Sauna devotees and peculiar moose run riot in Finland
As we are well into the Canadian winter, with a while before we’re basking in the sun again, I thought I’d resume the Cottaging Around the World series by taking you somewhere of similar latitude.
In the south west of Finland, over 20,000 islands make up the largest archipelago in the world—by number of islands, not area or population—with “more islands and islets than people.”The Turku archipelago, or Turun saaristo, sprawls out from Turku, Finland, into the Baltic Sea towards Sweden. It is on an island a mere 3 km long with a local population of 16 that Sonja* has a family cottage, or mökki.
“The cottage has been with my family for three generations,” Sonja tells me. Built in 1914 amid the evergreens with a wooden dock reaching out into the pristine water, Sonja’s grandparents made the cottage their first home in the 1950s. “My grandparents opened a small grocery store in the house. The living room was the store and they lived in the rest of the house. They would sell groceries, mostly in bulk, and gasoline for boats and cars.” The store served the island’s residents up until the 1980s, when stricter laws for managing a store forced them to close their business.
Today, the cottage serves as a peaceful getaway for Sonja, who now lives in Canada, and her family and friends. Sonja was born and raised on one of the island groups in the Turku archipelago, only about 15 km from where her cottage is. “When I used to live in Finland I would go to the cottage sometimes every weekend. Nowadays, I live in Canada and spend the summers at the cottage in Finland,” Sonja explains. She draws a comparison between the Turku archipelago and Killbear Provincial Park, outside of Parry Sound, Ontario.
Her family cottage is built in classic Scandinavian style—a timber frame painted a deep red with white trimming. With hardwood flooring throughout and views of the sea from the south-facing windows, the cottage has fireplaces in the living and family rooms to keep it cozy in the winter. Dinner parties are often held on the veranda, which also boasts great views. Sonja remarks, “I can sit and stare outside of the windows for hours just daydreaming. No other view in the world makes me more relaxed and at peace in life.”
Apart from picking up some meat and yogurt from the grocery store, Sonja’s family is able to live off the land in the summer, growing a wide variety of vegetables, berries and fruit. Those long sunny days see the garden in full bloom and allow Sonja to spend the entire day outside—swimming, cooking, and even doing the dishes. “In the summer, we keep busy cutting the grass, growing and harvesting vegetables from the garden, and taking care of the flowers,” Sonja tells me.
The population of the islands swells in the summer, with most people coming from Turku and Helsinki as well as Sweden and further. Most have inherited properties, but others have bought their cottages more recently or are visiting Finnish relatives who own cottages within the archipelago. Visitors can rent cottages on the opposite side of the island from Sonja’s cottage.
The activity everyone shares across the islands is relaxing in the sauna—absolutely everybody has a sauna at their cottage. “The Finnish cottage culture is all about sitting in the sauna while drinking beer,” Sonja explains. “You go for a swim from the sauna to cool down and you always do this naked. People who bother to put on a bathing suit are considered a little bit weird. Scandinavians in general are very comfortable with being naked, while the international tourists find this really funny.”
Running naked from the sauna to cool down is not an exclusive summer sport. The serene winter landscape is regularly interrupted by cottage folks bursting from the sauna with cider in hand to cool down with a quick roll in the snow.
Apart from spotting many skinny dippers, you might also catch sight of one of the island’s famous moose. Up until this winter, “Helge” and “Helga” were locally known for having no fear of people, which is atypical behaviour for moose. Rather, the antlered couple would actually chase people. “In the fall,” Sonja recalls, “we were sitting by the fire when suddenly Helga and her two calves walked by. The calves seemed a little bit scared but Helga walked past us right behind the fire we had lit on the beach.” Unfortunately, when Helga recently chased a couple of hikers in the forest, a hunting squad was notified and she was shot along with a calf. But Helge is likely still out there.
One of Sonja’s favourite things about having a cottage in Finland is the Finnish law that loosely translates to “every man’s land.” Everyone in Finland has the right to use all the land in the country. “If someone owns a big property, they cannot stop you from taking a hike in their forest or sunbathing at their beach,” says Sonja. So long as you stay at least 20 meters away from the house and outside any fenced area of the property, and don’t make fires or leave anything behind, all land is free to roam and explore.
This has allowed Sonja and other island cottagers to discover many tiny secluded islands and beaches where she can swim and sunbath all day long. “You can even walk around naked all day in the lagoon you find because it’s so secluded that nobody will see you,” Sonja tells me.
Aside from the swimming, enjoying sauna and beer in tandem, hiking and boating, the Turku archipelago has many cultural draws as well. Churches from the 18th century, fishing competitions, the jazz festival in Korpo and a Rowlit rock festival in Pargas bring together locals and visitors during the summer months. Many spend their summers sailing between islands, from marina to marina, sleeping on their sailboats or in local bed and breakfast establishments.
Cottage culture in the Turku archipelago where she grew up is so dear to Sonja that she did not wish to disclose either her own name, or the name of her island. But if you fancy a slice of Finnish cottage life, you have thousands of islands from which to choose—all of which offer naked romps in the sea or snow.
*Sonja has been used instead of the interviewee’s real name.