Travelling north in Finland, the train crosses the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line at 66° 33′ 39″ north of the equator. All places north of this magical line receives at least one day of 24-hour sun and at least one day where the sun does not lift above the horizon at all. The travel wonder of Rovaniemi is fortuitously situated near the Arctic Circle and takes full advantage of its location. The interminable daylight presents a carpet of flowers and verdant forests flourishing in the brief warming summer months and turns the rivers into raging torrents as melting snow and ice escapes for the nearest oceans.
Most importantly, the town has established the existence of Santa Claus in Lapland. His village conveniently located just north of the Arctic Circle lives on a year-long Christmas celebration with the post office doing a roaring trade. Mr Claus receives over half a million requests a year for bicycles, dolls, electronic games, trucks and other assorted toys through the mail. Santa’s elves decked out in red and white toil away writing letters in response, selling a variety of tinsel-tinged festive paraphernalia and generally assisting Santa conduct his village.
Outside, Santa’s reindeer worn down with clichéd names like Dasher, Dancer and Rudolf loll around their paddocks, the July heat sapping their energy and the moult leaving their fur blotchy and untidy. They contently exchange pats and fondles for handfuls of food, blissfully unaware that their siblings provide a share of the Finnish menu, whether it be steaks, sausages or reindeer jerky.
Night times are strange in summer Rovaniemi – dusk and dawn merge together in a dull light without darkness setting in. Mosquitoes the size of tiny fighter jets swarm in black plumes dive-bombing bare skin with kamikaze passion, vacuuming precious red liquid from your body. The Finns recommend natural citronella over the various chemical concoctions – smelling like marmalade seems a small price to pay to fend off this savage attack force.
Maintaining a tradition practiced for centuries, Rovaniemi boasts a traditional smoke sauna. Taking hours for the wood-fuelled stove to heat the stone, the smoke is released and the people admitted. Sauna is serious business among Finns commenting on the löyly or steam in the same reverent terms that a winemaker will discuss a glass of red. Being a mixed group, everyone is wrapped in a towel, the sauna occasionally stoked with more löyly as water is tossed on the stones. The heat is intense but somehow gentle, small beads of sweat gradually turning into rivulets coursing down my torso. The wood provides a soothing forest aroma without any sense of smokiness.
The Finns chatter away in an incomprehensible language totally unrelated to the typical Slavic, Germanic or Romance-based languages of Europe, contented with the layer of mysticism the Finnish language adds to the country. Mind you, the long glass corridor of the Arktikum Museum strips away much of this mystery providing an excellent and detailed history of this northern land, its fascinating fauna and flora, the sparse population’s harmonious existence with nature and the harsh unforgiving winter battles fought during World War 2 (and the wilful destruction of the city by the Germans in retreat).
The local church highlights how everything is wrapped around the local Sami culture with a stunning central fresco and small supporting artworks, featuring a pious mixture of religion, reindeer and wintry weather.
Sensing a feeling of being well-cooked in the sauna’s heat, refreshment is available in the neighbouring river. The contrast of the water’s temperature gives a sensational burst of tingling freshness right through my body though the overwhelming cold of the currents quickly chases people out.
While people flock to this tiny township conveniently situated on the imaginary corridor of the Arctic Circle to capture an element of Christmas, there is an authentic Finnish experience available for those who want to wander a little beyond Santa’s Village.