Triplogue - Finland
Exasperated by tire trouble
|5 August, Turku to
Mossala, 107 km
Let the record state that Fred Felman will be sleeping in a tent tonight. Even as I write this, under the fading 11pm sun, he is busy arranging his nylon nest. Yes, we are camping. In the woods. With wild beasts for our neighbors. In Finland, of all places.
We arrived in Turku this morning on a big beautiful ship operated by the Viking Line. There was only one other cyclist aboard, a maniac German from Hamburg who had ridden to Nordcapp the northernmost point of Europeand was now on his way home. He told us hed been on the road since May and had had only one day of bad weather. I found myself envying his pedaling through the night under the midnight sun and breathing the incomparably pure air. Looking at us and our quixotic machines, he said we were carrying way too much stuff (I personally consider our backgammon board and various beauty products a necessity, thank you very much), and assumed wed be sharing a cabin with him, explaining that Viking Line usually matches people up by similar interests, etc. We nodded our heads in a conciliatory way, for there was no arguing with this man, though we knew for a fact that we would not be his bunkmates for the night. Since we booked passage at the last minute, the only cabins available were the "luxury" ones on the top deck, which we figured were still cheaper than a nights stay in Stockholm. And bike brats are always up for a little dose of princessdom
In some ways the trip really started for me today, since Finland is the first country I hadnt been to before; I was penetrating virgin territory, an explorer. It looked and felt pretty much as I expected it would a Soviet-flavored version of Scandinavia-- as I roused myself to consciousness on the vast central square of Turku with a cup of coffee and a large sugary object that resembled a donut. The Soviet no-nonsense aesthetic was definitely present in the utilitarian architecture, but it all looked clean and prosperous like Sweden. The people strode about with confidence and purpose in the early morning rush hour. Nearly everyone we saw was scantily clad, in tank tops, miniskirts, and the like, even though it was freezing outside. I wondered if they knew something that we didnt.
--And they did as a matter of fact, for todays weather was as close to sublime as weve encountered all summer long.
We decided to deviate wildly from our course and pedal westwards back towards Swedento a group of islands called Aland (with a little circle over the "a"), but we werent really sure which route to follow. Throwing caution to the wind, I let Fred decide. Our only restriction, after all, is that we have to be in Helsinki by Friday night to meet up with Olivier, which opens us up to a plethora of possibilities. Fred made his decision in a very logical way: He gauged the direction and speed of the wind and pronounced that we should head towards the Southwest. And soon we were on our way towards what is known as the Finnish Archipelago, consisting of over 12,000 islands.
We were delighted to find excellent bike paths running alongside the highways, indicating that we were still in a civilized country. The path we took led us through the town of Kaarina (home of gay pornographer Tom of Finland, we learned later from a straight girl in Turku), and shortly thereafter we were cruising through golden meadows hemmed in by pristine forests and ocean inlets. We had to pump up some seriously steep grades, too, something which our legs were no longer used to.
Just as I was thinking that Finland was a cycling paradise, our fantastic bike path came to an abrupt end, forcing us to share the road with the aggressive Finnish drivers. But after the first ferry crossing (traversing the archipelago requires taking many ferries, which adds to the appeal), we learned that if we waited for all the cars to exit before us, wed have the road to ourselves for twenty minutes, until the next ferrys cargo of cars caught up with us.
Twenty k and a couple of ferries later, we arrived at our first village, called Nagu. We stopped here for an elegant dockside lunch, setting us back a small fortune but almost worth it. Our waitress informed us that the tourist season was practically over, since Finnish schoolchildren resume their studies next week.
A little beyond Nagu, we turned off from the main road onto a side road that quickly disintegrated to a sandy track. But the mellow scenery and total lack of motorized traffic made us push onwards rather than turn back. Shortly after the reappearance of blacktop, my front tire exploded, sounding like a bomb. In a way I was happy, because Id finally be able to put to use the spare tire Ive been lugging along for so many months. It couldnt have happened in a better place either: on a deserted road alongside a picturesque meadow. Changing the blown-out tire was almost a pleasure.
Another ferry took us to a larger island called Korpoo, where we planned to catch a longer-haul boat to Aland. But when we got to the docks a young, well-mannered schoolgirl informed us that it had just left, and that the only one tomorrow leaves at six-thirty in the morning. Forget that, I thought, and hastily put together a Plan B. We would jump on the next ferry that came, and see where it took us. I liked the spontaneity of the idea, and consider us lucky for Kismet to have brought us to Houtskar (pronounced "Hoht-chorr"), a group of postcardesque islands covered with little but wilderness. It was on this ferry that we met young Pepy (short for Petri), his wife Anne and his dog Minnie. Pepy had spent a couple of years being a pilot in Missouri, and now the three of them were on their way to meet up with Pepys sister Piia for a few days of camping and canoeing.
Piia, it turns out, is married to a kooky hippyesque Canadian called Torbin, whom she met while touring with a musical group called "Up with People." We met up with their whole gang when we finally reached the primitive campsite on the northernmost tip of this island group, twenty-odd kilometers and two more ferries from where we first disembarked into the beautiful universe of Houtskar. Fred had his heart on sleeping in the "cottage village" that was marked on my map, but no such thing matieralized. Nor was there a restaurant, unless you counted the nasty pub we had stopped at several hilly kilometers and one ferry ride back. We figured wed subsist on some of the snacks we had acquired over the course of the day, but Piia volunteered to drive us back to the "pub," where the young couple introduced us to one of the staples of popular Finnish cuisine, a meat pie soaked in grease and stuffed with rice and sausage disgusting! Torbin, apparently thrilled to be talking with native English speakers, told us his amazing life story. Born to a draft dodger from Texas and a Danish mom, Torbin grew up in the wilderness of British Columbia, where he dreams to return some day if only Piia could get a work visa.
When we returned to the campsite, another cyclist had appeared, a German called Richard.
As I write this, the whole crowd is noisily grilling sausages on the beach and laughing at Pepys crude jokes. I suppose Ill join them, even though Id rather just crawl into my sleeping bag and call it a night, letting myself dream of where tomorrows ferries will take us in this magical archipelago.
|Mossala to Mariehamn,
Our late afternoon/early evening entry into Mariehamn with fast traffic and steep hills couldnt erase from my memory what was the most sublime riding day in recent history. The night before wed met yet another German cyclist who had discarded his BMW and the autobahn for a bicycle in Scandanavia. Richard was alone (male German cyclists travel alone, and females in pairs) and very well equipped. His coffee pot burbling away on his cook stove was the noise that woke me at eight. Unaccustomed to outdoor life, I found myself a little out of sorts in this rustic surrounding. As disorienting as it was, I loved the sound of the ocean lapping against the rocks on the shore. It made a "blooping" noise, like the sound a cartoon character makes when they let air from their mouths under water.
Finally I found my bearings and was scurrying around getting ready for the day that lay before us. After about a half hour Andy emerged from his cocoon and was luckily greeted by Richard with his favorite morning words, "would you like a cup of coffee?" Andy managed to act surprised, but I distinctly remember him dropping huge hints to Richard about his coffee addiction around the camp fire.
The ferry was to leave at nine and I became a little nervous as Andy was scarcely ready and the motor was running, the gates were closed and all cars boarded. We made it aboard in plenty of time. It was a remarkably well equipped boat with a huge lounge and café suspended over the auto deck. As we purchased breakfast we watched the ferry pull away from the dock. We were a little shocked that we had to actually pay for this ferry. The coffee lady demanded ten Finnish Marks for each of us and an equal amount for our bikes, imagine, nearly four dollars for each of us? We were really offended after not having to pay for a single ferry the day before. We were sipping coffee and making plans for the days ride as we left the chunk of rock we called home for a night.
Richard, Andy and I decided that wed make our way to an intriguing chain of islands called Brando. On the map it looked like they were scarcely wide enough for a road and looked like more water than island. The only issue would be that we had to make an amazingly tight set of ferry connections to get to the islands. This meant that wed have to land at one ferry dock, sprint to the other side of the Island and repeat the process a number of times. I couldnt see how this would be possible for Richard. He had all the right camping gear, but it was attached to a big ol three speed.
My fears were soon allayed. I was cranking along at over 30kph on a slight uphill against a little breeze and looked in my little rearview mirror to see Richard drafting me and Andrew somewhere off in the distance. Richard was strong. On that same islelet we decided we must stop for a moment, Andy needed cash and we needed some lunch. Andy wrestled with the cash machine forever it seemed while Richard and I shot the breeze. Finally Andrew wandered up a little confused; he didnt know where we were and seemed a little perturbed that we were late and wouldnt make our ferry connections.
It was looking a little tight as we got of the next ferry we had a scant 20 minutes to make 8.5K in order to find Brando. Andy immediately declared it impossible. I felt a little worried, but perked up as I watched Richard go into turbo mode on his brown ugly three speed. He cranked up the little tough hills against the wind and whooshed down the hills past the pine trees, wheat fields, marshes, geese, swans. It made me very proud of him. I struggled to keep up and Andy trailed behind. We made the ferry with a few minutes to spare and were lounging in the ferry bar before we knew it.
On the ride to Brando we ogled Finns of every age group banged on a gambling machine (a Finnish variety of the type that you put a coin in with the hope it will push more coins off into a tray) hoping that some coin would fall out. We munched our Salami sandwiches, tangerines and yogurt watching teeny isles pass by. The archipelago is astoundingly beautiful. Each island a chunk of rock that had been polished clean by the glaciers topped with a little soil and covered with pine trees.
Brando was actually a string of these little stones. Most places you could see the sea on either side. There was virtually no farming, few houses and only a few cars passed in over twenty kilometers (and then only within a few moments of our arrival by ferry). Its hard to describe this afternoon of perfect cycling. The chemistry of sun, breeze, vacant road, stunning scenery and great company. It only comes to you a few times in thousands of miles.
We reached lands end only to find a hundred cars and an equal number of cyclists boarding the next ferry. Seems that wed arrived at the perfect moment, just in time to make our next destination. As we boarded the boat the operators were having a nervous breakdown over the number of bicycles. They wanted cycles of varying destinations in different piles and the young cyclists ahead of us were confused about their destination. So was Andrew. He thought that if we told them we were going to the near destination that we wouldnt have to pay and was trying to get us free passage (it turned out that this was for nothing, it was free regardless of destination). We finally put our bikes in the proper pile when one young girl almost lost it. Her bike was at the bottom of the pile of the bikes going to the wrong destination.
We were finally settled in the cabin. I napped until the next destination, where Richard parted company. When we finally arrived at our "final" destination we got off the boat and let all of the ferry traffic pass. I was in a little shock over the flurry of activity. There were hundreds of cyclists, fast cars and badly driven busses. It was too much after our idyllic ride over Brando. On top of all of the activity, the hills became long and steep and the riding seemed tough after the mornings sprints from ferry to ferry.
The terrain chilled out and we spent the golden part of the day riding over gentle hills through wheat fields. Upon entering Mariehamn we noted that there was a huge "redneck" factor amongst the drivers. The all zipped around town burning rubber, racing their engines and blaring their stereos at full volume. Wed not encountered such a phenomena since Florida. One driver even "flipped us the bird" as we entered the suburbs, the first time this had happened in my memory. I longed to be back on Brando.
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Having fun in Aland with powerful Richard on his three-speed
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Fred trying to sleep it off in Turku
|8 August, Turku/Salo
to Helsinki, 134 km
From Mariehamn we took another ferry, a big one this time, for the six-hour journey back to Turku. We booked passage on the Viking Line again, and the ship was identical to the one we had taken several days earlier. The weather was sultry and glorious, and standing on deck watching the myriad islands pass by felt like a dream. Some of them were so close you felt you could reach out and touch them.
Once in Turku, we headed straight for the train station. We had hoped to accept Torben and Piias invitation to spend a night with them in Hameenlinna and ride down from there to Helsinki. But it was too late; there were no more rail connections for the day. It was Freds turn to find us lodgings, and he was rightfully proud of himself for stumbling upon a truly excellent room. Our hotel had commissioned artists to design individual "fantasy" rooms, and we scored big time with the "North Star" room, in which all the bizarre furniture was handmade, including lamps made from kitchen implements and a telephone encrusted with jewel-like bumps. It was easily the most original hotel room either of us had ever stayed in (and this includes the "Gypsy Rock" room at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo), and we were thrilled to have found it in such an unlikely place.
Turku was amazingly happening for a Thursday night. I suppose the hot weather forced everyone out of doors, because the sidewalks were packed with boisterous Finns. We stopped to rehydrate in a sidewalk café on the central square, where we were quickly joined at our table by an inebriated and slightly creepy dude called Johannis. He insisted on buying us a round (of cider) and tried to teach us some Finnish words, which was hopeless. When I learned that the Finnish word for "eighty-eight" is "kahdeksankymmentakahdesksan," I abandoned any further desire to progress beyond the relatively simple "kiitos" (meaning thank you). Our conversation was interrupted at one point when a girl at a neighboring table stood up, swayed a bit, and vomited profusely as she made her way onto the sidewalk. We soon learned that this is completely acceptable behavior in Finland. Everyone else seated on the terrace took this display in stride; after only a couple of minutes a café employee came out with a bucket no doubt reserved for vomit-cleaning purposes and calmly washed the mess into the gutter. Fearing that Johannis would soon be following suit, we bid our host adieu.
From here we moved on to a gay bar called "Jacks and Mikes," whose butch female staff made it feel more like "Jills and Dykes." We found a tiny table in a cramped corner, where we were soon joined by a trio of friendly Finns. Mari is a fantastically gorgeous blond creature, a straight girl who had fallen in love with a Turk on a recent trip to Bodrum; Franz is a forty-something architect who had designed a room at our hotel (but not ours); and Syrpa is a beautiful young lesbian in mens pants and into kink. All three of them were way hip without being self-concious about it, convincing Fred that we had fallen in with the creme de la creme of gay Turku. The five of us gabbed for hours, finishing the evening (no pun intended) at a heinous faux-Mexican joint full of drunk and horny heteros. Sure enough, our friend Johannis was there, but he was way too far gone to recognize us, let alone walk in a straight line. Realizing it was past two a.m., we excused ourselves and walked home through the sultry night air, amazed by the Finns seemingly unlimited capacity for partying.
Not surprisingly, it was hot again the next day. We had already decided to take a train part of the way to Helsinki, nearly two hundred kilometers away on a busy highway. The train was like a rolling Finnish sauna, so hot and airless it was. We shared our compartment with a large group of young Frenchies who judging by their appearance and odorhad just spent an extended period of time camping in the wilderness. Boarding the train, one fifteen-year old girl shot us an accusatory glance and said to her friend, "It stinks in here." I resisted retorting that unlike them, we had showered that morning.
In less than an hour we were in the town of Salo, the alleged center of Finlands answer to Silicon Valley. It was here that I saw my first Nordic street person, while I waited for Fred to emerge from the grocery store. He looked and smelled like a homeless person anywhere, and the people passing him in the street acted shocked to see such a display of deviant behavior.
It was a very hard days pedal, with lots of hills, a deadly headwind, and temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius. The stream of cars and trucks racing by us didnt help matters any, either. At least we found a shaded place by the side of a lake to have our picnic, where Fred tried his hardest to finish the kilo of yogurt he had purchased. After eating, I jumped into the brown water and thought I had found God.
The refreshing effect of the water didnt last long, however, and I began to worry about my dwindling and then non-existent water supply. As we pedaled past more lakes dotting the wilderness, the brown tannic water began to look more and more inviting, but this time as a beverage. I was on the verge of sticking my face into one and sucking sludge when a country store appeared out of nowhere, like a mirage in the desert. We were a disgusting sweaty mess, but the friendly proprietress gladly filled our water bottles, going so far as to stuff them with ice. Had she been sent by God?
Near a town called Inkoo where we filled up our water bottles yet again we joined a high-speed highway that made the previous road look like a country lane. At least there was a shoulder, but the traffic combined with the wind, heat and road grit made the whole experience an unpleasant one. It was a long sixty-five more kilometers to Helsinki, made longer by a flat on my front tire.
Crossing Helsinkis ring road, we penetrated into what I thought would mark the beginnings of Finlands only metropolis. But what greeted us were many more miles of forest, moose-crossing signs, and a continuous stream of Volvo station wagons zooming towards the country for the weekend. When we finally reached what appeared to be suburbs, we began asking directions to Helsinki by bike (the divided highway being off-limits to cycles) and everyone looked at us as if we were asking how to get to China. Indeed, the capital was still very far away, and the route was poorly marked. By the time we finally reached what looked like a town, we were at the end of our tethers both physically and emotionally.
Arriving at our hotel just past nine p.m. I felt like I could go straight to bed and stay there for the weekend. But Olivier would be there in just a few hours and would surely want to hit the town. Our room was yet another Finnish sauna, as was the restaurant where we had dinner. Apparently Finland was experiencing a freak heat wave, with no air conditioning to be found anywhere. We chose a table directly below a fan, but found ourselves bathed in sweat from the mere effort of lifting a fork. Crossing a street on our way back, a middle-aged Finnish gentleman staggered over and berated us in English: "You guys havent had enough to drink." We looked around us and noticed that everyone else in the street was barely capable of walking, and that belches and farts and puking sounds resounded loudly, practically echoing in the streets.
Olivier showed up right on schedule, excited to be in such an alien place and anxious to investigate its nightlife. Before leaving the room, he unscrewed one of the windows in order to let more air in, but it didnt help much. The walk over to Helsinkis biggest queer disco ("Dont tell Mama", which was predictably stifling), was like a hallucination, with so many drunken young Finns swaying and barfing in the street. Had we stepped into another dimension?
by special guest brat Olivier Trimon
By day this charming Nordic town of Helsinki is offering a large palette of colorful funny architecture in different style from different invasions ; few cute islands are easily reached by boat, vodka on board from paradisinki , where naturists exi-bite facing the shuttling of the huge ferries. All those nice blond faces are topped with antenas: tiny cute wool hat for the baby with a pointy top, and portable phone for everybody. Its a charming family atmosphere, an ice cream type of life.
By night it becomes nuts; welcome to hell sink in. They already start in the morning by beer "a la terrasse et a la pression," and through the night up to 4 oclock a.m., the main central plaza become a huge drunk roach motel. Geography says 10% of Finland is covered by water but its filled up of 90% of vodka, and out of that 90%, 2O% is recycled into a Baltic version of Niagara Falls of puke, the result of a decadent ballet of "absolut" excess. With good humor, they combine to create an exceptionally smooth ,rounded flavor with a delicate aroma and a well-balanced finish. Experience it.
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Olivier makes the rounds in Helsinki
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