2015 was a great year for me. It was pretty good overall, but it was a particularly fruitful year for trips. I bought myself a new car, a nice, boring, reliable Renault Sandero, and pretty much for the first time felt like I really could go absolutely wherever I wish. Moreover, my financial matters improved a lot, so I could really afford a good bit of travel, even if most of it was limited to weekends.
So, these are all places, towns and the like, where I’ve been to in 2015, sorted by location. Very few of them are currently documented here in this blog, although I’m trying to improve. St. Petersburg (where I live), its suburbs, Yekaterinburg (where my parents live) are excluded from this list for obvious reasons.
Finland is my favorite country by far. I like Finnish mentality, I like that it’s just round the corner from St. Petersburg, and I like that it’s boring in a good way. I always enjoyed exploring unremarkable places and finding their local minor places of interest and reading various trivia about them, and Finland is just perfect for that. However, I also visited Finnish Lapland, which turned out to be a stunningly beautiful place.
Kymenlaakso means Kymi Valley, Kymi being the largest river in the southeasternmost Finland.
1. Hamina (Finn. Harbour): a small but quite interesting town. If Vyborg is a Finnish town that ended up on Russian territory, then Hamina is a Russian town that ended up a part of Finland. Lots of Russian Empire-era buildings and other artifacts. Cool fortress-like octagonal city plan. Very nice town overall.
2. Kotka (Finn. Eagle, no I don’t really know why they call it that): this town really has a lot of sea. Kotka center is located on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Was also a Russian fortress once (named Ruotsinsalmi), but was completely destroyed in the 19th century, and rebuilt as an ordinary Finnish town. Moderately interesting marine museum, and unexpectedly lush parks at the seafront.
3. Pitkäthiekät Camping (Finn. Long Sands; Vilniemi, Hamina Municipality): a camping on the beautiful shore of the Gulf of Finland, very close to the Russian border. A perfect weekend getaway for a St. Petersburg inhabitant, if you don’t mind half the guests being Russian of course.
4. Salpa Line Museum (Salpalinja Museo; Salpa means lock; Miehikkälä Municipality): fortifications of the WWII-era Salpa Line, which were built to ward off the USSR right after Winter War, but never actually saw any action. An unexpectedly cool museum, recommended even if you’re not interested in military history. Explore the bunkers and appreciate the overall scale of the thing.
South Karelia Region
Part of Finland closest to Russia. Defined mostly by the great lake system of Saimaa. Its center is Lappeenranta, mostly known as a shop tour destination for Russians.
5. Lappeenranta (Finn. Lapp (Sami) Shore; Sami used to live here and across entire Finland in general long ago before the Finnish tribes came): I actually haven’t even been to Lappeenranta before, and visited it in February on a shop tour bus. I don’t care much about shopping, but Lappeenranta is a nice town in its own right, on the shore of the great Saimaa Lake, with remains of a fortress overlooking it. The locals must be tired of Russians though.
6. Imatra: a town right on the Russian border. Apart from shopping for Russians, also known for Imatrankoski rapids on the Vuoksa River. The rapids are actually a sluiceway of a local hydro power station, and sluice gates are normally closed, so most of the time all you can see is these rocks, which are still scenic enough.
7. Patsaspuisto Sculpture Park (Parikkala Municipality): hundreds of weird creepy statues which an obviously insane Finnish sculptor had been building over his entire life. Many of them even have real human teeth. Well dentures actually, but this doesn’t make it any less creepy. I’m not really into that kind of art.
South Savonia Region
Going inland, this is the part of Finland you’ll see after South Karelia. Like South Karelia, it has lots of lakes belonging to Saimaa lake system.
8. Mikkeli (after Archangel Michael): quintessential unremarkable mid-sized Finnish town. I didn’t have the time to have a good look at it, though.
9. Savonlinna (Finn. Savonian Castle): the best town in Finland! Well maybe after Turku. Extremely scenic location, on a group of islands in Saimaa Lake, connected with bridges. The main local sight, Olavinlinna Castle, is also very cool.
North Karelia Region
Another region bordering Russia and having strong Russian historical influences.
10. Joensuu (Finn. River Mouth, the river being Pielisjoki): another quintessential unremarkable mid-sized Finnish town. Still very pleasant, on the shores of a major river. Karelia Museum is worth a look, however I still wouldn’t recommend going specifically to Joensuu, for museum or otherwise.
11. Kitee: the famed Nightwish band is from here. Small town, pretty much nothing to see.
12. Ilomantsi (after St. Elijah): really tiny town, but it has the largest wooden Orthodox church in Finland. Ilomantsi Municipality has the largest fraction of Orthodox population in entire Finland.
13. Petkeljärvi National Park (Finn. some lake?): a tiny national park near Ilomantsi, featuring eskers (glacier-formed ridges rising from the water) and remains of the Salpa Line. Half a day would be more than enough.
14. Ruhkaranta Camping (Kuuksenvaara, Ilomantsi Municipality; Finn. some shore?): an excellent and very cheap camping site, a cottage with toilet and kitchen and sauna is very affordable! Not very close to St. Petersburg of course.
North Savonia Region
Like South Savonia, but in the north. The cities seem to be more lively, otherwise it’s mostly the same.
15. Korkeakoski Waterfall (Kuopio Municipality; Finn. High Rapids): the highest forest waterfall in Finland, very scenic location. Difficult to capture in a single picture, and would probably work better as a location for people photo shoots.
16. Rauhalahti Camping (Kuopio; Finn. Quiet Bay): huge camping site, accomodation for every taste. Located pretty much on the outskirts of Kuopio city, but has nice nature as well.
Uusimaa (Finn. New Land) is the central region of Finland. Helsinki and its suburbs are all located in Uusimaa, however I haven’t been to Helsinki at all in 2015.
17. Porvoo (from Swed. Borgå which literally means "River Fortress"): a very old town with a well-preserved wooden center, which is unusual for Finland. Very nice.
18. Hanko: a tiny sea town on a strip of land cutting deep into the Baltic Sea. The sea is its main attraction, but even discounting the sea, Hanko is very cozy. The town is mostly known as a site of a Soviet naval base in the interwar period.
Ekenäs: the only place in this list which I don’t have any pictures of. Another nice old wooden town, this one is quite small.
19. Raseborg Castle (Snappertuna, Raseborg Municipality): a medieval Swedish castle, quaint but relatively well-preserved.
Southwest Finland Region
Also known as "Finland Proper", this is the oldest and the southwesternmost part of Finland. Lots of skerry islets.
20. Turku: the second time I visited this town, and again just for a few hours waiting for a ferry passage to Stockholm. This is my favorite Finnish town, large enough, but extremely cozy and charismatic and also located at the sea shore which is a must for me.
The largest Finnish region by far, 1/3 of the entire country or so, including all of its north. A sparsely-populated region, with boring and rare towns, but the best natural sights by far. Also has reindeer.
21. Äkäslompolo (Kolari Municipality): a tourist village near the fells of Ylläs range. An excellent base for the exploration of [this part of] Lapland, and for skiing in winter (don’t have any persional experience with that part though).
22. Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park: I explored a small part of it, near Ylläs and Kesänki fells. Features stunningly beautiful Lapland nature, with spruce forests and gently sloping fell mountains, their mountaintops being heaps of greenish boulders. Many other sights nearby, such as Sami sacrificial sites.
23. Malla Strict Nature Reserve, and Three Borders Point (Rajapyykki/Treriksröset): the northwesternmost part of Finland, having actual real mountains with snow caps. My favorite place of this entire list. The sights on a mountain trail leading to the point where borders of Finland, Sweden and Norway meet are like something from The Lord of the Rings movie.
The largest Nordic country, I like it but somehow it doesn’t hold the same small-place charm as Finland for me. It doesn’t have stunning landscapes of Norway either. It’s still pretty great though, mind you! Being better than any other country but Finland and Norway is still pretty good, right?
24. Stockholm: as amazing as it had been in my previous visit. Still my favorite large city in the world.
25. Malmö: the 3rd largest city in Sweden, usually said to pale next to Gothenburg (2nd largest city) or Danish Copenhagen, the latter being a mere 30 minutes drive across Øresund Bridge. I saw Malmö only briefly, but it didn’t seem that boring to me.
26. Uppsala: the 4th largest city in Sweden, and its old capital, with the famous cathedral and the castle of Gustav Vasa and the oldest university of Scandinavia. Now this city actually felt relatively boring, although still worth a look.
27. Smögen (Sotenäs Municipality, Västra Götaland Län): a summer resort town on an island in the old region of Bohuslän, on the western shore of Sweden bounded by Skagerrak Strait. Sunny rocky skerries, wooden fishermen houses at the pier, and restaurants which don’t have menus in English, but offer huge servings of shrimps, lobsters, crabs, and oysters at a reasonable price.
28. Lysekil (Västra Götaland Län): a somewhat larger Bohuslän town. It has actual apartment buildings, and doesn’t have a huge pier, and it is not located on an island, but otherwise doesn’t look that different from Smögen.
29. Öland Island (Kalmar Län): another Swedish summer resort location, but on the opposite side of the country, just off its Baltic shore. An island 150×10 km in size, connected to the mainland with a bridge, having some cool natural sights and old ruins, among peaceful nondescript villages.
Norway is easily the prettiest (as far as natural sights are concerned) country in the world. Possible the most expensive one, too. I had one brief trip into Norway in 2014, and an even shorter one this year.
30. Northern Troms: northeastern part of Troms County, the second county from the northernmost tip of Norway. Norway, specifically Troms, was not very far from the location in Finnish Lapland where I rent a cottage for a week, so I drove around Norway a bit. Without any specific destination in mind, I just followed the road along fjords until I reached 70th parallel north, at the bridge to Skjervøya Island. (There are only a few populated places in the world farther to the north, and most of them are in Norway as well; it wasn’t really some frozen wasteland though, Norway is quite warm for its latitudes.) Then I called it a day and turned back.
31. Birtavarre Camping (Kåfjord Municipality, Troms County): this is where I had an overnight stay in Norway. A small but nice enough camping in a village at the bottom of a short fjord, which continues inland as a deep valley.
Unlike Finland, Denmark is actually a Scandinavian country, and unlike Finland, it doesn’t actually feel much like one. So far I didn’t saw any of it apart from Copenhagen, though.
32. Copenhagen: a huge city which reminded me more of St. Petersburg and German cities than of Sweden or Finland. Extremely beautiful, with lots of sights. One of those cities that make you regret not being able to live there for a month or two so that you could really feel what this city is about, rather than just looking at it briefly as a tourist.
European country nearest to St. Petersburg, Estonia is really tiny but seems to cope fairly well with its transition from a part of the Soviet Union to a normal country. I haven’t really seen it much apart from central Tallinn, though.
33. Tallinn: the capital of Estonia and its only major city. Its main attraction is its well-preserved and lively medieval town.
34. Narva: a city right at the Russian border, opposite from Russian town of Ivangorod. A relatively gloomy place, mostly built around Soviet-era power stations, but still feels Estonian enough. Its main sight is Hermann Castle, a fortress dating from 13th century.
I haven’t really travelled around Russia at all this year. Why bother if Finland is close enough, much nicer and safer (I’m mostly speaking about driving experience), and more interesting to me personally.
35. Sortavala (Republic of Karelia): one of a few towns captured by the Soviet Union after Winter War (1939-1940)/Continuation War (1941-1944), Sortavala is small but has nicely-preserved Finnish center, more run-of-the-mill but arguably even more undisturbed than in Vyborg. The overall atmosphere is also very nice and cozy for a small Russian town.
36. Lintula Grove (Leningrad Oblast; Finn; from Lintulanjoki river; from Lintula village, meaning Bird Village; the namesake village is now renamed to Ogonki, Russ. Fires): probably the nicest forest in the vicinity of St. Petersburg. Located near Roschino, a small town on the Karelian Isthmus that used to be known as Raivola in Finnish era, it was planted in 18th century in order to grow larch trees for shipbuilding. The larches are over 50 m tall now, mixed with spruces in a valley of a small river.
37. Losevo (Leningrad Oblast; Russ. Moose Village): a former Finnish village near the rapids of Vuoksa river. Spent a weekend there at a Soviet-era holiday village.
38. Ruskeala (Republic of Karelia; Finn: Brown): the site of several large abandoned marble quarries near Sortavala, which operated since 18th century and provided marble for St. Isaac’s Cathedral and other St. Petersburg landmarks. The flooded quarries are now very beautiful but tons of tourists sort of ruin the impression.
And that’s all for 2015. As for 2016, I have no definite plans, but the one place I really want to visit again is Lapland. Not necessary Finnish Lapland, Swedish or Norwegian North would be fine too. A multi-day hike if possible. Too bad there’s still a long dark winter ahead, but anyway, happy new year to everyone!