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Tampere: Finland's third-largest city
Crayfish and Saunas
by Stuart Forster
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If you’d asked me to name any more than a couple of Finnish cities at the start of this year, I’d have struggled.
But an invitation to a crayfish party in Tampere - Finland’s third largest city and, with 206,000 inhabitants, the most populous inland urban area in the whole of Scandinavia - had me reaching for the travel guides to swot up.
Doing so made me realise that, despite following the news, my knowledge of Finland and its affairs was shockingly limited. Quietly and efficiently, Finland gets on with life. I wasn’t even sure if, technically, it really counted as part of Scandinavia. A Finnish friend insisted it was, Wikipedia that it wasn’t. When in doubt, trust a local?
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Getting from the UK to Tampere is hassle free, I found, thanks to the Ryanair connection from Stansted. The flight lasts a little under three hours, landing in Tampere-Pirkkala, about 13 km from the city centre. From there I took a 20 minute taxi ride to my hotel, though I’d have taken the bus (Number 61, €6 one way) if I hadn’t found people with whom I could share the ride.
Flying via Helsinki is also a viable option. Hiring a car and driving the 170 km up the E12 motorway, which takes two hours, is something I’d consider in the future, as having a vehicle is useful for accessing remote areas.
Alternatively, the train journey from Helsinki takes just 90 minutes. The city’s railway station is, incidentally, the main departure point for services into Lapland and the country’s north, so Tampere can be conveniently incorporated into tours of the country.
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During the taxi ride into town, I chatted with the driver, who told me that, to experience a typical night out in Tampere, I should head to the Henry’s Pub (www.henryspub.net) on a Friday or Saturday night.
That was a couple of days away and I wanted to check the veracity of stories suggesting that beer costs £10 a pint in Finland. So I checked in to my hotel – the centrally situated Cumulus Koskikatu - then headed straight out. There’s nothing like a cold beer for establishing an index of how expensive a destination is. I decided to check out the atmosphere in the Sputnik bar (www.sputnikbar.fi) and found that a standard beer (400 ml) cost a far-from-stratospheric €4. A Finn told me that alcohol, as well as many other items, has fallen considerably since the country joined the EU in 1995. Extensive research helped me conclude that 400ml beers tend to be served in pint glasses, leaving the glasses approximately 4/5 full. Observing the locals convinced me that I hadn’t been sold short.
Before travelling, I usually learn a handful of potentially useful phrases in the language of whatever country I’m about to visit. But Finnish words – often long, packed with vowels and sprinkled with umlauts - left me stumped. “Don’t worry, our language is very complicated,” said one Finn as I struggled with a basic greeting.
Fortunately, most Finns speak good English and communications are straightforward and open. Maybe that openness has something to do with the presence of more than 30,000 students in the city? Even at night, the city impressed me as safe and orderly. “You’d have to do something really stupid not to make it back to your hotel safely, even if you’re a woman and alone,” said one local.
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I woke early to take a walk and saw that people were already out angling in the Tammerkoski river, which runs through the centre of town and is crossed by the landmark Hämeensilta Bridge, which bears monumental sculptures by Wäino Aaltonen. Tampere is built on an isthmus between two lakes, Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, and the Tammerkoski drops 18 m between the two. Readily available water power was one of the key reasons why King Gustav III of Sweden granted the town its founding charter in 1779. Paper and cotton mills, as well as foundries, were subsequently built in red brick along the riverside.
This was once a major industrial centre and became known as “the Manchester of Finland.” These days, however, the mills host conferences, exhibition space, museums, restaurants and even a theatre. The regenerated riverside area has national heritage site status.
These days, seeing anglers pull in trout and perch, it’s hard to imagine the region’s environment as anything but pure. But back in the 1980s action was needed to rid the lakes and waterways of industrial pollution. Ismo Kolari works in the fisheries sector and helped to re-introduce crayfish to the Tampere’s lakes back in 1990. He explained that few creatures are as sensitive as the crayfish; if water isn’t clean, they won’t survive. It’s testimony to the water quality that they are thriving, meaning there’s plenty to catch during the crayfishing season, which runs from mid-July to the end of October. Setting 20 traps overnight costs €4.50 per trap, including boat hire. Ismo showed me how it’s done, hauling in a decent catch.
I’m an absolute novice when it comes to angling but the opportunity to join a fishing group out on Lake Rautavesi, a 30 minute drive from Tampere, was too tempting to decline. If nothing else, I reasoned, I’d have a day out on the water and an opportunity to photograph the dense greenery of the pine forests.
Fishing attracts 200,000 tourists a year to Finland, where ten per cent of the country’s 338,144 sq km is water. Participating, I found, is easy enough. The motorboat, rods, licenses and appropriate clothing were all provided by Mikka Ollilla, of Vaparetket Fishing Guide Services (www.fishinginfinland.com/vaparetket). The fish, though, refused to bite.
Others in the party had better luck than me, ensuring that we had zander, perch, pike and eel to smoke back at the lakeside cabin (www.mieliaitta.com) in Sastamala.
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First though, I took a look at the village landmark, St Olav’s Church, one of Finland’s few medieval stone buildings. Even today, with forest covering 69 per cent of the country, wood is still the country’s major building material. Sadly, St Olav’s was almost destroyed in a 1997 arson attack.
It has just been re-opened following extensive restorations, which drew on the efforts of over 1000 local people plus leading Finnish artists Kuutti Lavonen and Osmo Rauhala. The results are impressive; testimony to what a community can achieve when it works to a common goal.
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Back at the cabin, a traditional smoke sauna had been heated. The sauna is an integral part of Finnish life and Ismo showed me how to do it properly. After showering, I slapped myself with birch branches (still bearing leaves) and sat down to endure the dry heat.
I learned that it’s not uncommon for important business discussions to be held in the sauna and, in years gone by, women would give birth in the (unheated) sauna, traditionally the cleanest room in the house.
We then left the warmth of the sauna, naked, to take a dip in the lake. The invigorating cold of Lake Rautavesi may well have made me yelp but I felt a sense of satisfaction and a glow of well-being. My reward was a cold beer. No sauna is complete without one, insisted Ismo.
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After snacking on delicious smoked fish we sat down to our crayfish. The warmth of Finnish hospitality is such that it was very hard not to go along with the suggestion that, “For every crayfish we eat, we must salute it with a glass of schnapps.”
Finnish cuisine may not be particularly well known outside of the country, but the quality of the food I ate was consistently impressive. Elk meat and reindeer steak are lean and gamey. The local speciality in Tampere is mustamakkara, a lightly seasoned black sausage which, to me, has a haggis like texture. It is served with lingonberry jam and washed down with milk. Locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, such as mushrooms and forest berries, feature on menus.
Eating out in restaurants such as The Grill (www.grill.fi), a lively restaurant in the centre of the city, Viking Restaurant Harald (www.ravintolaharald.com) and the Plevna Brewery (www.plevna.fi) might cost a couple of quid more than their British equivalents, but the prices are by no means prohibitive and the quality good.
If you want to invest in a special evening, then I’d suggest a trip to Särkänniemi Amusement Park, the home of Finland’s highest observation tower. The revolving Näsinneula restaurant (www.sarkanniemi.fi) offers arresting views of the region’s lakes and forests from a height of 124 metres and the delicious food is so well presented that it could be reclassified as edible art.
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I also viewed art out at Visavouri (www.visavouri.com), 40 km from the city, the home and studio of Emil Wilström (1864-1942), a highly regarded sculptor who created public monuments in the National Romantic style. A Finnish version of Art Nouveau, that same style influences Tampere’s cathedral and several of the buildings around Central Square (Keskustori), the location of the city hall and the wooden Old Church and bell tower. Seeing people sitting out at pavement cafes, enjoying the sunshine, wasn’t something I’d expected from Finland, and a pleasant surprise.
After a stroll to take a look at the cupola-topped Orthodox church, I decided to visit some of the city’s many museums. A Tampere Card, valid for 24 hours (€25) or 48 hours (€31), is a good way of saving money if you plan on visiting several, and the card also covers travel on public transport. My first port of call was Moominvalley (€5, www.tampere.fi/muumi), under the impressive Municipal Library, simply because I’d been told “If you don’t know about the Moomins, you don’t know the Finns.”
Next I headed to the Lenin Museum (€5, www.lenin.fi). During 1905-06 the man who would become the Soviet leader lived in Tampere and the museum is situated in the room where he first met Stalin.
Lenin’s associations with Finland run deep, and he granted the country independence from Russia in 1917. I then undertook a “special agent test” while looking around the Spy Museum (€5.50, www.vakoilumuseo.fi), which hosts gadgets and weaponry from the world of espionage. Interestingly, on the same day that I was there, two stag parties had booked lie detector tests for their grooms.
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Tampere is a charming city, with plenty of attractions, and a good base for exploring the region’s natural attractions. The visit has opened my eyes to what Finland has to offer and Lapland and Helsinki now stand on an ever lengthening list of places I’d like to visit.
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