Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
If you are heading to Lapland, chances are you will drive through or more likely fly in Rovaniemi. The capital of the region, and official hometown of Santa Claus has become very popular with tourists. Where is it really worth going?
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Rovaniemi is at the crossing of two big rivers, making it the most important centre for fur trade in the North. For thousands of years, the town has been a hub for fishermen, hunters and traders flocking in by boats in the summer and on skis or by reindeer sledges in the winter, on their way to northern Lapland. Despite the gold rush and the development of the timber industry that led to the building of the road and railway networks, the region had everything of a Wild West until fairly recently. It is only in 1950, following Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit that the arctic tourism has expanded, triggering the creation of Santa Claus’ Village attracting travellers from all over the world, especially during the winter.
How to not be Christmassed-out in Santa Claus’ Village?
Let’s be clear, you can’t avoid Christmas in Santa Claus’ Village, and this is probably the very reason why you may be visiting yourself! However, if most shops, restaurants and hotels tilt towards the tacky side, amongst these, a few places have remained in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage
The first being the preserved cottage itself built especially for the visit of this illustrious visitor at a time when Finland was struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of WWII. Eleanor Roosevelt was paramount in getting Rovaniemi and Lapland some help from the precursor of UNICEF. Quietly browsing through the original lists of essential goods that were sent to the region in the 1950’s, with the constantly playing Christmas tunes from the outside in the background, enthusiastic kids queuing by the log-house to see Santa, and the omnipresent holiday lights of the village is quite confrontational and the perfect reminder of what Christmas really stands for despite our consumerist society.
Where to eat: Santa’s Salmon Place
Next to it, the unpretentious Santa’s Salmon Place is ideal to warm up and gather your thoughts before stepping into Santa Claus’ office. Set up in a lavuu or traditional Sami tent, a birch wood fire is constantly burning to perfectly cook fresh Norwegian salmon. Make sure to grab a hot drink, as the wait to visit Santa can be long…
Santa Claus’ Office
Isn’t it the reason for your visit, after all? Cross the Arctic Circle, and be patient…
If you are visiting in the winter, do not expect to have a long chat with Lapland’s most famous inhabitant. You’ll be able to exchange a couple of words in your mother tongue and have your photo taken.
We were lucky enough to visit in the beautiful fall, where it is a bit quieter, and could interview Santa Claus! Check this article out!
The city of Rovaniemi itself is definitely post-war as it was completely rebuilt in the 1950’s by one of Finland’s most acclaimed architects, Alvar Aalto after its complete destruction. If the urban planning is supposed to look like reindeer antlers from above, the architecture itself is far from being mind-blowing, but for the modern Arktikum’s 172-meter-long (564ft) glass tunnel.
Beyond its original gallery from where it is fantastic to watch the northern lights in the winter, this Arctic Museum is very educational and offers visitors an overview of the intricacies of arctic nature while presenting the challenges of the 4.5 million people inhabiting the Arctic, over 8 countries. Oil and gas, mining, fisheries and forestry industries have attracted more and more workers to the arctic regions that are more and more impacted by human activities. Worse than their actual footprint, the effects of climate change are more felt in the arctic with the shrinking ice cap, retracting glaciers and melting snow. If greenhouse gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide are natural and it is thanks to the greenhouse effect they produce that the Earth is not covered by a permanent layer of ice, the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) emits more and more carbon dioxide and the agriculture sector releases large amounts of methane, all magnifying the greenhouse effect and now endangering this fragile ecosystem, critical to the balance of the Earth.
Arktikum also focuses on the indigenous populations (about 20% of the total) that are too often overlooked or worse, exploited. From this standpoint, the Santa Claus’ Village has been quite controversial, leveraging Sami ways of living and legends, when most operators have no Sami roots whatsoever and do not give back to the local communities (but for a few low-paid tourism jobs).
Pilke Museum [don’t go!]
Surprisingly, opposite the Arktikum that raises the awareness of the effects of climate change, the Pilke Museum is not quite a forest museum but a forestry industry showcase. Despite its generous use of green colours, the compact Pilke Museum is more aligned with convincing visitors that more wood can be burnt for a wider usage than safekeeping the environment, completely omitting emission implications. No wonder that after the USA, Finland has one of the greatest rates of greenhouse gas emission per person! The educational part is completely missed, instead games are many such as “save the forests, shoot the moose”. One could have expected a less-sided approach from the government-managed lake and forest office… After all, timber is one of the few assets of the country that is covered in forests (86% of it, including 77% of it being exploited forests) that are seen as renewable resources.
Where to eat & drink in Rovaniemi
Restaurants in town tend to be more local and more enjoyable than in Santa’s Village. More specifically, Ravintola Roka is a low-key bistro focusing on local products with an international twist, and is your best bet in town! The plate from the North highlights raw salmon served in generous thick slices, smoked vendace, a local’s favourite freshwater fish from the Finnish lakes, as well as the healthy reindeer meat accompanied by a delicious Dijon-lingonberry mayonnaise, with a toasted and slightly sweet Archipelago rye-bread. The super tender reindeer fillet – obviously locally sourced – with adark cranberry sauce and autumn root vegetables pairs perfectly with the dark lager Aihki of the local Lapin Panimo brewery.
Lapin Panimo [Lapland brewery]
Trained as a professional sommelier and bar tender, the Latvian Arturs Dutka established Lapin Panimo, literally “Lapland brewery” in 2016 to fill in a gap, as no local drinks could be sourced in Lapland, but for a few -yet award-winning- gins. Lapland does not have a long beer history: Lappish people used to make their own spirits, easier to obtain, and very efficient to get drunk fast. Inspired by the surrounding wilderness, Arturs brews unfiltered craft beers, without any chemical agents nor additives. Clearly, quality comes first: it takes 6 to 8 weeks (vs. 4 weeks for most industrial beers) from the moment they brew to get the perfect balance.
“The IPA beers are very popular these days. They are fairly easy to make: a lot of hop covers the mistakes of the brew master. Here, I use less hop: flavours are richer and my beers can be paired well with food.” describes Arturs as he serves us some of his Hölmö IPA. Surprising! The explosion of fruity flavours finds its way through the hoppy liquid. “You should try it with a roasted fish!” adds Arturs, clearly and rightfully proud of his work. Beyond the dark lager Aihki which pairs perfectly with game, Kero pairs with salmon, and the Loimu with smoked salmon while the Tähkä accompanies desserts or salads. Crafting beers that pair well with food is one of Lapin Panimo’s strong points, and this is perfectly adapted here in Lapland where wine can only come from fairly far south.
On top of the 8 beers available year-round which can be tasted in Arturs’ pub inside the brewery, seasonal beers are delicately crafted throughout the year. Instead of opening another bottle, Arturs walks straight to the tank from which he pours a dark liquid that is still being brewed: “try this!”, he says with a grin. We do so: it is like tasting liquid ginger bread! Where else than near Santa Claus’ Village can Christmas beer taste so festive!
Taking in the surrounding wilderness
After leading multi-day dog-sledding trips in the Lappish wilderness for years, Valentijn Beets, owner of Bearhill Husky Tours, built his own medium-size husky kennel in 2016, north of Rovaniemi out of true passion for his dogs and to push his industry towards better animal welfare. Historically, dogs had been used as a mean of transport to pull sledges and supply goldmines. In these tough conditions, with only little food, these working dogs were quickly turned into coats if they were not efficient enough. Made redundant by the development of infrastructures, their roles evolved into racing dogs, with still little care for animals…
Beyond his in-depth experience, Valentijn has studied the genetics of dogs. “Every dog breed behaves differently. Alaskan Huskies, with their long legs and light build, are programmed to run and their brain is wired to enjoy running as a pack”, Valentijn explains. “They need to be physiological and mentally stimulated all year-round, not only for the Christmas season when tourists flock to town.”, he continues. “Then, we just teach them how to pull a sledge.” As he describes his two-year training plan from puppy to pulling dog, about 60 huskies are running around his dog walker, an adaption of the horse walker. A few often duck to overtake their companions.
Initially expecting the typical blue-eyed and black-and-white-coat huskies, Valentijn’s Alaskan huskies are more diverse in size, shape and eye colour that their Siberian cousins. Valentijn selects the best genetics for the best possible dogs to pull sledges, not to look cute. Standing by the dog-walker, with his assistant, he cherry picks the lucky dogs that are about to go for a few loops pulling the fall sledge. Ten dogs are being geared up, wanking their tails and barking with excitement.
Within a few minutes, they are doing what they love most: running, hence pulling Valentijn plus one on the cart on the trails around his property. Lost in the forest that has turned on fire with its fall foliage, the cart takes sharp bends and Valentijn has to slow his dogs down to about 15 to 20 kilometres an hour (10 to 12.5 miles per hour) in straight lines. And this is nothing compared to the winter…
Hiking or snowshoeing
Whichever time of the year, the Arctic Circle Hiking Area is definitely worth exploring: past the winter wonderland, in the summer, you will get distracted by blueberry and lingonberry picking, while Fins also greatly enjoy cranberry and mushroom picking in the early fall with its beautiful ruska colours (read fall foliage). Do not forget to bring something to grill, like the Fins do! Different types of shelters with open fire pits are scattered along the well-marked trails. Just remember to saw and chop some wood to replace what you have used!
Where to stay
The Santa Claus’ Village is quite unique and nice to stroll at night to take in the Christmas lights and spirit. Staying at the Nova Skyland Hotel, the first foreign investment in the hospitality industry in Rovaniemi, is the perfect balance between staying in the village yet, in a modern, stylish and comfortable accommodation (read, not too tacky!).
In a nutshell, Rovaniemi is a must-stop in Lapland, and we prefer deeper destinations, such as Inari and its beautiful Otsamo Mountain with the excellent Sami Museum, than instead of exploiting the Sami culture for a profit aims at preserving it, the beautiful region of Kuutsamo close to the Russian border with it deeply rooted sauna culture and the Muotka area with its wilderness and beautiful log-houses.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
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