Day 14 – Monday 18th July (Lappeenranta)
Moose count = still not a one!
We got up in a spirit of adventure ready to see if the hotel breakfasts were any better than their dreadful dinners. They weren’t. With an hour still to run most things had run out (there was no fruit left apart from some rapidly browning apple slices) or were not much good anyway (Gouda, the world’s least interesting cheese was the only choice, the ham was processed, there was no butter, just a massive tub of margarine). Milk and fruit juice was just plonked down on the table still in cartons, and there was nothing in the way of cereal that wasn’t aimed squarely at hyperactive children. It was not impressive considering we were about to shell out around €200 per night, double what we’d paid at the Klaus K in Helsinki for a much better quality experience. I know breakfast is included in the room rates in Finland usually, but to be honest this was taking the mick on a grand scale. We made a mental note to buy yogurt and make our own breakfast in the morning with the leftover muesli we still had in the car.
With a bad taste in our mouths we escaped to Lappeenranta for the day. At first sight it has less in the way of obvious historic architecture than some of the places we’d already seen, but that makes sense when you realize the history of the place. It was a trade port under Swedish control when it was granted its charter by Queen Christina of Sweden in 1649, a fact that pleased Lynne no end. It sits at one end of the Saimaa Canal which runs 43k in total, and goes all the way to Russia. This dates from the period of Russian rule, which started in 1743, at which point Lappeenranta, having been burned down by the Russians, was rebuilt and eventually developed into a very grand spa town. However, much of the historic town was destroyed during the Winter War and the Continuation War, when the place came under heavy Russian bombardment. The fortress, which is one of the main sights, was rather harder to flatten than a raft of wooden houses. It does still have Finland’s oldest wooden town hall but much of the rest is gone.
Parking slap bang in the centre of the fortress was free for the day (as it seemed to be in most places in Finland provided you didn’t want to park right next to the market square) and once we’d negotiated our way through all the building work we found it easily enough. We took an early break for a cold drink and a slice of quiche in a café in the grounds of the fort area, then walked down to the summer Tourist Information office to gather information before we decided what to see first. They had information about the tourist train that departs once an hour and goes round the main sights so that seemed like quite an attractive option. We bought tickets and decided to aim for the 13:00 train. First we’d have a walk along the harbourside and see what there was to see.
Actually the first thing there was to see was the giant sandcastle. And giant doesn’t do it justice. It’s basically a massive sand sculpture, in this year’s iteration it seemed o be a massive dragon wrapped around a medieval fort with a massive cast of characters though the organizers describe it as a Knights’ Castle. There’s even a summer theatre inside the sandcastle (of course there is, this is Finland after all).
Anyway, we then strolled along past the ferries to St. Petersburg and Vyborg, and the customs hall for passengers coming in from Russia, into the lovely market area and beyond. Lappeenranta has a number of delightful looking waterside terrace cafes and seemed like a very pleasant place to while away an hour or three with a beer or a glass of wine while you watch the world go by. We didn’t do that. Instead we walked as far as the rather lovely spa and the Old Spa Hotel and then bought ice creams, keeping an eye on the feral gulls that were hanging around optimistically waiting for anything they thought they could snatch. They weren’t having my ice cream!
The tourist train was quite sophisticated with a commentary loop (although it tended to break off unexpectedly mid-word every so often) and we trundled along past all manner of interesting sights. Really surprising was the army training college and camp and surrounding barracks area which has been recently restored and is really lovely. I can imagine people being very keen to live there. Perhaps we were beginning to run out of steam after all the museums, castles and such but it was really nice to just sit down and let the sites go by instead of walking miles.
After the train ride we chose to nose around the fortress itself, which is packed with museums, art and craft shops, another summer theatre (no surprises there) and several restaurants. It’s also seriously cobbled which can make the going rather painful underfoot, but we were getting used to that by now.
We decided to hit the museums. A combined ticket meant we could visit all of them if we had the energy. As most of them are relatively small (though very well laid out with a clear narrative) that wasn’t as daunting as it might have been in other places. We started in the South Karelia Museum, which was (as you might imagine) dedicated to the history of Lappeenranta, though also to its links with Vyborg. The Finns may well have had to cede chunks of Karelia at the end of the Winter War but they haven’t forgotten (and some of them definitely haven’t forgiven either). It’s a period of Finnish/Russian history that most people know nothing of so it was interesting to have a local perspective on it.
Our next was Imperial Gifts from the Pavlovsk Palace, which “explores the gift-giving culture of the Russian Empire” and contained some genuinely alarming items from the eponymous palace, which is just outside St. Petersburg, including some seriously hideous pottery that made you wonder whether some of the gift-giving wasn’t just a way of getting rid of “that ghastly pot Auntie Irina gave us,” or “that icon from Uncle Kyril that no one needs to see,” by passing it on to someone else to dispose of! No photography was permitted in there so you’ll just have to take my word for it!
Afterwards we moved on to the Lappeenranta Art Museum, which had two exhibitions in full swing, a rather dull landscapes one concentrating as far as we could tell on works showing the typical Finnish landscape, and a far more interesting contemporary art show, of works by Irma Laukkanen and Markku Hirvela, some of which were fascinatingly strange.
Given that Lappeenranta seems to have developed as a military town – and in fact a cavalry town – the presence of a Cavalry Museum should come as no surprise at all. It was a very concise sort of museum and very interesting but not enough of it was in English for me and I was definitely flagging badly now. After that it was later afternoon and we were running out of steam again, if indeed we’d ever had any. It was quite a warm day, the cobbles were tough on the ankles, and it was time to consider our evening options.
We drove back to the hotel, couldn’t park anywhere near, and eventually – after we found a space at the Spa end of things – we wandered over to the town centre and looked to see what was available (and stopped for a beer at the same time). Buttenhoff, which looked very nice, was also recommended in the guidebook, so we booked a table and went off to get cleaned up. I took a short sidestep or four to take a photo of the rapids while they weren’t in full spate. It was quite a contrast. And while I was doing that my admiration for the Finnish Tourist Information offices went up even more. There was a lovely lady down by the rapids making sure that people knew there wouldn’t be a show that evening. She even went back to her car to pick up some English leaflets about Imatra that we didn’t actually need! I didn’t have the heart to tell her that though, so we accepted gratefully and retreated to the hotel.
Afterwards we sortied out for a drink at the bar by the bridge over the rapids (we would have tried to hotel’s terrace bar as it was a lovely evening) but it wasn’t open (in fact it only opens Wednesday to Saturday). There’s definitely an issue with the hotel management. I could turn that place into an absolute gold mine but the people running it don’t seem to want to or care to. They certainly seem unable to grasp the essentials of customer service as we’d left the “Please make up my room” sign on the door when we went out and had come back to find that although the bathroom had been cleaned, no one had bothered to make the beds.
That’s not so much a matter of lack of attention to detail as missing the utterly obvious. Anyway the drink at the bar was very pleasant, watching the fountains play in the square and boggling at the way the hotel personnel were being let down by management that didn’t care.
The Buttenhoff proved to be a tonic in comparison to the previous night’s dinner. It was served with charm by our waiter who definitely cared, and although it was scarily expensive considering we only managed two courses, it was excellent.
Lynne started with the blini and smoked salmon and I had the vendace (I think I was starting to get a bit obssessed with them).
We moved on to an excellent reindeer fillet, in a red wine sauce with ceps, garlic purée and fried potatoes.
I tried and failed to buy another cookbook and then we walked back looking in various windows, noting that half the shops seemed to be selling second-hand goods. It was all a bit odd and seemed a bit rundown really. Mind we did notice that we might well have been there a month too early!
I’m not sure I’d recommend Imatra at all, and our drive round looking for a restaurant on the way back from Lappeenranta did nothing to encourage me in that. The only thing we did blunder across was a soulless looking holiday village that appeared to be entirely full of Russian families.