This is the second part of a 2 (or maybe 3) part series about Finland. With this series I am trying to share my experiences on living in Finland and express my admiration not only for the people of this country but also the nature, the food culture and other things I've learned to love (and sometimes hate) while living there.
This article includes facts about the Finnish nature and how I've experience the four seasons, what I mostly like about them as well as a couple of impressions and pictures I've taken over the years.
Nature and the Four Seasons...
There is something in Finland called jokamiehen oikeudet or "everyone's right"- the right to roam.
"In Finland, nature is not only wild, it’s free for everyone to enjoy, respectfully. The general public’s right allows an access to anyone living in or visiting Finland the freedom to roam the countryside, forage, fish with a line and rod, and enjoy the recreational use of natural areas." - visitfinland.fi
This literally means that you are free to go out into nature and just walk for miles and miles on dirt roads or off the roads completely without being under the threat of trespassing someone's habitat. You can collect berries, mushrooms and other things from the forest as well as catch fish and camp wherever you like. There are only a few exceptions to that law, e.g. small patches of privately owned land - usually places where Finns build their Mökki - and land that is closed off for wildlife protection.
This extraordinary freedom extends throughout the country, from the majestic Northern forest which covers 75% of the land, to the 188,000 inland lakes (larger than 500m²) and almost 76.000 islands (larger than 0.5km²) along the southern and western coast that make up the Finnish archipelago.
Spring... spring is short in Finland and it's sometimes really hard to say when it actually starts. Usually some time around the end of April or the beginning of May you will realize that it got warmer and warmer and that the trees and flowers start blooming - and you can actually see some green grass again. March and April are typically part of the long and dark winter, so Spring really only takes about 1-2 months. But if it hits, it's as beautiful and colorful as anything.
Spring is characterized by light winds, clear weather and sunshine during the daytime, with little rainfall (although you may still get the occasional dusting of snow or sleet). On a clear night the temperature can still fall below zero (and in Lapland, well below zero) but on a sunny day the temperature rises rapidly – often to as high as 20 degrees (in the South, that is).
A typical thing to do in spring is to clean your carpets. It's Finnish tradition to go out to one of the small piers by the sea or a nearby lake that are specifically equipped with tables to brush down the carpets, squeezing devices to squeeze them dry and big wooden structures to hang them. You can literally leave your carpet out for a week in the middle of Helsinki and nobody would take it.
And then of course, there is Vappu! On the 1st of May it's party time all over Finland. It officially marks the end of winter. The Finnish name 'Vappu' originates from an 8th-century German saint called Walpurgis, who was canonized on May 1st 870 AD. A Finnish twist on the May Day celebrations developed in the nineteenth century when engineering students would celebrate and party at midnight on April 30th, while sporting their traditional white caps. This custom has now become widespread across Finland, leading to almost a carnival-like partying in towns and cities with large student populations. Festivities begin in Helsinki at 6pm on April 30th, when students will gather at the Market Square to wash the statue of Havis Amanda, before putting a white cap on her head. On May 1st, students and graduates will then lead a procession through Helsinki, ending in large open-air picnics in the parks across the city.
Going out into nature is something that every Finn does regularly - especially in summer. I came to realize that it's not even important if it's sunny and warm or raining and freezing cold. All four seasons seem to have something magical and compelling.
There's a joke about the Finnish summer (it's actually not true but still quite funny): "Do you remember last year's summer?" "Yes, I believe it was on a Wednesday!"... Finnish summers however are not bad at all. During my three years in Helsinki I learned that June tends to be quite rainy, even though it's called "kesäkuu" which literally means "summer month".
The true summer months are July and August. It depends of course on where you are in Finland. Lapland has some of the hottest days, even though it's way up north. However, the most beautiful summer days with a fresh breeze from the see you probably get in the Finnish archipelago and my wife's hometown Naantali. Naantali is famous for it being one of the summer hot spots in the northern countries with a lot of Russians, Swedes but also other visitors from all over Europe. So if you want to go to Finland in Summer: take a flight or a fairy to Turku, book a stay in Naantali and take a long bike tour through the archipelago!
Naantali itself is a bustling little town by the sea in summer and a cozy and relaxed place to retreat and take long walks in winter. It's main sights are the church overlooking the old town and the harbor and, of course, Moominworld, which is open only for a few weeks in summer (and occasional events in winter) and especially popular with southeast Asian visitors.
The harbor esplanade sports several differently colored, traditional wooden houses with restaurants and small shops. If you ever get the chance to visit this place, check out "Ravintola Merisali" around lunch time to get some of the finest and freshest Finnish food from the rich lunch buffet.
"The Finnish Archipelago has the most islands in the world… and the most sunshine in Finland." - visitfinland.fi
The archipelago consists of thousands of smaller and larger islands, some of them connected by bridges, other only accessible by boat. On many of these islands you will find small settlements, restaurants and public saunas. From late spring to early autumn you can take a dip in the Baltic sea, some even go for a regular swim in winter - if they find a spot that is not frozen.
One of the greatest things to do in Finnish summer is to have a BBQ at one of the (sometimes) hidden fireplaces by the sea or close to a lake. Usually there is a fireplace in a little windowless wooden shed and a stash nearby where dry wood is being stored to get the fire going. People really care for these places so you'll always find them in good condition with enough wood and everyone takes care of their own trash and leftovers. Of course, it's even better if there's a sauna nearby (they are usually fired up on weekends between the noon and evening hours) and a spot to go for a swim.
During my time in Finland autumn was my (second) favorite season. It's the season to go out and forage, to collect blueberries and mushrooms and to capture every little bit of sunshine before the days get short and the weather gets cold.
I was amazed when I found out about the variety of things that you can find in the Finnish forests, one of the greatest and most valuable things of course being chanterelle mushrooms (also called "forest gold" in Finland). You can also find a lot of first tier gourmet mushrooms like porcini (my favorite, usually found under old birch trees) and morels. Besides mushrooms, you will find the best blueberries, raspberries and wild strawberries in the world (my personal opinion), small and highly concentrated in flavor, the very sour but also very healthy sea buckthorn (they literally grow everywhere on the coastline of Helsinki) as well as cloudberries (a bit further north).
According to studies by the University of Eastern Finland, more than 500 million kilograms of berries mature each year in Finnish forests. Of them, about 35-45 million kilograms are collected for the use of households and other 15-18 million kilograms for sale. So yeah, the Finns love foraging!
What Finns also love is their Mökki. Even if it gets colder in autumn, there are still plenty of days to enjoy a weekend in a (rented) summerhouse by the sea or a lake. You will find a lot of funny and interesting items in these cabins, from old art and artsy items to cutlery collections where no two items are the same, beautiful wall carpets and other pieces of furniture that has been sorted out from the regular homes. Mökkis are a good starting point for long walks in the forest, foraging but also taking boat tours and fishing since most of these places have small skiffs or outboard motorboats. They are great places to slow down, relax and enjoy the silence because typically you won't see anyone else as longs as you don't go back to town to get more supplies.
Ice cold Winter...
Well, what is there to say about the Finnish winter? It's dark and it's very, very cold. But it is usually very beautiful as well and there are a lot of activities that you can't do anywhere else in the world.
The snow season in northern Finland begins in November and lasts at least until May. When you check the newspapers around Christmas, you will find the typical information about sunrise and sunset times in different cities in Finland. I can't help but smile and feel a bit bad at the same time when it says "Helsinki: Sunrise 9:24 AM - Sunset 3:14 PM; Turku: Sunrise 9:23 AM - Sunset 3:13 PM; Utsjoki: next Sunset 16th January" (well, in summer it just says "up all day"...).
In the inland regions of southern and central Finland, the first snow falls at the beginning of December and melts during late March and April. During January and February, there is almost always snow in northern and eastern Finland. Even if there’s little snow in Helsinki, there’s often up to a meter or more on the skiing slopes of Lapland.
Probably the highlight in winter is to walk between the islands in the archipelago since the ice is usually thick enough after 3-4 weeks of below zero temperatures. You can go ice fishing, ice skating for miles and miles or just take long walks and enjoy the different perspective from out on the ice. To have a hot drink with you and just enjoy a few rays of sunshine (usually in the early afternoon) while your eyelashes freeze makes you feel really connected with nature and your surroundings. I am a big fan of very hot and very cold weather due to the effects it has on your body...
My single most favorite season of the year is the Christmas season.
However, the way I celebrate Christmas has changed... we've had a great family tradition of meeting up with everyone no matter how far the journey. My father coined this tradition as he demanded each and everyone, usually including his two sisters (my aunts) and their family to be "at home" for Christmas. After my father passed away we tried to keep up this tradition but for a million reasons it just didn't feel the same and so, ultimately, it didn't work out. It's not making me feel particularly good to write about this as you can imagine...
For a few years now I've been celebrating Christmas with my wife's family. We are celebrating every year at her grandpa's house with. It's small wooden house near Masku on a proper piece of land with an outdoor and indoor sauna, surrounded by a small piece of forest and a herbal and fruit garden. Usually, everybody contributes to the Christmas celebration by bringing different traditional Finnish foods to the table, incl. smoked salmon, ham and turkey, different pies, beetroot salad, several kinds of pickled hering and other amazing things. It's a great experience every time and I can't wait to celebrate next time (it's only four months until Christmas! ...).