I love festivals and can confidently say that Christmas is my favourite festival of the year. Having studied in a Convent school,the all-Catholic St. Francis Xaviers High School, I used to look forward to every Bangalore Winter: from buying trinkets, Xmas decorations and goodies - like plum cake, rose cookies and homemade sweet wine, to the Christmas Bazaar that school organised d to attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve. My love for the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus, still lights up my face with joy every year.
Last year I decided to celebrate Christmas in the home of Santa — Rovaneimi, Finland and meet the man, his reindeer and visit Santa town to witness all its glory. It was at the top of my bucket list since I was a kid, so when four of us who decided to embark on this trip together, we were only too thrilled to become children again. There was my hubby, my best friend and her partner and I, who went on this adventure with our eyes lit up and our excitement ...uncontainable.
We landed in Helsinki on Christmas Day, quickly after which we were whisked off straight away to a Finnish Christmas dinner at our guide, Sari’s home. Sari is born and brought up in Helsinki, and married to an extremely charming Italian woman (of course they have ‘charming’ in their genes) and together they have two lovely boys. She had laid out a mix of traditional Finnish food like baked salmon, rye bread, rice pudding, cheese and salads. Finally, a Bilberry Kiisseli and pie, made from wild billberries, which was a delicious finale to our meal, goes without saying that our meal was topped with a robust Italian red wine that was the Italian influence I guess.
A tour around Sari’s home had us surprised by a sauna in the home itself. Apparently, all Finnish homes always have a sauna due to 8 months of the year being frightfully cold!
The next day we visited the magnificent Rock Church. Quarried out of natural bedrock and designed by famous architects the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church) has a spectacular atmosphere and unique architecture with its copper dome, exposed rocks and concrete beams. We then did a short hike to view the Soumelina Islands from the beach and visited the Sibelius monument, famous for its unusual design.
Later that evening we relaxed and tried out a few of Finalnd’s famous gin cocktails and ventured around the City Centre Boutique Hotel we were staying in. The verdict is that this hotel seemed to have the best bartender I had ever met! Over incessant conversations over the crackling fireplace in the lounge, we nursed more than a few Lingonberry & Elderflower Thyme Gin cocktails, that were refreshing and kept us warm in the sub zero temperatures outside.
My favourite part of the trip began the next day, when we took a short hour’s flight to Rovaneimi — the hometown of Santa. The next three days for me were magical, to say the least. I had dreamt about going there a million times but the whole experience of being there was beyond all I had envisioned.
Being surrounded by snowy mountains, paths with dim lights along the Pine Trees, and the frozen river — it all felt and looked ethereal. I could hear ‘Let it snow…let is snow…’ play in my head throughout. Four layers of clothing everyday may have been a task, but the views couldn’t have justified it any more than they did! We trudged that evening to the Arctic Snow Hotel, an hour’s drive from Rovaneimi. Adjacent to Lehtojärvi Lake, this high-concept snow hotel is made of snow and ice with unconventional rooms also made of ice! Every room comes with high-quality sleeping bags, shared bathrooms and a wake-up service to view the Northern Lights. There are also insulated, glass-roofed igloos, complemented by an Ice Bar. Tradition has it that one must have a shot of vodka for goodluck (and warmth), after which these ice glasses are to be broken! What followed this swig of goodluck was a three course dinner on ice benches.
A memory of a lifetime unveiled in front of me when I met Santa Claus himself (Saint Nicholas as they say). A tad miffed that the lines were long and winding to meet him, all was forgotten as we walked through Santa’s home and met his best elves — all at work! All the friends we met on the way, willingly posed with us — from Santa to his trusted elves. Apparently, there is a University course that is required to become Santa Claus in Rovaneimi itself, and it is of immense privilege to pass the exam. Considering he is the most highly paid person in Finland, I have this on my list of alternate professions too.
Our visit to Santa Village ended with an easy, fun Reindeer Sledge Ride through the forests, reaching the Arctic Circle and being awarded Arctic Circle certificates after. Another evening followed of warm Gin Cocktails and Traditional Finnish treats like Salmon and Trout platters for dinner at a Chalet-style mountain restaurant.
Later that night we left to witness the famed ‘Aurora Borealis’ usually seen in the Arctic Circle area, of course dependent on climatic changes. Aurora Borealis’ lights of the Northern Hemisphere translates to ‘dawn of the north’. One needs to be patient, lucky and bear frigid temperatures to view this electrifying natural phenomenon! It was -9 C but we stood in the open, surrounded by the truly magical blue sky. Over hot sausages, Glogg, hot marshmallows and lovely conversations, we managed to catch a miniscule glimpse of the magical Northern lights! Not the whole hog, but a sneak peek of what looked truly unbelievable. One day, hopefully soon, I will see it again in complete mesmerisation. Of course by the end of the night, I felt like I had lost a hand even with my gloves on, but I am usually not good with the cold anyway.
A bit of trivia from the trip taught me that the Alaskan husky is not considered a pure breed. It is defined only by its purpose, which is that of a highly efficient sled dog. The Husky is a blend of various Northern breeds, chosen particularly for skills such as pulling! The next morning, we had the delight of a splendid husky ride! Riding the sledge on the Lapland slopes with miles and miles of ethereal white snow all around, this was quite the journey with a difference with barking dogs leading the way.
With this being our last day at Rovaniemi, we ended up shopping for reindeer toys, Santa memorabilia and of course, the softest Lapland Blankets I have seen (err...felt) in the world.
Needless to say, my heart sang like never before as I left Lapland with famous words by Tilly Tennant ringing in my ears: “She was in the only place she wanted to be right now.
She was home.”
My Christmas wish had come true and is etched in my heart for a life!
—The writer is the founder of Che Experiences. Check out her blogcheindia.blogspot.in