To see the real Finland, head for the trees
In the summer, Finns and knowing tourists unwind in the country's
| HELSINKI, FINLAND
Overlooked by tourists and wedged between two imposing neighbors -Sweden and Russia -Finland remains one of the less-traveled treasures of Europe.
Visitors willing to seek out adventure apart from Europe's more popular destinations have found in Finland an incomparable vacation experience, owing, in particular, to the natural splendor of the sparsely populated country.
The pride that Finland's 5 million residents place in their land is not misguided: Roughly three-quarters of the country's surface area is covered by breathtaking forests, while 187,677 lakes and nearly as many islands dot the remaining landscape.
For most Finns, cities are a place to stick close to during the colder and darker months. Come early summer, though, urban Finns head en masse to their individually and communally owned cabins. While these cabins, called kesmkki, vary in size and amenities (many may lack phones, running water, or electricity), they serve a singularly common purpose for Finns: A chance to reconnect with nature, water, and the sauna.
Herein lies the true Finnish experience for the visitor seeking a vacation devoid of heavily touristed sightseeing locales. The ideal way to see Finland is to spend no more than two or three days in Helsinki, the exciting and diverse capital city, and the remaining week or two experiencing the splendor of Finnish countryside.
Visitors can travel affordably and enjoyably through some of the most gorgeous natural scenery in Europe. Summer homes, farmhouses, and campsites are all options for accommodation. Transportation is easy enough by car, train, and/or bicycle. Cyclists can look forward to well-maintained roads and paths, largely flat terrain, comprehensive routes, and low incidence of theft.
As a child raised in Finland, I learned early on to place a high degree of respect for the pace and intent of the country's distinct way of celebrating summer. Joining the tide of Finns streaming toward their summer cabins in a Southern Finnish township, Iitti, I took part in celebrating the midnight sun and setting the popular midsummer bonfires -all of which served to reinvigorate us after winter's icy grasp.
As an adult returning to enjoy the quiet majesty of this Scandinavian country, I have been fortunate to experience various parts of Finland, taking in the magnificent, rolling landscape from train windows and savoring the quiet solitude of my family's kesmkki. The small wooden structure, balanced on top of carefully stacked stone blocks, is always a reminder to me of how simplicity is perhaps the greatest gift of elegance.
Travelers without family ties can rent cabins and summer homes for surprisingly modest sums ($300-$800 per week) in this usually expensive country. Rooms in grand Finnish farmhouses and clean hostels are also readily available. And no Finnish country experience is complete without a sauna. Forget the steam boxes and cramped hot rooms of American spas - the Finnish sauna is unlike any other.
Often constructed as free-standing, separate buildings, saunas can be as large as summer homes themselves. A spacious, well-built sauna is quite simply a matter of pride. Bathing times are traditionally segregated by sex; there is no need to feel self-conscious in a sauna as long as you are in good company. Saunas are used by politicians for meetings as frequently as they are used by family members to talk about matters of importance.
In my family, as in so many others, sauna bathing is typically accompanied by one or more dips in a nearby lake, an act that completes the cycle of purifying and refreshing your senses.
Each summer, lakesides are filled with screaming, laughing Finns running from the sauna to experience the shocking delight of jumping into a cold lake and skinny-dipping. Many Finns continue the practice year round, even digging holes in the ice to dip into frigid waters during the winter, testing and proving their Finnish mettle, known throughout the country as sisu. In translation, sisu can best be described as a collectively shared inner strength or a tenacity of purpose.
Finns, who are typically well-versed in historical events, will point to their victorious independence from Russia in 1917, their battle against the Soviet Union's aggression from 1939 to 1940 and again from 1941 to 1944, as evidence of their sisu.
The cost of retaining independence was high: More than 80,000 Finns were killed in a nation of a few million, and Finns were forced to cede parts of their country in addition to bearing great economic hardships in the years during and after the wars. For Finland's socially reserved people, sisu is now a life force that represents their independence and an undying appreciation in the value of their land.
Appreciation for the land is manifested in an abundantly food-centered society: In the summertime, farmer's markets and grocery stores provide a dizzying array of fresh vegetables, coffee breads, dinner and dessert pies, and other staples of Finnish cuisine. (Helsinki's outdoor market, the kauppatori, is a must-see for visitors.)
Food is hearty and delicious -especially in the summer months when vegetables are picked and eaten the same day. Finns also are known to enjoy a wide variety of coffees, as well as chocolates and candies, including a potent salty licorice salmiakk. Also common are cookies, cakes, and pulla, a lightly sweetened, cardamom-flavored bread.
For a visitor, there's little else to do here but to take it all in. But be careful: The Finnish passion for good food and a life lived to its fullest rubs off easily. A Finnish vacation will teach any traveler a thing or two about life's priorities.