The Times West Virginian

August 28, 2013

Travel: Tour the wonders of the Finnish Lake District

by Dave Zuchowski
CNHI News Service

— Using Savonlinna, a small town in Southwestern Finland in the heart of the lake district, as my base, I joined guide, Tanja Honkonen, for an auto tour of several major attractions in the area. Fortunately, Tanja drove, which freed me up to soak in the beauty of the forested area into which Lake Saimaa makes numerous indentations.

Our morning started in Savonlinna with a quick look at some of the region’s cultural history and life on the lake through the centuries at the Provincial Museum, housed in a restored granary on the island of Riihisarri, a stone’s throw away from Olavinlinna Castle. In the summer, a tar steamship, passenger boat, a tug and a schooner are moored just off shore and open to visitors for tour.

For lunch, we sampled the most popular delicacy from the lake, a mild white fish called vendace (miukku in Finnish), served on a wooden platter on the sixth floor, roof-top terrace restaurant of the Sokos Hotel. Besides giving us a unique taste treat, the dining experience overlooks the town from one of its loftiest vantage points.

A quick drive to the hamlet of Kerimaki took us one of the Finnish superlatives, namely "the biggest wooden church in the world." Rumor has it that the architect designed the massive structure in centimeters, but the builder misunderstood and erected the church using inches, which are 2.54 times larger than centimeters. At any rate, the structure is 148 feet long, 138 feet wide and 121 feet tall, big enough to seat 3,000 worshipers and another 2,000 standees.

I particularly enjoyed the view from the choir loft, which gave me a better appreciation of the expansiveness and spatial grandeur of this truly remarkable structure.

On our way to Lusto, the Finnish Forest Museum, we stopped at a vista overlook high on a rocky crest with a view of the seemingly ever present lake. The gorgeous expanse was a mix of gray stone boulders, water of the azure blue lake, purple clumps of primrose, white birch, and green spruce and pine. Here and there, farmer-planted plots of grain added even more interest. On the way back to the car, Tanja pointed out wild lingonberries, red in their ripeness, growing close to the ground. A smaller and juicier cousin of the cranberry, lingonberries are to Finns as blackberries are to Americans -- summertime staples free for the picking.

There’s so much to see that visitors can easily spend the day, mentally digesting the museum’s four major exhibitions. Begin outdoors at the Old Logging Site, which harkens back to the old days of loggers, frame saws and timber floating to market on water. Another contrasting exhibit shows contemporary tree harvesting technology along with displays of the massive machinery used to get the job done.

To replace what has been harvested, the Century of Forest Healers exhibit shows what has been accomplished to improve forest growth. My personal favorite exhibit deals with forest folklore -- myths, stories and beliefs told from ancient times.

One very interesting special exhibit focuses on the bear, Finland’s national animal. Starting with a look at the bear cult that began its decline with the advance of Christianity, the exhibit considers the bear’s current situation as a controversial large predator and hunters’ most sought after catch.

Be sure not to miss the Room of Silence, where you can sit on comfortable benches and gaze at a pond-side autumnal vista on a huge screen that covers the entire front wall with nothing to disturb the tranquility but the occasional sounds of swans flying off on their annual migration, fish splashing about in the water and elk rustling in the woods.

For those that want a more in-depth visit, guided tours of the exhibitions, the ridge area -- a seven-kilometer ice-age esker, and the Finnish Forest Research Institute’s arboretum can also be arranged.

For more information on Finland’s Lake District attractions, visit website www.savonlinna.travel. For more information on Finland, visit website visitfinland.com.

Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at owlscribe@yahoo.com.