Friday, 23 August 2013

Cycling Finland: Conclusion and tips

Civil war memorial
Finland is a bizarre country and I mean that in a very positive way. It did not fit my image of Scandinavia at all. In fact, Finland resembles more an Eastern European country than the picture book image of Scandinavia. But its history and mentality are fascinating. Finland became independent only in 1917. Before it had been occupied by either Sweden or Russia and each country has left its traces. And Finland's fate in Second World War can fill a whole book. Although I am not a fan of war museums the one in Helsinki is definitely worth a visit and explains Finnland's turbulent history in the 20th century from the declaration of independence in 1917, the ensuing Civil War of 1918, Finnland's alliance  with Germany in Second World War up to the treaty of Friendship between Finland and the Soviet Union of 1948. Knowing about Finnish history explains a lot about Finnish mentality. There is not much to see in the way of castles and churches in Finland but the experience of a Finnish sauna and compensated it for me....and I am fascinated by Finnish history.

Finland is not as bike friendly as Sweden or Denmark. There is a national bike route network but there is not much information about it on the internet. The routes are only marked on the 6 bike maps covering the whole of Finland. The route I took from Vaasa to Helsinki is called via Finlandia or National bike route 3. There is a very outdated guidebook for it with pictures of happy cyclists right from the 80s and town photos that look like a Russian Intourist advertising. Even the format is slightly too big for a standard handle bar bag. But although the tourist information in it was completely outdated the maps were accurate and a great help. In the field the bike routes are marked but the markers are not very consistent and so old and bleached out that you can hardly see them. Plus it seems to be a Finnish pastime to turn markers into the wrong  direction. So a good (GPS) map is essential. Unfortunately the OSM based velomaps show the bike routes only partially but I hope that over time it will cover the whole Finnish bike route system. The Via Finlandia route was great. It almost completely keeps you off the main highways. I was usually cycling on bike paths next to highways, minor roads with little traffic or very good dirt roads, so I can highly recommend the route. But although there are plenty of bike lanes and paths in Finland they are in bad shape compared to Denmark and Sweden. Lots of potholes and at road crossings the curb very often has not been lowered so that you have to get off your bike or risk damage. I hardly saw any other long distance cyclists in Finland.

Finland is about as expensive as Sweden, but again shopping at Lidl helps to cut prices and I did not find Finland to be a particularly expensive country. Finland has the only Lidls with slot machines! Yes, you are legally allowed to gamble in supermarkets and therefore you can see housewives gambling at slot machines at 10 am in the morning in a Lidl. Free wifi was relatively easy to find and all libraries offered free internet access even to tourists. Free camping was as easy (or difficult) as in Sweden although in Southern Finland the terrain was very easy. My usual strategy of using cemeteries for water resupply worked but unfortunately there were not too many cemeteries in sparsely populated Finland.

I highly recommend visiting a sauna in Finland. Every public swimming pool offers a sauna and entrance fee is about 5-6 € only. Usually men and women go naked, but in separate areas. Therefore you don't need a swim suit. There are plenty of lakes, too and designated swimming areas offer ladders for easier water access and/or nice sandy beaches. Maybe I was just lucky but the mosquitoes were not a big problem. They did not bother me at all while cycling and only became a nuisance in the evening when I set up my tent and tried to cook.

Despite the warnings in a German cycling guidebook I did not find cycling in Finland boring. Yes, there is a lot of forest and it all looks pretty much the same but there also are a lot of lakes and beaches for swimming, plenty of berries to pick and a lot of saunas to visit..... Just be prepared that Finland won't fit your typical Scandinavian image, find out about its history and you'll find it a fascinating country. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will definitely be back soon for a longer trip.