This was the summer of 2006. The anticipation was palpable. Abby and I had traveled to Europe several times before, but never this far North. We were going way above the Arctic Circle. Visions of Santa Claus, reindeer and polar bears peppered the imagination. Of course, to get the full Captain Scott experience, we should have gone in winter, but we were not that brave – or foolhardy. In any case, as we soon discovered, summer is a whole different concept in the extreme North.
Whoever said getting there is half the fun has obviously never traveled by Northwest Airlines. The aircraft on the first leg up to Amsterdam was a vintage DC 10 – with the emphasis on vintage; leg room that only a midget would be comfortable with and a so-called reclining seat that refused to budge from the upright position. The airline steward helpfully advised me to find another seat, even though the plane was packed to full capacity. Northwest Airlines is apparently very concerned about their passengers’ waistlines. Meals on the eight hour flight were restricted to a sort of lukewarm wrap soon after boarding and, six hours later, a bland eggs benedict breakfast that was pathetic even by airline food standards.
The first thing you notice about Amsterdam’s Schipol airport is that it’s huge. It took us half an hour to walk to our boarding gate for our connecting flight to Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Well, OK, we made a few detours along the way. Schipol has row upon row of glittering duty-free shops and it took all our will power to adhere to our self-imposed “look but do not buy” policy. The KLM flight to Helsinki was short and infinitely more comfortable. Score one for Airbus. Helsinki was just a stopover, however. Our final destination was Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. While killing time at Helsinki airport, what struck me was the sight of a dense pine forest just a few hundred yards away from the tarmac. Quite a change from the shanty towns that holds Mumbai’s airport in its close embrace. While checking in our luggage, our request for boarding cards was met with a condescending smile. “Just show your passport at the gate and sit anywhere,” said the guy behind the Finnair counter. Surprisingly, despite the free seating, boarding was orderly and even a little docile. These passengers would never survive a Virar Fast, that’s for sure. The two hour flight gave the first indications that we were heading towards a special place. In an unbelievably unblemished blue sky, our plane seemed to float over an unbroken expanse of pristine white clouds that looked for all the world like God’s mattress. Only occasionally, a twisting mass of cumulus pointed heavenwards like a celestial finger.
From the outside, Rovaniemi airport looks much like any small town airport in India, only a lot cleaner. But the similarity ends once you go inside. The conveyor belt is guarded by a stuffed owl and wolf and Santa in his sled, complete with flying reindeer, is suspended from the ceiling. The short taxi ride was uneventful except for the fact that it was broad daylight at 9:30 p.m. In fact, in these Northern latitudes in summer, it never gets dark – not even at two in the morning. A bit disconcerting at first, but we soon got used to it.
The next morning, after breakfast, we set of for Santa Park, which is a sort of Christmas Disneyland. A word about Scandinavian breakfasts: they are really lavish spreads laid out buffet style. Apart from the customary eggs and bread rolls, you can help yourself to bacon, sausages, salmon, ham and cheese slices; just to name a few. You enter the park through a long narrow tunnel lit with flaming torches, take a short course in gingerbread man making and then hop on to Santa’s train for a ride through his domain, bumping into a few elves and red-suited helpers along the way: kitschy, but cute. Tasted a chilled pepper vodka inside an ice cave, where the entire room, bar counter and stools are made of solid blocks of ice. I was in awe of the barmaid who served drinks in there all day long. I had to beat a hasty retreat after a mere five minutes.
That evening at the hotel, we met our package tour group, all 32 of them; an assorted bunch of Americans, Canadians, Australians, Brits and even a couple from Israel. No other Indians; surprisingly we did not see a single Indian anywhere on our travels until we reached Sweden towards the end of the tour. All in all, a pretty friendly bunch – if a bit long in the tooth. Rather disappointedly, our tour director turned out to be a bearded Hungarian: I was hoping for a Viking or, at least, a blonde Scandinavian Amazon. We were also introduced to the Norwegian driver of our air-conditioned coach, who would take us over 2500 km right up to the northernmost tip of Europe and down again through Norway to Sweden. Rovaniemi is a charming town; large in spread, but with a population of only 50,000. Like we were to discover everywhere in Scandinavia, it had spotlessly clean streets and zero pollution – unless you counted the occasional whiff of reindeer dung. A cute little sightseeing train with rubber tyres ambled through the streets, politely stopping for an occasional tourist in its path; no shrill whistles here. Indeed the politeness got a bit unnerving. For instance, we noticed that many roads had zebra crossings, but no traffic lights. The reason soon became apparent. As soon as we stepped foot on the crossing, all traffic came to an abrupt halt and waited patiently till we had crossed over. Truly these motorists were a strange breed. Still, it gave us a heady feeling of absolute power. That night, we had dinner at a fancy restaurant on top of a mountain, with stunning vistas of green forests and deep blue lakes. We also had our first taste of reindeer meat, served on a bed of mashed potatoes. Not bad, if a tad too salty.
Rovaniemi lies alongside a river and the next day we got into long wooden boats for a half hour glide downstream to a reindeer farm. Life jackets and waterproof ponchos were mandatory and we all ended up looking like tweedle-dum and tweedle-di. Not too comfortable, but at least they kept us warm. Cold is relative in this part of the world. Anything above ten degrees is considered balmy summer sunshine. Waiting for us at the boat landing was a Sami in full traditional costume. The Sami are the indigenous people of the region and their main occupation is reindeer farming. Our host was obviously tourist trained: he flirted outrageously with the women and we all laughed dutifully at his corny jokes. Then we forgot all about him as we spotted our first reindeer. In the cold light of day, I suppose there is nothing really special or majestic about these rather dumb- looking quadrupeds; still, their traditional association with Santa Claus gives them that extra chutzpah that had the camera shutters clicking like crazy. One of the deer obligingly posed next to me and the wife while our host took a picture – and presented us with a bill of 10 Euros (Rs.675) later. Reindeer shed their antlers every year and grow new ones and the discarded horns are mounted and sold to tourists. I was tempted to buy one, till I realized that it would drive the guys at airport security totally berserk. The other by-product is cured reindeer skin. You can see stacks of them at souvenir shop and it feels smooth and sensuous to run your hand over them.
The next day we crossed the Arctic Circle and were officially in the land of the midnight sun. The first stop was Santa Claus Village, hopelessly commercial but with its own cutesy charm. The wife and I were excited when we had our photo taken sitting on either side of the most genuine looking Santa we’ve ever seen (definitely not Akbarallys’), but the excitement evaporated when we were invited to buy it for a mere 25 Euros (Rs.1,700). We passed. The place has its own post office peopled with elves in pointed red caps and official Santa Claus Village stamps. A must do is to have your photo taken standing on a white strip painted on the exact latitude of the Arctic Circle (660 33′). Continuing northwards, we made a brief stop at Sodanklyla, where we saw the charming Vanha Kirkko, Lapland’s oldest wooden church dating back to the l7th century. A further hour’s drive brought us to Tankavaara’s Gold Museum at the site of Lapland’s 19th century gold rush. We were encouraged to pan for gold in the freezing streams, with the inducement that we could keep any nuggets we found. Fat chance.
Our overnight stop was in Saariselka, on the edge of the virgin wilderness of Finland’s major National Park. It is the largest winter sport center in Finland and, in summer, it is a paradise for hikers and mountain bike lovers. The hotel where we stayed was in the shape of a Teepee and the rooms, all 350 of them, were located on the ground floor. It was a real long walk from the main Reception. To me it seemed like a walk down the passageway of a cruise liner, since rooms were located in military precision on either side of an unending corridor. An early breakfast and we were on our way to Innari, for a visit to the fascinating open-air museum, which gives an insight into Sami life and folk art. Since the weather was bright and sunny, we two took off on our own and immersed ourselves in the surrounding pristine forest, complete with a babbling brook and an impossibly blue lake. Just before noon, we crossed the border into Norway and then went across the beautiful Porsanjan Fjord to Honningsvag on the island of Mageroya, home to 4,000 people and 5,000 reindeer. We passed through the most fascinating and awesome scenery, through narrow roads with the fjords on one side and mountains on the other. Dozens of tunnels lay along the route, the longest running for eight kilometres.
That same night, we were taken to North Cape, located on top of a sheer cliff 1000 metres high and the Northernmost land point in Europe, at a latitude of over 71 degrees – next landfall on the North Pole. This was supposed to be one of the highlights of the trip, with an opportunity to view the crimson midnight sun rolling across the horizon. However, due to thick fog, mist and high velocity winds, visibility was reduced to a few feet – a big disappointment indeed. It was really, really cold – ostensibly four degrees but the strong gusting wind made it seem like minus ten. Many of our group could only watch helplessly as hats and gloves were snatched away and disappeared over the cliff top. Nobody got a clear picture, since it was a struggle to keep ourselves upright, let alone steady the cameras. It was exhilarating, though. For the first time I felt like Scott of the Antarctic. We did not get back to the hotel till one in the morning – still in daylight, of course.
To add to the misery, a wake up call at 4:30 a.m roused us from a fitful sleep and we hurried to catch the ferry at 6, which would transport us across the Honningsvag fjord to Hammerfest. Hammerfest is the northernmost town in the world, at a latitude of 71 degrees plus: it is even further North than any town in Alaska or Russia. Although we reached Hammerfest around 12 noon, it was freezing cold – and this was supposed to be the height of summer. Sightseeing was perfunctory as we hastened to get indoors for lunch. Not an easy task, since it was a Sunday and the town comprised little more than one main street anyway. We finally located one restaurant, but getting there was an adventure in itself. You had to walk the entire length of a lingerie store to reach it. That afternoon, we drove down to Alta, where they had discovered prehistoric rock carvings dating back to the Stone Age. Certainly not art in the conventional sense, but nonetheless impressive, considering that they had been chiseled into the hard rock over ten thousand years ago, probably with the most primitive of tools. Our local guide, an Italian girl, carried a long pointed stick and would suddenly point it at an unsuspecting victim and bark out “are there any questions?” In twenty minutes, she had us all reduced to blubbering wrecks.
A long drive scheduled for the following day; almost 700 km from Alta to Narvik, passing through some stunning and awesome scenery along the way. Norway has 96,000 lakes, with the clear unpolluted air making them appear a brilliant blue: green pine forests, stark, majestic mountains, some affording a tantalizing glimpse of the glaciers behind their summits and cascading, swirling rapids. The amazing part was that all this gorgeous scenery was not somewhere in the distance, but right beside the highway. If the driver was allowed to stop the coach on the highway, we could have got out and stepped right into it. The vistas were breathtaking and serene at the same time – not quite picture postcard pretty like in Switzerland; but possessing an almost celestial grandeur – almost like a premature glimpse of heaven. The road meandered along the Kvaenangenfjord and Lyngenfjhord on to Troms Province which was still way beyond the Arctic Circle, but with a climate mild enough to allow limited farming. We stopped en route to see the thundering Malselvfossen Waterfall, which resembled giant rapids rather than a long drop waterfall, but still awe-inspiring. We were told the rivers and lakes teemed with salmon – and after 14 breakfasts with salmon oozing out of our gills, we could well believe it.
We reached Narvik late in the evening. Before being deposited at our hotel, we visited the famous War Museum. Narvik was almost totally obliterated by Nazi bombs during World War II and has been totally rebuilt since. At the war museum, we were shown a documentary with actual footage of the epic sea battles that took place there between the British and German navies at the start of the war. The museum houses authentic British and German uniforms, as well as genuine WW II searchlights, motorcycles, anti-aircraft guns and even a tank. To a WW II buff like me, this was truly fascinating. Unfortunately, around this time, the Israel-Hezbollah battle was hotting up and the Israeli couple left the tour midway since they were worried about their son who is in the Israeli Navy.
Next morning, we entered the province of Nordland and, not far from Mo I Rana, we crossed the Arctic Circle again – this time heading south. After the mandatory pose in front of the marble monolith placed at exactly 660 33 ‘ latitude (Arctic Circle), we proceeded towards Trondheim (Norway’s former capital and its third largest city). En route, we stopped at the ancient octagonal church of Mosjoen; and the spectacular Laksforsen Waterfall. Surprising at it may seem, the scenery along our entire trip remained so uniformly spectacular, that it became almost monotonous towards the end (too much of a good thing?). We passed through the forests and rivers of the Namsdalen valley and drove alongside Trondheimsfjord, the World War II hideout of the famous German battleship, Tirpitz.
On the way to our overnight hotel in Trondheim, we stopped at a lookout point affording a bird’s eye view of the entire city. Magnificent public buildings and old churches provided a welcome contrast to the inevitable metropolitan high rises. We drove by a huge wooden mansion with a thatched roof, complete with grass and plants. We were told this provides excellent insulation. However, the real treat was reserved for the next morning when we wandered through the old town; charming wooden houses that seemed to be propping each other up; a fairy tale wooden bridge over an amazingly clean canal (floating garbage would be a blasphemy) and even a floating restaurant. The pride of Trondheim is the enormous Nidarosdomen Cathedral, the most famous in Norway. On the outside, vaulted arches framed three levels of exquisite marble statues, presumably of assorted saints and apostles. The inside was cavernous, a bit dark but sublimely serene. You could even request one of the seminarians to play a short piece on the monumental but mellifluous organ – for a fee, of course, but the almost out-of-body experience it evoked in me made it well worth it. After lunch, we drove on through some fine alpine scenery for two and a half hours to reach Roros, which is not far from the Swedish border. Roros, a village really, has been remarkably preserved the way it was more than a century ago and has been deservedly designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
From Roros, our coach meandered through by now familiar grand mountain scenery and the beautiful Lake Femund on the way to Mora in Sweden. We entered Sweden without even being aware of it. There is no formal border between Norway and Sweden; no check post, no guards, nothing. A pleasant surprise for someone used to having his passport minutely scrutinized every time he enters a foreign country. Mora is a village whose claim to fame is as the home of the famous Dala Horse. This is a colourfully decorated wooden horse, hand carved by dedicated craftsmen and selling hundreds of thousands of pieces every year. Mora is located in the heart of the Dalarna region and contains the most typical and unspoiled countryside in the whole of Sweden. We then continued our scenic drive, skirting Lake Silian and its typical Dalarnian shore-side villages.
We reached Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, by noon and were given free time to explore this wonderful city. It soon became apparent that Stockholm is one of the more magnificent world capitals and also the most beautiful of the Scandinavian capitals. The effect of its crystalline waters flowing through the intersecting canals gives a luminous appearance to palaces, castles and parks. Stockholm actually is part of an archipelago comprising over a thousand islands. We visited the City Hall, which is an architectural masterpiece. The interior is equally impressive with glittering chandeliers and luxurious rosewood paneled walls and furniture. The highlight was the famous Gold Room, where the entire wall surface is covered with mosaics made of 22 carat pure gold. The Old Town, which houses the royal palace, parliament building, churches and magnificent museums is a magical place. My heart went out to the rosy cheeked female soldier “guarding” the Royal Palace, as she struggled manfully to keep a serious face as hundreds of tourists took snapshots of her. Strolling through the narrow cobbled streets, where no cars are allowed, one is transported into an earlier, more elegant and refined era. Only the thousands of camera toting tourists and the inevitable souvenir shops and restaurants inject a jarring note of modernity. A particular treat was having coffee and cakes in a restaurant in an underground cellar dating back to the 11th century. We visited the Coin Museum, which contains coins and currency notes, old and new, from every country in the world. Next we went to the Armoury Museum, part of the royal palace, which was had an amazing collection of suits of armour, royal costumes and the carriages used by the Royal Family of Sweden. Next stop was the National Art Museum which houses an impressive collection of Rembrandt, Rubens, Boucher, Renoir, Degas and Gauguin. Trying to act as if we belonged there, we strolled into the opulent lobby of the Grand Hotel, where the Nobel prizewinners are put up every year. Another highlight was a visit to the Vasa museum. Built in 1628, the Vasa was the biggest wooden warship of its time. Unfortunately, within minutes of being launched by the Swedish monarch, it sank in Stockholm harbour. There it lay for over three hundred years until it was raised from the waters, remarkably intact. It is now housed in an enormous building. Seeing this old world behemoth up close is so overwhelming that it cannot be described, only experienced.
The same afternoon, the coach took us to the seaport for the overnight crossing from Stockholm to Helsinki. Accustomed to cross channel ferries with basic amenities, we were unprepared for this monster of 13 decks towering above us. It was more like a cruise liner, with bars, restaurants, cabarets and an enormous duty-free shop – and could accommodate 3000 passengers. We took a lift to the uppermost deck, from where we had a breathtaking view of the Stockholm archipelago; island after island crisscrossed by the blue Baltic Sea, for nearly four hours after setting sail. After a lavish buffet breakfast on board, we docked at Helsinki. Soon afterwards, we were taken on a city sightseeing tour with a local guide. We took in the City Hall, Parliament House, Presidential Palace, the monumental Railway Station and the modernistic Rock church which was carved out of an underground war bunker. We were also taken to see the Sibelius monument, which consisted of steel pipes and resembled a huge organ. If one stuck one’s head in one of the pipes and yelled, it produced a sort of tune. The monument is located in the middle of a beautiful lake in a lovely wooded area, where we took advantage of the good sunny weather and enjoyed an idyllic walk. Compared to Stockholm, Helsinki is a somewhat drab and stark city despite its many monumental public buildings. One of its main squares containing the cathedral and palace is modeled on St. Petersburg in Russia. There is even an impressive statue of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. In fact, this particular location has mimicked Russia in many of Hollywood’s spy movies. Finland gained its independence from Russia only in 1917 and hence the Russian influence
We left the Radisson Hotel in Helsinki at the unearthly hour of 3.45 a.m. for our flights back home. After a three hour layover at Amsterdam, we were en route to Mumbai, again on the infamous Northwest Airlines. True to form, the cabin crew ran out of chicken and even carnivores like me were forced to eat vegetarian meals. One of the cabin crew was at least 65, with snow white hair and a granny bun held in place by a hair net; truly an equal opportunity airline. We were pleasantly surprised to see considerable improvement in the arrival hall at Bombay airport. Modeled on the lines of JFK in New York, it boasts new, scrubbed flooring and over 30 immigration counters. We were out of the airport in less than 20 minutes.