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2013 – From Gothenburg to Helsinki, via the North Cape

Date of tour: August–September 2013 (6 weeks)
Distance travelled: 6300km
Total cost of tour for two people and two motorbikes: approx. €5700 (including €540 for the ferry from Helsinki to Germany)
Map showing points of interest

(Click on the photos on the right to enlarge them.)

Getting there and around

There are numerous routes into Scandinavia, either by road via Copenhagen or by one of the many ferry connections. Since this tour immediately followed our Iceland trip (which finished in Hirtshals at the northern tip of Denmark), we rode the 50km from there to Frederikshavn and took the 3-hour ferry to Gothenburg.

At the end of the tour we took the ferry from Helsinki to Travemünde (Germany). The 27-hour overnight trip with cabin cost €540.

Within Scandinavia, the only ferry journeys we took were the short trips on the Rv17 on the northwest coast of Norway and some very short (free) ferry routes in the Finnish Lakeland. The ferry from Bodø (at the northern end of the Rv17) to the Lofoten Islands takes four hours and costs €35 per motorbike.

Speed limits in Norway and Sweden are 80-90km/h; in Finland up to 120km/h on motorways is permitted. In 2013, the price of petrol in Norway was approx. €2; in Sweden and Finland it was €1.70.

The only real road hazard we encountered on the tour was reindeer on the road in northern Norway and Finland. The locals tend to thunder straight through this hazard, but we couldn’t resist stopping to take photos every time we saw one of these arctic animals (Photo 1).

The highlights of each country are detailed below. Scroll down further for accommodation recommendations and notes on food and drink.

Sweden

I’ll be blunt: from a motorcyclist’s perspective, Swedish roads are boring. Their main purpose seems to be practical rather than aesthetic – they will transport you quickly from A to B but don’t expect a thrilling ride or views of the Swedish countryside on the way.

The majority of the roads that we travelled on in Sweden were wide, straight and flat and lined on both sides by dense forest which blocked the views of lakes, rivers and other interesting geological features (Photo 2). Occasionally, a break in the trees betrays a glimmer of water and it’s only then that you realise you’ve been following the shore of a beautiful lake all this time.

Even Route 342, known as Vildmarksvägen (Wilderness Road) and recommended as “one of the most spectacular drives in Sweden” in my guide book, was, quite frankly, boring and there was a definite lack of viewpoints and picnic tables. It wasn’t until we crossed the border into Norway, and the Swedish Rte 342 became the Norwegian Rv74, that we actually got to lean our bikes. We encountered more bends, dips and scenic views on 10km of Rv74 than we had on over 1000km of Swedish roads.

The good thing about travelling in Sweden, however, is that the people are very friendly and welcoming, the towns and cities are architecturally interesting (Photos 3–4) and the prices are slightly lower than in Norway. The reason we included Sweden in the Scandinavian leg of our trip was to visit friends and to get essential maintenance done on the bikes after our Iceland tour.

Summary
+ architecturally-interesting towns and cities
+ warm and welcoming people
- boring roads

Norway

You’ve got to hand it to the Norwegians – they know how to build great roads. Having already visited the southern part of Norway between Kristiansand and Kristiansund in 2012, the main focus of our 2013 tour was Nordland and the Far North. We therefore entered Norway via the curvy and scenic Rv74 from the Swedish border just north of Trondheim. These are the highlights from the Norwegian leg of our tour:

1. Rv17 used to be the main connecting road along the Nordland coast but, since the opening of the faster E6 inland, it is now a popular tourist route. Consequently, there are services all along the route catering to summer travellers: regular ferry links, campsites, fuel stations, shops, restaurants, etc. Rv17 is a definite must for motorcyclists visiting Nordland as it contains everything: bends, dips, hills, bridges, tunnels, ferry crossings and amazing views over the islands and fjords (Photos 5–7).

2. The Rv17 finishes at Bodø, where there is a regular ferry link to Moskenes on the Lofoten Islands –undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on earth. Expect to see huge, jagged-peaked mountains rising majestically from deep fjords, with villages of colourful wooden houses nestling in between (Photos 8–9). The islands are famous for their production and export of stockfish; the red wooden huts on stilts (Rorbuer) which used to house the stockfish workers during fishing season now serve as accommodation for tourists (Photo 10).

3. Our next destination was Tromsø (Photo 11), which we had planned to reach via the Vesterålen Islands, with a ferry connection from Andenes to the island of Senja. Unfortunately, due to weather conditions, we decided against this route and instead took the E10, E6 and E8. Although these roads are certainly picturesque and contain some nice motorcycling stretches (Photo 12), we’d rather do the Vesterålen islands route next time. In Tromsø, the Polar Museum is well worth a visit and, for coffee and cakes as well as evening meals, Aunegården is a novel café/restaurant which has been converted from a butcher’s shop.

4. Any motorcyclist travelling this far north is invariably headed for the North Cape (Nordkapp), mainland Europe’s northernmost point (Photo 13). Even without the sticker and customary photo at the end as evidence of having been there, the roads leading up to the North Cape make the trip a pleasurable one. The E6 between Tromsø and Porsangenfjorden is scenic enough, but the bends and views on the E69 are outstanding (Photo 14).

5. Our final night in Norway was spent in the Sami “capital” Karasjok, in a cabin on a hill overlooking the river and town. There is a pricey and touristy Sami Cultural Centre in Karasjok, but just 120km down the road in Inari (Finland), the excellent Siida Museum (see Finland below) is much better value.

Summary
+ excellent motorbiking roads
+ fabulous scenery
- high prices

Finland

The roads in Finland at times resemble those of the Swedish “bulldoze a path straight through the forest”-style, although they tend to be a little more scenic, especially in the Lakeland area in the east of the country. However, similar to Sweden, there are not many roadside rest places with picnic tables to take a break.

What Finland lacks in fjords, it more than makes up for in lakes, however many of the roads are some distance from the water to enable the Finns to enjoy their lakeside homes in peace. Further, since Finland is a fairly flat country, there is not much need for roads to wind up and down mountains. Gentle undulations on straight tree-lined roads are more the order of the day.

Roads designated with up to three numbers are asphalted. Roads with four numbers or more are likely to be gravel roads, such as Route 5284 south of Kuhmo (Photo 15).

These are the highlights from the Finland leg of our tour:

1. Inari in northern Lapland is in a very picturesque location on Lake Inari, the third largest lake in Finland. The main attraction of the town is the excellent Siida Museum in which you could easily spend the whole day learning about Sami culture as well as human, plant and animal life within the Arctic Circle.

2. The E75(4) between Inari and Rovaniemi is scenic in places, particularly the section that follows the river between Vuotso and Aska (Photo 16). A recommendable place to stop for lunch on this route is Päivin Kamari on the main street through Sodankylä. The Arktikum Museum in Rovaniemi (Lapland’s main city) is as good as the one in Inari and is well worth a visit.

3. Oulu is a bustling city on the Gulf of Bothnia, although the routes leading into it are all large highway-type roads. It is a very green city with a long beach, a nice harbour, a busy market place and lots of small offshore islands (see Photos 17–19).

4. After Oulu, we entered Lakeland, starting at Kuhmo which has an excellent and free nature museum and a cultural centre that explains the importance of the Kalevala to Finnish culture. Route 22 from Oulu to Kuhmo starts to get more interesting once you reach Lake Oulujärvi.

5. Leaving Kuhmo, we headed south on the gravel route 5284 (Photo 15) to Valtimo, then followed Route 73 around Lake Pielinen until we reached the tourist resort of Koli, where we climbed to the top of the 347m-high Ukko-Koli for one of the most famous views in Finland (Photo 20).

6. At this point, we were beginning to despair of ever finding exciting motorbiking roads in Finland, but then we discovered the route from Koli to Oravi. Route 471 to Savonlinna is particularly curvy and scenic, especially the section just north of Enonkoski, and the road from Enonkoski to Oravi. We stayed in Oravi for three nights in order to explore the lakes by canoe (Photo 21) and to visit the castle in Savonlinna (Photo 22).

7. Just as we were leaving Lakeland and heading for Turku we discovered the best motorbiking roads of all in Finland. They are the 438, 436, 434 and 62 south of Savonlinna. All these roads have sweeping bends, slight gradients and good views of forests and lakes (Photos 23 and 24). We spent two nights in Turku, Finland’s oldest city (Photo 25).

8. Our final destination was Helsinki, (see Photos 26–27). Highlights of Helsinki included visiting Suomenlinna Fortress and the National Museum; taking a dip at the Yrjönkatu swimming hall, enjoying an archipelago cruise with dinner buffet and drinking coffee at the waterside Cafe Ursula and at the excellent Cafe Ekberg, the oldest pâtisserie in Helsinki.

Summary
+ friendly and helpful people
+ reasonably cheap (except for alcohol)
- apart from Lakeland, not great motorbiking roads

Accommodation

We stayed primarily in campsites. Some campsites are open all year round; others only from June to August, so check ahead. When nights are cold or wet, cabins are a good affordable option.

In all three countries, the cost of one night’s camping for 2 people, 2 bikes and a tent can be anything between €15 and €30. In Norway and Sweden, cabins range in price from €55-€90. Cabins in Finland are often not much more expensive than a tent pitch. If you’re really lucky you can get a lakeside cottage with sauna for under €100 (Photo 28).

On arriving at the ferry terminal in Gothenburg, we rode over to southeast Sweden and visited friends. The accommodation listed below is where we stayed once we started heading north from there:

Food and drink

First, a note on the cost of food and drink in the Nordic countries:

Norway is by far the most expensive Scandinavian country for eating and drinking. Supermarket prices are around twice that in Finland and in many other European countries. In restaurants, a burger and fries costs around €20, a pizza €25 and a steak or fish meal €40. In bars, a cola is €5 and a beer or glass of wine €10. A bottle of wine from one of the state-regulated alcohol stores costs €10 and upwards. Sweden is slightly cheaper.

In contrast, the cost of eating and drinking in Finland is relatively low. Supermarket prices are reasonable and in restaurants, all-you-can-eat lunch buffets for €10 or less are excellent value. In addition, beer is available to buy in supermarkets at low cost, and a bottle of wine from an alcohol store can be bought for €7 (although alcohol in bars and restaurants is relatively expensive).

Photos 19 and 39–40 show some of the specialities that we sampled on our tour.

Recommended reading: Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Norway (2011)
Recommended reading: Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Finland (2012)

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1. Reindeer on the road can be a hazard 2. Swedish roads are not especially exciting 3. Norrkoping, Sweden 4. Nora Railway Station, Sweden 5. The Rv17 in Norway 6. The Rv17 in Norway 7. Bridge on the Rv17 8. The Lofoten Islands, Norway 09. Road on the Lofoten Islands 10. Rorbuer (cabins) in the Lofoten 11. Tromso, Norway 12. E8 to Tromso 13. Nordkapp 14. E69 from Nordkapp 15. Route 5284 near Kuhmo, Lapland 16. E75 Inari to Rovaniemi, Lapland 17. Restaurant at Oulu harbour, Finland 18. Oulu beach on the Gulf of Bothnia 19. Lunchtime at Oulu market place 20. View from Ukko-Koli, Finnish Lakeland 21. Canoeing in Finnish Lakeland 22. Olavinlinna Castle, Savonlinna, Finland 23. Route 438 near Savonlinna, Finland 24. Route 62 in the Saimaa Lakeland, Finland 25. Turku, Finland 26. Helsinki, Finland 27. Suomenlinna Fortress, Helsinki 28. Lakeside cottage in Koli, Finland 29. Polarcamp near the Arctic Circle, Norway 30. Brustranda campsite, Lofoten, Norway 31. Tromso Camping, Norway 32. Kirkeporten Camping near the North Cape 33. Grilling burgers in the tepee in Karasjok, Norway 34. Uruniemi Campsite, Inari, Finland 35. Campsite in Rovaniemi, Finland 36. Sauna at Lentuankoski campsite, Finland 37. Oravi campsite, Finnish Lakeland 38. Helsinki Campsite 39. Fish soup 40. Sauteed reindeer with mashed potato and lingon berries Scandinavia map