Finland 2014: The Santa Claus Village

First impressions of Rovaniemi by daylight: good. Or at least, this end. There are little clumps of trees around the roads and between the houses, Lapland-style mini forests of pine and birch and it all feels lovely. A sprinkling of sparkly ice is very pretty.

Breakfast of bread and rolls and some kind of slightly odd-tasting fruit squash that I can’t identify and cold chocolate (don’t put sugar cubes in it, however cute sugar cubes are, they just don’t dissolve) and then I packed and headed off to the bus station in search of local bus no. 8.

The bus station, as it so often is in these parts, is for long distance buses. Fortunately, the bus stop for the local bus is right next door. Of course, bus 8 actually starts from the railway station which is even closer to home. I managed to interpret the timetable which is written entirely in Finnish – not even any Swedish to help me out – and decided that although the timetable says “to the Arctic Circle” rather than the Santa Claus Village, that’s probably because they don’t want to admit to the existence of the Santa Claus Village. I had 45 minutes to wait for my bus so I went across the road to the supermarket.

In Finland, it’s hard to get nice bread. 95% of it seems to be either this black rye bread or just plain tasteless slightly plastic sliced white bread which is inedible unless toasted. The guesthouse does have a toaster but it’s not as if I can take it out with me for the day. I eventually settled on some rolls like the one I had for breakfast – a bit nothingy, almost taste a bit like they’ve been boiled rather than baked but the best of a not-brilliant selection. I did linger over the skyr because it’s weird to see something Icelandic and therefore something sort of homey (apparently I’m now part Icelandic) somewhere that’s not Iceland. I bought some chocolate, Swedish Marabou which is very tasty, a bar of the Finnish chocolate like my new friend gave me yesterday, only I got the plain stuff rather than the raspberry yoghurt stuff and some pringles. Finnish crisps do look interesting but they also come in the biggest bags I’ve ever seen.

I checked with the driver that the bus definitely went to the Santa Claus Village (see? learning from yesterday’s mistake), was given a return ticket despite confused incoherent babbling that made me certain I’d accidentally bought a single one and off we went, through Rovaniemi. It doesn’t look like a particularly inspiring town. Its history, in short, is that it was nice here until the war, when the Germans burnt it to the ground as punishment for the Finns working with Russia, as far as I understand. If by “working with” you mean “occupied by despite holding out against them longer than should have been humanly possible”. This is my understanding of it. After the war Rovaniemi was rebuilt on a grid system, with modern uninteresting buildings. But behind the town are two rivers and that all looked very pretty. Parts of the rivers are frozen – not enough that I’d even think about trying to walk on it but then I won’t walk on the Tjornin in Reykjavik even when I can see the locals playing on it.

The Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle are actually about ten miles out of town, or at least that’s what the sign said. But maybe the sign meant a hiking trail which doesn’t take the direct route the road does. It’s a little way out of town, anyway.

The Santa Claus Village is an odd place. It’s open all year round but I suspect it makes most sense in December, when the ground is thick with snow and there are hundreds of overexcited children there. On a grey morning in October, it just feels a bit weird. The main attraction is Father Christmas, hiding in his office and then the second main attraction is a long low gallery of shops – some souvenirs, some local handicrafts, bits and pieces – like the entire tourist shops of a fairly large city all squashed into one corridor. And half of them weren’t open. There were a few cafes and restaurants but not all of them looked open either.

The first thing I did was find the posts marking the Arctic Circle and take a photo of myself with them. The second thing I did was take photos of myself with the line painted on the ground. My guidebook says “give yourself over to this indulgence and snap away – it is one of the few signs marking the circle”.

I did enjoy Santa’s official post office. The staff were all dressed up as elves and didn’t seem to mind at all, there were postcards of all kinds, Christmas decorations, Finnish bits and pieces, Moomin things and plenty of tables for writing your postcards before picking a postbox for them. There was a “now” one and a “Christmas” one, depending on when you wanted your postcard delivered. Everything that goes from this post office gets an official postmark but what amused me is that this also goes for the normal postbox outside, which is used by locals, as demonstrated by one pulling up outside in his van and dumping a handful of letters in it.

There was also the holiday village, where you can either stay in the hotel or in one of the cottages and then at the other side, a showroom for snowmobiles and log cottages. And at the back were the activities. There was the reindeer enclosure – the reindeer were kept out of sight but there was a Sami tent and a little woodfire which smelled amazing and then they would bring out a reindeer and a sledge on wheels for a run round the forest for an extortionate price. I lurked to watch the reindeer – a little girl fed it a handful of reindeer moss – I have no idea what it’s actually called in real English – and its nose! It woffles its nose as it hoovers up the moss and it was adorable!

Next door was the snowmobile track. Nothing you can do with a snowmobile when it’s not snowy. With a dog or reindeer sledge you can use wheels instead of runners but all you can do with a snowmobile is swap it for a quadbike and then it’s not a snowmobile. A bit further down was the husky park.

There are hundreds of them! When they’re not running, they’re kept in round fenced enclosures, two to four of them together and they’re very alert and very keen when visitors come round. Every single one of them took a liking to the pompom on the end of my long-tailed hat so I teased them with that until at last I met a dog who could climb the fence and hung over the top, at which point I tucked the pompom away in case she jumped down and went for me. Fortunately she didn’t but I definitely backed off once she was hanging over the enclosure.

There was a puppy – three and a half months apparently – and she was the exception to the “don’t put your hand in the wires” rule. We were encouraged to play with her. I tried making a video of playing pompom with one group – they had a wooden board covering part of their enclosure to about my eye level and I soon discovered that if I waved the pompom above it, they’d jump up. I tried videoing it but because this camera videos a bit weirdly, I didn’t get anything.

So many dogs to play with! Pure white ones, mostly black ones, wolf-coloured grey/brown ones. Brown eyes, blue eyes, one of each eyes. I don’t think I really realised how many colour variations there are in puppies.

I bought a t-shirt in the shopping area and when I came outside, much to my delight, it was snowing. So obviously, the best thing to do is run back to the Arctic Circle lines and take more photos because snow is brilliant.

I investigated Santa’s office – there were more shops! One was a tablewear outlet, where I hovered over Moomin mugs and plates, one was jewellery, one was one of these design shops where everything looks lovely but is a bit pointless and one was the Santa shop. Mostly it was just bags with Santa written on them but I was very tempted by a hoodie with the coordinates on. However, I have a t-shirt with them. I went to the very last shop, upstairs, and was tempted by enamel Moomin mugs. And then I decided I’d seen everything there was to see, done everything there was to do and was getting cold so I got the bus back to Rovaniemi.

The snow had turned to a sort of drizzy dampness so this morning’s glittery ice was all gone and replaced by a grey miserable damp town. I came home instead, picnicked on my bed, found the guest kitchen (having arrived late last night, I haven’t actually had a tour of the building) and braved the shower with a radiator in it.

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