Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A trip to the north of Europe, to Stockholm, Helsinki and Salo and home again

It's still winter in Finland as you can see here.
Hello everyone.

I’m late with my blog, sorry my friends but that’s because I’ve been away. I have lots to tell you. I hope your week was good, mine was great but the ending wasn’t too good. More about that later.

But let me start from where I left off last to record the whole picture. It was Sunday 3rd April and very wet. We went for our usual walk but had to shelter from the rain as you can see in this picture of me in a raincoat and umbrella. Norah was also wearing her raincoat. 

It was a very wet walk with Norah last Sunday

Later that evening we went out to dinner with Roberto and Mari Carmen and we were joined by Juanjo, Eladio’s old boss, and his wife Justi whom we hadn’t seen for at least 4 years. We went to a place called Rias Galegas where the food was divine.

Monday was an extra pure protein day (thanks Dr. Dukan) to work off the excesses of the weekend but also to lose that extra kilo or so before I went off to Stockholm on Wednesday. My teeth were giving me trouble (an infection under a very big bridge) so I went to see my dentist who prescribed even stronger antibiotics to avoid any complications whilst I was away and to tide me over until my appointment yesterday. Thankfully they did.

Tuesday I went into Yoigo for the weekly management team meeting but also for an interview by Bloomberg News with our CEO. The journalist seemed pretty junior but his article was on the ball although it had a rather aggressive headline as you can see here. The article caused some buzz in Stockholm.

And Wednesday was the big day, the start of my trip to the North of Europe and an end to my “itchy feet”. Eladio was going away too, but nearer, to his native Montrondo together with his brother José Antonio and nephew Miguel. Miguel now lives there semi permanently and has even bought some chickens.

José Antonio with Miguel's chickens in Montrondo last week

So on Wednesday I was up at the crack of dawn to take the only direct flight to Stockholm that leaves at 10 in the morning. I was at Arlanda airport just after 2 and dragged my oversized bag (big for all the shopping I was going to do) to take a taxi which would take me to my hotel. It was sunny in Stockholm although fresh with about 8º when I arrived and it remained so until it was time to leave. Meanwhile in Madrid it was in the mid 20ºs; what a difference but then it is the other side of Europe.  The other difference which I was to notice in Finland even more is that spring has not arrived in this part of the world whilist in Madrid nature is in full bloom and green is the dominant colour in the sun.

This time I was trying a different hotel and got the tip from Lars. The Skeppsholmen Hotel turned out to be great. The island and Stockholm is made up of many, is one of the smaller ones and is delightfully in the heart of the city but away from it all. It’s a 5 minute walk from the Grand Hotel. I made sure I got a room with a sea view and highly recommend room 132. The rooms are very “designer” and Scandinavian with lots of wood and glass and white bed clothing making everything look clean and sparse but elegant at the same time.

The island of Skeppsholmen where my hotel was.  It's the small island in the centre of the photo
The Skeppsholmen hotel where I stayed in Stockholm on the island of the same name.

I was struck by the basin in the bathroom. I have never seen anything quite so modern. Just take a look here.

I thought this basin in my hotel bathroom was ultra modern.

I spent the afternoon working from my room until it was time to leave to meet my colleagues at the TeliaSonera head office in Stureplan from where we would walk to our dinner location, the Italian Cain restaurant. Dinner was at 7 pm, early for me of course but then when in Rome you have to do as the Romans right?

The next day our meeting started at 08.30 (early for me again). The team of communications managers from the Baltics, Nordics and Spain were to spend the day on the 7th floor of TeliaSonera mostly sharing best practices. It’s great to be able to exchange experiences and information with colleagues who have similar jobs in the group. We were just 11 people. The room we were in felt more like a lounge than a conference room. I remarked it looked like an Ikea showroom and it did. However that was a faux pas as the Swedes, unlike us, consider their flagship company Ikea rather down market!

The room or rather lounge we used for our communications meeting in Stockholm

The meeting finished at 5pm (early for me hahaha) and most people left for their respective countries. I decided to go back to my hotel and explore my island for some much needed exercise and also to get some pictures because it is truly beautiful. A storm was coming and I was nearly blown off my feet but even so got some great photos and enjoyed my surroundings. Afterwards I had dinner on my own. I have never liked dinner on my own but in the end was accompanied by Susana on whatsapp. The dining room was lovely with views of the Baltic Sea and my meal was perfect: my favourite prawn open sandwich washed down with 2 glasses of wine and followed by my favourite dessert; ice cream and meringue. I felt definitely woozy and was waiting for the headache afterwards but it never came.

The Vasa museum as seen from Skeppsholmen Island
You can see all the photos of my time in Stockholm here.
On Friday I was up early to get ready to go to Finland. Back in Madrid Suzy was getting ready to go to our apartment by the beach at Gran Alacant near Santa Pola with her two school friends, Rocío and Estafanía. They had a great time and worked on the beginnings of their summer tan. Here is a photo of Suzy on the beach. I like it. Don’t you?

Susana was enjoying the Mediterranean sun in Santa Pola whilst I was away

The temperatures I was going to were much lower. In Helsinki when I arrived it was about 2ºc but it was sunny. I could see that the Finns were still enduring their long winter. They talked about spring coming but I didn’t see much sign of it as there were no leaves on the trees yet and much snow on the ground. For them the first sign of spring is when the ice begins to melt in the rivers and lakes. This was big news this weekend. Apparently it can cause flooding and when the ice blocks the rivers, sometimes they have to break it with dynamite. People go out to the rivers, the sea and the lakes (and Finland has probably the most lakes in any country in Europe) to watch the phenomenon.

From Helsinki’s familiar Vantaa airport I made my way by taxi to the Central train station in the city centre where my dear friend and host for the weekend, Anne would be waiting for me. For me this girly weekend was going to be a big deal. I was returning to my beloved Helsinki after quite a few years away. When I worked with Nokia I used to go at least 5 or 6 times a year and grew to love it; the way of life, the people and of course nature. Finland is all about lakes, forests, rivers, snow in the long winter and then the midnight sun in the summer and I love it.

After leaving my extra size bag in a locker off we went for a bite to eat at Strindberg, a traditional Helsinki café on the famous Esplanadi. After that we hit the shops but didn’t make it to Stockman as it was their so called “crazy days” and there were too many people. Our next appointment was dinner at 6 pm (5pm for me as Finland is one hour ahead of Spain) at the legendary Russian restaurant Saslik where we were to be joined by Marianne. On our walk there we stopped for some photos of the frozen harbour of Helsinki which was quite spectacular for someone living the other side of Europe.

By the still frozen sea in Helsinki with Anne

I chose Saslik because of my Russian roots but felt a bit of a traitor taking two Finnish girls there but I think they didn’t mind. I ordered familiar dishes from the menu which my Mother often served such as borsch (beetroot soup) and perushki (pies) followed by blini, the latter being slightly less authentic. We had a memorable evening and talked a lot about the good old days at Nokia. The best thing about that company comes from its tagline, “connecting people”. It really did that and I remember my time with that company with nostalgia. The Russian in me reared its head and I could not resist drinking a shot of vodka to accompany the meal. Again I waited for a headache which never came.

Dinner with Anne and Marianne at the Russian restaurant Saslik in Helsinki was a highlight of my trip

All good things always come to an end and so my day in Helsinki also ended. Anne and I were to catch the 10pm bus to Salo her hometown some 1.5h away south of Helsinki and which is actually in Western Finland. Salo is a small and quiet but busy town of some 30.000 or more inhabitants. Not surprisingly Nokia, because of its factory here, is the biggest employer in town. I had been there many a time with Spanish journalists but even so it came as a surprise to walk past the actual factory when going on our walk the next day. All of Anne’s family has worked there and of course she has too and that is how we met, when she was the marketing manager in Spain and I was the communications manager. See how the Nokia tagline is so true.

Anne outside the Nokia factory in Salo, the town's biggest employer

I woke up in Anne’s delightful yellow painted wooden cottage, so typical of Finland, full of energy and looking forward to the day.

Anne outside her typical wooden house in Salo.  I love it.

After a very bracing walk through the Joensuun Kartano estate past birch trees and frozen lakes and the frozen Halikko river and some quite deep snow, we hit the shops again, big time this time. I was on the lookout for spring clothes in the typical Nordic style.

The frozen river Halikko in Salo was beginning to melt when I was there, a sure sign of Spring.

I found quite a few things but where I spent most was at KappaAhl. Shopping for clothes is a pleasure for me now that I have lost weight but it is also a therapy. And if you don’t believe me read this very suitable piece of news for me from the BBC which claims that shopping may improve health. In the article a leading expert said the findings made sense since shopping involves physical activity, social interaction and keeping mentally active. That made me feel good I must say.

Shopping also makes you hungry of course so Anne took me to her local café, the Salo Café, a sort of jazz bar which felt completely like home. Their iced homemade carrot cake is legendary and I certainly agree. Here we met a local hero or rather heroine, Virginie de la Carne, a Belgian girl and the star player of the local volleyball team LP Viesti which has won the Finnish championship three times in a row now.

I was to see her again and thanks to the team was to claim my own bit of fame that weekend in Salo as I actually hit the news for a very funny reason. We were at the Plaza shopping centre and the team were on stage being given some award. Anne wanted to watch although I wasn’t particularly interested although I took a photo or two for the record. Just as I had done so a funny looking journalist started talking to us and wanted to take a picture of me taking a picture of the team. I didn’t really know why but complied and then she asked me for my address and I gave her my card. Lo and behold on Sunday morning the next day Anne was reading the local paper, the Salon Seudun Sanomat and there was my photo in relation to the team event. She had written something about the Finnish containing themselves with their sports heroes and that in Spain we would have been cheering and making a lot more noise. She is probably quite right. I must say it was quite something to appear in the local newspaper on my first day in Salo!

I even got to be in the local newspaper when I was in Salo!

After shopping till we dropped we had one more stop before heading back to the cottage. I was to visit Prisma, Finland’s biggest supermarket chain and see what the Finns put in their trolleys at the weekend. I also took the opportunity to buy some dark bread, lingonberry jam and Fazer chocolates to take home.

At Prisma in Salo, Finland's main supermarket chain

Once home Anne put the fire on for a sauna for me, something I was really looking forward to. A sauna is a very Finnish experience and is often described as even soulful. For me it was relaxing and I love the feel of the extreme heat on my body for half an hour or so after which I am in need of a cool shower. Our day did not end here as Anne had booked us a table at Salo’s very finest restaurant, the Ravintola Salon Seurahuone which is housed in yet another traditional wooden building that I love.

Anne outside Salo's finest restaurant, Salon Seudin Seurahuone

I indulged in blini again but suspect it was made with kasha (buckwheat), not how my Mother used to make it. The rest of the food was great though as were the surroundings as the whole place felt like a private dining room. It used to be the public hall for important events and has maintained an aura from the past.

That night I expected a headache again but it never came. After the dinner Anne introduced me to her latest favourite television series and Anne is a serious tv and film watcher. Her top floor is dedicated to watching the tv in the most comfortable manner possible with huge wide and luxurious sofas and piles of blankets if you need them. So I saw an episode of the British made Midsummer Murders, a bit in the style of Agatha Christy, which I really enjoyed. Anne of course has all the series on dvd, as she does of all her favourite series. I remember being introduced too by her to “Cold Feet”, another British TV series which went immediately to the top of my list after Fawlty Towers and Upstairs Downstairs.

Sunday was the last full day of my trip and I knew it was going to be good. There is nothing like a girly weekend with a close friend who has the same tastes in nearly everything and a similar sense of humour. Anne knew I wanted to visit a forest so she took me to the Teijo natural park some 20km away and on a very scenic Finnish road with more wooden houses, trees, lakes, rivers and snow.

Teijo or Meri-Teijo is probably Salo’s most important tourist spot and Anne knows all about that as she works in the marketing department of the local town hall. I was bowled over by the beauty of the place, with a huge frozen lake and thick pine trees and even thicker snow underneath. Our walk towards the other side of the lake was a bit like an obstacle course as there was much ice on the ground caused by the thawing of the snow and many a time I nearly fell. Anne had prepared a picnic to have by the frozen water and boy were the views out of this world. It was like being in a winter paradise; no outdoor advertising, no huge crowds, no litter, just pure and beautiful nature. I spent the whole time with my camera in my frozen hand and couldn’t stop snapping as if I wanted to capture everything my eyes saw so as never to forget. It was sunny but really cold and thankfully Anne had kitted me out in proper Finnish warm clothing because I had not brought anything suitable.

The beautiful frozen lake at the Teijo natural park near Salo

From Teijo Anne showed me the local Teijo Manor and a lovely old church, the only private church in Finland.  From here she took me to see another church, Salo's Uskela, a gem of a place.  Although it was Sunday it was closed.  The Finns are not very religious as only some five percent practice their mainly Lutheran religion.  From the church there was a great viewing point of the town of Salo which you can see in this picture here.

Salo's skyline as seen from the Uskela church

The afternoon was spent lounging on Anne’s TV sofas and partly watching Lorenzo’s Oil. Later in the afternoon we went to see Anne’s dogs Viltti (meaning blanket in Finnish ) and Mimi who were at her breeder’s Hanna Kaisa. Viltti had given birth the night before to 5 tiny puppies. I am not sure of the breed of Anne’s dogs but know they were the type the Italian royalty used to breed. Hanna Kaisa’s place in a forest outside Salo deserves a mention. This woman lives and breathes animals or rather dogs and cats. Many of them, including the cats which never go out, roam her tiny little house freely. The walls inside are covered in all the trophies the breeder has won at dog and cat shows. Vilta and Mimi will soon be on show too if they haven’t already.

Anne with Viltti her dog which had just given birth to 5 puppies.

I like animals but actually felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of dogs and cats in such a small space which was clean but of course had a strong “doggy” smell. It was great later on that evening to be able to wash it off in another hot sauna.

The rest of the evening was spent having a wonderful cold dinner of yet another prawn mayonnaise and tuna sandwiches after which we watched another Midsummer Murder episode before going to bed.

And suddenly it was Monday morning and Anne had to go to work and we had to say goodbye. I know I will see her again soon as Anne is addicted to Spain, her other country as she calls it. The weekend had been great but now I had to pack all my purchases into my oversized bag and be ready for the taxi which would come at 10 to take me to the Salo bus station. At the bus station I felt very tempted to take the bus next to mine which was going to not too far away St. Petersburg. That will have to remain for another time. I already have plans for coming back next summer with Eladio, staying with Anne, renting a cottage in some remote part of Finland and then travelling to Russia. I hope we will do it because I want to come back soon to my beloved Finland.

The bus to St. Petersburg from Salo, the bus I will take one day.

The journey back was long and tiring as I had to fly via Stockholm rather than direct. I had a good 2 hours at Helsinki airport where I bought more bread and smoked salmon plus a little outfit from Finland’s most lauded designer, Marimekko. It was a black and white striped top with a matching scarf. I did not find it funny when Eladio said it looked like prison clothing, hahaha. At Stockholm airport I had my last open prawn sandwich of the trip and decided there and then to buy a couple to bring home for dinner. Later they were much appreciated by Eladio and Olivia.

The open prawn sandwiches I love so much as seen and bought at Stockholm airport on the way back

The trip was great but the journey home ended with a bang. I was waiting for my luggage which I suspected may well have been left behind as often happens when you change airports. And I was right. I had to go to baggage enquiries and the next day I must have rung 4 times before finally hearing it had arrived in Madrid. I went for it last night not wanting to wait for Iberia to deliver it as they may have taken days and I needed my things as tomorrow we are travelling again.

It was lovely to be home but yesterday, Tuesday, I had my dreaded visit to the dentist to remove the bridge in my mouth and have root treatment. The whole thing took over two hours. Thankfully I was able to walk out of the dentist with a provisional bridge as I was dreading opening my mouth and showing the big gap.

Home again but not for long. Tomorrow we are going to Asturias until Monday, but of course you will hear all about that in next week’s blog.

Cheers till then/Masha
PS You can see a bigger selection of the photos of my trip to Finland here.

No comments: