Santas Own Country

Updated: Dec 22 2002, 05:30am hrs
It was a mosaic pattern on a tapestry of nature. Millions of leaves formed an unending golden carpet, clusters of neatly arranged high trees and vast patches of open spaces alternated for space. It was natural splendour of a rare kind. But then this wasnt your run-of-the-mill holiday destination.

Capital of the province of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi is a town of immense natural beauty and wide open spaces, and takes a bit of sizing up. Literally so, as its population of 55,000 spread across an area of 8,000 sq km proves. Not surprisingly, things are quiet.

We drove along a broad, arrow-straight road that snaked through valleys and up gently undulating, forested hills crisscrossed by ski and hiking trails, and through the wilderness with its shining riverbeds, our 4-wheel drive casting a lonely furrow. Keeping us company was layer upon layer of birch etched tall against the landscape.

Thanks to the special climatic conditions of the North, almost everyone in town is engaged in something constructive, be it reindeer farming, tourism, or chiseling handicrafts out of giant trees. And yes, there is a world celebrity around. Someone you can meet only here.

With nature a strong asset, Rovaniemi offers the unique, natural delights of the Arctic Region. While summer activity centres around exploring the regions lakes and forests, winter offers options to ski cross country across a barren, beautiful landscape that appears to stretch till eternity, a freezing but pleasant experience.

The first tourists arrived here some 8,000 years ago, with the permanent settlement beginning with visitors from the west and south-east, and the appearance of the Sami, Laplands own indigenous population. So ancient local history has it.

For centuries it remained a remote outpost, till the 1800s, which saw Laplands natural resources tapped and logging become an industry. Then came the gold fever and the rush to the region. The town developed and became Laplands business centre.

Straddling the confluence of Laplands mighty Kemijoki and Ounasjoki rivers, Rovaniemi is a major tourist destination, university town, cultural centre, trading hub, and adventure sports area, rolled into one. Large public buildings in the middle of vast stretches of wild country give the town a distinct city centre appearance. It was a long time coming, but tourism has found Rovaniemi. Replacing the gold miners, lumberjacks, and hunters of old who drifted from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere are international tourists seeking nature, culture, fine shopping and dining, and adventure sports, which all constitute a unique Arctic experience.

The sense of space apart, what struck me was the complete absence of any shadows of the past. Having been completely destroyed during the Second World War, the town was rebuilt from the foundations upwards. Physical links with the past thus severed, Rovaniemi became Laplands ultra-modern, functional capital. See contemporary urban landmarks. Like the Town Hall, Arktikum House, Lappia House which serves as a Congress centre, concert hall, and library, and the Jatkankynttila Bridge with its eternal flame, spanning the Kemijoki river. Another place to visit is Arktikum, the Arctic Centrean interactive, modern, multi-display science institute engaged in observing and researching Arctic region phenomena.

Highlighting the traditions and future of mankind with interactive computer and film programmes, the museum provides an educative and enjoyable experience. Move on! With its open yard setting rich in provincial Southern Lapland culture, the Ethnograph Museum pays tribute to nature and the countryside. One sees a good depiction of loggers lives and worka colourful forestry traditionin the indoor and outdoor exhibitions at the Lapland Forestry Museum. And the Provincial Museum of Lapland shows the life of the local Samis and their struggle to adapt to their harsh natural surroundings.

Enjoy the myriad delights of winter sports at the in-house sports park, jogging tracks, ski tracks and ski centre, Ounasvaara, a year-round recreation centre. The restaurant here features stunning views of the general landscape and the river gleaming in the distance, and serves authentic Lapp and Finnish food thats as good as any in Scandinavia.

It was afternoon when we paid our courtesy call on Rovaniemis most famous citizen and great tourist attraction. There he sat on his chair, exactly as advertised. Singled out in my group, we exchanged pleasantries. He asked after my health, I asked after his. He wanted to know what I did for a living, and we chatted on for a bit, the queue behind me getting visibly impatient. But I wasnt going to hurry this one along. After all, it isnt everyday in ones life that one gets to meet Santa Claus himself in his very own office, in his very own town. No, sir. No hurrying this one through.

In Rovaniemi one can meet Santa Claus and his reindeer every day of the week, throughout the year, in his home and office (Santas Cave), and have a photo taken with him. One can send letters and gifts from his main post office and shop in his workshop village.

Those lucky enough to drop in at Christmas will see true festivity spirit and bonhomie, with concerts, Arctic Christmas plays, puppet theatre and Christmas Fantasia. Centrestage is the cave that welcomes thousands of visitors.

From quick snacks to gala dinners, from basic lodgings to deluxe hotels, tourism and commerce have spawned an elaborate hospitality industry, with nightclubs offering surprisingly vibrant fun and entertainment. But thats todays Lapland for you. A delightful treat comes in the form of a la Carte menu with delicacies that offer Laplands best and most exotic harvest, especially the salmon and reindeer specialties.

Excitement ran high as we crossed the Arctic Circle a little way north of town. For 20 Finnish Marks, they give you a certificate as proof, and my collection remains cherished. Rovaniemi offers true escapism. And if your are lucky, you just might hear the jingle of bells and see a reindeer sledge passing by!