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  1. Our flight back to the UK isn't until 19.30 this evening, so we had pretty much a full day to spend in Finland. After getting our money's worth from the hotel breakfast, we checked out and headed to the main station in Turku, where we had booked tickets on a train to Helsinki at 09.25. We were there on plenty of time, so the journey was a lot less stressful than it had been on Saturday! Two hours later, we stepped off the train into a Helsinki which was much warmer and sunnier than on previous occasions when we have visited it en route to Lapland The train station itself is quite an impressive building... ...with a big clock tower. Last time we were here we had to walk carefully so as not to slip over on the ice. We didn't have that problem today, and made fast progress towards the Orthodox cathedral. It's a really beautiful building, situated at the top of a big rock. Helsinki's Lutheran cathedral wasn't far away either. This one looked particularly beautiful with a bright blue sky behind it. It was an awful lot busier here today than in December though; there were hordes of coach parties in the square in front of the cathedral. It was after midday by this point, so we found an Italian restaurant not far from the square where we were able to get a quick pizza (for €13 each!) and then set off towards Helsinki's market square, from where we were planning to catch a boat to Suomenlinna. Suomenlinna is a sea fortress, built on islands just off the coast from Helsinki. The boat journey only cost €7 return, which seemed quite reasonable by Finnish standards, and took around half an hour. We had some great views of Helsinki as the boat pulled out of the harbour At one point we could see both of the cathedrals It wasn't long before we were approaching the coast of the island. Construction of the fortress here started in the eighteenth century, at which point Finland was still part of Sweden. The fortress was intended to help protect against possible Russian invasion. The fortress was eventually besieged by Russian forces in 1808 and surrendered. The boat which we arrived on had been really full, but as soon as we started exploring the island we found that we lost people very quickly. We followed little paths around the coast and had some wonderful views. I was particularly excited when I realised that we could see back to Helsinki clearly enough to identify the Lutheran cathedral on the skyline. The island isn't just full of fortifications; we found a couple of residential areas full of houses. It was a really beautiful place, but we had to be careful not to wander so far that we missed the boat we needed back to the mainland. There was just time for one more stroll beside the sea, before it was time to head back. After another half an hour on the boat, we could see Helsinki approaching again. I had already pre-purchased our tickets for the airport bus, which at €6.90 each feel like an absolute bargain compared to the cost of the airport bus that we'll be taking in Iceland next week We made it back to the airport with plenty of time to make use of the surprisingly fast Wi-Fi to update the blog. Luckily this flight doesn't seem to be delayed and if all goes well we should be home before midnight. Despite all the hassle on the way here, it's been a fun weekend and really interesting to explore a bit more of Finland
  2. Clare

    Day 2: Rauma

    Our plan for today was to visit the town of Rauma, a small town about 57 miles north of Turku on the west coast of Finland. The old part of Rauma is a Unesco World Heritage Site, because it is a well-preserved example of a historic wooden town. Rauma isn't on a train line, so the easiest way to get there is by bus. As luck would have it, our hotel is situated just opposite Turku's bus station, so we didn't have far to go when we stepped outside this morning. That turned out to be for the best, because as soon as we got outside it began to rain. At first just lightly, but within a few minutes it was raining quite heavily. I was aware that the weather forecast didn't look great for today, but I hadn't expected the rain to be torrential! Fortunately our bus arrived promptly and we were able to get on almost straight away. I'd bought the bus tickets online in advance, which had saved some money, although when I bought them the website said that it wasn't possible to reserve seats. Some people obviously had reserved seats though, as we were asked to move from the place we first tried to sit by someone who had a reservation. This being Finland rather than the Balkans, we thought we'd better comply The journey from Turku to Rauma took around 1 hour 20 minutes and it poured with rain the entire way, so much so that I was slightly disappointed when we arrived and had to get off the bus. We got soaked just in the few minutes it took to walk from the bus into the bus station, which didn't bode well for the rest of the day. The bus station had some free maps of Rauma, so we sat down to consult one of those and plan out where we were going to do. Miraculously, while we were doing this the weather took a sudden turn for the better and by the time we stepped outside again it had actually stopped raining It was still a bit grey though, as we left the bus station behind and walked towards the centre of town. I thought we'd seem some odd sculptures in Turku yesterday evening, but we soon found something in Rauma that surpassed them Rauma is not just famous for being a world heritage site but also famous, among speakers of Esperanto at least, for being the place where the Manifesto of Rauma was signed, during an Esperanto Youth Congress in the town in 1980. This gave birth to the Esperanto ideology called "raumism" which, in simple terms, states that Esperanto has a culture of its own that is worth preserving and promoting for its own sake, regardless of whether or not Esperanto is ever likely to achieve world domination. People who subscribe to raumism are called raumists and are sometimes at odds with people who subscribe to the alternative Esperanto ideology of finvenkismo, which is more about actively promoting Esperanto so that everybody speaks it (literally, working towards the "fina venko"/final victory; the day when Esperanto will have achieved its goal of being the world's official second language). Anyway, Tim was excited to be here and he'd brought his Esperanto flag We started walking into the old town and soon got our first view of the beautiful wooden houses. The only thing which didn't seem to be wooden was the church. This was the Church of the Holy Cross, and it was pretty even if it wasn't wooden I'd been impressed by the flowers in Turku yesterday, and there were some really nice displays in Rauma too. From the church, it didn't take us long to find the central square which is home to Rauma's old town hall. As you can see, the sky was started to brighten up a bit now and we could even see a bit of blue breaking through the clouds We wandered through the wooden streets. There are approximately 600 buildings within this old part of Rauma. The oldest only date from the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, much of the town was destroyed by serious fires in 1640 and 1682. We passed the ruins of the Church of the Holy Trinity, which was also a casualty of the 1640 fire. I loved how colourful the buildings were I'm not quite sure what I'm doing in this photo, but if you think there's a woman sitting on bench behind me, you'd be wrong... ...it's actually a rather creepy Finnish statue of a woman sitting on a bench! One of the signs we'd seen earlier had indicated that the Bothnian Sea was only 1.9km away, so once we'd finished exploring the old town we decided to go for a stroll and see whether we could find it. We walked for quite a long time, but the best we found was this small marina. The rest of the coastline here seemed quite industrial, with what looked like a cargo port and lots of warehouses. We had a nice walk back into town alongside the river though We were both pretty hungry by this point, so stopped at a Nepalese restaurant in the main square for some lunch. Possibly a slightly bizarre choice when in Finland, but there didn't seem to be many places open in Rauma on a Sunday! We both had a chicken tikka masala, with rice, naan bread and some sort of poppadoms for €16.90 each, which didn't seem too bad (by Finnish standards!). It was all delicious, and after we'd finished eating we had time for another stroll around the old town before it was time to catch our return bus to Turku. Rauma is a really pretty place and we were extremely lucky that we were able to enjoy it without getting soaked
  3. Clare

    Day 1: Home to Turku

    We tried to get ahead of the game with booking bank holiday flights for 2018 and started looking for deals in autumn 2017, as soon as flights went on sale. Even with looking almost a year in advance it was difficult to find good prices for this August weekend though, and in the end the most promising flights we could find were with Finnair, from Heathrow to Helsinki. We'd been saying for a while that it would be nice to see more of Finland in the summer, and this seemed like an ideal opportunity The problem with flying to Finland is that you lose two hours with the time difference, so even a comparatively early flight from the UK doesn't arrive until around lunchtime. This meant we didn't want to lose too much additional time travelling on the other side, so we restricted our potential pool of destinations to places that were within about two hours of Helsinki. We eventually settled on the city of Turku, in the southwest of Finland. I'd wanted to go to Turku ever since I read a story about some tourists who flew there by mistake, thinking they were going on holiday to Turkey Our flight was scheduled for 07.30, so we set our alarms on time to get up for 02.30 this morning. As soon as I woke up, I saw that overnight I had received a notification about an email from Finnair on my phone. I checked my emails... only to find it said that our flight was delayed until 09.40, but that we still needed to get to the airport two hours ahead of the original flight time. There was no explanation and it seemed a bit odd; how did they know that the flight was delayed already when it was still the middle of the night? Perhaps once we got to the airport it would all turn out to be some kind of mistake. We made really good time to Heathrow and whizzed through security, only to find that the departure boards said the same thing as my email; the flight was delayed until 09.40, with gate information at 08.40. It was barely 05.30 at this point, so we had a considerable amount of time to kill! We had a rather leisurely breakfast, before finding somewhere to sit and read, with some coffee to try and help us stay awake. Our flight was supposed to have arrived in Helsinki at 12.20 and I had booked us on a train from the airport at 13.11, which (with one change) would have got us to Turku at 15.34. I'd bought the tickets several weeks ago, purchasing advanced tickets for this specific train in the hope of trying to save some money. If the flight was now not departing Heathrow until 09.40, it presumably wouldn't get to Helsinki until 14.30, which meant those tickets were wasted money Luckily Finnish trains have a good app, which I was able to use to consult the timetable over breakfast. We had the option of either a train at 15.11 (might be a bit tight, but the tickets were only €34) or a train at 16.11 (which we would definitely make, but the tickets were €72). We decided to gamble, buy tickets for the 15.11 train and hope that we would make it. If we did, we would get to Turku for 17.34 which ought to give us enough time to find our hotel before 18.00 (at which point the hotel reception would close). I was worried that the plane might turn out to be delayed even later than 09.40, but luckily this wasn't the case. The gate was announced shortly after 08.40 and we boarded it more or less on time, with only the minimum of waiting around on the runway before we could take off. The pilot explained that the reason for the delay was that the final flight from Helsinki last night had been late, and therefore in order to comply with rules about rest breaks, the crew hadn't been able to fly any earlier than 09.40. It's a valid reason, and I'm sure no one wants to be on a plane flown by a pilot who hasn't had enough sleep, but it does really feel like this was Finnair's problem and not fair that we've lost money on our onward connection Although I'm quite annoyed with Finnair right now, I have to admit that it was a lovely plane and far more comfortable than Ryanair By 11am I'd read an entire novel in Croatian, and so used the rest of the flight to have a nap. By 14.15 Finnish time, the pilot announced that we were getting read to land and so it seemed like we stood a good chance of being on time for our revised train... or did we?! First of all, the plane seemed to fly low for a very long before it did actually land, so it was 14.30 before we were on the tarmac. Then it seemed like we had to drive several miles around Helsinki airport before getting to the final parking stop. We were sitting right at the back of the plane, so were able to get off fairly quickly once the doors were opened, but we then had to sit on a bus and wait for everyone else to get off. The bus also seemed to have a pretty long distance to cover, and drove very slowly. It was around 14.50 by the time we got off the bus, which gave us 20 minutes to get through passport control and find the train station. We went as fast as we could through the terminal, weaving in and out of slow people with trolley cases The EU passport queue wasn't too bad because there were plenty of self-service machines, but Helsinki is quite a large airport and we seemed to be running down corridor after corridor after corridor. Eventually we got out into the arrivals hall but we hadn't taken the train from the airport before, so were unsure about how far away the station was. We followed a succession of signs, along more corridors and down several escalators. At one point I thought we were just going to have to give up. But after yet another escalator we finally caught sight of what looked like the correct platform. It was 15.05, so we'd actually made it with six minutes to spare One potential disaster had therefore been averted, but there was still a chance that things could go wrong. The train we needed to catch at 15.11 was a slow commuter train into Helsinki. We were due to get off it before the centre of Helsinki, at a station called Pasila, where we would change onto our intercity train to Turku. Finnish Trains had given us a window of eight minutes to change in Pasila which ought to have been fine... but 15.11 came and went with no train... as did 15.12.... I was starting to get nervous but finally, at 15.13 the train rolled in. Phew! If I'd had to buy a third train ticket to Turku then I think this would officially have become the worst bank holiday trip ever We ultimately got to Pasila a few minutes behind schedule, but still with enough time to spare to find the correct platform for Turku. We had reserved seats on the upper deck of the train and enjoyed a very comfortable journey, as we passed through miles of flat, densely forested countryside. This train ran perfectly to schedule, so we arrived in Turku at 17.34 and managed to locate our hotel, which was about a kilometre away, before reception closed We were pretty hungry by this point as we hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast, but we also wanted to make the most of the remaining daylight hours to actually see some of Turku. Turku is one of the oldest cities in Finland and used to be the most important, until Finland became part of the Russian Empire in 1809 and the capital was moved to Helsinki. Unfortunately there aren't many really old buildings in the city, because much of it was destroyed in a dreadful fire in 1827. But from the pictures we had seen online, it looked like an interesting place. Our hotel is situated not far away from Turku's cathedral. A Catholic cathedral was originally built here in the late thirteenth century. Today's cathedral is Lutheran, and was extensively rebuilt after the fire in 1827. The cathedral is surrounded by some pretty grounds and colourful buildings We found a war memorial, with inscriptions in Finnish and Swedish. Turku is officially a bilingual city, with over 5% of the population having Swedish as their mother tongue. We also found a model plan of the town, which helped us to orientate ourselves slightly Turku is situated at the mouth of the Aura river. There's a nice walkway alongside the river, which we were able to follow for several kilometres. The route was punctuated by occasional bizarre sculptures. This was potentially the strangest! There were also loads of really beautiful flowers. If there's a 'Finland in Bloom' competition, then Turku deserves to win As we got further down the river, the surroundings became a bit more industrial so we figured we must be getting close to the harbour. We came to a little area of parkland where there seemed to be a music festival going on. There was a very large daisy! And in the background, we caught sight of what we thought must be the turrets of Turku Castle. Sure enough, we were soon at the castle A castle was first built here in the late thirteenth century, though what is left today definitely looks more modern than that (and also seemed to be undergoing some renovation). From the opposite side, the castle looks like a completely different building, being white and much lower. It was around 19.30 by this point and we were pretty hungry, so we decided to start walking back into the centre of town to find something to eat. We eventually found a small restaurant where I had pizza and Tim had a burger, followed by a Lidl where we stocked up on some chocolate to give me some energy to get through the blog It feels like it's been a very long day with a lot of travelling - hopefully everything will go more smoothly tomorrow!!
  4. Clare

    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!
  5. 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!
  6. 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...!
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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!
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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!!
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. 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
  19. 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
  20. Clare

    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
  21. Tim

    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 ..."
  22. 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
  23. Clare

    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.
  24. 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
  25. Clare

    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!
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