Mid-March, we took a trip to Lapland. Together with two friends who came over from Germany, we had hired a cabin in Enontekiö, the very north-west of Finland. Our journey began in Helsinki by boarding the night train. This was my first ride on a night train, and it was more exciting than I thought it would be. We had booked a cabin, and found a very small, but very comfortable one on board. Every inch of the small space was used in some way, it was quite fascinating, the train even had upstairs and downstairs cabins. The beds had clean, green sheets with the train company’s iconic owls. The next carriage was a very old, very empty and very charming regular travelling carriage with plenty of legroom and reclinable seats, and following this was the restaurant carriage, which was also in a nostalgic 60s look, with wooden tables and gold decorations. Because the train was pretty empty, we could sit in the restaurant car to play cardgames before heading to bed. Because it is a night train, there is no need to rush, and we kept stopping at random places for a long time. It took us about an hour just to get past Helsinki Airport. The total journey time to Rovaniemi was 13 hours.
Snow Village and Northern Lights
Upon arrival, we collected our rental car and drove towards north. And there was a lot of driving to be done: Without stops, the cabin was about 3 1/2 hours away. We stopped on the way to visit the Snow Village at Lainio. Every winter, this spectacular place is built from ice and snow, featuring around 30 hotel rooms (many of which are themed suites with wonderful carvings on the walls), a chapel and a bar / restaurant. For some reason it seems they couldn’t get around fire safety regulations and had to instal a fire extinguisher even though everything around is made of snow and ice. It cost 12€ per perso to visit and we could walk around the rooms at our own speed. It was a really magical place and totally worth a visit! We then continued driving north, and reached our cabin at Kuttanen just before it got dark.
The cabin was located just off the main road and right above the river that is the border between Finland and Sweden. There were two more cabins at the same place, but other than that it was completely quiet and felt nicely remote. Luckily we arrived to a somewhat cleared driveway, so could get our car safely there and park. From there, however, we first had to find a way to climb into the cabin, as the snow was more than knee-high. We found a snow shovel in front of the neighbouring cabin and borrowed it, and Mr Always Right had cleared an access path within minutes, shovelled with Finnish sisu and efficiency. At the neighbouring cabin, we also found around 5 or more bottles of strong alcohol buried in the snow. We later noticed, that a group of Germans was staying there. Why they chose to drink in Finland, given the alcohol prices here compared to Germany, and who was supposed to finish all of it, as there were maximum 6 of them, remains a mystery. Our cabin was lovely and came with everything we needed (except for matches, which had just run out, and baking paper). There was space for 6 people, so the four of us had plenty of room, and everything was nicely furnished and decorated. From the balcony, we had a good view across the river and over to Sweden. We had also cleared a small path towards the river, to an area free from trees, in case any northern lights should show up, and the clouds that had hung over us all day had disappeared.
And so the wait for the lightshow began: Every few minutes, we checked the Aurora forecast, but it wasn’t looking like we were in for any luck, with very low solar activity forecast. But suddenly something changed and the numbers on the website jumped up, and so did we from the cabin. I went outside and saw a faint light strip stretching across the sky. Not exactly sure what to make of it, I asked Mr Always Right if this was an aurora or a cloud. He laughed at me and said it was most definitely an aurora. I knew beforehand that they would not be as bright and colourful as they appear on photographs, but this was a little disappointing, but I anyway set up my camera and waited. And slowly it began to build up: The “cloud” grew bigger, gained a bit of a greenish colour and started to move around. Unnoticeably at first – I could tell that it had changed shape, but it wasn’t really clear when and how this happened – but then becoming faster. At some point it shone directly above me, with rays pointing down and moving like a laser show. At other times it moved towards the horizon and moved like a smooth river, or the tail of an animal. In Finnish, northern lights are called “revontulet” – fox fires. This comes from an old folk tale, according to which the lights happen when an arctic fox runs over the northern mountains, sweeping up snow with its tail, which then flies through the air and creates the stunning light displays.
Finnish Mountains and Norway
The next morning, we decided to drive to Norway, which is about 2 1/2 hours from the cabin. We made a little stop in Kilpisjärvi, at the northwestern end of Finland. It is a rather touristy, but still charming place – apart from the constant roaring of snow mobiles that cut through the silence. Kilpisjärvi is surrounded by beautiful landscape and has a lot to offer for visitors. For those who, like me, prefer silence over the noise of motors, there are places where you can hire skiing equipment, or they can go for walks. Before we arrived in Lapland, we had no idea if it would be possible to go for walks in the snow, as I struggled to find information about this online. But at least in touristy areas, there are plenty of tracks where the snow has been compacted, so you can walk just fine, even without snowshoes. Some of those are actually cross country skiing tracks, but as long as you don’t walk inside the actual track it is fine to use them as a walker.
From Kilpisjärvi, you can walk (in summer along the hills and in winter across the lake) or ski (across the lake) to the corner where Finland, Sweden and Norway meet. It is the northernmost point of Sweden and the westernmost point of Finland. The border lies in the lake, but you can reach the exact point across small bridges and jump between the countries. As the journey takes more than 2 hours one way on skis, and longer when walking, and it was already afternoon, we couldn’t go there. Instead, we chose to walk up Saana, a mountain that overlooks the lake and surrounding landscape and offers nice views. We didn’t even have to go all the way up for this. At first, our path led through sparse birch forest, before taking a steep but short climb up. As we had fantastic views from here, we didn’t continue any further, but stopped on the first bench we encountered. Although the day was rather gray (sometimes it wasn’t really possible to tell where the snow ended and the sky began), we had nice views over to Sweden and Norway, and from here, even the snow mobiles were silenced. Coming back down, I was scared to walk, as the slope was really quite steep. I tried to slide down on my back, but it turns out jeans aren’t the best surface to slide on. The only part of me that could slide – but really should have – were my shoes. I would recommend you carry a sturdy plastic bag if you go up there, for a fun descent.
We then continued the journey towards Norway. In Finnish Lapland, all the roads are beautifully white. The snow is almost, but not entirely cleared off (and don’t worry, the hire cars all have spikes, so driving is perfectly safe!). The closer we got to the Norwegian side, the dirtier and yellower the snow looked. Once we had crossed the border, there was no snow anymore. Apparently in Norway all roads are salted. Pretty soon after you cross the border, the scenery begins to change: Finnish Lapland is pretty flat, there are some mountains, but they are the smallish and rounded shapes of an ancient landscapes. In Norway, everything is a bit higher, a bit craggier, a bit more dramatic. On a day where everything seemed black and white (or, by that time, dirty yellow), with all colours drained out by the clouds, we could see bright blue frozen waterfalls on the mountainsides. I would have liked to get close to one, but there was nowhere to stop, and most of them were rather high up anyway. We soon reached the sea and took a left turn, down towards the water, where we could stop at roadside parking place with nice views.
The clouds made the scenery even more dramatic, a mood similar to Scotland on a rainy day. Bleak mountains rose on both sides of the fjord, to our right, a few colourful boathouses lay by the shore, to our left a lone fisherman was waiting for catch. We stood by the water for a while, took pictures, and just as we were about to leave, I saw something move in the water. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure if it was a closeby bird or a far away whale, but at second glance it was definitely a bent fin rising from the water and disappearing again. I tried to find out what species are often encountered in these northern fjords, but with no luck – my best guess would be some kind of dolphin or porpoise, or minke whales. We watched them for a while, until it started to rain a bit (there was hardly any snow so close to the sea and temperatures were warmer than in Finland), and we returned to the car. Before coming to Lapland, we had read that driving there is sometimes slow, with herdes of reindeer constantly on the roads. On the way back to our cabin, we saw the first and only roaming reindeer of our journey. One lone reindeer. However, we also saw three wellfed and beautiful red foxes, who were out foraging in the dusk.
Cross Country Skiing
The next day, we drove the short distance to Hetta to go cross country skiing. The local ski resort offers equipment hire – at least according to their website. When we arrived, we found a small hill with ski lift, and in front of it some small buildings or temporary containers. We already thought we had missed the “resort”, but indeed, there it was. We walked inside the office, where a lone member of staff was sitting and looked rather puzzled about our visit. We asked to hire cross country ski equipment. “For all [four] of you?!” – his reply seemed almost shocked, and I began to doubt they had anything. However, luckily that was not the case. They had a good choice (unless you’re shoe size 39) of equipment – not the newest or the best, but fit for purpose. Apparently not many people use this service though, as the man from the resort had no idea about their pricing (which was very reasonable!). Prepayment and deposits were also not necessary, in Lapland people are still trusted. So we set off on our skis – Either not having been on cross country skis for many years or only ever done downhill skiing. The first to fall was our most experienced – within a few steps even. The rest of us followed suit later on more than once.
There are a number of different routes from Hetta, but being all inexperienced, we chose the simplest one. The first part of the round led us through forest, with some ups and downs. The ascents were really difficult for us: With crossed over skis we tried our best to scramble up the short inclines, while Mr Always Right just walked up as if it was all nothing. Going down was even worse: The skis were quite thin, and in places the track was disturbed by someone haven stepped or fallen on it. This, combined with a slight curve, led to more than one fall. As we were skiing, it began to snow – lightly at first, but at some point becoming quite heavy. Finally we reached the lake, which constitutes the second half of the way. With the flat and even surface in front of us, we even decided to make the trip a bit longer, and go to the other side of the lake before returning alongside the shore to the centre. Skiing here was so much simpler and faster! Even here, the paths are clearly marked, variously with plastic poles and small trees sticking in the ice.
When we had just reached the other side, a woman approached us in a snow mobile. No one understood what exactly she tried to tell us, but the essence of it was that we couldn’t continue along the track because of reindeer. The temptation to carry on regardless – or rather even more now! – was great, but as there were multiple official looking snow mobiles out there, we decided to follow the skier in front of us, crossing over in a straight line. There were no tracks here, and our skis sunk in. I always thought these things were made for moving on deep snow, but turns out they weren’t any use for that. On the other side was a small reindeer farm, and we stopped to take a few pictures. Back on the track, we continued towards a fenced off area on the lake (which was probably the reason why we weren’t allowed to continue on the original track). Just as we reached there, we could see a reindeer zoom past – pulling a man on ski behind itself. We were hoping for a race, but sadly, it seemed to have been just a skijoring practise, and several men started to take down the fences just after the reindeer had passed.
We then returned to the centre and warmed up in the nearby nature centre. When we returned to the village, the sun had almost come out. On the opposite side of the lake, we could see a faint wall of white against the blue sky: a bare but snowy mountain, that looked like it had been painted there. Having got hold of a tourist brochure for the area, we then tried to locate the Reindeer Farm, that was marked as a visitor attraction on it. We turned off the main road where the map indicated and came past lots and lots of reindeer paddocks, but no signs for the actual farm. Eventually we decided to just stop and take a few pictures. Someone had been following us on a snow mobile for a while already, and when we stopped so did he. We walked to the fence to take photos, and the driver of the snow mobile took of his helmet – it turned out to be a young Sami boy. He watched us carefully, and after we had shot a few pictures apparently decided it was enough, or wanted to show off his reindeer herder skills. He went into the paddock and the entire herd followed him to the other end, away from my camera. After this short photo stop, we chose to have dinner at a local hotel from the Lapland Hotels chain. The menu sounded awfully posh, but sadly did not live up to name nor price. The sauteed reindeer (THE traditional local dish) was a small portion and more of a soup, and the pizza with “wild mushrooms from Kittilä” came with plain champignons.
On the next day it was already time to get back home. We got up ridiculously early to clean up last things in the cabin and get our friends to the airport in time. Luckily for the next visitors to our cabin: They had overlooked the notice, that the cabin can only be used from 4pm on the arrival day. They had driven through the night and arrived just as we were taking out the last rubbish bags. The drive to Rovaniemi was beautiful: It was our first sunny day up here, and everything shone in a warm, golden light. Just before we reached the airport, we raced into the only speed camera we had seen during those days. After dropping our friends, Mr Always Right and I still had the afternoon to spend before our train left. Being a huge fan of Christmas, I insisted on visiting the Santa Village, regardless of the season.
There are two Santa attractions in Rovaniemi, both within minutes drive from the airport: Santa Park is an amusement park, and not open in spring. Santa Claus Village lies on the arctic circle and is basically a souvenir shop village, including a small museum. The museum is free of charge and tells about Christmas traditions around the world throughout the ages. At the end, you have the possibility to meet Santa. I imagine this must be the worst job on earth for a Finn: Not only does he have to sit very close to absolute strangers and have his picture taken with them, but he also has to make smalltalk, which literally does not exist in Finnish culture. Our Santa was rather young and thin. You can have a professional picture taken with Santa, or – and here comes the best part! – use your own camera to do so! Unfortunately mine all turned out blurry, but they are proof enough for me. I guess I would have bought their picture, if it had been a lot cheaper than the 20€ they charged, because I really liked that the museum was free and that there were no photography restrictions. Instead I later purchased something at the adjoining souvenir shop.
The rest of the village is made up of souvenir shops and Finnish design (Marimekko and Iittala are of course also there..), and a giant snowman in the middle of it. There was another building in which you could apparently meet the real Santa (maybe this one was a bit older and sturdier?), but here, cameras were not allowed, and their own pictures were probably even pricier than in the other one. I overheard an Asian woman purchasing pictures for a total of over 150€. So we happily gave it a pass – don’t allow my camera, don’t get my custom. Behind the shops, there was a track on which you could go on reindeer sledges. The reindeer standing at the front was in such poor condition, with multiple wounds and rather scabby, that we didn’t linger around.
Finally, we returned our car and made our way to the station. This time, we had not booked cabins on the train, but just seats to save money. I may have been able to do this at the age of 20, but now I’m clearly getting too old. It was a night of hardly any sleep. the seats already had more leg space and reclined further than on regular trains, but it’s still no comparison to an actual bed, however narrow. The next morning, we arrived into Helsinki at 6am and just had time to have a shower and some breakfast before going to work. I think next time I’ll go for the cabin again…