Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fintics #3 - Oulu, Finland

The next day, we checked out of our Helsinki hostel. We took a tram to the train station, then had another breakfast of pastries (and coffee for me) before taking the bus to the airport and heading on to Oulu.

Fortunately, Finnish airport security isn't as nutty as Canadian, so no one confiscated my plastic cutlery.

Oulu is located at the northern terminus of the Gulf of Bothnia, pretty close to the Arctic circle. We took a bus into town, and several things were noticeable: very attractive leafy suburbs, frequent small outbuildings in backyards (which looked kind of like North American sheds or baby-barns, but their chimneys suggested they were saunas), and beautiful paved multi-use bike-paths (with underpasses for the bike-paths to keep cyclists and nordic-rollerbladers [i.e., with poles] safe at busy highway intersections!).

Here the trees were just starting to leaf out, unlike in Helsinki where they were already fully-open. I guess that being north matters. The trees were mostly birch and some pine.

We stayed in a very, very nice hotel in the centre of town, and after checking in, we went out to explore the town. One of our first stops was, naturally, a café, for lunch and sweets; Mom and M. had quiche, but I had another round-rye sandwich; my dessert featured vanilla cake, apple filling, meringue topping, and a generous dousing of vanilla creme anglaise; M. had a cake [coffee-flavoured?] and Mom had a pastry [which I think had more cardamom].

Mom's foot was aching, so rather than doing a lot of walking in Oulu, we hopped on a city bus for the nearby island of Hailuoto. Public transit in Europe is impressive for me; destinations that might have no service at all, or just a few times daily if they were in Canada, have regular service in Finland, maybe hourly, maybe better. So we took a municipal bus through Oulu's suburbs, alongside more bike paths in the middle of outlying villages and farmland, and when we got to the giant éoliennes (what do you call them in English? the giant graceful windmill-windfarms) at the coast, the bus waited a bit. The bus, and some other cars, then took a pretty fast ferry and crossed over to the island. Our bus continued to the other side of the island and stopped for a while at a fishing wharf on one end of the island before coming back. I'd misread the map of the island, inferring topographical lines of elevation which simply didn't exist: I was expecting a hilly island, but in fact it seemed like a giant flat sand-dune of an island, forested in places by well-spaced pine trees, with an undergrowth of lichen and moss and small shrubs, but cleared in other places for fields. It looked like a magical fairy-land. The bus driver not only delivered the residents, he also picked up mail and dropped off prescriptions - rather charming.

We had a supper in the old industrial-district of Oulu - in fact, the wooden building that housed our restaurant was once a whaling warehouse. This restaurant had been recommended by a colleague of mine named André who did his PhD in Oulu and continues to do his fieldwork (anthropology/archaeology) there. When we first got to the resto, we were worried because the wait-staff kept ignoring us, but eventually they seated us, and it was worth the wait. André had promised us "actually edible Finnish food" but it was delicious. I had lamb in a red-wine sauce with buttery scalloped potatoes and mixed veggies; M. had arctic char in a morel (?) sauce, and his potatoes were boiled; Mom had cabbage rolls dressed with a lingonberry (?) cream sauce, and her potato was baked. I don't remember the other desserts, but mine bore an intriguing translation along the lines of baked cheese dessert - it was rich, creamy, and mostly solid, served very hot, garnished with bakeapples/cloudberries. The "cheese" part was not bad (worth trying, though maybe not worth ordering again; I think it was milk that had been gelled by the addition of rennet) but the bakeapples were delicious; I'd never tried them before.

We dined late, around 9:30pm, and it was later yet by the time we finished. Mom and M. were tired so they went back to the hotel. The reason I'd wanted to come to Oulu was to experience the midnight sun, so I went out for a walk on my own. The waterfront of Oulu, with plain wooden Hanseatic-looking storehouses here and an elaborate brick market building there and elegant restaurants a little farther, looks something like a cross between Lunenburg (Nova Scotia) and Amsterdam (or rather, what I imagine Amsterdam to look like since I've never been there), with the occasional modern building (serving as a theatre or something) thrown into the works.

In a park/square, I saw some unusual park benches. I've dubbed them "Lutheran park benches": they have a lower railing for you to put your feet up, but they have no backs, and the bench-seat is a second long narrow railing. I guess they don't want you to get too comfortable; certainly you couldn't lie down and sleep on these.

What I'm used to seeing in Canada is that after the sun sets, it's dark within half an hour. Not so in Oulu! In fact it's hard to say exactly when sunset takes place because it lasts so long and never really gets dark (in summer that is). I have pictures* of beautiful pastel reflections in the harbour at 11:00pm, others of the crimson-pumpkin peak of the sunset at about 11:30, and 11:50pm pictures of daffodils that look like they could have been taken in daylight. In other pictures from 12:50am, where the sky peaks out from clouds, it looks straw-coloured; that's as dark as it got before I decided I had to go to bed, as we had an early flight next morning.

* Yes, I have pictures - too many in fact. I haven't been able to narrow it down to fewer than 1200 picture, which is why I haven't shared them yet.

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