Slow Travel: Berlin to Finland

Occasionally, we’ll be sharing articles – especially travel narratives – from our sister sites that celebrate the spirit of slow travel. In this piece, Slow Travel Berlin (STB) contributor Natalie Holmes explores Finland slowly.


All photos courtesy of author

From Berlin, the road to Helsinki is a long one, interspersed with vast, unforgiving stretches of Baltic Sea. When your holiday is only 10 days long, overland delays can be ruinous, and so, on the way to Hamburg, it’s with some anxiety that I open an email from the ever-efficient Deutsche Bahn advising that our connecting train to Copenhagen had been cancelled. We’d planned just 15 minutes in the Danish capital before continuing to Stockholm, where we were supposed to pick up a ship to our final destination.

Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. Though I’ve lived in Germany for four years, it’s done little to erode my consistent and typically British underestimation of public transport. DB provided a replacement train that turned out to be worth every minute of unnecessary fretting. A mixture of Art Deco features and nineties asymmetry, our carriage was a retro gem. There can’t have been many made like this, simply because the design was so bafflingly inefficient; flamboyant, arty spaces and detail where simple seating should have been.

Slow Travel Stockholm - Natalie Holmes

Maybe it was made during that time a few years back when people had more money than sense. Or perhaps it was a misguided attempt to make train travel cool. Whatever the reason, the focus on form over function in that carriage was joyous; a once-in-a-lifetime pleasure for this clandestine trainspotter.

Our cancelled ICE train would have boarded the ferry at Puttgarden, a tiny German port jutting out just 18 km from the Danish coast, but instead we embark on foot via the jetty. An hour later, another train collects us at Rødby, pulling impressively into Copenhagen Central dead on time. Suffice to say, Scandinavian trains are as reliable as their German neighbour’s, so we set sail as scheduled on a Viking Line cruiser for the choppy 18-hour crossing.

Rocked to sleep by the waves in our cosy but windowless cabin, my husband and I awake rested and venture straight out, both drawn wordlessly towards the deck by a curiosity borne of these old fashioned adventures of the flightless kind.

After a final coach journey through eerily empty and perilously polar roads, we eventually arrive in Himos, a tiny resort near the town of Jämsä in Finnish Lakeland. The region consists of most of Central and Eastern Finland and is Europe’s largest lake district, with 188,000 lakes and nearly as many islands.

The next morning, we wake with the sun–who thankfully also likes to sleep late in January–and trudge across Lake Patalahti from our tiny resort of Himos in Finnish Lakeland. The region, which covers most of Central and Eastern Finland, is Europe’s largest lake district, consisting of a staggering 188,000 lakes and almost as many islands.

Slow Travel Stockholm - Natalie Holmes

“Welcome to Uusi-Yijälä farm!” A solitary female figure, arms outstretched, stands in front of a Hansel-and-Gretel house on what must be the water’s edge–there’s so much snow it’s impossible to tell where land begins.

Inside the farmhouse, heartiness emanates from the darkwood walls, red curtains and warm candles supplementing the weak morning light. But most of all it flows from our friendly host Tarja, an independent winemaker with as many stories as you’ve got spare hours.

According to Zacharias Topelius, a 19th century historian and author of Maamme kirja (The Book of our Land), a founding document on Finnish identity, qualities of the ideal Finn include “industriousness, patience, unyielding perseverance and persistence.” If that’s true, Tarja is a shining example, producing wine in a country whose short summers are almost as restrictive as its alcohol laws. She substitutes grapes for gooseberries and blackcurrants, which grow in abundance here. The result is somewhat citric, but add enough sugar–Tarja’s sweetest contains 60 grams per litre–and you’ve got yourself a tasty, liqueur-like wine that’s perfect for a post-sauna tipple.

Shifting it, however, is another challenge entirely. By law, though Tarja can sell her wine, she is not allowed to send it: customers have to come all the way to her remote property to buy anything. “The government thinks it is looking after us”, she sighs, her face dropping for the first time. “I love what I do, and I’d love to be more creative, but we’re not even allowed to produce alcohol over 13.5 percent.” In 2009, noises were being made about relaxing the laws, but a U-turn at the last minute left the remaining handful of independent Finnish winemakers with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Slow Travel Stockholm - Natalie Holmes

Hours later, back on the lake, the mid-afternoon sun already hurtling towards the horizon, I felt suddenly and hopelessly fatigued. “Maybe I got poisoned by those berries,” I said to my husband.

“If by ‘poisoned’ you mean ‘drunk’, then yes, I think you did.”

Same lake, different day, and we’re hurtling across it at 70 kilometres an hour on a two-seater Ski-Doo, competing with the falling darkness in an unwinnable race. Harri, our guide and host, who someone said “was probably born on a snowmobile”, had given us a five minute “lights, stop, go” tutorial and then sped off into the distance in a cloud of snow and engine smoke.

Off the lake now, breathing fumes, we shoot through an arboreal tunnel revealing glimpses of a rising moon, almost full. The forest begins to grow sparse, and a flat, white expanse hints that once again there’s water below. The weight of the machine and two people approaches half a tonne, but at 30 cm thick the ice shows no signs of stress. Even half that depth is safe, apparently, though I’m relieved not to have to test the theory first hand. This lake, Päijänne, is Finland’s second largest, extending for 1,080 square kilometres up to Lakeland’s largest city, Jyväskylä, to the north and the ancient harbour of Lahti to the south. Exposed to the elements and shivering, we sit atop that snowy superhighway until the chill overrides our rapture.

When the moon’s completely full, we finally meet the huskies.

Slow Travel Stockholm - Natalie Holmes

“Who wants to have a go at driving then?” asks the husky farm owner, Eva. “I will,” I venture, my heart leaping higher than the excited, lupine creatures. These are Siberian huskies, smaller and faster than their Alaskan cousins, used since the days of the Alaska Gold Rush in the 1890s for their superior speed and endurance.

Another frighteningly fast driving lesson, drowned out by the dogs’ anticipatory uproar, and I’m standing alone on the back of the sled, a foot balanced on each thin runner. My hands ache from gripping the crossbar, but as we gallop through the forest I collect my thoughts and the silence slowly dawns on me. Aside from the animals’ soft panting and the smooth movement of the sled cutting through snow, there is nothing to be heard.

That night, as every night, we take a sauna. Saunas are a significant part of Finnish culture (the country is home to over two million), not to mention a practical necessity–even our modest chalet has an electric one attached. But this evening is special: we’re going to ditch modern technology and do it the traditional way.

“Is this a joke?” I ask Harri as he leads us to a large wooden hut on the banks of our lake. About 10 steps away, lit by a single spotlight in the darkness, lies the unmistakable outline of a two-metre wide hole, or avanto, in the frozen lake. A set of metal swimming pool steps spills into the black water. “It’s minus 12 out here,” Harri replies, “but only zero in there.” Though he grins widely, his eyes tell me this is serious. I’m going in that water, and now all that’s left to do is start mentally preparing to take the plunge.

The traditional Finnish smoke sauna dates back to a time even before chimneys, so a large stove is painstakingly prepared inside and heats the room with burning wood. To say walking into an unventilated lodge with an open fire taking up at least a fifth of the space is disconcerting would be an understatement. Luckily, all I can focus on is that avanto awaiting me outside, menacing but irresistible. Sweltering on the wooden benches, we learn that a special clean fuel is used and most of the smoke is extracted before use, and then water is sprinkled across the smouldering coals.

Slow Travel Stockholm - Natalie Holmes

Ten minutes can seem like a long time in a place like that. The hotter I become, the more inviting that scary ice hole starts to seem. But it’d take a good 15 seconds or so to run tentatively over to the edge, and what if I was freezing by that point? Still, if I’ve learnt anything from this trip, it’s that there’s a method to the Finnish madness, and with procrastination no longer possible in the 120-degree heat, I step from the smoky, sweaty sauna into the fresh night air.

Clothed only in a swimming costume, I fumble around for my flip-flops, expecting to be floored by the cold at any point. Nothing. My skin steams like a turkey fresh out of the oven, but I still feel warm through. Excellent! Now to navigate the icy incline as fast as possible without slipping over. Made it! No time for contemplating what I’m about to do. Back facing the water, descend steps rapidly, find the bottom rung, submerge entire body, head and all–but don’t let go of the rails. Don’t go into shock. Does that even happen?

And that’s it! My head’s above water again, legs on autopilot scrambling towards land. Pulse in my throat, ears; eyes bulging with exhilaration; skin tight and crackly as blood vessels shrink back in horror. My body, via some unfathomable network of chemicals and electrical impulses is silently screaming “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST…?”

The air around me feels warm, though, and seconds later the drama’s over. I’m sauntering back towards the sauna for round two, breathless, excited, alive.

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Author: Natalie Holmes

Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin as a freelance writer and journalist. She is the founder of Lo/Rez Magazine, which deals with the intersection of art and science, and writes about sustainability and responsible travel on her blog, The Horseshoe Nail.

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