some brief glimpses of blue(ish) sky and could see the sea stretching out and nothing between us and the North Pole!

Whilst the scenery was fairly rocky and barren around Nordkapp, the very welcome sight was that of reindeers, which are abundant and sport rather magnificent antlers. In Northern Norway and Finland reindeer are everywhere – grazing on the land, used for transport, on the menus in restaurants (in numerous dishes) and products either made from reindeer or depicting reindeer fill the shops. Not ideal for a vegetarian but it is obvious the important role they play in life here and how much reindeer husbandry contributes to the local economy. There are apparently more reindeer than people in Lapland!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Lofoten Islands

We arrived in the Lofotens by ferry and our first impression of the islands was of a jagged wall of rock rising straight out of the sea – a particularly dramatic sight with the setting sun behind the mountains so they appeared as silhouettes.

We stayed in A (pronounced “Uh”) – the last letter in the Norwegian alphabet and the southernmost village in the islands, where we camped on a rugged headland jutting out into the sea with fantastic sea views from the tent.

As in the other villages we’ve seen around the islands, the seafront and harbour were dominated by small red-painted wooden fisherman’s cottages, some standing on stilts above the rocky shore. Settlers first came to the islands drawn by the cod, and these cabins were originally built for visiting fishermen, although they’re now let mainly to tourists. Around the cabins stand great wooden racks – mainly empty now (something Rachael’s quite pleased about!) but apparently completely full during the winter and spring when the cod are left out to dry.

We’ve continued our outdoor swimming while we’ve been here, in increasingly cold water (luckily though for our first 3 days we had warm weather and clear blue skies which definitely helped!). Our first full day from A into the middle of the island, picknicked and swam in a beautiful lake before climbing to a ridge with views over east and west coasts.

Unlike in fjords around Bergen, where the mountain tops were relatively flat, here the islands are dominated by rough pointed peaks and serrated ridges: a dramatic and strikingly beautiful landscape if not a particularly welcoming one.

On Friday we walked to a near deserted beach on the west of the island where we swam (briefly) in the sea, had a bonfire, and watched the not quite midnight-sun disappear for just a couple of hours in the night before the clouds rolled in and the islands disappeared in pouring rain and thick mist which enveloped us during a very soggy Saturday – a bit like camping in the Lake District, just a bit colder!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Midnight Jacuzzis in the Arctic Circle on board the Midnatsol

We’re now on the Hurtigruten, originally a mail boat that delivered supplies to the towns and villages inaccessible by land which now also carries tourists up and down the coast from Bergen to the Russian border.

We’re on board for two days, up to the Bodo in the Arctic Circle from where we’re taking another ferry to the Lofoten Islands where we’ll be for the next few days.
Outside the cliffs have got steadily lower and more barren and sparsely populated. On board we’re very much enjoying a little luxury after the tents and hostels of our first week in Norway, especially the dusky midnight dips in the outdoor Jacuzzi at the top of the boat!

The Western Fjords

One week in and our greatest impression of Norway so far is the landscape and the light: high and sheer snow-topped cliffs, rising vertically out of deep clear fjords, with small villages and isolated buildings perched at the water’s edge. Above it all are such enormous skies, and daylight until almost midnight. It’s been amazing and just keeps getting ever more beautiful as we head further north.

We started in Bergen in the Western fjords, a bustling and hilly coastal city (think quaint wooden shops and houses, which (just) avoids being too twee thanks to a bustling little harbour complete with fish market). Exhausted from our final weeks in London we didn’t do much our first day, but spent the second climbing one of the seven mountains visible from the town and walking back to town across the hills, with stunning views into the mountains and out to see.

Next stop was Flam, a tiny village at the head of a fjord. Its major attraction is a railway which descends 900m over 20km, and the village apparently draws over 500,000 a tourists – mostly day-trippers – a year. There were certainly a lot when we were there but as there isn’t a lot in the village and the weather wasn’t great most of the ones we saw seemed to be hanging slightly aimlessly around the gift shops outside the train station, where we joined them on our second day as the persistent heavy rain made us abandon the walk we’d planned.

Balestrand – a tiny village at the confluence of three fjords - was even more beautiful than Flam and much quieter, with a great campsite sloping down to the fjord. Again we headed for the hills, climbing a 1000m mountain above the village with views of the surrounding snow-capped peaks and clear blue fjords below, before going for a refreshing if rather chilly swim!

So overall we’ve had a fairly quiet and wholesome start to our trip, with lots of walking and fresh air and just one beer (at nearly £10 a pint this first month is set to be pretty much alcohol free) and are feeling well rested and inspired by the outdoorsyness of Norway – walking or off road running seems to be the national pastime and Norweigans walk faster than anyone we’ve ever seen before (we’ve had several embarrassing moments being overtaken by 10 year olds out on walks..!)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


So here we are in Bergen in Norway, where we're planning to spend the next 2 - 3 weeks. The map below shows our rough route and the places we're planning to stop - if you've been to any of them and have recommendations of things to do or places to stay or eat please let us know. Or if it looks like we're not planning to stop somewhere you think is unmissible then tell us now! Thanks

View Norway in a larger map