Finland. The road somewhat less travelled, one might assume, although hardly off the beaten track. Home to Nokia, reindeers, Battle Metal, Sami Hyypia, saunas, Father Christmas and – of course – Moomins, the Finns have a varied culture that anyone would be lucky to experience. And so, I land in gloriously cold Helsinki, early on Valentines Day morning, in the most inappropriate state possible to greet this fine realm. Having stayed up all night to consume three bottles of pink champagne (I’ll give the romantic Valentine’s meal as an excuse) before arriving at London’s Gatwick airport was bad enough, and I suppose that the decision to abuse the free bar in the priority lounge was a direct consequence. Worse, however, was my decision to wear my favourite leather jacket and boots. Tip #1 for travelling in Finland: wear your warmest ski clothes, thermals and snow boots – it’s funking cold.
Stumbling to the taxi rank, we’re taken (by a driver called Lester Wolf, no less) to the luxurious and very central Klaus K designer hotel. And that concludes day number one – over 12 hours of sleeping in the Mystic Queen suite, complete with animal fur on the walls. Just about managing to make it to our dinner reservations, I proudly order ‘fagottinis’ and also try some bizarre tangerine risotto. Little was I to know that this would be nothing compared to culinary delights later in the trip. Tip #2: if you stay up all night, you will sleep all day, so book a comfortable bed. Klaus K certainly wins here.
For all the vibrancy and culture that guidebooks declare, Helsinki is a remarkably quiet and reserved city. You might even say boring. Yes, it has its highlights – but there are few outstanding qualities which make it truly Finnish. That all happens in Lapland. The cathedral is blandly modern, although sports an imposing organ; the supposedly ‘impressive’ Kansallismuseo houses a variety of Finnish histories and artefacts (some are from 1990s!), yet it is poorly translated and you’re left wondering what the hell that clump of badger skins was actually used for. Fatigued by our culture attempt, we do what any writer/guitarist couple would do: drink a lot of whiskey. We end up in a pool hall which must have around twenty tables in it, yet only five customers – a far cry from those days in my London student union when little piles of coins were rowed up along the entire edge of every available table. Tip #3: never underestimate the power of alcohol.
Travelling northwards to Kolari, Lapland, meant a 13 hour overnight train journey. Private cabins with bunk beds and pillows are definitely the way to go here, as we’d find out on the return trip. A few sources of entertainment are useful too – extreme card games and reading the ‘true life’ stories from women’s magazines in a variety of different accents serve this purpose well.
Distinctly different from the capital, Lapland is far colder and locals speak much less English. Our first stop is Yllas’s snow village. To be fair, the entire northern half of Finland is a snow village. But some mastermind decided to capitalise on it. And capitalise they certainly did at 180 euros per night per person. ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY EUROS! Arriving at midday, it’s disappointing to only then be told to wait around until 6pm before we can check in. After several bowlfuls of lamb casserole, we take a stroll around the hotel. It was impressive: smooth, tall walls, all made of ice and snow, with tiny holes in the side which you can crouch through to get to the bedrooms. I say bedrooms. They have a mattress with an ice surround. Nothing else. There’s a communal ice bar (like the one in Soho) and dining area too – everything made of ice and snow. Very unique. Very cold. Very expensive.
After some deliberation, we come to the decision that there’s little point in staying in the Ice Hotel. We’ve already had a nosey around, it’s freezing cold, and we have nothing to do over the next few hours (due to our own bad planning, admittedly). So, we bypass our reservations there, sneak into a taxi and head for the wonderful town of Levi, a bit further north and sitting slightly further from the Swedish border. From the look and tone of the Ice Hotel’s manager as we ask for a taxi number, this change of heart was a regular occurrence amongst prospective visitors. Just for comparison purposes, we could’ve stayed in the Ice Hotel (a mattress in an igloo, without even a door) for 360 euros. Instead, we stay in the suite at the K5 Hotel in Levi, with a private Jacuzzi, views overlooking the ski slopes, TV and living room area for 200 euros. Oh, and just as we are rearranging the TV into the bedroom for ultimate cinema effect, the maid brings up complimentary robes and slippers, a plateful of Finnish chocolates and two bottles of champagne. Tip #4: don’t bother staying at the Ice Hotel when the novelty of seeing it – however impressive it may be – wears off after twenty minutes.
And so, here we are in Levi; a beautiful ski resort village in the very heart of Lapland. From here, you can do pretty much anything you like, with the pick of all Lappish traditions and excursions on offer. Most come here for the excellent skiing and snowboarding, although there’s also husky and reindeer safaris, trekking, ice swimming, horse-riding… The list goes on. A night time snowmobile safari sounded exciting, so we wrap up in our warmest clothes, and then the guides give out extra layers. Four pairs of socks, two pairs of thermals, leg warmers, jeans, ski trousers, and then an outer snow suit (plus hoods, hats, a helmet, two pairs of gloves, and fur-lined boots) topped off the outfit. Extravagant? Certainly not. Once the sun had gone down and I was whizzing across the top of the snow at 50km/h, it’s easy to feel the -27 degrees. MINUS TWENTY-SEVEN! At one point, I’m sure that my eyes are freezing closed. That in itself is scary enough, but whilst hammering the throttle off an arctic jet ski through a wilderness unlike any other I’ve seen, I am just slightly nervous at times. But it’s an incredible experience. Deep in the forest after stomping through feet of snow, we arrive at a cabin where our guides light fires and give us sausages to cook over the flames and hot juice to warm our bellies. They explain how the aurora borealis AKA northern lights work, and we discuss the possibilities of getting eaten alive by bears (very slim, since they’re hibernating). Driving back, I somehow lose the rest of the group as well as a glove – a mere inconvenience in the normal world. But in this frozen landscape, a glove is life or death. Well, frostbite, or no frostbite. Well, actually, a cold hand, or a very cold hand, since the drive back takes less than an hour. I survive with all extremities intact! Tip #5: dress warm, drive fast!
Back at the K5, we’re lucky to tuck into some pretty glorious foods. Cuplettes of lobster soup and dark rye bread, sautéed reindeer, rainbow trout and brie mousse, roasted bear (yes! Real bear! Roasted for 24 hours apparently…) in a dark morales gravy (ooo-err..), moose a la Waldenburg, the rare and tasty orange cloudberries with lingonberry dressings. It’s pretty exotic stuff, which goes down a treat with bottle of Chilean red. I’m reminded of a time in secondary school when an equestrian friend ate horsemeat without realising. More than twelve years have passed and I still don’t think anyone had the guts to tell her. Moving on… You only live once, so, Tip #6: if bear’s on the menu, eat that shit up.
The altitude does seem to affect me at times (I vaguely remember going delirious whilst hiking out of a Hawaiian crater), but maybe it’s the reindeer pizza from last night that brings my very first skiing session to an abrupt end. I’m all for giving it a go and concentrate very hard on my snow plough moves on small mounds of the white stuff at the bottom of the slopes. It’s exhausting, though, and I’ve already taken a bump or two to the cranium, and thrown up, so I hang up my skis for the day and settled into another new hotel.
Sokos Hotel couldn’t be any more central to Levi. We were reluctant to give up our Jacuzzi and living room in the K5 suite, but Sokos came up trumps: we have our own private sauna here! Whilst that heated up, VH1 introduces us to the amazing Stryper, an 80s Christian Glam Metal band. Yes, complete with Lord-approving hand gestures, a 20ft cross in neon lights and ‘Isaiah’ emblazoned across the stage, these guys – in their tight spandex and poodle perms – were the pioneers of religious rock. Definitely something worth investigating some more…! Tip #7: never underestimate the hilarity of hair metal.
Enough of that, Levi is primarily a ski resort, so we decided to make our second day of skiing a little more eventful. After a bit more practice, we head up the mountain, almost falling off the chairlift in the process. When I was younger, my brother and I often watched The Twelve Tasks of Asterix. One of the final tasks involved climbing the highest ever mountain to speak to a god of some kind and get some clean towels (a hazy memory…). That’s what skiing feels like for me. As we reach the top, my feet are already frozen, so we make the first of several stops in a café in time for me to feel my toes again. By this point, my ski-tastic boyfriend has already spent a lot of time mulling over the senseless map and thus I follow him to the so-called ‘easy’ runs. It was only later that I found out Finns take a national skiing holiday every year, and can ski before they walk. Perhaps that’s why this monstrous slope, the size of a house, that’s laid out before me is described as easy. We checked the map, and checked again. Yep. This is it.
Fine, I think. It’s ‘easy’. I must be able to do it. I shuffle myself towards the very edge of the slope. It’s a sheer vertical drop for the first 10 feet. The snow spreads out beneath it in a smooth curve, going under a bridge. Beyond that, I can see no further. A girl in a pink bobble hat – no taller than my waist -speeds past, straight down the slope and whizzes out of sight. That’s it, I declare in my head. If a five year old can manage it, so can I! I wriggle my skis delicately forward, inching them over the edge. My eyes trace the outline of the trajectory I’ll take. It’s a wide and clear area, with snow piled up on both sides. Easy, I tell myself again, cajolingly. I take a breath and lean further forwards. My skis tilt and that’s it! I’m going! I’m going fast! Ok, break, I think, I need to break. I remember my boyfriend’s tuition – lean into the insides of your boots, move your heels out. I lean all I can, and then some, but apparently just in one direction. My body swerves to the left at 50mph and I plough straight into the side of the hill. Smooth…
Despite my recurring setbacks, my spirits are still high. Until, the blizzard moves in. We’re all alone, on the top of a mountain, with me, a non-skier, and my boyfriend following a map which tells us death plunges are ‘easy slopes’. And then the flood lights go out. Were I not petrified, it would be comedic. Eventually, after tredging though the whiteout for what seems like hours, we arrive back at the café. Embarrassed, we ask how to get back down to the village without skiing. The waitress smirks as she informs us of the gondola – a mere 200ft away. Not far, surely?! Let me tell you, that particular 200ft is the longest path I’ve ever traveled. Sidling my way down the slight decline with my boyfriend closely monitoring me, I was doing fine until once again, my pace picked up, and I had no way of stopping myself. It all happened so quickly but ended up with him rugby tackling me to the ground to save me from jsut going over the main slope and plunging to certain death. Tip #8: learn to ski before hitting the slopes!
Not knowing if we’d stay in Levi or move on, we didn’t book our train back to Helsinki until the last minute. Bad idea. Rather than getting the cosy sleeper carriage we had on the outbound journey, we ride in regular seats, in a carriage full of students returning from a snowboarding trip. They jump around the seats excitedly and munch through kilos of snacks, chatting vivaciously the whole time in speedy Finnish. One term gets repeated many times which I pick up on: “COCKSCUBA!” Answers on a postcard for what that might mean.
The Finns seem to generally be an extremely reserved nation. Take crossing the road, for instance. If it’s only a side road and there’s not even a bicycle in sight, a Finn will still wait for a green man to signal that it’s safe to cross. Signs of affection are rare; and the drunken debauchery that plagues the streets of the UK is practically unheard of. However, we came across a few characters that were exceptions to the rule. One drunken man, in bright orange with a ‘lively’ hairstyle, terrorized every lone female on the train by plonking himself on the seat next to them whilst they sleep and then stroked their legs, feet or whatever else he can get his hands on, until they awake and scream at him. A hoard of tramps hung out at Helsinki train station on our return who seemed to make a past time of shouting at passers-by and throwing things at them. Pleasant fellows. Tip #9: book a sleeper carriage well in advance, lock the doors and sleep the whole way on long distance train journeys.
We had some hours to kill before our flight back to London, so after a filling breakfast at the capital’s oldest café, Café Ekberg, we headed out of Helsinki and north to Espoo. Here, we’d find the Serena Water Park, which also had quad bikes and mini slopes for learning to ski. If only we’d been here a week earlier…. It’s odd to be changing into swimwear after days in layers of thermals, but it provides a refreshing change. Perhaps a little too refreshing, in fact, as I come hurtling out of a water slide and my bikini top re-adjusted itself to reveal the parts it’s meant to cover up. Tip #10: don’t expose yourself.
With my lack of reservation, abysmal skiing skills, and complete inability to deal with temperatures less than 15 degrees, I’m not sure Finland will have her arms open to welcome me back anytime soon, but who needs an invitation anyway?
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