When it comes to daylight, Finland can be a country of extremes. Travel to Lapland in June and the sun doesn’t set for a month. Return for Christmas and all you see for four long weeks are brief spells of golden glow beyond the horizon. Unless, of course, you get lucky and see the elusive Northern Lights.
I had always hankered after the idea of driving to the Arctic Sea. Perhaps even catching a glimpse of the real Santa Claus (who, according to reliable sources, doesn’t endorse Coca Cola nor lives at the North Pole). And before Christmas we decided to do just that. The irony, you might point out, is that for about 22 hours each day the most we would see is the dark road nestled between banks of snow that fades into the pitch black horizon. But the remaining two-odd hours… They would make up for it with the most spellbinding display of twilight sun burning in vibrant red and orange.
We set off for the journey from the southern town of Tampere, also known as Finland’s Manchester for its industrial past. Since most of Finland is covered by endless forest and thousands of lakes (180,000 give or take a few), we decided to enter the north via the western coast, making a pit stop at the university town of Oulu. Along this first leg, our journey was peppered with brief breaks in small towns such as Vaasa, Kokkola and Raahe. But it was after Oulu and passing the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi that the real adventure began.
LAPLAND IS HOME TO THE INDIGENOUS SAMI PEOPLE
Unlike the ragged mountain range crossing Sweden and Norway, Scandes, the mountains in Northern Finland are much older, creating a landscape of undulating, often treeless, fells. Apart from nearly 200,000 reindeer, Lapland is also home to the indigenous Sami people. Considerable effort has been put into retaining their languages and culture, and the beautifully designed Siida cultural centre in Inari provides a cracking opportunity to explore this.
With the major settlements behind us, we continued further north towards the Norwegian border.
Outside, the temperatures plummeted to a crisp -30C. This prompted us to contemplate the fate of non-hibernating animals, stuck in the cold and dark for weeks on end – thick fur or not. Casting thoughts of southern climes aside, our musings began to fade as the monotony of the shadowy wilderness started to take over. Gradually, the drive took on a rather hypnotic character, at times almost becoming a lucid dream conjured by David Lynch. This, if anything, felt like the Lost Highway.
Eventually we arrived at our lodgings in Nuorgam, a village that lies by the northern-most tip of Finland. After a hot sauna (statistics alert: Finland has 5.3 million people and an estimated 2 million saunas) followed by a well-rested night, we were ready to hit the road again. Shortly after crossing into Norway, the terrain provided a welcome change as the rolling fells were replaced by ragged coastal mountains. We followed the highway to Varangerfjord, finally reaching the water.
MARVELLING AT THE CRYSTAL CLEAR WATERS OF THE ARCTIC SEA
In spite of chilly temperatures the Arctic Sea hadn’t frozen over and we trekked off the highway down to the water’s edge to ceremonially mark the arrival at our goal. The sea was as clear as spring water and its base was covered in seashells, anemones and urchins. Had it not been for the chilling wind and the lack of a nearby sauna, I would have been tempted to take a plunge.
Afterwards we traced the fjord to Kirkenes, a small town close to the Russian border. Lending the snow-clad milieu a touch of colour, the main mode of transport in town seemed to be bright red kicksleds, used in equal measure by grandmas and teenagers alike. Because Norway is notoriously expensive (little risk of hangovers when visiting as a pint of beer on average costs €9 / £7 / $12), we decided not to stay overnight. Instead, we grabbed an early dinner, before pointing the compass back to Finland.
‘THE SILENT PEOPLE’ OF FINLAND
For our journey south, we decided to skirt along the Russian border. While passing the small town of Suomussalmi we came across, by chance, a mesmerising piece of land art called Hiljainen kansa (The Silent People) by Finnish artist Reijo Kela. Four hundred scarecrow-like characters, dressed in everyday clothes, have been erected across a hayfield, silently gazing at passers-by.
After nearly 3000 kilometres we reached our southern starting point of Tampere, welcoming the extra daylight hours gained. As much as we had enjoyed the winter wonders of Lapland and the beauty of that wild terrain, we also felt a bit depleted on vitamin D. As we boarded our flight back to London, we decided on making a return trip during summer solstice in order to experience the flip-side — and the sun that doesn’t set.