Finland's Hidden Treasure: Pori, Where the Finns Go
Among most Americans the Finnish town of Pori is virtually unknown, but it is a favorite summer getaway for many Finns, as well as European vacationers from Sweden, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands.
There are two big reasons: Pori Jazz, which is held every summer in mid July, is the oldest and largest Jazz festival in all Europe. It draws both popular domestic acts and artists of international fame: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sting, and more recently, Kanye West.
For sun lovers and nature enthusiasts the nearby Yyteri beach -- which is known to many as the most beautiful beach in all of Scandinavia -- provides the ultimate reason to visit the Pori area.
For me, it was my super-adventurous younger sister Clementine who brought me to Pori. When she was selected to participate in a yearlong Rotary Youth Exchange Program and given the opportunity to choose virtually any country in the world to live in, she chose Finland for its unique language and culture, and was serendipitously placed in Pori.
Easy to Feel at Home
Summertime is considered the best time of year for travelers to visit Pori, especially during July and August when beach conditions are optimal and the city is bustling with activity; in addition to Pori Jazz there are various small scale folk festivals and a midnight sun celebration on the summer solstice.
Though I visited Pori during the off-season, it was evident that the city’s locals relish international visitors.
Minna Tuominen from the Pori Regional Tourist Agency explained to me that people who grow up in Pori are used to meeting people from around the world because of Pori Jazz -- which has run annually since 1966 -- and that it’s one of the things that she loves about Pori.
It is exceedingly easy to be an English speaker in Pori, as the local schools begin English education when students are 9 years old.
The city is also a breeze to navigate; it is organized by a grid format, and the flat, even streets make walking or biking anywhere in the area a possibility.
Pori Jazz, for Music Lovers
Pori Jazz 2009 will be held from July 11-19, with most of the big acts performing during the second weekend. This year, the 44th annual festival will be hosting Duffy, Erykah Badu, Booker T. Jones, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, with a total of 139 performers.
Each summer around 160,000 people flood Pori to enjoy live music from both headliners and unknowns; ticketing options are varied and more than half of the shows are free. For Finnish musical acts just starting up, Pori Jazz is a great place to gain recognition.
The best advice for someone looking to attend the fest in the future is to book early. Pori hotels fill up early, and it’s best to start looking for accommodations a year in advance.
For those a little less organized, Pori Tourism arranges rentals of private apartments and homes in the area that cover about 1000 people and become available for reservation online during April for the coming summer. It’s an affordable and convenient alternative, and visitors get to see how a Pori local really lives.
Though I didn’t get to see Pori in full swing, I was able to experience Finnish everyday life for myself when I stayed with my sister’s host family during the early spring for a week full of delicious iltapalas (evening snacks), bicycling adventures, and saunas.
My stay culminated in one of the most relaxing yet exhilarating experiences of my life, an old Finnish tradition called avantouinti. Finland is not just another European country; it is truly original in its customs and language, which should be treasured and preserved by all.
But first, a crash course in the ways of the Finnish sauna.
A Finnish Institution
“Going to sauna” (as a Finn speaking English would say it) is an absolute necessity for Finns, and for anyone who is visiting the Scandinavian country. It is said in Finland that "a home isn’t home without a sauna.” It must be so; there are an estimated two million saunas in this nation of five million people.
If you’re a novice like me, (and no, the sauna at your gym doesn’t count) there are a few helpful things to know: first, no swimsuits, no nothing. Finns go to sauna in the nude, and so should you.
Public saunas are single sex, so strip down without fear and enjoy. And don’t let your American-born insecurities about nakedness stop you from chatting; there’s no better place to bond with the locals.
Second: don’t be alarmed if you see a bunch of wet birch branches on the bench. Slapping oneself and fellow sauna-goers with its warm leaves is an old Finnish method of increasing blood circulation.
Third: Take a cool shower before, during, and after your time in the sauna. If you just want a quick cool-down, pour some water from the sauna bucket over your head and breathe deeply.
If you’re stepping out for a rinse, make sure to close the sauna door quickly so very little heat escapes; the Finns will appreciate it.
Finally, make sure to pack your swimsuit, because there’s one exception to the no-clothes rule, and it’s just too good to miss: avantouinti.
Journey to the Hole in the Ice
A trip to Merihelmi in nearby Luvia (a 20 minute drive from Pori) provides the perfect evening excursion. The public sauna and recreation area is located on the Gulf of Bothina, which separates Finland and Sweden. During summer months the place is popular for boating and picnics, but visiting on the first of April, the ice on the frozen inlet is thick; perfect for avanto.
After paying a nominal fee upon arrival, I proceeded to the single-sex changing room to don my swimsuit and shower off before entering the hottest sauna I’d even been in.
As it was a public, mixed-sex sauna the space was much bigger than the personal saunas I had experienced thus far; the rectangular room could easily seat 20 people. Sizing up the room, I found it to be mostly men; there was a father and son and a few young guys in Speedos, but it seemed that the older men ruled the roost.
My sister had told me that none of her friends at the local Pori high school had been to avanto; clearly Finland’s avanto-enthusiasts were passionate about keeping their country’s robust ice swimming tradition alive.
Pretending like I’d been doing it my whole life, I found a bare patch of wood and sat myself down. The room was just over 100° Celsius -– that’s 212° Fahrenheit -– and despite its size, was thick with steam.
My first few breaths were heavy, but as I settled into my spot the intense heat began to work its magic.
Within moments I was pacified. Soon I was covered with droplets; both sweat and condensed steam. I closed my eyes and melted into my seat.
When the heat and humidity reached just beyond the point of enjoyment –- the woman with the wool hat by the stove had been pouring water on the hot stones dutifully –- my companions and I stepped out of the sauna and into the brisk outdoors.
Channeling My Inner Burly Old Man
It was soothing and comfortable, and steam was wafting off my entire body. But I only paused for a few seconds; I wanted to get into the freezing water before my internal heat dropped too much.
Each avanto site is set up slightly differently; at Merihelmi the hole in the ice had been cut in a wide curve from the end of the dock to the sandy shore.
I was able to witness a few brave souls take the plunge ahead of me as I walked down the small hill and out onto the dock.
It seemed there were two options: ease backwards down the wooden stairs at the end of the dock and either dunk your body in and pull yourself back out when you’d had enough, or literally take the plunge and let go completely once you were submerged, letting yourself float backwards into the freezing pool treading water.
I had had my trepidations about the ice cold water up until this point, but a small group of the senior men from the sauna had sauntered out to the dock and were smiling at me with encouragement. I decided it was all or nothing. I didn’t want the Finns to think that American women were pushovers!
So I let myself down those steps cautiously and without hesitation, I pushed myself down into the water and away from the dock, careful to keep my head above the icy water.
The intense change in temperature shocked my body and once again I had to catch my breath. It was cold like I had never experienced it before, but as soon as I began swimming towards the shore the icy water became more bearable.
It was refreshing, to say the least. I could see ice crystals forming on the surface as I paddled quickly into more shallow water.
When the Finns on the dock saw that I was taking the long route they gave me a little cheer, which made me smile through my chattering teeth.
This Must be Nirvana
Scampering up the beach, my first instinct was to jog straight back to the toasty sauna, but my sister Clementine –- who had done this before -- stopped me.
While it’s great to experience the two extremes of temperature, she advised me that it was important to savor the trip back to the hot stones as much as possible: “My favorite part of all is when I'm walking back to the sauna and I just... stop, and stand still outside in between the two. I don't feel cold, I don't feel hot, I just... feel.”
She was absolutely right. We stood there with our mother, enjoying the start of a quiet sunset over the frozen gulf as our bodies continued to steam and ice began to form under our feet, sticking us to the spot.
My skin felt thoroughly chilled but my core was still red hot, creating a strange sort of equilibrium. We tried to think of an appropriate metaphor for this feeling for our next 45 minutes in the sauna/avanto cycle, and by the end of it the best we could do was “It’s like fried ice cream, only inside out.”
Looking back, it seems more like a state of mind that the Buddha described as “the highest happiness.” Or maybe it’s the perfect marriage of two opposites, like a chocolate peanut butter cup.
When you Go
Yyteri Beach: the beach is the biggest in Finland and the surrounding natural conservation area is considered the most beautiful in all of Scandenavia. It is located 10 miles away from Pori, but transportation to and from is easy: a direct bus runs from the center of town for 4.80 Euros. There is free parking for all cars and motorbikes.
Where to Stay:
Yyteri Spa Hotel offers the ultimate in comfort and is located directly at the beach. Prices range from 120-140 Euros per night, including breakfast and spa.
In Pori, Hostel Bisto is good alternative to pricey hotels. A converted boarding house, the rooms are modest but clean and cheery and the employees are very friendly. Rooms go for about 35 Euros a night which includes use of a common kitchen.
The Pori Regional Tourist Agency website has a thorough listing of all nearby accommodations.
Eating out can be expensive in Finland, so visiting the café at the local kauppahalli (indoor market) is a great way of saving Euros and doing as the locals do. I had an exquisite meal at Bucco, an Italian style eatery in Pori that uses only the freshest local fish in their dishes.
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