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Thursday, January 15, 2009


Finland, the quiet sibling of the Nordic countries, has a down-to-earth natural purity that makes it an exceptionally rewarding place to visit.Across the south, cultural differences reflect a turbulent history. The picturesque Swedish-speaking wooden towns of the west coast and the onion-domed Orthodox churches of Karelia in the east speak of Finland's oft-repeated role as the rope in a tug of war between Sweden and Russia. In the middle were the stoic Finns, a loyal and warmhearted people with a gloriously independent and idiosyncratic streak. Even the urban technocrats love to get back to basics, chopping wood or hunting for mushrooms from their lakeside cabins.In far-northern Lapland, the Sámi people still herd their reindeer in the vast swathes of sparsely populated wilderness - at least when they're not podcasting: Finland is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. It is also renowned for its design and architecture, particularly strong in the capital Helsinki, a clean, modern and buzzy place, with a strong tradition of artistic and musical innovation and a beautiful coastline and harbour.Finland is shaped by its climate, and Finns take advantage of their short but intense summers. The country explodes into life with a bewildering array of festivals and celebrations, ranging from Savonlinna's prestigious opera extravaganza to the tongue-in-cheek humour of the Air Guitar World Championships.Fabulous forests and lakes cover almost 80% of the country and this, plus the excellent network of national parks, makes it a tempting destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Trekking and canoeing are obvious choices, but a trip in winter can offer cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, snowmobiling or a sled safari with a team of huskies or reindeer. And it is hard to beat a traditional wood-fired sauna at the end of the day