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Slow Travel: Berlin to Helsinki by rail and ferry

The overland journey from Berlin to Scandinavian's far north and the Finnish capital of Helsinki is certainly worth the effort, reports Slow Travel Berlin (STB) contributor Natalie Holmes, as she explores Finland's traditions of sauna and sled rides.

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From Berlin, the road to Helsinki is a long one, interspersed with vast, unforgiving stretches of Baltic Sea. When your holiday is only 10 days long, overland delays can be ruinous, and so, on the way to Hamburg, it’s with some anxiety that I open an email from the ever-efficient Deutsche Bahn advising that our connecting train to Copenhagen had been cancelled. We’d planned just 15 minutes in the Danish capital before continuing to Stockholm, where we were supposed to pick up a ship to our final destination.

Photos courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

 

Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. Though I’ve lived in Germany for four years, it’s done little to erode my consistent and typically British underestimation of public transport. DB provided a replacement train that turned out to be worth every minute of unnecessary fretting. A mixture of Art Deco features and nineties asymmetry, our carriage was a retro gem. There can’t have been many made like this, simply because the design was so bafflingly inefficient; flamboyant, arty spaces and detail where simple seating should have been.

Maybe it was made during that time a few years back when people had more money than sense. Or perhaps it was a misguided attempt to make train travel cool. Whatever the reason, the focus on form over function in that carriage was joyous; a once-in-a-lifetime pleasure for this clandestine trainspotter.

Our cancelled ICE train would have boarded the ferry at Puttgarden, a tiny German port jutting out just 18 km from the Danish coast, but instead we embark on foot via the jetty. An hour later, another train collects us at Rødby, pulling impressively into Copenhagen Central dead on time. Suffice to say, Scandinavian trains are as reliable as their German neighbour’s, so we set sail as scheduled on a Viking Line cruiser for the choppy 18-hour crossing.

Photos courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

 

Rocked to sleep by the waves in our cosy but windowless cabin, my husband and I awake rested and venture straight out, both drawn wordlessly towards the deck by a curiosity borne of these old fashioned adventures of the flightless kind.

After a final coach journey through eerily empty and perilously polar roads, we eventually arrive in Himos, a tiny resort near the town of Jämsä in Finnish Lakeland. The region consists of most of Central and Eastern Finland and is Europe’s largest lake district, with 188,000 lakes and nearly as many islands. [pullquote]If by ‘poisoned’ you mean ‘drunk’, then yes, I think you did.[/pullquote]

The next morning, we wake with the sun–who thankfully also likes to sleep late in January–and trudge across Lake Patalahti from our tiny resort of Himos in Finnish Lakeland. The region, which covers most of Central and Eastern Finland, is Europe’s largest lake district, consisting of a staggering 188,000 lakes and almost as many islands.

Photos courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

 

“Welcome to Uusi-Yijälä farm!” A solitary female figure, arms outstretched, stands in front of a Hansel-and-Gretel house on what must be the water’s edge–there’s so much snow it’s impossible to tell where land begins.

Inside the farmhouse, heartiness emanates from the darkwood walls, red curtains and warm candles supplementing the weak morning light. But most of all it flows from our friendly host Tarja, an independent winemaker with as many stories as you’ve got spare hours.[pullquote]The government thinks it is looking after us. — Tarja[/pullquote]

According to Zacharias Topelius, a 19th century historian and author of Maamme kirja (The Book of our Land), a founding document on Finnish identity, qualities of the ideal Finn include “industriousness, patience, unyielding perseverance and persistence.” If that’s true, Tarja is a shining example, producing wine in a country whose short summers are almost as restrictive as its alcohol laws. She substitutes grapes for gooseberries and blackcurrants, which grow in abundance here. The result is somewhat citric, but add enough sugar–Tarja’s sweetest contains 60 grams per litre–and you’ve got yourself a tasty, liqueur-like wine that’s perfect for a post-sauna tipple.

Shifting it, however, is another challenge entirely. By law, though Tarja can sell her wine, she is not allowed to send it: customers have to come all the way to her remote property to buy anything. “The government thinks it is looking after us”, she sighs, her face dropping for the first time. “I love what I do, and I’d love to be more creative, but we’re not even allowed to produce alcohol over 13.5 percent.” In 2009, noises were being made about relaxing the laws, but a U-turn at the last minute left the remaining handful of independent Finnish winemakers with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

 

Next: The dog sled

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Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin as a freelance writer and journalist. She is the founder of Lo/Rez Magazine, which deals with the intersection of art and science, and writes about sustainability and responsible travel on her blog, The Horseshoe Nail.