TampereI’ve visited Tampere, Finland’s second city, six times.* I’ve been there in the middle of summer, when it doesn’t get dark at night, and in the middle winter, when the snow’s piled up and it’s minus 20 degrees Celsius outside. And I’ve been there in spring and autumn as well. I may well be one of New Zealand’s foremost authorities on Tampere, Finland. For what it’s worth.

Not surprisingly for a Finnish city, Tampere is built next to a lake. Actually, two lakes. And there are a number of little lakes nearby. Finland is stuffed with lakes. Tampere is a small industrial city of a couple of hundred thousand people that sprung up several centuries ago on either side of the rapids that join the lakes of Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi. The lake levels differ by nearly 20 metres so the rapids linking them, Tammerkoski, have been an important vein running through the life of the city.

You can get a history lesson about the place from any number of websites. Wikipedia gives a nice summary.

TampereTampere can appear, initially, to be quite a grim, cold, grey old town. When the weather’s playing up, which, according to several of my Finnish friends, is usually for all but about three weeks of every year, it can come across as very a gloomy place. But then there’s the other side of this compact, at times cosy, town that I have great affection for.

In many ways Finland is like New Zealand. Both countries are relatively isolated in terms of their geography. Our populations are similar in size, with both of us having way too few people. The ‘Clean and Green’ catchphrase could have been invented for Finland, and particularly the area around Tampere, as much as for New Zealand. And, without fail, every time I’ve been to Finland I’m told of the uncommon link our two countries share – Finland was the second country, after New Zealand, to grant women the right to vote.

So Tampere is a nice place, made even nicer by the fact it’s not on the tourist track and is washed down by nature nearly every day.

Hotel IlvesThe Hotel Ilves is like a second home. One of the tallest buildings in central Tampere it overlooks the rapids, Lake Pyhäjärvi, and sits next to the multi-level Koskikeskus shopping centre. The rooms are a decent size and comfortable, with a great outlook no matter which side of the building your room is on. There’s a massive sauna area in the basement for locals and visitors alike (more on saunas soon).

Probably the most striking landmark in Tampere is the Näsinneula tower, which is situated in the Särkänniemi amusement park and topped by a standard issue revolving restaurant. With the area around Tampere being so flat the view from the restaurant means you can just about see Russia. The view of Lake Näsijärvi in summer is special. This is where I tried reindeer for the first time. That was cool, if for no other reason than to say I’d eaten reindeer.

I’ve had two sauna experiences in Tampere. The first was with a group of work colleagues at a cottage by the lake. Thankfully my first go at it was in the middle of summer, so the lake water was more than welcome after a session sweating it out and slapping yourself with branches in the sauna. The booze (vodka or schnapps…I can’t remember which) went down well. That was a great evening.

My second sauna experience was at a public facility, in spring (which is code for slightly less cold winter). Thankfully the ice was gone from the lake, Lake Näsijärvi, but my guess is it hadn’t been gone long. I think I made it from the sauna to the lake and back three times, before the water killed me. It was that cold. The last time in it felt like a vice squeezing on my body. So I bailed out. But my body was well awake after that effort!

Another first for me in Tampere was ice hockey. Live ice hockey, to be precise. On my first visit back in 2002 I was lucky enough to be taken along to the Finnish ice hockey league’s season opener between Tampere’s two main professional teams – Ilves (Finnish for “Lynx”) and Tappara (Finnish for “Battle axe”). The game appeared to be a social experience more than anything, with each period of whirring madness followed by a session in the bar. The game didn’t look as violent as the NHL appears in TV, but then we were up in the rafters so couldn’t hear the sound of stick on bone.

There are plenty of good places to eat and drink in Tampere. I’ve been to Salud several times. It’s a Spanish-style beef restaurant with a very good, well deserved, reputation. The Plevna brew bar in the old Finlayson cotton mill complex is another favourite. Their wheat beer goes down well. In summer, a boat trip out to Viikinsaari Island, in Lake Pyhäjärvi, will reward you with a nice meal in a relaxed country atmosphere.

Tampere-Pirkkala airport is a familiar old barn (well, it’s not so old, but it is a big shed). I’m glad I had the experience in January 2011 of walking from the plane to the terminal across the snow. That was my first proper experience of snow so, oddly, Tampere airport will always be one of those places I’ll remember.

Now that I’m not working for a Finnish-owned company I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to Tampere. I’d like to, just for old times’ sake, but there are many other places I have to get to first. So we’ll just have to wait and see.

As an aside, a day or so in Helsinki is also worthwhile, if only to say you’ve been there. Helsinki is a 35 minute flight south of Tampere, or a 2 hour train ride. It’s nice in summer and at its grimmest best during every other time of year.

Nowadays it appears to be as much a conference town and business hub as anything, with a number of good hotels and venues available. The shopping looks as good as it would be at any city of comparable size, while it’s easy to get around by either foot or tram.  Although I never made it out there, a visit to the Soumenlinna Fort complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on islands just off the coast, is the thing to do.

There are a number of decent pubs, with the Sports Academy being my personal favourite. That’s where I watched the opening game of the 2010 world cup, before jetting out to South Africa the next day. Good memories.

*I used to work for the New Zealand arm of Metso, a Finnish company that has a major presence in Tampere.