Why Finland? Because it is one of the rare places on Earth still spared mass tourism. As soon as you arrive at Helsinki airport, the change of scenery will take you aback: forest and lakes as far as the eye can see! Forests indeed cover 70% of the territory, making Finland the most forested country in Europe. As for its lakes, remnants of the glacial period, there are some 188,000, interconnected like an immense water labyrinth.
You will however experience a real shock by travelling to Puolanka, 387 miles from Helsinki. There, close to the Polar Circle and the immense Lapland plains, Finland's oldest forest will (perhaps!) let you into some of its secrets...
A man of nature
To explore this kingdom of snow and ice, it's better to be accompanied. Not that the forest is dangerous, but its wealth is not visible at first sight. Apparently empty and silent, under a sky with typically Nordic colours (blue, pink, mauve, orange), it is in fact swarming with a multitude of signs of life that you have to know how to detect.
Enter Sigi Schwarz: nobody here has a better knowledge of reindeers, wolves, lynxes, beavers and wild flowers than him. The trainer of the Austrian freeride skiing team, this grandson of a lumberjack has been nurturing a nostalgia for life in the open air. In 1997, he heard the call of the forest, leaving Salzbourg with wife and two sons to set up in Puolanka. There he transformed an old school into a lodge. He hunts moose, fishes wild trout, collects berries and prepares one of the most sincere cuisines we have ever had the chance to taste.
For a week, Sigi introduces his visitors to life in the Great North. What's on the programme? Crossing frozen lakes and following wolf tracks on old 1930s skis (perfect as an introduction to cross-country skiing!). Learning to steer a sledge drawn by six howling huskies. At lunchtime, around a pleasant blaze, eating moose meat pies in a hut deeply buried in snow. Lastly, for the most courageous, experiencing the joys of a genuine traditional sauna...
The sauna*, a Finnish institution
'First build your sauna, then you house' says the proverb.
You should bear in mind that the sauna was the central element in a house in the past, a corner of warmth in these frozen expanses. You washed yourself here and you came into the world here. Fish was also smoked here!
The equivalent of the tea ceremony in Japan, the sauna is today a lifestyle element; all Finns have one of these little wooden houses in the country near a lake. Their interior is composed of several rooms: an entrance, a sitting room for drinking tea in winter, a changing room and the sauna strictly speaking. This is fitted with tiered wooden benches and a stove on which large round stones are heated white hot. The temperature rises to 75°C. Silver birch leaves soaked in water give a pleasant fragrance to the place. From the outset you are told to beat yourself gently with branches of birch to activate the blood circulation. Water is thrown onto the stones to humidify the atmosphere... It's sweltering.
In the meanwhile, your host will be busy digging a hole in the frozen lake. Like a red hot lobster you come out of the sauna after 45 minutes and dive into the water which is all of 3°C! The operation can be repeated several times in succession if you don't suffer from a heart condition! Relaxed, purified and famished, you'll then down several pancakes with blackcurrant jam while contemplating the setting sun... What a treat!
Aurorae borealis: a fascinating sight
But what would Finland be without its incredibly pure and silent polar nights? This country indeed offers one of the best sites in northern Europe to observe and photograph aurorae borealis. In Puolanka, the sky is so clear that it is easy to admire these sky phenomena 220 nights a year.
Studied since ancient Greek and Roman times and associated with all kinds of beliefs and superstitions**, aurorae only really revealed their secrets in the 20th century. They above all appear near the magnetic North and originate in solar winds with charged particles (electrons, ions and protons) which collide with atoms and molecules in Earth's atmosphere. During the collision, quanta of light are emitted in the high strata of the polar sky. Between 56 and 94 miles altitude, the main colours are green and yellow (atoms of oxygen); higher up, red is dominant (oxygen and nitrogen). Similar to scarves billowing in the wind and blowing back on themselves, aurorae sometimes produce an audible sound, as indicated by the polar traveller and photographer Rémy Marion:
'A noise of electric arcs, of very slight crackling.'
In Finland, you can see this sight above all from January to April. Aurorae also occur in summer but are less visible because of the extreme luminosity of the nights.
* The only Finnish word in international vocabulary!
** The Laps of Sami see in them the manifestation of a divine spirit. Many Japanese are still convinced that aurorae borealis increase fertility (which explains the presence of many young married couples who come specially from Tokyo!).
The travel agency Grand Nord Grand Large organises special stays to watch aurorae borealis : www.gngl.com
Visit Finland : www.visitfinland.com