Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Inari rocks!

Well, little blog, do I have something to tell YOU!

Today has been a magical travel day; delightful in every sense, a day out of time...

We were picked up on the dot of 11 by Kirsi, a Finnish woman who was driving us and 5 Swiss Germans from Kirkenes via a scenic route to Inari, a tiny town on a river bend, about 330kms away. I had prepared for this day trip by staying up far too late the night before, having found free interwebs in Kirkenes (lit. Church-nose!).. and eating, oh woe, a rather horrible roll of milk chocolate caramels, but 2am is 2am. I further fortified myself with a waffle for breakfast, because the waffle machine and the fresh batter was just there. I didn’t completely lose my soul, I had muesli and sunflower seeds first :-P

Kirsi loaded our (now reduced to 8 pieces!) luggage onto the little bus (only a 10-seater) and off we went. It’s been sunny most of the day, with only a couple of short periods of cloud and light rain. She said we had brought the warmth and sun with us, so my magic charm of bringing the summer heat with me wherever I travel hasn’t failed me even here, where the average mid-summer temperature on a balmy day is about 12 C. [Apparently it does go up to over 30 occasionally, but not often. Two years ago there was a period of about two weeks when it was hotter in Lapland than in Athens, a fact which made me immediately suspicious about exactly when, because two years ago I was bloody hot in the summer, in Europe.] We drove only about 2km before we encountered our first reindeer - a mother and calf, wandering along the edge of the road nibbling at the grass. Cor, wow etc. For the rest of the day we saw them here and there, with sightings becoming more frequent the closer we got to Inari (and the further off the main road we got). Reindeer are very beautiful in August, because they’ve just finished shedding their old coat, and the new coat is glossy and velvet brown, with some elegant cream spots on the rump. And baby antlers are very cartoonish!

Our first stop was at the Neiden river, one of two fast-flowing streams where salmon climb to spawn. I was most taken with the ice-green of the water, and the summer alpine flowers. First lot of a zillion photos taken for the day. The most striking flower, in my view, is the pink orchid which grows tall in great drifts along the edges of everything. It likes muddy feet, so the dipped edges just off the road edge, to channel water away, are just purrfect for them to grow. They are mixed with wild blue lobelia, varieties of pink and white clover flower, something which looks like cotton bolls, and small yellow flowers similar to sour-sobs. The overall effect, with the ripe green of the grass, is textbook meadow. Wonderful.

We drove another 30 or so kms (heading more or less west all the way) to Nuodarme (?), a town on the edge of the Varanger Fiord. From here you can see Vasdo, which was the last port of call before we reached Kirkenes by ship. It looks very small from here! The fiord is vast, another huge tongue of water flung into the landscape.. the surrounding hills, in this area, are not the sharp towers of grey rock we saw in Troll Fiord, or on the northern coast of Norway; but lower, more rounded hills, clearly very old. The growth is entirely birch and beech forest, the meadow flowers, and clumps of moss and lichen. You can see how spongy the land is, and guess at the amount of water it contains. Everything shines; seeps; water gleams from the smallest point open to view. It’s all so GREEN.

During the trip we hear a lot of information, all carefully researched by our extremely knowledgeable and friendly guide. Kirsi is a Finn, from a small town about 200kms north of Helsinki. She came to Inari to live a year or so ago, so she could learn about the Sami peoples, immerse herself in their culture and language, and try to learn more about the ancient Finnish and Norwegian history and habits. She’s done very well - she and M engage in a lot of semantic discussion of Sami words (Sami itself has 9 languages and about 50 dialects). I can’t really hear the difference between Sami and Finnish, but it’s clear that within Sami the same word can be pronounced so entirely differently you might as well be speaking ... well ... Chinese.

We heard a lot about reindeer too - did you know that the two sexes lose their antlers at different times? The males spend all winter growing their antlers as big and sexy as they can, so that at breeding time they can wow the gals. Then, when their job is done (and the stats on ‘wives per husband’ are the usual chauvinist extravaganza) they are so pooped their antlers drop right off. Heh. Leaving the gals to fend off unwanted attentions until their calfs are born. Then theirs regrow in time for this: when the snow is deep, the un-antlered males can dig down quite deeply to get at the lichen which is the mainstay of their winter diet. Then the gals get in there with their antlers, shove them out of the way, and hit the buffet! I like it, gender-equity in the field. ... reading this through, I see my times don’t quite make sense. Bear with me on the theory, ok?

We stopped for a few seconds at the Finnish border (more millions of pics). Then we had a longish drive before a roadside stop at a place which is not a town, but a big church (Finnish Evangelist) with little cabins built beside it. These cabins were built by people who had so far to travel to get to church a few times a year, they needed a tiny hut to stay in for a few days so they could have some time visiting and marketing. The cabins are tiny; the biggest about 4m squared. Built of birch poles, with dirt or wooden plank floors, and tiled roofs. One older cabin had a peat roof - layers of thick grassroot pads about 2 feet deep, on which grasses and flowers grow in the summer. Kirsi said it wasn’t quite as rustic as it looked - they did put reindeer skins on the floor! People would stay sometimes for a week, leaving only when the last other visitor was pulling out and the last barter, gossip, secret engagement and back-fence business deal was made. It all sounds kind of cold and lonely to me, especially when Kirsi pointed out one slightly bigger cabin, in slightly better repair, which was where church services were held when the church itself was too cold to sit in. Ow.

From here to Inari, we were travelling south. The reindeers on the road edges eluded my camera, even the big male fella who was having a bit of a stand and a think in the middle of the road. M reminded me that ? described a camel as ‘a horse put together by a committee’. I think male reindeer are best described as a horse put together by a committee of 15 year old boys out for revenge - think about it: their long skinny legs with knobbly knees and ankles; their clumsy oversized feet; their arses are higher than their elbows; and they have this great useless burden on their head and shoulders which gets in the way, looks stoopid, and won’t drop off til they’re grown up. Arg. Our fella lurched off out of the way, tripping over himself Plummet-like on the way off the road, and ambled off to look at a tree. What a life!

We arrived in Inari at about 6.30pm, having lost an hour at the Finnish border. We are staying at the Inarin Kultahovet Hotel, a business now owned by a husband (chef) and wife (mein hostess) team. The hotel has two buildings, the original hotel and the new wing. We are in the new wing. I am inclined to whinge as we wheel our cases across the so-newly-built-there-isn’t-paving dirt to the staircase, and more inclined to whinge when up is our destiny, but M hustles back from opening the room and chivvies me off to have a look. And wow, all need to whinge evaporates.

Goodness, where to start with the jealousy details?


Birch wood everywhere - walls, floors, furniture, balcony, deck.. we have a huge picture window overlooking the riverbend, which is about 20 metres away, a fast-flowing river where a fellow is fly-fishing. Is he catching our dinner perhaps?

We have double everything - beds, double windows, double front doors (the inner door about a metre in, leaving a small space which contains a clothes-drying cupboard [NOT a tumble dryer, a drying cupboard where things can drip as they dry in warm air], and a column-heater on teh wall). Snow-diffusing level number one. Inside, there are two sets of heaters- another big column-heater underneath the window, and central heating ducted through the ceiling.

There’s a fridge, a kettle, free interwebs if you want it (I can’t be bothered with getting the cable tonight, I’ll upload soon enough), plenty of storage space, and I have been travelling with a plunger and a tin of coffee, so tomorrow, fresh coffee before we have to go out to the other building for brekkie.

The bathroom is very nice too, no bath this time, but there is on close inspection a second ‘room’ in there... hmm... a sauna! I have done died and gone to heaven. I’ve got PLANS for all this electrickery. First we have to settle in and have dinner though...

Dinner is the best meal I’ve had since I went to the Poacher’s Pantry (thanks Cath!). The hotelkeepers are organic foodies of the first water; they use as much local produce as they can, and what produce. Whitefish and trout from the river; reindeer; ligonberry, lingonberry (yes, I saw them written separately so it must be right), cloudberry, raspberry; angelica (which grows wild and is used as a herb, not candied as I know it); Lappan potatoes which are an officially named variety because of the special flavour they take on when grown in such lush, herb-filled ground... other products such as pickles, jams, smoked meats etc etc will be investigated and dutifully reviewed tomorrow, after we spend our morning at the museum and (I hope it is open on a Sunday) the Sami folk art and craft and music centre. We have seen one woman dressed in a Sami costume (in Honnegsvarg) - a bright red-based outfit, but Kirsi assures me there are dozens of different patterns and colours, all made using ancient patterns and designs which tell a story of their own, from all the corners of the Sami people’s territory.

During dinner (the whitefish was exquisite - steamed and served over roast root vegetables with a buttery sauce; it’s moist, delicate, slightly sweet, but with just a hint of the meatiness you can feel in the ‘bite’ in fish like tuna) (and M had reindeer stew, which was served with mash, juniper and lingonberry sauce, and dill I think), Kirsi suddenly appeared at our table. She was concerned when (all the way back to this morning) I had asked if there was an Apotek (chemist) near our hotel, but couldn’t get to the only one in town without making the whole tour late. (I want to buy a thermometer so I can see if I am really running a fever or if I can just CALM DOWN).. part of Kirsi’s thorough review of the Sami people and their culture had been to point out people on the marshes, picking cloudberries - they have excellent nutrition and of course are highly marketable. I asked what they were like, having never seen one. She had said she would pick some for me because she thought her English not good enough to describe them. And there she was, proffering a little Tupperware container, about 200gms of something orangey-apricot and slightly mushy. “I said I would gather for you and I know you are not feeling so well, and these you must eat because they are full of Vitamin C”.

I’m so touched. I don’t deserve this. I accept as graciously as I can, trying not to burst into tears. I wish I’d jumped up and given her a hug, but the heavy table furniture and my surprise impede my thoughts ...we both thank her lavishly as she runs away to meet her son, a last visit with him before he goes away to university.

This area of the world is so dignified, so orderly and beautiful, very quiet and calm. The people are often described as reserved, but I have nothing but praise for all the varieties of Scandinavian I have had close dealings with. I haven’t described the antics (for example) of the ship waiters, who had to throw us out from dinner twice because we sat so long trading stories with our table-mates. One of them (oh I’m glad I remembered this story) featured in a dubious ship-board custom where King Neptune rises from the waves to baptise those humble travellers who cross the Arctic Circle (and are silly enough to go outside as it happens). This fellow was apparently adorned in fresh (cold) seaweed hair on top of his no doubt equally wet and nasty costume. The baptism, which our table mate Steve felt he just couldn’t resist, was to have a ladle-full of ice and water expertly poured down his back! His wife, Jane, was giggling like mad when she described him dancing about trying to shake the ice cubes out of his shirt, pants, jocks and socks! She was very taken with having to get amongst him and help fossick for the hidden ones... I thought it was midday sun mad Poms went out in. Now I find they do weird things with ice cubes on the high seas too. No wonder Johnny Depp had to imitate Keef to get Jack Sparrow right...

Now for my evening tecknologik-eksperientz: I am going to utilise all measures at my disposal, in this order:

I shall shut the balcony door (waah, closing off the sound of the river) and turn on the column heater in the room. I shall also turn on the central heating, because M will be cold when he gets back from a ‘solo/marital sanity’ walk along the river. Then I shall wash my smalls in the bathroom basin and hang them in the drying cupboard, knowing they will be dry enough to pack in the morning (I hate taking damp things with me from hotel rooms). While all this is going on, I shall turn on the sauna to heat it up and make myself a proper cup of tea - I have a big mug, real milk and real sugar. I’d prefer coffee but I’d better not, no such thing as a weak latte here. [The coffee served in cafes isn’t that strong, but I needs my beauty sleep to make up for my very UN-beautiful sinus.]. I shall dial-up something wonderful on the iPod, take a shower, and then hit the sauna.

What a way to go. AND there’s fresh coffee and cloudberries for breakfast before we even leave the room!

Today brought to you by what I just said for 4 pages. I don’t think mere purrfume can compete. The only teeeeeny thing lacking, for absolute purrfection, is a cat. Typical that I can’t find one when it’s needed!

G’night. Are you all as squeaky clean and happy as me?

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