The South of Finland: Land of a Thousand Lakes, or maybe 188.000?!

The South of Finland: Land of a Thousand Lakes, or maybe 188.000?!

What we know about Finland before setting foot on land? Very little, actually. That it can get extremely cold in the winter (to be exact, the coldest ever recorded in Finnish Lapland is -51.5 °C!), there are lots of reindeer, and we have heard that Finland has been called the happiest country in the world for several years in a row. But also that the people would be a bit more self-contained. While cycling, we learn and experience something new about this special country every day. Read on!

Äteritsiputeritsipuolilautatsijänkä: Wait what?

By ferry we arrive in Finland from Estonia, and straight into the heart of Helsinki, the capital. As we cycle off the ferry, Audrey spots a giant hare running between the cars. Apparently wildlife lives here, too. Helsinki is big! A fifth of Finland’s population lives in the city and around it, accounting for about 1.2 million people.

The first few days we stay with Marko, who teaches us a few things about Finnish culture. For example, we are tongue-tied when we find out that the Finns like licorice perhaps even more than the Dutch. We also quickly discover that the Finnish language really seems to come from another planet. Even remembering words doesn’t work. But we meet a German, Timo, who has lived in Helsinki for several years, and he is proof that it can be done: Learn Finnish! Still, it remains particularly impressive when you have place names on the order of Äteritsiputeritsipuolilautatsijänkä😱

Finnish appears to belong to the same language family as Hungarian and Turkish. Partly because there are several dialects, written language differs from spoken language and abbreviations or conjunctions are often used, it proves to be a difficult language to learn. Judge for yourself 🙂


Apparently we timed our visit to Helsinki perfectly. President Biden is also in town, in fact, and as a result many streets are blocked off and there are many police on the scene, including snipers on higher buildings….The sightseeing is cut considerably short because of this and we decide to go to Oodi, a huge library and meeting place. People can play music, read, drink coffee, play chess and other (video) games, sew, weld, saw wood, and there are even 3D printers to let your creativity run wild. The place is pleasantly busy, but you can just as easily read a book or the newspaper in peace.

Time to go camping!

And then it’s time to leave Helsinki behind us. Houses give way to greenery and vast landscapes with the occasional red house or farm.With 5.5 million inhabitants, even the more densely populated south of Finland feels deserted.The rows of mailboxes along the road are a sign that people still live here and there.By comparison, the Netherlands is a whopping 8 times smaller, and has 3 times the population….

Wild camping is allowed in Finland, and the facilities for it are inviting. There are hundreds of shelters, of all shapes and sizes, sometimes with a dry/compost toilet, pans and fire pits, and often even firewood. For example, there is the “Kota”, a Lappish hut with a fire pit in the middle, where people regularly congregate and grill sausages. Most shelters are located in nature, often by a river or lake.

The first night we camp at a shelter overlooking a beautiful lake. When we arrive, an Asian-looking family is cooking something on the fire. Before long, one of them notices the Vietnamese flag dangling from Eloy’s bicycle. They can hardly believe that we were recently in Vietnam by bicycle.They themselves have been living in Finland for many years now and before they leave they leave some refreshing drinks for us.When they are gone we put on our swimwear in good spirits, but only go into the water up to our knees. It turns out we are not yet as seasoned swimmers as the Finns. In the evening, several people from the nearby village come for a refreshing swim!

Is all that glitters gold?

We are heading toward Lahti, but we are going slowly. Nature in Finland is great, there are many quiet and abandoned gravel roads, but flat it is not. Although we were told that several times about Finland! What we also notice is that there is quite a bit of litter along the larger roads anyway and since we are on bikes and going slow anyway we decide to collect the bottles and cans and return them to the supermarket.

But it’s not just metal and plastic that shines. Regularly Audrey pulls the bike over because she has spotted wild strawberries or wild blueberries. Because of the everyman’s right, anyone in Finland is allowed to pick wild berries. It is one of the biggest national hobbies, more than 50% of people pick different kinds of berries and mushrooms every year. In most households the berries are used in soups, puddings, blueberry pie, cakes, porridge, liqueur, juice, etc. About 50 species of wild berries grow, 20 of which are delicious for consumption and suitable for picking. Finns will go out of their way to teach you more about them. A bizarre 150 to 200 million pounds, of blueberries alone (!), are picked in the country every year.

An introduction to the sauna

In Lahti we spend the night with Henri, his wife and their 4-year-old son. Besides preparing a delicious hot meal and making a bed, they suggest that we also try their sauna. They tell us that, after all, we are in Finland and saunas are a staple in almost every household. We find out that almost every building in the country has a sauna, even schools, apartment buildings, student houses, etc. The word “sauna” is the only Finnish word known worldwide and it is estimated that there are as many as 3 million saunas in the country (out of thus 5.5 million inhabitants). Before our round in the sweat lodge, Eloy enters the fray by playing a few games of chess with Henri.

Land of a thousand lakes, or many, many more!

We continue northward, cycling through a huge area nicknamed “Land of a Thousand Lakes”. The Salpausselkä UNESCO Global Geopark is also located here. An area formed by rivers of meltwater at the end of the Ice Age when glaciers melted. Hundreds of islets and lakes that may or may not be connected. The road winds from island to island and sometimes we see people taking a dip or sitting on a raft or boat.

We spend the night (literally) on one of the uninhabited islets. We cross a narrow wooden bridge and bike through a forest path while mosquitoes feast on us. Eventually we reach a sauna that can be rented from the municipality, but there is no one there and it is already evening, so we set up the mosquito tent under the canopy. After dinner, Audrey chooses the tent as a refuge, but Eloy goes into the water first to wash up. He walks up a wooden platform with steps at the end, undresses and carefully enters the cold water. “Feels refreshing”, he exclaims as he stands shivering to dry off.

In Finland, there is one lake(s) for every 26 inhabitants! That means there are about 188,000 lakes. That there is a strong connection to nature is reflected in the national flag. The white symbolizes the snow that covers the country in winter and the blue symbolizes the water and sky.

It’s someone’s birthday, hurrah, hurrah

Then Eloy starts singing just after noon! “Oh dear, is it July 18 already!!!”, laughs Audrey. We chat some more and then go to sleep. In the morning, when we have just finished breaking down, a man comes to chop wood. Just in time, then, since we bivouacked in front of the sauna. We go to the supermarket where Eloy buys birthday cakes. There he is accosted by a Finn who has cycled along the Mediterranean to Barcelona with €2.50 to see if miracles still exist, inspired by the book “The Way of a Pilgrim”. While outside Audrey apparently has a very inviting attitude and is addressed for the second time by a Jehovah’s Witness and handed a newspaper.

A little further on, we stop at an abandoned roadside bus shelter to munch on pastries. And of course a picked flower cannot be missing today! 🙂

A home for not 2, not 3, but 4 days

In Jyväskylä, we come into contact with Polish Marta & Tomasz. A couple who have lived in Finland for many years. The first thing they want to share with us is a visit to the sauna in the student dorm where they live in a small but nice apartment. Afterwards we walk their 2 cats, Gustaw and Halina, and take a walk in the neighborhood.

The next day we get a typical Finnish breakfast: oatmeal with fruit, and they take us to a national park to then participate in the national hobby: wild picking! Kilos of berries go home with us and we taste the rarer “cloudberry” (mountain blackberry) for the first time. They look like yellow raspberries and are delicious, but are hard to find and therefore sold for a lot of money. When Tomasz and Marta still lived in Poland, they used to pick a lot in nature, especially berries and mushrooms. The day ends with grilling sausages on a fire pit in the park.

But they have another plan for us while they go to work. Marta works in IT and Tomasz works as a home nurse. They know that there is uninhabited island near Jyväskylä, with a public sauna. You can swim in the lake and grill sausages there, which Finns love. The local church community makes this possible for everyone, and a few moments later we are loaded into a small rowboat and rowed to the island. And as if that wasn’t crazy enough, we drive past the supermarket to bring enough food (see photo). A few hours later we take the rowboat back to the mainland and are picked up by Marta to stroll along the harbor some more. There we see a new sauna complex, and even sauna boats.

As we watch the Finnish entry of the Eurovision Song Contest “Chachacha” in the evening, Tomasz and Martha convince us to stay an extra day after all. After all, tomorrow they are going to make Polish dumplings filled with blueberries, spinach and chickpeas. No sooner said than done, and while our bellies are filled with dumplings, we all enjoy the sauna one last time. Three times in the sauna in four days, oatmeal with berries, spending a lot of time in nature, game picking and sausage grilling: in other words, Finland at its best. Marta and Tomasz provided unforgettable moments and memories. While their own road to where they are today was not always easy, they give it their all. And they love it! Wonderful people.

Pyhä-Häkki Kansallispuisto

We drive north, passing an unusual national park: Pyhä-Häkki Kansallispuisto. It is a protected ancient forest with pine trees that are more than 400 years old and branded by past forest fires. There have been 44 forest fires since 1508, the last of which occurred in 1921. The thick crack allows old pines to survive forest fires. The park was established in 1956 and with its 13 square kilometers is one of the smallest national parks in the country.

We decide to camp at the park entrance under a canopy. There is an old-fashioned water pump to pump drinking water from the ground. With hands and teeth frozen by the icy groundwater, we try to get warm again in the sleeping bag. A down coat is not a luxury even in July in Finland.

№ 10

Over the next few days, we encounter the occasional cyclist. So does a 66-year-old Frenchman who is on his way back from his trip to the North Cape. In 11 weeks he cycled north from France.He appears to have a slightly faster pace, and even though he is well past 60! We wish each other a good trip and our paths diverge again. We sleep in different places in the woods, at times afraid of bears, but fall asleep anyway because of fatigue. Sometimes we find a sauna in the middle of nowhere, and occasionally, when a ray of sun reaches the earth, we splash ourselves in one of the many lakes. Nature remains impressive, especially its vastness. Whenever we pass a village we often do a few purchases, because the further north we drive the rarer the supermarkets and villages become. So too in Haapajärvi, but when we want to leave again Audrey turns out to have a flat front tire: No. 10! Somehow Eloy has only had 2 flat tires….

We get a tub of water in the supermarket and find a place to fix the tire. Not much later, a Ukrainian man introduces himself, he asks if we need help and if we cycled through Ukraine. He appears to have fled because of the war, but proudly tells us to go to his beautiful country when peace has returned.

From bad to worse (or not)

We pitch the tent near a lake. In the evening it starts to rain, but Finns don’t let a few drops of rain stop them. People get out of the car in their morning coats, jump into the cold lake, swim a few laps and leave again.

Only in the morning does the rain continue. A giant thunderstorm rolls across the lake, and it is anything but safe to stay in a tent when it thunders. We jump into our rain suit, and cook oatmeal in one of the changing cabins. Then we pack up the wet tent and cycle on. It stays drizzling all day, but at the end of the day we come to a bird nature reserve and there is a huge kota, or Lappish hut. We can wheel the bikes inside and dry the tent and some other stuff, while outside a tremendously strong wind picks up and the rain sloshes down hard.

Eloy laughs as Audrey sticks a large shovel under the door handle. “Why are you doing that? No one really comes here!”. She replies, “Just like that, a hunch.” At 2 a.m. Audrey is awakened by a car with loud music. Who drove here, in pitch darkness, along a dirt road!After all, the kota is a few kilometers off the main road. Then someone pulls hard on the door handle a few times, but the door stays shut…. After 3 times Eloy runs to the door to look but before he reaches it the people are already gone with the car. Both a heartache further, but that shovel did its job after all. Eloy so slowly begins to doubt that Audrey doesn’t have clairvoyant abilities…!

Flagpole stories

We spend the next few days on the road to Oulu, and the weather is beautiful with fantastic sunsets and beautiful wildlife camping spots every day. As we are cycling, a couple of always wide smiling Thai people stop their work van along the road.

They gesture if they can take pictures and then a tablet is pulled out. They proudly pose with the Thai flag hanging from Eloy’s bike. It is unimaginable how many conversations and sign language the flagpoles have already caused. From small children who love the colors and call out to their parents, to teenagers who shout “good job”, start listing the names of the countries and ask curious questions. To adults stopping their car on the side of the road for a chat and elderly people leaning on their walkers telling them, “It is good to go and see the world with your own eyes“.

Putting out fires

We bike into the port city of Oulu, which means we are halfway across elongated Finland. The city borders the Gulf of Bothnia on the Baltic Sea and is considered the “capital of the North” because, with a population of just over 200,000, it is the only major city in northern Finland. Many people from the countryside therefore move here for work and education. We walk through the city center ourselves and witness a small peaceful protest march against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Afterwards, via all sorts of small bridges, we walk further to the small island of Pikisaari, where we admire the traditional wooden houses once again. Normally these are mostly found outside the cities!

Through Couchsurfing we meet Francis, an Irishman who has lived in Finland for several years, but feels more Indian because of his love for the country and its spicy cuisine. He does not cycle himself, but has traveled in many countries and lived in different places for a number of years. His apartment is on the third floor and the elevator is too small for the bikes. But by now we are used to lifting up our trusty two-wheelers. Through Couchsurfing, he likes to meet people with a special story. He himself works a lot with computers and is working on a time machine, so to speak. The highly organized cable collection and the special equipment in the living room are his life.

Francis is eager to show off his Indian cooking skills, but suddenly we smell that something is on fire. The blender is catching fire! Apparently the dish is even too hot to mix…. After we put out the fire and open all the windows and doors, we warm up a leftover of his earlier curry. Francis tells us he eats spicier than most Indian people! Audrey finishes a few bites with tears in her eyes, Eloy continues eating (despite his bad experiences with extremely spicy food in Laos) but soon after feels his stomach burn. Francis smiles and recognizes the faces of his guests. Once again we have to put out a fire. Some milk and blueberries help in the meantime. He admits that he has never eaten wild blueberries, which you can pick anywhere in Finland, and is particularly pleased that we brought a container of picked berries so he can try them for the first time!

Curious about our experiences above the Arctic Circle in the extremely sparsely populated Finnish Lapland? Please be patient, but a new story about this will follow soon!

Comments (1)

  • Yvonne Huppertz 14 March 2024 at 08:25 Reply

    Mooi geschreven

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