Wednesday, September 19, 2018


Before leaving the Savonlinna region, we drove to Kerimäki to see the world’s largest wooden church. Built in 1847-49, it was designed to hold half the population of the parish including market and festival days at one time, some 3000 people when seated in the wooden pews. Standing room will accommodate another 2000 worshipers. (An old wives’ tale says that the architect used centimeters in his design, but the builders were thinking in inches. Wrong!) Still in use today during warmer months, it has a cathedral-like ambiance to add to the religious experience of the parishioners.

Parishioners helped build the church according to their income, an early version of a graduated income tax. Every male between the ages of 16 and 60 was required to participate in the construction.

Basically square in shape with a separate clock/bell tower, the church is entirely made of wood. Huge pillars painted to look like marble support the high ceiling along with laminated crossbeams. Four wood stoves used to provide heat, but today the congregation uses a smaller winter church when the weather gets too cold. Except for Christmas, of course. The church is well lit by the sunlight in summer. The only interior lighting is from a series of candlelit chandeliers holding at least 250 candles. Lighting those must be quite a project for the lamplighter.

The dome reaches a height of 37 meters, over 120 feet. The exterior measurements are 45 meters by 42 meters. 1670 meters of pews provide seating. The bell tower is now used as a gift shop to support the parish and some of the local artisans. Along with coffee and cakes, we saw a large variety of woolen knitted gloves and scarves along with some sauna hats. These are cone-shaped hats that help keep one cool in the sauna and warm outside on cold days. Cherie purchased some gloves as gifts, but we passed on the sauna hats.

From Kerimäki, we headed for another drive through forest and lake country to Jyvaskyla, our next stop.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Savonlinna and the Opera

We arrived in Savonlinna about 3:30 which gave us time to get settled in our rooms and relax with a gin and tonic before we headed off to Olavinlinna Castle and the opera. The walk to the castle along the shoreline is beautiful especially in the late afternoon sun. A couple of old tour boats, still in operation, are tied up to the waterfront. More are still out on the water with passengers enjoying a tour of the lake. We also passed a few restaurants filled with patrons enjoying a dinner and/or drinks before the opera or just having a nice relaxing evening on the waterfront.

Several old wooden ships cruise the lake

Not everyone is heading to the opera
Dinner before the show

We arrived at the castle about 6:15 giving us plenty of time to wander the castle on our way to our seats along with the 2200 others. Two musicians part of the orchestra obviously were late as they rushed past us and then along the narrow sidewalk between the lake and the castle walls. We finally reached our seats along the back row to await the performance. This opera company is world famous and sells out every performance during its short run in July. We ordered our tickets in January and these were the best seats available.

A couple of musicians are late
Pre-show cocktails
The stage is in the large courtyard covered by a canvas ceiling. Drapes help the acoustics. We were surprised we weren’t outdoors, but others told us that the warm weather we were having was unusual. Rain and cool weather in the evenings is not uncommon so the cover was a necessity.

When the performance started we immediately realized we were in for a special evening. Over 100 cast members filled the stage and their voices filled the courtyard. A troop of about 20 children danced as the singers celebrated summer setting the stage for the sadness to follow. At first I thought they were a bunch of kids interested in theater, but soon realized they were ballet students already quite skilled. A small troop of gymnasts also performed.

The Queen of Spades, by Tchaikovsky, is the rather sad story of a young man in love with a woman above his station. He pins his hopes on getting an old woman, whom he calls a hag, to share with him the three cards that will lead him to victory and riches in the nightly card game. Of course, the girl falls in love with him anyway. She doesn’t care about the money, but he can’t get over the fact that he is poor and schemes to learn the three cards. He finally succeeds only to discover too late that the old woman has deceived him. He kills himself; she dies of heartbreak; and they walk off into the mist of death.

Interval snacks and more

The entire performance was magnificent in this beautiful setting, lasting three and a half hours with a 30-minute interval. We needed that long an interval to find the toilet and get drinks or a snack before the second act. Those who know the drill will preorder a snack and a table for the interval so they can enjoy the time looking out over the lake and the rest of the crowd mingling in any of several spots around the castle. I did some exploring since we wouldn’t be coming back for a formal tour in the morning. It is a large castle with three turrets completely surrounded by the lake. Lots of nooks and crannies and walkways along the parapets gave me plenty to explore before I had to make it back to my seat and the second act.

After the show was over and the 15-minute ovation, we walked back to our hotel through town stopping for a hot dog on the way. At the hotel we finished the evening with a final drink before heading off to bed to prepare for our drive to Jyväskylä the next day.

Before leaving in the morning, we took a nature walk around a small island next to the hotel.

Monday, September 17, 2018


We had a bit of fun leaving Helsinki. Google Maps had a bit of trouble providing us the correct directions back to the hotel from the car rental agency. Two dead ends and two more one-way streets later we finally made it the 3 kilometers through town. Loading the car was a bit like one of those games with blocks to fit into a limited space but when we were done everything perfectly and completely filled the space. Our drive out of town also included a couple of missteps, but we finally made it onto the road for Lappeenranta and Savonlinna where we would spend the night. Our Finnish friend Jim Rinta told us this is the  most beautiful part of Finland.

Norwegian Troll
Lappeenranta is a city of about 35,000 with a pulp mill John had visited 30 years prior. We saw the mill in the distance. The reason we spend some time there was to see Finland’s largest sand castle. Every summer for the past 15 years, the city has sponsored the creation of a huge sand castle with several different sand castle artists contributing. It sits on the lake shore as a free attraction for the summer before the winter weather puts it to rest. This year, they chose professional sand castle artists from the EU to create sections showing off their country. The result as you can see from the pictures is a fun diversion from more common beach attractions.

Puffins from Iceland

Gaudi Architecture from Spain

After viewing the castle, we took a short walk up the hill to the old fortress of Lappeenranta. Many of the old buildings from the fortress remain although most have been repurposed for city and tourist use. We had lunch in the old jail which has been repurposed as a community hall and lunch spot. Lunch was either a baked potato loaded with goodies along with soup and salad bar or just the soup and salad. We chose the soup and salad for €9.50 (about $11 US), a nice break from the higher prices in Norway and Helsinki. We were able to fill up on the nice tomato soup and extensive salad bar. We were entertained as we waited in line by a small musicial group of local students.

Former commandant office, now the museum headquarters
After lunch, I walked up to check out the oldest surviving Orthodox Church in Finland. The Church of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God was first built in 1743 after Russian claimed this part of Finland in the Treaty of Turku signed after Russia defeated the Swedes in one of their wars over control of the Baltic. The original church was replaced in 1785 and extensively remodeled in 1901 leaving us with a still small, but beautiful church with a nave and two aisles. The outside view of the church, obstructed by leafy trees during summer, has a grand bell tower and front entrance. I was not allowed to take pictures inside the church where the walls are covered with some amazing icons. Most are painted, but a few are created using gold leaf and even gold relief and halos of gold extend 2-3 inches from the face creating a glittering renditions of God, Mary, and Jesus. Most of the icons, from churches or monasteries in St. Petersburg and Kiev, were created in the 19th or 20th centuries. One remains from the 18th century.

Several outdoor outworks

The original congregation was primarily soldiers from the Russian garrison attached to Lappeenranta. As Orthodox merchants moved to town, a civilian congregation began to attend. Today the church serves nearly 2000 members from Lappeenranta and surrounding communities.

From Lappeenranta, we headed north and east towards Savonlinna to spend the night after seeing our first opera in that city’s castle. On the way we drove we passed through mixed birch and pine forests and more and more lakes as we entered the lake district of Finland.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Helsinki Highlights

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral
We had two days in Helsinki. It would be easy to spend two weeks and still have things to do. We had the choice of a dozen different museums, two outstanding outdoor historical parks, several possible boat rides, and a great variety of eating establishments. And saunas. We started our first day by buying the Helsinki Pass. We haven’t purchased these cards beore because they usually are for a few specific sites that require more than the few days we have and aren’t always things we want to do. However, this pass is different. It starts with a HopOn-HopOff bus tour, includes a 90-minute canal cruise, offers free entry to a host of museums, discounts on some other things including a few restaurants, and free use of the transit system. Since the HopOn-HopOff and cruise prices nearly equal the Helsinki Pass price, buying it was a no-brainer.

A mini-concert while we toured the Rock Church

We began with the HopOn-HopOff bus tour. We made stops at the two biggest attractions, the Rock Church and the Sibelius Monument. The church was hewn out of stone in the 1950s and was part of Finland’s coming of age in the modern era as it provided jobs and a source of pride in Finnish ingenuity and craftsmanship. It is a stunningly beautiful building made even better on our visit by the piano player.

Jean Sibelius was Finland’s greatest composer. We learned that he lived a long life, but basically quit making music during his last thirty years. He was too busy enjoying the fruits of his labors with good food and drink. The monument is a beautifully crafted set of pipes designed to look like an organ in its park setting overlooking a small lake. A stern-looking Sibelius oversees the scene and the masses of tourists fighting to get their pictures taken in and around the monument.

While we waited for the bus after visiting the church we had a lovely conversation with another tour bus driver from England. He entertained us with stories of the Jack the Ripper tours he led in London, one we might look for when we visit there in the fall. He also told us about a little coffee shop on the lake near the Sibelius monument. It was time for a break so we found the Red Shack Cafe where we had a cold drink and a cake to tide us over until dinner.

After completing the HopOn-HopOff tour, we stopped in the shopping district. The ladies did their shopping while John and I had a beer at the Hard Rock Cafe under umbrellas on the square. Relaxing in the shade with a beer is a pleasant end to a hot day of sightseeing.

Our tour boat
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

The Suomenlinna Sea Fortress was built by Sweden in 1748 to protect its Baltic empire against the Russians. Today it is an historical park enjoyed by the population who come to enjoy one of the several museums or just to have a picnic on a warm summer day.

Another of the many tour boats
Barely enough room for the boats. It saves several hours.

That evening we did the canal cruise. This 90-minute boat ride took us through the Helsinki archipelago with commentary on Helsinki's history and lifestyle. Our cruise began at 6:30 and we still saw a lot of people out enjoying the sun and cooling off in the warm Baltic waters of the bay. The early evening sun added a serene beauty as we cruised around island after island through narrow straits and canals. At the conclusion of the cruise, we wandered a bit looking for a place to eat, but at the end of the long day, nothing seemed appealing. Instead we headed back to the hotel for dinner there.
Even in the late evening people enjoying a cooling swim
On our second morning we headed out to the Technology Museum, about a 30-minute tram and bus ride from the hotel. This museum is located in the old water treatment plant so there is a strong focus on that work with much of the old machinery still in place. The real focus of the museum is the leading role Finland has played in the development of modern technology worldwide. Since John worked for the Camas Paper Mill (owned by Crown Zellerbach, James River, and now Georgia Pacific), he was an interesting guide through the paper and electrical sections of the museum. He has been to Finland on a couple of occasions to look at Finnish paper-making equipment so he pointed out some of the equipment used as he started working in the industry.

But Finland has also been a major player in the development of electronics, so there were several displays about the development of radio, television, and the internet. Nokia is only one of several Finnish companies that have led the development of communications technology in the modern age.

On the bus ride out, we passed the Arabia Design Center that our friends, Jim and Marcia, had taken us to when we were here two years ago. We had hoped to visit it again, but weren’t sure we would be able to fit it in. Now we had a perfect opportunity, so we stopped there on our way back to town. The public part of the building is really an outlet for their products and for Fiskar and Finlayson products as well. For those like me who aren’t familiar with those names, Arabia makes fine ceramic wear, Fiskar makes tools and the best scissors in the world. Finlayson makes linens. We did make a couple of purchases.

My favorite part of the building is the lobby of the Fiskar campus. As you can see from the pictures, they have created some interesting art from a few of their everyday products.

For dinner we returned to an Italian restaurant we had enjoyed two years ago. Ravintola Coma lived up to our expectations and more. A bit of a hole in the wall, the smell of garlic was almost overpowering as we walked past the kitchen to the tables. We chose to sit in the outdoor patio surrounded by trees and two art nouveau apartment buildings. We ordered bruschetta and a bottle of Montepulciano to accompany dinner, three different risottos (the specialty of the house) and a chicken pasta. Each plate was beautiful and tasty. The risotto came out perfectly cooked and remained hot throughout the meal, two characteristics often missing even in good restaurants. After dinner we chatted a bit with the waiter/co-owner. He said he has been in Finland 35 years and is still learning the language, something we could sympathize with. When we asked him why he left Toronto, he pointed at his partner and said, “I met her.” She smiled. A good way to end our short time in Helsinki before hitting the road to see more of southern Finland from a rental car.