Frolicking in Finland’s saunas & green gold
Finland offers unspoiled wilderness, quaint historical attractions, peace and quiet, and ease of access to practically anywhere. With so much water around, facilities for fishing and water sports abound, says Mohinder Singh
OUR holiday plan included three days each at Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki. "Better add a day to Helsinki, even if it means a day less elsewhere," counselled a colleague who often travels to Nordic countries. "And don’t fail to savour a Finnish sauna."
From the moment you land at Helsinki airport — a superb easy - to - manage airport — you are confronted with a characteristic of modern Finland: people talking on cell phones. It is no exaggeration to say that this device, pioneered and developed by Finns and owned by well over half of the population — a proportion unequalled elsewhere except in Hong Kong — is now at the heart of Finnish life.
Yet, Finns stay strongly
moored to certain aspects of their traditional life, such as sauna.
"First you build your sauna, then you build your house," goes
a Finnish proverb. Most apartment buildings have saunas, and many
private houses have them. No hotel is complete without at least one.
With five million inhabitants, Finland has half a million saunas.
Finland — fin (meaning end) de land in French — has been slower to adopt to mass tourism that its more popular neighbours. Now Finland’s natural splendour is attracting an increasing number of visitors. It’s a country with few world - renowned attractions: no fjords like Norway, no great castles as in Sweden, no renowned cathedrals like Germany.
But gradually the world is taking notice. Finland offers unspoiled wilderness, quaint historical attractions, peace and quiet, and ease of access to practically anywhere. With so much water around, facilities for fishing and water sports abound.
Helsinki indeed has a charm as fresh as the Baltic breeze that blows over it. Surrounding the city, the sea appears where you least expect it, its salty tongue lapping at the sides of bridges and boulevards, pressing its way into residential areas, creating natural harbours and bays. The Baltic is everywhere.
Compared to major European metropolis, Helsinki is small, with a population of only 6,00,000. Yet you must find your directional bearings before venturing out. On the first day, we had the experience of getting lost twice, despite having a city map with us.
Rautatiesema, the Railway Station, forms the focus of Helsinki’s life, having replaced the harbour.
Possibly the best introduction to a new city is a tour on a sight - seeing bus. These buses normally start from the Central Market — a lively place at the harbour, selling sweet rolls, warm meat pastries, and smoked fish. You see heaped mouth - watering berries of all sorts: strawberries, cranberries, blueberries. People gather here in large numbers in a festive mood.
The first halt is the Senate Square, an impressive square with the main University building on one side and Council of State on the other. Overlooking everything is the Helsinki Cathedral, with its five green cupolas and numerous Corinthian columns.
A few blocks away from the Senate Square you see the Upensky Cathedral. We were told this red - bricked conglomeration of spires and onion - shaped domes is often used by filmmakers who find it more convenient to shoot Moscow scenes in Helsinki.
The usual tour includes attractions of the Botanical Gardens, Linnanmki Amusement Park, the imposing Parliament building, the strikingly modern national Opera House, and the Olympic Stadium.
And a stop at the intriguing Sibelius monument, made of some 60 pieces of iron pipe. When Finns think of music, they still think of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) .
To savour Helsinki’s life, a good bet is to idle some time at the harbour square. At a corner of the Central Market, amid the swirl of traffic, is the pretty Havis Amanda Fountain. The sensuous bronze Amanada, surrounded by four lions spouting water, represents the city of Helsinki, innocent and naked.
Thousands of visitors to Helsinki take the opportunity to make trips to Tallinn in Estonia, and Riga in Latvia. Indians need a visa, and it is best to obtain the same beforehand in India. We experienced much trouble and wastage of time in securing visas at Helsinki.
A visit to Finland must necessarily include a trip into the countryside. We opted for a visit to Tempere, the second biggest city, a 3 - hour train ride.
Tempere lies on a narrow neck of land between two lakes, great stretches of water so large that you feel you are close to a sea rather than way inland. The best known and most popular places to visit in the countryside are the Great Lakes of Saimaa and Paijanne in Central Finland. Finnish engineers have built canals to connect the stretches of water. Today, boats big and small can journey the length and breadth of both lake systems — forming Europe’s largest inland waterway system.
There are some things a traveller to Finland does not forget — and a Finnish sauna is one of them. Despite the nudity, a Finnish sauna is a moral place — not a meeting spot for sex, as it has been degenerated to in some countries. Generally, saunas are same - sex only; a mixed sauna is solely a family affair.
In Helsinki, my first choice of a modern sauna would be the one at the Strand Intercontinental;
The Scandic Hotel Continental, near the Opera House, has a top - floor sauna with one massive wall of glass. As you sweat, you can look out from where you are sitting into the heart of the city; the glass wall providing a window on the world, instead of the usual dark sauna chamber.
A sauna leaves you relaxed, yet alert. Prof Sarkari Palsi, a noted Finnish writer, goes as far as to advocate sauna’s value a panacea: "What any pain, complaint, fatigue or listlessness needs is the sauna. If it doesn’t help, nothing will."