If your knowledge of Finland is limited to Lordi and lakes, head for Joensuu in July to discover beautiful countryside and probably the greenest music festival ever
'I'll meet you at the airport, between the Lordi T-shirts and the stuffed reindeer,' said the first text I received when I landed in
So little did I know about the country, that on the second leg of the journey – the 60-seater internal flight from Helsinki to Joensuu itself – I made the apparently hilarious mistake of asking what exactly all those shiny things were on the ground that were reflecting the setting sun so beautifully. 'The lakes, of course.' 'What lakes?' I asked. Apparently,
Joensuu is a beautiful, self-contained pine paradise of a town, set on the edge of a huge, still lake. It's tranquil all year round, despite being big enough to contain large department stores, markets, multiple churches and a university. However, for one weekend a year it hosts Ilosaarirock, a festival with its origins in the Seventies, which, although now a huge operation in comparison to its humble localised origins, still presents a genuinely friendly face. It literally means 'happy island rock'. This is a festival that cares – about its customers, and about the planet as well.
Ilosaarirock has won several awards for its cleanliness and sustainability, and there's barely a scrap of litter on site. People recycle everything, no matter how drunk they get (and they get pretty drunk here), and the site is far from the trench-like conditions we endure at festivals in the U
Entertainment and crowd-wise, this is a young people's festival, and the bill is a deliberately confusing mix of reggae (which has its own stage), metal (most of the bill) and pop (which appeals to the same people who are here for the metal). There's a lack of boundaries between fans of different genres, and everyone seems up for everything on offer, rather than dividing into groups of their own kind.
With five stages – two of which are indoors – it's big enough to wander round all day without getting bored, but not so huge that you can't fully explore it in a weekend, or even a day. Although it's quite frustrating not being allowed out of the drinking pens if you happen to buy booze, it means that people don't have drink to throw around in the crowds, which is a welcome change.
Coming here for the whole festival means making sure you get off-site as well. A lot of the gigs take place in the ice rink and other 'club' nights that start after the bands on the main site have finished, and go on until the early hours. For this reason – and in order to explore the town itself properly – it may be a good idea to book into a hotel rather than camping, so that you can make sure you're kitted out for any occasion.
Both times I've visited the festival, I've stayed at the wonderful Sokos Hotel Kimmel, which has a club downstairs that is both impressively shiny and unwittingly cheesy, seeming to have come straight out of the Nineties.
Other options for accommodation during the festival include boats, and several festival-goers we met were staying on one of these moored up in a nearby marina. In fact, whilst in Joensuu it is essential that you try and get out onto the lake and into the water, preferably after a traditional Finnish sauna, another must-try.
The food is mainly locally-sourced fish, bread and dairy, simple but tasty, and there's something called the 'long drink', a cocktail of gin and grapefruit soda, which is definitely worth a try.
Getting around is easily done by bike, as the locals do, and if you combine this with travelling to the festival by train, rather than plane, it's possible to make this the greenest festival you've ever been to. At the very least, if you can sacrifice the opportunity to see Finland from the air between Helsinki and Joensuu, consider getting the six-hour official Rock Train, which carries festival-goers exclusively, and is a lively and scenic journey of anticipation during which you can get to know some of the Finnish people you'll be spending the weekend with.
For anyone who feels they might be a little bit old for Ilosaarirock, the original version of the festival still exists. It's a gentler, shorter and more civilised affair, with an older audience, but just as much fun, and goes on at the same time, much nearer to the centre of town than the larger one – close to the 'happy island' itself.