I have never been to Disneyland but I imagine that it is a little like the Arctic Circle in December. Manic children, frazzled parents, staff in costume, a babel of languages.
Just outside the town of Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland is a strange world, of gift shops and reindeer rides, plastic pod hotels and Christmas trees; 66 degrees north, Napapiiri, the Arctic Circle, self-styled home of Santa Claus.
You can fly direct to Rovaniemi from the UK on special ‘Santa flights’; three hours in the air, a bus ride, a photo with the big man, throw a snowball and back you go. Maybe you select the three day option, ride a snowmobile or a husky sled, scan the sky for northern lights, herded in packs, in matching snowsuits, by young Finnish guides with fixed smiles.
Our journey to the Arctic was different. Landing mid-afternoon in Helsinki the day before, driving nine hours north in to the darkness through hypnotic, falling, snow. We spent the night at an old fashioned motel on the southern fringes of Lapland. Arriving late and leaving early we didn’t see another person. Keys waiting in the doors, a breakfast buffet laid out in an empty dining room, the only suggestions that we were not alone. Three more hours on the road.
Finland is a land of lakes and forests, of vast, flat, unpopulated plains. Its people have a reputation for stoicism and a quietude verging on the mute. Stepping out of the car in to the technicolour, sensory assault of the Arctic Circle was a surreal and stark contrast after twelve hours of tree lined silent roads.
It is by no means a bad experience. Strip back the kitsch of perpetual Christmas and you can’t escape the strangely satisfying sensation of standing on a physical embodiment of the point above which the sun does not set on the summer solstice, and does not rise on the winter solstice.
But Finnish Lapland is more than winter’s theme park. Photographs taken, souvenirs bought, we were back on the road, pushing north.