Breaking the ice in Finland

Breaking the ice in Finland
The icebreaker Sampo drops anchor in a frozen sea, Photo Credit: Amit Dixit
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Warming to the Scandinavian country's arctic attractions - and meeting Santa Claus

Amit Dixit
July 01 , 2014
11 Min Read

At two in the afternoon, Rovaniemi is a warm 12 degrees below zero. And I’m warming up for a culinary rite of passage. The capital of Finnish Lapland lies at the edge of the Arctic Circle, the imaginary line plotting the southernmost reaches of the midnight sun. Razed to the ground by retreating German forces in World War II, Rovaniemi was rebuilt on plans by Alvar Aalto, the Moominpapa of Finnish design. And so the streets that famously spread out like the antlers of a reindeer. At what is touted as the northernmost McDonald’s in the world, I dig into my first Quarter Pounder ever. I’m lovin’ it.

To shake off the quarter-pound I’ve just gained, I’m vrooming off on a snowmobile safari. But not without some serious outfitting under the watchful care of Lapland Safaris, the largest adventure travel company in the Arctic. As I move through their well-stocked fitting rooms, I gradually acquire the well-rounded character of a blimp. Two pairs of socks, snowshoes (padded with soft felt shoes), snowsuit to keep the chill out. Balaclava, scarf, rubber face mask (think Hannibal Lecter), helmet, two pairs of mittens. At the end of it, I’m as hot as a Finnish sauna.

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With an 85cm-thick layer of ice, the frozen Ounasjoki river is our road. After what has to be the quickest driving lesson in the world, we kick off in a neat file. We pass under the Jatkankynttila Bridge (the Lumberjack’s Candle with its light-topped pylons), which suddenly stings me with nostalgia for the Vidyasagar Setu, a similar bridge in slightly balmier climes.

All that snowmobile gear does hamper your mobility — I can barely turn my neck to take in the view. What peripheral vision does reveal is a fairytale landscape that the eye yearns to focus on. Thickly wooded riverbanks with nary a soul in sight. The ground a snowy fleece, the trees wrapped primly in their ice blankets. The sun a yellow ball skirting the horizon, mellow as a charentais.

At journey’s end, there’s a pair of sleds, with a reindeer harnessed to each. This driving lesson is swifter still. I have just time to grab the reins before the reindeer are off into the woods. We climb a small knoll and turn around, when Dasher and Prancer fancy a switch from trot to full throttle. I hang on for dear life, barely scraping through my driving test (licence international, valid five years). The reindeer’s bells jingle all the way.

Back in town we check into — what else — the Hostel Rudolf. Dinner is at the chic Sky Ounasvaara Hotel. Finnish food has its critics, most notoriously Jacques Chirac who carped in 2005, in a detraction a deux, that English food would have been the worst in the world, were it not for Finland. The sumptuous Lappish spread that evening gives the lie to this vicious jibe. Wild Arctic char, reindeer slaughtered in Lahtela (cooked two ways, with black pepper and liquorice, and with boletus cream), Nordic cloudberry preserve, all advertise terroir.

Another, colder, day dawns. I register the snap of winter’s whip as I step out of the hostel. Minus 23°C. Another snowmobile ride, this time to a farm of friendly huskies, where our host knows all her 208 furballs by name. Out on the snow meadow, the temperature is closer to minus 30. There’s hot berry juice on hand to thaw us.

And I’m all ready to meet a Very Important Person. There’s no getting around Santa’s round belly this close to the North Pole, though the Finns call him Joulupukki (Yule stud goat). He is said to reside at Korvatunturi Fell (Ear Mountain) close to the Russian border, where he keeps his ears glued to the ground to catch all your Christmas wishes. But you don’t have to trudge that far to see him. He can be ho-ho’d right outside Rovaniemi, where he has his office on the Arctic Circle. How convenient.

The Santa Village includes his Main Post Office. Letters posted here are dispatched bearing a special Arctic Circle postmark. Santa himself receives about half a million letters annually. And apparently he answers all his mail. But then he has an army of elves helping out.

Santa is home to visitors. “Namaste,” beams the twinkling old man when my turn comes. ‘Emerging market’ I think. Ok, ok, I’m being cynical but maybe I’m 20 years too ancient. Then again, the Danish gentleman next to me on the Finnair flight to Helsinki had been categorical in his dismissal. “Santa lives in Greenland,” he’d snorted.

At the busy post office, an elf scurries to find me some nice postcards, mere minutes before the clock ticks to ‘Closed’. I pen an affectionate letter to my boss (appraisal time is nigh). I sign off as... Santa. Slipping the postcard into the post box is as good an initiation rite as any. Now I believe...

Tonight I stay at Karhunpesä, the Bear’s Den, in the heart of the wilderness. No, I have no intention of imposing upon a hibernating Misha. Bear’s Den is a roomy log cabin in the woods, set on a lake, which in the past has hosted such grizzlies as Lyndon B. Johnson, Golda Meir and the Shah of Iran. This is where you can live the Finnish life, if only for a night.

If you perk up your ears, you can hear the sound of silence. It is to wildernesses like this that the Finns periodically retreat from their sparse cities. The sheen of the frozen lake is therapeutic: stare long enough and you’ll feel the knots in your back unravel. There are vistas of pine and snow and sky. There’s a roaring fire in the den. And for cold, winter nights, such as this one, a wood-fired sauna — presently the heat is tender, just so.

The sauna is the lynchpin of Finnish life. You walk in. Strip. Sit. Sweat.

Like it hot? Pour a ladleful of water over the stove. Superheated steam! When it gets too hot, skip out and grab a drink (beer and sauna are one, I was assured by a 20-year-old sage). The Finns also like a relaxing skinny-dip for variety — a hole is cut in the ice expressly for this purpose. In the interests of investigative journalism, I pop out, roll in the snow for a full 15 seconds and run right back. It’s like a million needles vying to prick me at the same time. Instigation enough to scamper back into the heat. Repeat from step 1.

The icing on this break is a four-hour cruise on the icebreaker Sampo. Icebreakers do just what their name suggests — smash a swathe through frozen waters to lead ships into harbour. Last year, Finnish icebreakers assisted 17,000 ships into port. The Sampo has been iceworthy since 1961. But it was rendered a bit obsolete by modern cargo ships, which are 2-3m wider than the path it can press out. Now it has settled into a new life — the only icebreaker cruise in the world.

It’s a glimpse into Waterworld, in the Ice Age. But first we drive to Kemi, a port town on the Gulf of Bothnia. The shelf of ice continues into the sea, upto 50km from the shoreline. That’s not very much — it stretches 500km in a good freeze. But then this has been the warmest winter in 100 years. Soon we’re chopping across. As our giant transport shreds a path through the whiteness, a guided tour takes in all — from the command bridge high up to the thrumming bowels of the metal monster (its engine room, where some fascinating old technology is still whirring and purring). When we emerge on deck again, Sampo’s dropped anchor 30km off the coast. The majesty of the Arctic winter unfolds all around us, a blazing pale plain as far as eye can see. What better place for a swim? Safe inside thermal rescue suits, a sea of humanity takes to the waters.

So how does the Sampo do it? Simple. Unlike standard seafaring vessels, it has an egg-shaped bottom, suited to crushing the ice vertically. There’s the weight (3,542 tonnes). And sheer power, about 3.1 million cc. It is the hammer of Thor.

In the end, the northern lights refused to switch on. I missed them by a day. The irritating thing is, the auroras are always there. You just can’t see them (like stars drowned by sunlight in a daytime sky).

But something else lit up my trip just as brightly. I call it the ‘human element’. It happened after a meal of naan, alu-gobhi and two ‘sauces’ — dal and raita — at Jasmine, the new Indian restaurant in Rovaniemi. I got up to thank one of the chefs — he seemed desi; the other chef, Chinese, eyed me warily. After listening in on the vernacular bonding for a few minutes, he finally piped up, “Main bhi India se hoon.” Our man was from that part of China we know as Calcutta. From Tangra to taiga must be a giant leap for him, but it’s only a small step in the migrant story. G.B. Shaw said, “I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” Me, I’m lovin’ it.

The information

Getting there

With Finnair operating direct flights between Helsinki and Delhi and Mumbai, it’s never been easier to visit Finland. Current promotional fare (economy return) to Europe (including Helsinki): Rs 16,990 plus taxes (about Rs 10,000 for Helsinki). Contact: 011-43699200, 022-40524300, www.finnair.com/in.

Where to stay

Sokos Hotel Vaakuna: Top-end hotel, noted for its fine-dining French restaurant Fransmanni. From 132; www.sokoshotels.fi.

Clarion Hotel Santa Claus: Four-star hotel in the heart of Rovaniemi, the newest. From 89; www.hotelsantaclaus.fi.

Lapland Hotel Sky Ounasvaara: Set across the river from downtown, their panoramic Restaurant Sky Ounasvaara, serving Lappish delicacies, is reputedly one of the best in Finland. From 124; www.laplandhotels.com.

Hostel Rudolf: For budget accommodation, you cannot beat this cosy, central and staff-free hostel in the centre of town (the key card has to be picked up at Hotel Santa Claus). From 41 for a single; www.hotelsantaclaus.fi.

Bear’s Den: A comfy log cabin, half an hour’s drive from town. Contact Lapland Safaris (www.lapinsafarit.fi) for tariffs and availability.

For more options see tourism.rovaniemi.fi.

Where to eat

Your only option for Indian food is Jasmine (www.jasmine.fi), which has a small but competent menu. For Lappish food, apart from the Restaurant Sky Ounasvaara, you can try Nili (www.nili.fi). You may also wish to make a pilgrimage to McDonald’s.

What to see & do

In Rovaniemi, Arktikum (www.arktikum.fi), a museum and science centre, provides a fascinating insight into life in the Arctic. Alvar Aalto’s architectural footprint is large in Rovaniemi: check out the Lappia Hall, Library and City Hall designed by him as also the Maison Aho, a private house.

Santa Claus Village Set 8km north of Rovaniemi, attractions include the post office, souvenir shops and Santa himself. See www.santaclausvillage.info.

Safaris Lapland Safaris offers a range of adventure activities, including cross-country skiing, night safaris in search of the northern lights, visits to reindeer and husky farms, moonlight walks on snowshoes and, of course, snowmobile safaris (the latter begin at 90 per person).

In Kemi From December to April, this port town is home to two of Finland’s biggest attractions, the Snow Castle Lumilinna (www.snowcastle.net), built differently each year and featuring an ice bar, hotel and chapel and the Arctic icebreaker Sampo (210; www.sampotours.com).

For more information, contact the Finnish Tourist Board in India at 011-46092400, papori.bharati@visitfinland.com.


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