Finland: Saunas, Sunsets and Strawberries

JULIA THORN describes a Ride through Central Finland

Whenever I see a strawberry now I think of Finland. Not perhaps the obvious memory to have of this remote but beautiful land. I just happened to arrive in the middle of the strawberry harvest and saw a great number of large, red, juicy strawberries : in the town market places, at tiny makeshift roadside stalls, and being picked in the fields. In the towns everyone was walking along eating strawberries from plastic bags or green tubs and dropping the hulls on the ground. The footpaths were stained bright red wherever I looked.

I was pleased to come away from my cycling tour of Finland with a slightly unusual memory. Too many people had told me that Finland lives up to its cliches - lakes and trees, then more lakes and trees - so I was expecting to find it a little uninteresting. Fortunately I was due for pleasant surprises.

Finland indeed has many lakes. Look at a map of the central part of the country and it shows a strange blue and white mottled pattern. The lakes are generally fringed by tall pine trees and dotted with perfectly shaped tiny round islands that appear to have been carefully placed in symmetrical positions. Often there are yellow-flowering water lilies adorning a corner of the lake.

But it was the sunsets over the lakes that really captivated me. A fabulous ball of fire falling slowly into calm reflective waters, reeds providing contrasting black silhouettes and maybe a duck or two swimming by. Because it was so far north the sunset would last for up to an hour, and when it was over there was a rich twilight rather than pitch darkness.

And nobody had told me of all the wild flowers. In every open space there would be a blaze of bright colours - purples, yellows, pale blues. At roadside rest areas, where there was often a wooden kiosk selling snacks, there would be a vase of wild flowers at each picnic table.

I had been a little worried that the terrain might be too flat. Even though I ride a bike, I like hills. But the central part of the country is fairly undulating and often you can have a pleasant view over a lake or two from a hilltop.

Perhaps because there aren't any mountain ranges to traverse Finland is popular for cycling. There are specially designated bike paths in villages and towns. And even where there is no bike path it seemed to be acceptable to ride on the footpath, generally at great speed and terrorising any pedestrians. However nobody rides very far and the few tourers I met had loaded up their bikes in a precarious fashion not designed for long distance. The buses have plenty of space to carry bikes and on the trains they are hung from hooks in the luggage van.

Finnish campsites are pleasant, often situated by a lake so you can have a relaxing swim after your ride. I was there in a heatwave so the swimming was welcome. Many campsites also have a sauna.

The major potential problem in Finland is the language. It resembles nothing on earth although it is said to have similarities to Hungarian. As a cyclist I had to learn words such as 'ranskalaiset' (french fries) and 'jaatelooa' (ice cream) fairly fast.

One of the delights of the towns and cities is the central open-air market place which would have a multitude of stalls selling fruit and vegetables, handicrafts (hard to carry on a bike unfortunately) and household goods. You can snack on strawberries or fresh peas, scattering the pods anywhere, or sit at a cafe munching a meat-filled savoury doughnut. In Helsinki some of the locals sell produce directly off their boats as the market place is by the harbour. There are always stalls devoted to items for the sauna: baskets for brushes, water pails, soap containers.

The importance of the sauna in Finland is immediately obvious. This is a land where there are four and a half million people and a million saunas. One of the first things I noticed as I cycled along was the little hut near so many houses, maybe with logs drying outside, which is the family's sauna. On a weekend you may well see the family dash through the trees from the sauna to the nearby lake for a cooling swim.

At Muurame there is a sauna museum: a collection of 21 sauna buildings which have been transported to this site from all over Finland to demonstrate the development of the Finnish smoke sauna.

These are saunas where a hot fire of sweet-smelling wood is covered with stones so the stones become red hot and warm the hut. Water is then thrown onto the stones with a wooden spoon to create vapour which gives a sensation of further raising the air temperature. This 'stove' is usually in one corner of the hut and the participants sit on benches against the walls. Smoke saunas are built of logs and the earlier versions were only ventilated through the walls; in more recent times they have a smoke outlet. The sauna building has had many uses in the past - childbirth, meat curing and threshing shed - but now recreation is the chief purpose.

I enjoyed strolling through Finnish towns. This nation has produced many world-ranking architects. Among the most famous is Alvar Aalto, and the town of Jyvaskyla has a fascinating museum devoted to plans and models of his work.

Helsinki is a city in the grand neo-classical style, with wide avenues and large mansions. But I didn't enjoy cycling on the cobblestones and I constantly had to watch out for the tram lines. There is a complete maze of bike paths through the suburbs and I found it impossible to work out which way to go.

A rather quieter place is Porvoo to the east of Helsinki. The old part of this town boasts an impressive collection of colourful wooden houses and warehouses, plus an imposing red brick cathedral. A river meanders through the town and the moored boats make a photogenic scene.

But the most memorable part of my ride from Kuoppio down to Helsinki was the stretch from Muurame through Sysma to Lahti. Here I became enmeshed in the network of lakes surrounding Lake Paijane. Water is everywhere. The road climbs frequently to provide views of lakes and islands in all directions. At other times I rode along a causeway between serene expanses of water. The reflections in the water, whether of clouds, trees or boathouses, are breathtaking. There are numerous bridges, the odd car ferry, and plenty of sailing boats wafting across the lakes.

The shores of the lakes are dotted with summerhouses and each has its own little boat pier. In the early morning the locals go out fishing in their wooden rowing boats.

When you see this countryside in the bright hot sunshine of midsummer it is hard to think of the land in winter covered with snow and the lakes iced over. But I can just imagine how beautiful the pine forests must look with the branches of the trees outlined in white.

Maybe I should brush up my Finnish vocabulary and fit snow chains to my bike in preparation for another trip.

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