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Arctic escapades

Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital of Finnish Lapland, is enchanting alright

By Anoothi Vishal

“Rovaniemi”. I roll it in my mouth, silently. It’s a mysterious, lyrical name alright. Almost with the same haunting quality as “Rebbeca” or “Rowena Ravenclaw”, the Hogwarts witch with a lost diadem…

I can’t help but be drawn to this image that I have created in my head of a semi-magical Finnish town, situated on the Arctic circle, a portal to snowy northern realms. Some names have the power to bewitch; undoubtedly Rovaniemi is one of them. But as I repeat it, I have to acknowledge that at least part of the fascination is because this is the official hometown for Santa Claus; the place to meet our man in red whatever the day, whatever the season; a land of 24X7 Christmas.

Inevitably when I reach, it is not quite how I have imagined it. There are no spires and domes or magical chimneys and elves don’t quite frequent the streets. There are fairly chic shoe stores and bookstores instead, cafes, bars and restaurants and a high street. That is, besides all those buildings designed by Alvar Aalto. Most of Finnish Lapland, the northern-most region of the country, was burnt and razed by retreating Nazi forces between 1944-45. So, Rovaniemi, despite being an ancient town, has fairly modern architecture, some the contribution of the brilliant modernist Aalto. Because it has been steadily snowing, the town is carpeted in white. And as the downy flakes float into my face, I decide that whether it fits the Grimm stereotype or not, Rovaniemi is magical.

That evening, we check out the nightlife – and there’s plenty here.

My new family of friends (Sonia, Faisal, Jari, Papori) and I troop down to the downtown to eat at the celebrated Nili that offers specialities from Lapland. Nili means “larder”— a traditional Lappish structure built on a tree to store food, out of reach of ransacking animals. It charms me as soon as we enter with its old-fashioned booths, chandeliers with live candles and leather and wood look. In fact, the interiors and all the handicrafts are almost entirely done out of traditional Lappish materials—wood, reindeer antlers and skin. We decide to check some of these out later at the stores and perhaps take back reindeer skin for comfort on a cold Delhi evening. (When we do shop, the next day, however, it is for a traditional kuksa, wooden mug that we are advised to anoint it first in potent alcohol before using it—and not share it with anyone else. A kuksa is strictly personal, after all.)

Salmon, reindeer, mushrooms and the Arctic berries are Lapland’s most famous ingredients and they are all on the menu. Salty salmon with sweetish cranberries, reindeer slivers with cheese, rye-bread-crumbed white flaky fish, even small buckwheat blinis with sour cream and roe, even vegetarian options by way of rutabaga pie and mushrooms, it’s a special-occasion meal for a special occasion. Since it is Jari’s birthday, there’s much alcohol happening. After a red Italian, we move on to Spanish Cava and then embark upon a Portuguese dessert wine: All of Europe in a kuksa!

Besides, how can we not have enough of Finlandia and brandy shots going round? The Finnish love their drink, almost as much as the all-pervasive warm berry juice. Who are we to decline? But the evening is young and this is the country that also likes it karoke. So Jari takes us out to have some fun and even if we do not yoik like the Saamis (the Lappish tribe of reindeer herders with their chant-like music), I can and do sing Eagles (badly)!

Surprisingly, I am clear-headed the next day. It’s time for the Santa safari. We are off to a reindeer farm and because Sonia and I are too chicken to ride our own snow mobiles, we opt to snuggle under a warm rug in a modern-sledge. Since there is no wind, it isn’t really that cold but we are well insulated nevertheless in our hired gear that makes us feel like astronauts on an outer-space mission.

The reindeer are much smaller than you would think — free to move about but fed by the herders. I see an elusive white one, before being pulled in a traditional wooden sledge by a couple of highly-trained others, so that all you need to do is hang on to the reins, sit back and enjoy.

The Arctic Circle cuts through the farm and there is a special ceremony—and certificate—to mark the fact that we have officially crossed over. In the old days, this feat was supposed to imbue you with youth and longetivity. Do I notice fewer laughter lines and fewer crinkles near my eye? Perhaps…

Sonia, of course, is hyper-excited. Her childhood dream has to be, er, sit in Santa’s lap and at his workshop in the Santa Claus Village that is exactly what she intends to do. Aaliya, my child, where are you?

The first thing to do then is to go to Santa’s post office where you can buy special stamps and post letters to all the children you know and think of, that yes, dear Tom or Tara, Adam or Aaliya, Santa exists and is listening to you…

Conversely, what you can also do is read post marked to “Santa, North Pole” that arrives here from all over the world. There are friendly elves to show you around and take out the bundles of letters. I cry reading some of them. They are real pleas from real children. Hope someone has been listening.

Excited little moppets are dragging parents to stores where a variety of Christmassy and Lappish stuff is available. Sonia keeps dithering over a red poncho and evil-looking gnomes, Faisal looks diligently for something silver and I buy Lappish dolls and soft blue blankets… Then it is time to keep our appointment with Mr Claus.

It’s hushed and dark as we make our way to the special office. Is this how you feel when you walk the hall of fame to the Oval Room? We wait at the door, before they magically open and we are face to face with Father Christmas.

“So, you are from India? Delhi? Mumbai?” he asks looking at Sonia and me.

“So, he does know everything,” we think silently and simultaneously. Yes, indeed we are from Delhi and Mumbai.

Sonia sits on his lap, I make inane conversation, we all giggle self-consciously, Jari, who has been here before (this Santa is his friend, he tells us later) stands patiently, indulgently watching us being silly. But heck, this is Santa Claus, the real one.

We back out and notice the huge wheel of Time just outside the office. Time and Reality can be altered. It feels as if they’ve been. Of course, it may well be a set out of Harry Potter. And then I realize something else: I haven’t quite conveyed Aaliya’s message!

Perhaps, I need to go back. There’s some unfinished business.

What to do, where to go

Sleep: Scandic Hotel, Rovaniemi. With about 160 hotel s in the Nordic region and northern Europe this is a reliable chain geared to take care of business and leisure needs. The rooms are comfortable with showers and bath tubs, there is a fairly extensive breakfast spread and the staff all speak English. The hotel is also centrally located and so is a good choice should you want to walk it to the high street with its cafes and restaurants and entertainment options.

www.scandichotels.fi

Eat: For traditional Lappish menu, do check out the wonderful Nili. We also ate buffet meals at the Santa Claus Village that are filling and suitable to all palates, including the vegetarians. These may include salads, a stew of some sort (I had a chicken stew quite like our own chicken curry), rice, pasta (the salmon pasta I tried was delicious and suited to even children), tea or coffee and dessert. There are plenty of cafes with delicious and European pastries and the Finnish love their ice-cream. So children should have no problem. www.nili.fi

There are also snow restaurants in Rovaniemi—made with snow, with ice sculptures, tables and chairs inside. Visit these for a drink at least. For a longer meal, you will need to be kitted out in the special gear provided. www.snowland.fi

Shop: For books, shoes, clothes in European styles. But look out for traditional Lappish handicrafts like jewellery made from reindeer antler, reindeer throws, leather handicrafts and so on. Do buy a wooden kuksa. The Santa Claus Village has its own shops full of Christmas stuff—reindeer and gnomes, candies, candles et al. Check out the craft work at www.hornwork.fi

Visit: The Arktikum Museum provides a unique insight into the way of life, culture and history of the north. It is a museum, science centre, conference house as well an architectural sight in its own right. You can buy books on Lapland and its culture and myths here as well as other traditional artifacts. www.arktikum.fi

(The article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Travel + Leisure magazine India and South Asia)

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