Finland is a fascinating destination in many ways. It is the land of the Northern Lights, Midnight Sun, Santa Claus, saunas and a thousand lakes. More than ten years ago, I visited the Finnish Lapland. It is a trip that I keep a very gratifying memory since it allowed me to enjoy that wonderful show that is the aurora borealis at 23 degrees below zero.
Finland is the gateway to Lapland at Christmas, Santa Claus, the land of elves and reindeer, the huskies and snowmobiles. There is also the wild nature dressed in white in winter. the extraordinary beings that survive this climate and the boreal camps on the banks of a good fire.
Imagine for a moment looking at the world from its top, from the North Pole, and take the piece that defines the Arctic Circle. We entered the most polar areas of the planet, a category that was born with that trip to the Antarctic in the opposite extreme.
We also explored Svalbard, Greenland and Lofoten Islands in Lapland Norway and that today lives a much more traditional new chapter. Lapland is precisely that region beyond that circle of northern Europe divided between Norway, Russia, Sweden and Finland. Lapland is wonderful but among them there is one that lives Christmas all year round and there we go to Finnish Lapland!
There are many places to make base for an adventure in Lapland. Rovaniemi, Levi, Yllas, Luosto, Saariselka, Inari but there is one you will go to if you are looking for the Lapland of Christmas. It is Rovaniemi or more specifically the home of Santa Claus. However, it would not be strictly necessary to stay here but you can do it in Levi or Yllas thus guaranteeing snow as well if you go at the end of November or the beginning of December, which is not always guaranteed in Rovaniemi.
Helsinki was the only one of the four Scandinavian capitals that I had yet to see. Although it is true that it is reputed to be much less attractive than Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen. In the end, it seemed an ideal city for a weekend getaway. Helsinki is not an excessively large city but it lights up for Christmas with many Christmas markets.
In summer take into account that on those dates in Scandinavia it is sunset after 11 o'clock at night. The Finns, so much in need of Sun do not know that wonderful invention called blinds.
Every adventure begins with the suitcase, right? We put thermal clothing, gloves, waterproof boots and then we are ready! Time has passed since our first polar adventures to Antarctica, Svalbard or Lofoten Islands in Norwegian Lapland. Thanks to them preparing a suitcase to survive the temperatures of this time in Finland does not inspire us too much fear.
Although we already explained it in the trip to Greenland, that backpack was slightly different. Here we will not have great trekking activities except some day of snowshoeing. Traveling to Finnish Lapland does not require a great physical shape unless you go in expedition mode.
And what cannot I forget? Winter clothes usually take up a lot of space but many times we abuse carrying more than necessary. We carry special gloves that are very useful for managing cameras. We buy some extra battery for the electronic equipment since they last much less at low temperatures. We also read of how to take pictures of auroras borealis and also carry a tripod and packaged food to balance budgets.
Of course, with everything ready, the day starts by taxi with our usual early morning around 5:00 in the airport. We look for our boarding gate for the flight to Helsinki, which takes us to the Nordic country for the first time. It is 15:15 when we begin to see the surroundings of Helsinki, with some white spots and many lakes. After arriving at the airport we are surprised by the silence that reigns in the terminal!
In fact it was not even 4 pm when it had been dark over the city. In some areas, the piped music emits relaxing music with the sounds of nature. Before arriving at the luggage belt we stop at the playroom (the first of many game spaces that we will see in Finland). The Helsinki terminal is small but well organized.
After getting our luggage, we decided to stay overnight near the airport of the Finnish capital to get up early and take advantage of the day. From the airport the connection to Helsinki is exceptional. So in about half an hour, we arrived in the Finnish capital without problems by bus. We also take advantage of the opportunity to buy a SIM in a store from a local operator with good coverage.
Tomorrow we will see the city calmly but we already see the illuminated galleries or street markets in Aleksanterinkatu, one of the main streets, and the windows of Stockmann. We see trams, candy stalls or of glogi, the traditional drink made from wine with a touch of almonds and raisins with a splash of vodka.
Even if I consider myself a well traveled person, each destination continues to surprise me. The long night of winter and cold brings the Finns to life in bars and restaurants. For dinner we tried to do it in a Lappi style, but without reservation it was impossible. So we finished at the one where we order the salmon soup and other typical dishes like reindeer meat!
The day has been long and we go to bed early. Helsinki, a city unknown to us, awaits us and in it many surprises that do not appear in the Finland travel guide.
Day 1 - Helsinki
We have slept a lot and more hours than we usually do at the beginning of a trip. This time it has helped that the light schedule in Helsinki starts at 9 o'clock in the morning and have breakfast in the wide buffet before getting on the road.
Our journey begins with the Lonely Planet guide of this magnificent country. Upon arrival, we were struck by the Rautatieasema railway station. It is considered the most significant creation in the national romantic style and the most visited building in all of Finland! The design is very original, with two large statues on each side of the main door that hold spherical lamps that illuminate at night. The clock tower is also considered the hallmark of a station through which more than 200,000 people pass each day!
In addition to shops, restaurants and the typical things of the stations, in the interior of Rautatieasema, you can almost certainly find a free exhibition. Very close to the station we find the Rautatientori square which houses two symbols of traditional Finnish culture. The national theater of Finland and the statue of Aleksis Kivi, Finnish national writer, preside over a square that we enjoyed with lots of snow!
Before continuing our journey against the clock and after going through a lot of pastry shops we treated ourselves to a very sweet treat. Helsinki stands out among other things for its sweets and cakes. Since we did not want to leave without trying something typical, we bought a cake in one of the bakeries that we saw. Fruit, butter, fillings and all forms and flavors that you can imagine.
Undoubtedly one of the things that struck me most about the city was the Senate Square, Senaatintori in Finnish. It was not only because of its extension but also because it is the setting for concerts, exhibitions, and varied events.
Everywhere we look, the square is full of buildings and significant monuments such as the Government Palace, library, the Alexander II statue, the University of Helsinkiand an interesting construction located in the southeast corner. It is currently a museum, which is the oldest stone building in the city, the Sederholmin Talo. Although undoubtedly, what stands out most is the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral, Tuomiokirkko, at the northern end of the square.
Impressive both inside and outside, 47 steps separate the Helsinki Cathedral from the square. This cathedral is a symbol of the city, and it is worth seeing its large columns and its immaculate white color that impresses from far and near.
After visiting this architectural wonder we headed towards the port of Helsinki, which looked like a giant ice rink of how frozen it was. The port stretches over a large part of the city. The boats appeared on the ice giving us images that seemed like a fairytale. We toured the area and took the opportunity to walk along the promenade with typical restaurants of marine cut. There are large anchors and propellers on its walls and a bridge full of locks in the purest Roman style.
We cross the other side of the canals of the port through a bridge full of padlocks where the lovers declare their eternal love. City of cathedrals, Helsinki also has an Orthodox cathedral, Uspenski, located very close to the port. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary and located on a hill, this is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe.
Its architecture reminded me of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. It is striking that, unlike other imposing ones we have seen in Jerusalem or Shipka in Bulgaria, it does not base its structure on the famous onion-style golden domes but on a red brick facade with very attractive green domes. The interior breathes a certain mysticism. Without a doubt, this type of religious places conquer us in that sense.
Precisely in front of this cathedral and on the other side of the harbor is one of my favorite places in the city, the Market Square, Kauppatori. In this square is one of the most varied that I have seen in my travels. We buy there several souvenirs and apart from being very cheap, it is all handmade.
Next to the market square is the City Hall building, neoclassical style and very peculiar by the color of its facade in pastel blue. Located in Esplanadi, the main street of the historic center of the city, the town hall building presides over the port area. After this journey through the city, we ate something quick on the way to the station.
We take the ferry that leaves now! The person in charge of closing the barrier tells us to climb like other confused tourists. The exit from the port of Helsinki represents a perfect panorama of the place where we are. It is in this small journey when we started to realize the cold that is -2 degrees.
We disembarked around 10:30 am at Suomenlinna Fortress, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. As we walk we can see the oldest dry dock in Finland or the original courtyard where the tomb of the founder of the fortress, Augustin Ehrensvard is located.
As we move south we see how the Piper garden and what was the coastal defense line of the original fortress are frozen. It is precisely in this area called Kustaanmiekka, where the Russians built the canyons and main defense structures.
All this part of the hill directly leads to the Baltic Sea and allows us to get an idea of what could have been in its day. Although there are several bastions on the six united islands that form the fortress, it is the King's Gate, the place where King Adolf Frederick of Sweden disembarked in 1752 is the true symbol of Suomenlinna.
Its purpose was ceremonial entry but today we cannot avoid remembering the famous series Game of Thrones as it would be a perfect scenario. After a comforting coffee, some postcards, a small run to avoid losing the ferry and a short crossing, the port returns to receive us more lively than ever.
Markets food stalls and traditional Finnish Christmas products occupy the area. In anticipation of what awaits us in Lapland, even though we are sufficiently equipped, we buy some woollen gloves and caps. We are hungry. Despite tempting proposals aboard restaurants in boats anchored right here, it is the Vanha Kauppahalli old market which draws our attention.
We crossed Esplanadi passing close to the City Hall building and leaving aside the lively avenues that we saw last night. This large park houses the main luxury shops in the city and a basement full of magic. Our direction takes us to the design district of Helsinki, specifically to the Hotel Torni, which on its upper floor is 70 meters away.
It has a panoramic terrace and a glass interior cafe, ideal at this time. Yes, it is worth seeing a beautiful sunset illuminating with the lights of the city and almost at 3:30 on the day of a month of December. After Kamppi, the business district, and after buying some earmuffs, we arrive to Kalo, a residential district.
Here the Temppeliaukio or Stone Church, a Lutheran church surprises us. This small temple has a fundamental characteristic and is different from others that we have seen in the world. It is wedged between rocks. Near here is also the Hietaniemi cemetery where great personalities and heads of state are buried.
We also visited the Sibelius Monument dedicated to the most important classical musician of Finland. We enter a cafe, a fairytale place on the shores of a lake. We are in a wooden shed that has been taken care of to the last detail. It is surrounded by unique tables and a barbecue area in a frozen environment that is very magical.
It is a kind of very cozy pastry with lamps, Christmas decor, lanterns, candles and much love from their owners. We have a hot chocolate and some cinnamon rolls that seem to be very famous and are very good. From here the return is different than if it were in summer because we almost run because of the cold.
From here we set course for the area of the train station through the Finnish National Opera, Parliament of Finland and its 14 Corinthian columns, Kiasma or Museum of Contemporary Art and the Ateneum. And where does the Christmas destination take us? We have dinner in the vicinity of the hotel with pasta that they prepare in front of us and another coffee! Tomorrow we are going to Rovaniemi but that is another story.
Day 2 - Savonlinna
At about 9 in the morning, we rent a car and leave Helsinki to explore the parks in north Finland and to witness the wonderful spectacle of the Northern Lights in the wilderness. Here the glaciers, melting more slowly than most of the planet have given rise to a multitude of lakes.
Along the way to the north, our first stop near Helsinki is in Porvoo, one of Finland's oldest cities. We walk along the riverside in the old part of this small port town. Here we can admire the enchanting little red ocher wooden houses that were once used to cram the goods. We walk through the well-kept streets of the village and in front of its shops.
I stop in a bakery where I taste a specialty of this area, the Runeberg cake, born from a recipe of the wife of the Finnish poet to whom it is dedicated. His wife, to satisfy his appetite for desserts, has assembled the Christmas gifts of gingerbread reusing them to create this cake based on biscuits, chocolate and raspberry jam. She used the taste of bitter almonds to try to make her husband eat less.
In fact, it is the bitter almond aftertaste that makes this cake so good and made it so popular. I finish my gluttonous purchases by making a supply of salmiakki, the salty licorice typical of the north of which I am greedy. Porvoo looks fabulous. Even though it is so close to Helsinki, I already feel that we are about to venture into a completely different landscape from the one we saw in the capital.
We continue our journey by bus to reach the shores of Lake Saimaa starting to travel the roads of the Karelian region. It is a geographical territory divided between Russia and Finland and which was long disputed by Sweden. This territory was the last to be reunited with Finland after the Winter War and the end of the World War II. Here the Finnish and the Russian traditions have coexisted mutually influencing each other to merge with perfect balance. The Carelian language is shared and is spoken both in Finland and in Russia.
From the window we see the pines, birches, and cypresses parading before us, in this lush territory covered for the most part by forests. Here in Finland have established the jokamiehenoikeus. It allows everyone to enjoy nature by paying attention to its full respect, being able to freely collect the fruits, such as blueberries and mushrooms for example, or being able to fish without whirlpool and swim anywhere, and allowing the possibility to camp in any place within a limited period.
When we arrive at Savonlinna on the shores of the Saima, the evening lights have not yet fallen. We take a stroll through its historic center, admiring the 15th-century castle of Olavinlinna. But it is Lake Saimaa, the fourth largest in Europe, to give true magic to this place.
In its waters lives an endangered species of freshwater seal that takes its name from the lake. The hope of seeing one near a town is almost nothing, but I hope to be more fortunate later on our journey. We walk on the banks of the Saimaa with the birches that redraw the horizon.
Here the birch tree, as well as for perfuming the sauna, is used in all its forms. Its dense bark was once used to build fishing nets, baskets and even shoes. In spring the sap is extracted for the multiple healing properties. Thanks to the presence of acetylsalicylic acid it is used in these areas and also in the herbal field as a natural substitute for aspirin.
Day 3 - Ilomantsi
The weather is not the best at 13 degrees and it rains at times. But we are not made of sugar and the journey continues! We decide to visit Joensuu, the capital of Karelia and an important university city. Once in Joensuu we pick up the rental car and head towards the mokki, one of the characteristic wooden lakeside cottages.
Mokki is the typical cottage that the Finns use to spend their summer vacation in nature. In earlier times it was used by the Finnish peasants as a sort of alpine pasture to cultivate fields and raise livestock. In Finland, the cottages or bungalows are an institution. They are located near lakes or rivers and allow us to live an authentic face to face experience with nature.
It is an escape from reality in which to watch the sunset on the lake, sitting on the pier with your feet in the water, savoring the silence. It's time for dinner! We are waiting for an exquisite salmon (the best of my life) and other local delicacies, including piirakka, a savory pie made of rye flour and filled with rice, over which butter is spread mixed with hard-boiled eggs.
The next stop of our trip includes a stop at Ilomantsi, a town with strong Carelian and Orthodox influences. It is famous for having given birth to the artist Jaakko Parppei, poet, and kantele player, a traditional stringed instrument.
The Parppeinvaara hill (where he lived) takes its name from it and now houses a reproduction of a typical Karelian village and an animal museum. We visit the museum where there are stuffed animals including a 200 kg bear, reindeer and birds and attend a performance of kantele.
Outside the village, there is a small wooden house for children, with games and books. At the restaurant next to the museum, however, we taste typical Carelian dishes: salmon, braised, piirakka and craft beer. After lunch, we head towards the Orthodox Church of Sant'Elia, the largest wooden Orthodox sanctuary in Finland.
Inside, in one of the side aisles, there is a large table with baskets of games. Even going to church for the Finns is a moment to share with your family. Therefore they think about the time their children will spend in this place and activities to entertain them. Naturally, everything is ordered. We return to the mokki.
We are ready to admire another spectacular sunset. We take a short walk along the main streets to the market. Here stalls sell mushrooms, wild strawberries, blueberries and peas and other fruits. These are not sold only per kilo, but per liter, using a carafe as a unit of measurement!
Our Lonely Planet guide recommends a typical Karelian restaurant near the town hall. Here we have a buffet lunch and taste local dishes in an art deco atmosphere. Outside the restaurant, a magnificent terrace welcomes guests during the summer days overlooking the river. Here we will stop to sleep in a mokki. Tomorrow we will leave again to visit the Koli National Park.
Day 4 - Koli National Park
In this land of lakes, the blue of the waters alternates with the intense green of its forests. Our morning begins with a boat ride on Lake Hoytiainen, from where we can admire unspoiled landscapes of birch and fir forests. We see piers leading to quiet cottages surrounded by greenery.
For lunch, we stop at a restaurant on the marina where we taste another typical dish of the area, the Pyttipannu. These are fried potatoes with wurstel, sauces, hamburgers and the fried egg. With a full stomach, we move to the next stage, Koli, about 50 km from Kontiolahti, where we stay.
The Koli National Park is one of the 35 parks on Finnish territory and is beautifully equipped to freely undertake any kind of route inside it. The most scenic point of the park is on the Ukko-Koli. It is the hill from which you can admire the breathtaking view of the underlying Pielinen lake, with its flat islets and the tall conifers that dance around it, shaken by the wind. Further on we see the rocky and rugged summit of Paha-Koli.
To enjoy at sunset the summer light that creeps between the branches reflecting in the lake is a sight that makes us feel small and insignificant in the midst of so much beauty. Spending the night among the sounds of the forest lulled by the distant and intermittent echo of the numerous peaks that live in the park makes us feel in direct contact with the wild nature of Finland.
Day 5 - Kuusamo
Our road trip in Finland continues to Lieksa, a few hundred kilometers from the Russian border. We enjoy a traditional wooden boat rafting experience along the Ruunaa rapids! The tour lasts about a couple of hours! It is possible to buy the package with "wild lunch" or the one with an overnight stay. As we sit in this boat and sail along the river, we can admire the surrounding nature between one another and greet the hikers and fishermen by boat.
Along the banks are moored small boats that allow the passage from one bank to another. The small cottages welcome the explorers on their journey with a backpack. The symbol of the nation is the reindeer, naturally associated with Santa Claus! On the Lonely Planet guide, we found this farm, which hosts 11 reindeer and husky puppies.
We admire the fields behind the farm where girls with their headscarves pick up the delicious wild strawberries. We take a souvenir photo with the wooden bear sculptures and then leave again!
We continue our journey by bus to discover the last two parks, that of Hossa and that of Oulanka. In Hossa, we have the opportunity to visit the reindeer farm. After getting acquainted with this beautiful semi-domestic animal, we did not really feel like sitting at the farm restaurant. Here obviously it is an integral part of the menu and we prefer to think of them busy pulling the Santa's sleigh.
We spend the night in Kuusamo, which in winter is one of the most popular ski destinations. We will leave tomorrow for our next destination in Lapland.
Day 6 - Rovaniemi
Our story starts at 9:00 in the morning or rather night after check-out from the hotel that has given us a great service. Now it dawns at 10 and the sunset is around 2:30 pm. The first train to Rovaniemi starts at 9 and many young people come back from the long night of partying. I hallucinate seeing the little clothes that some girls wears in that cold.
After a small breakfast at the Kuusamo station, today we take a train that in 3 hours take us beyond the Arctic Circle. The Rovaniemi station, where we reached on time, is like entering the Christmas story we are looking for.
There are decorated trees, animals, reindeer sleigh, Christmas lighting and gifts everywhere. What we have not found (and we have toured the small terminal, asked at the kiosk and information) is the old stamp that they put in your passport if one wanted. The girl at the information desk told us that they do not put it but there is the option at the Santa Claus Village.
Although there is a shuttle bus option to the different hotels, we have chosen to take one of the many taxis that wait for travelers. It brings us to our charming accommodation, located on a hill at the top of Rovaniemi in 15 minutes.
Our choice comes not only because of the charm it gives off when we enter with its fireplace. There is a panoramic corner in its roof terrace with views of the city. The view of the surrounding natural landscape from the restaurant windows is special.
To enjoy the great moment calmly, today we have decided to continue collecting clues about Santa Claus and not go directly to his world of magic. So we decide to see the most virgin part of nature that introduces us to Lapland covered in white in winter. We hire a car to the Ranua Wildlife Park, 100 km away from Rovaniemi.
We are in one of the few places where we can see arctic animals never seen before by us. In the part of birds, ural or short-eared owls, eagles of white or royal tail, goshawk, ducks, geese, swans or crows take attention. The place is freezing. It is around -14 degrees but the thermal clothes are working perfectly.
In another area we can see mink, raccoons, beavers and wild boar but, undoubtedly, the star of the park is the polar bear. What does surprise us is to see the dhole and the gray wolves in an area of the forest to which we have access from a high viewpoint. It is impressive to see how these animals are able to survive at these temperatures.
We dedicate the rest of the pleasant ride to the lynx and to see the arctic landscapes illuminated by a timid sunset in the distance. Here we go, to the area of deer, reindeer, elk, roe deer, and Siberian deer and even musk oxen that we had not seen before either.
There has been no luck and it seems that Rudolf has not been here for a long time. To the question of whether they have seen a reindeer with a red nose that lights up in the darkness or in the fog, the little animals made a face.
Halfway through, a fire next to an ice bar (interesting contrast) serves to heat the hands that are hardest hit by the polar cold due to the use of cameras. Of the foxes, both the red and the Arctic, we can hardly say since the first one was conspicuous by its absence. After our encounter with the arctic fox in Svalbard in complete freedom, the one here could not surprise us.
The tour ends at the starting point where one of the two available restaurants offers a buffet included in the price. We also drop by the famous chocolate shop where it is impossible not to take some. We also enter the wine shop where we buy Finnish wines (apparently based on Arctic berries).
The way back after the meal was good, after the early morning journey, for that very attractive little nap. We were aware that from the moment we enter these places of the north of the planet, from 9:00 pm our eyes would have to focus towards the sky!
I have never seen aurora borealis. I have installed a couple of mobile apps to know the intensity each day in our different destinations. Today the possibilities are not very high but, after moving away from the city to several kilometers, a set design shows us the wonder.
A small trail of snow illuminated by candles leads us into the forest to a small bonfire. We go by a guided bus after eating an extraordinary readymade hamburger. We also carry sausages! Tonight, despite the magnificent views of the Lapland sky, it was not going to be our first northern lights. We will have to wait.
In the last hours of the day we have approached the snow-covered village of Rovaniemi with dozens of restaurants, hotels, bars, cafes and supermarkets and charming places. As we come back and go to sleep our roadmap is set for tomorrow. Santa Claus Village, the town of Santa Claus has time to introduce us to his wonderful magical world. Our entry into the nature of Lapland will give way to that old man with the white beard and red suit whose meeting we have been waiting for months. It is part of another story.
Day 7 - Santa Claus Village
From the first hour on the breakfast buffet we have included in the panoramic restaurant of the hotel where we stayed I had a restless smile. Although we could have gone down in search of the bus to get closer, we decided to take a taxi to arrive almost without people to that desired place!
How could it be otherwise? The snowing in this distant land is the symbol of Christmas. There is no missing ingredient to what we could have imagined. We are on the coldest day of the trip so far. It seems that tonight the temperature has reached -21 degrees although small arctic squirrels seem to adapt perfectly to the environment. We enter a small museum building like a Christmas house.
The museum turns out to be rather a simple Christmas exhibition that combines some traditions and explanations of the Sami life. There are nativity scenes and a modern lego and a door where Santa Claus lets himself fall from time to time. After a stop for a short coffee and buns we approach another jewel in the crown of the place, the main post office of the town of Santa Claus.
We are thousands of kilometers away from the big cities of the world but from here leave millions of gifts both by mail and in the sleigh of Santa Claus on Christmas night. Inside is a small shop decorated with much love, with an area to buy parcels and another to sit down to write postcards or letters.
Any package, letter or postcard that you send will bear the seal of one of the most special places in the world. We were not going to miss the opportunity, of course. This place also receive thousands of letters from all over the world and are piled up waiting to be read by the white bearded old man to prepare gifts this year. Do you want to send yours? The address of Santa Claus is Joulupukki or Santa Claus, Joulumaantie 1, FI-96930 Napapiiri.
Another interesting thing to know is that you can decide between buying stamps from there, sending your postcards, packages or letters so that they arrive days later or order a very special package from Santa! It is a letter, a postcard and a little detail that will arrive at Christmas following your visit by filling out a small form.
It is time to continue seeing what else we can visit in this great town of Santa Claus that receives so many visits a day. We went out again in the cold although it has stopped snowing to surround the Santa Claus Office to the Snowman or ice bar-restaurant.
After passing a playground for children, some great snowmen give us access to the bar and restaurant area. It's amazing, as even the smallest detail is all decorated. Although perhaps, more than a cold drink, what we want is a hot soup or a good cappuccino.
We walked to the top of the Santa Claus Village or Santa Claus town and we approached a kind of reindeer farm. So we have a much better fire that they have outside to warm up again. We are in a large enclosed space full of small shops, restaurants, coffee shops and the line that marks the Arctic Circle!
Right in this same place, the center of the elongated covered space, is the info point where we can put the stamp on the passport. But what most strikes us is a new activity to fly over the clouds in a plane in search of the Northern Lights.
But we are already entered hungry and we enter a restaurant with a lot of charm on the outside that inside is a little cave. We have a kind of buffet perfect to regain strength. We open the door and walk down a path with music and an atmosphere that takes us to a magical world. If it is already exciting, the emotion still rises. We climb a staircase to the upper floor full of strange watches, and pendulums.
Everything leads us to a final door where even an elf offers us a gift that Santa Claus hide behind his chair to give to the little ones when they enter. I will never forget the hands of Santa Claus. They were white and the softest I've ever touched. We say goodbye.
In the outskirts of the town of Santa Claus it has already got dark. The building where the illusions of children and adults are fulfilled, is full of colored lights, Christmas trees and the line of the Arctic Circle with its 66º 32' 35'' perfectly marked in blue to the room where he receives us.
Legend has it that the location of Santa's house is one of Lapland's best kept secrets and only a select few, his elves, are aware of his whereabouts. The temperatures begin to fall with the darkness and it is a good time to take the bus just in front of the main Gift House and get closer to Rovaniemi. The bus stops in Santa Park.
In a few minutes we arrive at the reindeer farm from where we will leave for the snowy forests of the surroundings of Rovaniemi. But before we have a small snack in the Sami cabin who run it.
So we enter the dense snowy forests of the surroundings of Rovaniemi with a goal, to continue our search of the traces that Santa Claus leaves to know his secrets. We start a reindeer sleigh ride through Lapland. It is magical, looking among snowy trees and dreamy landscapes.
The safari finally ends in the Santa Claus Village where Santa Claus continues working these days against the clock to have everything ready for Christmas Eve.
The Angry Birds have also got their space where slides and other types of swings are for the little ones. But the magical moment comes at 4:00 pm when the heart of Santa Park awaits the elves' great show.
It's around 5:30 when we step on Rovaniemi. In fact, we have another coffee. The Koskikatu Street is the main street that gives life to Rovaniemi and around which are the shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and markets. The Lardi square with a large clock that marks the temperature would be the heart of everything.
Apart from this, we see the Jatkankynttila bridge over the Kemijoki river that we have seen several times these days. We dine in a restaurant of Lappish style. We order salmon-like fish soup (Arctic Char), reindeer stew and king crab and a brownie and caramel flan for dessert.
The night was going to be perfect when, already in the room, we would enjoy our first northern lights. Although it is too light to take out the camera. We go to sleep at this hour as the child who has reached their most magical dreams! Santa Claus exists! We already had it clear the day we left on this trip to Finnish Lapland at Christmas when we set out in the footsteps of Santa Claus. Do you know that in addition to Rudolf are other 8 reindeer that make it up? Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Do you believe in the magic of Christmas?
Day 8 - Levi
After breakfast, we bought a last souvenir and check-out from the hotel. We did not take long to get a taxi and put foot in the small bus station of Rovaniemi, completely lonely to these hours in the morning. Our bus leaves at 8:00 and it was 7:30 when we were there.
Our reservation on the bus was made days ago on the official website that allows online purchase. We take advantage of the front row, which has its good things like seeing the whole landscape as if we were watching a film. The not so good is that we are the first to receive the cold wave when the door opened. The driver is also very nice to us and let us know when we get to our hotel in Levi.
And why Levi? After the magical world of Santa Claus in Rovaniemi met all the requirements we were looking for as being a small village. We wanted to see nature that allow all kinds of activities in snowmobiling, sledding of huskies, snowshoes or reindeer.
The possibilities of northern lights hunting will also increase. Levi offers the traveler many more things such as visiting Samiland, going to a spa, going up in a cable car. One can sleep in an igloo or discover smoke saunas on the shores of frozen lakes.
We enter some of the most beautiful landscapes of Lapland through roads that make their way between unreal territory, forest and white desert, lakes and small townsdotted every few kilometers. We arrive 3 hours after leaving and with Finnish punctuality, after leaving behind the main airport of Kittila a few kilometers away.
The outdoor temperature decreases to -23 degrees, the lowest day since we landed in Lapland. They say that very close to here, at 60 km, a town called Pokka register the coldest temperature in 1999 with - 52 degrees! Here the sunrise is at 11 and around 1 pm begins the fall of the Sun on the horizon.
Around 11, Levi receives us completely snowed and beautiful. It is that small town that we imagined but that seeing it live still excites more. We lowered our bags and went to the reception of the chosen accommodation. Of course the decision could not be better.
In a main building is the reception, a large living-dining room, many information points, bar and shop. In adjacent low buildings are rooms that are kept at a high temperature and this difference today is much more noticeable.
Our destination is the Snow Village in Lainiotie. They say that the time of the autumn or Ruska, the last natural spectacle before the snow covers the snow landscape, is a true wonder. The trees seem bathed in snow as if they hang perfect white balls illuminated by a shy sun that appears on the horizon and barely rises a few feet of it.
Although if we had to choose only one thing, it would be that feeling of loneliness or isolation in a frozen desert that is tremendously relaxing, only interrupted by the sound of our footsteps.
At 2 pm we hire an excursion before the night falls completely to take advantage of a day of transition. So, after settling in, we took advantage of to eat something quietly in the main building. And today there are not many hours of light left. We will take advantage of the day for 2 hours of snowshoeing through the surrounding forests.
I remember perfectly my first experience with snowshoes in King George in Antarctica with extreme conditions of wind and snow. From there to the last snowshoe experience in Vesteralen Islands on the way to Lofoten in Lapland Norway last year I had several opportunities to try them.
We have not stopped laughing in the hour that the experience has lasted between wonderful landscapes again. The activity includes a good hot berry juice half way that is much appreciated. Do you remember when we talked to you the day we visited Merv, the pearl of East Turkmenistan on the highest temperature recorded on the planet in that region of 72ºC?
Our dog sledding is ready. It continues to be really wonderful to see the energy and desire with which these Siberian huskies (or Alaska that seem to be crosses) born to run are formed as a group and cooperate together led by one of them, usually a female according to what they say.
Less than 5 minutes by car from Levi, we see a slice of Lake Immel where in an absolute winter environment we find our Finnish sauna. We started by getting half foot (which was twisted as never before), then full body and finally up to 10 seconds inside.
It was this last time when we discovered that incredible sensation of the 50ºC difference between the arctic waters and the atmosphere of heat and water vapor at high temperature. On the outskirts of the cabin there are some hotsprings or thermal hot water jacuzzis that can also be enjoyed with northern lights.
The snow of Levi on the tracks looks bright and luminous. Combined with the Christmas lights, it make the atmosphere of the streets take us to that snowy town of fairytale with which we all dream. Only the chimney is missing but the trip still has many surprises. We went to the Christmas market but they remained closed.
Although they are just a few booths not comparable to those that we have seen in central Europe. They allow us to glimpse that special atmosphere of Christmas that we like so much. Between shops and hot chocolates we are saying goodbye to the day. We have dinner at the restaurant with very good pasta and pizzas at very reasonable prices including beers! We loved it.
It takes only 5 minutes to the hotel from the main streets of Hiihtajankuja or the cross-section Keskuskuja. It seems that the weather forecasts are still good and tomorrow the cold wave goes and the sky opens. Aurora borealis? Who knows. We will have to wait.
The wonderful lights of the north reappeared for the second consecutive night on us with impossible dances. They were the most beautiful northern lights we have ever seen, even more unlikely than those we had seen before in the Lofoten Islands, with bright reddish shades and reddish tones that indicated a high intensity.
It was a magic farewell that we know will continue tomorrow and, already with a rental car, we will go in search of those outside the city. Levi is that picturesque winter nucleus with a white Christmas touch! We go to sleep! The eternal night does not yet exist in these latitudes but the kaamos, the opposite of the midnight sun, will leave us without it for a few days.
Day 9 - Saariselka
Today is our last day in Levi. I totally agree with you, time flies and especially when we were having such a good time here. We do not get up early but we will not wait for dawn to say goodbye to Levi. At about 10 o'clock we have our breakfast at the hotel.
We have set our first stop in Sodankyla, an hour and a half by car from Levi. We wanted to try to drive by car first hand over those spectacular and snowy landscapes of Finland. It has turned out to be quite an experience, simpler than expected.
As we expected the road did not disappoint us. On the contrary we fell in love completely and almost without realizing we reached our first destination. At this time it has already dawned completely in Sodankyla. In addition to the stop we take the route already by the main one that goes to Lake Inari.
We realized that the GPS had taken us to a place that was not our final destination but a church. We head to Tankavaara after some coffee and rolls next to a gas station before leaving Sodankyla. Who knows if we will find anyone along the way?
After one hour and a half on the road and we return to be part of a story but now also accompanies a dance of lights that leaves us speechless. We cannot resist stopping and taking some pictures of these colors that are only seen in places like Finnish Lapland.
We say goodbye to the sun until the end of our trip. We cross an imaginary border where the sun will not rise over the horizon. We see the midday moon, the polar night, the kaamos. This place acquired great importance when gold was found for the first time next to the Ivalojoki River.
Indeed, Tankavaara was like entering a town in the Far West but in the snowy Lapland. We find a restaurant that we were looking for that, on the outside, wanted to look like a tavern in the west. Inside it was decorated like typical Finnish restaurants.
The food was exquisite. We let ourselves be advised by the lady who runs the place and who, like all of us who have met these days, has been very helpful and kind. And the choice would not have been better if we chose it since it was a kind of daily menu consisting of salad and a stew of potatoes and river fish!
It was all delicious and we also filled the belly at an affordable price. We were delighted with everything, the place, the service, the food, and the people. Here is the Gold Finder Museum or Kultamuseo, the only international gold museum in the world. The building is inverted and has two large rooms.
In the first one we can see the history of the gold search in Lapland from its discovery until our days. In the second, we can see replicas of the huts that the miners used and even authentic gold nuggets found in the area. We have 40 kilometers to our final destination and we return to marvel at the landscape although it is getting colder every time.
Why Saariselka? Saariselka and surroundings is the perfect base for the retreat we seek in this phase of the trip or for outdoor activities, hiking, rafting or river tours. Located in the National Park of Urho Kekkonen, this village has a supermarket, some hotels, gift shops, restaurants and everything you need to spend a more than pleasant stay.
A small but cozy place where its great attraction is the ski slope that makes it famous as a winter destination, especially for local tourism. Well, technically speaking we are 10 minutes south, leaving the main road to get closer to the nearby frozen river. We take the opportunity to take some pictures with the bright whites left by the Kamoos and thus be able to show you how it is on the outside.
North Pole, Droeback in Norway, Gesunde in Sweden, Alaska, Greenland. There are many places where it is said that the house where Santa lives. However, the legend (which has brought us here) tells us that Santa lives in the mountains of Korvatunturi. In the Kakslauttanen region in the depths of the forest lies the great secret at -30 degrees.
We silently enter a path to a land of elves and soon we see a cabin that seems to be special, covered with 24 carats of gold. It's elf Sampo, the golden goblin, one of the most powerful of all the elves and the door opens before us. Inside the protagonist awaits us with some magic potion that is preparing for Santa Claus to have everything ready on Christmas day and get the gold from the river that crosses this area.
It is a kind of secret recipe of gold nuggets that combined with fire, is able to turn it into gifts that Santa Claus then distributes around the world and shows it to us in the fireplace of his house! The sky is illuminated! We say goodbye to Sampo and the trail continues to enter the most mysterious areas of the forest.
A kind of lighthouse indicates a new path. Stairs, wooden walkways that cross frozen rivers and lots of snow. Even the sky transforms, giving the place of a certain mysticism. And finally we arrived! An idyllic red hut on the other side of a bridge is waiting for us and a shadow of an illuminated interior can be glimpsed by a saluting window.
We stop at the direction of mother christmas. They are a few seconds of uncertainty in which we all remain attentive. Suddenly the main door of the house opens and we sense the silhouette of an old man with a beard walking slowly leaning on his cane. It is father christmas! Santa Claus, one of the symbols of Christmas that is about to arrive, receives us and invites us to move into his cozy home.
Here there is no lack of details, with paintings, a Christmas tree, lamps with reindeer antlers, gnomes and decorative elves and even prepared gifts. After a while in which the living room of the house where Santa lives has given us that warmth that we were looking for. We find the mystical world of Santa Claus and his best kept secret.
Now we have to go back where we came from. It will be necessary to leave the white-bearded grandfather to continue preparing his gifts for this Christmas that is already around the corner. The visit of Santa's Home is one of the best experiences we have had.
We head back to the impressive crystal igloo complex where one can see auroras borealis and cabins, which has been so famous. What nobody knows (and it was hard for us to find out) is that there is a small cabin with beautiful apartments that will be our home for the night.
It is a cabin with kitchen, living room with fireplace, two bedrooms, one of them in a loft, and a bathroom with its corresponding Finnish sauna. How many times have I seen it in the movies, reading or watching a series next to a fireplace? I cannot believe that now I am here after a lovely day on the roads of northern Finland! It is a show of Arctic lights that invites us to a perfect evening in our cabin. We go to sleep.
Day 10 - Nurmes
After breakfast at the resort and check-out, it took us only 30 minutes to get to Ivalo after passing Lake Inari. Since we left Helsinki for this trip to the parks of the north, temperatures have dropped naturally. But we are around 1 degrees in the day and, even if the temperature drops slightly in the evening, we cannot complain.
The green of the pine woods here seems to swallow up any other element of the landscape. With the camera around the neck, we set off. The variety of routes to take is really wide and ranges from the most demanding routes to those for families. The most famous route is the so-called Ring of the Bear of the Karhunkierros. It is 80 kilometers long, but there is a reduced version of 12 kilometers.
The landscape, with large sandbanks lapped by the water and surrounded by giant firs, is one of the most beautiful seen in Finland so far. Despite its proximity to the Arctic Circle, the park area is populated by many animals such as reindeer, elk, bears and lynxes and also butterflies and insects.
On the sides of the paths, we can see the ants of the wood that meticulously build their nests with dry sticks that reach heights even one meter. Many other animal and plant species live in this area, often unfortunately threatened with extinction. There are also small and very rare orchids, the Calypso, which vaguely reminds me of cyclamens.
We get back on the bus to go even further north, where perhaps we can be lucky and see even this season the magnificent phenomenon of the northern lights. We pass through the town of Nurmes where we see the house of Bomba and the nearby village, an example of Karelian architecture. This ancient rural wooden building, named after the farmer who erected it, looks like something out of a book of Russian fairy tales and the window decorations is delightful.
Tired but satisfied, we head into the small wooden chalet where we will spend our last night. Let's light the wood fire, more for the pleasure of doing it than to really warm up. I delude myself for a while to see from the tiny window the green lights of the northern lights wagging in the sky, but unfortunately, I have to give up.
I wear the providential mask for the eyes that on this trip was very useful for me to rest in these never completely dark nights. Goodnight Finland, we will go more to the north and I know that there I will get my Northern Lights!