It’s the first time I am even hearing the words summer and Finland together in the same sentence. In all the clamour about frozen winters, northern lights and Santa Claus, I had forgotten that this country also enjoys the midnight sun in the summer months. And that is how it was in the week I spent in Finland, the skies bright with sunshine late, late into the night, long after dinner is over and my body tells me it is time to sleep.
Deciding to join the Finns while they explore the outdoors, I head to the Lakeland region in the south east of the country. A brief look at the map reveals this area to be one large maze of lakes and rivers, bordered by massive stretches of green forests, with tiny bits of land poking out in between. And that is how it really is, wide open expanses of a blue and green mosaic. Within Lakeland, I have time only to visit the towns of Imatra and Lappeenranta that are close to the Russian border as well as Lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest and Europe’s fourth largest lake. Lake Saimaa sprawls over an astounding 4,400 square kilometres, and contains over 13,000 islands of all shapes and sizes. The water here is considered pure enough to drink straight from and certainly looks crystal clear for the most part.
“All the yellow things floating, that is just seasonal pollen, not dirt,” says my local tourist guide. Within minutes of getting out of the main towns, there is abundant wilderness with no sign of human construction, but for the dozens of small cottages right by the water. The Finns, a famously taciturn people, like to escape to the quiet countryside every chance they get. I learn that most Finns even own a summer cottage in the middle of the forest or close to the lake, where they spend weekends and even entire weeks just hiking, fishing, swimming or canoeing.
One sunny morning, I get on to the M/S Camilla for a cruise on the Saimaa canal from Lappeenranta. On this canal that connects the lake to the Gulf of Finland, I sit out on the open deck of the boat, watching life on and off the azure water: people on kayaks and row-boats, some on shore with their fishing rods, all of them determined to soak in every minute of the first heatwave of the year. I linger over my three-course lunch on board, even as I look longingly at the many cottages perched along the banks.
In that unexpected heat, I have a tough time wrapping my head around the notion that the water where we are swimming and sailing becomes a thick blanket of ice in winter, on which locals skate and even ride fat bikes. My guide shows pictures from her winter holiday on the very spots we have been seeing ablaze with the colours and smells of wild flowers. Certainly, Finland seemed to be entirely different worlds in different seasons.
Later on, I go on a guided tour of Lappeenranta fortress, a piece of Finland’s heritage as part of the Swedish and then Russian empires. The fortress comprises several buildings of historical significance scattered over a large area — military barracks, parade grounds, guardhouses and prisons, an Orthodox Church and even a medieval punishment spot akin to the guillotine. My guide is amused when I asked her after an hour’s exploration about the location of the main fortress, an image of a single large citadel in mind.
Imatra, half an hour’s drive away, is just as pretty and comes with its own castle hotel close to the Vuoksi river. And given its proximity to the national border — Russia seems within touching distance from the windows of the tower room — the hotel has not just historic charm but also its own Russian princess fairy tale and hauntings by a grey ghost. But the highlight of my time in Imatra is the hour I spend at the cutesy Elma café learning to bake a traditional staple from the chefs. Karelian pies (locally karjalanpiirakka), crusty and soft in equal measure, originated in the region that straddles Finland and Russia, and are now made and eaten all over the country.
I watch the chefs Riitta and Lotta roll the rye flour dough translucent thin, then stuffing it with the classic rice porridge (potatoes are another favourite filling) and closing the edges in pleats or wrinkles with expert hands.
It seems easy when they do it but the pies, my pies, come out in all shapes and sizes. Never mind, once they are baked to golden perfection and generously buttered, size is forgotten and all that matters is the fragrant flavours.
At the end of the week, I come away feeling that snow and ice is all fine, but Finland is a country that does sunshine equally well.