Europe

Finland – Au Natural

Finland is famous for Santa Clause and his reindeer! | Photo credit: Visit Finland

People often ask: What’s the best thing about Finland?

And the answer is not the food; not the weather; nor the warm and friendly folks.

It’s just a fun place to visit!

After all, aside from cell phones, Finland is famous for reindeer, saunas, the great outdoors, the midnight sun and baked goods.

Looking out of a car or coach bus across the vastness of Finland is like looking at a nation untouched by human hands. You’ll see miles of green open space, famous glistening lakes and endless, untainted coastlines. You will also glimpse herds of reindeer in Lapland, countless islands, extraordinary ice castles and the dreamlike Northern Lights. Beyond the obvious natural splendour of Finland, towns and cities are modern, lively and full of friendly people.

And in case you were wondering, or care to visit, Santa Claus is commonly known to live on Korvatunturi in Finland. In the town of Rovaniemi there is the Santa Claus Village.

Finland attracts some 5 million plus visitors each year, many often returning repeatedly.

Since the Ages, Finland has been inhabited. Finland was part of Sweden in the late 14th century until Russians invaded in the 16th century and then Finland gained independence in 1917, so today much Finnish culture is influenced by these countries.

Helsinki, Finland’s capital and largest city, receives many visitors year-round. During the summertime thousands visit Helsinki on boats travelling across the Baltic Sea. Helsinki is known as a clean, modern and safe meeting point between the east and west. Other popular destinations in Finland include Tampere, Turku, Oulu, Rovaniemi and Porvoo.

Even though Finland is very far north, the summers are still warm and are best spent with a wander along one of Finland’s many lakes, which are lined with wooden cottages and breezy forests. It’s the Finish towns that will really win your heart though. Take some time to make your way through the streets, stop at the cafes, take in the quaint wooden churches and unique museums or take advantage of the myriad of Finish folk, opera and rock music performed at almost every street corner come evening.

Finland’s capital Helsinki, is the second-most northern capital in the world and is surrounded by picturesque inlets and islands. East meets west in a harmonious blend in Helsinki, evident in the domed Russian church, Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral and Temppeliaukio Church. After exploring Helsinki’s main attractions, you can spend countless hours strolling around the city, or visit the City Winter Garden, watch the ferries in the harbour or browse Market Square.

Home to such supernatural sights as the Northern Lights and legendary Lapland, as well as one of the most charming capital cities Europe has to offer, Finland will, no doubt, leave a sparkling impression.

Must do …

Alcoholic drinks form an important part of the Finnish culture. When travelling through Finland it is imperative to try national favourites like vodkas Finlandia and Koskenkorva, the liquorice flavored Salmiakki Koskenkorva and drinks including cloudberry liqueur.

During the winter, Finland provides excellent opportunities for cross-country and alpine skiing. Many of the popular ski resorts are situated north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland, but there are exceptions like Kuusamo in the northeastern part of Oulu Province.

A few of the funner things to do …

Finnwacky has been coined to describe the country’s out-of-the-ordinary goings-on. “Finnwackiness” is part of what makes a visit to Helsinki so interesting and fun.

You may have heard of a little company called Nokia, which is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of mobile phones – but did you know that Finland, where Nokia’s based, holds a yearly cell phone throwing contest? How about a wife-carrying competition in which husbands piggyback their wives over their shoulder through an obstacle course (whoever succeeds in the fastest time generally wins his wife’s weight in beer)?

A sex festival, swamp football, topless winter jogging and a sauna bathing contest were among the madcap activities that have taken place …

Or take a ride in a taxi … Japan may be the karaoke capital of the world, but Finland is catching up. In addition to numerous karaoke bars throughout Helsinki and karaoke machines popping up in restaurants and clubs, you might see (or hear) the Karaoke Taxi rolling through town. The Karaoke Taxi is basically a minibus that seats up to 12 people and is packed with all the karaoke essentials — TV screen, neon lights, preloaded tunes and microphones for amplifying your very best vocal stylings.

The Finnish Sauna

Relax in the sauna with family and friends - it's tradition! | Photo credit: Visit Finland

The Finnish sauna is a significant fixture of Finnish culture. Saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland. They are found on the shores of Finland’s numerous lakes, in private apartments, corporate headquarters, and even at the depth of 1400m in Pyhäsalmi Mine, and at the Parliament of Finland. The traditional sauna day is Saturday.

For Finnish people the sauna is a place to relax in with friends and family, and a place for physical and mental relaxation as well. There are five million inhabitants in the country and some two million saunas – an average of one per household. Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.

The sauna in Finland is such an old phenomenon that it is impossible to trace its roots. Finnish bathing habits were not documented until the 16th century. It was during the Reformation in Scandinavia that the popularity of saunas expanded to other countries because the European bath houses were being destroyed. Hundreds of years ago, when bathing was something to be done only rarely or never at all, Finns were cleaning themselves in saunas at least once a week.

One reason the sauna culture has always flourished in Finland has been because of the versatility of the sauna. When people were moving the first thing they did was built a sauna. You could live in it, make food in the stove, take care of your personal hygiene and most importantly, give birth in an almost sterile environment. Unlike many other, more densely-populated places in Europe, availability of wood needed to build and warm the sauna has never been an issue. Another reason for its popularity is that in such a cold climate, the sauna allows people warmth for at least a short period of time. However, it is just as popular in the summer as in the winter.

How to …

Taking a sauna begins by washing oneself up and then going to sit in the hot room, typically warmed to 80-110 degrees Celsius (170-230 degrees Fahrenheit), for some time. Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, a special stove used to warm the sauna. This produces steam, known as löyly, which increases the moisture and heat within the sauna.

Occasionally one uses leafy, fragrant boughs of silver birch called vihta in West Finland and vasta in East Finland to gently beat oneself. This has a relaxing effect on the muscles and also helps in calming the effects of mosquito bites. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake, sea, or a swimming pool, or to have a shower.

In the winter rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice is sometimes a substitute. Then one usually sits down in the dressing room or the porch of the sauna to enjoy a sausage, along with beer or soft drinks. After cooling one goes back to the hot room and begins the cycle again. The number and duration of cycles varies from person to person according to personal preference. Usually one takes at least two or three cycles, lasting between 30 minutes to two hours. For many Finns, the sauna is almost a sacred place. It is usually considered rude to swear in sauna, even in company that does not usually shy on swearing. Thorough washing will end the session of sauna. Conversation is relaxed and arguments and controversial topics are avoided. It is also rare to use titles or other honorific’s in the sauna. In Finnish folklore, the sauna is the home of the sauna-elf, a spirit of the sauna (saunatonttu in Finnish).

In the sauna it is a faux pas to wear clothing in the hot room, although it is acceptable to sit on a small towel or pefletti, a disposable tissue designed to endure heat and humidity (it can be mandatory in a public sauna, such as at a public swimming pool). While cooling off it is common to wrap a towel around your body. Though mixed saunas are quite common, for a typical Finn the sauna is, with few exceptions, a non-sexual place.

Foreign visitors to Finland often get invited into the sauna. This may even happen after business negotiations and other such events. On these occasions it may be acceptable to refuse, although it may not impress one’s Finnish hosts. Such an invitation in a business setting may indicate that the negotiations have gone well and a joint business effort is anticipated. In private homes or summer residences the sauna is usually warmed to honour the guest and refusal may be more difficult. However, Finns will not typically be offended by declining the sauna.

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