Finland Christmas 2016 – A visit to Lapland
Christmas in Finland? Why the hell not! Despite planning this trip in June there wasn’t much hotel type accommodation available in the far north of Finland, only log cab type stuff; which is great if that’s what you’re looking for but I wasn’t planning on spending my limited time in Finland cooking my own meals and making a log fire to keep warm in the sub-zero temperatures. I wanted hotel accommodation to take care of all that for me, to leave us more time to enjoy what we wanted to do.
The whole idea of the trip was to possibly see the Northern Lights, and once we’d got into the planning of it, what trip to Finnish Lapland would be complete without a visit to see Santa in his home; near Rovaniemi in northern Finland? With only two hotels needed during our 6-night stay, and with overnight train tickets booked, we set off from a cold and dreary UK; hoping for the best! All we wanted from the trip was snow, northern lights and to see Santa…..
Booked through British Airways direct
BA798 1815 Heathrow – Helsinki
BA799 1655 Helsinki – Heathrow
Helsinki – Scandic Hotel Simonkentta – It’s only a short walk, out of the station, turn right and up the hill; the hotel is on the right towards the top. Despite arriving very late, we were expected by the courteous hotel staff; who made check-in a very simple task and we were very grateful to soon be in our hotel room. It wasn’t a massive room but was very neat and tidy. The heating worked very well, thankfully, and toiletries were provided, breakfast included and of course WiFi was free throughout the hotel. Breakfast at the Scandic Hotel Simonkentta was something else and it was quite possibly one of the best breakfast spreads I’d ever seen. There was everything to suit every palette and there was plenty of it. The downside of that though was that people’s plates were piled high with stuff they were probably never going to eat.
Oulu – Radisson Blu Oulu – It’s a 15-minute walk through Oulu but a simple straight 15-minute walk. There weren’t many folk at the hotel as it was Christmas Eve. Our room was a suite and was huge with a nice relaxing area and a very large flat-screen TV that swiveled round to either face the bed or the relaxation area. The heating in the room was very reactive and the bathroom was about the best I’d seen in a hotel room, with all the toiletries you’d need and even slippers and a bath robe each. To say I was pleased with our choice was an understatement. The restaurant at the Radisson was quite relaxing and also very expensive. The menu didn’t have a great deal of variety on it and was mostly full of posh-nosh! Our Christmas breakfast in the hotel restaurant was rather pleasant and the hotel certainly hadn’t held back on their spread, just because it was Christmas Day either; it was phenomenal. I thought we’d had one of the best breakfast layouts in the Scandic at Helsinki but the Radisson Blu Oulu had beaten that spread, hands down. Not only was the amount of food on offer extensive, so were the drinks and the staff in the restaurant couldn’t do enough for the few people that frequented the place.
Interrail one country pass Finland 7 Days – £174
Booked in the UK through Interrail on their website
Sleeper berths on VR trains reserved in advance over the phone as you can’t make reservations only on the VR website. These can only be made a maximum of 60 days in advance.
Wednesday 21st December 2016 (The journey to Helsinki)
After a week of night shifts at work I would have loved to relax for a bit at home but after arriving back into Doncaster at 0743 from work, I had to be home, changed, packed and at the station for the 1216 train back to Kings Cross. There’s no rest for the wicked! I even managed a couple of hours in bed before we started out on our journey and the journey to London was one that I couldn’t remember much about!
Our British Airways flight from Heathrow to Helsinki departed from Terminal 3 and I had to remind myself to get off the underground at the correct stop; having not used Terminal 3 for a while. Everything at the airport was very straightforward and our BA flight was bang on time departing Heathrow. We made a new friend on board, whose parents were Finnish & Swedish and the child herself could speak both Finnish & English almost fluently; at the age of 5. There are moments when the languages will get mixed up, which often produce comical consequences. This had been something I’d wondered about when children learnt two languages while growing up and I suppose it makes sense that they’d mix them up if they don’t necessarily understand that they’re speaking two languages? Either way the flight flew by and was pleasantly relaxing.
Helsinki Airport is a bit of a farce, especially if you’re looking for the new airport rail link to get to Helsinki. We eventually found it though and I don’t exaggerate when I say it took about 15 minutes to walk to it; it was bloody miles away from immigration and baggage collection. Once on the island platform though things were straight forward. Trains basically run from Helsinki to Helsinki via the airport and they do the loop in both directions; so, trains to Helsinki depart in both directions from Helsinki Airport. There’s a big sign on the wall that gives the travelling time to Helsinki and it’s 32 minutes one way and 28 minutes the other. If you’re heading to northern parts you can now take the train to Tikkurila and change there for trains heading north, instead of having to go into Helsinki; make sure you get the right train, in the right direction, to get to Tikkurila though.
We didn’t have long to wait, even at almost midnight, for a train into Helsinki. We had Interrail passes so didn’t technically need a ticket, although they weren’t actually valid until after midnight! As with quite a lot of European countries, Finnish Railways (VR) have a coach on local trains for those needing to buy a ticket; which basically means that if you’re gripped in another coach and don’t have a ticket you’ll be chung into the ground! We managed to get away without dating our Interrail tickets though and the journey to Helsinki was on the shorter route of the two and had us there in less than half an hour.
Even at gone midnight, Helsinki station had a few people knocking about it. The one thing missing though, was snow! There was absolutely none on the ground at all. It did make the short walk uphill to the Scandic Hotel Simonkentta a little easier though, as it was quite a steep road to walk up. It’s only a short walk, out of the station, turn right and up the hill; the hotel is on the right towards the top. Despite arriving very late, we were expected by the courteous hotel staff; who made check-in a very simple task and we were very grateful to soon be in our hotel room. It wasn’t a massive room but was very neat and tidy. The heating worked very well, thankfully, and toiletries were provided, breakfast included and of course WiFi was free throughout the hotel. I could have fallen asleep in the chair in the hotel room if I’d sat there much longer than I did; I still had the alarm set to get up and have a go on the morning commuter trains though…
Thursday 22nd December 2016 (Day 1 of 2 in Helsinki; a bit of an amble round)
Breakfast at the Scandic Hotel Simonkentta was something else and it was quite possibly one of the best breakfast spreads I’d ever seen. There was everything to suit every palette and there was plenty of it. The downside of that though was that people’s plates were piled high with stuff they were probably never going to eat. There were clearly some stupid people about that morning too, evidence of which being my disappearing cup of tea, which I only left unattended for a couple of moments while I went to get my toast from the toaster. I was quite confused to find my cup missing from where I’d left it and yet there was another left under the hot water dispenser. I was soon over it though and making another, when I got back to our table I noticed a Chinese girl grimacing at the sight and taste of her drink; she’d clearly picked up my tea and left her piss-weak tea on the dispenser. Mine, you see, was about as strong as tea gets and she clearly didn’t like its taste, or the mud brown colour I make it! Serves her right, I’d only gone back to the counter to put some milk in it after I’d let it stew for a few minutes! She was last seen wondering off to make another tea and did look a little confused when she found a cup still on the dispenser; some people just shouldn’t be let out alone!
After breakfast, we headed out to find out what Helsinki was all about and were hoping that the Christmas Market would be the highlight of the morning. The outside world still had quite made the transition from nighttime to daytime and it was very dull, even at 11 o’clock; the complete cloud cover probably wasn’t helping matters. One thing the dull conditions did do though was show up how well Helsinki was decorated with Christmas lights, they were endless, yet tasteful and not tacky. There were plenty of simply decorated Christmas trees about as well, which all fitted in well with the general décor around the city. Stockmann’s department store seemed to be the centre of attention in the shopping area and not only did they have decorations all around the outside, they had a Christmas themed display in their main window for the children; which was very well set up, had moving characters and an ever changing colour theme.
While the Christmas market would be the last thing we got to, there were a few indoor “Christmas” market type places scattered around, all of which were very disappointing and were nothing more than something you’d find at a Sunday market; with most of the stalls not even Christmas themed. As we walked away from the shopping are though, Esplanade Park looked very nice in the dim light with Reindeers decorated in Christmas lights being the centre of attention at its heart.
Beyond Esplanade Park we were heading away from the city centre and down by the harbour, which was lined with small stalls selling a whole host of tat. We clapped eyes on Uspenski Cathedral, up on its pedestal of rock, and took a walk round to it. By now it has started to try and drizzle a bit and the wind was getting up, so we didn’t stay there long once we’d walked up to it; the Christmas Market in Senate Square was calling and was only a few minutes’ walk away.
While it was Christmassy in the Senate Square Christmas Market, I can’t describe how disappointing it was after our visit to Budapest Christmas Market the previous year. Yes, stalls were themed but there just wasn’t the Christmas buzz about the place. The market was set to finish later that afternoon, so maybe we’d missed it at its prime; who knows? The one thing I did enjoy about the market was a swift cup of mulled wine, or two as it turned out to be. Glögi, as it’s known in Finland, is the Finnish Christmas mulled wine which gave a warming sensation as I sipped it; it was piping hot as well! Strangely there was only really one place selling it and the whole market lacked any kind of food selling stalls; unlike others we’d visited.
Sitting above Senate Square is Helsinki Cathedral, access to which from the square is up the 50 or so concrete steps that line the whole Senate Square side of the Cathedral. We didn’t hang around for long as it was getting quite cold and we wanted a sit-down back at the hotel to warm up for a bit, a stop at McDonalds on the way for a spot of lunch didn’t go amiss either!
As I headed back up the hill to the hotel, after an afternoon jaunt, it was dark once again and we hadn’t really had much of a day at all as regards daylight; it had been the shortest day the day before though, so things could only get better in those stakes! While I’d been out Danielle had been scanning Triposo for places to eat and had come up with a good list. We chose a Thai place, just around the corner that didn’t require walking back down the hill towards the city centre. Maithai was only a 5-minute walk from the hotel and is a family run business. Inside it’s laid out like a café rather than a restaurant and there were only two other people there, other than us. The owner was very chatty and friendly but left us alone once our food was on the table. The menu was simple and not made overcomplicated with too much on it, the food was reasonably priced and was very tasty. We would probably have gone back to Maithai the following night had this not been the last night of opening before closing for the Christmas period.
After a bit of relaxing time at the hotel, while figuring out what to do the following day, I headed down to the station to kill two birds with one stone. I’d been told to use the self-service ticket machines to check out which trains had seats available on them and use the available seats to travel in without a reservation. As we’d decided to have a day in Tampere the following day I was keen to know what the seat availability was like. The machines are easy to use and can be used in English. As the following day was the day before the Fin’s celebrated Christmas the outbound trains from Helsinki to Tampere were all wedged solid; so, it looked like standing room only for us. Trains back into the capital the following afternoon were ok though.
Photos from Thursday 22nd December 2016:
Friday 23rd December 2016 (Breakfast in Helsinki, lunch in Tampere, dinner in Helsinki; then overnight to Oulu)
Breakfast at the hotel was as good as it had been the previous day but there were still stupid people about; nobody managed to pinch my tea this time though! As we were heading north to Oulu overnight, we had to check out of the hotel before we headed to Tampere for the day but our bags were accommodated in the left luggage room at the hotel. The idea was to do IC43 1027 Helsinki – Tampere throughout but we did IC3 1017 Helsinki – Joesnuu to Tikkurila. This allowed IC43 to fill up at Pasila and as we already knew there was no space available on it at all we ended up standing in the restaurant car all the way to Tampere. It wasn’t too bad in the end but I noticed that locals were being chung up to sit/stand in the restaurant car and I later realised that there’s actually a charge to sit there. We had no issues with our Interrail passes though and there wasn’t even a hint of us being charged a reservation fee to stand where we were.
Despite the train being wedged to Tampere and the restaurant car being well patronized it wasn’t a bad journey. Unfortunately, it started to rain when we got to Tampere but it soon cleared up and stopped. It was completely overcast though and it was more like dusk than the middle of the day when we walked out of the station. On the off-chance it might have been still open, we headed toward the Tampere Christmas Market and weren’t surprised when it was all shut up; it too having closed down for the season the previous evening. Unlike Helsinki, Tampere didn’t have a Christmassy vibe about it as we made our way to the only place of note to really see in Tampere; it’s Cathedral.
The outside of Tampere Cathedral is nowhere near as striking as its interior, although it is a nice-looking building. There wasn’t anyone else about when we went inside and it was deathy silent. It’s immediately evident once you walk in why the Cathedral gets a name for itself as the frescoes that adorn its walls are somewhat different, ranging from those including skeletons to those including naked boys and then there’s the one on the ceiling involving a winged serpent on a blood red background. They’re not what you’d expect to find inside a cathedral but they make the venture inside worthwhile.
Our time inside the cathedral was brief and with nothing else to keep us walking round Tampere we headed to the Pizzeria Napoli for a spot of lunch; which we’d found very high up the rated places on Triposo. We couldn’t quite understand why people were queuing out of the door when we arrived but soon figured out that it was basically happy hour, where pizzas were 2 for 1 and soft drinks were €1 each instead of the usual 3+! Whether it was a clever ploy by the restaurant to attract people, or if they needed the revenue, either way the place was constantly wedged until the moment the happy hour finished. The food served was very good as well, the pizzas were huge as well as tasty and carryout boxes were provided for those that wanted to take their leftovers with them; we didn’t leave any!
Back at Tampere station we were pleased to find lots of available seats on the two trains we had a choice of back into Helsinki and I found that taking photos of the ticket machine screens on my phone was the best way of making a note of the seating available. There’d been plenty of empty seats on IC48 and we managed to bag one of the compos with closing doors and locked ourselves away from the rest of the train.
It was dark when we got back to Helsinki so we took an extended walk round, pretty much covering where we’d been the previous day, albeit in darkness instead. The Christmassy feeling that Helsinki has is even more effective when it’s dark, even the Stockmann Christmas window display. We’d circled back to the station by 6pm though and were treating ourselves to the free Coke Zero that was being handed out on the station concourse.
While Chinese restaurant Long Wall hadn’t been our first choice, it turned out to be a very good choice. Everywhere we’d initially set out to find had been closed. It wasn’t busy, the portions were sizable and the food was nice and tasty; it’s somewhere I’d recommend. After food, we collected our bags from the hotel and headed to the station for our overnight train towards Oulu. I’d booked our reservations for it over the phone direct with VR; which can only be done up to 60 days in advance of the train’s departure. The woman that dealt with me spoke fluent English, and more importantly understood everything I asked for, in my fluent Yorkshire! The call was kept to a minimum and once the transactions were complete the reservations were emailed to me as PDF documents to print out; simples!
While we waited for our stock to be backed in a couple of VR staff were walking up and down with baskets of chocolates and handing them out to passengers. You can take a Yorkshire man out of Yorkshire but you can’t take the Yorkshire out of the man; needless to say, I took plenty of chocolates for later. It was a fair walk to the front of the train when the stock was backed in and our double-deck en-suite sleeper coaches were towards the rear of the train. Julia had already told me that P269 2052 Helsinki – Kolari would be a single Sr1, so I wasn’t surprised to find Sr1 3006 at the head of the train. Boarding the train was a simple affair, with no ticket checks at the door. You simply find your coach and then locate your own berth. Ticket checks were only done once on the move; and that was the one and only time we saw a member of staff on the whole journey.
I was intrigued by the en-suite facilities and was surprised to find that, behind the small door in our compartment was a fully operational toilet and shower. The latter was all attached to a swing-out bit that moved into place when the toilet wasn’t being used. They’d economized on space, while maintaining the number of available berths in the coach. Some of which were pet friendly and others had access for those that weren’t as mobile. With the lack of staff about on the train though I was sure that you could find yourself and empty berth if you wanted and hide out in it!
Sr1 3006 eased us out of Helsinki on time and after the Pasila stop we were routed into Pasila Car Terminal for the car-carriers to be attached to the rear of the train; then we were away. That was us heading north towards the land of snow, northern lights and Santa!
Photos from Friday 23rd December 2016 Tampere:
Photos from Friday 23rd December 2016 Helsinki:
Saturday 24th December 2016 (Arrival into an almost deserted Oulu)
I was always going to be up and about at Oulu and even though this was our ultimate destination for the morning we were heading further north, before ending up at Oulu later in the morning. The reasons for this were sat outside the station waiting to back on as I walked to the front of the train. It was around 0600 and there were a surprising number of people using the platform to stretch their legs. Sr1 3006 was removed as I watched on and give a spectacular light show as its pantograph scraped along the frozen overhead wires. The platform was covered in snow and there were massive piles of the stuff at the platform ends; that the snow ploughs had obviously positioned there. The change in temperature from Helsinki to Oulu was noticeable and I wouldn’t be venturing outside again without my long-johns on from that point on!
VR Dr16’s 2812/2818 were soon dropping onto the train and after a few photos I scurried back to the rear of the train and the warmth of my berth. As much as I’d have like to venture north to Kolari on the trip, there just wasn’t the time and the train service over the Christmas period didn’t help us out as there was nothing in either direction overnight on the 24th December, so we couldn’t even venture up and spend Christmas Day there.
Despite having over an hour between Oulu and Kemi, where we’d be getting off, there wasn’t any more sleep forthcoming and we took the time to prepare ourselves for the brisk northern weather. Having never been to anywhere with wintery conditions like Finland, neither of us had been prepared for the weather clothing wise and it was thanks to a very helpful member of staff at Mountain Warehouse in Doncaster that we were suited and booted for the occasion; it had been a costly day though at over £500 and that was with a 20% discount! One thing that was immediately apparent about getting togged up for extreme elements was that it took an age to get everything on, tucked in and zipped up. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a bit of a farce…….
I was glad we’d got togged up as it was bloody freezing at Kemi. Thankfully it had a nice waiting area inside the station building, which soon had us taking layers off while we waited for IC273 2152 (P) Helsinki – Rovaniemi. There were quite a few other people waiting to head to Rovaniemi so it seemed and a quick check of the ticket machines revealed what I’d already assumed; it was wedged! When IC273 arrived we headed straight for the restaurant car and as we were only on board for 40 minutes we didn’t strip off once we found a couple of seats and roasted to a fine tune as a result.
At Tervola, other than us, there was only one person alighting from the train and they were picked up and whisked away in a car; leaving us to fester in the snow and cold, while the sun thought about brightening the place up a little. Unfortunately, there was only a waiting shelter at Tervola, which did shelter us from the snow if nothing else. The station building, or should I say building that once served as a station building, was now someone’s home and fenced off from the platforms. The only facilities were those that nature offered; there wasn’t even a ticket machine. Thankfully we only had to wait for 45 minutes.
IC414 0927 Rovaniemi – Oulu eventually came to our rescue; which worked forward from Oulu with an additional IC24 1155 Oulu – Helsinki as it was Christmas. The guard on board had told us we didn’t need to change trains to go forward to Helsinki, despite us reassuring him we were only going to Oulu. The train was almost empty, with no more than 15 people on the while train, so we had a full coach to ourselves for the 90-minute journey to Oulu. During which, we marked all the restaurants we might like to have our Christmas Dinner at on ME Maps; the idea being that we’d walk via a couple to make a reservation when we arrived. That idea didn’t go too well at all…..
Most of the restaurants we’d earmarked were all in the same vicinity and we braved driving wind and a bit of snow to walk to them. When the third on the list was closed for the whole Christmas period we got the message and our plight to find somewhere to eat for Christmas Dinner then became more of a plight to actually find somewhere open so we wouldn’t starve over Christmas! By the time we’d reached our hotel we’d literally walked through a ghost-town, nothing had been open other than a Subway we’d seen near the shopping centre. Every restaurant we’d looked at had a sign in the window giving dates they’d reopen after the Christmas period and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little concerned at that point.
The hotel of choice in Oulu was the Radisson Blu Oulu and a fine establishment it was; they had a restaurant that was open in the evenings, which was better than nothing. We made a reservation for 7pm to ensure we go some food and then headed up to our room. It was a suite and was absolutely huge with a nice relaxing area and a very large flat-screen TV that swiveled round to either face the bed or the relaxation area. The heating in the room was very reactive and the bathroom was about the best I’d seen in a hotel room, with all the toiletries you’d need and even slippers and a bath robe each. To say I was pleased with our choice was an understatement.
Our overwhelming urge was to kick back and relax in our big room but survival instinct kicked in and we were soon heading out to find something to eat; before it really was too late. A few shops inside the shopping centre were still open but were all looking like they’d be closing anytime soon. There wasn’t a single place selling food, other than a pick n mix sweet shop; so, Subway it was, and we only just caught that open. Never had I enjoyed a Subway so much! At 1400 it closed and at that point the only place open in the whole town was a corner shop type place near the station, which we used to stock up on pop; realising that it could be the last time we had the chance before Christmas.
A trip onto the station for a quick look at the ticket machine also revealed that it looked like we’d be standing up to Kemi the following afternoon. The same looked almost certain for our journey to Rovaniemi on Boxing Day as well. Everything heading north was chockablock!
As we headed back to the hotel Oulu was even more deserted than it had been when we’d first walked to the hotel, it was like being in the middle of scene from a freshly started zombie series, sort of the calm before the storm; it was like being a spare part in I am Legend but with added snow for effect. It was very strange and what was even stranger was the knowledge that it wouldn’t get any better for at least 48 hours. Finnish tradition was to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve so nothing would begin to happen until the afternoon of Christmas Day really; the train we’d seen leave at 1503 from Oulu would be the last one for 24 hours until we departed on the same train the following afternoon, to head to Kemi for a look round.
The restaurant at the Radisson was quite relaxing and also very expensive. The menu didn’t have a great deal of variety on it and was mostly full of posh-nosh! In the end, I opted to pay €40 for an eat as much as you like Christmas themed buffet. The food was good and I was as stuffed full as trains were over the festive period in Finland, by the time I’d finished! It was nice to relax in our large room afterwards, knowing there was nothing to get up for, other than breakfast.
Sunday 25th December 2016 (An interesting Christmas in Oulu)
We had absolutely no reason whatsoever to get up, other than for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, yet on this fine Christmas Day morning we were rudely woken by a very loud metallic scraping noise in the hotel car park down below our window. This noise wasn’t recognizable and while it did get quieter, it continued throughout the morning and ultimately for most of the day. When I eventually got up I figured out that it was a large snow ploughing machine, which systematically went around all the roads in Oulu clearing them of the overnight snowfall. Every local car park in the area was also cleared. Quite why this was occurring on Christmas Day was a little strange, but done it was and with some efficiency too.
Our Christmas breakfast in the hotel restaurant was rather pleasant and the hotel certainly hadn’t held back on their spread, just because it was Christmas Day either; it was phenomenal. I thought we’d had one of the best breakfast layouts in the Scandic at Helsinki but the Radisson Blu Oulu had beaten that spread, hands down. Not only was the amount of food on offer extensive, so were the drinks and the staff in the restaurant couldn’t do enough for the few people that frequented the place. We had a very pleasant Christmas breakfast indeed and then some; as we took a load of stuff back to the room for later. Once the hotel breakfast had packed up the restaurant didn’t open again until 1900 that night and having seen how deserted Oulu had been the previous day we assumed we’d not be finding anywhere open for Christmas Dinner! We weren’t wrong……
It was quite a pleasant morning so we got togged up for a walk round Oulu in somewhat brighter conditions than those that had greeted us the previous afternoon. There was even some blue sky visible through the clouds, which gave a little, even if it was short-lived, hope that we may see the Northern Lights at some point. As we trudged around in the snow even the sun tried to put in an appearance in the early afternoon but as it was so low in the sky it didn’t stand a chance of getting out once the cloud started to build up again.
Our leisurely wonder round Oulu eventually led us via the Town Hall to the station. The only difference between then and the previous day was the snow covering that had come overnight; Oulu was equally as deserted as the previous night and eerily quiet but for the random scraping noise of the snow plough doing the rounds.
Oulu station was almost deserted but the waiting area was open and there were probably about half a dozen people about; all of whom boarded IC70 1246 Oulu – Helsinki, which ran via Kuopio.
Back at the hotel we thawed out in our room watching random crap on TV while we devoured our Christmas lunch, which consisted of anything we managed to fit into our makeshift sarnie bag at breakfast. We were living the dream with our ham & cheese sarnies for Christmas lunch; which would have been better suited had we been trekking in the outback as opposed to being holed up in a very nice hotel in the western world! We were grateful for our small mercy though.
The plan for the afternoon was to head to Kemi, an hour north of Oulu by train, and attempt to seek out the Kemi Snow Castle. While we knew it wouldn’t open until late January we were hoping that work would be underway with developing the 2017 castle. Having checked the seat reservation scenario for IC413 1503 Oulu – Rovaniemi on the ticket machines in the booking office, we were a little confused with only 5 minutes to go before departure; then a train from Helsinki rolled in and there was no more confusion! It was carnage as everyone transferred from a decent sized train to a two-coach train, which ended up full and standing on departure from Oulu. The only problem with that the fact we were stood over the heaters in the vestibule area and when you’re togged up to keep warm in the outside cold, it gets rather warm if you don’t strip the layers off on a warm train; just one of the perils of being in and out all the time with loads of layers!
When we left Oulu, it had been dull and overcast but less than an hour later in Kemi, it was dark and misty. Kemi was as quiet and peaceful as Oulu had been and probably more so for the blanket of snow and the mist, which made for a nice atmospheric late afternoon walk round well-lit, just deserted, streets. ME Maps aided our walk towards the seafront, via the nicely lit Kemi Church, and when we got there the horizon was clinging on to the last dregs of clear sky and remnants of daylight as the sun sank away and full on darkness fell. Initially I hadn’t clocked the fact that the sea was completely frozen, basically as it’s something I’ve never seen, but when I spotted a light heading towards us out of the gloom I soon realised that whatever it belonged to was travelling over a frozen body of water. It turned out to be a snow mobile, which could only have come from one of the islands of the Kemi coast.
It was at this point that we became a little confused as our maps didn’t seem to show anything resembling a snow castle and having walked by the Snow Hotel, as shown on the map, en-route to the seafront, we hadn’t seen anything looking like it was being built out of the snow. One thing we did find on the internet was that the Castle’s location was going to be different in the 2017 season but not even the tourist information signs scattered around the seafront gave a clue as to where. In the end, we gave it up as a bad job and took a steady walk back to the station to keep warm in the nice wooden waiting room. Eventually, weeks after returning home, I found the Snow Castle marked on Google Maps and we weren’t even close! It’s located at the opposite end of the seafront to where we’d been, about a mile away.
After a little over an hour in the warm waiting room at Kemi station, P262 1525 Kolari – Helsinki turned up, the front coach of which was completely empty and we had a nice journey to Oulu in our own personal coach! Back at the Radisson Blu a proper Christmas Dinner of pizza followed! The themed buffet wasn’t up to much on Christmas Night so pizza it had to be as the menu was pretty limited for our tastes and we wanted something that was going to fill us up.
As we packed our bags after dinner, we reflected on what had been a very different Christmas Day than we were used to. Despite it being a little bit of a strange day it had been a nice relaxing one and once we were packed, ready for heading north the following morning, we looked forward to the main event. What trip to Finland at Christmas would be complete, without a trip to see Santa in his official Lapland home near Rovaniemi; so, that was us Rovaniemi bound the following morning to do just that, before heading back to Helsinki the following night and then home. Unfortunately……
Photos from Sunday 25th December 2016 Oulu:
Photos from Sunday 25th December 2016 Kemi:
Monday 26th December 2016 (A Boxing Day trip to see Santa in Lapland)
As we had an 0743 departure from Oulu to Rovaniemi we technically didn’t have time for breakfast as the restaurant didn’t officially open until 0730. As everything was already laid out though the receptionist went through to find the chef and the shutters that prevented access to the restaurant were opened for us to grab some stuff to take with us; which included hot drinks as well.
It was a pleasant walk to the station and when IC273 2152 (P) Helsinki – Rovaniemi rolled in we were straight into the buffet coach and managed to get ourselves two seats opposite each other; before people started waking up from their slumber and drifting in for their breakfast. The seated coaches on the train were full of people, mostly Chinese tourists, still in various states of sleep mode. In fact, every overnight train we’d been on had been full of Chinese tourists and every waiting room we’d festered in had been the same. They were quite cheeky too as most of them entered the buffet car with a pot noodle in hand and presented it to the buffet staff to fill up. I was astounded when they were only charged 60 cents for the water as they got more than there was in a cup of tea and for a quarter of the price!
The 3-hour journey flew by and on arrival at Rovaniemi it was immediately evident where the No.8 bus to Santa Park & Santa Claus Village departed from; it was sat in the middle of the car park. Knowing full-well what was likely to happen I got a quick photo of the Sr1 and we were among the first to get on the waiting bus, while everyone else dawdled about the place and as the queue got bigger and bigger it was evident that not everyone would be getting on the waiting bus. The bus driver had a bloody good go at wedging people in though and by the time we set off the bus was dangerously overloaded, overcrowded and every inch of floor space was wedged with luggage. Being on the bus was just like being in China as we were two of the very few westerners on board as the driver hammered down the main road, as though there wasn’t a covering of snow on it at all. It was a little concerning at times but I guess that’s how it’s done when you’re used to the same conditions every day? Another bus was sent to pick those left in the car park up and those waiting at stops en-route out of town were told to wait for it. Quite a lot of folk got off in town, before the bus headed out to Santa Park, seemingly too idle to walk with the wheel-along luggage.
The bus timetable posted on the bus window wasn’t the same as the one I’d printed out so I took a photo of it on my phone to make sure I had the correct timetable to ensure we got back to Rovaniemi later ok; which didn’t end up going as planned. After a brief stop at Santa Park the bus terminated outside the Santa Claus Village and we were soon stood with only leg above the arctic circle and one not; as the arctic circle runs straight through Santa Claus Village. As we arrived it began to snow, giving our Boxing Day visit a proper Christmassy feeling.
We struggled a little bit to get our bearings as we studied one of the maps of the Santa Claus Village and to us it wasn’t immediately evident where Santa was hiding, so we could go and see him. There was a massive 15ft tall, triple ball, snowman outside the front door of his lair and on the pointed dome of the building, we later found a big red sign saying “Santa is Here”; which we couldn’t initially see as it was covered in snow! When entering the building, you must hand coats and bags in at a cloak room, which are picked back up by way of handing over a token on exiting. The queuing time to see Santa was only about 10 minutes but by the time we’d got out the queue had grown a little. While waiting outside “his” grotto you’re asked which country you come from, this is so Santa can be told and can then greet you in your native language. While the people in front are having their picture taken with Santa you’re moved inside the main doors and prepared to have your 60 seconds with him; it’s all very professionally done and the conveyor belt of people is kept moving quite freely. Santa greeted us in fluent English and seemed like a very happy chappy to say he’d already been at his meet & greet for a couple of hours! Confusion soon reigned though when we did our characteristic “backward” selfie with him and the expression on his face, which I only saw afterwards, was a picture in itself!
It was all over in a flash and once out of the other end that’s where you can view your photos. There is absolutely no obligation to buy at all but as you can’t take any on your own phone or camera, there’s no other way of keeping a photo of your visit. There are various packages you can have with regard to photos and we’d already checked online and decided what we wanted before we went in, yet this came to a bit of a head when we discussed it with the staff as they claimed the packages listed online weren’t offered and weren’t actually packages ever offered by them. This just added more confusion to the place itself, which I thought was a bit of a farce when looking through the official website. Still, we paid the money for our photos downstairs and were given a handout with a card attached. The card had a unique code on it, which would gain us access to our photos online, once we’d registered on me.santaclauslive.com. Once you’re in you can download your photos, share them and even see the video footage of your visit with Santa.
Once back out in the snow we had a wonder round, the Post Office on site was full of Chinese tourists writing out rafts of postcards to post home from Lapland with Santa’s postmark on them; which I found all a bit of a waste of time. The many tat shops on site all sold the same tat, none of which was native to Santa Claus Village itself and as such we found it a bit of a waste of time just buying random tat that meant nothing. Pairs of reindeer were giving children sled rides away from the main area, all of which look like they wanted commit suicide and didn’t look to be treated very well at all. My answer to that was to eat reindeer for lunch! And after being told at the main reception that they didn’t actually sell Certificates to show you’d visited Santa at his official home, which they clearly advertised on their website, we got away from it all and had a nice relaxing lunch in one of the on-site cafes. Having not had reindeer before, the first thing I found out was that it was very juicy and would have probably turned the mash it had been served with into water, had I not soaked it up with napkins before it had chance. It was nice though and it’s something I’d have again should I find myself in a position to do so.
With nothing to entice us after lunch we decided to head back to Rovaniemi and found the bus stop to wait at for the 1500 bus back to the station. By 1530 everyone in the queue realised that it wasn’t coming and people started skulking off to shelter from the falling snow; which was building up well on my hat! When a bus eventually turned up, at 1550, I asked the driver what had happened to the 1500 bus and he told me it was a Holiday service operating, thus the 1500 bus was never going to run; which of course was advertised everywhere, not! At least the journey back to the station wasn’t as busy as the one out from it had been and we were back there with plenty of time to spare for our 1803 departure to Kemi.
The car-carriers for IC266 1803 Rovaniemi – Helsinki were shunted into the platform so vehicles could load and shortly afterwards our loco was being prepared over the back of the station and was soon giving a cracking light show as it shunted out to drop onto the stock; once it had been deposited it in. There was that much snow and ice on the overheads that there was constant white arcing from the loco’s pantograph, even as it shunted out at low speed. The snow hadn’t stopped all day and loco 3057 had clearly been sat around for most of it, judging by the icicles hanging off its undercarriage.
It was another journey in the restaurant car to Kemi, where we had an hour to wait for P272 1820 Kolari – Helsinki behind. As our double-deck en-suite sleepers were towards the front of the train this time it meant my walk at Oulu wasn’t far in the snow. Before we’d even departed Oulu, beds were made and we were enjoying the luxury of our all mod-con sleeper berths; the one annoying thing about which was the night light that couldn’t be turned out on the electronic panel in the upper berth. Nothing that an eye-mask couldn’t cure!
Photos from Monday 26th December 2016:
Tuesday 27th December 2016 (Going home, all too soon)
As our train wasn’t due into Helsinki until 0937, there was no need to get up too early and we were ultimately woken by the folks in the next berth getting a shower. I had wondered how quiet en-suite berths would be to their neighbours and I’d found out on the two journeys we’d done. The toilets were worse than the showers for noise as they were vacuum toilets but a prolonged shower made quite a racket as well. I guess the concept is great if everyone gets up and does what they need to at the same time but with toilets flushing all night and showers dripping all morning they’re not the most ideal of coaches to use. Even more so if you end up with the berth above the corridor where the outside door is; which is constantly opening and closing at stations when people piss about smoking on the platforms and take their dogs for a random walk in the middle of the night! To me, the concept of en-suite berths is fantastic but their practicality isn’t that great from a rest point of view. Give me an old-style sleeper berth any day!
As our flight home was at 1655 we didn’t have a great deal of time to mooch round Helsinki so we dumper our big bags in a left luggage locker and ended up in Starbucks for a coffee; which is apparently where everyone else off our overnight chose to wake up, or fall asleep! It was just like being in the restaurant cars on the trains and full of Chinese tourists, two of whom had bought drinks and were full on asleep in their chairs; right in full view of the shop window!
As soon as Hard Rock Café opened its doors we were in and were the first to be seated. It turned out to be expensive for a disappointing visit to a Hard Rock Café. The atmosphere just wasn’t there and the music playing was middle of the road pop rubbish. The food was ok, but not up to the usual standard for a Hard Rock Café and I couldn’t resist not complaining about the hard fajita’s that had accompanied my meal; they were more like crisps. There was an apology and an offer of some drinks, which we didn’t want, but randomly no reduction on the bill as a result! It was a shame as we’d had some good food in Helsinki and we’d been let down by somewhere we expected better from. And on that note, we were homeward bound the moment we walked out into the clear afternoon day. Which was another shame as it looked like it was going to be clear for the next couple of days, after the week of cloudy skies we’d had. We’d not had a sniff of the Northern Lights at all but all that meant was that we’d have to have a second go at seeing them!
At Helsinki station, we recovered our bags and headed out towards the airport on board the 1321 Helsinki – Helsinki EMU to the airport station; Lentoasema.
The walk from the station to immigration and security took a good 15 minutes but we were soon airside and thankfully our British Airways flight home was on time, relaxing and peaceful. We had plenty of time to get from Heathrow to Kings Cross and even managed to get something to eat before we boarded the 2100 Kings Cross – Newcastle; and let 91108 whisk us down the East Coast Main Line.
It was nearly 2330 when we walked in, it had been a long day of nothing really, but the trip had been well worth the effort. It was a shame we hadn’t had more time as I’d liked to have stayed a little longer in Northern Finland. It was a place to add to the list of countries to return to and maybe we’d visit in the middle of summer next time and do the whole midnight sun seeking thing; or maybe we wouldn’t…….