Features

Chesshyre on the cheap: Tampere

1 Oct 2006 by business traveller

When Finns run national polls asking where people would most like to live in the country, one city almost always comes top: Tampere.This may come as a surprise to all those who have heard good things about the lively cosmopolitan nature of Helsinki, but most Finns say they prefer Tampere's mix of high culture – including its several concert halls, theatres, galleries and museums – combined with a laid-back atmosphere and stunning natural beauty.

Tampere is perched between two vast lakes in the heart of Finland's Lake District, which has been easily accessible from the UK since Ryanair began flights in October 2003. In the summer these are a huge draw for water sports enthusiasts – for sailing, water-skiing, swimming and fishing – while in the winter they freeze over to create enormous ice-rinks. Local skating rental companies smooth out long paths offering long-distance ice-skating tracks, while more adventurous folk try "kite surfing", which involves being dragged along on a surf board by a kite.

In short, people who live in Tampere have an excellent balance between outdoor life, culture (Tampere hopes to be selected as a European City of Culture in 2011) and work. As this is also one of the industrial heartlands of Finland, unemployment is low and the local economy strong.

Very few people outside Finland have heard of Tampere, but it's only a matter of time, locals say, before the rest of Europe catches on.
Locals call Tampere "Finland's Manchester", and it's easy to see why when you arrive in the city, which is Finland's second-largest after Helsinki, about 100 miles to the south-east. Several large factory stacks run along the Tammerkosti rapids, which wind for about 1,700 metres through the city. Some still operate, others are now connected to buildings renovated as arts centres and smart shopping malls. Many of the textile and paper-making factories here closed in the 1980s and 1990s, but when the steam rises from the chimneys, it gives the city a rather romantic, 19th-century industrial feel.

Tampere gained its location and prominence because of power supplied by the Tammerkosti rapids, which link two vast lakes: Nasijarvi to the north, and Pyhajarvi in the south. Nasijarvi is 18 metres higher than Pyhajarvi, which is why the water runs so fast.

The first big factories in Tampere were built in the 1820s, with Scottish industrialist James Finlayson one of the most influential early figures. His cotton mill, which now houses a pleasant arcade full of shops, restaurants, cafés, cinemas and the offices of several small companies, quickly became the city's biggest employer.

Now the largest businesses include Nokia, which employs 3,950 people; UPM-Kymmene, which employs 2,362 people producing paper and bar-code stickers; Metsäliitto, another paper producer with 2,034 workers; and Metso, a company that crushes stones for use on roads, and builds systems for controlling paper-making machines, employing 1,983 people. Tampere's population was 201,200 at the last count, putting it well behind Helsinki's 1,162,900.

The area is known as the "engine" of Finland. The overall turnover of the Tampere region, which covers an area of about 150 miles north to south and about 100 miles east to west, including 33 municipalities, was €22,702 million in 2004, with almost half coming from heavy industry. One in three people here works in a factory.

Even with industrial plants dotted in and around Tampere's centre, the city has an attractive look, with wide streets in a grid formation, areas of parkland, and of course the two enormous lakes. It is a pleasant place to visit at almost any time of year for a weekend break, says the Finnish tourist board, which reports a mini-boom in curious weekend-breakers from the UK. It is, however, best to avoid the coldest winter months when temperatures can drop to -20C.

There is no shortage of good-quality accommodation. Most business travellers choose one of the well-run chain hotels in the city centre. The Holiday Inn, just refurbished to a high standard and with wifi in all rooms, is the pick of the bunch at the moment, with rooms starting at £68. But the Sokos Hotel Ilves is currently undergoing a major refurbishment that will make it an excellent, but more expensive, choice. Rooms with wifi start at £116. The sixth floor rooms are already completed, in a slick modern look. Sokos Hotels has two less well-appointed sister hotels in Tampere, the Tammer and the Villa, so it is crucial to check at the time of booking that the right hotel has been selected. The Scandic Hotel, next to the train station with 263 rooms and free wifi, is another good choice. Trains to Helsinki are frequent, taking an hour and a half.

"We're getting quite a few people coming over from the UK on Ryanair," says a spokeswoman at the Scandic. "They mainly come Monday to Friday. Most are business travellers. We're starting to get a few tourists on weekends, not a huge number, but they are coming."

Tampere also has a vibrant cultural life. There are several art galleries, half a dozen theatres, and Tampere Hall, a first-class concert hall that was built in 1990 and is home to the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, which performs every Friday night. Kalervo Kummola, managing director of Tampere Hall and a local mover and shaker, has been involved in the city's lobbying to become a cultural capital. He says: "Culture is very important to this region. The other day we released tickets to see Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in concert. We sold out 1,800 seats in less than two hours. The Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra attracted 1,600 people."

As well as being MD of Tampere Hall, Kummolas is president of Finland's ice hockey federation and chairman of the country's Olympic Council. Tampere has two of the country's top teams and this is where ice hockey began in Finland in the late 1920s. It is worth checking to see if a game is on when you visit – it's a great chance to see the otherwise reserved Finns letting their hair down. Ice hockey is the biggest national sport, although interest in football is growing. Football begins in April as it is too cold in Finland during the usual European season. Kummola, who was once a member of parliament for Finland's conservative party from 1999 to 2003, is the major shareholder in the local team, Tampere United.

Locals hope to develop the city's cultural side even further, says Kummola – partly to hold on to its many bright students who are often lured away by the bright lights of Helsinki. One highlight is the fascinating Lenin Museum, which many visitors miss. Lenin came to Tampere to plot the Russian Revolution, and he first met Stalin here, in 1905. You can see the green settee that Lenin allegedly slept on during his stopovers in the city. There are also intriguing documents relating to the early days of Finnish independence, some of which Lenin signed granting his Finnish "friends" autonomy within the Soviet region of influence.

Juha Kostiainen, vice president of business development at YIT Corporation, one of Finland's biggest construction companies, believes the city is at the point of "really taking off", partly because homes are markedly cheaper than in Helsinki. Some people even commute from Tampere to work in the Finnish capital, he says. "I like to live in Tampere. It's nice to work in Helsinki, but I wouldn't want to live there."

YIT is currently completing a large area of modern apartments in the Tammela district of the city centre. The company hopes to attract professionals working at major local companies and to create a vibrant, upmarket quarter not dissimilar to areas of converted dockland flats in some UK cities.

Kostiainen, a former director of economic development for the City of Tampere, believes Tampere should follow the model of Cambridge in the UK, by becoming a centre of excellence for research and development, and several companies – including John Deere, Gardner Denver and, of course, Nokia – already have major R&D divisions here.

As it happens, the town from which Nokia gained its name (although it does not have any telecommunications offices there now) is just a 10-minute west of Tampere. The company began in 1865 in Tampere, initially selling forest products, then moving into rubber and cable production, before turning to electronics in the 1970s. The town of Nokia still has the rubber factory, which produces tyres and is a major local employer.

Tampere is the largest inland city in Scandinavia, and it looks like it will only get bigger. Anja Taskinen, assistant manager of the Tampere Chamber of Commerce, says: "We are called the engine of Finland and that is absolutely right. We are growing faster than Helsinki. We have a very popular university; there is now big competition for places. We get students from across Finland. Often they move to Helsinki afterwards, but many come back because the living environment is better here. It's easier to find a house. It's easier to find a place for a child at a school. There is a good variety of theatres and cultural offerings. There is the forest for walking and the water for going on boats and swimming. We have a lot to offer."

And now it is just two and a half hours from Stansted – the most northerly of Ryanair's low-cost destinations in Europe, but certainly one of the most interesting.

WHERE TO STAY

Holiday Inn (holiday-inn.com) is a recently refurbished four-star choice opposite Tampere Hall, the main concert hall. Rooms from £68, breakfast included. Has saunas. Wifi costs £10 a day.

Scandic Tampere City (scandic-hotels.com) is another newly refurbished four-star option, next to the train station. Rooms from £77, with free wifi. There is a gym and a sauna.

Sokos Hotel Ilves (sokoshotels.fi) is a tower block above the main shopping centre. Considered by some to be the city's top hotel. Rooms start at £116, wifi £10 a day.

WHERE TO EAT

Ravintola Nasnneula (+358 207 130 234) is a revolving restaurant at the top of the observation tower serving traditional Finnish food. Three courses with wine comes to £45 a head.

Ravintola 4 Vuodenaikaa (4vuodenaikaa.fi) is a great little seafood restaurant in a corner of the indoor market on Hameenkatu, Tampere's main street. Open for lunches, and for dinners for groups that book. Three courses with wine from £20.

Amarillo (amarillo.fi) is a Mexican-themed steak house at the base of the Sokos Hotel tower. Three courses with wine is about £29.

USEFUL CONTACTS

Tampere Chamber of Commerce (tampereenkauppakamari.fi) – for information of important local companies and latest economic figures.

Tampere City Tourist Office (tampere.fi) for information on attractions.

Finnish Tourist Board (visitfinland.com/UK) for an overview on the country.

Tampere Hall (tampere-talo.fi) is the main concert hall, with a capacity of 1,800, with major events every weekend.
YIT Corporation (yit.fi) is one of Finland's largest construction firms.

Six Degrees (6d.fi) is a monthly English language newspaper with cultural listings, news and political opinion pieces. Free from most hotel lobbies.

RENTAL CARS

Hertz offers cars via the Ryanair website from £61 a day.

READING

Finland (Lonely Planet, £13.99) is the best guidebook. Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf by Richard D Lewis (Intercultural Press, £15.99) is an interesting book explaining the Finnish psyche, politics and the strengths and weaknesses of the Finnish economy; recommended by Matthew Kirk, the former British Ambassador to Finland.

GETTING THERE

Ryanair (ryanair.com) has returns from £36.

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