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Slow Travel: Berlin to Helsinki by rail and ferry

The overland journey from Berlin to Scandinavian's far north and the Finnish capital of Helsinki is certainly worth the effort, reports Slow Travel Berlin (STB) contributor Natalie Holmes, as she explores Finland's traditions of sauna and sled rides.

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Hours later, back on the lake, the mid-afternoon sun already hurtling towards the horizon, I felt suddenly and hopelessly fatigued. “Maybe I got poisoned by those berries,” I said to my husband.

“If by ‘poisoned’ you mean ‘drunk’, then yes, I think you did.”

Same lake, different day, and we’re hurtling across it at 70 kilometres an hour on a two-seater Ski-Doo, competing with the falling darkness in an unwinnable race. Harri, our guide and host, who someone said “was probably born on a snowmobile”, had given us a five minute “lights, stop, go” tutorial and then sped off into the distance in a cloud of snow and engine smoke. [pullquote]Another frighteningly fast driving lesson, drowned out by the dogs’ anticipatory uproar, and I’m standing alone on the back of the sled, a foot balanced on each thin runner. [/pullquote]

Off the lake now, breathing fumes, we shoot through an arboreal tunnel revealing glimpses of a rising moon, almost full. The forest begins to grow sparse, and a flat, white expanse hints that once again there’s water below. The weight of the machine and two people approaches half a tonne, but at 30 cm thick the ice shows no signs of stress. Even half that depth is safe, apparently, though I’m relieved not to have to test the theory first hand. This lake, Päijänne, is Finland’s second largest, extending for 1,080 square kilometres up to Lakeland’s largest city, Jyväskylä, to the north and the ancient harbour of Lahti to the south. Exposed to the elements and shivering, we sit atop that snowy superhighway until the chill overrides our rapture.

When the moon’s completely full, we finally meet the huskies.



“Who wants to have a go at driving then?” asks the husky farm owner, Eva. “I will,” I venture, my heart leaping higher than the excited, lupine creatures. These are Siberian huskies, smaller and faster than their Alaskan cousins, used since the days of the Alaska Gold Rush in the 1890s for their superior speed and endurance.

Another frighteningly fast driving lesson, drowned out by the dogs’ anticipatory uproar, and I’m standing alone on the back of the sled, a foot balanced on each thin runner. My hands ache from gripping the crossbar, but as we gallop through the forest I collect my thoughts and the silence slowly dawns on me. Aside from the animals’ soft panting and the smooth movement of the sled cutting through snow, there is nothing to be heard.

That night, as every night, we take a sauna. Saunas are a significant part of Finnish culture (the country is home to over two million), not to mention a practical necessity–even our modest chalet has an electric one attached. But this evening is special: we’re going to ditch modern technology and do it the traditional way.

“Is this a joke?” I ask Harri as he leads us to a large wooden hut on the banks of our lake. About 10 steps away, lit by a single spotlight in the darkness, lies the unmistakable outline of a two-metre wide hole, or avanto, in the frozen lake. A set of metal swimming pool steps spills into the black water. “It’s minus 12 out here,” Harri replies, “but only zero in there.” Though he grins widely, his eyes tell me this is serious. I’m going in that water, and now all that’s left to do is start mentally preparing to take the plunge.

The traditional Finnish smoke sauna dates back to a time even before chimneys, so a large stove is painstakingly prepared inside and heats the room with burning wood. To say walking into an unventilated lodge with an open fire taking up at least a fifth of the space is disconcerting would be an understatement. Luckily, all I can focus on is that avanto awaiting me outside, menacing but irresistible. Sweltering on the wooden benches, we learn that a special clean fuel is used and most of the smoke is extracted before use, and then water is sprinkled across the smouldering coals.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Holmes.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Holmes.


Ten minutes can seem like a long time in a place like that. The hotter I become, the more inviting that scary ice hole starts to seem. But it’d take a good 15 seconds or so to run tentatively over to the edge, and what if I was freezing by that point? Still, if I’ve learnt anything from this trip, it’s that there’s a method to the Finnish madness, and with procrastination no longer possible in the 120-degree heat, I step from the smoky, sweaty sauna into the fresh night air.

Clothed only in a swimming costume, I fumble around for my flip-flops, expecting to be floored by the cold at any point. Nothing. My skin steams like a turkey fresh out of the oven, but I still feel warm through. Excellent! Now to navigate the icy incline as fast as possible without slipping over. Made it! No time for contemplating what I’m about to do. Back facing the water, descend steps rapidly, find the bottom rung, submerge entire body, head and all–but don’t let go of the rails. Don’t go into shock. Does that even happen?

And that’s it! My head’s above water again, legs on autopilot scrambling towards land. Pulse in my throat, ears; eyes bulging with exhilaration; skin tight and crackly as blood vessels shrink back in horror. My body, via some unfathomable network of chemicals and electrical impulses is silently screaming “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST…?”

The air around me feels warm, though, and seconds later the drama’s over. I’m sauntering back towards the sauna for round two, breathless, excited, alive.


This travel story has been republished with permission from Find more travel stories here.
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Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin as a freelance writer and journalist. She is the founder of Lo/Rez Magazine, which deals with the intersection of art and science, and writes about sustainability and responsible travel on her blog, The Horseshoe Nail.