YES! Weekly’s ten best things to do in Finland
Contrary to popular belief you are unlikely to get lucky in a Finnish sauna. Most homes in Finland come equipped with one and the Finns are fanatical about their health-giving properties (until fairly recently, women even gave birth in them) but getting naughty? Unh-uh. Yes, saunas are hot and steamy. Yes, the Finns occasionally flagellate themselves with fragrant birch twigs while enjoying the welcome warmth. But the sauna for the Finnish is a place of deep relaxation, personal contemplation and a nice cold beer; not a place to get frisky.
The personality of the Finns seems to be linked directly with the striking extremes of temperature that marks the turning of their seasons. Finland is close to the Arctic Circle so they enjoy surprisingly high temperatures and almost continual daylight in the summer, which contrasts sharply with mercilessly cold and dark winters. Similarly the stereotypical morose and taciturn winter Finn changes into party animal extraordinaire when the sun comes out. It can be quite the makeover. To accommodate the change the Finnish summer calendar is full of music festivals, concerts and beer gardens. Those boys can party with the big sleigh dogs.
Food and drink
Some recipes for you: SautÃ©ed reindeer is a traditional dish in Lapland. Frozen reindeer meat is thinly sliced, fried in reindeer fat, spiced with pepper and beer and served with raw cowberries. Sorry Rudolph. And mykyrokka soup also known as butchery soup uses as its main ingredient a fist-sized ‘myky’ which is a kind of dumpling made of blood and rye. This dumpling is cooked with potatoes, fatty meat and offal such as kidney, liver and heart. Sounds just like haggis before you stuff it in the sheep’s stomach. I like it. And salmiakki koskenkorva is made from salmiakki, an ammonium chloride candy like salty licorice, which is used to flavor vodka. It’s black, it’s salty, it’s really strong and the more you drink the better it tastes. Like JÃ¤germeister, really.
Ice swimming or avantouinti
This is a sport that is indulged in either as part of the sauna experience or as a pleasure unto itself. The Finns don’t let the weather stand in their way. If the rivers and lakes and ocean insist on freezing solid, then that is what chainsaws are for. Cut a hole through that damn ice and jump in. Advocates say it relieves the symptoms of arthritis, builds resistance to colds and flus, has a strong anti-depressant effect and makes one feel fresh all day. Related to snow swimming.
The Russo-Karelia question
The Finns are usually a polite, quiet people but one way to get them fired up is to sit one down and tell him that Russia is quite right to still be holding onto those areas of eastern Finland which were ceded as a result of the Russian-Finno Winter War of 1939 and 1940. It’s like Scotland and England, or the North and the South. So feel free to add drink to the discussion, point your Finn in the direction of any handy Russian tourists and get ready to enjoy the show.
They have them! They have hotels where you can sleep on a bed made of ice, in a room made of ice, in an entire hotel made of ice. I told you the Finns were tough. Chipping off parts of the furniture to use in your drinks is frowned upon and believe me you don’t want to be kicked out of your lodging in Lapland in the winter. You really, really don’t. Look up Lanio Snow Hotel or Mammut Snow Hotel, and pack something warm.
Suomenlinna is a sea fortress set square in Helsinki harbor. It has been used over the years as a defense against invasion and a prison camp when that didn’t work. It still boasts a small naval academy but it is mostly a tourist destination now. It is comprised of three islands; sea ferries leave from the market every 20 to 30 minutes. Unofficially it is used as a place where the inhabitants of Helsinki can come for the day with beer and food and just relax. Practical folk, the Finns.
The seas around Finland freeze solid every year and it is a tribute to Finnish sisu (determination in the face of adversity) that they have made the necessity of keeping those waters open into a tourist destination. Icebreaker Sampo operates on the Gulf of Bothnia out of Kemi in Finnish Lapland. The trip lasts for four hours unless you do a Captain Oates of the Arctic disappearance trick. The brave can don a lifesuit and jump in; the restless can get behind a dog team and mush; and the thoroughly frozen can opt for a helicopter trip home. Coffee is free.
Try to not be the first one to break the silence
It’s impossible. Silent breaks during conversations are the norm when it comes to talking to Finnish folk and if you are prone to incessant chat then you are going to find it strange. Don’t take it personally (unless they get up and leave as well). The Finns are just comfortable with quiet. Take advantage of the time to go to the bar, come back with a double shot of salmiakki koskenkorva and say, “So, Karelia. Russians. What do you think?” and all will be well.
Visit the Moomins
Finland is where they live! Hoorah! Moomins are those lovable hippopotamus- shaped trolls brought to us by Tove Jansson. They are alive and well in Finland and you can visit them at Moomin World, the children’s theme park in Naantali just outside Turku. Hei Moomintroll, Snork Maiden, Moominpappa, Moominmamma, Mymble, Sniff, Snufkin. Bad bad Hattiffatteners. GrrrrGrrrr.