There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. I noted this popular Finnish proverb at an international market soon after visiting Finland for the first time last summer.
I’d rephrase it the following way: In Finland, there’s no such thing as a bad festival, only deliciously weird ones.
This was the way we felt after visiting Finland and getting a grip on the country’s strange festivals.
Most of Finland’s many weird festivals occur in the summer time. Sandwiched between the World Wife Carrying Championships and the World Mobile Phone Throwing Competition, and right before the World Swamp Soccer Championships and just after the Festival of Lappish Youth Societies, we lucked upon the annual Finnish Tango Festival.
Tango in Finland? In fact, it makes perfect sense, as Finns have been playing and developing their own tango music since the 1930s when tango music was on its international blitz. As recently as 2011, Finland hosted the World Tango Summit, (Cumbre Mundial del Tango); the first time a country outside of Latin America had the honor of doing so.
So we headed in the direction of Tango Central, Seinäjoki, not having a clue how popular this very passionate dance could possibly be in deceptively staid Finland.
In between, we managed to squeeze in the annual summer wine festival. Never heard of Finnish wines? Neither had we, but we did not let this small detail discourage us from giving the place a visit.
One of the highlights of our visit to the Finnish province of Savo, Northeast of Helsinki, was an introduction to the outstanding lake district where Kuopio, the center for the wine festival, is located.
It’s hard to find a more conducive spot for night time imbibing than at the lake port where the wine festival takes place every evening for eight days every July. And remember, these are long, luxuriant evenings, with the sun only starting to think about setting sometime after 10:30 at night.
A must-visit here is the Rauhalahti Jakankamppa smoke sauna—reputed to be the largest smoke sauna in the world. The sauna is heated by logs that burn all day, filling the interior of the sauna with smoke. When the sauna has reached fiendish temperatures, the smoke is allowed to escape, and unsuspecting humans are let in. (Some carrying their wives, obviously tourists from abroad).
Adding to the experience are the frequent dips into the lake just steps from the sauna. We lost count of how many times we jumped into the cool lake from the steamy sauna. (And we must have had a good time, not even noticing the free draft beer in the dressing rooms!) A Finnish lumberjack sang unknown local hits to his accordion friend’s accompaniment, occasionally rolling on logs only to fly spectacularly off them into the lake.
Later, we took a large ferry to a nearby liqueur-producing family enterprise, the Alahovi Winery. We discovered the locals make some pretty fair liqueurs, using everything from strawberries, to lingonberries, to arctic bramble berries, to cranberries to, yes, even the exotic Canadian import, Saskatoons!
It was a pleasant, carefree afternoon, in spite of the Jolly Roger pirate flag that flew at the winery’s dock. The owner explained that his grandson had bought it in Spain, surmising that if pirates ever came to the area, they would see the flag and go elsewhere.
The likelihood of seeing pirates in Finland is about as strong as finding a world famous tango festival.
This, at least, is the reaction I still get from people back home when I mention we ended up going all the way to Finland to attend a tango festival.
Yes, tango in Finland. It’s as Finnish as cellular phones, icebreakers, saunas, and the numerous very unusual festivals that take place in this very Nordic country every summer.
Tango and Architecture
Nostalgia is the engine pushing the longest running summer festival in Finland located in Seinäjoki.
Finns interested in the tango? Yes, not just interested, but passionate about it.
According to Arja Koriseva, former tango queen and easily the most popular tango singer in Finland, Finns got interested in tango music in the 1930s.
“Finns get the raw emotion of the tango and easily take to its earthy, relatively easy rhythm,” she said.
Distinct Finnish tango music (along with the tradition of native Finnish tango crooners) took off and has been holding its own for over 70 years. “Finnish tango music remains popular since it incorporates themes that mean a lot to we Finns, such as nature, and how we live,” said Koriseva.
Walking through downtown Seinäjoki (where the festival takes place over 10 days), one is struck by the love of dance in general here. Finns love to bump and grind to the different live bands competing on outdoor stages and venues around town. The goal for the bands is to garner votes as the best tango musician/singer. Think Fringe Festival, but with music. However Finns do not see this as a spectator sport, they are out there dancing up a storm.
As the tango singers perform new and old hits (at least 40 percent has to be tango music), up to half of the audience is dancing, be it at an outside venue or indoors at the Tango Arena, the whole show being broadcast live on television.
As we weave from bandstand-to-bandstand, arena-to-arena, we get to know Seinäjoki. It just happens to boast the most complete city center in Finland designed by native son/architectural master Alvar Aalto, considered the father of modern Scandinavian architecture. He is the other reason that all Finns know about Seinäjoki. Aalto, now studied worldwide as a father of functionalism, was considered the top Scandinavian architect of his time.
And becoming familiar with Aalto’s work helped us better understand Helsinki, once we returned there. Aalto’s work can be admired there too, at the massive Finlandia concert hall, near Toolonlahti Lake.
We brought back another link from our trip up to Northeastern Finland. We took one final sauna, going to Helsinki’s Tin Tin Tango Cafe. It is a cafe/sauna/laundromat with a comic strip tango theme all rolled into one.
Only in Finland, you say!
Bruce Sach is a freelance writer now living in Ottawa.
The Seinäjoki Tango Festival will be held from July 9–July 13, 2014, www.tangomarkkinat.fi/en
The Kuopio Wine Festival will be held from June 27–July 5, 2014, www.visitlakeland.fi/en
Where to stay throughout Finland
Sokos Hotels : www.sokoshotels.fi/en
Kuopio Puijo Tower Restaurant and Café : www.kuopioinfo.fi/english
Fun activities in Kuopio
Finnish national train company: www.vr.fi/en
Finnair offers discount prices from North America: www.finnair.com