Sunday, February 12, 2017

Free or Cheap Winter Activities

Winter lasts a long time in Finland and I've discovered you can't hide inside forever, even in the roughest, darkest, coldest days. But we're hopefully past that now and into the brighter more enjoyable bits of winter. Here's a few things you can do with your family that don't cost much - especially if you can stay out of cafes which we can't. It's laskiaspulla and runebergintorttu season, after all.

Today we went to one of our favourite parks in Helsinki - Kaivopuisto. Near the city centre, it's integral to life in Helsinki: hundreds of families gather there for the big picnic at May Day and even on less eventful days it's full of people just enjoying being by the sea and using the various play parks, restaurants, ice cream stands and ferries to nearby islands. 

I knew in winter they have good sledging hills and there are horse and sleigh rides at the weekends at least, but we decided instead of going to our usual Cafe Ursula at the hilly end to stop at Cafe Carousel which is on the harbour, so we were able to experience a new part of a Helsinki winter.

The water is now frozen over and safe to walk in some places, so the it appears that city dwellers take to the ice. There were about a dozen wind sock-type kites tied onto buoys on the ice and you could walk around them and even get in one. 

There were also families out with their own kites, sledges and ice skates on the ice, but mostly they were just walking about taking in the sunshine. It was a novelty to my kids, we could have spent ages just playing on the ice. We walked from Cafe Carousel over the ice to the island of Uunisari. They put up a bridge in winter, but we could walk/slide over the ice the entire way. It's accessible by a 3 minute ferry in the summer. We didn't stop at the restaurant, sauna or try ice swimming but these are all available.  The jacuzzi was covered over, so not in use today at least. Sounds like a great way to spend a winter afternoon. 

We then walked over the bridge back to the park for more playing. It was a great day, the weather was perfect, around zero though a bit colder with the sea wind, but it's the return of the sun that makes all the difference in getting through the end of winter here.

Another wee gem I discovered recently is Cafe Regatta, a tiny cafe just off the Sibellius Park. Inside it's quirky and cozy, the food was good. A nice place to warm up.

They also had the fire lit outside so you could cook your makkara (sausages) and cuddle up for a chat. Worth the cost of a cup of coffee and sausage.

Another thing we discovered is a lumilinna (snow castle) near our nursery. When there is a lot of snow some locals pile it all up, dig out and shape a castle and then water it down so it freezes over and lasts until the weather properly warms up. The kids absolutely loved it, but I haven't seen many so you have to be in the know to find them. I would maybe consider making one ourselves next year if we get enough snow that I can pile up. (See our attempt at this here.) This one is conveniently near a carpark and I'm sure the residents have access to a snow plough to help build one properly. We've seen some massive ones about the town.

And if the weather is like recently: snowing, melting, freezing, snowing, freezing, you're bound to find an ice slide on any good hill, polished to perfection. A step up from regular sledging, you just shoot down with your body. This one is in our nursery playground and all the kids are allowed to go on it. The only rule is one at a time. The kids take bumps of course, but it's a learning experience. It's only taken me 6+ years to get over the fear of them knocking themselves out. Mouse's school has a massive one that goes down next to a huge flight of stairs. They're not allowed to use it during school hours, unless the teacher decides to make it part of the gym lesson??!! 

The city also has well-maintained ski tracks in forested areas. Some sites like Paloheinä have a hut where they rent out skis, poles and boots (around 22) if you don't have your own. They also do lessons and I managed to do a one hour beginners' one in English for 15 which is a bargin in Finland. Now when I flail around on the tracks, I know what I should be doing, but can I heck get my body to do it.

The snow isn't always good for building snowmen, but when it's really cold you can make ice bricks out of milk cartons which are just as fun. I've seen organised events where they ask you to bring along bricks so you can build an ice castle. I unfortunately haven't seen any this year, probably as it hasn't been consistently cold enough, but keep an eye out. We add food colouring to ours, you can also empty out the excess water when just the outside is frozen and make lanterns for candles. Or just hollow out a space behind them in a snow pile.

Random ice skating ponds can be found if you look about. Schools often turn their football pitches over to ice and they are free to access, though I would leave it to out of school hours as they tend to use them for gym as well. 

Look out for events listed as talvirieha and jääjuhla, winter or ice festivals or parties. They can be small and locally organised with grilled makkara, pony riding and wellie tossing or bigger and sponsered by the city or sports organisations with races and games with prizes, music and various food carts. It's a good way to enjoy the bright, cold days with lots of outdoor activities. 

So find some way to get out and enjoy winter, it will be hanging around for a bit yet, I'm afraid.

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