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Day 6


 
 
 
Saturday, 22 August 2015
 
Start: Luleå (S) 11:15
Arrival: Rovaniemi (FIN) 18:30
Total: 321 km
 
 
 

 
The breakfast buffet of the Clarion Hotel was huge. You built up an appetite, just by running all the way along it to get something from the far end. There were loads to choose from: all sorts of bread, jam, vegetables, yoghurt, cereals, juice and above all lots and lots of protein: eggs in various forms, sausages, bacon, ham - cured and cooked, you name it, if it ever lived, it was on display on the buffet. At the table next to us sat a young muscle man, a huge plate piled up high with eggs and meat in front of him. Enough to feed a small town with. "Is he gonna eat all that?" I asked my sister, intrigued. That was the plan. I watched in horrid fascination as he put one boiled egg after the other into his mouth, only interrupted by mouthfuls of bacon and omelette. Atkins junior? Eventually, his stomach (or taste buds) declared defeat. He left the breakfast table, his plate still piled high with a good dozen eggs and more bacon strips and sausages than I could count. The waiter just shook his head when he cleaned the table. Enough to turn you vegan.
 
After checking out, we explored the city center of Luleå. The high street was pretty much like any small town shopping street. There were also several market stands, selling flowers and vegetables. One stand had attracted a huge crowd, with a long line of people queueing up to buy stuff. All the other stands had barely one or two customers. Odd. Curious, we approached the successful Dibbler, but we couldn't make out any difference between the merchants' wares. Intriguing, but not intriguing enough to stand in line and buy something.
 
Around 11 o'clock, we walked back to the car park to face the ominous ticket machine. Sonia had texted our Swedish friend Babsan to ask what it was all about, and we had finally understood the system: you drive in, register your credit card at the machine, get a ticket which you display in the window so that the controller knows that you have registered your car. When you leave, you put in your card once more, paying for the time your car was inside. Easy, really, once you get the hang of it. Just don't forget to put in your card before leaving, or you'll be charged the maximum amount. I wonder to how many tourists this has already happened. When we paid, we saw that the instructions were also displayed in English. We were probably too tired and hungry to notice this last night.
 

 

Gammelstaden

 
Our first destination for the day was the old town of Gammelstaden (which actually means "old town" in Swedish) on the western outskirts of Luleå. There's a four lane freeway going there, so we should arrive at our destination in no time at all. We did, but not before having to slow down on the freeway at a railway crossing. Yes, indeed, in Sweden there are railway crossings on freeways. Just to keep you interested, I suppose.
 
The old church town of Gammelstaden is a UNESCO heritage site (we seem to pick 'em). Before you reached the town proper, there was a huge cemetary, which seemed way too large for such a small settlement. Later on, we learnt that people from all over the region were buried here, and not in their village or on their farm, as one might have expected.
 
We parked on a large (and largely deserted) parking lot and started out by perusing a map hanging on the outside of the visitor's centre. "Which parking lot are we on?" I asked my sister. "WHAT?" I repeated my question, almost shouting at her. This place may be devoid of visitors, devoid of noise it was not. In fact, there was a police helicopter turning its rounds above our heads. Were they looking for an escaped prisoner? A terrifying terrorist? Or just making sure the tourists were behaving their best? Should we be grateful for their vigilance or annoyed by the noise? Ignoring the flying tinnitus machine, we headed for the town centre.
 
In the tourist office next to the main church, there was an interesting exhibition on the first floor. Life in Gammelstaden, explained through pictures, first person narratives and life-like puppets. Gammelstaden was (and still is, actually) a church town, meaning the people came here on the weekend to go to the church. Every family in the region had a house here, which they would use only on holidays. It was in fact forbidden to reside permanently in the town during the week. The hamlets and farms of northern Sweden were too small to have their own churches but in the days before everyone had their car, they were much too far from any larger town to travel back and forth for church service in one day. So the church towns were established, which only came to life on a holiday, when people from all over the place congregated to meet friends, celebrate and look for a suitable spouse as well, I suppose.
 
This law is still in effect nowadays, largely so that Gammelstaden can remain a UNESCO cultural site. This is a bit of a catch 22. The houses are all still private property, so the state cannot turn them into museums. But nowadays people do not need to meet at church, you can drive into Luleå any time you want and the internet lets you keep in contact with your friends. Today was Saturday, but apart from some chaps mowing their lawns, the place looked deserted. Even the church was closed down, maybe because of restoration works. Behind the church, there was a large granary and some public buildings, but they were closed too, without a word of explanation on the locked door. Disappointed, we peeked into some windows. Inside, it looked a bit like a museum, the furniture was mostly old and quaint. But there was the odd magazine lying about or a television set that reminded you that these houses were still in use. By now the sun was mercilessly burning down on our unprotected heads and there was hardly any shade to be found in the streets. On top of that (quite literally) that strange chopper was still buzzing about in the air. This was so intriguing that I had to take a picture.
 
At the outskirts of Gammelstaden, there was an open-air museum where you could explore all the old buildings in detail. Or so we thought, until we stood in front of the first locked-up construction. Ah well, it was interesting enough from the outside. The whole place had a vibe of Little House on the Prairie about it. Come to think of it, many people in the series did have Scandinavian last names, like Ingalls and Oleson. Maybe they were of Swedish descent? Be that as it may, this old store definitely reminded us of that TV series.
 
After a drink in the cosy little museum café, we headed back to our car and at 1 PM we were, to the tune of the copter above us, on our way to Finland.
 

 

Kukkolankoski

 
At half past two, we reached the bordertown of Haparanda (sounds a bit like Happy reindeer, doesn't it?). As always, Sonia took a picture of the signposts saying "Suomi" on one side and "Sverige" on the other. "You're not supposed to take pictures of border areas," I reminded her, not for the first time. "It's not really a border anymore, is it?" she replied faux innocently. "But you're not snapping pics of the Russian border," I warned her. "Not like back in Transnistria, where you just had to photograph that tank." My sister was busy checking her camera, to see if the picture was any good. So maybe she didn't even hear what I had just said. (Spoiler alert: of course she did it. Her picture of the Russian border can be seen here.)
 
So now we were in Finland. That meant turning the clocks forward one hour, which was actually a boon, because it meant that for the next few days, even though we were driving further East, it would be dark a bit later, making it that more likely that we would reach our hotels before nightfall.
 
From Haparanda, we could have taken the E75 to Rovaniemi. But we didn't. Instead, we headed straight north onto a road along the river Torneälven, which marks the border between Sweden and Finland. A few kilometers to the north, the river becomes really wild and dangerous. This place is known as the rapids of Kukkolankoski, and we wanted to have a look at them.
 
We found the place without trouble, it was a lovely spot with a smoky little fish restaurant and some cabins which you could probably rent out. This late in August, they were all locked down though. The rapids themselves were pretty impressive. Certainly not something I would like to be kayaking on, but we saw some boats wrestling with the river while we were there. The thrill is of course all part of the fun here.
 
On foot, you could not get really close to the tumultuous water. The rapids themselves were partitioned off from the shore by a narrow, shallow sidearm and huge boulders. There were men sitting in groups of two on the boulders, apparently not doing very much. Were they anglers? Or just Finns out basking in the late afternoon sun? What a strange spot to meet up with your best buddy.
 
Looking across the river, we saw that on the Swedish side the rapids were barred by boulders too, and there too were a couple of men idly sitting about. Behind them rose the familiar red and white houses with a picturesque little wooden church in their midst. Maybe another church town like Gammelstaden.
 
There was not much else to see on the shore, so we decided to try and get closer to the churning waters. Walking along the waterside, we came to a wobbly construction. I guess you could think of it as some sort of makeshift bridge. Adventurous natures might have tried to clamber over it, but there was a large STOP sign which made it very clear that such endeavours were not encouraged. Then again, the men on the boulders had probably used it to get to their exposed spot in the sun. We threw a look back at them. We now had their full attention. Oo-hoops. Maybe these "anglers" were sitting there to fish out of the water any tourists foolish enough to try the rapids? Or to make sure none of them even got that far. The rapids police. In any case the "bridge" did not look inviting, so we quickly gave up that idea.
 
The restaurant did not look too appealing to us either, so we were soon back on the road. It was still early in the day, therefore we did not head back to Tornio for the main road to Rovaniemi, but followed the river further north. We trusted that eventually there would be a crossing with a smaller inland road branching off to the east, toward our final destination for the night. After all, Rovaniemi was the commercial centre of northern Finland.
 

 

Struve Geodetic Arc

 
And indeed, after about 50 kilometers there was a road sign indicating a street towards Rovaniemi. "The Struve Arc", my sister called out excitedly, "make a right here." I was about to. But what on Earth was she talking about? "The Struve Geodetic Arc," my knowledgeable sister explained to me. "Remember how I had wanted to see it in the Ukraine, and then again in Estonia, but we never found it?" I was nonplussed. What was this strange thing that you could visit in three totally different countries! But then I remembered. On our trip through the Western Ukraine a few years back, Sonia had indeed told me the story of the German-Russian scientist Struve, who had thought of an ingenious way to establish the exact shape and size of the Earth. In the early 19th century, he had travelled what was then Sweden and the Russian Empire, establishing a chain of 265 exact measurements from Hammerfest down to the Black Sea. The result was the first accurate measurement of a meridian. I had forgotten all about it, but obviously my sister had not. And this time, we were determined to find that elusive Arc.
 
We slowly drove on, always on the lookout for another roadsign. Not long after the intersection, a signpost marked Aavasaksa / Struve directed us further east. After about five kilometers on a small asphalted street through a forest, we came to a deserted parking lot, but Aavasaska and a mysterious Keisarinmaja Imperial Lodge was still further along the road. This sounded interesting. We decided to find out about the lodge first and explore the Struven Ketju later. The road led up a steep slope and, after a couple of hundred meters, more or less ended on a tiny little parking in the middle of the Finnish boreal forest. We hadn't seen a soul since leaving the main road ten minutes ago. Did I really want to get out in this wilderness? There were probably bears around here. And foxes. And wolves. And other animals, all much bigger and faster than me. "Do we need to see the lodge?" I asked my sister sheepishly. After we established that, yes, we needed to see it, we struck a compromise. The road did in fact not end at this parking lot, it led further up, but was closed to all motorists except disabled ones. Deciding that my fear of Arctic wildlife was pretty disabling, I guided our car up the slope. After just one more really steep bend, we saw a large wooden cottage in front of us. We had found the lodge! And we weren't even alone up here. A man and his son were taking pictures in front of a information panel, curiously eyeing this foreign car that had well and good driven itself into an impasse here. There was not really an opportunity to turn around and I didn't want to just leave the car right there in case someone else had the same idea than us.
 
Several tiny turns back and forth later, I had managed to turn the car around and we parked it in the rightful spot. "So you're not afraid to get out anymore?" Sonia asked. Well, there were two people around and they hadn't turned into wolf-snack either, so I decided that I might survive a visit of the lodge after all. We wouldn't be alone up there, so the big mean wolf would hopefully stay away from us. We took a shortcut through the woods, a steep footpath half obscured by pine branches, and soon stood in front of the lodge once more. But the father and his son were nowhere to be seen. They had simply taken off, leaving us all alone up here! Ignoring my whimpy fears, Sonia headed for the lodge. Now I was all by myself. Not good. I quickly ran after her.
 
The tourist panel informed us that this was an Imperial lodge from the time when Finland had been a part of the Russian Empire. Tsar Alexander II had stayed here overnight once. Neat. From the outside, the white cabin was painted in very Russian-looking geometric patterns. All alone in the quiet pine forest, we felt like in a Russian fairy tale. Inside, there were two rooms with a hearth and rustic furniture.
 
Walking around the lodge, we decided that the path through the forest probably led down to the first, bigger parking lot. So the Struve Geodetic Arc must be somewhere around here too. Too bad we didn't know what we were even looking for. A simple plaquette on a wall? A monument big or small? A heep of stones or a large great hall? Rhyming didn't help either, so we tried the most obvious thing: a tall tower right next to the lodge. "But what about the wolf?" I complained. Sonia was having none of it. "First the tower. The wolf can wait." Resigned, I followed her up the hill. And there it was, no doubt about it: Several large metal rings in the form of a globe. A plaquette informed us that this was the spot where Mr Struve had taken his measurement, almost two hundred years ago. Of course we had to take a picture of it.
 
So this was it then? Wondering whether the tower was a simple water tower or somehow part of the tourist attraction too, we tried the door. It was unlocked. That meant you could get in, right?
 
Curious, we stepped inside and found that the tower was completely taken up by a staircase. Should we climb up? We decided that yes, we should. Round and round the stairs went, much too high up for comfort. But we made it all the way to the top and were rewarded with a mindblowing view over the forest, the river, all the way to Sweden. This was really worth it.
 
When we got down again, I had forgotten all about the big mean wolf. The pine trees gave off a wonderful scent and it was a pleasure to walk over the soft needle-strewn ground. This was definitely a nice place to visit. Good thing my sister had seen the sign.
 

 

Rovaniemi

 
The road to Rovaniemi was long and winding, but in excellent condition. We were practically alone on it and made good time. When we hit the main road E75, there was much more traffic. Again, you had to wait for a passing lane every few kilometers to get past slow moving vehicles, just like in Sweden. I really came to prefer minor overland roads, because the main arteries were not larger, just more clogged with traffic. Unlike in Sweden, the road was not fenced in, but open onto the forest, which I preferred a lot. Granted, this way there was a bigger chance of wildlife crossing the street, but at least the hapless animal would not be trapped right on the traffic lane with impassable fences on both sides.
 
At first look, Rovaniemi is an unimpressive small town. I've never been to Alaska, but this is what I imagined the atmosphere to be like. Of course I might be totally wrong there, but it definitely felt like a "last frontier" town. Our place to crash for the night, called Artic Hotel, was really nice though. The staff were very friendly and the room was, well special. A bit overstuffed with lights and carpets and pillows and bed rugs everywhere, but I suppose this must feel very cosy during the cold dark Artic winter. Pride of place took a cute little polar bear, sitting squat on the bed. What an endearing little fellow! You could buy it in the lobby for 20 euros if you were so inclined. We were. Sometimes, you just have to fall for such marketing ploys.
 
But now we were hungry. According to the information leaflet in the room, our hotel had two restaurants. Excellent. Down in the lobby, the receptionist informed us that it would be busy until nine o'clock. He recommended that we try out the restaurants later. Nine o'clock was late, but all right, so we would check out the town first. Maybe we would find a nice eating place along the way.
 
We found the river promenade and enjoyed the view over the Kemijoki and the Lumberjack's Candle Bridge. The pillar in the middle was supposed to represent a candle, a reminder of the times when lumber was floated downriver to the saw mills. There was a jetskier on the water, and at the other side of the river, people were lying in the grass sunbathing. Beautiful scenery. Except for the bawling to our left. Next to us, two tosspots had fun throwing their empty beer bottles into the water. Idiots. We walked on. The promenade seemed to be a gathering spot for drunks and bums of all sorts. Or was this just the normal way to celebrate the weekend in Rovaniemi? It might have been, because when we found the main shopping street, the sidewalk cafés were chock full with bawling, shouting people. It was hardly eight o'clock, but a lot of them seemed already quite inebriated. We didn't really feel like eating in such a loud and noisy place.
 
Back at our hotel, we enjoyed a drink in the lobby and discussed which of the two restaurants we should try out. One of them sounded really promising, the other seemed to be a more fancy joint with very stiff prices. We opted for the first one but, much to our disappointment, were told that this restaurant is not located in our hotel at all, but rather at a sister hotel about ten minutes away.
 
I had been looking forward to the reindeer ragout, so we headed off in search of the place. It was still light outside, and after a stroll through pleasantly quiet side streets, we found the cosy little restaurant, which, would you believe it, was as good as empty! Only one other couple was sitting there, enjoying their meal in this warm, relaxed and quiet atmosphere. This was so much better than the busy restaurant at our hotel and they would certainly have had a table for us an hour ago. We ordered our reindeer ragout with mashed potatoes and it was indeed excellent, if a tiny bit heavy on the salt. When we left, it was dark outside. Strolling back towards our hotel, we felt at home on this pleasant cool summer night, maybe already a bit like locals (just in case you wonder: No, we were not drunk). Our Arctic adventure had begun.
 

 

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