Tag Archives: Lapland

Finland: looking for Santa in Rovaniemi

I love Mondays. Those well spent. Like this one, in the end of January. Driving through the heart of cold white Lapland, in the happiest country in the world, Finland. The bus was moving like a red spot on a black line, the road splitting in half the white land, the pine forest. Oh, the orange rays of the light from that long lasting Arctic sunset, I already knew I’ll dream about it back home. I looked outside the window and saw a bright intense sung dog, a vertical rainbow line uniting the sky and the forest somewhere in the far.

It was a brilliant decision not to hurry to catch the early bus to Rovaniemi. Levi was far more beautiful, with its trees more sugar-ish, the cold more crisp and the winter there more wonderland-ish than any other place on Earth. Of that I’m sure. A few more hours spent in Levi were a bless, the small town was looking even more wonderful than it did the 1st day I arrived. Another night of -30C and peaceful snowing with tiny ice crystals made me wonder, that morning, when I opened the door and felt as if a frozen wall of polar air hit me: how much beauty this place can get?

No traces left of any other colors except all white.  

Compared to that, Rovaniemi was a contrast. Instead of the winter wonderland in Levi, I found myself here in rather dull urban place, modern, organized, clean, simple, in one word: scandinavian. No trace of winter sky resort atmosphere, of those epic frozen wooden cabins and snow monster trees. I also missed that dry cold in Levi as Rovaniemi was warmer and I wasn’t turning white anymore, because of the ice particles covering my clothes. Still, it needed less than 15 minutes for the water to start freezing inside the bottle, before I reached the hotel.

In spite of this start, I knew I had wonders waiting for me here too.

My last night in Lapland and my last chance to see the northern lights in this trip. And like any other person that had seen the aurora once, the wish of seeing it one time was replaced by the dream of seeing it again. But… chances were low due to the forecast. I must have checked the weather forecast for hundreds of times in those last days. I was obsessed. Three hours before the tour I had my eyes on was about to start, I knew I’ll rather regret I went and didn’t see anything then to regret I didn’t try. So 100 euros were to be lost or a great experience won. In the 3h I have left until 7 PM I went to Arktikum, the only museum dedicated to life in the Arctic. I don’t need museums when I have the cities streets or markets and their vibe, but this one is a good collection of interesting facts about a fascinating area, the far north. Not to be missed.    

Hunting the northern lights. Second episode

– Where are you from?

One of the guys from the tour agency asked me as I arrived at 7PM in their office, on the main street in Rovaniemi.

– Ok, give them all warm suits, rubber boots. And add 2 pairs of wool socks for each.

I already had 7 layers on, including a down jacket under the main one, thermals, fleece, wool socks, two layers sky pants and two layers gloves. I knew will be a long and extremely cold night with -30C so I received all indications with a smile.

I was having a deja vu, a lot of what was happening seemed a replica of last year’s night in Tromso, when I witnessed the superb 360 display of the northern lights. I met the rest of the group, 2 Brazilians and 2 Japanese. We all put on all the clothing we received and left the city in a minivan. It was taking us to a dark and remote area outside, away from the city light pollution, a perfect spot to see the northern lights, as we were told with much confidence by our guide, a funny Englishman.

The sky was perfectly clear and the night so dark. Was I that lucky? It seemed the beginning of a perfect night. We drove for about 45 min on a narrow icy road, sneaking through the pine forest. We were told we might see some wildlife, reindeers or a fox or even a moose. Our guide assured us he will pay attention and let us know. In the very cold nights, the animals like the reindeers walk all night long, to keep them warm.

At one moment, right in front of our car’s lights, a huge moose on the right of the road. The next second he made a confident jump a disappeared in the woods.

– The moose, look, look, there’s one. I said excited.

– Where, where… the others reply looking in all directions as the animal was already gone.

The guide didn’t even heard us. He was for sure such a sharp observer…

I further trust my own eyes but we got no other wildlife around.

The others must have believed I was hallucinating.

Our guide stopped to check the sky. Nothing, we continued. At the second stop he called us out of the van. Two beautiful straight green lines were defining the horizon in the far, changing their shapes very slowly.

– So folks, these are the northern lights, the guide said. With these you never know, you take what’s offered, this might be all for tonight but we surely hope for a full show. So let’s go further.

I had my camera set by our guide, since I still got no idea how to use it properly and pressed the button. Nothing happened. I waited… still nothing. Damn, it’s too dark, I thought and prepared to close it. And then on the monitor I saw I actually did a photo. My very first photo of the northern lights which considering my skills and the most unpropper conditions, is perfect.

We arrived at the cabin, like a small b&b where other folks were waiting. The hill with our promised perfect spot was near. I entered the cabin checking the sky one more time to make sure all was good and clear. It was black and full of stars.

We didn’t spent more than 15 minutes inside. All I needed to use the toilet having a mountain of clothes on me. An when we went out, the shock: the entire sky was cloudy. I never, but never… saw such a rapid change. Still a single star was visible among the clouds.

– Who ordered clouds for tonight, our guide joked? Please take them back.

We had a short hike to the top of the hill. It was the most perfect spot, a wide area surrounded by tall pines, with a lavvu tent built and a wooden bench near, covered with snow. All white around.

Igor, the very tall and very full of energy guy that joined us from the cabin prepared the fire inside the tent. He was from Slovenia and moved here, in the heart of Lapland because he loved the cold and hated the heat.

Steven, our English guide told us a few info about the northern lights and how they are formed. It was so daks and terribly cold. A frozen flake fell on my nose. The worst of the bad signs that a northern lights hunt night might show. We entered the tent to enjoy the plenty of food we had: sausage on a stick, mini pancakes with cheese, all cooked in front of the bonfire. We were all still hoping and waiting for a miracle.

After a while, many of us kept going out in turns to check for the sky. I watch them all coming back and I saw the optimism was leaving us all in the face of reality. The weather was way too bad to change. I knew it’s like that with natural phenomena, you can never curse the weather. Many think that once they will set foot in the North, the northern lights will immediately light the sky as it gets dark. Well, not quite so.

Or not that night. I wasn’t actually sad. I wanted and hoped to see it again but I knew I will continue the hunt no matter what that night had to offer. But for my new friends, I deeply regret it. Coming from far away places, Brazin, Japan, wishing so deeply to see it and leave without. The following nights the forecast was even worse.

We spent the time inside the tent, laughing at all the stories told by our amazing guide about the northern lights and the people coming from everywhere to fulfill a lifetime dream, to see the wonder. From those with medical conditions that do not allow them to see the aurora lights and, ironically, they find this out as the lights happen in front of them and they see the others reactions while they can’t see anything, to those who don’t care at all about it and come only to please a dear one, ending up being the most vocal and excited member of the group as an unbelievable display of red and purple and yellow and green lights dance frantically upon them.

We guessed our future in the old Finnish way, using melted metal on fire which is after dropped in a bucket with cold water. The shapes it gets tell the life and fortune you will have in the future. Well, I can’t reveal mine…

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

After all it was a good night. No aurora on the sky but the lights were in all of us, we made friends, laugh and had a great time. Thanks to our guide’s magic: turning a not so lucky night into a fun one, he was great. We all left with one thought in mind: the hunt continues!  

Santa’s Village

Rovaniemi worldwide fame is based on one thing: it means home for the most beloved old grandpa in the world: Santa Claus. Since I had always a very special feeling about Christmas, special meaning I am totally crazy about all the sparkling and the shining related to it, it was really a duty to come here and meet this guy.

The next morning I took the bus from the city to Santa’s Village, outside Rovaniemi. And here, though it was one month after Christmas, I immediately smell it in the air: the joy, the fun, the happiness, the childhood feel, shortly: the Christmas spirit.

At the entrance I booked a reindeer sled tour. I couldn’t help it. It was a perfect sunny day with the bluest sky that can be and gorgeous white trees all around. A huge snowman was smiling in front of the building with three red towers, where Santa’s Official Office was. Christmas carols were heard all around.

I saw a corral and over its wooden fence a few reindeers by the sleds covered with reindeer skins. I jumped in one of the sleds and so the 15 minutes, the short option journey, started.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

It was beautiful in that winter scenery but something bothered me. I am well aware of the fact that reindeers are not born to pull the sled I sit in so I wished this to be the second and last experience of this kind.

You don’t have to be necessarily a kid to enjoy this place. It’s easier, once you’re there, you’re a kid again.

I wandered around after in a forest with glass igloos, all covered in ice. At one point a few sleds pulled by reindeers passed by and then disappeared further in the woods.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

I couldn’t wait more, I had to find him. I had to meet Santa. I figured out he was somewhere in the large building at the entrance since it was written Santa’s Official Office. A few souvenirs stores were inside. I saw some stairs made of wood and went up but I ended in another store. Where was Santa?

I follow some arrows I see on the walls and I arrive in one round room with wooden walls and small chairs with high backrests. It looked like a fairytale house. In the wall there are a few small doors made of wooden planks, on one of them was written Baby Reindeer Daycare. I see another sign Elves Only. I pass then through a dark corridor. A round shaped wooden door rises in front of me and I try to push it. It opens without my help and the happy face of a girl dressed in red and green, with big sharp ears and a tall green hat jumps in front of me. She’s an elf! In the room where she came from there are more elves.

– Come, come, she sais, Santa is waiting for you.

Fortunately it’s just me now there and all I can say when I see the old man with the longest curly beard, red suit with with huge slippers, sitting on a big wooden chair in the middle of the room was:

– Hi, Santa… With a silly smile, I felt intimidated and probably I would have started to tell him a children’s poem if he would have asked me to. Who says we ever grow up… No, we don’t! All we need is something like this to get us back right in the boots of our childhood.

And so I had a more then 10 minutes conversation with Santa in his very house in Rovaniemi and trust me, he looked real. I told him about my trip to Levi and how amazing I find Finland, about the phenomenal sun dogs and the crisp cold, about winters at home and how we love Christmas when children still sing Christmas carols in Christmas Eve, while my mum bakes the best cookies and the house smells like vanilla and cinnamon. We took photos and laughed and in the end he said thank you in my language which melted my heart for good.

It costed me 50 euro to have the photo and video with Santa but this was not the time to save budget.

The sun was almost leaving the sky of Rovaniemi. I took a walk to the Elves Farm Yard, to the huskies court and the snow sculptures village. Walking around I found another resort of glass igloos. I wish one day I can afford the 500 euro per night price to sleep in one of these and dream eyes wide opened while the aurora dances the skies above me.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

As it was getting dark and very cold and I had an evening plane to catch, I left all that magic behind, leaving Santa’s Village and leaving so this incredible Lapland, that have now become one of my favourite beautiful places.  

I arrived in Helsinki with a 3 hours delay due to a snowstorm there. My baggage was broken and I was struggling to pull it on the streets completely covered in snow. I was all sweaty and somehow keep on getting lost until I finally found my hotel. It was 4am and I was tired and angry.

I said goodbye to amazing Finland in the best finnish way possible. My last day there I spent it in Helsinki, where I met my amazing Finn friend, Christianne, whom I once got to know in London, years ago. We took the ferry and went to Suomelina, sailing among the huge ice blocks covering the entire surface of the Baltic Sea. We wandered there and had the best Finn cuisine lunch: simple and delicious cod fish.

We went back in the city and she got me into the most authentic Finnish experience: sauna + swimming in a sort of warm outdoor pool, with snow around it + the ice dip. Not once but twice. There were pieces of ice in that water and the hand support I used to get in was covered in thick ice. As a guy perfectly said before he got in: it’s a mental thing. You feel you’ll dye as it is so cold it hurts like hell but actually those very seconds make you more alive than ever. After that I felt no cold and walked barefoot in knee deep snow, wearing my swimsuit only and feeling as if it was summer. Instead was windy from the sea, also snowing, and my towel was soon frozen. Two Japanese covered in long black down jackets were filming us.  

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

So this was Finland. This place somehow got me loving the cold, because when it’s too beautiful, it’s not cold at all. An unforgettable winter wonderland I will now dream to come back to.

P.S. I now know the secret of the happiest country in the world.

Next: The blue pearl of Marocco

Finland: Leaving Levi in love

I followed the arrows. Small chairs with high backrest were arranged against the wall in a round room with wooden walls, a wooden writing desk with a reading lamp on, a few opened letters and many boxes of presents on my right, on a small door made of wooden boards also was written Baby reindeer daycare. I continued through a dark tunnel, crossed a small bridge built over what seemed to be a small frozen lake. I think I saw a big sled. Bells were ringing slowly and joyfully reminding of Christmas, its spirit was here, in spite of what the calendar was showing: end of January. Magic was in the air… A round door opened right in front of me, to a room full of colors. I couldn’t see more. A petite person show herself behind the opening door. She had green clothes and a tall green and red hat. I saw her ears, big and sharp. She was an elf! With a large happy smile and a big welcoming gesture of her hand she whispered quickly:

– Come, come in, Santa is waiting for you!  

Leaving Levi

The fantastic sunset on top of Levi hill, next to Santa’s Secret Cabin may have been breathtaking, spellbinding and overwhelmingly astonishing, but it was starting to be so crisp cold outside. A little bit of breeze made it even dreamy. Excitement can’t keep warm endlessly, I was shivering and felt I will freeze down there if I don’t start immediately my way back to the top. The way back was a joke, so easy compared to the the drama and circus to get down there before. I took many last looks as I left, I couldn’t help it.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I took the gondola on my way down to the city. While descending I half unzipped my coat and noticed the border was frozen on the inside. Yeah, that’s what I call cold, I was freezing on the inside now. Happily the headache in the morning was gone. Might have been due to the difference of temperature the day before. 5h outside at -20C, the best cure. For another 4 euro the bus took me back to the centre, and again to the Tourist Information Centre. The same girl from that morning was so enchanted when I shared with her the adventures of my day and described her the phenomenal snow dogs I saw on top.

– It’s very rare to see that, you know, you were lucky.

Yes I was and I knew it. A day before I heard for the first time about snow dogs and a day after I witnessed this wonder with my own eyes.

I was asking too much from an already amazing day but I tried  my chances and asked if the evening tour we talked in the morning, for the northern lights, was finally decided. She blew all my hopes saying it was canceled, chances were low, due to the weather.

Levi, Lapland, Finland

It was around 4PM and almost dark. It was too beautiful outside and I was too excited to be in Levi to go back to the apartment and stay indoor to warm up, though I needed that. I took a short walk to the lake, to enjoy the beautiful blue hour light reflected on the complete white around.

Levi, Lapland, Finland

The lake was turned into a vast white surface as it was completely covered with snow and surrounded by high pine trees and a few houses with red or yellow walls and white porch in front. A sublime landscape, but I was too frozen to walk any more metters and my fingers couldn’t take any more photo. And above all these, I was starving. I saw K5 hotel near, like an oasis of warm and wellbeing. I knew about it from the internet. After a whole day spent outside at -20C, this was my heaven. Simple, warm and cosy: a dim light inside and low volume music, lit candles on each table and a fireplace spreading a comforting mood while outside, in that cold, my beloved white sugar trees, a straight line of high white pines were tempting me from the large igloo like wall made all of glass, to come out again. Not so fast… After 3 hot teas and a hot pumpkin soup I felt alive again.

While I was coming back from the lake I passed by a Lapish tent with a big bonfire place in front, with round wooden seats covered with reindeer skins. It was a Saami restaurant with a super tempting traditional Lapland menu. Was still closed then but the dinner was starting in one hour, and anyone interested could attend based on reservations made inside the 5K hotel reception.

I wasn’t decided what to do, to spent or not 60 euro on a dinner. I finally took my decision 10 minutes before dinner started, was, of course, to go.

The armchair by the fireplace was now vacant so I sit there. I was trying to do a Instagram worthy photo of my white snow boots next to the fire when I heard loud drums beats and the notes of a yoik. These are songs interpreted by the Saami people, the nomad population in the far Northern regions. I got to know their amazing culture last year in Norway. Their simple way of living in a perfect harmony with nature, their legends, food and songs: yoik, are fascinated. In the old times they were burned alive, believed to practice witchcraft when heard singing like this. A man dressed in traditional red Saami clothing came in the lobby singing, inviting us to follow him to the restaurant in the tent and so to start a Saami evening. We all followed. Inside the restaurant, built deep in the ground, was dark and warm and felt sort of homy. A big fire in the middle, who’s flames were reaching high, cracking and spreading smoke and a scent of cooked salmon. A few big pieces of fish were lined up around the fire, to fry. Walls made of wooden pillars, with reindeer skins and horns hanged upon, small wooden tables and chairs covered with reindeer skins.

They started bringing the food and we started filling our plates. And then again. I had the best dinner! From reindeer hearts and tongues to ribs, stew and steak, barbecued salmon with herbs, wild mushrooms, cranberry sauce and sweet mashed potatoes with butter. It all ended epicly with a warm desert made of some sort of sweet cheese and milky warm sauce. After two turns around to the pans placed by the fire, I couldn’t move nor breath nor blink. I was full and round now. This is what happens when you put a foodie in front of an opened buffet with home cooked traditional food. We then listed to stories and yoiks sang by the fire. It was a perfect time in the heart of white Lapland.  

Levi, Lapland, Finland

I said goodbye to my wonder called Levi with a last 2h walk in that winter wonderland, with white icy roads, puffy trees, white houses… white everything. One of those moments I would have wished to stay somehow trapped forever, as inside a time loop and with no regrets or memories of anything else but that. Just like the boy in The Snow Queen story, to keep on living there like in a crystal ball with a never ending fairytale like winter inside. Just us, winter and I, in a perpetuum cold and limitless beauty. It was the last night in Levi, a dream made true for which I feel too grateful.  

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful destinations

 

But Rovaniemi was waiting! And Santa was there, and reindeers and huskies, ice glass igloos in white forests and a night spent at -30C, hunting for the northern lights.

 

Finland: How to find Santa’s Secret Cabin

I woke up that day of January in the absolute white winter paradise. After a night of ice crystals falling from the skies at -30C temperatures, I opened the door in the morning to the Finish version of Narnia. The sugar trees from the day before were now even more loaded of snow powder. Not even the tiniest part of everything around have escaped this white beautification. The mountains of snow around the main road were even higher, the streets completely icy and white and the traffic signs just a pale remembrance of any other colors that ever existed before this complete white. So bright was all.  

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I had big plans for that day and I needed “fuel” for that. Sandwiches with salami, garlic cheese cream and cherry tomatoes, Skyr yogurt with apples and Runeberg torte, the famous Finnish cake, made my breakfast perfect and cosy since they all were in the fridge from the day before.

First stop: the tourism information office, where I was hoping to get some info about how could I get to one of the most epic and over photographed places in Finland: Santa’s Secret Cabin. It looks just as its name disclosures: a wooden cabin with a high porch with a top view, in the middle of a winter wonderland. The place has once served as a movie set, a movie about Santa Claus, of course.  

There was only one organised snowshoeing tour going there each Monday. The price was about 100 euro and I would have been crazy enough to pay this but… it was Saturday that day. The girl at the office explained me a lot in too many words, showed me directions and maps. I didn’t get anything in the end. I only remembered a phrase I have read on a blog recently, that in was between two slopes, on top of the Levi hill, where you can get by the gondola.

I took the bus, payd 4 euro one way (told you already Levi is a budget killer) and in 15 minutes, after a gorgeous ride, I arrived at that gondola place.

The girl in the coffee shop that sold me the tickets for the gondola gave me tons of confidence when she assured me that Santa’s cabin was at 10 minutes walking from the top.

Next I was in a gondola, on top of the white forest of high pine trees, heading straight to the top of Levi hill. I draw my head nearer the icy glass window so I could see better the amazing shapes of the trees I was passing by, covered in snow and big icicles hanging down their branches. I knew Santa’s cabin roof should have been visible from the gondola, right before reaching the top and I did looked in all directions but I didn’t see any cabin or roof. Was nothing but white everywhere.

The ride ended as the gondola reached the top and when I got off, picture this: coming from -25 to -8 feels like a too fast delivered summer, a bright sun spreading its orange rays on a sparkling cover of snow, people in colorful suits wandering around the top, on skies and snowboards, a wooden cabin with a Carlsberg sign above its door was almost completely covered in white….The air around was sparkling and shining as millions of ice crystals were filling the atmosphere. A great view but I was there for a higher mission so I immediately started looking for the famous Santa’s Secret Cabin. I asked a woman holding a map, she never heard about it. I asked another one, this time with a professional camera hanging on her neck, so a sign. I presume she was a photographer and might know or even planning to get there. I got nothing again but two badly framed photos of myself and that Carlsberg cabin. This is THE CHALLENGE when traveling alone: getting a decent framed photo of myself in a beautiful place, considering I hate selfie sticks and never used them.

I went right then turned left. Nothing. Looked up and down. Only slopes. I remembered about what was said on that blog: it was somewhere “between slopes 10 and 11”. It was also saying you can’t get there without snowshoes or sky cause you’ll be literally swimming in very deep snow which means risking an injury… But was not the time and place for pessimistic thoughts.

I walked a little bit down to get a little closer to one of the slopes. I look down in the valley. It was a 180’ view down there to Sirkka, to forests the and roads below. Right in the middle there it was, at about 500m, in a perfect winter dream scenery, Santa’s Secret Cabin’s surrounded by trees covered in snow and right next to another cabin, this time smaller. It looked dreamy and I got so very excited and hurried to get there.     

I tried to go straight down but it was so steep it made me dizzy to even look in that direction. Then I tried to follow some old traces left by someone in the snow before. I was swimming in snow like knee deep for a few meters and then the traces disappeared suddenly. It seemed they couldn’t go further either. Then I tried a different strategy, walking in parallel, like in sky, to make it less steep and easier to descend. It seemed longer but easier for a few more minutes. I was stepping carefully, as the snow was breaking under my feet in wide portions of ice. Sometimes I managed to stay at the surface, but for too many times I went deeper in the snow with one foot or both. Was like walking on a frozen lake where ice was too thin and it kept cracking under my weight. I was holding my breath with every step wishing I wasn’t born such a gourmand. I actually had no idea how deep that snow was, sometimes I went down 30-40cm. But it got deeper every time. At one point one of my feet was buried completely, hip high, and I had to grab the frozen snow around the hole with both hands to pull myself out. This crater was formed close to a big rock and it hurt my feet a bit when falling. That was it! The last drop:

F—k it, I can’t do this and it’s not worth the risk.

I looked back at the starting point in the top. I had barely walked down a few metres. The sun disappeared under a few puffy clouds and the valley was now almost hidden in a foggy vail. It was just me trying this madness, no one else. I stopped on top of a rock to avoid getting deep in the snow once again, I found my balance, got the camera out of my bag and snapped a very pissed off photo of that Santa’s Secret Cabin down there and impossible to reach. It looked wow even from that distance, like a winter wonderland.  The photo I took was bad and I was going to delete it for sure soon after. I turned around and started climbing back to the top.

I got back to where I came from easier then the descent. I took another photo of the previous wooden cabin with the Carlsberg logo hanged above the door, the one right in front of the gondola exit. I was trying to convince myself that was a nice cabin too. I remembered what the girl at the coffee shop said: 10 minutes only…  Maybe she knew a secret easier path or she had snowshoes…

I abandoned the mission and started walking around. The snow was so frozen and was making such a noise. At 10m away I saw a group of three small cabins and I decided to get there. I took a lot of photos, at least I will have something…

A couple, both on snowboards, were sliding down the slope at the left, he fell and she started laughing. A few minutes later I saw them down there, at Santa’s Cabin. It seemed this was the only way to get there, sky, snowboard or snowshoes. I had none, only a last drop of hope left. I was now right under the gondola cables and some people in the cabins were looking at me with a “what the hell is she doing there alone” expression on their faces.

I still had the itch. I thought I should just look again down there, one more time, to check how far was the cabin from that point…. A few steps further, on the snow that didn’t crack this time and I got to the point where I could see straight down there. It was a little closer now but still too far away. But what do I see now? There were two people there, playing in the snow. Not the couple I saw earlier. It was a man and a boy, they seemed to have such a great time. They too probably got there on skies, I thought. Lucky them! They were two little black spots moving, on the white snow. The boy was making snow angels and throwing snowballs. They must have been there for some time. Soon, they seemed to be preparing to leave, and this made me curious to see how they were going to do it. I was expecting to see them grabbing their skies or snowboards or snowshoes and head down the slope. But no sight of those. They were actually on foot! That totally gave me hope! Could I get there too???

When I saw they started climbing the hill back to the top, I knew I could. This was how they got there, avoiding the deep snow and the steep parts using that side of the slope be. I couldn’t get there from the point I first try but now it looked easier. Oh my, I was so excited.

If I could manage to walk straight and fast enough a distance of about 30m, in front of me, I could intersect them right at half way. I could from there follow their traces down to the cabin. That might work for me too if it did for them. But those 30m were the problem as it was a portion where rocks could be seen raising above the snow. So I couldn’t tell how deep snow was or how frozen. Adrenaline was kicking in. I started with small but rapid steps. A few times I got deep in the snow but got out again fast. I was in such a hurry to meet them at half way. The piste machine have passed by their side and left long straight parallel lines which I could see now in the snow. I was getting closer to them and I heard their voices. The cabin was growing in front of me as I was getting closer. They were walking fast too and I realised was going to miss them. So I shout at them from the few meters left between us:

– How did you got down there, is it difficult?

Of course I could see all that, but I needed some moral support I guess.

Happily the man heard me and they stopped to catch their breath. He answered with a smile. Sure it was so damn difficult. Their red but happy faces proved it.

I had more courage now that someone was there, closer. From the point I was it seemed piece of cake to get down there, following the traces left by those two in the snow. And so I did and I made it to the cabin. The sun came out from the clouds in a small window, tracing a perfect vertical orange line of light. What a view, of the two cabins in front of me and the “snow monsters” around, those small pine trees completely covered in snow. The admiration stood me still. Few minutes later I started taking photos. Lots of them.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I saw a group of 6 girls climbing on snowshoes. They arrived there too and asked me to take some photos of them together and then they paid back the favor the same way.

I went inside Santa’s Cabin and they took some photos with me on the porch. Good photos this time. Perfect ones.

– Is it easier to descend on the way you came? I asked them.

– Oh, no, no, no way, it was very difficult for us to climb all the way up here, it is easier from the top.

They left as they came from. I was happy I also had photos of myself in that beautiful place.

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful places

I was again alone. The closest people were at about 50m, on the slope on the left, far enough to preserve the silence around me. I was preparing to leave as I already had plenty of photos with that amazing winter sunset when I saw a strange colored light on the sky. It was a vertical line of light, similar with the one still traced by the sun, only this one was colored. I looked better. It was a rainbow! It can’t be a rainbow on the sky with no drop of rain, at 20 negative, on a clear sunny winter day, I thought. I remembered a fragment of conversation I heard the day before, during the snowshoeing tour, when the guide was talking about a rare phenomenon that occurs in crisp cold sunny days in the Arctic areas, when the sunlight interacts with the ice particles floating in the atmosphere, producing two rainbows.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

It was called sun dogs or sun phantoms. The name doesn’t do any justice to that fabulous view. The sunset sun was now framed by two intense colored rainbows, placed at equal distances. First I saw the one in the right, then, soon after, the one in the left. I was stoned. How could it be, I barely understood what the guide was talking the day before, and a day after I was witnessing this magic? It was mind blowingly stunning, no words can describe it. For a sudden a thought crossed my mind: am I still alive, is this earth, is this real? It so was! It was nature at its best game: doing masterpieces of natural beauty to leave us speechless. The white snow all around was now turned into an orange see in the sunset light and sparkling particles of ice crystals in the air were shining like millions of diamonds that surrounded me. If something can be too beautiful, this was the place!

I took countless photos. The lens of my camera soon froze, three beautiful ice flowers covered it and it was too cold to manage to wipe them off. My fingers were hurting me because of the cold. I used my phone. Soon it’s battery died of the cold but happily I had a power bank. This was not an event to miss. It brought tears in my eyes as I was feeling grateful to live it. I wiped them off so they won’t stop me from seeing what surrounded me.

The two rainbows were now so intense, coming down from a curtain of clouds. Time stood still for a long and spellbinding Arctic sunset. I saw the reactions of people on the slope. The all stopped wherever they were when they saw it and didn’t move.  

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places         

This was by far the most sublime winter view I ever saw in my life. I saw many white winters with sparkling snow and sugar trees, true, not as “sweet” as the Finnish ones in Lapland, deep puffy snow, icy streets, blizzards and frost, frozen lakes and white mountains but I never saw a winter sunset like this, so long and so orange, with two rainbows in the skyes.  

Thank you Finland! Like this, you blew my mind totally, that day of January.

 

Finland: A frozen wonder called Levi

My heart was beating so fast I could hear it. I was holding by breath with every step, hoping my feet won’t go, this time, too deep in the snow. It was frozen at the surface but I had no idea how deep that snow was. I was mumbling to myself, angry and anxious, hoping I won’t break a leg, or hand or even my neck at the next step. I felt nervous, hot and sweaty, though there were 10 negative outside. There, on top of Levi hill, was that “hot” compared to the temperatures in the valley, where all was white and frozen at -25C.  

And there I was, walking down on the steepest portion of the hill top, right between two slopes and under the gondola cables. The frozen snow was creaking loudly under my feet. I knew it was just a matter of time until I will fall. One of my feet or maybe both will fall deeper again in the snow and each time this happened, the snow was deeper than the previous times. Santa’s Secret Cabin was in front of me, but it was still so far away, in the valley. It seem impossible to get there this way. I stopped.

Helsinki

At last in Finland! I was so incredibly excited as I landed and the first think I laid my eyes on in the airport was Smash, the salted snacks covered in chocolate I discovered last year in Norway and made a passion for. And Skyr, the fruit yogurt I had a crush on in Iceland two years ago, that can be found in Scandinavia only. It has proteins, of course, like almost every food in the North.

I found Helsinki under a blanket of snow, white and cold and welcoming. At negative 8 I remembered how strong cold is felt when you’re not used to it anymore and I was hoping this will just help me acclimate faster for what was to come next, the real cold, in Lapland.  

My hostel was very close to the central station so I wandered around the centre that evening.

I went to see the famous Oody Central Library launched in December. It’s a wow modern architecture building made of glass and wood. With trees inside, wooden amphitheatres where you can lay down and read and countless white shelves with all the books you can imagine. It makes you feel like reading a good book inside.

Oodi Library, Helsinki Finland

The streets of Helsinki were quiet and empty as I left the library, around 22 o’clock. I had a delicious salmon soup with a great top view in the last restaurant I found open late that evening.

Levi

Next day I woke up early, put on as many layers as I could and left for the airport.

At one moment, in the waiting area, I was about to ask an asian girl, dressed very lightly, if she really knows where she’s going…

In the last weeks I was constantly checking the weather forecast. There were -30 there! I panicked and started shopping immediately: new thermals, new sky pants, a down jacket for under, two layers gloves and two layers scarf, wool socks and so on. I was prepared. I thought.

A few minutes before landing the captain shared with us some useful info: welcome to Kittila, the temperature outside now is -30C.

“Yeah, let’s do this!”

My courageous smile froze out a few seconds later, when I saw the air traffic control tower of the small airport in Kittila. It was completely covered with ice and the scene looked like something I saw only in movies shot in Antarctica.

It got even crazier when I finally went outside the airport. The first breath was so cold it made me cough. Next ones too. I felt my whole body contracting as that deep cold was cutting my face like thousands of needles.  

Inside the bus for Levi I got back to my senses and thought:

“Damn, how am I going to be able to walk outside in this cold for more than 2 minutes?”

I remember what my Finnish friend wrote me the night before: Don’t worry, in the meanland it is cold but also dry and you don’t feel it so bad. I thought that’s just a Finish theory about cold, made up by people who love cold anyway.

For sure it didn’t work so far with me.

Waiting for the others to take their sits in the bus I took a look around, at the trees nearby. My fear that there will not be enough snow and I won’t be able to see those winter wonderland landscapes that made me so crazy desperate to come to Levi, has vanished. It was more than I could have dreamt of: Lapland was welcoming me in its best: white sugar trees everywhere. This is the most sublime view that winter offers to nature, when even the smallest leave or grass gets completely covered in white ice crystals and all that exists after is white.

The 16km to Levi were a drive through a white fairytale. The road was sneaking through a forest of perfectly white pine trees, tall and majestic.

We very soon arrived in a white town, surrounded by high slopes and white woods and crossed by streets with white sugar trees.

I was quite afraid to get out again in that cold but I had to leave the bus at this point.

Damn it was so terribly cold! The skin on my face hurts me and the air is so dry and cold that I keep coughing with every breath. It’s freezing me on the inside. I cover all my face with the scarf that’s knitted on the outside and fluffy fleece in the inside. It works, it is bearable now. I can’t use the phone more than 5 seconds cause my fingers freeze and I’m afraid my battery will die suddenly, leaving me completely disoriented. I can’t read the names of the streets because all the marks are covered in white icey crystals. I saw from the bus some buildings that seem to be the place I had to get to, but the check in was in a building in the centre.

Using Google Maps as little as I could without having the battery dead or my fingers frozen, I find the office. Thank God this is a small town.

I try to open the door and my hand freeze on the doorknob.

Wow, this will be fun! I say to myself.

The two ladies inside welcome me with a big smile. I was for sure in a hilarious state, all frozen.

– Such a beautiful summer you have here, I say, laughing.

– Yess, it’s really cold these days.

I get the key and in 10 minutes, after facing the frost once again, I reach the door of my studio. I would have been happy with a room only and even with a shared bathroom but this was the cheapest I found. And Levi is for sure hell expensive. Anyway it was perfect, warm, cosy, super central, with all you possibly need inside including a sauna and close to a market store.

There were not so many organised activities during the weekend in Levi and I had in mind a snowshoeing tour on top of the hill that was starting soon that day. It was on a Friday. It’s worth mentioning a slight detail: the  name of the town is Sirkka and the name of the hill is actually Levi, but now everybody calls the place Levi.

I had 30 minutes to add more layers on and to leave the house and try to catch that tour.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

The cold outside hit me like a wall again. The town was the visual definition of frozen. I have once experienced -20 for like 2 nights but was nothing compared to this because it didn’t last that long. Here in Levi it was around -25-30 for the last two weeks and so. The streets, the traffic signs, the houses, all you could see was white. It looked unreal, unbelievably beautiful. Few people and cars on the streets, mountains of snow, wide sky slopes with plenty of space for everyone, sugar trees completely white. The snow was making a loud noise under my feet. I walked by a lady who was literally frozen. Her coat, her hat and the scarf she had over her face were all white, covered with ice crystals. I have seen this before only on National Geographic covers or BBC Earth documentaries, never with my own eyes. I always thought those people, looking so frozen, must have been close to death. I meet others looking the same. I was walking for 10 minutes when I looked at my gloves. I thought was some sort of dust, but no. It was ice. Then I took my phone out to check my face. My black scarf covering my face was all white, also the faux fur of my coat started to turn white. I was literally freezing and I wasn’t cold at all. I wasn’t coughing anymore when breathing. It was happening what I was praying for. My body was adapting very fast to this new environment. Nature works miraculously!

I got to the Tourist Information Centre right in time and I managed to book the tour 10 minutes before it started. I was so happy they have agreed to take me so last minute.

I wanted to wait outside. I had this strange feeling that I was starting to like that cold. I loved seeing everybody covered in ice, it looked so extreme and exciting.

One guy was preparing hot tea and coffee in front, on an improvised stall on big car wheels. He had made a big fire, boiling water on top of it.   

 The mini van arrived and I, since I was the last one to come, I was invited to take the middle sit in the cabin. I couldn’t be happier, it was uncomfortable but the conversation with the lady driver and the views were all that mattered. We drove through the white woods covered of snow, until we reached the top of the hill, a wide plateau where only small pines could be seen rising out of the snow in surprising shapes, like fantastic beasts. It was sunny and cold but not that type of white bright sunny day. In January, in Levi, at 170 km North of the Arctic Circle, the sunrise was turning soon into sunset during the 4 hours when the sun rose above the hill. A pale orange light shines over the endless white. A small wooden cabin in the valley was completely frozen and looked magical but was too far to get there. The air was so strong.

We put on our snowshoes and start our way down, stopping from time to time for information. It wasn’t cold anymore but I prefered walking constantly. Sitting still for more than 5 minutes wasn’t fun at all. My phone had reached from 100% battery to 35% in just 20 minutes, without even using it. The perspective of not being able to take a photo there was not good. Fortunately I had my camera too and its battery was handling cold way better than my iPhone. Taking many photos was no option anyway, all it needed were 10 seconds for my fingers to freeze. I tried to push it longer but the pain of frozen fingers was really bad.

Walking on snowshoes was new to me and so fun. It does a great job keeping you at the surface, otherwise we would have been swimming in 1m or deeper snow.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

As we started descending from the top, the pine trees got bigger and the views even more spectacular. There they were, the famous winter postcard views of Levi I was dreaming about since I saw the first photos about this wonderful place.  

White sparkling snow, orange-pink sun light from a perfect long lasting sunset, pine trees so covered in snow that they stopped looking like trees and rather like creatures from other worlds. Each tree became a masterpiece, as each part of it was covered with ice crystals, like small translucent leaves.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

I was walking behind with one of the guides and we talked about Finland, winter in Finland and how amazing nature is.

  • You surely are taking advantage of your time here, he said when I told him I have arrived in Levi about 2h before.
  • Is it always this cold here?
  • Not always that cold. I can take it ok when it’s like that, but when it goes below 30, then you really feel the cold and it gets difficult to stay outside longer.
  • You know I’m surprised I don’t feel the cold as I did when I arrived.
  • Sure, you are starting to adapt. And here in Levi, because it’s dry, the cold is bearable.

So, again this theory I first heard from my friend.

– How cold does it get here.

– The coldest I remember is -44C

– Oh, wow!

His eyelashes were white at the top and his blonde beard had small icicles. I was just as frozen. We both laugh about this. The others were also and everybody was taking frozen selfies. All men had their beards covered in ice. On my coat I noticed small crystals of ice were forming.  This is something too amazing not to be lived at least once. I know I will need to repeat this not just once.

We stopped by a wooden cabin, completely white and frozen, with its small windows all covered in white ice. A red snowcat was wandering around, pushing the snow and forming 3m high mountains of snow around. It was getting dark, it was the blue hour. In winter, in these moments all becomes blue. The snow was shining like billions of white diamonds, the tall pine trees were looking like white ghosts and the sky was a pale blue. Ice flurries were falling down. It was indescribably beautiful. We had blueberry hot tea and delicious fresh cold cakes. I realised then this was all I ate that day. Such a blessing are the days too exciting to remember about details such as food.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

We crossed the forest among trees, snowshoeing in puffy fresh snow, shaking the most loaded branches, allowing the snow to cover us completely. We were all in that group, for sure and with no exception, winter addicts for life. All grown ups were kids again, back in childhood now, laughing and falling in the snow, sliding on their bums. This is how we got back in the town, loudly and full of joy. The same as I used to during those long white winters of my childhood, with my friends, on my street, in the woods behind our house. With our clothes wet, faces red and hands frozen, ignoring our parents threatening us and demanding to immediately enter the house or else… Who cared, we had the snow!

I missed the cracking snow under my feet and the mountains of white snow taller than me, as I used to see when I was 10. That dreamy winter I  found again in Levi, together with all the joy I had in those years being a child.

No northern lights dancing that night. But who cared… I felt like I was 10.  

 

 

      

My best friends in Tromso: 200 reindeers

I was a passer by in Tromso, Northern Norway, for a few days. People like me come and go, hoping to come back, but never knowing if that place that got so deep into their heart will ever be seen again. We, tourists, travellers or those wanderlust infected, try to see in a blink all we’ve read about on TripAdvisor; we taste the food, try to spell the language, talk to locals, take lots of photos, post them and then talk about how it was with family and friends. But this land actually belongs to them ever since before we existed, before Tromso was a tourist hot spot and a popular hashtag on Instagram, from old times, when no borders were drawn in the North between the regions of Lapland, from Norway to Sweden, Finland and Russia. Back in the days when winters were harsh and snow could reach more than 2m high, the reindeers were already there.

They still live free on the hills of Troms, many of them in herds which are taking care of by the Saami people, the indigenous population in the North. This union lasts for hundreds of years, in perfect harmony with nature, both parts helping each other survive the rough conditions in the Arctic. And a family just like this, with a herd just like that, of 200 reindeers, I was visiting in my last day in Tromso.

For someone like me, coming from a place where reindeers are the fantastic flying creatures in Santa Claus stories, actually seeing them for real is a true excitement. The moment I got off the car and saw a few reindeers behind the fence, on the white vast field covered with snow, among big snowflakes, all I wanted to do was run there and hug every single one of them. But, I hold my breath a bit cause we met our guest first: Lune, a beautiful tall woman, with long red hair, blue eyes like ice, snow white skin and the kindest of smiles. Do you know that type of person that you like instinctively and immediately? That was her. There can’t be a more friendly host. We were invited in the lavvu tent, a very high one made of wood piles and some sort of beige material, with a whole in the top where I could see the big snowflakes coming down to us and disappearing before reaching the fire above. This is specific to Lapland and the people living here for centuries.

We all gathered around the big fire in the middle of the lavvu tent, sitting on wood benches covered with reindeer hides. It was warm and a light scent of wood and smoke made me feel so comfortable. We were told that our mail job for that day was to feed the reindeers, all of the 200 hungry souls outside the door. And since we were going to have a bucket full of food, they will be make an exception and be friendly. In the wild, it’s not gonna happen, they usually run when they meet people but now, during the cold months, the Saami family was protecting them from predators like the links or the sea eagle. The last one usually attacks the small ones by injuring them and than waits patiently a few days until they die. Since during the last years the eagles were protected by the law in Norway, their number has increased and they now represent a main danger for the reindeers. But the worst is climate change. Maybe the most affected areas are those where cold is a vital condition. If we can cope with a few hot days, with an unusual rain fall or with The beast from the East (the recent cold wave that affected most of Europe last week), warm temperatures in the Arctic are fatal for many species. Rain for example was not seen before in those regions, during the winter months. A few days with positive temperatures and rain are followed by icy temperatures and so the ground gets covered by a thick layer of ice that the reindeers in the wild can’t break so they can reach food. So they starve or get too weak to survive the predators.

Maybe one of the most amazing example of how perfect everything is organised in nature is that related to the reindeer’s horns. They grow and fall as a natural process but those belonging to the males, if found in the wild, are picked by the Saamy people while those from females are never taken. They are very easily decomposed and high in calcium. So the female will get back to that place to eat it after she has her calf, this will help her produce milk. Also, other animals like foxes enjoy a good dose of calcium in the harsh conditions in the Arctic, where every source of nutrients is valuable.

And so, with a very good reality check about life in the North I took my bucket full of food and entered the paddock. I couldn’t make more than one step cause 5 reindeers surrounded me, each of them trying to get his head first in the bucket and keep it as long as he could there, enjoying his meal. While one was eating another one was coming from his side and using his horns was telling him that he had enough and was time to leave the bucket for the next one. I wanted to get in the middle of the heard, 20m away so I hold the bucket up and walked as fast as I could. Once there, I was surrounded by reindeers, some big, some smaller, some brown, others almost white, some with small horns, other with big large horns and some even with only one horn, looking quite funny. It’s true, in the first minutes, seeing some of the males with large horns coming towards me fast or starting to hit others with the horns I was a bit afraid. But they are the cutest and harmless creatures. While they were eating I got the chance to touch them and feel how thick and soft in the same time is their fur, the horns that look just like bones and their fluffy noses, breathing with noise every time I got close to them. I think I spent around two hours with them. Since we were told to try to feed the shy ones too, I accepted the challenge to get the bucket to the shyest reindeer of the heard, the one that ran every time someone was getting 3 m close. I moved slowly, closer and closer, stood still when he looked ready to run again and let him come. Finally I won his trust and he came to eat.

It was a beautiful place, a large field surrounded by the forest, mountains and hills, nearby a fiord, all was white and it was still snowing. The sky was turning pink as 1pm o’clock was announcing sunset. I tried the lasso and the 5th try was a success. I took a short reindeer sled ride and I was happy I choose the short option so I could spend more time feeding 4 buckets to the reindeers.

I could have stayed there another 2 hours when lunch was served: freshly reindeer stew, a traditional meal served at weddings by the Saami. Was very good but it didn’t felt right that after playing with the reindeers I was now eating one of them.

We gathered once again around the fire, in the lavvu tent. Now it was snowing so heavily  outside that I couldn’t see a thing. Lone, our host, told us stories about the history and culture of its people, about their traditional clothes full of motifs, each of them having a specific signification like weather the man or woman were married, a signal for others to keep the hands off. She showed us the traditional Saami shoes, made of reindeer or seal skin, with fur on the bottom used in order to prevent slippage. We’ve learned craftsmen secrets like how to remove the hair from the reindeer skin with the help of the water from a river. It was a wonderful lesson about the Saami culture, no better place for that. We ended the day singing yoiks, traditional songs of the population in the North. Those sounds are so out of this world that during the middle age people who were heard singing them were accused of witchcraft and burned alive.

I left the farm happy. It was the heaviest snow I ever saw falling in my entire life, in 1 minute outside the tent I was all white, covered in snow. But that’s how it should be there in the Arctic and that’s what make the reindeers happy.