Leaving St. Petersburg feels a bit weird. There is still so much we haven’t seen, so much we wanted to discover, but the urge to travel on is just too great. Our next destination is calling and it is definitely something we hadn’t planned for when we left our home behind in April. Both Jo and I have had Scandinavia on our bucket list of destinations since forever, but it has always been one of those ‘some day’ things. Now it becomes next week’s goal and it truly feels strange.
It seems like St. Petersburg is pulling all the stops to keep us here a bit longer. After 2 days of non-stop rain, we are greeted by blue skies and beautiful sunshine the morning we’re leaving. It is not enough to make us want to change our plans, we’re heading north! But not without a quick stop along the way to pick up some rain gear. And then we leave St. Petersburg behind and soon after enter the taiga forests. We’re not taking the obvious route straight into Finland. We stay in Russia a bit longer and ride north into Karelia.
Coming from the big city, the forests to the north seem endless. The road is better than we expected as well. It’s a mix of paved sections alternated with gravel highway. We stop at a small grocery store to get some food. When I exit the shop the rain is pooring down all like there’s no tomorrow. We seek shelter under the small porch and while I’m putting on my rain gear, a car with Finnish plates pulls up. We wait out the worst of the rain and in the meantime the Finnish guy has finished his shopping and walks to his car. Then he suddenly returns, gives me a Kinder surprise egg and heads off again! I’m a bit flabbergasted but it does put a smile on my face. When the rain eases off a bit, we get going again. We make good progress but with all the rain, we don’t feel like camping anymore and by late afternoon we start looking for a hotel. We spend our last night in Russia in a small and cheap hotel, about 80kms from the border.
We do notice an increasing number of Finnish licence plates the closer we get to the border and they all seem to concentrate around the fuel stations. When we cross the border into Finland, we’ll soon figure out why. Fuel prices go from approximately 40cents/liter to 1.40euro/liter! That’s one hell of a reason to hop across the border!
The border crossing in Vyartsilya is quite uneventful. Of course, we have to open all luggage again just for the fun of it. We’re not rushed and at least we’re out of the rain for a moment so we take our time packing up. And another plus: by the time we are on the Finnish side, the rain has almost stopped!
So then we’re back in Europe! First thing that pops to mind is: if we break down here, we at least have our insurance to tow the bikes back home! It’s a ridiculous thought after everything we’ve experienced, but it certainly feels weird being so ‘close to home’ again.
The second thing that hits us are the prices. We knew Scandinavia would not be cheap, but still, it will be all camping and no eating out for the next few weeks. That much is clear from our first fuel stop with a coffee.
The third thing we notice is the vastness of the forests here. They seem to go on and on and on a bit more. From the border we ride towards Joensuu and then further onto Iisalmi where we find a very nice campsite. We stay away from the main roads and on those smaller backroads, we pass the occasional village but in between them is only green uniformity, a zillion lakes and the best gravel we’ve seen so far. In most cases it’s in better condition than most of the tarmac back home in Belgium!
At our first campsite, it becomes clear that, although it’s only the second half of August, the Summer season has already ended. The campsite is almost completely deserted. The reception is closed and there’s only one other camper van at the far end of the site. We try to get a hold of the manager but when we finally get her on the phone, she tells us to just find a spot and she will be around in the morning.
The next day, we’re ready to leave by 9AM but there’s still no manager in sight. One of the guys doing some maintenance sees us hanging around the reception and comes over. He tells us that we can just leave the registration form and that’s it. It gives us some hope that Scandinavia might not be the budget attack we feared it to be. That hope will be profoundly cut to pieces the next day.
Since there’s not so much to see in this vast green country, we make very good progress and late afternoon on day 2 in Finland we reach Rovaniemi on the arctic circle.
Our Italian friends Lucciano and Emanuella had recommended a visit to Santa’s village just outside Rovaniemi, so that’s where we’re heading. I already have my Christmas presents wish list ready!
Santa Claus’ home is one big amusement park smack on the artic circle. It’s a bit of a shock after spending the past few days in nothing but forests. But since we’re here, we are persuaded by one of his elves to go and visit the man himself to have a small chat.
The next shock we get is when we enter the Rovaniemi camp site. It sets a new price record after the ridiculously expensive camp site we stayed at just outside Dubrovnic, Croatia, a few years back. And then there’s the campers… After nearly 4 months on the road, we have become used to being greeted by friendly people everywhere. Now we get to know the Scandinavian stoic way and it’s a bit of a cold shower. On the camp site, no one greets us or each other. Except for the Polish family next to us, no one says good morning or hello in the kitchen or shower room. It’s a bit of a culture shock to say the least and it’s something we definitely need to get used to again. After a few weeks though, we’ll notice that it’s that first cool scandinavian way but when you actually do start talking to people they defrost and it turns out they are actually quite nice, friendly and warm.
We have now crossed the arctic circle and the further north we go, the colder it gets. The forests we ride through are a mix of spruce and birch and especially the latter are turning all shades of browns and reds. Autumn is clearly already setting in in this part of the world.
This far north in Finland, there’s only one main route going north and it seems it’s only used by tourists. It’s quite strange to only see motorcycles and campervans coming from the other direction. Another indication that the tourist season is coming to a close. Everyone is heading south, like the geese we saw flying over in Russia.
We stay in Finland one more night before we cross the border into Norway. The weather has turned again and we get showers on and off. According to the forecasts, it should get better in a few days, so we’re hopeful to get a clear day at Nordkapp. We find a small camp site just 20kms before the border. We pitch the tent just before it starts raining again and we spend the rest of the evening in the nice and warm kitchen making the most out of the faint wifi signal.
Crossing into Norway is not what we expected. Since it’s not part of Schengen, we expected at least a border crossing and identity checks, but there was nothing like it. Just a sign indicating that we’re in Norway, and that was it.
We stop at the first fuel station for breakfast and just as we have ordered our coffee, a BMW GS with Italian licence plates pulls up. So we have coffee again with Luciano and Emanuella. After St. Petersburg they travelled north to Murmansk and then headed into Norway to Nordkapp. Now they are on their way back through Finland. We chat for a while and exchange stories from the past week or so. They are heading towards the dark grey skies, while we are going north with some blue spots in the skies up ahead!
The further north we go, the smaller the trees become. And then we come across the first fjords. They are nothing like the famous ones on the west coast but still, the views are magnificent. The road takes us through a couple of very long and very very cold tunnels and then we find ourselves riding through this barren landscape.
After our daily grocery shopping for dinner in Honningsväg we head towards Skarsväg. The maps.me app has shown us quite a few camp sites in the most northern town and since the weather is not ideal and you have to pay a rather hefty fee to get to Nordkapp, we decide to give that a go tomorrow.
So we put up our tent and since it’s still rather early and very light this far north, we decide to go for a walk. I have noticed a viewpoint on the map on the other side of the hill we’re camping, so we go and check it out.
We have spotted a few reindeer on the way here, but when we head into town, we get a closer look.
We hike towards the Kirkeporten viewpoint and it’s only when we take that final turn that we get to see this naturally built arch into the Barents Sea. On top of that, we get a first glimpse of the Nordkapp cliffs. They do remind me of the cliffs in Brittany, France, that I love so much. But it’s all bigger, better, rougher and much colder out here.
We head back to the camp site and spend the rest of the evening in the nice warm kitchen. One of the things we’ve come to like about camp sites in this part of the world is the perfect facilities they all offer, including heated shower rooms with the obligatory 80’s music, nicely equipped kitchens and in a lot of cases a cosy room where you can hide from the cold weather outside.
The weather forecasts were not exaggerated and the next day we are greeted by beautiful sunshine when we pack our tent. Happy days! The road towards Nordkapp is just magnificent: a winding road past blue and black lakes shimmering with the reflection of the sun, reindeer along the way and for the rest nothing but moonscapes.
Nordkapp itself is quite the tourist trap with all the traditional ingredients: lots of people, high entry fee and the obligatory gift shop and cafe. We make our way to the monument at the far end of the cliff and then it hits us: we finally reached a landmark. It might not be the one we had in mind when we set out, but at least it’s a landmark!