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Found 24 results

  1. Day 3: Äkäslompolo

    We had a slow start to the day today as my cold was making me feel a bit miserable. I stayed in bed for a while in the morning, while Tim went out to the sports shop to pick up the skis and snowshoes which we had arranged to rent. For the past two years when we've been to Lapland, we've taken part in some organised snowshoe walks and last year we had a cross country skiing lesson as well. This year we had decided that rather than spending money on the organised activities, we would be brave enough to rent our own equipment and strike out on our own I felt better by later in the morning, so after lunch we left the apartment and went for an exploratory walk. There was an enormous pile of snow in the carpark outside the apartment! We set off along the road into the centre of the village. It was quite a clear day, and once we'd walked along for a while, we were able to get our first glimpse of the frozen lake in the distance beyond the trees. Everywhere looked like a winter wonderland It felt incredibly cold outside and the bits of my face that were exposed felt like they were starting to freeze. It soon became clear why; the temperature was a cool minus 27 degrees I was clearly a little bit startled by the temperature Tim had managed to buy new gloves in the supermarket yesterday, but he hadn't been able to get a hat. We'd been hoping the bag was going to turn up and that we wouldn't need to buy a new one, but it became clear on this walk that his ears were going to freeze if we didn't buy one asap. We tried the sports shop first of all, but their cheapest hat seemed to be €30 and the majority were in the €40 - €50 range. Tim seemed to feel he'd rather lose his ears than pay that much for a hat, but happily we found another shop near to the supermarket which had a bargain bin outside it. We picked up this hat for €12.50 in the end In order to get to the frozen lake, you have to walk across the supermarket car park. The supermarket had decided to liven it up this year, with the addition of this enormous reindeer We followed the path towards the lake... ...and were soon rewarded with this beautiful view of the moon over the fells. It was a very clear day, so we were able to see in all directions... ...though despite the fact that it wasn't even 2pm yet, we could see that it was soon going to be getting dark. We couldn't head too far at this time of the day - plus Tim's beard had started to freeze - so we decided to go back to the supermarket to warm up and stock up on some supplies. When we got back home, we found that Tim had a missed call on his mobile from a Finnish number. We assumed it was to do with his suitcase, but they hadn't left a message and nobody picked up when he tried to call back. The good news is that a few hours later he got another call, from a lady at Kittila airport who said that the suitcase had been found and wanted to confirm the address it should be delivered to Fingers crossed it's going to arrive at some point this evening!
  2. All good things come to an end. That's the case for our latest visit to Lapland. It didn't get off to the most auspicious start, with my luggage staying in Helsinki and the apartment company giving us the wrong code for the keysafe (twice!) but that's all in the past and the week has been exceptional. I think we're getting this down to a fine art now. Since it was the last stroll we'd do for another year, we thought we'd head out in the evening for a stroll across the lake. (It will never not feel wrong typing that!) In contrast last night, we were the only ones out there on a cloudy night. Suddenly the sky changed to the west: A bright orange light appeared! It could've been sunrise: It would've needed several suns, though, because the same thing happened in other parts of the sky too: There was a hint of green between splashes of orange, though it was faint: Sometimes the intensity made it look like there was a searchlight: After admiring for a few minutes, we took one final glance and went home: We'll be up early tomorrow for a day of travelling. It's all worth it to come here, though. We're already making plans for next year!
  3. For our final day we decided that we wanted to have another go at cross-country skiing But first of all we had to sort out the logistics of how we were going to get all the equipment we'd rented back to the sports shop by the end of the day. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to walk to the shop and hand back the snowshoes and poles first, then walk back to the apartment and collect our skis. Tim asked the people in the sports shop whether we could leave our normal boots with them while we went skiing, and happily they agreed. The advantage of this was that it meant once we'd finished skiing, we could just go back to the sports shop and hand in the skis, ski poles and ski boots, then put our normal boots on to walk back to the apartment. The alternative would have been to walk back to the apartment in the ski boots, change into our normal boots and then walk all the way back to the sports shop again carrying the skis. Skis are quite heavy to carry (and it's about 1km from the apartment to the sports shop) so it was a definite bonus to avoid an extra trip. When we got down to the lake, we could immediately see that it was a lot cloudier than the previous day when we were skiing. It was still pretty though, even if we couldn't see any of the hills in the distance. We were soon clipped into our skis and ready to go. Tim was off... ...and I wasn't too far behind. It felt a bit easier than it did the other day. Or at least, I felt more balanced and less like I was going to fall over We stuck to the same flat bit of track on the lake, which is perfect for beginners Tim was managing to go a bit faster than me! Skiing is hard work and after a while we felt like having a break. While we were catching our breath, we tried another selfie Then we decided to do one more lap of the track before calling it a day. We went back to the ski shop, handed everything over and retrieved our normal boots. There was still some daylight left, so we went for a stroll around the village, past the supermarket in the direction we had explored the other night. As we were walking along, I suddenly caught sight of something moving in the trees on the opposite side of the road. It was a reindeer, just wandering around That's definitely a first for us! We continued along the path, to the point where the river flows into the lake. The water isn't completely frozen here. Tim went across to the other side of the road to look at the view in the opposite direction. It was really beautiful here too Before long we came to the end of the village and had to turn around and head back. It was starting to get dark now anyway and the street lights were coming on. We've had a really wonderful holiday in Lapland yet again, despite the fact that it didn't get off to the best start with the delay to Tim's suitcase last week Tomorrow will be a big day of travelling, as we have an internal flight from Kittilä to Helsinki in the morning, followed by a flight from Helsinki back to Gatwick in the afternoon. It will be tiring, but this is a destination that is definitely worth the travelling, and I have a feeling that we may be coming back again...!
  4. Our legs didn't feel up to skiing two days in a row, so we decided to revert to snowshoeing again today. We had really enjoyed the walk in the woods which we did on Saturday, but in places it had been quite difficult walking on such powdery snow in normal shoes, so we thought it would be fun to re-do the walk, but this time on snowshoes. We began walking along the side road which leads towards the path. We were carrying our snowshoes at this point, as the snow on the road wasn't very deep. When we got to the path, we stopped to put the snowshoes on. Putting them on is still the most difficult part, but we seem to be finally getting the hang of it now We managed to get all the straps pulled tightly enough that we only had to stop once to adjust mine during the whole walk, and they didn't fall off at all. You'll see from the picture that we had decided to bring the snowshoe poles with us today as well. Or rather, I had now realised that we actually had snowshoe poles Originally when Tim brought a pile of poles back from the shop I assumed they all related to the skis, but then realised belatedly that we had a set each to go with the snowshoes as well. That should make going up and downhill a lot easier Snowshoes on, and we were off. It was about minus 4 today and Tim was finding it a bit warm I was still happy I had all my winter gear on though, as we made our way through the forest and towards the little valley we'd walked through the other day. It was just as beautiful there today Quite a lot more snow had fallen overnight (we'd had to grit the path outside our apartment this morning) and so I think the path would have been really heavy-going in places with normal boots. With the snowshoes on we were speeding along though, especially once we got into a rhythm with the poles. Partway round, we decided to stop and try another selfie Then we were off once again... ...until we got to the little ski cafe which marks the halfway point of the walk. From there, we continued on the narrower path with lots of bent-over trees Some of them seemed to be even more bent over this time than last, and there were a couple of places where the trees were now so low we had to duck under them (which we definitely didn't have to do the other day). It was about 2pm by this point - and it hadn't been a particularly bright day in the first place - so we needed to walk briskly to get through the rest of the walk before darkness fell. The snowshoes definitely helped with that We soon came to the place where there is a steep downhill slope to negotiate. It was loads easier with the poles! Finally we were almost back at the road, where it would be time to take off the snowshoes again. We made it, just as the street lights were starting to turn on It was another really fun day in the snow
  5. We went out again just after 11pm last night, to see what was happening in Äkäslompolo for New Year. Although it had been quite a clear and sunny day, by evening the sky had clouded over once again and so there was no chance of seeing any northern lights. The village still looked very pretty though, with little candles placed in the snow at regular intervals to light up the path along the main road. We were walking towards the frozen lake, where last year there had been a big release of lanterns at midnight. We had no idea what might be happening this year! The lake is just beyond the supermarket carpark, and I'd had the impression that last year there had been a man there selling Glühwein (but that we couldn't buy any because we'd forgotten to bring any money out with us). We were better prepared this year, and when we arrived we found there was indeed a man in the carpark, but that what he was selling was hot berry juice with a shot of vodka in it. Not quite Glühwein, but I gave it a go anyway and it was quite nice We walked down to the lake, where there didn't appear to be a big organised display of anything this year, but lots of people individually either letting off lanterns or fireworks. Some people's fireworks weren't very impressive... ...but others were more successful. It felt quite surreal to be watching fireworks set off from a frozen lake. When it got to midnight, someone set off the best firework of all. It was a great start to the new year
  6. Today's activity was centred on skiiing, one year to the day since our previous attempt. As with snowshoeing, we'd decided that we'd try it ourselves by renting our skis, rather than pay for a class. We weren't sure how well we'd remember what we did last time, but it was cheaper to rent the skis for the week rather than pay for a lesson and we liked the idea of doing it by ourselves rather than as part of a group. Clare knew that there was a beginners' course on the lake, so that's where we headed off to, once we'd worked out how to put on our shoes. If we'd been experienced skiers we could have joined a trail as soon as we stepped out the door but since we're not, we had to carry our skis with us the kilometre or more to the lake. No mean feat! Clare's skis were soon on and she was ready to go: This was about 11-ish, so the red tinge noticeable in the background is the sunrise: Slow and steady wins the race. It was slow going at first but we reached the end of the first leg: The skies were clearer today, so we could see the fens from where we were standing: Then it was time to come back. You can see that Clare had picked up a bit more confidence: Soon enough she'd made it back to the start: I soon found it relatively straightforward: My Fitbit wasn't happy, though, noticing the increase in heart rate and ordering me to relax! We did the same trip several more times. Clare became a lot more at ease with it, although stopping was still a bit nerve-wracking: Soon she felt happier: 'One more time' became 'one more time' several times, until we'd spent an hour and a half going backwards and forwards. After having done the final final leg and turned the corner, Clare rightly looked rather pleased with herself: We were considering resting for an hour and then coming back to do some more but as soon as we got home we realised how sore we were. The good news is, though, that since we've rented the skis for the week, we'll be back out in a couple of days' time to do some more
  7. This afternoon I casually fired up Amikumu, an app for finding Esperanto speakers nearby. As it happens, I know a Finnish fella who speaks the language and I haven't seen him since 2004 ... and guess who our nearest neighbour happens to be? My mate, Pekka! He's moved from where he used to live, a town in the far north called Enontekiö (I've remembered the name from how it was enscribed on a pen he gave me) to Rovaniemi, which is the town that most people will have visited if they've been to "Lapland" but which is now no longer part of the Arctic Circle because that zone is shrinking. I contacted my buddy and explained that I know getting a message to meet up on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day 150 kilometres away with no notice would probably be tricky for a man with a family, but since we're coming back next year I could give him a bit of notice next time. He seemed happy with the idea! (I love Pekka but I'm going to have to have words with him about moving from Enontekiö before we had a chance to get that far north!) Clare and I decided to go for a stroll this evening, since we hadn't done a stroll in the darkness so far on this break. We stuck to doing what we know by walking in the direction of the supermarket, which meant we passed things which we already know: We hit upon the idea of walking a little further once we reached the supermarket. After all, we didn't know what lay beyond our self-imposed idea of the town limit and the weather was a comparatively mild minus 2. It didn't take more than a couple of minutes to spot what appeared to be a tower in the distance, so we headed towards it, across a river. We found an attractive display: The building with the bridge was a jewellery shop and the whole site was a caravan park: There was also a Christmas tree in the parking area:As is usual for car parks, there were piles of snow amassed:And then we headed home for a glass of wine. Tomorrow we'll be breaking out the skis!
  8. Today we decided to re-do one of our favourite walks from last year, in the woods outside Äkäslompolo. Given how cold it has been over the past few days, we got dressed up in our warmest clothes this morning, prepared to brave the Arctic conditions once again. I was wearing my new pink waterproof trousers As soon as we stepped outside though, we realised that.... it wasn't actually that cold The air didn't feel painful to breathe, even without a neck gaiter. Sure enough, when we got as far as the main thermometer in the village, we saw that today the temperature was a mere minus 2. You could definitely feel the difference! The path we were looking for starts from one of the side roads leading out of the village. Last year we got a bit lost when we were looking for it and managed to walk up a hill in the wrong direction, but this year we found the correct road without any problems. After a few minutes we turned off the road and onto the path, which starts out quite wide to begin with. As with yesterday, everywhere we looked we were surrounded by beautiful snowy trees After a while the path crosses a ski run and becomes more narrow, as it begins to lead through a little valley. It's really beautiful here, and again almost completely silent; we only met a handful of other people walking the whole time we were out. It wasn't snowing while we were out but it obviously had been overnight, because there was a fresh layer of powdery snow everywhere. It was quite difficult to walk in at times; we should probably have brought our snowshoes! It was a really magical place to walk though, even if it did feel like hard work at times The path leads towards a small restaurant hut for skiers, which is about 4km outside of Äkäslompolo. From here, the path circles round back towards the village again. This part of the path leads through a denser part of the forest and we saw lots of trees which were bent under the weight of the snow. Some of them definitely looked like they would be able to spring back once the snow melted.... ...whereas others looked like they had been snapped completely... ...and others we weren't completely sure. We carried on through the forest. Eventually the path goes down quite a steep snowy slope. Tim decided to take the running approach... ...whereas I went down more carefully After this, we were back on the same path as before, leading up through the valley. It was just as beautiful going in the opposite direction As we got closer to Äkäslompolo, we could see the light starting to change. It was after 2pm by this point and starting to get darker, so the photos almost looked like they had been taken in black and white. We were starving by the time we got back to the village and so we decided to go out for a meal. We both had pizza this time, and they were huge! All in all we've had another wonderful day in the snow
  9. Shortly after I finished blogging last night, our doorbell rang and there was a lady outside with Tim's missing suitcase He was very happy to be reunited with it. It turned out that the original baggage label had indeed fallen off, so I'm going to be extremely paranoid when using self-service baggage check-in desks in the future! When we woke up this morning we both felt more energetic than yesterday, so we decided to try out some snowshoeing. The snowshoe expedition which we'd been on last year now cost €68 whereas renting the snowshoes had only cost €50 for the length of our stay, so even if we only used them today we would save money We decided to start on the Äkäslompolo lake, where we knew from last year that there were definitely some snowshoe trails. Last year we went on this walk, but had to turn back when we got to a slope that was too steep to climb without snowshoes. This year we thought we should be able to do better The thermometer in the centre of the village showed -19 today, so it was a bit warmer than yesterday. It didn't really feel much warmer, but whereas yesterday had been quite bright and clear, today was very cloudy and it was starting to snow lightly. It didn't take long for Tim's beard to freeze again When we got to the lake, we strapped on our snowshoes. Strapping them on is actually the hardest part; the straps are quite stiff and it's difficult to pull them tight enough to keep your feet secured, especially when your fingers are going numb. We managed it in the end, and set off across the lake. Whereas yesterday we had been able to take photos of the fells in the distance, today we could hardly see across to the opposite side of the lake We made our way across the lake, towards the forest on the far side. I remembered from last year how beautiful the trees looked, all covered in snow. We could see occasional people skiing past on the some of the ski runs in the distance, but for most of the time we were completely on our own and when we stopped it was absolutely silent The air was so cold that it was almost painful to breathe, so I was very glad of my neck-gaiter We made our way through the forest, following the snowshoe trail. The path was marked with intermittent blue poles, which made it easier to follow. Some of the trees were completely bowed down by snow... ...and others were just so perfectly covered in snow that it was hard to see any tree at all In some places we saw animal tracks in the snow, though not sure what this one was. Eventually we got near to the place where we had turned back last year, when the path started to go quite steeply uphill. Equipped with our snowshoes, we managed the uphill no problem this year and were soon following a narrower path along a little hill. It was very pretty, although I had to pay attention not to trip over my own snowshoes What hadn't occurred to me in advance was that if we followed a path uphill, we'd have to go downhill again at some point. Sure enough, we soon came to a point where the path led downhill very steeply indeed (though you can't really see it in this picture, because everything is so white!) Tim managed to get down the slope but it was way too steep for me, even with snowshoes, so we had to turn around and return the way that we had come. That was fine though, because there were other snowshoe paths to explore The snow had started to intensify by this point, and we could no longer see all the trees quite as clearly. I did spot these little ones though, which were so small that the snow had covered all but their very tips. We were rather cold by this point, so we decided to call it a day. If you look very closely in this picture, you may be able to see that the little bit of hair poking out from under my hat is completely frozen We walked back across the lake and towards the warmth of the apartment. We've discovered that it has a special drying cupboard for wet clothes (it's a bit like a tumble dryer, but in a cupboard) so we have been making use of that this evening; our clothes were surprisingly wet after a few hours of being snowed on. It was a lovely day, and really good fun to be able to snowshoe on our own rather than in a group
  10. We had so much fun in Lapland last year that we knew before we had even got home that we wanted to come again this year. We also knew that we wanted to maximise our time in the snow as much as possible, so back in January I started researching whether it would be possible to fly directly to Kittilä, which is the nearest airport to our favourite destination of Äkäslompolo. Researching flights to Kittilä turned out to be a very frustrating task, because there are hundreds of flights from the UK around Christmas time, including from airports close to where we live, but they are all charter flights for people going on Thompson holidays. The only airline which seemed to be selling direct scheduled flights from the UK to Kittilä was Monarch. I looked at their website longingly for a while, but the December 2017 prices were already exceptionally high (around £400 each) and we decided that we couldn't justify spending that kind of money. That turned out to be a great decision, given that Monarch has subsequently gone bust! I was convinced there must be a quicker way than flying to Helsinki and taking the overnight train though, and in the end we found that it was possible to fly from Gatwick to Helsinki and from Helsinki to Kittilä with Norwegian. The only catch was that both of those flights seemed to run every other day... and they don't both run on the same alternate days... so we would have to fly to Helsinki one day and get a second flight to Kittilä the next day. Also the flight to Helsinki was on Boxing Day, which felt like a strange day to fly. We deliberated over it for quite some time but it really did seem like the best option, so in the end I went ahead and booked. As Tim pointed out, flying on Boxing Day didn't mean that I needed to spend Christmas Day packing my suitcase; most of the things I needed for Lapland would be outdoor winter wear that I could pack in advance, as I definitely wouldn't be wearing them in the UK Flying from Gatwick on Boxing Day actually turned out to be a really good idea. Our flight was at 09.40, so we left home around 04.30 and beat all the shoppers for the Boxing Day sales, with the result that we were able to enjoy completely clear motorways. The airport itself didn't seem too busy, and our flight boarded and left pretty much on time. Amazing! We arrived in a chilly Helsinki just before 3pm. The majority of the flight had been too cloudy to see anything, but as we came down to land we were able to see a tiny sprinkling of snow on the countryside outside Helsinki. As our second flight from the airport was quite early the following morning, we weren't planning to go into the centre of Helsinki itself (the airport bus fare is quite expensive, and by 3pm it was almost getting dark anyway!) so we had booked to stay in the Holiday Inn at Helsinki airport. I'd chosen the hotel on the basis that it started serving breakfast from 5am and it had a free shuttle bus to and from the airport. There was no information about the timetable of the free shuttle bus online - or indeed any official information about where to catch it from - so we left the terminal building and began surveying the rows of bus stops outside. Luckily we found it quite easily and the bus seemed to run every 20 minutes or so, so we didn't have too long to wait. The Holiday Inn was only a couple of kilometres away and we were dropped off right outside it. Check-in was easy and we even got some free chocolates, which was a nice bonus We relaxed in the hotel for a while before going out to try and find somewhere to eat. My experience of eating in Holiday Inns previously is that their restaurants are quite expensive, so I had done some googling in advance and found out that there was an out-of-town shopping centre and entertainment complex about five minutes walk away, so we set off in search of that. The thermometer told us that it was minus 1 degrees outside and it began to snow slightly as we left the hotel and made our way towards the shopping centre. We found the building quite easily, but spend a while walking around it until we managed to find the way in. Once inside we found various restaurants and settled on an Italian one, which didn't seem too expensive by Helsinki standards. We each had a lasagne, which cost around €17, and stuck to drinking the free tap water We were in need of an early night after our early start for the flight to Helsinki. Another early start awaited us on Wednesday, as our flight to Kittilä was at 08.45. Although it was only an internal flight, we needed to check in our luggage again, so we wanted to make sure we were at the airport for 06.45. Counting backwards, that meant that we needed to catch the free shuttle bus at 06.20 and get up at 05.30. Breakfast at the hotel was quite plentiful, although it was so early that I didn't feel like I had the appetite to do it justice. We caught the correct bus and were at the airport well ahead of schedule. Check in had to be done via self service machines, which print the boarding passes as well as the labels for your luggage. I've always been rubbish at putting those labels on so Tim did both of them and then we made our way to the self service baggage drop point, where we had to scan the labels on the baggage and send the suitcases off down the conveyor belt. This is where things started to go wrong. Tim successfully sent off his bag, but when I went to lift mine up onto the belt I realised that my label had disappeared. Soem frantic looking around revealed that it had fallen off a few feet away. Tim tried attaching it again and this time managed to get more of the sticky stuff attached, but it was too late to do anything about his bag, which had already disappeared. We then tried scanning the label on my bag but got an error message from the machine saying that the bag was too big (despite the fact that it weighed 14kg and we had an allowance of 20kg). Tim eventually managed to get the attention of a member of the check in staff, who explained that the machine meant that the bag was too big (as in, too large) and not too heavy. This made zero sense because my bag is physically smaller than Tim's bag, which the machine had already happily accepted, but we went off to the oversized backage desk and successfully deposited my bag there. I was starting to feel a bit worried about whether we were ever going to see either bag again! Security went well at least (I even got through the scanning machine without taking my walking boots off!) and we found a nice quiet place with comfy armchairs to sit and wait for our flight. This one left remarkably on time as well, despite the fact that it had been snowing in Helsinki overnight and there was definitely a significant amount of snow waiting for us at our destination. We landed in Kittila on time at around 10.20, and stepped outside into the biting cold of minus 14 degrees. Wow. Kittilä is only a small airport, so it didn't take long for the luggage to start coming off the baggage track. Helsinki to Kittilä is not the sort of flight where people travel with hand baggage - most people were waiting for suitcases and skis - so there was a lot of baggage to unload, and it came down the conveyor in fits and starts. After about 15 minutes I was starting to get nervous that neither of our bags had arrived, but there were still other people waiting which was reassuring. Eventually we caught sight of my blue bag coming along the conveyor, and Tim ran off to retrieve it. Still no sign of his, but there was another group of people waiting as well. We waited and waited and waited. Eventually the baggage carousel was completely empty, but it still continued to run so we didn't completely lose hope... until it came to a complete stop. Oh dear. Tim went off with the other man to try and find a member of airport staff, and was eventually given a lost baggage form to fill in. Once completed, this form had to be deposited in a sort of post box, which didn't completely fill us with confidence; who knows when someone was going to come and open the postbox to follow up on it?! This all took some time and while I stood waiting, I caught sight of the airport bus to Äkäslompolo driving away. This wouldn't necessarily be a huge problem at any other airport, but we were in the Arctic, in a country where a taxi could potentially cost my life savings, and the airport bus doesn't have a timetable as such; it just turns up to meet scheduled flights and leaves when it judges everyone on the flight has collected their luggage. My mood as I contemplated this problem was not greatly improved by a man who walked into the baggage reclaim area dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and, together with another man on a guitar, started playing what appeared to be Jingle Bells in Finnish. Was this some sort of weird Finnish stag do tradition? No, it turned out to be part of the welcoming party for a TUI flight that had just arrived from the UK! Once Tim had posted his form and we went through customs, we found the main hall of the airport full of TUI reps dressed as elves. We found a coffee shop and Tim bought us a drink while I checked the website for the airport bus. Luckily it turned out that there were three scheduled flights to Kittilä today; the one we had been on, one in the late evening and one which was due to arrive at 11.40. There would therefore be another bus, probably departing around midday. Phew! We also consulted the Norwegian website, to see whether there was anything else we could do about the lost baggage. It turns out that the politically correct term is "delayed" baggage Norwegian said that we needed to report the delayed baggage to a Norwegian representative at the airport and that they would give us a special reference number, which we could use to track the baggage and to make any claims on our insurance. This sounded good, but Kittilä is a really tiny airport and there were definitely no Norwegian representatives there. Tim tried a live chat on the Norwegian website but struggled to make them understand this problem, and in the end we realised that it was 11.50 and we needed to go outside to try and find the bus. Happily the bus was there and the driver let us get on board straight away A return ticket for two people set us back €54 (so I definitely need to make sure I don't lose the return portion!). The bus sat and waited at the airport for a while but ultimately it turned out that we were the only passengers. I'm not sure whether I was more surprised by this or the fact that Tim said the driver was reading the newspaper as he drove us along the snow-covered roads towards Äkäslompolo. It's around 50km between Kittilä and Äkäslompolo and the journey normally takes just over an hour, though it was a bit quicker today because we didn't have to stop at lots of different hotels for other passengers. It was around 1pm when the driver dropped us off outside the main shopping centre in the middle of the village. Our favourite restaurant that we ate in a lot the first year was open, so our first move was to go inside and get lunch. I had an absolutely enormous pizza, while Tim had a burger. Once again we drank the free tap water, so in total the meal only cost us €30. Our next stop was the supermarket, where we wanted to get both some supplies for the apartment and some replacement items for Tim. He had to spend more than he would have liked to, but did manage to pick up some new gloves, some underwear and a toothbrush. Luckily he was already wearing most of his warm weather clothes in anticipation of getting to Äkäslompolo, so we haven't had to buy even more expensive items like a coat and boots! It wasn't quite 3pm by this point and we weren't supposed to check into the apartment until 4pm, but we decided to try our luck with checking in early. There is no reception at the apartments and the keys are kept in little key safes outside the door. The company who owns the apartments are supposed to text you the number of your key safe a few days in advance, so I had been a bit stressed on Christmas Day when I realised I hadn't received mine. I emailed the company and got a response to say that they'd sent it to the incorrect phone number (they'd missed off the UK country code), but they didn't seem to resend it. Eventually after a frantic email last night, they sent me the key code via email. Let's say the email told me it was 1131. We got to the apartment and Tim dialled the number into the key box. Nothing happened; it was still most definitely locked. I started desperately searching for a phone number for the rental company and eventually found one, but my phone decided it didn't like the cold weather and died. Tim tried calling the number, but got no response. In the meantime, an elderly Finnish couple who were staying in the apartment next door arrived and tried to help us out, but we were hampered by the fact that they didn't speak a word of English. In the end they gave up and went indoors, while Tim set off on foot to find the office of the rental company, which was a short walk away near one of the main hotels in the village. I stood and waited, getting periodic visits from the elderly Finnish couple who kept coming outside, looking at me and saying things in Finnish It turns out that they were trying to ring the rental company for us as well. They eventually got through and were told that our key code was 6131. The man came outside and tried this in the key safe, but nothing happened; it still appeared to be locked. He and his wife started hitting it, perhaps thinking that it might be frozen shut, but all to no avail. While this commotion was going on, a big van pulled up in the car park outside and a representative of the rental company turned up, announcing that the code was indeed 6131. She tried it, and it didn't work for her either. Almost simultaneously, Tim arrived on foot, having made it to the office of the rental company and been told the code was 6131 as well. There were some heated exchanges in Finnish, and then the rental lady announced that the code was 7131. This one worked, and after thanking the Finnish couple as best we could, we were finally able to get inside the apartment Everything was as we expected when we got inside, except that the Internet isn't working properly and so I can't post the blog That's a problem to try and sort out tomorrow! All in all it's been quite an eventful day and not exactly what we'd planned for our arrival in Lapland (did I mention that I've acquired a sudden cold?!). Coming here for our third time, we thought that everything would be straightforward but I guess this is a reminder that there's always scope for things to go wrong when you travel. Here's hoping that tomorrow is going to be a better day!!
  11. Today was our final day in Lapland and I wanted to make the most of it by seeing as much snow as possible. We were feeling recovered from our cross-country skiing and snowshoeing expeditions now, so we were ready for a slightly longer walk. We'd found a beautiful path through the woods by accident when we were in Äkäslompolo this time last year, and so our aim for this morning was to try and track it down again. It felt pretty nippy when we stepped outside of the apartment, and one of the village thermometers confirmed that it was -14 We remembered that last year we had turned off one of the side roads out of the village and eventually come across a signposted walking trail, so we set off along what was definitely the right road. After 15 minutes or so we still hadn't seen a walking trail though, and the road seemed to be going suspiciously uphill. Eventually it turned into a dead end, which culminated in a little settlement of wooden houses. We definitely hadn't been here before, so we started retracing our steps back down the hill. Towards the bottom we realised that there was a turning for a side road which we should have taken earlier on. As soon as we started walking along that road, things started to look more familiar... ...and soon we had found the sign for the path we wanted The path starts off as a wide track through the woods. There was so much snow everywhere; this fallen tree was almost completely buried. After a while the path becomes slightly narrower and starts to lead through a little valley. It was really magical There were lots of beautiful trees along the way. Some were almost buried in the snow... ...and some were really bowed down under its weight. More fresh snow had fallen overnight and the further we went, the more tiring walking in the soft snow seemed to become. It was fantastic scenery to walk through though At one point we took a turning down a different path and found ourselves at the edge of a frozen lake. It was an amazing view but we could see running water in places so it definitely wasn't a lake to walk across. We retraced our steps back up to the main path. Around 2pm we arrived at the path's destination, which is a small restaurant hut at the crossroads of several ski trails. No time to go in though because we only had an hour of daylight left and nearly 4km left to get back to Äkäslompolo. Fortunately we were able to walk much quicker on the way back than on the way there as we weren't stopping so often to admire the snow There were still some fantastic views though, in particular when trees bent with snow formed arches over the path. At one point, one of the trees had bent over so low that it was almost blocking the path! One thing I'd forgotten from last year was that on the way back there is a point where the path suddenly takes a very sharp dive downhill. I may have needed some assistance in getting down this bit After that it was all plain sailing and we were soon back on the flatter path through the valley. It was definitely getting darker though, so there was no time to lose in getting back. Just after 3pm we made it back to the bright lights of the main road We were pretty tired and cold by this point so went to the local pizzeria to warm up with a meal. My pizza was huge in comparison to Tim's chicken wings! And as it was our final day we treated ourselves to an alcoholic drink (€6 for the cheapest beer and €10 for a glass of white wine!!!!). As we walked back to the apartment in the darkness, we could see that the temperature had now fallen to -15. Today's walk was a lovely end to what has been a really fantastic holiday. Lapland is a wonderful destination and Äkäslompolo in particular is a brilliant place to get away from it all and relax. Our only complaint is that the week seems to have gone too quickly; tomorrow we have a flight from the local Kittilä airport to Helsinki at 10.50 and then will be flying back from Helsinki to Gatwick later in the afternoon. We may already be discussing what would be the most cost effective way to fly here again next year
  12. All the activities of the past few days have been rather tiring, so we decided to have a more relaxing day today and go for a stroll around Äkäslompolo. As we stepped out of the apartment, we could tell that there had been fresh snowfall again overnight. Everywhere looked brilliantly white. This was the view as we stepped out onto the pavement outside the apartment. We followed the pavement along towards the centre of the village. We were heading towards Äkäslompolo's frozen lake. We could soon see it in the distance. On the way we passed a thermometer which announced that today's temperature was - 12. As we approached the lake, Tim caught sight of some animals in a nearby field. Reindeer! These are the first reindeer we have seen in Lapland so it was quite exciting, although we could smell them from a considerable distance away so I didn't regret not having booked a trip to the reindeer farm! We walked out onto the lake, which was completely frozen and criss-crossed by several cross-country skiing and snowshowing trails, same as last year. At least this year we realised that we were walking on a lake It was a nice clear day and so we had good views of some of the fells in the distance. We set off walking along one of the tracks; technically it was for snowshoeing, but it was possible to use it without snowshoes as well. Walking on the fresh snow was quite tiring though and I started to feel some sympathy for the huskies from the other day! The lake is deceptively large and it took us quite a long time to make it to the other side. Eventually we arrived at the far side and found ourselves in a little wooded area. The trees looked beautiful in the snow The further we went the deeper the snow seemed to be and the harder it became to walk through it. It was quite easy to accidentally step onto a bit of snow which was deeper than it looked. Ultimately we came to a hill slope which looked steeper than we were able to climb without snowshoes, so we turned around to retrace our steps back to the village. The views were just as wonderful in the opposite direction. As we crossed the lake again we could see that there wasn't much more daylight left. It was about 2pm, so we decided to go to our favourite restaurant from last year for a meal. It was now open, although the pizza oven was broken so I had to have a burger instead. We had a table by the window which looked out onto mounds and mounds of snow, on what I think is probably the restaurant's terrace during the summer. It was a nice end to a relaxing day
  13. Today's activity was one which we had already done last year and really enjoyed: snowshoeing. I was glad there was no need to be nervous this morning; snowshoeing is a lot easier than cross-country skiing and a lot less frightening than huskies It was snowing lightly when we left the apartment and set off towards the bus stop again, but nowhere near as much of as a blizzard as it had been on Friday. At 11.25 a van pulled over to pick us up, and the good news was it was only around -10 today so the doors opened perfectly. We were the last couple to be picked up, with several German couples already inside, and so we were soon speeding on our way to the nearby village of Ylläs. The Germans had all apparently tried cross-country skiing recently too and they spent most of the journey discussing how difficult it had been. One man in particular said he found it more frightening than downhill skiing because there was nothing you could do to brake when going downhill. I was glad I wasn't the only person who had found it a challenge!! Ylläs is a popular ski resort, about 12km from Äkäslompolo, on the opposite side of a large fell. It seems a lot more touristy than Äkäslompolo, with large hotels and restaurants. There are also various ski lifts to take people up to the top of the fell for downhill skiing. We were surprised to find that our guides for the snowshoe expedition were two French girls. They were friendly but didn't seem quite as well organised as the guides we've had on previous trips, and there was a certain amount of chaos as our group arrived at the offices of the activity company and was fitted out with snowshoes. I was glad that we had tried snowshoes before, because they didn't give us any explanation of what to do. Fortunately, the hardest part of snowshoeing is getting the snowshoes on in the first place, and they were able to help us with that. There are several straps which need to be done up tightly to hold your feet in place, and these are made from a rather hard plastic which is really difficult to bend and clip into place. Eventually we were ready to go. Walking in snowshoes is the same as walking normally, though you do have to be careful not to trip over your own feet. We started off along one of the trails which had been specially prepared for snowshoeing. Every so often we paused for the guides to point out items of interest. First of all we saw some footprints which had been made by a snow hare (or a large rabbit, which was as far as the English of the French girls extended). Then there was this lichen, which grows on the trees here because there is so little pollution. Some of us had more fun with it than others The scenery we were walking through was absolutely beautiful; so much snow everywhere! Some of the trees were really struggling under the weight of it. We continued following the snowshoe path through the forest. Tim and I were coincidentally at the back of the group and at one point we had a slight issue when one of the straps on Tim's snowshoe came undone and we got left behind. Luckily one of the guides noticed and came back to help us, although she had misheard Tim's name as Sam and persisted in calling him that for the duration of the trip Some of the most challenging bits were when we had to go up and downhill with the snowshoes. I don't have any pictures of these paths because I was too busy trying to stay upright, but there was one downhill stretch where all we could really do was slide, and a steep uphill track where we were supposed to be kick the sharp ends of our snowshoes into the side of the hill in order to get a grip. About an hour into the trip we reached a little shelter where we were able to take a rest. The guides explained that Finland is full of these and the public are allowed to make fires here. They set about building a fire to keep us warm while we drank some juice. We were rather surprised by the fact that there was not only a huge pile of logs available for people to use on the fires, but also a public axe to use to chop them up!! Even with the fire, sitting in the snow was pretty cold and it was soon time to set off again. On the way back we took a different route, which involved more snowshoeing off the track, on the normal snow. It was so deep that without the snowshoes we would definitely have sunk. Eventually we found ourselves at a viewpoint where we could see down the fell and out across the surrounding countryside. It was really beautiful, and great to see the view because last time we came here it had been too misty. We finished the trip slightly earlier than planned and so for the final 20 minutes the guides took us off piste again, striking off in a random direction down the hill. Going down was fun but climbing back up again was rather tiring! Eventually we were back at the office, ready to hand back our snowshoes and be driven home to Äkäslompolo. Snowshoeing is great fun but pretty exhausting, especially the day after cross-country skiing. Let's just say we now have rather tired legs
  14. We were pretty exhausted after our cross-country skiing session yesterday, but we wanted to venture outside one more time, to see what was happening for New Year in Äkäslompolo. We got a surprise when we stepped outside our own front door and saw that we had acquired our own New Year's decoration; a candlelit display made from blocks of ice. As we started walking along the road towards the centre of the village, we realised that the sides of the footpath had been decorated with hundreds of little candles, embedded in the snow. If you thought there was a slightly funny smear in the sky in that photo above then you would be right; as we walked along the road into town we got our first proper glimpse of the northern lights It was really difficult to capture them on camera, but they were beautiful. As we got closer towards the lake in Äkäslompolo we started to see some other strange lights floating through the sky; these looked more like fire balls! Then I remembered that I had read something online about a release of lanterns from the lake to celebrate New Year. Sure enough, when we arrived at the lake itself we could see a crowd of people releasing lanterns. This was instead of an official fireworks display and it went on for ages. The northern lights seemed to have faded away for a bit, but as the clock struck midnight they reappeared We had our own display which was far more exciting than fireworks! We couldn't have hoped for a better start to the new year
  15. Yesterday was an exciting day with the huskies, but today had the potential to be even more exciting because we were trying a completely new activity: cross-country skiing. This was one of those things which seemed like a really good idea at the time we booked it, but which I started having some doubts about when I woke up this morning. I had no idea how difficult it would be. Would we spend the entire session falling over?! The first step was to walk to the bus stop where we had been picked up for our husky trip yesterday. Fortunately the weather was a lot brighter this morning and without yesterday's combination of a blizzard and piles of fresh snow, we were able to reach the bus stop in a mere 10 minutes. It looked a bit different there today! At the appointed time a lady pulled up in a van to pick us up. She threw us slightly to start with by asking what our preferred language was; it turned out she spoke English, German, Swedish, French, Spanish and Italian. We assured her that English would be fine! She then began apologising profusely for the fact we would have to climb through the passenger side of the front of the van in order to get to the seats at the back, because the weather was so cold that the back doors of the van had frozen and couldn't be opened. It was a bit of a squeeze but we made it. We were astonished to learn that the temperature was around -18 degrees. There were four other people in our skiing group; a French couple and a German/American couple. We were all driven to the activity company's offices in the first instance so that we could be kitted out with our skis. We exchanged our normal boots for special ski boots and learned how to clip and unclip them from the skis themselves. And then we were off, walking towards the start of the ski trail. Carrying the skis turned out to be quite difficult - they were surprisingly heavy. Before long we arrived at the start of the ski trail and were given a demonstration of what to do. There was a relatively flat piece of ground here and to get used to the skis, first of all we had to clip on just one ski at a time and practise going up the track a little way, then turning round and coming back. Once we had mastered that, it was time to put both skis on. We were trying classic cross-country skiing, which meant that we were skiing along prepared tracks at the side of the path. If you look at the picture above, you should be able to see the tracks on the right hand side of the path. The clear area in the middle of the track is for skate skiing, which is more difficult. We managed to complete the practice without falling over, and so we were ready to set off on the proper trail. It felt very awkward to start with but the teacher assured us we would soon start to get the hang of it. And when we had time to look at them, the views were beautiful So far we had mastered going on the flat and going uphill, the latter being quite tiring because you have to take small quick steps (like jogging) so that you don't start to slip back down the slope you've just climbed. I could just about cope with this ... but then it was time to do our first bit of downhill! It may not look like much of a slope in the photo, but when you were standing at the top of it with a pair of skis it felt very steep indeed! With everything we had done so far it had been possible to halt and balance ourselves with the poles if it felt like we were slipping out of control, but once you are on a downhill bit the skis take over and there's nothing you can do until the ground flattens out and/or you fall over. I wasn't looking forward to this bit at all but the teacher was very encouraging and reassured me I had already got a lot further than some of the visitors from Japan and Singapore who she had been trying to teach recently. Phew, I made it - just about! After that we had a nice flat track to relax on for a bit. This was much better! We still had a couple of things to master though. First of all, going around corners! I didn't quite master this bit and fell over. Standing up again with the skis on your feet is a real challenge! After that we had a flat bit again, which was much easier. This was the calm before our final challenge, which was skiing down this underpass. The track which our skis had been sliding along gave out at this point and so we had to get down the slope in proper downhill-skiing style, pointing our feet together to slow down. I think more by luck than by any particular skill, I managed to make it down this bit in one piece. Phew! We had survived our lesson and managed to ski about three kilometres on one of the beginners' trails. It was time to go inside to warm up and celebrate with a coffee. What an exciting day! Skiing was scary at times and also very tiring, but definitely an exhilirating experience
  16. We had such an amazing time in Lapland last winter that we knew we wanted to return. It's definitely not a cheap destination, but despite our best attempts, we hadn't managed to see the northern lights last year, and so that seemed like a good justification to plan another trip We wanted to replicate last year's travel plans, flying from Gatwick to Helsinki and travelling onwards from there to Äkäslompolo in the north via train. The only part of last year's holiday which we didn't want to repeat was the stress of nearly missing our flight out from Gatwick when I massively underestimated how many people would be on the roads on 27 December. Our flight on Tuesday was at 18.45 with airport parking booked from 16.00, so we decided to give ourselves what should have been a ridiculous amount of time for a journey Google said would take two hours, and leave home at 11.30. Unfortunately in our excitement at setting off we blindly followed the initial instructions of the Sat-Nav, realising too late that it had opted to take us down the M1. We had wanted to go down the M40, which would necessitate less time on the M25 later on, so had a moment of indecision while we weighed up the inconvenience of backtracking to find the M40 against the risk of getting stuck in horrific jams around London. Ultimately the M1 made the decision for us; as soon as we drove onto it we found it was virtually a car park already! We came off at the next junction and about halfway to the M40, Tim came up with the cunning plan of setting the Sat-Nav to avoid motorways altogether. This turned out to be a really good idea and we had a much more scenic and much less frustrating trip south than last year. With the exception of heavy traffic in some of the outer London suburbs, we hardly got stuck in any jams and arrived at the airport parking at 4pm on the dot Gatwick was nice and calm and we were flying with Norwegian, which is always a pleasant experience. The flight took around three hours, so the two hour time difference in Finland meant that it was about 23.45 when we landed in Helsinki. Everything had been going swimmingly well, but unfortunately there was a technical glitch with the baggage carousel (it mysteriously stopped halfway through unloading the bags from our flight, before starting up again nearly half an hour later), so we missed the airport buses I'd been hoping to get and ended up on the 00.40, which is the second last one of the day. Luckily at that time of night there was hardly any traffic, and by 01.15 we were arriving in central Helsinki. A big difference to last year was that there was no snow in Helsinki, but this was actually a positive because last year it was very slippery on the city streets. We made our way to the hotel (which fortunately has a 24-hour reception) with the aim of getting as much sleep as possible, while waking up on time to make the most of the breakfast buffet. It turned out breakfast was served until 09.30, so at 09.00 we were downstairs trying to get our money's worth. Everything in Finland is really expensive, especially with the Euro exchange rate being worse than last year, so we wanted to fill up. Luckily it was a good breakfast buffet with eggs and bacon, plus some pastries filled with rice. It sounds weird, but they were actually really nice This was our third time in Helsinki so we already had a good idea of the main sights. When we left the hotel, we walked in the direction of the sea first of all, and soon came across the familiar view of Helsinki's Orthodox cathedral. We strolled along the coast for a while... ...making the most of the limited daylight. Helsinki seems like a very green city, with lots of parks and expanses of water. We walked through one of the parks, which we had remembered as being pretty from when we visited Helsinki in summer 2013. The paths were a bit more difficult today though, completely covered by ice in places, so it was pretty slow going. Eventually we arrived at the Winter Garden, a large glasshouse on a slight slope above the city. There were some lovely views back towards where we'd walked from. Behind the Winter Garden is the Olympic Stadium, which hosted the Olympics in 1952. They seem to be doing some renovation works on it at the moment, so we skirted around it and started walking back through the park towards the main city, on the opposite side of the water this time. This part of the lake was frozen and we spotted a man standing out on the ice (he seemed to have made a hole to fish through!). The path was very slippery again, and so we copied what other people were doing and walked along the bike lane instead, which seemed to be better gritted. Fortunately there weren't many cyclists out and about! We were pretty cold by this point, so we found a nice coffee shop where we were able to sit for a while and thaw out. €16.60 enabled us to get a cup of coffee and chocolate cake each. Finnish prices definitely take some getting used to, but in fairness once you had bought the first cup of coffee you were allowed to get subsequent refills for only €1 more each. By the time we set foot outside again it was starting to look a bit twilighty already. While there was still daylight, we wanted to see the beautiful Lutheran cathedral in the city centre. There were some pretty Christmas decorations in the square too, so we decided we'd have to return once it was properly dark. We stocked up on some provisions for the train and found ourselves in the lovely Esplanadi park just as the Christmas decorations there were starting to light up. This display in the centre of the park is my favourite... ...especially the reindeer Darkness had fallen properly now and there were Christmas lights everywhere. We returned to the main square and found the cathedral beautifully illuminated. We were freezing again by this point so walked back in the direction of the train station to find a Nepalese restaurant that we'd eaten at last year and hadn't seemed too expensive. Happily it was still there and we were able to stretch out the meal a bit to make the most of the warmth. The food was filling and one nice thing about Finland is that you can always have free tap water with your meal, avoiding the expensive prices of drinks After a final stroll around we returned to the hotel, where the receptionist had kindly let us leave our suitcases behind the desk all day, saving what I think would have been €6 each for a locker at the train station. Our train to Kolari was due to depart at 20.52 and we were at the station in plenty of time. I was excited because we had a compartment on the upper deck of a double-decker carriage. We found it with no problem and settled in for the journey The compartment was really very nice, with proper duvets and pillows, plenty of sockets to charge things and our own ensuite bathroom. We departed Helsinki on time and within the first hour of the journey, we could start to see a sprinkling of snow through the window Tim may admittedly have drawn the short straw by getting the top bunk again, and unfortunately he got woken up fairly early in the morning by a loud snorer in the neighbouring compartment! By the time I had woken up and got dressed it was starting to get light outside and I had glimpses of the very snowy landscape outside through the window. Tim had been sitting in the train's dining car, where he'd discovered that the train was running about half an hour behind schedule. That was fine by us, as we weren't able to check into our apartment until 16.00 and so were in no hurry to arrive. The train had free Wi-Fi so we were able to check our position on Google Maps, and by 10.48 - which was our scheduled arrival time - we were still 70km from Kolari. We ultimately pulled into the station there just before midday, a full hour late. As we had got closer to Kolari, we had views of huge piles of logs by the side of the tracks, and we were passed by several trains which looked like they were transporting logs southwards. As we got off the train in Kolari, we were pleased to see that there was just as much snow as we remembered from last year Lots and lots of snow There isn't a lot at Kolari and it's definitely not the sort of place where you'd want to be stuck for long. Luckily the buses which were meeting the train seemed to be aware that it was running late, and the bus which we were planning to catch to the little village of Äkäslompolo arrived a few minutes after we did. It's an expensive bus journey - over €12 each for a ride of about half an hour - but we are just glad there is a bus at all in such a remote neighbourhood! We had a pretty journey through the snow, and the bus driver dropped us not far from the main supermarket in the centre of the village. Our plan had been to go to a nice restaurant that we'd eaten at several times last year and where they hadn't seemed to mind us taking a long time over a meal, but to our surprise we found that it appeared to be closed. We still had three hours to kill before we could get to the apartment and these aren't the sort of temperatures where you want to loiter outside for long, so we needed to find somewhere else. Luckily there was a pizza place on the opposite side of the main road, so we decided to give that a try. The menu was... interesting! I ultimately had a chicken and pepperoni pizza, which was nice, but several of the other pizzas on offer included reindeer meat and two of them also featured bear meat That aside, it was a nice restaurant and the pizzas were enormous, so we were legitimately able to spend an hour or so working our way through them. After lunch we did a bit of shopping at the supermarket and then decided to try our luck and see whether we could check into the apartment an hour early. It's a slightly complicated system which involves the owners texting you a code for a little black box which has the key for the apartment in it and last year we had some problems because they sent us the code for the box, but didn't tell us which number apartment we were in. This year it thankfully all worked smoothly and our luck was in, because when we arrived around 3pm we found the apartment was all ready and we were able to get inside straight away It's a basic apartment, but warm and comfortable which are the most important points! We settled in for a while, catching up on the blog and sorting out all our cold weather gear, ready for a stroll in the snow later this evening
  17. Day 7: Äkäslompolo

    We didn't have any planned activities for today, so we decided to take the opportunity to explore the surroundings of Äkäslompolo in more detail. Instead of taking our usual route down to the frozen lake, we decided to try walking in the opposite direction, along one of the side roads which the coach had followed yesterday at the start of its journey to the husky farm. We didn't have to walk far along the road before it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The peace and quiet was only destroyed by the occasional person driving a snowmobile, for which there was a separate track on the far side of the road. Luckily after we'd been walking for a while we came across a turning for a winter footpath, which was marked as being for pedestrians only. We started following it through the woods. It was amazing to see some of the younger trees almost completely buried in the snow. Although it is still quite cloudy today, the clouds weren't quite as low as they have been for the past few days, so we had a bit of a view of the surrounding hills through the gaps in the trees. The path we were following led us into a little valley, covered in beautiful thick white snow. Though you did have to be careful not to stray off the edge of the path The footpath was taking us towards a place whose name began with V (Finnish place names are really difficult and we can't remember what it was!). It was about 4km away, so just the right sort of distance for us to walk there and back in the available daylight. When we eventually arrived there, it turned out just to be a crossroads of two ski runs with a small cafe. It didn't matter though because the walk through the snow had been fantastic. We managed to find a slightly different route back so that we weren't completely retracing our steps. It's hard to imagine that these trees will recover from the snow, but hopefully they will! It was about 2pm now and clear that the amount of remaining available daylight was limited. We made it back to Äkäslompolo around 2.30 and went to our favourite restaurant to warm up and enjoy a rather large meal. We're flying back home tomorrow, firstly with an internal flight from the local Kittilä airport to Helsinki, and then with a further flight from Helsinki back to Gatwick. There probably won't be any adventures worth blogging about tomorrow, but we've had an absolutely amazing holiday. Lapland is beautiful and we will definitely return if we can
  18. Day 6: Husky Sledding

    So far this surprise (for me!) holiday has been perfect. We're in the Arctic Circle, we're isolated in sub-zero temperatures and snow a metre deep, and we've been travelling through the wilderness on snowshoes. Today held for us something to complete the adventure; being pulled by a team of huskies. I couldn't wait. The same couldn't be said for Clare, who holds a lifetime's phobia of wolves. It turns out that I was lucky that this adventure had even been booked; it resulted from my inadventently intoxicating Clare with a roast dinner a couple of months back, after which she decided she would start 2016 by being brave, and so booked our sledding adventure for January the 1st. Prior to our being collected at 12:40 today, she had plenty of time to rue the decision. I'm glad that she chose to come anyway, in defiance of the little voice in her head telling her that we were going to end up limbless. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Our bus collected a few more people from different hotels and then took us on the 35km journey through wonderful untouched snow to the farm. We were greeted by a native, who was going to talk us through the various hand signals we would need to use whilst travelling in convoy! That made it extra special, to have a genuine Sami standing front of us. And then he started speaking: "My name's Ben and I'm English." First thought: "Bah!" Second thought: "How did a boy from England land this gig?!" Ben spent a good ten minutes explaining how the passenger should sit safely, how the driver should stand and so on. And then he added that the dogs were about to come in from their current run and would be so excited at the prospect of going out again that they wouldn't be much good for a play just yet. So he offered us an early play with the puppies instead. They usually have about 20 in a given year. This year there were 12. I got to meet the largest of the bunch, the four-month-old Hannibal: Lovely boy! And not long after that, the sledding teams arrived and we got to kit up. This is Clare's view with our team of six ready to go: They were super keen to get going and as soon as I took my foot off the brake and gave them the command, off they sped: The views were spectacular as we went: We stopped periodically to make sure that everybody had caught up: Number 5 in our team really disliked stopping, though. Every time we did, she would try to jerk us forward. She didn't have to hang around too long before she got the command to pull and we sped off again: This was clearly hard work; the journey was going to be about 10km all in, so the dogs needed to grab a mouthful of snow as refeshment every now and again. Number 3 was clearly finding it to be tiring and frequently mouthed at the snow whilst in motion, and the other dogs all took the opportunity to cool off at our periodic breaks: It was clear that the dogs absolutely loved pulling. I had thoughts earlier that the activity might be exploitative but nothing could be further from the truth. Number 5 had already indicated at every stop that she disliked standing around. Later on, number 4, the largest in our team, almost single-handedly restarted us at every stop! (I should add that all the dogs have their own names, but since I didn't know ours, I refer to them by number in which they were ordered. They were also all "good girls", even though I suspect 3 and 4 were males really.) Every now and again numbers 3 and 4 looked over their shoulders at me. Ben had informed us earlier that they might do this when they were lagging in order to ask us why we weren't pulling our weight and contributing to the team effort. So every now and again I found myself pushing along with a foot or even, when there was an uphill climb, jumping off the foot panels and pushing the sled with them. The dogs considered me part of the team! Night descended out of nowhere, as it's wont to do in this part of the world at this time of day (about 3pm): Fortunately, the dogs know exactly what they're doing and soon lights appeared in the distance: We were back home and once the sled was secure, I finally got to meet my team! Number 4 was the keenest to have a big cuddle. Number 5 wasn't particularly interested at all, no doubt wondering when she would next be allowed out for a run. And then we got to sit in a lavvu, a traditional Sami tent, in which a fire was burning and we were offered warm berry juice and gingerbread: The guide at this stage was a young Japanese girl, who explained that the company was formed in the early 2000s and started with 12 dogs, rising to 150 currently. She also pointed out that today was too warm for the dogs at only minus 7, and that they are happiest at minus 20, and so took it slow today! During the six-month winter season the dogs can run up to 2000km, so they certainly earn their six-month summer holiday. And then, with a few minutes left until our bus arrived, we visited the puppies again and I got to catch up with my little friend, Hannibal: And that was that! A wonderful day out and true Arctic experience. These doggies were absolutely tame, brought up with human contact from the day they were born, and absolutely adored pulling the sleds. They really were spectacular. And so we boarded the bus and headed on the 30-minute journey home. Clare and I were dropped off at roadside in order to spare the driver the difficulties in conducting a u-turn in front of a hotel. I took a single step and got a quick reminder that we really were in the Arctic: We headed off to get food, having skipped lunch, and were very surprised to see that our regular restaurant was full, as was the next one we tried. Not to worry; we were next to the supermarket and so picked up some provisions, and on the walk home Clare uttered some words which revealed that she too was pleased at how the day had turned out: "When we come back next year ..."
  19. It was too cloudy last night to see any northern lights, and when we woke up this morning it was even cloudier. There was a low mist over the village which made it difficult to see more than a few hundred metres ahead. We were up relatively early - or, at least, well before daylight - because we needed to get ready for today's activity: snowshoeing! This was something I had booked about a month ago, thinking that it would be a fun activity to try and something that we wouldn't be able to try anywhere else. As the time to depart drew near, however, I began to wonder whether it had been such a good idea. Suppose snowshoeing was really difficult and we weren't able to do it? I had booked for us to go on a guided snowshoe walk which said it was suitable for beginners, but perhaps a Finnish person's idea of a beginner's abilities wouldn't be quite the same as mine! We were picked up from outside our apartment in Äkäslompolo just after 9am and driven to the nearby settlement of Ylläs. The car journey was an adventure in itself, as the road took us across the fell between the two villages. It was still very dark, and we could just make out the rows of snow-covered trees behind the swirling mist. When we arrived, Ylläs seemed like a bit of a metropolis compared to Äkäslompolo. There were some large hotels and restaurants, as well as various ski lifts, and overall it was quite reminiscent of an Alpine skiing resort (whereas Äkäslompolo just feels like a small village in the middle of the wilderness!). We were taken to the office of the adventure company, where we were supplied with coffee and snowshoes. The snowshoes were like a small skateboard for each foot, into which you clipped your boots and attached yourself with various straps. The front and underside of the snowshoes were fitted with sharp metal spikes to give you a good grip on the snow. The guide was a lovely lady who reassured us that if you are able to walk then you are able to snowshoe. She led our small group outside into the snow and showed us how to clip ourselves into the snowshoes. This actually turned out to be the most difficult bit of the entire experience, as there are numerous different buckles and clips to navigate. You have to make sure you are clipped in as tightly as possible so that you don't lose one of your snowshoes when walking. Here's a picture of me once I'd got them clipped on Then we were off! It really is very simple - you just walk as normal, although you do have to be a bit careful not to trip over your own feet. There were about 15 or so of us in the group and the guide led us off on a narrow snowshoe path through the forest. As you can see, it was still quite dark but gradually starting to get lighter. The mist meant that there wasn't much of a view, but the guide made up for it by pointing out other points of interest. The first thing she stopped to show us were the footprints of a snow hare. Later she also pointed out some reindeer droppings, but we didn't take a photo of those! We saw lots of trees that were bending under the weight of the snow. The guide explained that although the trees look like they are broken, they will all spring back once the snow melts. Some of the trees had a special sort of lichen growing on them, which only grows in this part of the world where the air is so pure. The landscape was magical as it started to get brighter. There isn't any logging in this part of the region because a large part of it is covered by the Pallas-Yllästunturi national park. One of the other members of the group questioned how old the trees are, because they all looked comparatively short; as if older trees were routinely cut down and replaced with new ones. The guide explained that no, the trees might be up to 70 years old and they just grow far more slowly that elsewhere because the summers are so short. There aren't many trees older than 70 years because retreating German soldiers operated a scorched earth policy during the Second World War, causing massive devastation throughout Finnish Lapland. After about an hour of walking, we reached a little shelter and it was time to stop for a rest and some hot berry juice. Once we removed the snow shoes to sit down, it was clear quite how effective they had been at keeping us upright, as the snow was quite slippery under our normal boots. Tim was feeling a little warm from the exertion, so decided to take his jacket off for a while! As we were drinking our berry juice, we saw an interesting bird sitting in one of the nearby trees. The guide explained that this was a Siberian jay. It sounds like they are to Lapland what seagulls are to the English seaside; the guide explained how they like to swoop down and steal food from people's picnics. Someone had some bread in their bag so she demonstrated holding it out in her hand, while the bird swooped down to take it. Then it was time to be off again! On the way back we were told that we could try walking off the prepared snowshow path and onto the untouched snow. The snow was about a metre deep here, so there is no way you would be able to walk on it without snowshoes to spread your weight. At times it was quite difficult even with snowshoes! We made it back to Ylläs for midday, then were dropped off outside our apartment in Äkäslompolo just on time to go and get some lunch. It was an amazing morning and we had worked up quite an appetite! It cost about £45 each for morning's adventure, which included the transport and the snowshoe hire. We had a fantastic time and we definitely think it was worth it
  20. Day 4: Äkäslompolo

    I had a lie in until after 9am this morning, but it was still pitch black dark when I woke up As soon as the daylight started to arrive we got kitted out in our thermals and set off to make the most of it. Having spent some time consulting the map of Äkäslompolo last night, I had a theory about the whereabouts of the elusive lake, and I wanted to see whether I would be proved right... The first thing that caught our attention as we left the apartment was this huge pile of snow, which presumably has arisen as a result of clearing the pavements. It gives you an idea of quite how much snow there has been here, despite the fact that the winter is relatively mild this year. We were also impressed by the amount of snow on the roof of our apartment building! Now that it was daylight we could start to see some of the small hills which surround the village and are used for downhill skiing. Some of the ski runs are illuminated once darkness falls so that people can continue skiing. We walked to the supermarket and followed the track we had taken last night. We walked through the wooded area and then I pointed out to Tim that the path took a sudden dip down into the "field". The "field" was remarkably flat and devoid of trees until you reached the far side, where the path took a sudden jump upwards into the forest. Furthermore, the "field" was in exactly the location where the lake was marked on the map of Äkäslompolo... When we caught sight of a small boat house, complete with canoes almost buried in the snow, it confirmed what I had thought; we hadn't spent the evening walking across the village playing field but across the frozen, snow-covered lake. Wow! It turned out that there wasn't just a walking path across the lake, but also a snowshoe route and two cross country skiing runs. There was only one place, right on the far side, where you could see the actual ice and there was a sign warning people not to walk on it. We stuck rigidly to main path and enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside. There were some beautiful colours in the sky. Safely across the lake, we continued following the path through the forest. So much snow and so many trees Some trees were rather weighed down by the snow. After walking for about an hour, we emerged into a bit of a clearing, from where we had a view towards what we think is the largest hill in the area. It was after midday by this point, so time to turn around and head back to the village for some lunch. Tim chose the pulled reindeer burger By the time we had finished eating and done a bit more shopping it was dark. We went back to the apartment to relax for a while before we set off for another walk in the darkness later on.
  21. I woke up around 8am and found the train still speeding through the darkness. Tim was already awake and had discovered that the train had a dining car where we were able to go and buy coffee. We'd already brought food with us to eat for breakfast but if we hadn't there were also all sorts of breakfasty things you could buy. It was all far more civilised than the previous time we'd taken an overnight train and we were pleasantly surprised! As we sat drinking coffee in the dining car, it gradually began to get a bit brighter outside and we could start to make out huge expanses of snow-covered forests on either side of the track. It looked very cold and very exciting. The train arrived in Kolari just after 11am. Kolari is a small town near the Finnish border with Sweden and boasts the northernmost railway station in Finland. The main thing which struck us as we pulled into the station was the enormous piles of logs to the side of the track. There were tree trunks piled as high as our house back home and some very serious-looking freight carriages which looked like they might be used to transport them. Logging must be a big industry here. The train was actually a few minutes late, but happily the buses which meet the train to transport passengers to the nearby ski resorts of Levi, Ylläs and Äkäslompolo were still sitting there waiting for it. This was a marked contrast to England, where either the buses would have departed at the time scheduled regardless of the fact that they had no passengers, or the bus would have been scheduled to run at a time that bore no relation to the train's arrival. The journey from Kolari to Äkäslompolo took around 45 minutes and cost €12.60 on the bus. It seemed expensive, but then we were getting a bus from one very remote place to another very remote place, so we were just glad there was a bus at all We arrived in Äkäslompolo just after midday. It's a small village with just a few hundred inhabitants, situated next to a little lake. The buildings are quite strung out along the main road so it was difficult to know the best place to get off the bus, but when we caught sight of the local supermarket, that seemed like as good a place as any. We were relieved to find that the ground was properly covered in snow, so nowhere near as slippy as it had been in Helsinki, and there was actually a reasonable amount of daylight. We weren't able to get into our apartment until 4pm, so our first priority was to find somewhere warm to sit. Luckily there was a large restaurant next to the supermarket where I had an enormous pizza and they didn't seem to mind us sitting and very slowly sipping coffee after our meal. We managed to kill the best part of two hours there, then headed to the supermarket to stock up on some provisions. Next to the supermarket was a small outlet of Alko, the government-owned company with a monopoly on selling strong alcohol in Finland, so we took the opportunity to buy a few bottles of wine in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the very sober new year we experienced in Oslo a few years ago To be fair, the opening hours of Alko seem to be a bit more reasonable than those of Vinmonpolet, which appeared to have a policy of being closed at any time of day a person might conceivably want to buy alcohol! By the time we emerged from the shops (just after 3pm) it was almost completely dark outside. It was a walk of about 1km through the snow to our apartment. We found the correct building without much difficulty, recognising the distinctive white and blue panelling from the pictures on booking.com. There were actually two similar-looking apartment blocks though, both with flats on two different levels, and we had no way of knowing which apartment might be ours. The check-in instructions we had been sent told us that we needed to enter a key code into a black box by the side of the apartment door, but it failed to mention the number of the apartment. Oh dear. Tim took charge and made a phone call to the offices of the rental company. They said they would call us back, so we stood outside in the snow for a while hoping for the best. When they didn't call us back as promised, Tim phoned again and this time they told us the number of our apartment. Phew! We got in without any further problems and happily the apartment was as we expected: basic, but comfortable. There is a nice living and dining area... ...a small bedroom... ...and a functional kitchen. We settled in and had to overcome some teething problems with the Wi-Fi (a couple of phone calls and a house visit later we had a new router!). Later in the evening we decided to head out for a walk to explore the village a litle more without our suitcases weighing us down. We walked back along the main road and in the direction of the supermarket. There was a sign in English outside the supermarket, marking the direction of a track towards the lake. We had read that the lake was a good place to go at night to try and see the northern lights, away from the lights of the village, so we decided to go and explore. It was quite cloudy last night so we weren't expecting to see anything exciting, but it would be good to know where the lake was for future reference. Armed with our headtorches, we followed the path behind the supermarket, which led through a slightly wooded area and then down towards what appeared to be a large playing field. There was a path leading straight across the field and we could see some other people ahead of us, so we began walking across it, following their tracks. We eventually passed them, emerged at the far side of the field, then proceeded to climb up into another forested area. We'd been walking for about 30 minutes at this point and we were really confused because we couldn't see any sign of the lake. We decided we'd better turn back and try again in the daylight when we had a map. We were just on our way back down the main road towards the apartment, when I caught sight of a strange green glow in the sky. The sky was still partially clouded, so it was like a cloudy green rainbow from one side of the sky to the other, which faded into and then out of focus over the course of five minutes. Other people stopped in the street to stare up at it too. Within a few minutes it had gone and the sky was just grey again. How exciting - we had just got our first glimpse of the northern lights
  22. Day 2: Helsinki

    Morning seemed to come very quickly, although it was still dark in Helsinki when we woke up at 08.30. Tim announced that the guidebook recommended saving money by abusing the breakfast buffet if you were lucky enough to have breakfast included in your hotel rate, because food and drink in Finland is so expensive, but when we went downstairs to breakfast we found the buffet was rather difficult to abuse on account of being rather sparse. A bit of scrambled egg and stale bread later, we set off to explore the Finnish capital. We had already been to Helsinki once before, on a spontaneous daytrip by ferry from Tallinn in 2013, but that was in the height of summer, and everywhere looked extremely different on a freezing December morning. Our first stop was the train station, where we were able to leave our suitcases in lockers for the not-too-extortionate price of €6 each. The station building itself is very imposing from the outside. The square outside the station was looking quite wintery, with a large ice rink and a huge pile of cleared snow by the side. We couldn't remember the direction that the main centre of town was in. I chose a direction off the top of my head, which turned out to be the exact opposite of the one we wanted and took us through a park and down to the waterside. It was fun to walk through the snowy park though (and much easier than walking on the streets, which were a bit icy). If we carried on through the park we might have ended up going a long way out of town, so we retraced our steps back towards the station. Luckily on the horizon we soon caught sight of a large white dome, which we recognised from our previous trip. Within a few minutes we found ourselves outside Helsinki's beautiful Lutheran cathedral. The white of the cathedral looked particularly stunning against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. The cathedral is located at the top of a steep flight of steps, which are slightly intimidating at the best of times. Luckily they had grit on them today so despite the snow we managed to make it down without breaking our necks. As we walked away from the Lutheran cathedral, we caught a glimpse of the shining golden domes dof Helsinki's other (Orthodox) cathedral in the distance. This cathedral is equally stunning, being situated at the top of a rocky cliff. We climbed the steps to the top of the cliff... ...and from there also had a view back towards the first cathedral. We had succeeded in finding central Helsinki now, and everywhere we went was beautiful. Some of the Christmas lights and decorations looked very special, and we couldn't wait to see them in the dark. The temperature was just below freezing and we were starting to feel chilled through, so we stopped at a steakhouse for lunch. Steak was well outside our budget, but happily they also served spaghetti bolognaise for about €15. That may be the most expensive spaghetti bolognaise we've ever eaten, but by Helsinki standards it seemed quite reasonable. One of the good things about Finland is that it seems to be socially acceptable to have a jug of tap water with your meal, and so you don't have to spend additional money on soft drinks if you don't want to. The other good thing about Finland is that people seem to speak excellent English, so ordering food isn't the nightmare that it would be if it were dependent on our non-existent comprehension of Finnish After lunch we walked back down to the waterfront and enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the coast. The sea was frozen in places, which was exciting to see. It started to get dark after 3pm. We spent some time indoors drinking coffee and warming up, then visited a supermarket to buy some provisions for the train. Once it was properly dark we were able to see the Christmas lights in their full glory. The station building was illuminated and the Christmas trees lining either side of one of the main shopping streets were really pretty. Some of the lights were low key, but tasteful. The cathedral, of course, looked amazing against the night sky. And the square below looked beautifully wintry. This square was my absolute favourite... ...particularly these wonderful reindeer! There was just time to fit in an evening meal in a restaurant near to the station before our train to the north was due to depart at 20.52. We got to the station and retrieved our luggage on good time and although I was worried that something was going to go wrong (recalling our rather stressful experience on the train back from Kiev to Bratislava when a stranger had unexpectedly been sold an extra bed in our compartment!), the entire process of getting the train couldn't have been easier. The ticket was a printed pdf which I had downloaded from the railway website and which detailed the coach and compartment numbers. We found the correct place without any problems and were really pleased to see that the compartment was more spacious and luxurious than we'd experienced in Ukraine. The beds were genuinely comfy, though I was quite relieved when Tim agreed to take the top one. The ladder reminded me of one from my Sylvanian families bunk beds The train departed exactly on time and moved slowly through the suburbs of Helsinki, stopping at various local stations. Once we had left the town behind us and pulled out into the countryside, the ticket inspector came around, scanning our tickets and providing us with a key card to swipe back into the compartment if we left it. The compartment door locked automatically when closed and there was also a double catch to turn once you were inside, so it was all completely safe, and there was plenty of space under the lower bunk for our bags. We settled down for a good night's sleep, knowing that when we woke up in the morning we would be approaching the Arctic Circle!
  23. Day 1: Home to Helsinki

    When we returned from the last of our summer holidays in Croatia and Slovenia in September, our thoughts quickly turned to planning a winter holiday. We didn't have any firm ideas about where we wanted to go. It always seems difficult to choose a destination for a winter trip, because the normally affordable flights to countries in central and eastern Europe become prohibitively expensive around Christmas and New Year. Last year we couldn't find any affordable flights at all, so we ended up going to Belgium on the Eurostar. The year before that we found very cheap flights to Oslo, but that turned out to be false economy because we could hardly afford to eat or drink when we got there! We spent some time researching various options. We ruled out a trip to Hungary for a New Year's Esperanto event because the flights were over £200. To our surprise, we noticed that there were some comparatively cheap flights to Iceland from some of the London airports and we invested in an Iceland guidebook. That may have been an expensive mistake, because while we got a good deal on the guidebook from the Bradt website, Iceland itself must be one of the priciest destinations in the world. The pictures looked absolutely amazing though and there were some really cool trips you could do from Rekjavik to see the Northern Lights. The main problem was timing, because the affordable flights were either at really awkward times or would have necessitated us staying there for a week, which might have been too long in the depths of winter when most of the transport infrastructure appears to shut down. It was with no inconsiderable amount of regret that in the end we had to give up on the idea. Our next plan was to go to Denmark. This was motivated not by any particular desire to see Denmark, but more by the availability of very cheap Ryanair flights. We went so far as to purchase a Denmark guidebook, but it failed to generate any genuine enthusiasm in us. The most exciting thing I could find about Denmark was that it would be possible to take a train to Sweden, but about two days after reading this I saw an article online explaining how such trains had been disrupted and/or cancelled as a result of the migrant crisis. Back to the drawing board then! All the talk about Iceland had made me quite excited about the idea of trying to see the Northern Lights, and so I started researching other places where it might be possible to see them. There are some amazing trips available, so long as you have unlimited money and can take holiday in January or February. Sadly not falling into any of those categories, I started browsing the websites of some of the tour operators who run package tours to Lapland from the UK. These are mostly aimed at parents wanting to take their children to see Santa, but I did find a couple of destinations in Finland which were described as offering good chances of seeing the lights. There were even direct flights from East Midlands and Birmingham and spaces free for short breaks between Christmas and New Year. I knew that Tim had always wanted to go to Lapland and I did have some extra money to spend as a result of an unexpected work bonus... but I wasn't sure if I could bear to go on a package holiday. Reviews on Tripadvisor said how brilliant it was to be met by reps dressed as elves at the airport and I thought that might be more than I could handle! In the process of failing to make a decision, I decided to buy a copy of the Bradt guide to Lapland and see what it recommended. To my surprise, within the first few pages the author stated how easy it was to travel independently in Lapland. I had automatically assumed that it wouldn't be possible to travel independently to somewhere as cold and isolated as Lapland, but it seemed that this might not be true. Hmmm... One thing which particularly caught my attention in the chapter about Finland was the mention of a train line which ran from Helsinki to a place called Kolari, north of the Arctic Circle. I investigated the Finnish railway website and discovered that sleeper trains run every night in the winter season, to take Finnish people to the cross-country ski resorts in the north of the country. Flights to Helsinki are quite thin on the ground as it isn't a Ryanair destination, but I found some that were fairly affordable from Gatwick with Norwegian Air. The Bradt guidebook mentioned that a special bus meets the trains arriving in Kolari to transport people to the ski resorts, so I started researching where we could stay. On booking.com I found a basic apartment for about £65 per night (which seemed reasonable by Finnish standards) in a village called Äkäslompolo. Although a small place, this was part of the bigger Ylläs ski resort area and thus on the bus route from Kolari station. The internet confirmed that it had a supermarket, an alcohol shop and a lake which was a good place to visit at night when looking for the Northern Lights. A plan began to form in my head! After a few days of deliberation, I decided to bite the bullet and book it. I also decided to surprise Tim with the destination on his birthday. Little did I know how difficult it was going to be to keep the secret for three months (especially because he decided he would rather be told at Christmas than on his birthday!). In the meantime I set about buying thermal underwear, head torches and other essential Lapland equipment. Christmas Day came and went and luckily Tim was extremely pleased with the surprise Our flight to Helsinki was at 18.45 on 27 December and I had the airport parking booked for 16.00. The internet suggested that just over two hours ought to be enough time to get to Gatwick, and we decided to leave at 13.00 so that we had an extra hour in case of bad traffic. We carefully planned our route to go down the M40 rather than the M1 and thus reduce the length of time we needed to spend on the M25. I didn't think that there was scope for anything to go wrong; it was a Sunday afternoon, just two days after Christmas, so who on earth else would be on the roads?! It turned out that this was rather a naive assumption and it would have been easier to list the people who weren't on the roads. The M40 was an absolute nightmare, with congestion at seemingly random intervals for no particular reason. The jams were particularly bad around the junctions for Oxford and again for the junction by the High Wycombe retail park. It was then that the penny dropped; everyone must be going to the sales! When it got to 15.30 and we were still on the M40, I began to get a little nervous, but I thought that everything would still be okay if the traffic was free-flowing on the M25. Hahahahahaha. Is the traffic ever free-flowing on the M25? We sat in traffic jam after traffic jam as we edged our way from junction to junction. 16.00 came and went, as did 16.30. At 16.45 it was now only two hours until take off and we were still on the M25. I didn't think there was any way we could still make it. We had to find our way to the airport parking, check in there, wait for the transfer bus, travel the 6 miles to the airport in the bus and then navigate our way through Gatwick - an airport we had never been to before but which I assumed would be large and chaotic. It just didn't seem like it was going to be possible. I started wondering whether my travel insurance would cover me for any refunds if we missed our outbound flight. Just when we were about to give up hope, the traffic cleared a little and we were able to make our way from the M25 to the M23 and then onto the road towards the airport parking. Fortunately the sat-nav took us to more or less the correct location and by 17.15 we had arrived. After our experience with nearly missing a flight from Luton earlier in the year, I was worried that we would have to queue for ages for a transfer bus, but to our pleasant surprise we found that not only was there a bus sitting waiting but the driver took our suitcases and loaded them on for us while we registered and handed over the keys. Before long we were on the bus and shortly after 17.30 we had arrived at the terminal building. Phew! I had expected the worst from Gatwick but it actually turned out to be a really civilised airport. We found the correct check-in desk with no problems and joined the queue, which was an actual queue and not sort of scrum which characterises the Ryanair check-in at Stansted! Then we only had to wait five minutes before we were checked in by a very competent clerk, who explained that our flight was actually running delayed by 30 minutes. The departure boards said to await further information at 18.30, so we made our way through security and after all the rushing found ourselves in the unlikely position of actually having enough time to get a pre-flight meal Ultimately the flight was delayed by around an hour, apparently as a result of some strong head winds and turbulence which had slowed the journey of the incoming aircraft. The Norwegian aircraft was very pleasant, seemingly with enough space for everyone's cabin baggage to actually fit in the cabin, and with screens showing cartoons and nature programmes during the flight. There was a slight moment of anxiety at the start of the flight when the pilot explained that one of the engines needed for take-off was broken, meaning that he was going to be using a spare one which was slower and noisier, but everything passed off without a hitch and we were soon on our way to Helsinki. Finland of course has a two-hour time difference from the UK, so the result of the delay was that our scheduled arrival time of 23.30 was pushed back to 00.30. As the plane began to descend towards Helsinki, I noticed to my surprise that we were coming down into a white landscape. There was either a scattering of snow or an extremely hard frost covering the fields and roads, so it must be colder than the Google weather forecast had led us to believe. Sure enough, the pilot announced that it was a nice evening in Helsinki with temperatures around -9. Not sure -9 is most people's definition of a nice evening, but after the mild weather that we've been experiencing recently in the UK, we were relieved to find that in Finland winter was still properly cold. Thermometers we later saw in the town suggested that the pilot may have exaggerated slightly, with the temperature actually being more like -5. A consequence of landing late was that we'd missed the train we were going to catch into the city centre. From memory I didn't think the trains were very frequent - and I didn't have any information about how late they ran - so we decided to investigate the airport bus instead. Finnair run a bus from the airport which goes directly to the main train station in Helsinki, and luckily we were just in time for the final bus of the evening at 01.10. I dread to think how much a Finnish taxi would have cost if we had missed it! When the bus arrived it turned out to be rather hi-tech, with free Wi-Fi and an electronic display showing how far we were along the route and the expected arrival time at each stop. The journey through the outskirts of Helsinki into the town centre took around 30 minutes, so it was just before 01.45 that we stepped off the bus in central Helsinki and had to take care not to fall over on the extremely icy pavements. The hotel I'd booked for Sunday night was only 300m from the station on the map, but we hadn't arrived on the same side of the building as I'd expected when planning to take the train, so it took a while for us to figure out exactly where we were. We arrived at the hotel around 2am and were extremely relieved to note that they hadn't been lying when they said they had a 24-hour reception! Breakfast was served until 09.30 the next morning, so we settled down to get as much sleep as possible in preparation for a day of sight-seeing in Helsinki on Monday.
  24. Day 8: Helsinki

    The final day of our holiday was one of the most exciting as we set off on a spontaneous trip to Helsinki. I was slightly apprehensive about how we might fare without a map, a guidebook or a single word of Finnish, but it was definitely going to be an adventure if nothing else! Our ferry was due to leave Tallinn at 10.30 and arrive in the Finnish capital at 12.30. The instructions on our ticket implied that it was advisable to be at the ferry terminal an hour before the boat departed, to make sure that there was enough time for check-in and boarding, and we weren't completely sure how long it would take us to walk to the terminal from our hotel, so our intention was to have breakfast in the hotel as soon as it opened at 8am. We arrived at the breakfast room at 07.59 only to find it completely full of what appeared to be a tour party. Every single table was taken (in what wasn't a very large room to start with) and it was clear that we didn't stand much chance of getting a seat within the next 20 minutes. How annoying! We ended up adding Estonia to the list of Eastern European countries in which our lives have been saved by McDonalds and having breakfast there en route to the ferry. The journey to Helsinki was extremely pleasant. It was a big ferry and although there was a large crowd of people waiting to board it, we managed to get find seats by a window with a great view. As the boat pulled out of Tallinn, we were able to see some of the landmarks along the coast which we had visited during our trip to Kadriorg the previous day. We passed some small islands off the coast of Estonia and then there was nothing but miles and miles of blue sea. The Baltic was beautifully calm and so we really enjoyed our trip. We arrived at Helsinki's western ferry terminal, which is a bit outside of the city centre. There was a helpful display of local leaflets in the terminal building, and we picked up a brochure for an open-top bus tour, thinking that this would be the ideal way to get an introduction to new city which we knew very little about... until we saw that the tickets were priced at €25!!! Wow, what we've heard about Scandinavia being an expensive place must really be true then. We were fortunate, however, that the leaflet for the bus tour featured a useful map of all the main sites and the route the bus would take between them. We decided to save some money by travelling along the route by foot and seeing what we could see. There was some sort of tram between the ferry terminal and the main part of the town but there was such a horde of people waiting at the stop that we decided to give it a miss and walk in instead. The route was well-signposted and we were rewarded with some nice sea views as we made our way around the coast and into the town. Soon we were on what appeared to be Helsinki's main street and were able to get a proper town plan from Tourist Information. So far, so good. Our main aim at this point was to find some lunch, but the main street didn't seem the best place to do so because we assumed the prices would be a lot higher than elsewhere. We struck off down some side streets and somehow managed to walk for an hour along a route which missed every single eating establishment in Helsinki. We did find some beautiful cathedrals though The impressive white church above is the Lutheran cathedral, the main symbol of Helsinki. It was built in the nineteenth century as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and known as St Nicholas' Church until Finland became independent of Russia in 1917. The equally striking red church below is the Finnish Orthodox cathedral, built on top of a rock on the eastern side of Helsinki. The largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, it was originally a Russian Orthodox church and a symbol of Russia's domination over Finland. Just around the corner from the Orthodox cathedral we finally chanced upon a restaurant - yay! Even better, there was an English version of the menu and amongst all the slightly unusual fish dishes which I guess are normal in this part of the world, we found a regular burger and chips meal. Excellent... except for the price! Tim's face was a picture when he realised that beefburger and chips was going to set us back €17 - each. Wow. Luckily there was a jug of free tap water on the table, so we were able to save some money by not buying anything to drink. The meal was nice when it came, but it felt like incredibly poor value compared to Vilnius, where we had had two main courses, half a litre of wine and two beers for the grand sum of €14 earlier in the week. Finland is definitely the most expensive place I have ever been. Lunch over, we had four hours left until our return ferry so we set off to see as much of the city as possible. Dodging occasional showers, we strolled around the main sights in the city centre which included an imposing railway station, a pretty blue town hall and numerous tree-lined squares. This rather grim-looking building turned out to be the Finnish parliament. Not far from the parliament building was the start of a beautiful park, where we were able to walk alongside the shore of a lake with great views back towards the town centre and the cathedrals. We found Helsinki's Olympic stadium, as well as the Botanical Gardens, and then proceeded to get rather lost looking for the Sibelius monument, a sculpture dedicated to the famous Finnish composer. Despite being one of the key sights in Helsinki, it didn't appear to be signposted at all and we are indebted to two separate locals who saw us looking confusedly at a map and gave us directions. The monument is hidden away in another beautiful park and our route back towards the ferry terminal took us past some gorgeous stretches of coastline. At times it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a capital city. Having somehow walked another 15 miles, the ferry back to Tallinn was a welcome excuse to sit down for two hours. It was slightly rowdier than on the way out, filled with Finns evidently looking forward to a cheap night out in Estonia. I don't blame them; if I lived in Helsinki I think I'd sail to Tallinn every time I felt like burger and chips! If you're ever looking to do a similar trip, it's worth noting that although there are multiple ferry companies which sail between Tallinn and Helsinki, several of them have timetables which are only geared to doing a daytrip from Helsinki to Tallinn (rather than the other way round). Our brief research indicated that Tallink was the best company to use in the less popular direction, and it certainly worked out cheaply for us. It was after 10pm by the time we got back to our hotel - a late night considering that we had to be up at 04.30 to catch our bus to Riga airport - but it had been worth it. We were rewarded by this wonderful view of the sun setting over Tallinn; a perfect end to a perfect holiday.
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