In the centre of the country, Kuopio could be an advertisement for the travel wonders of Finland. Set among spruce forests and surrounded by sparkling lakes, Kuopio comes complete with ski-jumps, an orthodox church and the world’s largest smoke sauna. Combine that with fascinating local cuisine options and Kuopio offers a wondrous, single day sample of Finland at its finest.
The best view of Kuopio is from Puijo Tower perched neatly on a hill of the same name. It offers a panoramic vista showing the sprawling town with its numerous lakes and thick forests. On this same hill are the ski-jumps. How people stand on top of these, ski down and launch themselves in the air for over 100 metres defies comprehension and one's mental state. I clung on tightly for fear of getting even close to the jumping zone.
With its harsh climate, the Finns are very practical with food. Both elk and reindeer feature along with a heavy emphasis on fish. If you can remove the thought of munching on Rudolf’s relatives, reindeer is offered in various forms from steaks through to sausages. Not feeling too guilty about the well-being of Rudolf’s relatives, I had reindeer paté on a heavy rye bread and it was decidedly tasty. The reindeer marketing department are effective as three different Finns in conversation told me that reindeer was extremely good for you as its meat is remarkably lean, carrying only two percent fat.
I also managed to taste a slice of kalakukko which is simply fish baked in a loaf of rye-bread. Despite my description, it tastes quite divine and is very filling.
However, the highlight was dessert. In the short summer months with their long meandering days of sunlight, berries and mushrooms grow everywhere. And of the number of different varieties that grow, cloudberries are the Rolls Royce of Finnish berries. Their creamy, slightly sharp, semi-sweet taste is so popular that it is celebrated on the Finnish two Euro coin. Anyway, it certainly tasted damn good as cloudberry pie.
Jätkänkämppä, which fortunately you don’t have to pronounce to enter, is the world’s largest smoke sauna. It is an experience not to miss. Only open on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, it takes all day to heat and prepare. The smoke collects inside and is released before being opened to the public. With your entrance fee, you get some quick instructions and two towels – one to wear around your waist and one to dry off with at the end.
Simply undress (completely), shower and wander into the wall of heat, which smacks you in the face as soon as you enter. Normally, Finnish saunas are separate and nude, but Jätkänkämppä is mixed with the towel used for modesty. Through the steam and dim light, there is a very eclectic group of people. Several travellers, all looking warily around trying not to commit any social faux pas sit along side local families, couples and men and women of all shapes and sizes. One man the size of a beached whale (which is an unusual sight in Finland) tosses a ladle of water on the coals. There is a shot of steam along with a sharp hissing and the gentle aroma of wood (but no smoke!).
When you feel well-cooked, quickly slip on your swimmers and dash for a quick plunge along a short wooden jetty and into the nearby lake. Don’t get me wrong – the lake is ridiculously cold even in the midst of summer – but the contrast of the water’s temperature gives you a sensational burst of tingling freshness right through your body. In winter, a hole is cut into the ice on the lake. The locals tend to sit outside on a bench for a few minutes relaxing and chatting. This was where I learned about the value of reindeer meat among other broad and varying topics. This exercise is repeated another couple of times until you simply feel great. It is time to settle on the benches outside for one last time and enjoy a therapeutic, cooling, but expensive beer.
Fortunately, English is widespread with quite a number of visitors in summer. Finnish is probably the most incomprehensible language I have heard anywhere in Europe. Sadly after a number of days, my Finnish only extended to sauna (pronounced SOW-na) and kiitos (thank you). As much as I like to learn a few words of the local language wherever I travel, when a local told me (and wrote down) that “hello” was said as hyvää päivää, I simply resigned myself to relying on the English skills of the locals.
Finland tends not to feature on many European itineraries as it is a little further away and a little more mysterious. It is an extraordinary place of friendly, spirited, proud people keen to share the natural beauty and rich culture of their country. Any nation with more saunas than cars must be worth a visit. And Kuopio is a small town that captures Finland so well and should be on a future travel plan.
Source: Cloudberry Photo