Tuesday, 4 October 2011 12:00 AM
Sarah Gibbons experiences the traditional Finnish lifestyle of saunas, pike fishing and late-summer crayfish parties in Tampere, Finland.
Clutching a refreshingly cold cider I entered the baking heat of the lakeside sauna, perched myself on the upper bench as far away from the scorching coals as I could get and tried to enjoy the sensation of being slowly cooked. After a few minutes, however, I relaxed and began to see the attraction; all the more so when the gorgeous aroma of the birch leaves wafted through the air from the vasta (a bunch of birch leaves which are dipped in water and used to swat the skin to encourage circulation).
I was in Finland’s lake district – a region of over 200 forest-fringed lakes surrounding an old industrial conurbation, Tampere, Finland’s third-largest city. It may not be the first place I would have thought of when considering a trip to Finland but it’s a holiday hotspot for the Finns, not to mention often voted the best place to live in the country. Being by the lakes away from the hustle and bustle of city life, I could see why. Peace and quiet is the order of the day here.
Keen to give all the Finnish traditions a go, I surrendered myself to the cold waters of Lake Pintele which lapped close to the lakeside sauna. After the initial shock, it certainly helped me to cool off after the sweltering heat. I was rather glad it was not winter, for the hardy Finns are known to roll in snow instead. Once I adjusted to the significantly lower temperature, I swam out as far as I dared with nothing before me but an expanse of rippling water and pure, unadulterated silence. Bliss.
Earlier that day we had been out on the lake fishing for crayfish and pike, in preparation for our traditional Finnish crayfish party. My first experience of fishing, I was determined for a catch; studying the water for any sign of movement and clutching my rod with fervour. We trawled our bait through the tranquil waters as the boat weaved through the reeds and lily pads until I felt a real tug (and not a clump of grass this time) and excitedly cried “It’s a fish!,” quite as if I had never seen one before.
Chuffed with my gleaming pike I obviously wanted evidence of my feat. However, I had obviously not quite grasped the technique of holding a slippery, wriggling fish. It had squirmed out my grasp and plopped back into the lake. (Secretly, I was rather glad; he was a courageous little creature who clearly refused to be a fishcake). We had been a bit more successful with the crayfish; all they had to do was scuttle (float? swim?) into a cage.
Returning to our lakeside abode, tired from our exertions, all thoughts turned to dinner. After a day of fishing and traditional Finnish saunas, we were about to enjoy the main event of our day in the countryside experiencing the Finnish lifestyle – the late-summer crayfish party. The table had been decked out beautifully and the crayfish (now an appetising burnt orange colour) were piled artistically on platters ready for the taking.
Armed with a scalpel our hosts explained the technique of eating a crayfish. It was quite tricky (and potentially lethal after a few glasses of wine) but after a few goes I got the hang of it. The meat inside was tender and slightly salty; the crayfish tails being the most tasty. I teamed the wonderfully fresh crayfish with toast and lashings of dill and pepper. Simple. Perfect.
Rounds of 40 per cent schnapps were then handed round (as is customary with a crayfish party) and downed with a roar of Kippis! (cheers in Finnish). By the time I got round to helping myself to the pike fishcakes (which were delicious) I was feeling rather tipsy; and it was clear the rest of the group were going the same way.
By this time the sun had melted into the horizon, turning the sky a swirl of pink and midnight blue; the lake glistening from the last rays of sun before it disappeared completely into the darkness. Watching the day disappear from the balcony, it hit home what a hidden gem this region was.
Holidaymakers may flock to Lapland for winter fun or Helsinki for a bustling city break, but the Finns who flock here know best; Tampere is an outdoor-lover’s paradise.
By Sarah Gibbons
How to get there:
Ryanair operates four weekly flights to Tampere from London Stansted and three weekly flights from Edinburgh.
Where to stay: The Sokos Hotel, Ilves in Tampere has doubles from €108 (£92). Please visit www.sokoshotels.fi for more information or to book.
By the lakes: Sarah joined a Huwitus excursion, which can be tailored to a group’s needs.
Call: 0400 572019 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
For more information on Tampere visit www.visittampere.fi
For more information on Finland visit www.visitfinland.com/uk
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