The plane was descending towards Ivalo airport and I suddenly felt ecstatic about the adventure ahead of me. I couldn’t quite believe that I had travelled 450km north of the Arctic Circle to see the Northern Lights and experience Lapland. The view from the plane was incredible, nothing like I’d ever seen before. Half frozen rivers and lakes cutting through the vast landscape of the Finnish north. I hadn’t even landed yet and already knew I was going to fall for this place. If you have read some of my previous posts you’ll know, that I very much believe that places are like people, you either get on and hit it off or you figure out quickly that all it will ever be is this one brief encounter. I like that about both people and places! Anyway I digress. The cold, crisp air hit my face when I got off the plane and it immediately felt like winter.
Ivalo airport is tiny, but well-structured. I got my bag quickly and headed towards the exit to meet my guide and the other guests. Our first stop was only a few driving minutes away from the airport. I’m a huge foodie and exploring another countries’ supermarket makes me feel like I’m a child entering a candy shop. This time I had Emilia, our guide helping me find typical Finnish food and local delicacies. Emilia told me that shopping local and supporting smaller businesses was very important in Lapland, which is something I have supported for years where possible. She also explained that most labels list product names and ingredients in Finnish and Sami, but don’t be fooled, there are three different Sami languages and all were displayed in the supermarket.
The drive from Ivalo to Utsjoki was both fascinating and breath-taking. The landscape surrounding us was so enchanting, I felt like I’d entered the scenery of a winter fairy tale. We stopped in Inari to take a look inside the local Sami government, which also acts as theatre, concert venue and shop. The shop featured various items that belong to the traditional Sami clothing and Emilia used the opportunity to teach us about the different patterns and colours that indicate a Sami’s status and origin. This overview was the perfect introduction to Sami culture and put into perspective where we were about to travel to: Utsjoki, the only municipality in Finland that is mainly inhabited by Sami people.
Aurora Borealis – The dancing night sky
The dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis are without a doubt one of the most breath-taking natural spectacle and for that very reason on many peoples bucket lists. It has been on my list for years and the more pictures of the Northern Lights I saw popping up on Instagram and during Twitter chats, the more I wanted to experience it myself. So when Tiina, the life and soul of Aurora Holidays invited me to stay with her, it felt like a dream come true! Despite reading that in previous seasons there was 100% success rate of seeing the Auroras, I knew that there is no guarantee. I thought if I could only witness them for five minutes, I’d be happy.
After Emilia dropped us off at the cottages on the very first night, I went inside to make myself some dinner and was very surprised to hear somebody knocking on the door just 20 minutes later. It was a very excited Tiina telling me that the Aurora alerts had just gone off and forecasted a very strong activity. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited that I didn’t know what to grab first. Camera, tripod, jacket: go!! Tiina pointed into the sky and for the very first time I saw what a developing Aurora looks like. It was barely visible to the human eye. Without her guidance I would have thought it’s a cloud. But the first pictures brought clarity. It was getting stronger by the minute and within half an hour we stood mesmerised, watching the dancing sky. I didn’t know what to look at first. It was constantly developing new shapes and colours. Every time we thought it had quietened down, it would reappear from another direction. I must have taken hundreds of pictures on the first night alone. I never thought they could last such a long time and be this intense.
I was lucky enough to experience a vibrant display of colours and shapes for three nights in a row. We sat by the camp fire just outside the cottages, admiring the Northern lights and Tiina introduced us to reindeer sausages roasted over the fire and a hot berry soup. This place truly is a piece of heaven on earth.
A hike through Lapland’s wilderness
After arriving in Utsjoki in the dark the previous day, our guides had planned a hike on a nearby trail and I couldn’t wait to see what it all looked like in day light.
The trail starts in Utsjoki and leads through some of the stunning wilderness surrounding the village. We struggled a little with the icy grounds on the uphill part of the trail but were rewarded with clear views over Teno River and the village once we got to the top. The landscape in the northernmost part of Finland is dominated by fjells, hills that are predominately covered in birch trees, moss and berry plants like the cloud- and crowberry that are so typical for the region. Although it was already November, the plants were still carrying now half frozen berries. When nature serves you its delicacies on a plate like that it would be rude not to try them. The crowberries are very juicy and almost taste like red grapes. They can only be found in very Northern regions and have been an integral part of the Inuit and Sami diet for centuries, which made tasting them a very special experience.
Along the trail we came across a fence, which is the start of the reindeer territory. When humans enter a reindeer will check your permit as part of the security checks, no just kidding. The reindeer herders keep their animals in a fenced area in Finnish Lapland to keep them away from the roads. They are free to roam the wilderness throughout the year and are only gathered once a year. The reindeer herders will be able to differentiate their animals by very subtle ear or fur markings. The gathering is a very special event for the community and often involves different generations of a family. If you do ever meet a reindeer herder though, don’t make the mistake to ask them how many animals they own, that’s like asking your neighbour for their bank balance.
The sun started to show a little bit and we had reached the halfway point of the hike: a beautiful frozen pond, which was the perfect spot to warm up at a campfire and have a lunch time snack. The highlight was roasting the sausages and traditional rye bread Emilia had brought as lunch over the open fire while the sky had turned into the most stunning pastel colours. What a memorable lunch that was!
As we started heading back the sun began to set. At the beginning of November there are less than six hours of day light. The sun rises at around 9am and sets at 2.30pm. In just a few days it won’t come up at all for 100 days! It’s hard to imagine what that would be like. One thing I noticed is that the sun rise in Finnish Lapland is not necessarily connected to day light. It’s almost like a very long twilight between the sun set and complete darkness.
Utsjoki village tour
I think it’s so important to connect to the place you’re visiting. Learning about local culture and history always puts everything you experience there into perspective.
Our first stop was the church of Utsjoki. The church is a beautiful creation of typical red bricks and grey rocks from the local fjells, blending in to nature perfectly. The construction was funded by the Russian Tzar Nicholas I and later maintained by the Finnish government. Only recently has the church been gifted to the municipality of Utsjoki. The tour of the church really was a special experience. We not only got to see the northernmost organ in Europe, we also got to play it! That definitely goes on to my list of firsts!
Just across the road from Utsjoki church is Kirkkotuvat, a group of cottages that belong to the church. The purpose of these cottages has changed a lot over the decades. Nowadays they are a tourist attraction and a way of teaching visitors about local history, but back in the day they offered shelter for people who travelled to church festivals or trade events.
The oldest cottage has been made from soil and clay. Despite the simple materials, the cottage is still in good condition and safe to enter (saying that, I did bang my head on the ceiling as it’s not exactly made for tall people). The inside is divided into two parts. The back part with a window and fireplace was for the family, and the animals would be kept in the front.
This was one off my favourite cottages (pictured above) because it has such character and you can see the separation of the different departments so well. The small hut on the left was the toilet, the middle part was used as shed for the animals and the right part was the cottage where the people would live and sleep.
During the summer time Kirkkotuvat is a lively tourist destination with handicraft shop and a café. The vicar told us that the café is run by volunteers from all over the world and the profit goes to fund education in Kenya. Unfortunately both the café and shop are closed in winter so I was unable to experience them first hand.
We continued our tour to Saami Village located by what the locals call the “happy cliff”. The Saami Village is a communal space that is used to celebrate the Salmon Festival in July. You can read more about the festival and the fishing tourism in Utsjoki in my upcoming post on Sami culture.
The Saami Village also has a great view on to the border bridge that connects Finland and Norway, which was next on our tour of Utsjoki. The building of the bridge has improved local economy and made life for people in Utsjoki a lot easier, because many people here actually work in Norway. The middle of the bridge marks the border between the two countries and I couldn’t resist standing with one foot in Norway and the other in Finland.
The local town hall is multi-functional and acts as handicraft shop, café and supermarket. It’s open only on weekdays but provides a great meeting space for locals, as well as an outlet for the people of Utsjoki to sell and exhibit their arts and crafts. You can buy anything from postcards featuring Sami art to traditional reindeer products. The shop is ideal if you’re looking for souvenirs to take back home, but it also offers the chance for you to learn more about the local culture.
A traditional Sami dinner
Everybody knows that time flies when you’re having fun and even though everything moves a lot slower in Lapland, it was almost time to leave. Tiina had planned something very special for our last night and invited us all to a traditional Sami dinner at her house. I couldn’t wait to see what the Sami cuisine is like and how to prepare an authentic Sami dish.
On the menu: Reindeer. I recently came to the conclusion that I wasn’t very adventurous when it came to trying different meats and parts of an animal. Well, that was about to change. Tiina’s partner is a reindeer herder and the family owns a meat factory. So all the meat we tried that evening could not have been any more local. Tiina wanted to make sure we get to sample as many different parts of the reindeer as possible. There was sautéed reindeer meat, marrow bones, leg and tongue. It was a feast! Everything tasted absolutely delicious and I can now say I have tried reindeer tongue. The dinner was the perfect end to an unbelievable trip to Finnish Lapland. I’m thankful for the memories I made and all the inspiring people I have met.
I was hosted by Aurora Holidays during my stay, but as always all opinions are my own.