Monday, 28 July 2014

Cycling in Finland: Conclusion and tips

When I prepared this trip I read a bicycle guide book for Europe. What it said about Finland was not very encouraging. Most long-distance cyclists would skip Finland and rather go to Sweden and Norway, because Finland is so "boring". Luckily this statement didn't deter me from coming here. Now, after more than 6 weeks of cycling through Finland I must say that I liked it a lot. A lot! This has been a very pleasant and enjoyable trip. In fact, Finland has become one of my favourite countries for cycling. Would I recommend it to a friend though? That depends on your trip expectations. Let me tell you why I enjoyed Finland so much:

Valamo monastery
Cultural diversity: In Finland you get three countries for the price of one! First of all you are in Finland - naturally. But you will also learn a lot about Sweden. The whole Finnish West Coast has traditionally been settled by the Swedish and they have left their traces up to this day. Western Finland is therefore often called "parallel Sweden". Town names are in Finnish and Swedish. All street signs are bilingual. In places like Vaasa up to 90% of the population speak Swedish as their first language. And you will also get a feeling for Russia in Eastern Finland. In Karelia, along the Russian border you will find more Russian-Orthodox churches than Protestant ones. There are the absolutely fantastic Valamo and Lintula orthodox monasteries. And nowadays you will see a lot of Russian again due to the masses of Russian tourists who come to Finland for holiday and shopping. Finnish history itself is fascinating: For centuries it has changed from Sweden to Russia and back. WW II history is especially interesting - as is Finland's special status as a Western country with "special" ties to Russia after WW II.

Great outdoors: 70% of Finland is covered with forest! You'll see elk, reindeer, beavers and hundreds of different birds. Especially for birdnuts Finland is paradise with its many bird viewing towers and bird hides. But there isn't only forest: There are vast swamp and mire areas. And there is an almost endless coastline. But it all depends on what you are looking for: If you want spectacular mountain landscape and fjords than Finland isn't the right country for you. Finland is mostly flat - a fact that I personally enjoyed tremendously as it made for easy cycling. Only South-Western Finland is sort of hilly, but it is mostly only short ascents and descents.

Faded marking
Excellent infrastructure for cyclists: Regardig infrastructure the first thing that comes to mind is roads and traffic. Coming from the Baltic States the condition of Finnish roads is great. All bigger roads are paved and usually in excellent condition. Potholes are generally repaired. Even the many smaller dirt roads are mostly graded dirt and not thick gravel. Unfortunately my road atlas did not show which roads were paved and which were dirt. Try to find maps which have this distinction and it will save you a lot of sweat. I still didn't like cycling on dirt roads but they weren't the bike catastrophe like in the Baltic States. Except for the really big roads and motorways traffic is usually light and Finnish drivers are considerate and polite. I had very few hairy situations. Only big logging trucks can be a bit of a problem but they usually give you a wide berth. The very best is the extensive bike path network. In really every city and often even villages there are bike paths paralleling the roads. And these bike path are usually very well maintained and have lowered curbs. Getting in and out of bigger cities is normally a nightmare for me. Not so in Finland: As soon as you get closer to a metropolitan area bike paths will appear everywhere and major destinations are even signposted.

There is only one thing that could be improved: Finland most have had a fantastic long distance route network. You can still see it on bike maps. But unfortunately the signpostig has not been maintained for years or even decades! Sometimes you can still see faded stickers with numbered bike routes but they have become undecipherable - and unreliable. Also there is no online resource showing the bike network which is a shame: Finland has so much to offer for cyclists and is missing out on attracting bike tourism.

Bottle return
But Finland has to offer more amenities for cyclists: First of all it is very easy to get water. All the usual "suspects" are good sources for water resupply: cemeteries, gas stations (look for the "wardrobe" like water and air station), churches (if they are open) and bigger supermarkets. Churches usually have toilets inside as have bigger supermarkets. Supermarket toilets are generally free, only in very touristy areas you will be charged. All Finnish supermarkets have a station where you return used plastic bottles and get your deposit back. In bigger supermarkets there is a little sink and water tap next to this station. It is meant to drain half empty bottles and wash sticky fingers but it is also great for getting a quick water resupply.

My personal favourite though were Finnish toilets. Private and even most public toilets are equipped with a little shower hose. The hose is connected to the wash basin. You'll turn on the water at the sink, push a handle at the shower head - and can then clean your "nether" regions with warm water. This is absolutely fantastic as these regions need special attention when you sit on a hard bike saddle 8 hours per day. But this little shower device is also great for washing your hair.

High fun factor: I guess it varies a lot from person to person what they consider as fun but for me Finland provided a lot of enjoyment. First of all there are the Finnish saunas. Every public swimming pool (uima halli) in Finland has one or several saunas attached. In a rather expensive country like Finland they are a great value: The normal price for a swimming hall with no time limit is between 5 and 6 EUR. This gives you access to sauna, showers with free soap, hair bbbbdryers, lockers and of course swimming pools. There is no better way to wait out bad weather - and no better way to get absolutely clean than frolicking in a Finnish sauna. You'll find public swimming halls in all big and medium sized Finnish towns, but be aware that the close in the height of summer. If it is too hot for sauna than you can easily cool off in on the thousand Finnish lakes. The magic word is uimaranta (swimming beach). Here you will find a sandy beach and sometimes toilets and changing rooms - all for free. But even if there is no official uimaranta you can usually jump into every lake.

Cooking shelter Rokua NP
My newest discovery are the Finnish National parks that offer better amenities than many campgrounds. You will find free forest campsites (although in some parks you are forced to stay in pay campgrounds), dry toilets, swimming beaches and sometimes even beach saunas (for rent), lean-to shelters and my beloved campfire sites. Here you will find heaps of firewood in a shelter that rivals most hiker huts in other countries, an axe for chopping it up and campfire rings or grills with grids and spits. Often there is even a cooking shelter for bad weather. Finland is grill sausage (grill makkara) country. Buy some sausages and have an outdoor barbecue but be warned: it is addictive.... To find these places go to where you will find a list of all Finnish parks and recreation areas complete with maps. These places are meant for hikers but usually some of them can be accessed by bicycle as well. Spend some time hiking some of the nature trails or visit the viewing towers!

Mute beggar
But of course even Finland has some drawbacks: There is no denying that Finland is a rather expensive country. It is not as bad as I thought and much cheaper than Denmark and Norway. Still, prices are about 20% higher than in Germany. When shopping food you can keep your expenses down by going to Lidl which is by far the cheapest supermarket chain in Finland. Lidl has become quite common in Finland and you'll find them in every big city. Other than that you are stuck with either a K-market or an S-Market (or an R-Kiosk). There are also ABC-gas stations and cafeterias that have a relatively cheap AYCE lunch. Only Lidl is still called Lidl and not L-Market.... I ate a lot of youghurt which is sold in 1 kg cartons and even cheaper than in Germany. Unfortunately culture is also expensive in Finland. Expect to pay at least 8 EUR entrance fee for a museum, sometimes a lot more. Accommodation is almost unaffordable. Even dorm beds in hostels cost up to 30 and 40 EUR. Commercial campground will charge you around 13 EUR per tent plus 4 EUR per person and as a solo traveller you will end up paying between 15 and 20 EUR just for camping! Don't even ask what hotel rooms cost... As a couple or a group your best option is renting a hut or cabin in a campground which start from 40 EUR per cabin.

Abandoned road camping
But on the more positive side there is the everyman's right: You can legally camp everywhere except on farmland and near houses. Although this sounds great be warned that free camping is not that easy. Finnish forest is a jungle! It is very difficult to find a flat spot big enough for a tent that is not overgrown, rocky or full of tree roots. And even if you see such a spot you might not be able to access it: A lot of Finnish forest is planted on drained swamps - and therefore between you on the forest road and your desired camp spot there will be a deep drainage canal..... Your best bet is to look for abandoned forest roads. Did I mention the mosquitoes? In summer it seems that everything is out there just to bite you. This not much of a problem while cycling but as soon as you stop you will be attacked by mosquitoes, horse flies, sand flies and all sorts of other insects. Bring repellent and/or long sleeves.


Colin said... is not so bad, is it?
(Und danke fürs Bloggen, lese ich sehr gern.)

Janine said...

The mosquito's are horrible here! Especially the horse flies. Some nights I woke up because it itched too much. I was on the Åland Islands and it was worth it though :) Nice to read your story since I might go on a bike trip somewhere in Scandinavia next year as well. So thanks for sharing!

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

I agree very much with your comments about the signing for long distance bike routes being abandoned. I generally just used a map and never looked for signs. There are a series of paper maps for cyclists that cover the country in I think 4 sheets. As I only rode in the south, I only need that one as it goes from East to West and further north than Tampere. Crucially that map does show which roads are gravel and surfaced, as I never wanted to ride my road bike on gravel, but was happy to ride those roads on my CX. Mosquitos are a problem in summer, you need a mossie net if you are using a tarp BUT where you are makes a huge difference. If you can camp on a beach for instance, if can be quite nice - walk five metres into the forest to have a pee and its hellish in seconds with mossie attack! Basically you don't want to camp in trees if possible until the frosts have come.

German Tourist said...

Toby, the GT bike maps are great - but at 20 EUR per map they were just too expensive for me because I would have needed 5 maps. In hindsight I should have bought the GT road atlas for Finland, which is less then 50 EUR and shows whole Finland including road surface.