Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Helsinki and Rovaniemi (where Santa lives)

The bus from St Petersburg to Finland was 9 and a half hours of fantastic scenery, with a firey sunset on one side and snow covered fir trees on the other, it definitely felt like I was heading towards Christmas. With only one day in Helsinki, it made sense to just wander around and get a feel for the place. The short stay was actually a blessing in disguise -- Finland isn't a cheap place to be traveling on the Australian dollar, and there was a lot in the design district that I would have very happily dropped some cash on. A bar on the 14th floor of a hotel provided mulled wine and panoramic views of the city at sunset, viewing the Gulf of Finland from the opposite angle from a few days before in St Petersburg. One more sleep in the world's loudest hostel before our exciting trip north to visit Santa, which was no easy task with the drunken yobs crashing about and a blood curdling wind howling around and banging metal things against the wall. Hostels have an age limit, and I think I've just past it. I did manage to squeeze in a pre-breakfast sauna though, which is always a bonus. What a way to start the day.
Flights were out-of-the-question expensive to Rovaniemi, so a day after our bus Odyssey, we sat for 8 hours on a train. I'm still loving train travel, to my suprise, and am actually looking forward to the future trains in Eastern Europe. It makes me very calm.
The dream for Lapland was to go husky sledding under the northern lights, so it was crushing to discover that the season doesn't start til December this year. You could go to the husky park and pat a dog, but for 160 bucks that sounded lame, as did paying $250 for an hour reindeer sled ride. Instead, we decided to make our own fun and took a bus out to the Ranua Wildlife Park. By the time we got there it was basically sunset (2.30pm) so some of the animals were snoozing, but the polar bears played up to us and all the animals looked like they had enough space and activities to be relatively happy in captivity. I liked the snow owls. Hoo hoo.
It was weirdly deserted, and after being shadowed everywhere through Asia and Russia, it was great to be able to roam about a huge open space without seeing anyone else. Because I'm an adult, I found it infinitely amusing that the only sign of inhabitants we could see in some of the snow-covered enclosures were patches of yellow snow. It was a good two hour walk the whole way around -- by the end I couldn't feel some of my toes and it felt like permafrost had set into my thighs.
As we were leaving the park, we caught a glimpse of the northern lights -- more a coloured stain than a celestial blaze, but we were excited and amazed nonetheless.
The park closed at 4pm and the bus was scheduled to leave at 5.25pm, so we lingered in the chocolate supermarket, which was oddly the only thing open at the park til 5pm, then waited in -12 degrees at the bus stop for 45 minutes (the bus was very late), in a scene that was disturbingly like something David Lynch would stage. We were discussing the likelihood of anyone finding our remains if we were killed hitchhiking back to Rovaniemi when the bus finally arrived.
Our final day was reserved for Santa's Village, at -16C. I never suspected Santa lived in a thinly veiled commercial theme park, but you learn something new every day. Tourist consumerism at its most ferocious, Santa's Village was a collection of gift stores with a small area dedicated to an official post office (if you haven't received your post card, it must have just got lost in transit) and Santa's "office" where you can pay 20 euros to have your photo taken on the big man's knee. The line was long, so we saved some excited kids another five minutes wait and skipped that opportunity. I don't need a fat man in a suit telling me I've been naughty, anyway.
We met a Scottish guy in the hostel in Helsinki who was on his way up for a second season as an elf at the village. He was microwaving a mixture of baked beans and frozen meatballs for dinner and his complexion suggested this might be his regular diet, supplimented with a lot of booze. I guess the elf outfit makes them cute. Despite my cynicism, it was an admittedly magical place, even moreso with fresh snow falling on the already icy trees and huts.
The previous night, I cooked a reindeer stew (which was amazing, if can rate my own cooking) and we had some sliced reindeer meat left over from the bruchetta entree, but decided it might be inappropriate to take reindeer sandwiches to Santa's Village. In the cafe, aside from the regulation burgers and pizza, for a mere $35 you could have a cafeteria tray with reindeer stew. Sorry, Rudolph.
There is a great museum in Rovaniemi called Arktikum with lots of stuffed animals - you can press a button and hear the noises they make. Hours of fun...

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