As we hit the lake region our experience becomes more outdoorsy, the towns are scarce and small and our hiking boots are out for good. Although there seems to be more water than land, there seems to be also an infinite amount of forests, crisscrossed by roads or dirt tracks that give traction to the wheels of Polaris, while carrying us through.
Our first landing point in the region is the town of Savonlinna. The evening is approaching and we find a place to stand near the harbour. As it is my birthday, Christian treats me to an excellent 5 course dinner at restaurant Huvila. Definitively recommended if you are nearby. The main claim to fame from the town is its fairy tale castle anchored in a giant rock at the shores of lake Saimaa. One can pleasantly ´stroll´ through the lake on board of an old steam boat, which is quite charming. Cruising through smaller and bigger islands, covered by trees and now and then a pretty cottage. Quite zen altogether. Also this lake is home to the unique fresh water Saimaa seal, but unfortunately we are a couple of weeks late to watch them sunbathing on the rocks, so have to settle for looking at them in the brochures.
Continuing to drive through the contours of the lake, we reach Punkaharju, which is a little slice of paradise on earth, as well as a 7 Km long sand ridge covered by pine trees that formed during the ice age. Walking along the ridge is like quietly exploring the corners of a beautiful postcard. The trees, the cotton clouds and the cottages look pleasantly at themselves in the glossy mirror of the lake, a couple of swans with their little siblings swim and fish undisturbed, the only sounds to be heard are the wind blowing through the trees, the birds and our footsteps, as we leave our footprints in the dusty path.
Unexpectedly an incredible Forest Museum, Lusto (http://www.lusto.fi) puts the cherry on top of the cake of this area. We learn a lot about the history of forestry in Finland for the past 100 plus years and how, back in the day, it was really not a piece of cake. As hard as a job as it gets in this activity that has been and still is one of the key economical affairs of Finland.
Probably it will take a while to forget the sunset over the quiet lake that we watched from the canoe launching jetty in some corner of the Kolovesi National Park, after hiking the ancient forests around its rocky shores. I read that the lake was carved by the ice during the last ice age. Who knew frozen water in big quantities could be the creator of such masterpieces?
After these majestic landscapes, we head off to what seems to be the only Orthodox monastery in Finland, Valamo, lured by the fact that it´s located on an island and the story that the monks managed to escape a sure death during the Russian Revolution, because unexpectedly the lake froze and so they managed to flee running on the ice, carrying valuable icons and art. My imagination had pictured some sort of secluded old wooden building, surrounded by trees and full of secret passages and mystic courtyards, in the middle of a little beautiful island, so we were somehow disappointed when we found an overcrowded parking lot, with volunteers in reflecting jackets pointing us where to park. All the premises of the monastery where also crowded with people, as it seems that it was a Confirmation weekend. The buildings were much more modern than expected, so although some of the icons and art where quite magnificent, the place failed to allure me, but probably my imagination is to blame.
What really does not disappoint is Koli National Park, which apparently has inspired the poets and philosophers that shaped the character of the Finnish nation. It´s not surprising, since there are beautiful hikes through meadows and forests and hills that when one climbs, open the door to gorgeous views of lake Pielinen, which is all dotted by little forested islands, that change colour with the passing clouds. Another master piece of the latest ice age.
We spend the night on a camping in a forest next to a beach, which is actually a very privileged place to do laundry close to midnight.
Driving east, close to the Russian border, we find Patvinsuo National Park, so plain and so pretty. We hike through kilometres of wooden planks that go across marshes covered by subtle cotton grass and forests. Blissful hikes, would it not have been for the extremely annoying amount of horse-flies that decide to be our walking companions and hum around most of the time. We are told that they are too early this year, probably, because it´s been so warm.
Again we camp next to a lake and when the horse-flies go to sleep, we only have to deal with the usual mosquitoes to enjoy another breathtaking sunset next to the water.