In winter, the city glows like a campfire in the long polar night. Tourists flock to Rovaniemi from all over the planet in order to meet Father Christmas. His village lies 8 km/5 mi from the capital of Finnish Lapland in Napapiiri, spot on the arctic circle. It is the lowest latitude from which the midnight sun can be observed in summer. Set in the tundra, Napapiiri seems more like a gigantic shopping complex than a charming traditional village filled with reindeer and elves, but this is the very place where the jolly white-bearded fellow receives letters posted by children from the four corners of the globe. One may join the august gentleman for a photograph in his bureau, then send a letter stamped with a special postmark from the Santa Claus Office.
Before settling near Rovaniemi, Father Christmas lived in Korvatunturi, ‘Ear Mountain’, whence he could hear everyone’s wishes. This great secret was revealed in 1927 by Markus Rautio, a Finnish radio show host, in his programme for children. But it seems Mr. Claus keenly felt the distance that separated him from the children of the world, and so in 1985 he decided to move to Napapiiri, where he lives yet today.
Redesigned by Alvar Aalto
Razed by the Germans in 1944, Rovaniemi’s reconstruction was piloted by the architect and designer Alvar Aalto, one of Finland’s most famous figures beyond the Baltic. The city plan is said to hold the image of a puzzle representing a reindeer, with two branches of its central park designed to resemble reindeer horns. Among Rovaniemi’s emblematic buildings are the town hall and, opposite one another, the library (Hallituskatu 9) and Lappia Hall, a cultural venue designed for theatre and concerts.
Arctic adventurers of our ilk, however, do not usually spend much time exploring the streets of this city which serves as a base camp for polar expeditions. Bundled up and ready to confront the pristine snowlands, they mount their snowmobiles and set off on a white safari. They can be recognized by their uniforms, comprising of a well-padded red and black snowsuit, fur-lined boots and a face mask to keep the cold at bay. We make a halt in a reindeer farm close to the city, where our hosts have organized a dog sled excursion which ends around a hearth under a traditional tent called a ‘kota’. Then, when night falls, around 3 pm, our snowmobile caravan pulls up in front of a hotel made of ice: the Arctic SnowHotel. The decor of this icy palace changes every winter. ‘Each room has a different sculpture!’ declares proprietor Ville Haavikko as he adjusts the bluish light of the Ice Bar. In the land where saunas were born, a snow sauna is a must before setting out to watch for the Northern Lights. Wish fulfilled: the green streaks of the aurora borealis appear in the sky of a cloudless night.
Around nine the next morning, the landscape glows in a pink light: a veritable fairyland, even at – 32°C (-26°F). An ice-fishing session is improvised on the frozen lake. Pasi, our young guide, drills a hole in the ice, but the salmon won’t bite. No matter, grilled sausages will do just fine for our picnic in the birch grove, washed down with hot blackcurrant juice, the national beverage. A final jaunt via dogsled takes our party back to the lights of Rovaniemi, where a bit of warmth awaits...