Monthly Archives: July 2016

Finland on tourism

In the self-proclaimed ‘cloudberry capital’, Ranua, locals pounce on the season with a biological urgency, downing tools, seizing buckets and heading out into the boggy wilds. They are foraging for the honeyed taste of summer in berries that will linger long into the snowbound winter. ‘Cloudberry fever’, they call it.

Into the swamps

There is an art to cloudberry foraging. I’ve been traipsing through deep bogs, wisped with the pearl-tipped strands of cotton grass and plumed with tall pines, for hours. There is nothing to judge the passing of time but the changing position of the sun as it emerges through billowing clouds. ‘Don’t pick the red ones,’ advises my guide Riikka Tuomivaara. ‘They aren’t ripe yet.’ Counterintuitively, Finland’s most elusive, sought-after berry becomes paler the riper it gets: ranging from deepest crimson to peachy orange, with just one precious berry per stalk.

I compare my handful of berries to the pile in Riikka’s amply filled bucket. ‘You’ll get the hang of it,’ she encourages. And I do. Little by little my eyes alight on the amber berries. The swamps that threaten to suck me down into a watery grave become easier to negotiate, as I hop between spongy islets of dry moss. I develop the knack of tentatively picking with one hand whilst wildly beating away swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes with the other. My bucket begins to slowly fill. The picking becomes methodical, almost meditative.

 

We stop to picnic by an open fire in a middle-of-nowhere glade, the sun sluicing through high treetops. I try my first berry. It is tarter than a raspberry, with a creamy, syrupy juice that reminds me of biting into a luscious peach. Born from the melting snow, the berries flower in June when the last trace of ice melts then ripen six weeks later. More than just berries to Finns, they herald the arrival of summer after a dark, bitterly cold winter.

Lapland’s wilderness

Prized as much for their scarcity as for the flavour they bring to a pie or jam, cloudberries are notoriously hard to find. They thrive in the boggy wetlands in remote Arctic climates, such as here in Southern Laplandbut, even then, finding them demands a degree of skill and stamina. While they grow in other pockets of Northern Scandinavia, Russia andCanada, it is fair to say that no country puts them on a pedestal quite like Finland.

Ever since I first heard about these berries – called hilla in Ranua andlakka almost everywhere else – these swamps and forests had taken on a mythical quality in my imagination. Foraging for them brings a dash of back-aching, mosquito-ridden reality to the equation, but it is no less magical for it. The breezy silence, the wide open skies, the looking-glass lakes, the die-straight roads piercing through endless tracts of forest in a beautiful monotony: cloudberries in every sense draw you further away from civilisation and deeper into nature.

Indeed, the solitary pursuit of cloudberry picking sums up the Finnish psyche neatly. ‘Here in Lapland we need space,’ explains Riikka. ‘If our nearest neighbours are less than a mile away, we start to feel claustrophobic.’ Most cloudberry pickers go alone. They like it that way – the peace and time to reflect as they move between the marshes for many hours. They have plenty to choose from, with more than 60% of the region given over to swamps that subdivide into three kinds: räme(pine bogs), korpi (drier swamps with trees) and avosuot (treeless bogs).

‘Other berries grow in Lapland, too,’ says Riikka. ‘There are blueberries in July, lingonberries in mid-August and cranberries in September.’ Then there is one hard-to-find berry that excites locals even more than the cloudberry: the Holy Grail that is the mesimarja (Arctic raspberry), which is three times smaller and flourishes by lakes and rivers. As I edge my way around a lake in the hope of finding one, Riikka points out wild bees. ‘We have a saying that if you stand on one, you will lose 10 kilos of berries,’ she warns. I watch my step.

By the time we call it a day, Riikka is visibly glowing with health and happiness. ‘I love it, this time of year,’ she breathes. ‘The berries. The exercise. The nature. The fresh air.’ I can see her point as we emerge from woods onto a road as wild reindeer cross, their antlered forms backlit by the pastel flare of a would-be sunset.

Cloudberry fever

Everywhere you go in Ranua in summer, the excitement for cloudberries is palpable. ‘It’s total cloudberry fever from the first berry until the festival celebrating them in August,’ says Riikka. This is partly due to the fact that the berries cannot be grown commercially as they require too much water; so finding them is a treasure hunt. Hence the reason why many locals become protective about their patch, going to great lengths to keep them a secret, in some cases quite literally. ‘I’ve walked along fences 10km long only to discover the very best cloudberries hidden behind them,’ Riikka tells me. ‘Then there are the tales of bears to scare away potential pickers – cloudberry bears, we call them.’

While the cloudberry is much more than a passing food fad in Finland, its appeal has certainly been bolstered by its ‘superfood’ status: one single berry contains more vitamin C than an orange, and is packed with omega-3 and omega-6, among other substances reported to have health-giving properties.

At the tiny cloudberry market in the centre of Ranua, there is one man who knows more about the virtues of hilla than any other: his name is Taisto Illikainen, simply the ‘cloudberry professor’ to locals, and he has been 50 years in the business. Taisto determines the start of the cloudberry season, records the number of kilos of berries picked and fixes the prices. In 2016 a kilo is bought for €10 and sold for €15, which is roughly average. ‘A couple of years ago, it was too cold and berries were scarce so the price rose to €35 per kilo,’ he nods, eyes sparkling at the chance to talk about his favourite subject.

Fresh air and sea in San Diego

download-8It can be hard to get a handle on downtown San Diego from the street. More high-rise than you might imagine and more densely-packed than other Californian cities, it is also divided into distinct districts. Happily, some of the best places to get an overview of the city are from rooftop bars which offer sensational vistas accompanied by a tempting array of cocktails.

San Diego’s harbour is dominated by the two towers of the Grand Hyatt Hotel whose 40th-floor Top of the Hyatt bar gives unbeatable sunset views over the marina. Further downtown, on 6th Avenue, the Nolen (thenolenrooftop.com) attracts a more local, fashionable crowd, who down cocktails and local craft beer above the busy Gaslamp Quarter.

 

Paragliding

Further north in La Jolla, paragliders emerge each morning from the clifftops at Torrey Pines. Taking advantage of the unique soaring conditions (westerly sea breezes deflected upwards by the sandstone cliffs) gliders can stay aloft for hours and land back on the clifftop. Unlike many paragliding venues, flying here is a year-round activity (although they do make a grudging exception for Christmas Day). Tandem flights (flytorrey.com) take you straight out over the sea where, floating above the vast Pacific Ocean and with dolphins and surfers sharing the waters of Blacks Beach below, you can see the expanse of the La Jolla coastline spreading out on one side and North County on the other. The flight even gives you aerial views at startlingly close quarters of La Jolla’s poshest clifftop communities. It’s worth sticking around afterwards for a sandwich at the Cliffhanger Café to watch others in flight and enjoy the views with your feet on the ground.

Helicopter flights

The best way to get the full panorama of San Diego is undoubtedly to take a helicopter tour, which in one flight takes in the city’s entire area.  Most fly over La Jolla (some venturing further north up the coast to glitzy Del Mar) as well as downtown and waterfront San Diego andBalboa Park, with perhaps a swoop down to the Mexican border towards Tijuana. Variations on the theme include a stop-off for wine tasting in nearby wine country. These trips don’t come cheap – prices tend to start at around $250 for the most basic tour – but they do cover a huge distance.

Combat flight

If you’re a fan of classic Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, a trip to San Diego is all about visiting locations from the movie, and a combat flight over the city is the ultimate Top Gun experience. Admittedly less sightseeing and more adrenaline adventure, this is your chance to experience a flight in a fighter jet (skycombatace.com), complete with aerobatic manoeuvres and even the option to take the controls yourself. It’s wildly expensive but, for Top Gun buffs especially, unforgettable.

By sea

Harbour cruise

San Diego is built around a sea port and with its grid formation you often get tantalising glimpses of the ocean as you walk around. To get the best water views though, you need to head out into the harbour.  Tours take place at regular intervals throughout the day in cruise ships, and give you a feel of the scale, depth and history of San Diego, as well as impressive shots of the skyline. The tours typically take you past the glamorous residences of Coronado and under the Coronado bridge, passing the military base (where you get an excellent close-up look at navy destroyers and aircraft carriers) and commercial shipyards with huge floating dry docks. If you want to turn the tour into more of an experience there are dinner and champagne cruises as well as blue whale tours on some days of the week.

Seal tours

There aren’t many major cities that don’t have a boat-on-wheels tour in one form or another (often called a Duck Tour) and there’s a reason – it’s an incredibly popular, fun trip, especially for families. After a whistle-stop drive around the city, the San Diego version makes a splashy entry into the bay. From then on, there’s more of an emphasis on wildlife than in most of the harbour cruises – there’s a detour to see the sea lion colony – and the commentary is aimed at a mixed age audience.

Sea kayak trips

For messing about on the water under your own steam join one of the many kayak tours that head out from La Jolla every day into the marine ecological reserve. You need to be tolerably fit to keep up, and you will get wet, but it’s worth a little exertion to paddle with pelicans flying overhead and rays swimming beneath, out to the seal and sea lion colonies. La Jolla has attracted the rich and famous for generations and you’ll get the lowdown from the well-informed tour guides about who has lived in the grand, colonial-style mansions that dot the coastline, as well as picking up a fair bit of local history and geology. The highlight of the trip is venturing into the La Jolla caves, strong waves permitting. Prices vary substantially so it’s worth shopping around; La Jolla Sea Caves Kayak Tour is a good option.

Tips when visit in Pistoia

Stepping into Pistoia’s Piazza del Duomo for the first time, you get an eerie feeling that you’ve time-travelled. The ground beneath your feet was first a Roman forum, then a medieval market place and then the civic heart of a rich Renaissance town. A fine, 67-metre-high campanile sits in the centre of the square, drawing your eyes upwards to the expanse of blue sky and giving the square a feeling of grandeur.

The square is largely unchanged since the days of Dante and Machiavelli. To the left of the campanile is the Palazzo Comunale with its bold Medici insignia, while to the right is the Bishop’s Palace and a beautiful green-and-white marble baptistery, which faces off with the Romanesque cathedral. To see them in perspective, climb the 200 steps of the campanile. From the cool, dark base of the tower you ascend into the bright light of the crenellated roof terrace. From here you can peer down on the square and a sea of terracotta roofs framed by the swooping foothills of the Apennines.

Explore the subterranean passages beneath the Ospedale del Ceppo

The underground tour of the Ospedale del Ceppo offers a more visceral view of medieval life. As the Black Death laid waste to the Tuscan population in the 13th century, the hospital needed to expand rapidly and the only way to do that was to divert the nearby river below ground. It’s along this damp water course that the walk takes place, in a barrel-vaulted tunnel that holds the historic city above your head.

Beside the stratified clues to the city’s construction there are a host of other curiosities. As the concept of ‘hospital’ changed from hostelry to hospice and then medical centre these underground chambers found uses as a laundry, oil mill and even a publicly-rented grain mill powered by the underground river. Fragments of pottery reveal advancing knowledge of infectious diseases (black pots for plague victims only, please), while new surgical blades advanced anatomy classes in the anatomical theatre upstairs.

Discover Marino Marini, the Tuscan Henry Moore

The monks of the order of St Anthony who built Palazzo del Tau would probably have felt right at home with the epic modernist sculptures of Marino Marini that are now displayed in its halls and corridors, and the chapel next door. Like Niccolò di Tommaso’s moving frescoes of sad-eyed Adam and Eve and St Anthony exiled in Egypt that have adorned the chapel walls for centuries, Marini’s sculptures speak volumes about man’s daily struggles.

Many of them depict a mythic horse and rider in various stages of conflict and cooperation: sometimes the horse is stiff and unyielding, at other times it rears wildly, its rider clinging on for dear life. In September 2017 Marini will also receive top billing at the city’s premier contemporary art gallery, Palazzo Fabroni, with a retrospective of his work held in collaboration with the Guggenheim Foundation.

Make friends and drink spritz in Piazza della Sala

You might not be in the market for bull’s heart tomatoes or bags of chestnuts, but like every shopping-trolley toting nonna (grandmother) you’ll be magnetically drawn to Piazza della Sala. ‘La Sala’ is one of the oldest squares in Pistoia and there has been a market here since the 11th century. It sells everything from fish to fruit, vegetables to flowers, all of which are piled high on benches beneath shady canopies. It’s like an open-air food court and a community hub rolled into one.