Anton had had a date the night before and had not come back to the island. I had his keys, and so sat around waiting for him, but after almost an hour and no e-mail back I hid the keys and rowed back to my bike (having to do three trips to let me row to the bike, lock one boat up, swap boats, row back, drop the keys off and then go back to my bike. It also helped that I forgot one of my panniers which I somehow didn’t realise until I landed). I can ride, but I’m a long way from Sir Redgrave when it comes to rowing. I could definitely blame the oars not being connected well, giving me blisters, but that was only a small part of the problem.
I found my way out of the city centre, although it took a while to get past the sprawly suburban area that even a small place like Helsinki has. With the map from the bike shop in hand it did at least mean I could find the bike paths to follow making it more bearable. It was a day of quiet roads, small rolling hills and a lot of trees. My hunt for a toilet was about the most interesting that thing that happened for a good chunk of the day, with them seeming to be few and far between and then wanting a euro to be used. Not likely. As well as the exorbitant toilet prices, the most striking thing was the prevalence of slot machines with every supermarket (including Lidl) having at least two waiting after the checkouts where I saw several people playing them while waiting for their partner to do the shopping. We have plenty of fruit machines in the UK, but they are only in pubs, arcades or bookies. Seeming them pretty much everywhere was definitely unexpected.
Even more unexpected was meeting three other touring cyclists. It was about 30 minutes before the sun came down and three guys on $10,000 carbon fibre road bikes turned up. They were each carrying a backpack as they rode from Helsinki to Stockholm the same way I would be. One guy was from the US, but the other two were Qatari, an uncle with his nephew. I mainly chatted with the uncle who was thrilled to be out riding, wanted to follow me on Strava and strongly recommended Qatar as a place for me to ride one day (but only in winter to not roast to death… if only he’d told the people at the World Cup that). They were aiming for a hotel that their GPS said was 10 km away and so we rode it together, chatting. Their backpacks were just for rain gear and some snacks, they had two support vehicles carrying everything else – including a spare bike each. Different strokes, different folks.
When we’d gone the 10 km it turned out that they had another 25 to go, as I’d figured. With the sun having gone down I was looking for good places to put my tent and the Qatari guys dropped ahead. The American pulled up next to me and asked me if I’d ever met royalty before. I thought he was making a reference to me being British and so obviously having met QE2. I let him know that I hadn’t and he corrected me saying I just had. The two Qatari guys were members of the royal family. I’m not sure quite how royal they were, but the uncle in particular had been quite lovely to talk with, even commenting about how he was going to order a Manta which he seemed to be in awe of. We said our goodbyes and they sprinted off to find the hotel before it got dark. Within 5 minutes I’d found a place to put my tent, and quickly fell to sleep.
The ride the next day took me to Turku, a university city where I had arranged to stay with Warmshowers hosts Tapio & Marie, a couple of medical students. Tapio is one of the most talkative people I’ve met, and conversation barely stopped long enough to breathe. They took me around to see the city at night, and my highlight was definitely seeing the university students. It turns out that in Finland university students have special leg-wear, with the colour showing which department they are in. Being the start of September, classes had only just restarted and so the city was full of students going around to parties, where it is customary to wear these trousers. The medical students have bright yellow ones, and those from other departments looked just as gaudy as people made their way to the boats that doubled as bars, docked on the river that runs through the middle of the city.
From Turku I could have taken a direct ferry to Stockholm, which is apparently pretty much a party boat. Tax on alcohol in Nordic countries is high and so people loved to make the most of the duty-free on option on the ferry. I’d seen this on the Tallinn -Helsinki ferry, but this one was apparently even more ridiculous. As it was, I decided I’d rather ride through Åland, a part of Finland that is almost autonomous and where Swedish is spoken.
My journey to the archipelago saw me first go to Moomminland, because who could possibly avoid such a trip to the most famous theme park in Finland. It was out of season, but Marie (having worked there before) assured me that the bridge to the island would be open. It was, but unfortunately there were big fences up restricting views of the Moomin houses.
I kept on, and finally made it to the ferry terminal where I’d take the ferry to Åland. Before the ferry turned up there was about an hour of avoiding the cold and wind and so I hid in a shed and cooked up some pasta for my dinner. The roads of Åland are quite busy during the summer, but the only passengers that boarded were myself and a car. There had been nowhere to buy a ticket in advance, but no-one on the ferry seemed to care about it and so I got over for free.
As the boat pulled up, another ferry was leaving to the island of Jurmo. As the sun was about to go down and not having a destination it seemed a fine option so I jumped on that ferry too, where I was joined by the car.
Disembarking on Jurmo I looked at my GPS and saw that there were three roads on the island so I decided to ride them all. I went past the one shop in the village, which doubled as a restaurant and tripled as a hotel, and headed ‘out of town’. By the end of the road I’d found a nice field, and so with clear weather forecast inflated my sleeping pad and slept in the open air with a glorious view of the stars in the night sky thanks to the lack of light pollution around.
The next day, I rode the other two roads of Jurmo and took the ferry back to the bigger island. The man in charge of the boat had been on it the night before and asked me where I’d slept. Apparently there were only 30 residents on the island, and the lady at the shop/restaurant/hotel had been concerned about an outsider being there. Good to see paranoia spreads to super small Finnish islands too!
My ride through Åland was lovely, with a red road and trees growing out of rocks surrounding it. The only real traffic on these kind of islands is when a ferry arrives and everyone gets off to race to the next ferry. In that way it reminded me a little of the Outer Banks, in the Carolinas. I had one more ferry to catch to take me to the main island that makes up Åland, and then about 40 km to the capital of Mariehamn. If Helsinki had been small, Mariehamn was positively minute. I was fortunate enough to be hosted by Marina & Andreas, an amazingly adventurous couple from Couchsurfing.
Marina is Russian, but Andreas had grown up in Mariehamn so could answer all my questions about the islands. Both Sweden and Finland had wanted Åland to be part of their territory, but a vote back around 1920 had decided that they would be part of Finland. Despite this, everyone there speaks Swedish. Andreas is happy to be Finnish, and feels that Åland made the right choice as if they’d joined Sweden they’d be just another island whereas Finland treats them like they are special. They have tax-free status, no military presence and other rights. There is probably enough of an economy to be independent, but people are generally satisfied with the situation that they have now.
I had two day offs. The first I got to ride around the island, heading north to the highest peak in Åland – a massive 129 metres – and the other where it rained a lot and I explored the capital city. After about 15 minutes I felt like I’d seen it all and was happy to have the time to catch up on other things like reading.
On the peak of Åland