Select Page
Summary: Guides, History and Costs

Summary: Guides, History and Costs

by Ruth Murdoch  |  October 2018  | St Petersburg, Russia

The final blog in the series about St Petersburg is where you will find about hiring a guide, how much they cost, if it’s compulsory and what a guide will do for you.

You will also learn some facts about St Petersburg, the history and a little about the sad and interesting past of this beautiful city.

Then to the nitty-gritty of how much our three-day trip cost, including links to booking agencies, mistakes we made in buying advanced tickets, and how much each of the tourist attractions cost.

To Hire A Guide or Not

As you may have already read, if you’ve been following this series, is that hiring a guide in St Petersburg used to be compulsory.  The requirement to be chaperoned these days has been made redundant and you are free to wander the streets by yourself.  However, with a short 72-hours or three days to visit such a vast and full city, if you wish to gain the most from your limited time then my recommendation would be to find and pay for a guide.

Why A Guide?

I had chosen a guide on the last day for two reasons, one, because I wanted to venture further out of the main city centre and would need to navigate public transport or find a guide with a car, two, because we could be dropped off at the ferry without the hassle of finding the shuttle bus somewhere in the city that the ferry line makes available.

I also have an inquisitive mind and tend to ask lots of questions.  So having a guide on the last day gave me a chance to sort out what I wanted to know and make the most of his knowledge and expertise.

How Much Do Tour Guides Charge?

As you would expect, the prices for guides vary and can start from as little as US$15 per hour upwards.  I expect that the Russians are expecting Americans to visit, hence quoting in US dollars.  One American family I spoke with on the ferry told me they paid €500 for a guide for three days.  I found this to be a little excessive.

Not all guides have a car, so think about what you want from your guide before investing in one and choosing the right person who is best for you and your circumstances.

Some guides will just drive you around, and not give much of a commentary like we experienced for the night light tour (we had a taxi driver who drove around the city at night).

Then you can pay for an agency guide, someone who is registered with the various attractions and is given priority over things like skip the line benefits.  With these guides you will be paying for the agency as well as the guide, so obviously expect them to be more expensive.

Then there is the type of guide we hired.  He is a private guide without any of the extra agency costs.  Be prepared when hiring a guide like this to pay for his entrance ticket also (however at local prices, not tourist prices).  Our guide had an identity card to prove he had residency.  We paid our guide €25 per hour which included his car (a new Mercedes ML350 4WD) and his fuel costs.

What Will A Guide Do For Me?

There are different options and different types of guides depending on if you are in a group, are a couple, or a family.  If you want someone to set your itinerary, collect you from your hotel each day, show you the sights, and deliver you back safe and sound then that can certainly be arranged.  You would possibly be best to use an agency guide for this purpose.

Or you can ask a guide for suggestions if you don’t have the time or inclination to do the research yourself.

Then there’s the option we chose.  Given I had extensively researched and set our itinerary for what we wanted to see and do, I didn’t think it was necessary to have a guide for the first two days because everything was in close walking distance to our hotel.  On the last day, however, the attractions were further out of town and I didn’t want to negotiate with local transport, purely for the fact that we had limited time.  Plus we wanted to be dropped back to the ferry terminal rather than having to lug our bags around the city to find a shuttle bus that had been pre-arranged.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and had been previously recommended to me by others who had used his services.  For me, a guide will give you much more information than you could possibly get yourself and make the short timeframe and investment of a three day visit even more enjoyable.  Plus you can ask questions and if you are anything like us, you will have about a million of them.

I suggest you Google the options and see what type of guide suits your circumstances and budget.  There is a lot of information available online.

Or else, I’m happy to share our Guide’s details if you like the sound of him.  Just email me here and I will be in touch.

Interesting and Historical Facts of St Petersburg, Russia

Saint Petersburg has changed its name throughout history more than most.   Originally known as St Petersburg, Nicholas II decided on 31 August 1914 to rename the city Petrograd as he felt that the name sounded too German like.

Then on 26 January 1924 Petrograd was renamed Leningrad after Lenin’s death.

It remained Leningrad until communism ceased in Russia on 6th September 1991, when the name changed back to its original St Petersburg.

There is also a St Petersburg is Florida, USA, so when booking your ticket just make sure you have chosen the right country!

St Petersburg was founded upon a swamp in the 17th Century.  With little sunlight, which hasn’t changed today, it was said only cabbages and turnips would grow there. It was forbidden to fell trees for fuel, so hot water was permitted just once a week.

As we drive around the guide is giving us lots of facts and figures about St Petersburg that I find rather interesting.  Here’s what I recall:

  • St Petersburg is just 315 years young (by European standards that is apparently young).
  • St Petersburg is named after St. Peter, not as many assume by Peter the Great who founded this city and who also founded the Russian navy.
  • Peter the Great studied shipbuilding in Amsterdam and wanted to model St Petersburg on the city of Amsterdam.
  • There are 65 rivers in St Petersburg with 500 bridges, 12 of which are drawbridges and go up every evening (between 1.30am and 5am) to allow for ships to pass underneath.
  • The Trinity Bridge, which spans across the Neva river, was built by the builders of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
  • This city used to be the capital, until 1712 or 1718 (depending on which source you read or hear) when the capital then changed to Moscow.
  • The population is somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5 million (official stats are difficult to come by apparently).
  • In 1862 Russia sold Alaska for $7.2M because it needed the money after the war against Turkey.  Russia only later discovered Alaska was rich with oil.
  • During the second world war every second person living here died, mainly due to starvation. We learnt that sadly people were supplementing their meager food rations by boiling up wallpaper and leather into their soups and were making bread from sawdust and cardboard.
  • The average life expectancy for a male in Russia is 60 years of age. (Many factors are involved in this including war and the hard physical work undertaken by many men who work in the countryside, even today).
  • Russian slavery was only abolished in 19th century.
  • The mainstay of St. Petersburg is shipbuilding, nuclear icebreakers, and of course tourism.
  • St Petersburg is also called the ‘Venice of the North’ due to its many man-made rivers (or canals).

How so many buildings survived the bombing of the Germans is a testament to the creativity of the citizens who camouflaged important buildings with nets to prevent them becoming targets.

I for one am grateful for this foresight so that I can stand here today looking at the marvelous architecture that makes this city incredibly unique.

 

Our Costs for a Three-Day Visit to St Petersburg Russia

Before looking at our expenses you must know that we are traveling full time in our motorhome so every cent we spend is considered carefully.  You may not need to be so cost conscious.

Below are our costs, including related expenses, eg parking our motorhome safe and securely for the time we were away.

Everyone, including us now, raves about the food in St Petersburg which is AMAZING and oh so cheap, so make sure you dine out regularly.  We didn’t have time to stop for lunch (breakfast kept us going) and we packed our evening meal (some sandwiches) on the first night on the ferry to help reduce costs.

We also didn’t purchase a lot of souvenirs simply because we don’t have the capacity for such luxuries.

You can get further information on each expense in the notes table below.

Here are our costs…

NotesExpense CategoriesCosts
*(unrelated expenses, see notes below)
1Camping Ground for Motorhome Storage68.00
2Food211.12
3Alcohol39.98
4Haircuts *34.00
5Pharmacy *24.92
6Souvenirs17.99
7Attractions & Entertainment (incl. guide & taxi)519.90
8Ferry382.00
9Accommodation Puskha Inn Hotel328.87
Totals€ 1,626.78
1Rastila Camping,
GPS coordinates are N 60º12'24'' E 25º7'16''. The cost was €17 per night x 4 nights
Book here
2Three dinners average price €48, dearest [and least impressive] was on the ship @ €65. We took sandwiches for the first night on the ship to reduce costs.

Three breakfasts, average €22, dearest was on Ship €30, hotel €20.40

Note we didn’t eat lunch at all (didn't have time and breakfast was ample)
3Drinking out twice €29.60 [average €14.80]

€24.10 on ship on trip over was expensive
4Cheap for two haircuts on the ship (male €14 and female €20)
5Cheap place for prescription medicine (we had the script with us)
6Scarf €4.50 and small Russian Doll set €13.49 (called Matryoshkas). These dolls are the most recognised symbol of Russian tourism.
They are a set of traditional dolls (its origin dates back to 1890) that are hollow, and in each doll there is another and another, typically five is a common number but they have been made up to 75.
7Church of Spilled Blood €6.38 (250 RUB)

Hermitage Museum US$34.90 (€30.05). Here is where we made a mistake. We ordered the tickets online (because the research suggested this was how we could avoid huge queues). However at the end of August there were not any queues and we could have purchased tickets inside the gate from electronic kiosks. We suggest you think about the time of year you are visiting and if it’s the height of summer (July and beginning of August) then this might be worthwhile, however outside of these times we suspect it’s not necessary to pay extra. The Hermitage Museum has a number of separate entries and we didn’t ever see people lining up to go inside.

St Isaac Cathedral €9.56 including Guide's entry (at local rates)

Peterhof Gardens €26.14 including Guide's entry (at local rates)

Seaman's Church FOC – great value

St Nicholas Cathedral – FOC – we like this price

Swan Lake Ballet €279.92 To book go here http://www.GetYourGuide.com

Taxi to and from Ballet and night lights sightseeing €17.85

Guide €150 (paid in Euros, €25 per hour including vehicle)

One of the best guides I’ve come across that helps you buy tickets and to learn about the schedule is here. I wish I’d come across this before our trip.
Also if you need an extended visa, the process is here in simple to understand language.
Visa and other Resources
8Shuttle €25ea (mandatory), 3 hour bus tour €45ea (optional), Ferry €121ea includes ‘pet’ (standard) cabin 98m2 (small but adequate). To book your tickets from Helsinki Visit here
9Pushka Inn Hotel is located at Moyka river embankment, 14, Tsentralny District
We booked two nights in standard room and were given the only room with a bath (oh what a luxury). Great location, very central to the city and attractions. Would definitely stay here again. We booked using Booking.com
Or book direct here

A Work Of Art

Faberge Eggs

Matryoshkas (Russian Dolls)

Other Blogs in this Series on St Petersburg, Russia

Follow my series of blogs below to find out how we filled in our three days in St Petersburg and more…

Introduction To St Petersburg, Russia includes how we arrived into St Petersburg and from where, about the 72-hour visa-free visit, motorhome parking in Helsinki, Finland, Currency, Internet, Water, Our Expectations and Top Attractions

Day 1 St Petersburg includes the Ancient Sphinx, Rostral Columns, St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, Isaakievskaya Square, Kazan Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Blood

Day 2 St Petersburg –  includes The Hermitage Museum, Swan Lake Ballet, and photos of St Petersburg by Night

Day 3 St Petersburg – you are reading now, includes Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Peterhof Gardens, Kronstadt Naval Cathedral

Summary: Hiring a Guide, History and Interesting Facts, and Costs – you are reading this now.

Why not Pin this for later?

From Glorious Sun to Snow Storm in One Day

From Glorious Sun to Snow Storm in One Day

by Ruth Murdoch  |  1st October 2018  | Norway
The first day of October dawned bright and clear and pretended to be just like any other day, only it wasn’t.  This was a sheep in wolf’s clothing day.

Today was a day of firsts, not only as in the date but in many things that happened along the way.  We woke in Ulsvag, Norway and by 9am were on the road.  That was the first ‘first’ as we don’t usually move too early in the morning.

We had no set destination today, again a first.  We typically make a point of plotting our destination but today was different, we just hopped on the road and started driving, south. Hmmm.

The extent of our planning, however, was to not use the coastal route due mainly to the high costs of taking ferries.  That decision was to save us €100.  In hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, we are now thinking that perhaps it wasn’t worth it.  Or maybe it was, otherwise I wouldn’t have a story to tell.

We are making our way south to leave Norway hopefully before the winter snow set in.  The surrounding hilltops have been sprinkled with snow that looks like icing sugar (powdered sugar) and makes for amazing photos, particularly in the reflective waters that can be found everywhere we look.

We don’t go far before Betsy, our motorhome, is stopped on the roadside for us to jump out and take some photos.  A two-hour trip usually turns into three or four depending upon the landscape and photographic opportunities. On route we stop at a place called Drag for this photo.

Snowcapped Mountains in Drag

Half an hour later at Innhavet, we come across the camping ground where we had expected to stop the previous night.  It was closed.  That seems to be the common thing around here after the summer season.  This one however offered a wonderful photo opportunity so we wandered over for a closer look.  The row of cabins were mirrored perfectly in the reflective water.  The golden hues of the autumn trees were resplendent in the foreground reflections of the snowcapped mountains behind.

It’s really not difficult to take wonderful shots here when the scenery is so spectacular.

Camping Ground Hut Reflections

Not a breath of wind!

By this point we continue south, to where we don’t yet know but it doesn’t matter.  We are just enjoying the ride and there is only one road south.

The opportunity for more photos presented itself, however it was more of the same, albeit still stunningly beautiful.  I made the decision that we would only stop again for different scenery and forty-five minutes later this arrived.

Engan gave us rocks of greys, blues, browns diving into the again reflective waters.  When I first saw this sight my brain couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were seeing.  The scene in front of us was one of seamless rocks in an unusual shape, until I realised it was the water playing tricks on my eyes.

We asked [the universe] for different landscapes, and Norway provided these for us unlike anything I had ever seen before.  The colours had been carefully chosen from nature’s palette by the most experienced of artists.  Should anyone care to paint this scene, it would simply look too contrived.

But here in Engan we stood with jaws dropped and eyes wide, trying our best to take it all in.  It was still morning, just, and there was not a ripple of wind on the water, and the clouds above are soft and fluffy.  The day is stunning, there’s nothing to worry about here, yet.

Engan’s Rock Formations Repeated In the Still Waters Below

After a lunch stop we are on the road again and at about 4.30pm it only took ten minutes to come across more of nature’s glory, this time a roaring waterfall.  It was as though someone had turned on a fireman’s hose, the sound was deafening and the water rushing in a hurry to find the end, wherever that may be.

Another hour or so later the surrounds had changed and changed dramatically.  We knew we were heading through Saltfjellet National Park and had been climbing for a while.  However there was nothing, and I mean nothing, to give us any warning of what was to come.

We’re in the snowline, says Alan, excited to see the white around us.  We pulled over to frolic in the snow (okay we’re from the other end of the world where snow isn’t common).  We take photos of Betsy surrounded by the snow.  Gosh it’s cold outside.  About 1 degree showing on the dashboard.  It was a quick stop.  That was 5.59pm.

We continue climbing and drinking in the sights of the beautiful white snow and the barren mountain slopes.  The beautiful autumn colours were left far behind us and it was just black on white.  What a picturesque scene before us.  Until…

Six minutes later at 6.05pm we are still climbing and then it starts to snow.  Gently at first and we are pleased to have just replaced our dashcam with a better one now so we can capture the stunning scenery here in Norway.  I also capture a video on my iPhone, and the delight of seeing snow is clearly obvious in my voice.  The roads are clear and there’s no concern about driving, yet.

The next video is taken at 6.08pm when the snow is coming in heavy and just starting to land on the roads and is staying there.  The sound in my voice has a little more concern than the previous one and I say “I hope we don’t get snowed in”.

The third video is just one minute later at 6.09pm.  We are in Rokland.  My voice is quiet and I state the obvious ‘we’ve really been caught out here today’.   The road is white, Besty has slowed right down and we’re in trouble.  We don’t have winter tyres on, nor do we have chains.  We have snow ‘socks’ but there is nowhere to pull off the road to fit them.  I look at the other vehicles on the road, what few of them there are, and notice they also haven’t put on any chains.  Phew, that’s a relief.

Driving in horizontal snow is another first for us.

The weather is really closing in now, the visibility low and I am feeling concerned.  We don’t know how far we are to safety, or how long this is likely to last.  We don’t understand the weather in Norway and we’re miles from anywhere.

It defies belief that the weather conditions in 90 seconds could deteriorate so dramatically.

Watch the dash cam video to check it out for yourself then consider putting yourself in our driving seats.  For those from Europe reading this, it’s probably second nature.  But for those from Australia, or NZ, this situation is far from normal.  In particular look at the colour of the road surface at the beginning of this video then see how quickly it changes.

I have an out of body moment and hear my quivering voice saying “I’m out Alan, I’ve had enough, I can’t do this any longer”.  Then I have the thought, what do you want him to do about it Ruth?  There’s nowhere to pull over, he’s driving slowly, and there are no options right now other than to go straight ahead.  To say I’m not feeling particularly comfortable at this point in time is somewhat of an understatement.

We continue for another ten minutes.  We see a sign for a parking area.  Upon approaching this we could see it’s a steep slope of snow down to a snow-covered carpark.  We bailed on that idea, realising that if we got Betsy down there, there was no guarantee we could get her out again.

We continue forward, now travelling at just 50km/hr.  A van passes us and Alan opts to drive in his tracks giving us a smidgen more traction, or so we hope. Ahead we can see a sign saying we’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle.  We hope there are some buildings or structures and a welcoming rest area to stop.  There is a sign pointing to something but the side road is covered with virgin white snow and we are not about to turn down there.

So we plod on forward with Besty still occasionally losing traction as her feet find it difficult to hold onto the ground through the thickening snow.  Thankfully the road is straight, it’s relatively flat and Betsy holds her line as she connects again with the road and Alan keeps her pointing forward.  Again she slips and slews a little sideways.

Keeping a 3.5-ton vehicle moving forward in these conditions is no small feat.  Alan does a sterling job of man-handling Betsy and keeping her pointing straight ahead.  He also tries to keep me calm, but I know him all too well and realise he’s managing his own concerns for our safety in these conditions.

The snow has now well and truly settled on the road and it’s not going anywhere.  The temperature has dropped from 1 degree earlier to zero and the indicator on the dashboard is flashing, which means that there is a risk of ice – no kidding Sherlock!

We often talk about how the sun follows us around, how we are lucky with the weather, and whenever we ask the universe for something, like different scenery, it delivers.   Well, today it’s delivering and I make a mental note to be more specific in my future requests.

Up ahead we spied some lights.  What was it?  Is there a village there, or some sort of life?  We nudge slowly and carefully towards the lights and see a parking spot.  By now the snow is hammering into our windscreen, the wipers are on high speed, and the snow is caking where the wipers don’t reach, making an unobscured outlook for the passenger rather difficult.  I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing by this stage.

My heart is in my throat, and I don’t mind saying that I’m more than a tad scared by now. It’s made worse by the fact that I have run out of data on my internet plan.  However, that wouldn’t help in any case because we have very little mobile service up here.  No-one knows where we are and there’s no way we can call for help. Great.

I calm myself looking at our position rationally, which isn’t easy when faced with a new situation like this.  My rational mind says that we have lots of food, we had just filled with LPG at lunchtime, meaning we have heating and can cook, we have plenty of diesel, we are safe inside Betsy and we have each other.  Plus I don’t think there are Polar Bears in this part of the world.

We turn into the lit parking lot at Storforshei, especially grateful that the entry is flat and notice a building with lights on.  It’s a toilet block and the toilets in this part of the world are always heated.  Now I know why.

I look outside and can’t help but see the beauty in the scenery.  The bare sticks in front of me have snow clinging on one side from the now horizontal snow that’s hammering them.  They stand staunchly, teaching me a lesson in humility.  If they can brave it outside, then I can toughen up inside.

We park up and decide we’re not going anywhere tonight.  On the side of the road stands tall skinny red pegs that mark where the road used to be before the snows arrived.  The odd truck continues to drive on in the snow and I figure they, the Norwegians, are used to this stuff.  We, on the other hand, are not.

Heading into Betsy’s garage Alan retrieves the snow socks that we purchased in Sweden.  They are our insurance policy should we get unexpectedly caught out.  I think this situation qualifies for the inaugural snow socks outing.  Snow socks are lighter than chains, are made of a fibrous type material, and can be used to gain traction in the snow, providing one drives at no more than fifty kilometres per hour.  According to the marketing material on the outside of the packaging, these socks are designed to ‘get you home’.  I am now thankful for the €86 investment we made during the searing 31-degree summer heat.

Alan comes back into Betsy looking like a giant snowflake.  He’s covered in snow, it’s in his hair, on his shoulders, and all over his clothing.  He is also looking rather cold.  By this time the temperature had dropped to minus one and it doesn’t look like it’s about to let up any time soon.

Alan takes a wander over to the toilet block to suss it out and I start to set up the cabin to bunker down.  The heating is turned on, the blinds are lifted to cover the windows, and the front screen covers put in place.

We check out the forecasted temperatures for tomorrow and OMG!!!!  Have a guess what it says?  Go on, you can give it a guess.  Well, we are expecting to wake to a balmy minus five, tomorrow morning.  What on earth?  Minus five, do people really live in these conditions?  And what’s more, it’s due to ‘warm up’ to minus three by mid-afternoon.

My mind runs back to an earlier conversation we had with a local chap just a few days ago who said that the snow sometimes doesn’t come in until December.  December!  Not October!  Did I really hear him correctly?  Didn’t anyone tell the weatherman this news?

Then another conversation comes to mind from not one but two locals on two different occasions.  ‘We don’t mind minus ten, it’s when it gets to minus twenty or thirty that it becomes too cold.’  Really?

By now the snow has turned to rain, which possibly means that it’s warmed up outside.  If you can call it ‘warm’!

The amount of snow on the roads has visibly decreased with the help of the rain.  Alan returns from his reconnaissance trip to the bathroom and strongly suggests that we should continue driving tonight, now!  He recommends that we’re not to stay here because with the minus five conditions tomorrow, then minus six the next day, the wet snow is likely to turn to far more treacherous black ice and the roads could be closed.  The black ice is more dangerous to drive in than the option we have now.  Black ice is the name we give it when water on the road has frozen clear and becomes invisible to see.  It acts like a skating rink for cars and I don’t think Betsy would like that. 

My mind races back a couple of years ago when my sister, travelling during winter in the South Island of New Zealand, had a head-on accident with someone who skidded on black ice and wrote off their motorhome.

Local Weather Forecast For The Next Two Days!!!

I look outside and am thankful that we can actually see the tarmac on the road again.  The couple of inches of snow that had previously been hiding the road have now melted.  It’s now or never!

I agree with Alan and we make a run for it.

So the cabin gets prepared for moving, the blinds go down, the TV is put back into place, and we are bravely on the road once more. Betsy’s feet firmly connect with the now wet tarmac and she’s much happier.

Before long a truck comes up behind us, so Alan pulls over to let him go by.  Ah, following a vehicle lit up like a Christmas tree makes for much easier driving.  Although just trying to keep pace with him proves a challenge.  He’s honking.  Before long the truck is just a distant blur ahead and we’re on our own again.

The Norwegians are prolific road builders and they are constructing a new one alongside us.  Kilometre after kilometre of workmen, excavators, and dump trucks are still working away in the pitch darkness and freezing cold.  Road barriers, temporary traffic lights, diversions, and dug up roads all try to slow our progress but after coping with the snow earlier, these are mere trifles. The snow has stopped and between the roadworks, the road is actually reasonable. The seal is in good condition and the roads provide a comfortable enough width when meeting trucks coming towards us.

We slowly and safely make our way down the mountain and arrive, relieved and happy, an hour later at the small settlement of Storforshei.

We find a cheeky parking spot outside an abandoned building and gain some shelter from the elements for the night.

It’s now the following morning as I write this and we awake to the most glorious of days, the snow is now more than just a sprinkle on the hills around us.  The beauty of Mother Nature again takes our breath away as the clear blue sky shows off the fully covered mountains with her clean crispy white snow blanket.

Our day of firsts yesterday will make for a good story in our future.

In the words of a friend ‘we know we are alive’ and are happy (now) to have had this experience.

Our lesson with this new knowledge is to never attempt driving over a high mountain range in the late afternoon if there is a risk of snowfall.  We just need to be a little more mindful of the elements and how vulnerable we can be.

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

by Ruth Murdoch  |  September 2018  | Tromsø, Norway

When is the Aurora Borealis in Norway?

It is with an air of anticipation, our fingers crossed, and a belief that we have the best luck in the world when it comes to all things weather related, that we head towards Norway in an attempt to fulfill my lifelong dream, to see the Aurora Borealis in person.

We drive into Norway from northern Finland and realise that we really have struck the jackpot by arriving in Norway on a perfect day.  The best part was that we didn’t actually plan for any specific date.  Whilst many said “it’s far too early in the season to see the Northern Lights in September“, other sources (the ones we chose to believe), said they could appear as early as mid-September.  We have a tight window of opportunity due to our need to avoid the winter snows, which can arrive as early as October.  Our motorhome has summer tyres and no chains, therefore, finding ourselves ‘stuck’ in the winter conditions must be avoided at all costs.

So we proceed into Norway leaving the doubters in our dust, hoping to prove them wrong.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Also known as the Northern Lights, or Polar Lights, the magical Aurora Borealis are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights can, in the right circumstances, be seen above and close too the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres.

The Southern Lights are the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent to the Northern Lights and given the right conditions, these can be seen in the far south of New Zealand’s South Island.  I never had the pleasure of viewing these in NZ and Norway has always been my first choice of location to experience this natural phenomenon.

Planning our Trip

The entire reason for coming to Norway is to see the Aurora Borealis.  Anything and everything else would be a bonus.  This amazing night-time spectacle has been on my bucket list since before bucket lists were invented.  I’d seen photos of the Aurora Borealis somewhere along my life’s journey and I may have possibly seen a documentary about them, narrated by David Attenborough (who else?) at some point over the years.

Just those words the “Aurora Borealis” still puts butterflies in my tummy with excitement and anticipation.  For many years I couldn’t even get my tongue around the words Aurora Borealis, let alone try to spell it.  Thank goodness it was also known as The Northern Lights, which is much easier to say.  Whenever someone mentioned the words Aurora Borealis I was suitably impressed, thinking they must be highly educated to be able to pronounce such complicated words. And if they could spell them, well, I was uber impressed.  Here’s a little help for your pronunciation practice, should you need it. Aurora (Ah – Raw – Ah) and Borealis (Bore Ree Alice).  Easy eh???

So, is it possible to see the northern lights in September in Norway?

The short answer is “not usually”.

In fact, an Australian lady I recently met on our travels in Finland scoffed at me when I mentioned we were on our way to Norway to see the lights.  She informed me that she and her husband flew to Norway in February (the height of the Aurora season) on a guaranteed Northern Lights tour.  They stayed there for two weeks, braved the snow and below freezing conditions, and ventured out every night on guided tours.  Did she see the elusive lights?  No, no, NO!

Eek, perhaps I’ve over-estimated my expectations to see these elusive creatures in the off-season!

However, we somehow tend to have the luck of the Irish when it comes to these things, and other weather-related matters.

Alan, my husband, found a free app called ‘My Aurora Forecast’, which provides excellent information on the probability of seeing an Aurora, based on a particular location.  The most important factor is something called Kp.

So what is a Kp I hear you ask?

Turning to Google (because I’m not a scientist) for the official answer, here’s what I found.

“The Kp number is a system of measuring aurora strength.  It goes from 0 to 9 (0 being very weak, 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras visible).

So when looking at the aurora forecast we want to see high numbers, and the higher the better.  Anything above (and including) Kp5 is classed as a geomagnetic storm.

Coming from the German words “Planetarische Kennziffer”, Kp is better known in English as the planetary index.” 

I hope that bit of insight helps.

Arriving into Norway

The date is Monday 17th September 2018 and we have just driven in dark gloomy conditions from northern Finland, to reach Norway.  You can imagine our delight to be bathed in sunshine as we poke our nose into Norway.  It felt like we’d just shed not only northern Finland’s cold winter coat but had also left the rain and an overcast day in our wake.  The autumn colours are once again stunning; the sun is shining on the still waters of the lakes, which reflect the fluffy clouds from the skies above. There is a small stirring deep inside of us that we might have some good days ahead.

 

The Still Water Reflects Fluffy Clouds

Stunning Autumn Colours In Norway

We check the Aurora app and are delighted to see the Kp is showing 4 for tonight!  Wow, 4! that’s awesome.  Not only that but the forecast cloud cover tonight is minimal.  Finding a prime location is the next agenda item.

We head into the township of Tromsø where I spied a ‘Light Tour’ shop and called in to glean some information.  Their Aurora hunting tours cost $1800 NOK per person including dinner cooked on an open fire and hot drinks.  So we decide to keep the €189 x 2 to ourselves and ask for advice on the best places to see the lights.  Knowing it was a bit cheeky we were surprised that the lovely lady happily showed us, on her enlarged wall map, exactly where she rates the best light viewing place around Tromsø.  It’s about a 45-minute drive away and includes, on the way, the perfect stop to watch the autumn sunset.

So we’re off to watch the sunset first and then to find the lights (hopefully).

 

A Rare Perfect Norwegian Sunset

The sunset spot was near Ersfjordbotn (GPS coordinates for those wanting to follow are 69.6966, 18.6327).  We found the perfect elevated rock with a view directly between the two headlands running down to the sea.  Between the tips of the headlands was a small stretch of water and the sun was already sliding down towards the awaiting horizon.  A lovely Dutch couple, who have made Norway their home, already occupied our chosen rock however they were happy to share.  They informed us that the sun setting on the water exactly in between the two headlands only happens two or three days per year!  Then factor in that those days need to coincide with fine weather and you realise to actually see this happen is a fairly rare occurrence.

Well, someone is looking down on us and smiling because we shared this perfect sunset experience with our new Dutch friends.

A Rare Sight of The Sun Setting Between The Headlands

Next we were off to find our vantage point for the lights, which our app was now indicating are likely to be showing tonight, yay.  Our Dutch friends tell us that they have only seen the lights once so far this season and they too are off to watch them with their friends.

 

The Elusive Aurora Borealis

We pulled into the parking area at Grøtfjord (69.7745, 18.5270), some 18 minutes, or 15.4 kilometres of narrow, lumpy, bumpy, windy roads later.  Arriving unscathed, despite having to reverse to allow a truck to pass us at one point, we parked up and cooked dinner while waiting.

We didn’t have to wait long.  Dinner wasn’t even finished being scoffed when Alan poked his head out of the motorhome and…

Guess what…

“THEY’RE HERE!!!!  RUTH, COME OUT AND SEE, THE LIGHTS ARE HERE!”

YES, to all those non-believers, WE SAW THE AURORA BOREALIS IN SEPTEMBER IN NORWAY! WOOHOO!

My heart jumps into my throat and I hold back tears of joy.  I can’t believe I am here, in Norway, seeing the most amazing scene right before my very eyes.  I’ve waited my whole life for this moment and I watch stunned in awe.  If I was to think back as a child, seeing the Aurora Borealis in Norway – well, words just don’t even start to convey what I’m feeling at this point in time.

To my delight the lights danced mystically around the sky for hours, swaying backwards and forwards, changing colour from light green to darker green, one moment they are streaking upwards, the next they are moving horizontally and low across the sky.  They would fade, then strengthen and swirl around once again.  It was difficult to stop watching in case something spectacular was about to show itself, and it never disappointed.  The night sky was alive and here we are in Norway watching, transfixed by this phenomenon.

Alan had his camera and tripod out immediately and through trial and error found the right settings to get some great shots of the action going on upstairs.  My iPhone could not even start to compete with a good quality camera in capturing Mother Nature at her best.

We continued to stand outside, in the cold 2-degree temperatures, all rugged up, our eyes peeled skyward and mesmerised for hours by this exhibition.  The cold seemed to be secondary to our excitement until we suddenly realise we can’t feel our toes anymore.

Upon reading this, it may seem quite normal that someone can just turn up in Norway and see the lights.  However, there are three things that must coincide for a good viewing experience.  The first is a reasonably high Kp number, preferably 4 or above (the further you are from the poles, the higher the Kp needs to be), the second is a clear night with minimal clouds, and thirdly, darkness, which means sometime around the winter months and away from light pollution as well as late in the evening.  Tonight we were in luck and it was probably a one in a hundred coincidence that it happened for us.  Oh and did I tell you, it’s September!  Lol.

The Aurora Borealis ARE Here, In Norway, In September!

Us Enjoying The Light Show, Check Out The Shooting Star To The Top Left

Even Betsy, Our Motorhome, Gets To Enjoy The Auroras

Click on these to enlarge the photos

Aurora in Finland

Not to rub it in or anything, but we were actually treated to a short sneak preview three nights earlier (Friday 14th September) in Finland!  We couldn’t believe our luck then either.

It was 11.30pm and we were tucked up nice and warm in bed when Alan announces the Aurora app suggested a 33% chance of seeing the Aurora NOW with a Kp score of 4.  Sceptical and not understanding what a Kp of 4 really meant back then, we climbed out of bed, clad ourselves in multiple warm layers of clothing and braved the low single digit temperatures outside.  We looked skyward and couldn’t believe what was right in front of our eyes, the Aurora Borealis, here now, in bright green colours, bopping across the entire sky for our viewing pleasure.  Wow, wow, wow was all that come out of my mouth.

Mesmerised by the beauty of Mother Nature I was leaping out of my skin with joy.  The butterflies in my tummy had taken flight and I was jumping around with them.  This was real, this was the actual Aurora Borealis and I am here, in the flesh watching this show.  I needed to pinch myself.  Being here, watching the magic unfold before my very eyes is everything and more than I expected and hoped for.  This experience heightens every sensory element of ones being.  You feel your feet firmly planted on the soil of this safe and inviting foreign country and feel privileged to be here, you look skyward while Mother Nature is inviting you to her most rehearsed show on earth, your body tingles with joy and you hope with every fibre of your being that it lasts and lasts while you drink in her glory.  It is one of those things that you must just experience in person yourself.  Oh, how fortunate am I?

What’s more is I am in Rovaniemi, Finland, watching this for the first time.  We hadn’t even reached Norway and I had no expectation of seeing the Auroras on this particular evening, but here they were, the Auroras eager to show off and eager to be seen by us.  WHAT A TREAT!

The display of dancing lights however only lasted for a few minutes before fading away.  Half an hour later a second fainter aurora appeared, which showed up well on the camera but was less obvious to the naked eye.

Therefore we were very thankful for the longer display of stunning lights as showed to us in Norway, in September.  Plus thankful that Alan had time to experiment with his camera settings.

Aurora in Finland

Aurora in Finland Taken on iPhone (not recommended)

In Summary

So, when can you see the Aurora Borealis in Norway?  Well, the official word, according to me, is that the Aurora Borealis CAN, in fact, be seen in September and not only in Norway.  Finland can also provide a lovely display.

However, if you want the best chance to see this magical show the main season to view the Aurora Borealis in Norway is from October to March.

So don’t wait any longer, elevate the Aurora Borealis on your bucket list, and make it a priority to book your trip up here to experience this sensational spectacular for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

Bulk Cooking To Save Gas

Bulk Cooking To Save Gas

While traveling through Finland we had to conserve gas because there is no LPG available in this country.

We, therefore, headed to a camping ground to make the most of their cooking facilities.  Check out below what we cooked.  

Interestingly, we found that this has given us more time in our evenings and we are now looking at bulk cooking more often.

To access the recipes so you can make these yourself, please click on the recipe title.

Do you do this, and if so, what are your ‘go to’ recipes?  Please share.

Swedish Meatballs

We first cooked this in…., you guessed it Sweden.  The sauce is delicious and we managed to freeze extra sauce for future meatballs.

Caponata

We first learnt how to cook this flavour packed dish at cooking classes in Palermo, Sicily, Italy.  This can be scoffed warm when first made or cold on fresh white crusty bread.  The vinegar helps to preserve this dish for several days in the fridge.

Aubergine rolls  – Involtini di Melanzane

This is another recipe from Mamma Corleone Cooking Class.  Involtini or Aubergine Rolls are quick and easy to make and provide a yummy dinner, or two.

This is an ideal dish for Omnia Cooking.

Honey-Soy Chicken

With a bit of forward planning you can whip this dish together, pop it into the fridge to marinate and viola it’s ready in time for dinner.  Just throw onto the heat for half an hour and scoff quickly.  If you’re lucky to have any leftovers, they make for a great lunch the next day.

Lemon Cake

We started making this in Greece, due to the large volume of lemons going begging.

The thing I love about this cake, apart from its soft moist texture, is how long it lasts in the cake tin (and freezer).  It looks stunning with the white frosting and can be dressed up for a shared dish with glazed lemons on top.  It is also high enough to be sliced in two and filled with your favourite filled (cream cheese comes to mind).  Give this a go and thank me later.

Awesome Åland Islands

Awesome Åland Islands

by Ruth Murdoch  |  August 2018  | Location Åland Islands, Finland

Barking dogs, loud parties and fast trains are things you won’t hear in the Åland Island.  Particularly when you arrive on the back of their “three-week” summer high season.

Getting to the Åland Islands

While staying with fellow motorhoming friends in Sweden, whom we had met in Greece in January 2018, we were advised to head over to Finland via the Åland Islands.  We checked out the cost difference and worked out that it was a better deal and an opportunity not to miss, especially as we had plenty of time. The cost of traveling by ferry from Stockholm (Sweden) to Turku (Finland) was €321 during the day and €351 for an evening sail (8pm – 7am) including a cabin.  We spent €65 from Grisslehamn (Sweden) to Eckero (the first main Island of the Ålands) and then €94.50 for all the ferries within and across the Åland Islands to Turku.  This price included a 10% discount for booking online for two people and one 7.5 metre long motorhome.  Here’s the link; www.alandstrafiken.ax/. So comparing our actual journey which cost us €159.50 to the more direct route of €321, we saved ourselves €161.50 and visited this wonderful area over twelve glorious sun-baked days. It is interesting to note that once you are inside the Åland Islands the ferries are all free, however, they do ask that you book in advance, especially in the high season (July).  We booked and didn’t have any trouble, although we did see other motorhomes being turned away when the ferry was full (in August).  The ferries reserve 17 metres only for motorhomes (ie two at any one time), hence the need to book ahead.

The Åland Islands are a popular tourist destination for the Finnish people during their summer break and we met quite a few during our travels.  Here was our schedule 7/8/18     Grisslehamn to Eckero (1.5-hour ferry ride)

12/8/18   Hummelvik to Kumlinge

14/8/18   Kumlinge to Lappo 16/8/18   Lappo to Torsholma

19/2/18   Ava to Osnas

Aside from the ferries above that typically take less than an hour per journey, the other islands we visited are connected via either bridges, causeways, or by cable ferries.  We lost count of the number of islands we actually set foot onto but believe it to be in the region of thirty or so.  Once we arrived in Osnas it was a short ferry ride (free of charge) to arrive onto mainland Finland where we stayed at the small settlement of Kustavi.

Ferry from Sweden to Åland Islands

Besty is Last on Board

About the Åland Islands

Åland is a Swedish-speaking, autonomous province in Finland and has its own flag.  Its population boasts 30,000 people with around 11,000 living in Åland’s only town, Mariehamn. There are 16 municipalities of the Åland Islands, an archipelago made up of 6,700 named islands and over 20,000 unnamed.  Whilst the islands are Finnish owned, the language spoken is Swedish and the currency is Euros.

The pace of life here is typical of island life.  Cars meander at their own rather slow pace rather than forging ahead at anywhere near the suggested speed limit.  No-one is in a rush, possibly because there are not many places to rush off to.  To come to the Ålands is to slow down and breathe. I want or rather need a haircut and expect there will only be one hair salon on the island and I would be able to get an appointment quickly.  Oh, how wrong was I?  There isn’t one, two or even three salons in Mariehamn there are eight!  What’s more, they are all fully booked until next week (it’s only Thursday).  We are told the summer rush is over and tourists have already left to get their children ready to start school again next week after the six week mid-summer holidays.  Hmmm, obviously the locals like to look well groomed around here.

The Economy

Driving around we wondered what the mainstay or their economy is.  There are apple trees in abundance, possibly more than is necessary for local consumption.  Then there are tourists.  The numbers swell from 11,000 in the winter to three times that number in the summer.  Surrounded by water, one has to think fish would play a part in the Åland Islands exports.  Apparently, timber is also up there.  Granite replaces grass in people’s backyards and we see paddocks of granite rock where one would expect to see crops or livestock.  The few white cows and a handful of shaggy Highland cattle we saw hardly constitute a dairy industry however, there was a lot of Aland Island milk and cheese on sale so there must be some decent sized herds somewhere.

The Aland Islands are one of the few places in the world where the honey industry is still free of the varroa mite, a fact which a local producer  (apiarist) was very proud of. The Aland honey is apparently a very prized and valuable export product.

Winters are obviously harsh here and the barns which shelter the livestock animals over the cold winter months sport chimneys.  The barns are built half from double layered stone insulated for housing the animals in winter and half from timber for the storing hay to feed the animals.

Notice The Two Building Materials

This Barn Has Seen Better Days

The Churches

In every small settlement stands a church proud and tall.  Visitors are welcome and a brochure in English explains the colourful history of each one.  We unfortunately just missed the opening season for the Kumlinge church which is renowned for its unique wall paintings from the 15th century.

In common with many other churches around the coastal regions of Scandinavia, there were one or more models of ships hanging from the ceiling.  These are ‘votive gifts’, were given to the church by sailors who had been caught up in some peril at sea and who had vowed to offer the ship if God delivered them home safely.

Kumlinge Church

Geta Church

Eckero Church Model Ship

Geta Church Model Ship

Our first night had us stopping in a very large and thankfully flat parking area outside the church just five minutes from where the ferry landed us at Eckero.  In the morning, after Alan checked with the groundsman that it was okay to use the water from the cemetery tap, the opportunity to get our clothes and sheets washed was too good to resist.  Deciding this was one of those times to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, Betsy was manoeuvred into a discrete location with the intention of minimising offence to anyone who might not like the sight of our dangling washing. The glorious sun had followed us from Sweden and combined with the wind, our clothes were dry in record time.

That afternoon we drove to the only town, Mariehamn to take a look around.  The tourist information was open and the lady there was very helpful.  With map in hand and points of interest noted, we headed off.  We drove to Lemland and checked out our planned overnight stop which was also a local swimming spot.  By this stage it was getting later in the day and I wasn’t so tempted to get cold.  Alan braved the late afternoon sun and at 8pm dove into the brackish waters.    Not to be out-done I swam the following morning when the sun was warmer and we enjoyed having this spot to ourselves before more visitors arrived.

Stunning Swimming Spot Near Lemland

The next day we drove to up past Geta north to the island of Dano and stayed beside the road for the night.  There were not many options here but thankfully the road was a dead end so we only had one car an hour drive past us.  One of these was the same car, so obviously a local.

 

The Maritime Museum

The maritime museum was calling our name, so back we headed to Mariehamn for some culture and education.  The cost of €10 each for entry was reasonable when you consider how good the displays were.  The Åland Islands have an vast nautical history This museum showcases the importance the sea had on life from yesteryear. We learnt about the genuine pirate flag.  Apparently, there are only two authentic skull and crossbones flags known in the world.  It is about 200 years old and came to the Ålands from North Africa’s Mediterranean coast where piracy existed well into the 1800s.  It used to be black but has been faded by weather and time.  The museum also tells the story of Wihelmina “Mimmi” Widbom, a rare female professional sailor who rounded Cape Horn eight times and was even torpedoed once in her long career.

Godby was next on our itinerary which once again provided a great swimming spot.  Alan found this by scrolling around on Google Maps looking for somewhere near the water and big enough to park Betsy.

Calm Day for Swimming

Lifeboat If Needed

Kastelholm Castle

Ålands only castle, Kastelholm has been around since the medieval period with its heyday coming during the reign of the Swedish King, Gustav Vasa.  At just €6 each to enter we headed in to see what all the fuss was about. First mentioned in writing in 1388, Kastelholm was strategically situated in what was once the middle of the Kingdom of Sweden.  At that time Sweden extended to present-day Russia and the waterways united the realm.  The landscape has changed somewhat in the 700-odd years since then.  From the start, the castle was completely surrounded by water and was naturally sheltered by the Slottsundet’s steep beaches. Towards the end of the 1300’s Kastelholm was a typical fortress with a tower, residence and curtain walls.  Following much rebuilding and extending, the castle ruins today consist of two sections, a higher main castle and a fortification that is surrounded by a curtain wall.

In the 1400s Åland became a castle fief of its own and during the troubled century that followed Kastelholm was also drawn into the war between Sweden and Denmark.  The castle was besieged by the Danes several times but was recaptured by the Swedes in the end. In 1745 a devastating fire broke out that reduced most of the castle to ruins.  Sweden lost Åland and Finland to Russia in 1809 and the centre of power moved to nearby Bomarsund. The most recent restoration was started in 1982 and was completed in 2001.

As with most museums we are visiting over here, the displays are not only visual but interactive and we get to try on some of the clothing and armour the locals used to wear.

We had also heard about the Russian Ruins in Bomarsund so decided to check it out.

The Bomarsund Fortress & Russian Ruins

The biggest military facility that had ever been built in Åland was the Bomarsund fortress. After the war between Sweden and Russia in 1808–1809, Sweden was forced to give up Finland and Åland as part of the peace. Over 2,000 Russian armed forces, fortress workers and convicts lived and worked in Bomarsund.  A whole community developed in the area.  The foundations of the empire-style wooden houses in Nya Skarpans show a small town settlement with a post office, school, shops and offices. The Crimean War of 1853–56 led to the English fleet sailing into the Baltic Sea and attacking targets along the Finnish coast. The most tempting target was the Bomarsund fortress and August 1854 saw the landing of 12,000 English and French soldiers. At the same time about 40 steam-driven warships approached from the south whereas the defences were built to withstand attacks from ships coming from the north.  On 13 August the soldiers went on the offensive at the same time as the warships subjected the fortress to massive gunfire. On 16 August the Russian commander, General Bodisco, capitulated.  Bomarsund was never completed and a few weeks later the fortress was demolished by the victors. The bricks from some areas were kept and put to use – they can be seen in buildings like Uspenski Cathedral and the Alexander Theatre in Helsinki. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, Sweden pushed through an international convention prohibiting the Russians from fortifying Åland. Since then Åland has been a demilitarised area and Ålander men are not obliged to do national service. Åland belonged to Russia until Finland gained independence in 1917.

We stayed the night beside the ruins of the Notvik Tower which defended the channel approaching Bomarsund.  This took five years to build but just three days for the English to defeat.

Notvik Tower Ruins

Strategic Position for The Guns

Notvik – a Perfect Position for Defending the Channel

Bomarsund Fortress – How it Looked

Bomarsund Today

The Locals

The locals are all so friendly. On Bjorko island we parked up next to the rubbish recycling ‘house’ and found it’s a great way to meet the locals. That evening we were invited to watch the sunset over the water while drinking French liquor and soaking up the last of the day’s warmth from the smooth granite rocks.

Stunning Private Sunset

Meeting The Locals

What To Bring to Åland

I would recommend stocking up on your favourite groceries before coming across as some of the prices are on the tad expensive side.  The cauliflower was €4.40 each and one wasn’t much larger than my hand.  Coffee can set you back over €10 with a packet of biscuits just under €4. There is usually a store on the bigger islands but don’t expect to find a dairy at every corner. It’s remote here which adds to the charm. Looking around we see many of the locals tending to their own vegetable patch.

Would We Recommend A Visit To the Åland Islands?

If you have the time while heading between Sweden and Finland, and you are happy to enjoy a few peaceful days, then certainly make sure you take the opportunity to slow down a wee bit and meander your way across.  There’s no need to take twelve days like we did, however, we have no regrets.   The locals are friendly, so make sure you engage them and ask a little about how life on the island suits them and their family.  You are bound to be richly rewarded with their stories.

Aland Reflections

Once Loved House

Cafe & Shop on Brändö

Table With A View

Motorhome Facilities And Stopping Places

Water was relatively easy to find on most of the islands, however I recommend you taste this first.  On two occasions the water was brownish and tasted ‘dirty’ – we drink straight from our tank so didn’t fill up there.  Nevertheless, we were never far from the next island where we would try again.  We filled up at marinas or cemeteries after asking permission first.  We spent a minimum of two nights on each island group that we ferried to and never came close to running out of water.

Each island has its own rubbish collection area, so ridding ourselves of daily rubbish was a piece of cake. Grey water disposal again wasn’t an issue given the number of gravel roads and laybys away from the public.

Mariehamn Marina has facilities for emptying toilet cassettes.  We used biological washing liquid in our cassette which made it environmentally friendly for carefully emptying into the public toilets we found along the way.  Below is a map showing our stopping points.  Click on each of the points to see a photo of where we parked and for more information.