Things to do in Finland

Music

Finland has a well-established music culture and has had many gifted classical composers. From an international perspective, Sibelius is synonymous with the musical identity of Finland and dominates this culture. Much of his work was written to glorify his own people and culture, and one of his most famous compositions, Finlandia, became a strong expression of Finnish patriotism and pride. Sibelius wrote his music during the time that Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia and his music was seen as the rallying call to defy the giant oppressor. Today there is a Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, which has an international reputation for turning out many fine young composers, conductors, and musicians. There is also a Sibelius Museum and a Sibelius Park.

The true richness of the musical life and traditions of Finland is witnessed through the 13 professional orchestras, 18 semi-professional orchestras and the many ensembles in the country. Helsinki has two Finnish radio symphony orchestras and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. There are also opera and ballet companies and solo performers, many with international reputations. For a country with such a small population, there is a remarkable number of world class conductors, composers, and performers covering a great range of artistic skills.

Good classical concerts can be heard in many towns during the summer. These are held in churches or in outdoor venues; most are free and are extremely popular. Helsinki has a lively all year round jazz scene. In the rest of the country, the jazz and rock scene takes off during the summer. There are numerous open-air concerts in parks featuring, as they say, ‘the best and worst» of Finnish music. The summer festivals attract acts from all over the world. The most famous jazz festivals are held in Pori, Tampere, and Espoo in June. Just north of Helsinki in Jarvenpaa, the Puisto Blues Festival is held. The best of the rock festivals can be experienced at Kuusrock in Oulu and Saapasjalkarock in Pihtipudas. Some festivals attract about 25,000 visitors. The Provinssirock Festival in Seinajoki in June has three stages and has attracted such stars as Bob Dylan, Billy Idol, and R.E.M. There is little or no drugs problem.

One of the most internationally acclaimed festivals in Finland is the annual dance and music festival held in Kuopio which attracts performers from all over the world. One of the great opera attractions of the year is the Savonlinna opera festival. This is held in a courtyard of a medieval castle, and with world-class performers, it is an experience never to be forgotten. Finland also has a wealth of modern operas that have been successfully performed all over the world.

Traditional Finnish folk music blends elements of both Eastern and Western culture. In fact, Karelian-type folk music is a popular alternative to pop and rock. Traditional music features a combination of violin, clarinets, accordions and the Finnish national instrument called a kantele.

Music is in the heart and the core of the Finnish people, demonstrated by the diversity of its musicians. There are melancholy tango singers, jenkka crooners, swing-time singers, jazz groups, big bands, rock-and-roll and Finnish pop including Jari Sillanpää, Eino Grön, and Arja Koriseva. In 2006, Finland won the Eurovision song contest with the group Lordi (looking like a lot of monsters) performing the winning song «Hard Rock Hallelujah».

Jari Sillanpää’s Music

Early spring, I was holding a seminar at a hotel on the outskirts of Helsinki that was about to open for the summer. Whilst there, Jari Sillanpää came to rehearse for a concert, away from the madding crowd. My colleague Timo and I sneaked in to listen and watch. As someone who loves crooners and romantic music, I could listen to Jari gleefully. Of course, at the airport on my way home, I bought his best hits CD. A couple of years later, I was being interviewed on BBC radio about Finland and was asked to bring a record with me. Yes, you»ve guessed, I took Jari’s CD and had it played on British radio during a popular lunch time chat show. Anyone reading this who knows Jari, please tell him that he had a few minutes claim to fame in Britain!

Dancing

The Finns love to dance, many of them ballroom dance superbly. Every city and town have its dance restaurants where patrons do the waltz, tango, humppa, jenkka and the foxtrot. These restaurants engage small orchestras that play evergreen tunes. Local hotels have their dance evening too, the most popular evenings for this being Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays. The mid-week dance is usually advertised as Naisten Tanssit. This is the «ladies excuse me» dance evening. If a woman asks a man to dance, he should accept her offer graciously. Similarly, in a dance restaurant, men should feel free to ask a lady to dance. It is considered good manners to accept the invitation, and you normally have two dances, and then the gentleman will accompany the lady back to her chair.

Tango in Finland

Believe it or not, the tango has been wholeheartedly adopted by the Finnish nation. Every year the tango festival is staged in Seinajoki. It attracts thousands of people to the venue and is televised live to thousands of viewers.

One of the things not to miss out on during the summer months is a visit to an outdoor stage dance called Lavatanssit. This is where local singers and their bands play popular music and people dance. The noisy dance stages seem always to be situated in the middle of nowhere. Humppa is extremely popular on these occasions. Humppa always looks to be great fun and appears to be a cross between very rowdy ballroom dancing and the hoe-downs held in the mid-west of the USA. The instruments that usually accompany this sort of music are the accordion or violin.

Sports

You cannot mention the Finns without using the word ‘sport» in the same breath. The Finns are fanatical about sports and hero worship their athletes, sports people, and fitness. Outdoor activities are still an enjoyable part of the Finnish way of life. As it is so much a part of their lifestyle, this may help to explain why the Finns, for such a small nation, perform particularly well in international athletics and sporting events. The pre-eminence of Finland in motorsports, whether it be formula one, rallying or cross–country motor-racing, is well known and of course, their golden boy, Mika Hakkinen, is a world champion.

The Finns as a whole nation walk extremely quickly. In fact, they have a very different gait from anyone else I have seen. They walk as though their upper torso is completely rigid, with just arms and legs swinging at great speed. Nearly everyone walks in this manner. In 1998, the latest craze was something called stick walking which has now caught on in many other countries and is known as «Nordic pole walking». This is something akin to cross-country skiing without the skis and without the snow! People go out walking with ski poles that they dig rhythmically into the ground at great speed. This type of walking takes place during the snowless months and is particularly good for your health. It’s said to use twice the calories that normal walking uses.

The author (back) and her French colleague (front) on their first terrifying but enjoyable snow-mobiling lesson. The author expected to ride it like a motorbike but was in for a surprise. As a novice, she found it too heavy to steer and her arms ached for days afterwards, but she found it truly thrilling!

Trekking is a popular pastime in Finland, and there are many wilderness huts and long trails established for visitors. The lake lands are an idyllic area to cruise on old ferry steamers, whilst canoes and kayaks can be rented to explore the river ways. Cycling is also a major pastime in Finland, along with sailing on the lakes or around the large coastal areas of the country. The Finns are never far away from a fishing rod, both in summer and winter. However, if you want to go fishing, you must do so with a permit. There are several different types of permits and these can be acquired from post offices or banks. However, a local permit can be bought from a fishing location by the hour or day.

The Finns are potty about ice hockey—it’s their national sport. They are just as keen on this as other nations are in football. The big matches are televised and it seems the whole of the country comes to a standstill when these take place. The high spot of Finland’s sporting year is the World Championships in Ice Hockey, and this is just as much a part of the Finnish Spring as the May Day celebrations. You can tell how involved the Finns are with this sport—they have created small talk around the subject! Football, during the summer months, is a very popular pastime with most towns having their own club playing in the leagues. The success of some Finnish players abroad, Jari Litmanen at Ajax and Barcelona, Jonatan Johansson at Glasgow Rangers and Charlton, and Sami Hyypia at Liverpool, for example, has created an enthusiasm for the game. You will often find some very famous international teams playing friendly matches in many parts of the country, and Finland’s first purpose-built football stadium has just been built in Helsinki.

Golf is a sport which is attracting more and more attention. Although the golfing season may appear to be short in terms of other countries, it has to be said that you can play golf 24 hours a day. The Finns are now promoting their country as a golfers» paradise, encouraging people to play golf at midnight. For the fanatics, there is winter golf—played on the frozen lakes with red balls.

During the winter, some of the activities which take place are ice fishing, dog sledding, reindeer safaris, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. Finland offers 35 centers for cross-country skiing and ski-trekking, and there are a few areas in the north of the country—in Lapland—for downhill skiing. Whether it is cross-country or downhill skiing which takes your fancy, most of the trails will be illuminated for the winter duration. Kuopio and Lahti are famous for ski jumping and these areas are where their Olympic participant’s train.

Sport in Finland is a time-honoured tradition and is ingrained in every child. The Finns are well aware that modern means of transport could easily suppress the instinct for physical exercise and make them lazy. Therefore, they encourage Finnish schools to have a rigorous sport’s programme, and every individual takes a personal responsibility to keep themselves fit.

Cinema

Cinemas can be found in every city and town, all showing the latest releases from an international market. Over 80 per cent of the films showing will be imported from abroad, and these will probably be screened in their original language with Finnish subtitles. The most up-to-date releases are quickly rolling out in even the most out-of-the-way towns. I have managed to see some of the latest blockbusters in Finland before they have arrived in the UK. Films classified with an S are for general audiences, whilst those with a K rating are restricted to those over the age of 16 or 18. The majority of foreign films come from America, then France, followed by Britain and Sweden.