I did not understand a word, but loosened my death grip on the ubiquitous Lonely Planet Scandinavian Europe guide. When the group of middle-aged Finnish women grew increasingly boisterous as we neared Savonlinna (Finland’s major town of the Southeastern Lake District) on a dawdling and rickety regional train that connected us from Parikkala to Savonlinna Kauppatori, I reckoned it must and would be a place where room for regret is not permitted.
The womens’ impromptu singing suddenly took a turn for the folksy (at least I think it was!), and then Olavinlinna Castle moved into view. Choric exclamations followed, and one woman in particular sang something that did appear to be a folk tune of Olavinlinna, about its history and its legends. Stuck in a country with an alien, tongue-rolling language stemming from Finno-Ugric roots, so far away from home, and having spent 5 hours in a train getting stared at by several Nordic blondes, it took little to believe that magic, lore and myth swirled comfortably within Olavinlinna’s rotund towers.
“English?” Asked the woman at the ticketing counter briskly.
“Your tour starts at 12 p.m. Be there,” she pointed to vaguely to a small space where a few visitors milled about with an uncertainty on their faces that must have mirrored mine.
There was…a tour?
I was late for the one-hour tour, after deciding to poke around the walls a bit on my own in true traveller fashion for about the 10 next minutes, rushing in the end to join a group of people who appeared to be speaking English, only to hear the tail end of a legend narrated by a guide. Damn, I thought, as I attempted to glide into the group as naturally as I could only to find them disbanding as soon as I had joined. I promptly realised that I had joined the wrong tour and had in fact been listening to the ending commentary of a tour that had just finished. And so the struggle began again, to find the correct tour group within the castle’s winding walls.
I did of course, eventually, get to hear this story: A daughter of the then-Swedish (when Finland belonged to Sweden and was at loggerheads with Russia) landlord fell in love with a Russian officer and at the height of their forbidden trysts, she decided to open the main gate of the castle one night, only to find the entire Russian troops gleefully awaiting. The angry Swedish Lord, who was still unaware his daughter had opened the gates, ordered the culprit to be bricked into the castle wall alive. And so she was (in whatever manner best left to fertile imaginations) – with no concessions made.
It does seem indeed that the ill-fated Romeo-Juliet theme exists in all countries, in some form or another.
“It’s probably true,” an Australian tourist cut in my idle musings, commenting emphatically in a loud voice to his indifferent travelling companion. “Easy to believe.”
Not two steps away, another Australian tourist busied himself by taking snaps of every possible angle of the castle with his girlfriend posing as provocatively as possible in every shot, dressed in a dress that was suspiciously tailored to look as if she wore only the Finnish flag.
Olavinlinna is one of the reasons why people come to the Savonlinna region, and its medieval walls that date from 1475 do not disappoint. Depending on various wars and the corresponding treaties signed through the years, the political tussles had created the volatile, shifting international borders, which meant that Olavinlinna had indeed bounced between Russian and Swedish hands.
I wonder if each change brought in a fresh supply of women, soldiers, beer and a lot of wenching. The guide had after all mentioned that along with roasted game animals, each man got 5 litres of beer daily during weekdays, and seven litres during the weekends on top of strong spirits.
The alcoholic tradition of the Finns, Russians and Swedes, as I established mentally from then onwards, ran deep.
Today, Olavinlinna’s main courtyard houses the Savonlinna Opera Festival under a giant awning, and while I was there, preparations for the July Festival were well underway. I peeked into the stage area where the logistics crew were setting up the necessary structures and received a few scowls in return. The guide sheepishly admitted that the logistics crew did not like tourists milling around the stage area, immediately explaining that rehearsals were due to start in a couple of days. The acoustics, so they say, are excellent.
It is only during July that Savonlinna does adorn herself carefully with banners and flyers, and with her roads swelling with the fat of incoming festival-bound cars does she awaken from her yearlong hibernation. But her natural beauty is nonetheless obvious minus the unnecessary adornment and the bustle of the July crowd.
Bridges and clumps of little islands dot what would otherwise be a continent of water, and most obviously, therein lies the main attraction. Becoming a total recluse is entirely possible in these regions where summer holiday cottages that face the lakes are out for rent.
Wow-moments and gawking-at-nature periods are not uncommon for a person like me who’s from a country where fresh water is scarce. It seems as if the way of life in summer is to relax amidst the buzz of mosquitoes, in the strong summer sun, on any of the abundant rock outcroppings of the tiny saaris (“Islands” in Finnish) with a picnic mat and basket. Shirtless, if you prefer, to get a more even tan. But if you are a Finn (or Russian or Swede), it seems wiser to bring a bottle of alcohol along for good measure.
Most commonly, tourists take a cruise that wildly vary from 1-hour tours around Savonlinna to a few days stay, on board to the nearby town of Punkaharju. But before that, they customarily gather around the Kauppatori (the market square) where a bazaar takes place daily, with the usual hawking of breakfast pastries, tacky souvenirs and tourist t-shirts.
I bought my father one that read ‘Wrong Medicine’, and another for my sister that read ‘Brainwashed’. Don’t you just love the Finnish sensibility?
But some things don’t change, which might be either an annoyance or a comfort when you are far from home. Fast food restaurants have planted themselves unashamedly at the lakefront, but instead of McDonalds, there is instead Hesburger – the Finnish equivalent of it at least – with a menu that is naturally, English-unfriendly such that ordering food is reduced to wordless gestures and exhaustive smiles and nods of understanding when the man at the counter finally serves the correct order.
Yet in a place where wilderness abounds and nature is the big brother, the shops, restaurants, railway/bus stations, trigger-happy tourists and supermarkets do seem to mar the tranquil beauty. On the downside, other than having fish as the main diet, near-paralytic drunk males (and broken liquor bottles that freely litter the streets) are not that uncommon.
It was hard to say goodbye to a landscape that I could so easily get used to – before long, the 3 days in Savonlinna were up, and I found myself lugging the cumbersome backpack to a bus stop with no idea if a bus would indeed come. But it eventually did, and the winding route it took through the lakes, islands and resort could not have given a fonder farewell to Lakeland.