Well, Finland is a new country to add to my list of visited countries!
On the positive side, Rovaniemi has much more daylight (it’s on the Arctic Circle) than the places I’ve been to in the last 10 days. This opens up so much more of the day to exploration - it was particularly challenging getting oriented in Norwegian towns when I arrived in total darkness. On the negative side, Rovaniemi lacks the charm of most of the Norwegian coastal towns that I’ve just visited. Rovaniemi has a Soviet feel to it with many large, square, concrete apartment buildings; in contrast, the Norwegian towns included many attractive wooden homes with a folksy charm. However, I did find some interesting street beautification activities in Rovaniemi. Check out the brightly coloured reindeer statue and the poles that had been covered with Marimekko fabrics.
Despite being more south, Rovaniemi is much colder than the Norwegian coast (which benefits from the warming Gulf Stream currents). Rovaniemi is inland and has had daytime maximum temperatures of about minus 8 during my two day visit. There was deep snow everywhere and I’m now extremely adept at pulling on and off the snow chains on my shoes (you are not meant to wear them indoors as the spikes can damage timber and stone floors). I enjoyed watching some young children learning how to skate, using skating frames similar to the walking frames used by elderly people. The centre of town also had some ice sculpture carving in progress.
On my first day, I followed an arts and crafts walking trail that had been put together by various galleries and craft shops. It was a good way to explore some areas outside the downtown shopping precinct. The trail ended at a very high quality arts and craft market in one of the main museums, which also offered a very pleasant cafe. In the evening, I took advantage of the fact that I had my own personal sauna in my hotel bathroom. First, I had to ask the hotel receptionist to explain the multiple dials on this electric model! Once it had heated up to about 75C, I went in and then added water to the coals to generate steam.
Today I went to see Santa Claus at Santa Claus Village, 8km out of Rovaniemi. Now some of you are probably thinking: doesn’t Santa live at the North Pole (2600km north of here)? And didn’t the 3rd century St Nicholas - who was the inspiration for Santa Claus - come from Turkey? So, the concept that Santa lives at the North Pole was first mentioned in a US magazine article in 1866. It was about another 60 years (1927) before a Finnish radio broadcaster declared that Santa’s workshop had been discovered in the Lapland region (northern region) of Finland. The Finns argued that because there is no greenery for Santa’s reindeer to graze on at the North Pole, he lives in Lapland where the reindeer can graze freely. It was another 60 years or so until Rovaniemi, the provincial capital, was identified and established as the official home of Santa.
Rovaniemi had a tough time during World War 2. It was bombed by the Russians and captured by the Nazis who subsequently employed a scorched earth policy when they retreated from this area. (By the way, I heard similar stories in northern Norway, where many towns were completely razed as the Germans, in defeat, were given orders to leave nothing standing. Interestingly, Germans are now one of the largest groups of tourists in northern Norway, generating much tourism revenue, so the circle is complete). The town of Rovaniemi had to be completely rebuilt with relief funding from the United Nations. In 1950 Eleanor Roosevelt visited to observe the reconstruction and a special Arctic Circle cabin was built for the occasion. As magazines began promoting Lapland as a northern wilderness, more tourists started coming and more buildings were added near the Arctic Circle cabin. Finally, in 1984 the governor declared the province of Lapland as Santa Claus Land, with Santa Claus Village officially opened in 1985. However, even today, the nearby woods have remnants of Nazi buildings, while the main airport was previously the Luftwaffe airfield. You’ll probably never think of Santa, or at least his home, in the same way again!
Back to today! As the photo map shows, Santa Claus Village has many souvenir shops, cafes, accommodation and two different buildings where you can meet Santa (obviously he must use an underground tunnel to get between the two buildings). I particularly enjoyed the Post Office, where some of the 500,000 letters received each year are displayed in the foyer. There were dozens of people busily writing letters at tables to send to friends and family so as to receive the official Santa Claus postmark. Outside, the children seemed to be having a ball tobogganing in the heavy snow and also down long icy slides. Other people went on reindeer sled rides. I asked one of the elves to take a photo of me with some other elves.
Finally, I queued up to meet Santa. Surprisingly, it was only about a 15 minute wait. There are no selfies, or photos taken by other people, allowed. Instead, you line up, get asked your name and country by some elves, take off jackets and hats, then go to sit near Santa who shakes your hand. I’m sure I had some smart conversation ready to go, but I distinctly remember saying ‘pleased to meet you’. Santa asked where I was from, but did not ask whether I had been good or bad this year. Santa speaks many languages - while waiting outside, I heard him greeting other visitors in Spanish and French, and apparently he knows many other languages. The elves take 2 quick photos, you shake his hand again, so it’s all over within a minute. While entry to the Village and meeting Santa is free, they make their money on the photos. I bought a 10 x 8 photo for €32 - about $50Aus - presented in an attractive display folder. I’ve obviously taken a photo of this souvenir photo with my camera, so you can get a preview here. I was quite pleased with the photo - Santa certainly has an impressive beard!