A visit to the Saimaa Lakeland near this country’s Russian border is almost a mystical experience for most Finns, taking them back to the tranquil lakes, great stands of birch, aspen, larch and pine and to their beloved lakeside saunas that make this largest lake district in Europe a very special place for nature-loving natives.
Saimaa has 33,000 lakes and Savonlinna, its capital, is a city of seven islands with a third of the town under water, making it considerably wetter than the rest of Finland, which has 188,000 lakes, accounting for 10% of the country’s area.
Savonlinna dates to 1475 when the town’s magnificent Olavinlinna Castle was built to protect the eastern frontier of Sweden-Finland (Finland was then under Swedish rule), but eventually fell to Russian czars in the 18th Century, finally becoming independent with all of Finland during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
History books and Russians aside, what draws Finns and foreigners alike to Savonlinna and its surroundings today is the beautiful lakeland scenery and an opportunity for communion with nature rarely encountered in this urbanized and fast-paced world we live in.
Here to there: Finnair will fly you nonstop to Helsinki; Pan Am has two stops. From there to Savonlinna is 45 minutes by Finnair.
How long/how much? A day or two for the town, more for exploring the lakes, countryside and several very special towns nearby. Lodging and dining costs are from high-moderate to expensive, the latter during the town’s opera festival.
A few fast facts: The Finnish mark recently traded at 4.5 to the dollar, or about 22 cents each. Best times for a visit are from early summer to fall, though the latter period may be rainy. Winter is a wonderland for the cross-country skier, with trails lit at night.
Getting settled in: The Kylpyla Spa Hotel (Box 60, Savonlinna; $107 B&B; double) sits in a nest of birch trees right by a lovely lake, a Finnish-contemporary building with all-balcony rooms and great views. While many hotels now charge for saunas, this one gives you a free morning sauna, plus a swim and exercise class with your room rate. Bright and airy bedrooms have all the big-hotel amenities, and magnificent reproductions of farmhouse-antique furniture in public areas. There’s a full schedule of spa and cosmetic treatments, also a casino.
The Punkaharju state hotel ($71-$105 B&B; double) is about 20 miles from town and worth every minute of the beautiful drive. Czar Alexander I visited Punkaharju in 1803 and became enchanted with the natural beauty of the bridge-like ridge of pine forest crossing several lakes. Under Czar Nicholas I a forester’s house was built there in 1845, and it has evolved into what is certainly one of Finland’s most delightful hotels, and the nation’s oldest.
Spacious rooms are furnished in antiques covered with hand-loomed textiles. The building is a classic example of 19th-Century Finnish-gingerbread architecture. It has 28 rooms plus 15 summer cottages, and an old-fashioned dining room.
Hotel Tott (downtown Savonlinna; $100 B&B; double) is a recently renovated, rather nondescript place just half a block from the lake. Rooms are small, fresh and utilitarian in the Scandinavian manner. Tott has several restaurants and a couple of bars, but don’t look for charm. A very helpful staff copes very well with the problems of a newly reopened hotel.
Regional food and drink: With all this clear fresh water around, natives of Saimaa Lakeland eat fish almost every day of the year, with a housewife expected to have from 50 to 100 recipes for preparing vendace, a small whitefish also used for the summertime rantakala (beach fish) outings held at lakeside. Vendace is also a key ingredient of kalakukko , a traditional pie of rye dough filled with fish and pork. It’s an imposing-looking dish that takes five hours to cook.
The Finnish version of “surf and turf” is salmon and reindeer, often served grilled on the same skewer and very good. Two breakfast breads favored by Karelian people of the district are a flat rye roll with rice at the center, another with scrambled eggs and butter on top. Both are delicious.
Don’t be surprised if a restaurant or hotel dining room has on its tables pitchers of kalja , a non-alcoholic drink of the countryside with the flavor of cucumber, potato and celery. An excellent brand of Finnish beer is Karjala.
There are lots of Russian specialties throughout the area, one being an unlikely combination of pickles topped with smetana (Russian sour cream) and honey. Sounds awful but the taste grows on you.
Dining well: Hotel Rauhalinna’s dining room has a menu of Russian dishes plus traditional Finnish. The hotel is a fin de siecle lakeside villa built by a czarist army general who also happened to be a local Finn, the intricate work performed by craftsmen from St. Petersburg. Step into the dining room and you get a strong feeling of Imperial Russia, with perhaps overtones of a Turkish sultan’s small palace.
Our Russian meal of blinis with caviar and sour cream, lamb-stuffed cabbage rolls, dessert and a glass of Russian tea with raspberry jam came to about $20 each. Take a short boat trip out from Savonlinna for their buffet lunch.
Hopeasalmi (on a lake at Market Square) is a small and very pretty boat where you can dine on board or under willow trees at the foot of the gangplank. The menu is short and simple: curried lamb, local fish, pizza and pasta. A very popular spot with visitors and residents.
Punkaharjun Hotel’s dining room has a bright and attractive ambiance, with views of the lake and passing boats. The lunchtime Swedish smorgasbord offers you the likes of pickled herring, smoked fish, marinated shrimp, pates, cold reindeer, salads . . . and that’s just the cold section. You follow with hot meats and local fish, casseroles and vegetables. The tab was $16.50 and we couldn’t make it to the dessert table.
On your own: The storybook medieval castle of Olavinlinna, said to be the best preserved in Scandinavia, is worthy of a visit anytime. Since 1912 it has been the home of the summertime Savonlinna Opera Festival, held in the central courtyard and so popular that tickets must be reserved a year in advance. The castle and its massive turrets sits in the lake, connected to land by a short footbridge.
Retretti Art Center at Punkaharju is the nation’s largest exhibition center for the visual and performing arts. An interesting feature of Retretti is the series of underground caverns blasted from solid rock to form exhibition rooms and concert halls 75 feet below the surface.
The world’s largest wooden church, holding 5,000 worshipers, is in the nearby town of Kerimaki. It’s a very inspiring sight inside and out, with pews designed purposely to be uncomfortable and keep parishioners awake. Concerts are also held there during the opera festival.
Back in Savonlinna you’ll find several small museums with representative collections of Finnish arts and crafts, including very handsome examples of the ceramic pottery they do so well. Also visit the lively lakeside Market Square for more handicrafts and local foods, and perhaps to have your fortune told by a Gypsy in gorgeous costume.
And by all means take an hour’s boat trip through the Savonlinna archipelago, which brings home forcefully the pristine beauty and tranquillity of Saimaa Lakeland.
For more information: Call the Finnish Tourist Board at (212) 949-2333, or write (655 3rd Ave., 18th Floor, New York 10017) for brochures on Savonlinna and Saimaa Lakeland, plus brochures and a map on all of Finland.