Day 13 – Sunday 17th July (Savonlinna, Kuopio, Imatra)
Moose count = Possibly in a stew! Also, one stuffed moose (but the museum was closed)!
Today was the day we had to move on again. This time we did a somewhat illogical side trip to Kuopio en route to Imatra. If you look at the map you’ll realise that isn’t the most sensible way to travel from Savonlinna to Imatra on the simple grounds that Kuopio is in completely the wrong direction! Still, who says we have to be logical?
We arrived in Kuopio under cloudy skies, parked up (given the building work going on this was not achieved without difficulty) and walked towards the harbour to see what was there. The answer turned out (at least initially) to be not very much at all. In fact Kuopio was doing an excellent impression of being completely shut on a Sunday. All the elegant art nouveau buildings were closed for the weekend, although the bandstand was in use, apparently as a second-hand tat market for the afternoon. That and a sightseeing boat employee tried to coax us on board. We didn’t have time so declined politely; I suspect he struggled to make it worthwhile actually putting out to sea at all that afternoon. In theory there’s a lot going on in Kuopio in the summer, just not on a Sunday it would seem.
We ducked into a café as the rain started to come down, and skulked awhile over coffee and a snack (a pastry with cheese and ham – OK, it wasn’t the healthy choice but it was essential given the weather outside). It was beginning to clear when we finished and a glance to the right along the lakeside revealed a gaggle of steamships. We headed that way to investigate. It turned out they were the stragglers from the Kuopio Regatta, which we had missed by an entire day. It was a bit of a shame if the steamships still there were anything to go by. They were brilliant! The experience was further improved by one of them setting off for home while we were standing there, whistle going full blast, clouds of steam and all!
Shortly after that we discovered that about the only thing actually open in Kuopio on a Sunday is the cathedral. Luckily it was rather lovely, with yet another votive ship and some very interesting detail in terms of the layout of the building. The cathedral sits at the end of a straight path directly from the harbour, and in a town of sailors presumably most would have made straight there after a successful voyage. It’s positioned to make that a simple matter. It’s also very light inside, and the organ is a mightily impressive instrument. There are regular concerts and I suspect it would very, very impressive to hear it in action.
Having pretty much drawn a blank on any of the other attractions, including a stuffed moose in one of the museums, we decided that we’d head out to something we knew was open, the tower at Puijo. It’s an observation tower, with an open deck, a coffee shop and a revolving restaurant at the top of what is by Finnish standards quite a steep, high hill (all 150 metres of it).
There’s a ski jumping complex next to the tower and once we’d got to the top the views were amazing, a 360 panorama stretching as far as the eye can see. There’s also a terrifying view of the top of the ski jump that is vertigo-inducing even from the safety of the observation deck and makes you wonder what on earth possesses anyone to fling themselves off one of those things with a pair of planks on their feet!
Actually it was blowing a hooligan out there and Lynne stepped out for about two seconds before deciding she was having none of it thank you very much. I stayed outside taking photos all round before deciding my ears were going to freeze off if I didn’t sound the retreat soonest. Not only that but the way the wind was blowing there was a distinct risk of ending up in the Gulf of Finland if I wasn’t very careful.
We had a look at the coffee shop one level down from the platform, but it looked very like an institutional cafeteria, and it didn’t revolve, so instead we dropped down to the revolving restaurant and just ordered starters and a glass of wine each and sat and watched the scenery go by. About two thirds of the way through a complete revolution it started to rain, and before we knew it it was showing signs of snowing out there. In July… the last time I saw snow in summer in the northern hemisphere it was on August 1st, 1980 in Switzerland, 5,413ft up an alp in Mürren.
We restricted ourselves to the single course on the grounds that our destination for the night had a restaurant that was well recommended by the Lonely Planet guide and they hadn’t let us down yet. If we’d known what was ahead of us we might have had the full three course lunch, especially as the starters were so delicious!
Anyway, we set off for the run to Imatra, keen to get there for the rapids show if at all possible. It proved to be another long, painfully slow drive, with some odd sights along the way including a tractor (or to quote the Leningrad Cowboys, Tractor!). In a service station somewhere in the depths of Finland –Joroinen actually – there is a craft shop. For reasons best known to herself, Riitta-Piikka Ky seems to have decided that covering a massive Massey Ferguson tractor in crochet work was a good idea. This is another one of those “I have no idea why but it’s brilliant” things we kept finding. It’s just too weird but also too wonderful.
We were soon on our way again, and eventually fetched up at the first, and only, disappointment of our entire trip, the Rantasipi Imatran Valtion, a hotel that looks fabulous from the outside, all demented Art Nouveau styling, and ideally situated for the 18:00 rapids show when the water from lake Saimaa is allowed to cascade through a narrow, rock strewn channel outside the hotel. Sadly, as it turned out, appearances can be deceptive.
Unfortunately the hotel seems to be having some sort of crisis of management and there’s a lack of attention to detail that makes what could be a great hotel somewhere I will never go back to and would not recommend. It wasn’t immediately apparent though given the rates we were paying (it was the most expensive of all the hotels we stayed in) I was a bit concerned about the state of the bathtub, the enamel looking very messy for a deluxe room. However, otherwise the room seemed good, spacious and reasonably well-equipped.
However, as we quickly found, the buffet on Sunday night (the only choice in the restaurant) was especially poor and managed to provide the only bad dinner of the trip. When we checked in we mentioned that we’d like to have dinner at 20:30. The receptionist said no problem, the restaurant is open until 22:00. This was not the entire truth.
We went to our room and got organised, then took a drink in the bar – it was all very English country house in the library, and it looked like we might have made another good choice hotel-wise.
However, the wheels started to come off shortly afterwards. We entered the restaurant at 20:30 and waited to be seated, even though it wasn’t full. And waited. And waited. Finally, after 10 minutes the harried looking waitress showed us to a table and informed us that the restaurant was indeed open until 22:00 but they would be clearing all the food from the buffet at 21:00 – so, 20 minutes to get what wanted and they would be charging €20 each for that. Actually the lack of time turned out not to be an issue because by that stage of the night there was very little worth having once you got past the cold “starters”-type of dish.
The meat option was some sort of stew, possibly elk, that had begun to separate out, and the fish was dried out and had clearly been sitting there for far too long. Apart from that there was a chanterelle sauce (initially I thought it might be a vegetarian option but apparently not). Whatever the intent cleaning the chanterelles of grit was obviously a step too far for the kitchen and the result was vilely crunchy and also begin to thicken up and dry out. The only plus point to this was that the rapids, which were the reason we were there, suddenly started up.
The rapids were formed some 5000 year ago after the waters of Lake Saimaa broke through the Salpauselkä ridge and joined Lake Ladoga. Tourists began coming after Empress Catherine II of Russia (Catherine the Great) and her retinue visited in 1772. It’s in the Kruununpuisto Park, apparently the oldest natural park in Finland, founded in 1842 by Tsar Nicholas I. It now contains the largest hydroelectric power plant in Finland as well as the inevitable summer theatre.
We’d discovered on our arrival that, contrary to what the guidebooks all said, in 2016 the rapids would not be active every day and the show would in fact only be happening on Saturdays. OK, so we didn’t get the show with lights and music but, prompted I assume by the poor weather during the day, we did get the water and my but it was impressive! Pretty much everyone in the restaurant at the time rushed outside to get a closer look, leaving the staff to hold the fort and trusting them not to take my food away as I hadn’t quite finished (it might not have been good food but I was hungry). Only one side was opened but the sheer force of the flow was amazing, even if there was a moment or two where it all got a bit Weta Workshop and I half expected ring wraiths to appear on the other side of the channel! The sound is surprisingly loud, and as this was on our list of things to see we were very glad that there had been a need to let the water through. When the rapids are not in action, it’s a massive contrast as the gorge seems to empty out of all but a trickle of water.
We meandered back in to the restaurant and finished dinner. I did complain to the waitress about the standard of the food but she didn’t seem at all concerned so I resolved to raise it at reception the following morning. For now we decided we’d give them a second chance the following day at breakfast just in case it was simply that it was a Sunday. If they failed at that hurdle then we’d be dining somewhere else to following evening. And then it was time for bed.