Adventurers flock to the Finnish hinterland to take in the Northern Lights, winter sports and some culinary surprises.
AKASLOMPO - This little sausage has seen better days. After having been carried around in a backpack for two and a half hours in the frigid temperature of Lapland’s snowy taiga forest, it’s scrunched and half frozen.
Ronja spears it with a stick and puts it in the flames of the fire she’s made at the edge of the trail: the forest ranger had left firewood in a small shelter. We’re having a barbecue at -20°C.
"We like to grill outdoors, even in winter," the 38-year-old explains. The snow-covered conifers all around us look like the wintry wonderland of every central European city-dweller’s dreams. In Lapland, scenery like this is routine.
The sausage is now brown, and is beginning to smell good. Ronja is laughing. She thinks the idea I’ve just proposed – that she’s the confidence-inspiring sort of woman you have no trouble seeing felling trees with an ax and building a log cabin – is funny but not wrong: "Maybe we got good genes from our ancestors so that we can survive up here."
Good genes – or are the Finns, at least the ones who live in Lapland, crazy? In any case, people who live north of the polar circle, whether in Finland, Sweden, Norway or Russia, tick a little differently than the ones who live south of it.
Lapland can refer to the Swedish province of that name, a region in Finland, northern Scandinavia, or a somewhat larger cultural area that is home to the Sami people and includes some regions south of the polar circle.
Regardless of your definition, think snow blanketing everything – despite climate change – for five months of the year. Up here a cross-country skier or snowshoer is more likely to run into a reindeer than a road. There are so few inhabitants that the library is on a bus that crisscrosses this area of northern Finland, stopping in the various villages once a month.
Far away from hectic city life, the pace up here is relaxed. The Finnish language, with its 15 grammatical cases and a pause after pronouncing each syllable in a word (like an off-beat in music), is perfectly suited to it – it’s as if people are trying to save energy when they talk.
"We’re not the fastest, for sure" says Toivo Qvist, confirming my impression. The 47-year-old is sitting in the bar of the Ylläs Humina hotel, warmed by the flames of a roaring fire in the fireplace, sipping a glass of 2007 Barolo. "But we know how to have a good time in these temperatures."
Toivo, who calls his guests by their first names, runs a family-owned hotel that mixes tradition with modern comforts. It has separate saunas for men and women; appealing warm, light log cabins grouped around a main building, all kept nice and warm with underfloor heating and fires in the fireplaces, and furniture inspired by iconic 20th century Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto.
Toivo collects southern European wines, mainly Italian, and has 1,000 bottles in the cellar. They are among the few imported items he tolerates. The ingredients for Ylläs Humina menus are mostly regional: lots of fat-free, tender reindeer meat prepared different ways, a great variety of berries and mushrooms, deep red salmon, caviar.
"For a long time, southerners made fun of us country hicks," says Toivo. But not any longer – ever since hotels like the Ylläs Humina with its log cabin charm have been attracting more and more tourists to the north. The village of Äkäslompolo (pop. 400) accommodates 10,000 during peak season.
"But there’s still enough room for everybody," says Pekka. He knows whereof he speaks: some days, all the company he gets is that of reindeer and birds. His "kotomaja" – a wigwam-like wooden hut – is only eight km from Äkäslompolo but in the winter you can only get there by ski or snowshoe.
Pekka is the only one allowed to drive a snowmobile on the trails of the national park. With him he carries food and drink that he sells to tourists: hot, very sweet berry juice, reindeer-meat sandwiches, fatty, fried baked goods and donuts.
Pekka is 45 years old. Does he sometimes get lonely in all this splendid isolation? Laughing, he says: "I love the snow, the forest, and the reindeer that visit me. And when I get the feeling I’m not seeing enough people, I go to a karaoke bar."
Finns in general love karaoke, he tells me – particularly those who live in Lapland looking for some excitement to the winter months.
Anybody who goes to one of the karaoke bars – and every village has one – after 6 p.m. is in for a surprise. Older people, some of them still wearing their cross-country boots, dance unrestrainedly to pop hits. Kati, a local cab driver, has just given her best rendering a Finnish version of Robbie Williams's "Angels" and is now sipping a Coke.
For five years she’s been heaving heavy bags into her minibus and driving their owners around Lapland, so she knows what draws tourists here. "The Japanese come because of the northern lights, the rest doesn’t interest them much."
Finns from the southern part of the country prefer snowmobiling, she says, while the Germans and Swiss are into vigorous daytime sports then like to spend their evenings by the fire over a good glass of wine. They all come here in search of picture-book winters – and are not disappointed. With a wink Kati sums up: "Snow – it’s Lapland’s gold, darling."