A Unique Finnish Adventure: Experiencing Opera, Saunas, and Salmon at Finland’s Festival

Approaching the castle, we felt like we were part of a medieval procession. Ushers were guiding opera-goers down the cobbled streets and over the bridge, which had swung open earlier that day to let us sail into Savonlinna. This unique music festival takes place in July at the Olavinlinna fortress, a 15th-century castle situated on an island in Finland’s southeastern lake district.

Traditionally, the seating at the festival was quite medieval as well. Opera enthusiasts were willing to sit on wooden benches or hard chairs for three or more hours. However, in recent years, the festival has become more accessible with the addition of softer chairs, improved views of the stage, and an awning for protection from rain. These changes have made attending the festival more comfortable and enjoyable.

This summer’s program includes a double bill of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Outi Tarkiainen’s A Room of One’s Own, combining symbolist operatic drama and Virginia Woolf’s feminist work. Other operas being performed are Romeo and Juliet, The Magic Flute, and The Barber of Seville, along with the musical Fiddler on the Roof and a pop concert by Katie Melua. All of these productions make use of the castle’s thick stone ramparts, creating a dramatic setting that cannot be replicated in a traditional opera house.

In addition to the festival, Savonlinna also offers the opportunity to go on a lake cruise. With nearly 200,000 lakes in Finland, Savonlinna serves as a great starting point for a cruise. A comfortable four-hour train ride from Helsinki brings you to Savonlinna, where everything is within walking distance, including the craft on the quayside. There are 15 cruises available from Savonlinna, ranging from short trips to multi-night stays. You can choose to sail on a historic steamship, a motor cruiser, or one of the new electric eco boats.

During our two-day round trip on a traditional craft, we enjoyed the beautiful landscape of Lake Saimaa, which has 14,000 islands. We spotted summer houses painted in traditional red and white, and even saw swimmers taking a dip and then scurrying back to saunas to warm up again. We also had a simple lunch of salmon while keeping an eye out for seals, one of which is the rare Saimaa ringed seal.

On the return route, you have the option to visit the Orthodox monastery at Valamo or explore nearby attractions such as Punkaharju or Kerimäki. You can also combine the cruise with a bike ride, as many boats accommodate bikes for an additional fee. The Finnish concept of “right to roam” allows you to enjoy outdoor activities as long as you respect people’s property.

One of the reasons Finland has consistently ranked at the top of the world’s happiness report is its connection with nature. Spending just 15 to 20 minutes in the mossy forest, roamed by bears, elk, wolves, and lynx, has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve mood.

Returning to Savonlinna after the peaceful cruise felt like a change of pace. We watched a soprano perform a daily recital in front of the harborfront restaurants, reminding us of a more structured life. I took a dip in the clear dark waters of Lake Saimaa’s sandy beaches, similar to the seals that inhabit the lake. Then it was time to head back to our hotel, equipped with its own en suite sauna, before immersing ourselves in the cultural experience of the next opera.

The Savonlinna opera festival takes place from July 1st to July 30th. You can reach Savonlinna by taking a train from Helsinki, with a transfer at Parikkala. For more information, visit visitfinland.com.


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