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Buzzing through Southern Suomi, the land of castles, culture, and the sauna.

Kings Hall in Turku Castle, image
Photo caption
Kings Hall is in Turku Castle, which dates back to Turku's medieval period.

On the surface, things appear neat, clean, orderly, polite, industrious. Extremes of wealth and poverty aren’t aggressively apparent. Streets are litterless. Graffiti hardly has a toehold.

Even so, cultivated, organized eccentricity seems to lurk as well. Examples: Police reportedly have developed a harpoon to impale the trunk lids of getaway cars. Finns voyage on icebreakers for an opportunity to swim in the sea one-on-one with newly created ice floes. Finns seem to delight in numerous oddball celebrations, such as a wife-carrying contest and an "International Nutcase Festival."

The country is officially bi-lingual (Finnish/Swedish), but you might have had difficulty hearing either language along the Aura River the evening we arrived in Finland’s second city, Turku. The annual rock festival was in full electronic flower. There is large student population in Turku, and much of it was crowding in its fair-haired thousands along the river promenade that runs through the center of town.

For some older Finns, the most noteworthy thing about the event was that the throng was committing, if rather tentatively by American standards, the locally unusual impoliteness of littering. Rock will have that effect on the impressionable. On the other hand, some thought it was a good thing to have the festival in Turku, so the students wouldn’t be tempted to go to some foreign festival in God-knows-where.

Turku is the country’s ancient, although not current, capital and oldest city. Despite burning down some 20 times since 1229, Turku still has the look of an old European city.

While the festival helped color our first impression, musically speaking the city seems more given to the tango. Entire dance halls are devoted to it. The tango is said to reach the depths of the Finnish soul, where the usually pervasive virtue of reticence originates. Evidently, emotional expression is facilitated through the inhibition-lowering effect of an Argentinean beat.

Turku might have been designed for the walker. Many attractions are concentrated downtown, including some buildings dating from approximately the time of that earliest recorded fire, within a few blocks of the river. The streets are dotted with picturesque architecture, generally atmospheric and evocative rather than magnificent, and walking is the way to see it. There are broad walkways along either side of the river, and many bridges.

Museums abound. You can visit exhibitions on Sibelius, natural history, pharmacology (in the oldest wooden house in Turku, 1695), two museum ships (including what is reputedly the world’s last wooden, ocean-going barque), art, works by the sculptor Aaltonen, and local history. There’s also an impressive 13th century cathedral. If time’s short, do at least try to get to the big outdoor food market at Market Square, the cathedral, and Turku Castle.

The castle is big. It’s Hollywood-perfect. It’s even in a good neighborhood. Started in the 1200s, it shows very little evidence of numerous hard knocks, which included bombs during World War II and six sieges in the 16th century. This former home of royalty, where they kept live bears for use against any invaders who managed to get by the front door, is now a large museum with a Shakespearean air.

Another place you can get toe-to-toe with the 1200s is the Aboa Vetus Museum. It’s an actual archaeological dig with a museum building on top of it. You walk through medieval streets not as reconstructed, but actually as recently dug up. Artifacts discovered in the digs are on display, and archaeologists are at work.You can also walk through streets from a somewhat later, although still remote, era. Through some quirk, an entire working class neighborhood from the 1700s has survived intact. Before urban renewal or yet another fire could sweep it away, this time capsule of some 40 wooden buildings was preserved and now forms the Luostarinmaki Handicrafts Museum. About 30 workshops in the old buildings demonstrate period trades and modes of living.

There’s a museum bus to most of the principal attractions. Or, if you value a chance to talk at length to a knowledgeable local person, get your own guide through the Turku City Tourist Office.

Even though Finnish cities aren’t huge, they contain a big share of the just over five million people in the country. This leaves plenty of sparsely populated land and a probably uncountable number of islands open for exploration. The province of Åland is especially well supplied. Åland is the one Finnish place that’s not bilingual: Ålanders speak Swedish. The main effect for most Americans is that the ambient conversation has more of a lilt.

But in most of the province, there isn’t much ambient conversation: With 6,500 islands and only 25,000 people, it’s a place for getting away from it all. Lots of rocky, state-o-Maine type shoreline and good roads winding through piney farmland dotted with red buildings invite bicycling, hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing.

Although Åland is an official demilitarized zone, fortifications remaining from the Crimean War (it wasn’t all at Balaklava) give several hilltops a medieval air. And there’s the genuinely medieval Kastelholm Castle. Just how old it is no one knows, but the earliest mention of it dates from 1388.

Life hasn’t been easy for the castle since then; part is restored and part looks as though Birnam Wood came up to the door, did its worst, then went away chuckling. King Gustav Vasa jailed his brother at Kastelholm; you can visit the cave-like cell. Those pre-demilitarized days also saw the Engelbrekt uprising of 1434, the Danish piracy to-do of 1507, and the Scheel siege of 1599. It seems only natural that Finland’s first witch burning took place in the neighborhood.

These days, Kastelholm is a museum open for guided tours and surrounded by rolling farmland that one imagines looked little different when the castle’s foundation was laid.

About half of Åland’s people live in Mariehamn. The small town has two harbors and a pervasive seagoing tradition—not long ago it was the world’s tall ship capital—that lives on in fact and in constant celebration.

Today, one of the tall ships survives, the four-mast barque Pommern. Billed as "the very last of her class in a completely original state," Pommern is open for visitors beside the town’s excellent maritime museum. You can spend an hour or more at this unusually well-stocked museum, then enjoy dinner at its restaurant overlooking the Pommern. This isn’t your usual museum cafeteria, but a several-crossed-forks type of place, reputedly the best restaurant in town.

These days, Mariehamn is known as "The City of a Thousand Lindens." That’s probably a minimum estimate, as the trees are everywhere along its extremely well-kept streets—one suspects either compulsive or compulsory maintenance—especially along the promenade lined with handsome old houses that leads from the harbor to the main part of town. They still occasionally build a wooden sailing ship at Mariehamn’s small shipyard, and there are many tourist-oriented, but nice, shops and several small museums in this lovely town.

You can enjoy Åland relatively cheaply by roughing it as a camper, somewhat less cheaply by staying at one of the hotels in Mariehamn (the two biggest and apparently best are nice-motel-like), or get to know some of the people by staying at a B&B. If, on the other hand, you want to get farther from people, rent an island.

One we investigated came with what appears to be a fisherman’s modest home off on some pine-and-rock-decked outpost but which is actually a comfort-and-convenience-crammed hideaway with sauna, tennis courts hidden in the otherwise primeval-looking forest, a setup for recreational axe-flinging, and lots of fishing equipment.

Åland has more water than land, and one popular way to get around is via ferry boat. Some of these are giants; journeys can take several hours, so you can rent a very small cabin. But most people keep to a deck chair, one of the arcades, or, on our voyage, what appeared to be a disco left over from a 1970s Saturday night. The air of revelry among many passengers, especially those enjoying the Baltic-going honky tonk, provided contrast to the countless piney islands that glowed in what would have been the dusk had the sky managed to get dim enough. But we were too far north for that.

One reason the islands are countless appears to be disagreement on just how small a rock sticking out of the ocean can be and still merit the title island. But in Helsinki, Finland’s capital and biggest city (some 500,000 people), the tourist office seems confident in its count of the city’s 315 islands.

In 2000, Helsinki celebrates its 450th anniversary and is striving to be the "Cultural Capital of Europe." Although competition is stiff and culture can be difficult to quantify, having three symphony orchestras, the National Opera, a ballet, 70 museums, and several concert halls (including the Aalto-designed Finlandia Hall), emboldens the city’s boosters.

Not long after Helsinki took over from Turku as capital and leading city (1812), work began on Senate Square. You can reach the city’s historic heart from downtown by walking along the Esplanade from Mannerheim Street. This long, narrow park, seemingly designed for elegant strolling, is lined by handsome stores and takes you to the waterfront (actually, there seems to be a waterfront practically everywhere in town) and near several historic neighborhoods, including Senate Square.

The classical, mostly yellow, buildings of Senate Square look quite Russian—this area has doubled for Russia in a number of films. Russia is next door, of course, and examples of architectural influence range from the onion-domed Uspensky Cathedral (near Senate Square) to occasional blocks of apartments in the People’s Republic Austere style.

Apart from its neighbors on a small hill, Uspensky Cathedral overlooks Market Square—lots of fish, vegetables, bread—and docks where tour boats (good size schooners among them) are moored. Nearby, you can see the icebreaker fleet when it’s not in use. With almost down-home informality, the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court, and City Hall are just across the street from the market.

Perhaps the best museums to visit, if time’s limited, are the Ateneum for its collection of works by Finnish artists, and the National Museum for its collections of artifacts from Finnish history. Both buildings are noteworthy for their architecture as well as their contents.

THE SAUNA IN FINLAND, by Mikkel Aaland
It would be downright rude to arrive in Finland without some appreciation for and knowledge about this country’s greatest national treasure--the sauna. To Finns the sauna is much more than a hot-air bath--it is a ritual of spiritual and social renewal, and a source of national pride.

When you arrive in Finland you’ll see saunas everywhere--dotting the rural landscape and part of nearly every city building. There are more saunas in Finland than cars; it is a source of national pride..

To pronounce the word correctly say "Sow-na" not "Saw-na". No one really knows the exact origin of the word, but it now describes the peculiar bath that the Finns have been using since they migrated to the chilly north from central Asia over 2,000 years ago.

Keep in mind that saunas are not all created alike. If you are really lucky you’ll have the time and opportunity to sample the different types. Undoubtabley the best sauna of all is the savusauna, or the smoke sauna. Not only is it the most revered by connoisseurs, it is also the most rare of all the saunas. You’ll be one lucky tourist if you get to experience one. The savusauna is always a separate log building usually found in an idyllic country setting with a lake or shore nearby. It takes nearly a full day to prepare. The fire is started early in the morning inside the building beneath a large pile of rocks. Since the building has no chimney, smoke fills the room, escaping through the cracks in the logs and heating not only the rocks but the timbers as well. After several hours, the fire is extinguished, the smoke purged, and the bathers enter a room where the heat emanates evenly from every direction. You must try it to know how wonderful it feels. (To find a savusauna call the helpful Finnish Sauna Society in Helsinki.)

More common are wood burnings saunas that use conventional flued stoves. There are many variations on this type of sauna—enough to keep a Finn awake well into the evening as he explains the subtle differences to you. In almost all modern buildings, including all of the hotels, and on the ferries you’ll find saunas heated by electric stoves. Decades of research have made these electric saunas a close approximation of a wood-burning sauna, although never quite the same.

Besides the savusauna, my favorite saunas are the public saunas built during the 1930’s when Finland’s major cities experienced a building boom. Back then few could afford a private sauna and public saunas sprung up on almost every city corner. These baths are funky, made of concrete and wood, but what they lack in aesthetics they make up in character. It’s a great way to meet the normally shy Finns.

Contrary to popular myth not every Nordic sauna is a coed affair. Public saunas, as well as those in swimming pools and hotels have separate saunas or separate times for men and women. However, coed bathing is the rule in a family sauna, either in a private home or residential building: If you are feeling shy no one will question you if you simply wrap a towel discretely around your body.

Finns generally prefer a quiet contemplative sauna, and during the week it is rare to find anyone reading a newspaper or engaged in emotional conversation while bathing. On Friday nights, however, saunas can become boisterous affairs if beer or alcohol make an appearance.

Inside the sauna you’ll find a wood bucket and ladle which is used to pour water on the rocks. This is what produces the invigorating steam that the Finns call lôyly, and is considered an essential part of the sauna ritual. You may also find a leafy bunch of birch leaves tied together in a bundle. This is the vihta and it is used to beat the skin and distribute the steam around the room. Not only does the vihta feel good, it leaves a pleasant smell in the room. Actual bathing is mostly done outside of the sauna room itself in nearby showers or wash basins. Some public baths offer the services of "washer women" who for a fee will vigorously wash you head to toe. This is purely a cleaning exercise--no hanky panky involved.

Bouts in 220 F degree plus temperatures are often followed by a dip in the snow, a jump through a hole in the ice into a frozen lake, or a dip in a swimming pool. (Have your heart checked before engaging in such plunges.) Saunas are often followed by a light beer and a special sausage called a sauna sausage that is sometimes cooked on the sauna rocks themselves. (After these sausages you may want to have your heart checked.)

Sampling saunas in Finland is a most enjoyable pastime—and one of the best ways I know of really getting to know this remarkable country and its people.

Mikkel Aaland spent three years traveling around the world sampling saunas and sweat baths for his book Sweat (Capra Press, 1978). He says "someone had to do it". He can be contacted via e-mail:

For more information on Finland, contact the Finnish Tourist Board, 655 Third Avenue, New York, NY. Telephone: (800) FIN INFO. Reservations for flights, hotels, and tours can be arranged by your AAA Travel Agency.

Photography courtesy of Jyrki Salmi/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in March 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.