In 1989, we hosted Pirjo Saramaki as part of the American Host Program for European educators. She was, and still is, an instructor of wood products marketing at North Karelia Polytechnic in Joensuu, Finland. She returned to our Vashon Island home again in 1991 with her graduating class of students on their way to visit wood product operations on the West Coast.
After that, we kept in touch via e-mail including several messages while she was working on Finnish projects in Namibia. Then last year, Pirjo came to see us at Long Beach while on her around-the-world trip.
We then discovered that we had all become avid birders since our last visit. After some great birding here on the Oregon and Washington coasts, she urged us to visit her in Finland during the bird migration in late-May. That is a dangerous thing to say to the Warnekes.
Carole coordinated schedules with Pirjo, surfed the Internet for some excellent air fares to Helsinki via British Air and Finnair. She then made a hotel reservation for Helsinki, found a super value for leaving our car, getting van service, and staying one night on our return trip at a Best Western Executel in Federal Way - for half of the cost to park around Sea-Tac International Airport. So we were set for a wild birding trip and 45th wedding anniversary trip with departure at 6 p.m. on May 23.
We drove the 170 miles to the motel in Federal Way, arriving just after 3 p.m., and filled out the appropriate paperwork. The motel van was on a previous run and seemed to be stuck in early commuter traffic by 3:45 p.m., so we panicked properly and called a cab which showed very quickly and got us to the airport just shortly after 4 p.m. Amazingly, the check-in and security gates went very smoothly and rapidly. We were delighted, but had neither aisle nor window seats. So Carole worked on the counter agent at the international terminal.
While waiting, we heard and observed a woman coughing drastically, and hoped that she was on another flight. Just before boarding time, the agent called us to say that he found us an aisle seat and revised our boarding passes. Great, right? Upon entering our new seats, we heard raucous hacking, and of course, the stricken woman sat one row back and one seat left of Carole. And the steerage section of this BA 747 was fully loaded without an empty seat. As Groucho Marx once said, or was it Karl, "Better stick with what you have than with what you might get."
We arrived at Heathrow in London at 11 a.m. the next morning after a nine hour flight and eight hours of time zone change. The plight of large metropolitan airports with a great influx of 747s and other large capacity aircraft became evident as we waited in interminable queues for passport control and a bus from Terminal 4 to Terminal 1 for our Finnair connection.
For an ex-facilities manager, it was kind of exciting to traverse the labyrinthine bowels of a major airport. At Heathrow, we had an almost five-hour layover finally departing around 4 p.m. We enjoyed a comfortable flight to Helsinki, two hours east of Greenwich, and began looking for our Yellow Line van before 10 p.m. This is another good deal that Carole found wherein one to four persons in a party get a ride from the remote airport to their hotel in Helsinki for 18 euros. The driver unloaded us at Marttahotelli at 10:30.
Upon trying to check in, the hotel discovered that they expected us the following evening and were totally booked. (Are we having fun yet?) The desk clerk quickly called the Anna Hotel just three blocks away and reserved us a room until we could walk and drag our suitcases there. We slept like the dead and after breakfast, we walked around the corner to OTTO, an ATM, and got 400 euros for $372 U.S. By 10 a.m. we had hied ourselves to the train depot for a scenic six hour ride northeasterly to Joensuu.
We quickly discovered that Finland is a beautiful, bucolic, clean, and progressive country. Its area of 130,120 square miles is comprised of forests and over 60,000 plus waterways. Finland's area is slightly smaller than Minnesota and Mississippi combined and is occupied by 4.9 million people, 75 percent of whom have and use cell phones.
We spent most of two weeks around the city of Joensuu and in the province of North Karelia (Pohjoiskarjala in Finnish), which is situated contiguous to Russia at a latitude similar to Fairbanks, Alaska. We could expect daylight 24-hours-a-day except for some dimness between 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m.
Pirjo had told us we would be staying with her at her "grandmother" cottage located on a lake 30 kilometers east of Joensuu. She met us at the train depot in her Renault Elf, a micro-van and we headed for Hiidentila, her cottage.
The cottage was two stories and had a seven-foot-by-seven-foot wood burning oven/fireplace/range at its core. Although Pirjo hauled a lot of water - and I tried helping - this was a most charming, peaceful place to live. The sloping property was a birch and pine forest and that evening and the next morning we spotted lots of neat birds near her feeder. Then we investigated Joensuu town, a city of 55,000, and of course, went birding at some of the local "lintutornis," which are bird watching towers near marshes and wetlands erected by the Birdlife Society.
On Monday, we went to a travel agent to leave our passports for acquiring Russian visas, walked along the river in town, and ate an outdoor lunch prepared by an English speaking Vietnamese couple at the town square.
In our many birding excursions, we also saw unique Finnish architecture, beautiful and well-groomed farms and endless forests. The proliferation of bicycle paths along main streets and most highways is marvelous, with many people riding them in the presence of clement weather. The first several days after we arrived, the daytime temperatures were in the low 60s but then warmed to the mid- and upper-70s for the rest of our stay. Naturally, the warmer weather resulted in a real mosquito and black fly hatch.
After mounting the stairs at one 10-meter lintutorni late one evening, we were surprised to see several border guard towers, both Finnish and Russian, within 1/4 mile of us. At another, we spied a hobby as well as our first and only moose. Our bird list grew to over 80 species, and while we never got started birding very early, we sure did some late night shifts extending past 11 p.m. on three nights and saw many back roads that were basically one-lane tracks.
Pirjo and Carole cooked most of our evening meals, although we did have pizza at Rosso's one night, ate at the Vietnamese outdoor cafe again, and had one excellent lunch at Pirjo's school. One evening early in our stay, Pirjo asked if we liked mushrooms. Of course we did. Well, she had some forest morels which required certain preparation to remove their toxicity. Would we still like to try them? You only live once, so why not. That night we had a marvelous soup with these morels, and after surviving quite well, had a forest morel sauce over pasta a couple of nights later. Did I mention that Pirjo is a vegetarian also? In our several shopping trips for food, one of my favorite subjects, we found that the Finns bake some of the very best rye bread I have ever eaten. It has full bodied flavor and a fabulously chewy crust.
The sauna is a social function, an incredible relaxant, and serves quite well as a cleansing agent. For Finns, it's a cultural necessity and way of life. Usually just after dinner, Pirjo would tromp down to the cabin, haul water from the lake for the cool tub as well as the hot water tub, and then light a birch and pine fire under the sauna rocks and another under the 30 gallon hot water tub. Fortunately, she taught me how to set this all up so that I could relieve her several times.
You could sit or lay there in a swim suit or more comfortably in the nude. When our heads got too hot, we'd go out on the porch - after donning our suits - and drink beer or wine coolers with Pirjo for a few minutes and then go back in. This nightly ritual was conducive to excellent sleep. One evening, Pirjo made birch switches which one is supposed to use to stimulate the blood vessels near the surface by brushing or hitting the skin. I declined this additional stimulant.
On June 6, we packed our bags, loaded our stuff and Pirjo's into her Elf and headed southwesterly 300 kms to Virolahti where Pirjo had booked a couple of rooms for us near the Russian border. The hotel appeared to have been a school in its previous life and had many rooms, a nice dining room, sitting room, and a couple of saunas and was located in a farm area. It was a prime birding location and had been filled until the week before we arrived there. Now we were the only guests. And naturally, we headed out into the boonies to find more lintutornis and look for elusive birds until 11 p.m.
The next morning, after more birding, we drove to a huge service station/bus depot to await our noon bus that had originated in Helsinki that morning. The driver had our visas, passports, and seats for a five hour ride plus another time zone east to St. Petersburg. Crossing the border into Russia was a piece of cake.
I was completely unprepared for the amount of traffic and prodigious construction activities in St. Petersburg. This city of over 5.5 million people is a booming metropolis and seaport. We checked into the Moskva Hotel, just across a busy 8-lane thoroughfare from the Neva River. It is a huge building with several dining facilities and corridors over a thousand feet long, and very comfortable rooms.
Armed with a map, a layout of the underground Metro system, and some info on which stop to exit the train, we entered the Metro stop near the hotel, bought tokens for six rubles each (30 rubles for $1 U.S.), and went down the longest (maybe 300 meters steeply downhill), most crowded escalator I have ever seen. Ten minutes and two stops later, we exited at the Nevsky Prospekt station less than a kilometer from the Hermitage and Winter Palace.
While waiting almost an hour to get in, a Russian woman approached and inquired, "Are you tourists"? "Well no, we're disguised Russian agents." For 400 rubles each, she would use her pass as a guide, get us in immediately, and lead us on her tour. After our first "no thanks," she tried us once again. Finally we got in, waited in another queue to buy our 300 rubles ticket, and then waited again to pass through security.
While this museum displayed some fabulous treasures of paintings, sculpture, mosaics, tapestries, metal art and armor, jewelry, etc., the real treasure was the renovated building itself with a flamboyant exterior and an ornate baroque and rococo interior that seems to surpass anything at the Louvre with vast mirrored halls, elaborately inlaid wood floors, exquisite stone and mosaic floors, sculptured walls and ceilings, paintings directly on some walls and ceilings, sweeping staircases, gold foil overlays on some structural sculptures, and incredible chandeliers. It was so overwhelming as to be gaudy.
The next morning, a Russian guide was taking a busload of Americans, Brits, and Finns on an English-speaking tour of the Summer Palace in the district of Leningrad approximately an hour away from our hotel. Well, her English was excellent, but her tour guiding stank. As soon as we got to the hotel, we found the Salt and Pepper cafe and asked for a table to get a very late lunch. Unfortunately, a large group was using most of the cafe and they really couldn't handle more customers. Well, we looked as hungry as possible and finally the waitress cleared a booth in the back corner and led us there. I immediately said we knew what we wanted to order, and requested three orders of beer, borscht, and a banana split. As we were patiently waiting, I noticed a brass plaque on the rear of the booth which said, in English, "Reserved on Wednesdays for the Senile Club." Our food arrived before we quit laughing. The borscht was superb.
Since this was our 45th anniversary day, Carole wanted to go someplace special for dinner later. She had heard about a vegetarian eatery, appropriately named The Idiot after a Dostoevsky character, which was within a mile of the Hermitage. So we again boarded the Metro, which not busy at all on a Saturday night. We wandered along the right canal until we came to number 82, but couldn't seem to find the Idiot. Some young Russian men heard us and pointed directly behind us to a small glass globe that had Idiote painted on it. It wasn't even in the Cyrillic alphabet.
As the wine was being served, the Aiwa sound system began wafting out strains of Glenn Miller playing Moonlight Serenade, In the Mood, etc. - our music, in western Russia, on our 45th. Incredible! The vegetarian meal including tofu was excellent. As we returned to the Nevsky Prospekt, we noticed that police were lining the street, there was no traffic and the sidewalks were jammed with people. Soon one motorcade after another roared by with abundant escorts. Apparently Putin and several Balkan heads of state were in town for some conference.
The next morning after another great breakfast, we boarded our tour bus for a 400 km ride back to Helsinki. Getting out of Russia was a little more bothersome than getting in. There really weren't any problems, just six passport checkpoints in the last 40 km. Just before leaving Russia at the border, the bus stopped at a duty free shop, and the Finns loaded up on liquor and other goodies. Then at the border stop in Finland, we sadly parted company with friend Pirjo.
We checked into the Marttahotelli on Uudenmaankatu which together with Mannerheimintie and Pohjoisesplanadi are the streets to visit, showered, and then headed for Roobertinkatu, the mall street near our hotel, and found a Chinese restaurant for a delicious meal.
The next morning we walked to the Market square, visited the nearby Greek Orthodox cathedral, and then caught a boat to the Helsinki Zoo, which was nice, but not impressive. Arriving back at the market square, we shopped for fresh Finnish strawberries, bananas, rye bread, coffee/tea, etc. and had a delightful lunch while people-watching in the square. The liberated, younger Finnish women are certainly interesting to watch. Then we walked a kilometer to the Botanical Garden which was fairly large, but had not been put into good condition yet.
So we walked back to the train depot in town and caught a bus to the Sibelius Monument which was a series of pipes, like organ pipes, welded together in artistic fashion. It seems strange that the most impressive thing in the beautiful and active seaport city of Helsinki was the market square.
The trip home was anticlimactic, except for the splendid facilities at the Best Western Executel. That was our very excellent adventure for this spring!
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Warnekes made their trip to Finland and Russia in May and June of this year and wrote this to share it with their neighbors on the Peninsula and in Naselle.