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Finlands Karelia: In the land of silence

Shortly before daybreak, before the birds begin their morning song, you can hear the clouds floating over the lakes in East Finland and the elks noisily gobbling up their breakfast in the forest.

View of Lake Pielinen in Karelia, East Finland
Picture by T. Micke

"Finnish people need a salmon, a bottle of vodka and a sauna to be happy" according to a saying. But thats as if you would be saying about Americans: "A huge burger, a can of Bud and a baseball game is enough for their peace of mind." – Not quite wrong, as it were, but very basically defined.

First and foremost a Finn needs Finnland to feel happy. Just like and Austrain prefers to come home: It is very beautiful in other parts of the world, but in the long run...

Abroad, Finnish people often come across as emotionless, slow and uneloquent. – You only need to look at the enthralling winners interviews with Mikka Hakkinnen. – But back in their homeland they are in their element., like a fish in water, an elk in the forest: dignified in their expression, deliberate in their movements. They are ideally suited to their habitat: a country like a still life. This is particularly so in the picturesque lake region of Eastern Finland of Karelia, divided by the Russian border, where visitors experience a silence that almost has a slightly oppressive effect. It is as if someone turned off the sound in the thick forests around the majestic Pielinen Lake. The city-ear only gets used to this new, mellow background noise with time: Chirping birds and the crackle of old spruce needles beneath your feet replace the sound of snarling voises. Instead of street noise you hear the rustle of the wind in the treetops. And if you creep out of your tent before dawn after a particularly still night during a multi-day bike or canoe tour, then you think you can hear the morning mist float over the lake and the elk noisily gobbling breakfast on the other side.

A Finnish salmon barbecue in a market in Joensuu
Picture by T. Micke

With 52,000 inhabitants, Joensuu is the capital of North Karelia and with its geometrically placed wide streets and simple two-storey woodern houses, amazingly ressembles a provincial American town. If it weren’t for the small airport, which connects the region with Helsinki via Finnair twice a day and serves the military as an outpost to the former dominating power Russia, then you suspect that there would not be much life here.

But this impression is deceptive. In the 16th century during the 600-year regency of Sweden, one of the most important wood trade routes in Finnland operated here along the Pielisjoki River. Later on the river’s load was lightened by the building of a new railway as a transport route by the Russian Tzars. Today, Joensuu functions above all as a popular open air excursion point for natives during summer and winter holidays.

A Finnish Festschmaus with Lohi, salmon sausage and salmon bread wrapped in bacon
Picture by T. Micke

The fields of activity such as the hikes, bike and canoe tours, rafting, fishing and hunting einreiches that North Karelia offers are not just for sports enthuasiast adventure holiday makers. The region has something really sensational to offer more cosy leisure types, who have more bodily well being in sight. The fish and rummage market in Joensuu is an ideal opportunity to try out all of the gastronomical delights of the region in peace. Superb salmon (in good Finnish: Lohi) is available there in every variation imaginable. Among the finest of this is the fresh Lohi grilled in a simple Finnish way on an open charcoal grill with salt. Then there is "Lohipalvi" – a sort of salmon sausage – with seasoning, "Lohipiirakka" – salmon baked with egg and rice, "Lohikukko" – salmon bread wrapped in bacon and "Lohipizza" – which needs no translation.

Amongst the salmon you will find every kind of sweet or savoury strudel you can think of, as well as excellent home-made conserves for the long Finnish winter. So-called "Piroggen" are also typical of the region - warm rye pastry pockets that are eaten as starters with rice porridge, egg butter and blueberry aspic. Obviously you can’t miss out on a flavoursome reindeer ham with cranberry jelly, best eaten with a wild mushroom salad.

A Finnish declaration of love from Jaakko to Riiva cut into the wood
Picture by T. Micke

Although there are more than enough deer and elk in Finland, their meat is about as expensive as roast lung, with a market price of around 25 Euros per kilo. The reason: The rich neighbouring country of Norway is wild about everything wild. If the price is not too expensive for you, then Joensuu market can help: a trader has a salami on display that costs 60 Euros! As he hears the unbelieveable murmur of tourists in front of his stall, he translates grinning: "Bear salami!" – Around 60 bears are legally shot in Finland’s forests every year. Their meat is considered a delicacy.

If anyone now has an appetite to visit Finland, here is a last simple Karelian snack delicacy to make at home: Salt gherkins with sour cream and honey. – It tastes just as unusual as bear-salami, but is much cheaper and in addition vegetarian.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (08-07-01) – Contact