Looking for Aurora

The lights, not the Disney princess (nobody wants to find her, she’s the most useless one). I’m already loving this journey and I haven’t even gotten to the airport yet.

The plan:

  • Helsinki, Finland
  • train to Rovaniemi
  • back to Helsinki via train
It has me in stitches

2.15 hours of daylight- less when you count the sun doing its thing LOL

I booked my first non-direct flight within Europe because direct flights around Christmas to Finland are cray. It was 5 months in advance costing £142 to transit through Germany but I doubt booking at a different time would have made much difference.

Spicay as always- my flight was 45 minutes delayed leaving Amsterdam so after a bus to the terminal, then a train to a different terminal and then a “run” (12 seconds of galloping, followed by I don’t care if I miss my flight I’m never doing that again), I was the last person boarding. The check-in guy as I approached looking like a boiled lobster goes “mevrouw van Vliet?”. That’s me!

Arriving in Helsinki I took bus 600 outside the airport to my hotel. Again, spicay. The bus pulled up and the driver told me I can’t buy a ticket onboard – either at the machine or from an app. The bus was leaving in 2 minutes and the ticket machine lineup was bonkers so I download the app as the bus was about to go- the driver let me on. Try as I might, the app wouldn’t accept my credit card so in a panic I tell the diver it wasn’t working. He said “take it easy” and that was that.

There is an hour time zone difference between Amsterdam and Helsinki FYI.

Channel your inner Tonya Harding because Helsinki is a massive skating rink. If large buildings are your thing, you’ll love this city. My friend sent me a self-guided walking tour. I ended up doing the first ones, which was super handy but since I’m not into museums I kinda went (thumbs down emoji accompanied by a farting noise).

The National Library of Finland is fab. You enter through the door across from the white church, it’s a bit heavy so don’t walk away thinking it’s locked then look like a fool while snooping the perimeter trying to find the entrance. YOU ALREADY FOUND IT. Once through the door, you can’t take anything into the library part. There is a cloakroom (do people still call it that or is that my grade 3 self talking?) and lockers for your bags. I couldn’t even take in a small purse. It’s all free though so – you get what you get and you don’t get upset (now that is a preschool teacher talking).

The plaza at the base of the white church has a Christmas market in December. One stall owner laughed when I asked if there was alcohol in the Finnish drink Glogi (tastes like liquified mistletoe- not pleasant), so you can guess how long I stayed there for.

My friend recommended walking around Eira and Punavuori areas. The Eira area has posh- old nice houses along the water. The street with a colourful set of houses (oh how I adore coloured houses) is called Huvilakatu.

The Market Square at the harbour does have some food places but some things were sold out and the stalls are tents so it isn’t exactly warm to sit and eat. I went to get some salmon soup from Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall). I didn’t go to the famous packed one (Soup and More), I went to a cheaper stall (soup and bread €10.90) selling Turkish stuff in bulk. The salmon was yum but the soup was a tad oily. I don’t know if that’s how it’s supposed to be or not. There are free toilets in the hall- that is an unrelated comment to my earlier oily soup one.

Suomenlinna/ Sveaborg are the same island and you can catch a ferry for €2.80 (it is part of public transport) valid for 80 minutes. Technically you could buy a single ticket, take the 15 minute ferry, haul ass around the blue route and make it back on time to catch the ferry on the same ticket. Timing is key.

Free public sauna in Helsinki

Just go to the Sompasauna community sauna. It is the BEST time.

I went to the Lidl to get food for dinner and for my 8.5-hour train ride the next day because Helsinki more like Hel-a expensive. Instead of buying food, I came out with a bag of alcohol, candy and chips.

The sauna website recommends bringing firewood because it’s a community thing and since I’m nothing if not hospitable, I delivered. The sauna was 2.5km from my accommodation so after a few ciders, I began my pilgrimage.

I passed by a gas station early on my journey. I didn’t know if there was one closer to the sauna, but I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, so here begins the true adventure. I step inside the gas station and there is one size fits all €9.95 bag of firewood. I sized it up and thought “I got this, I grew up on a farm, I lifted haybales when I was 8. No problemo.” It was a big problemo.

Heaving 15kg of firewood with a Magner’s cider in my parka pocket in -3° Celcius is surprisingly consistent with who I am. At one point in my desperation, I tried to call an Uber but my credit card details needed to be updated and, naturally, I chose to bring the cider rather than a thin piece of plastic- there was no room for both. I continued to walk, resting the firewood on street lamps along the way.

As I neared my destination, sweat trickled down my back, and every laborious step I thought would be my last before I crumbled and froze to death in a cube, next to my useless firewood pile- I look up to see a gas station 300m from the saunas. That sounds about right. I continue. A Finnish woman wearing a red jacket passes me. In my last dire attempt, I ask “is the sauna close by?”

“Yes”, she replies. “Nice of you to bring firewood but we have plenty of it already.” That sounds about right. Slipping and sliding my way down the construction path I finally arrive.

A naked guy steps out of a sauna and wraps a towel around his waist and I ask him what I can do with my stupid, precious firewood. He takes it and says thanks.

I chat with some women wearing bathing suits as I strip down because clothing is optional. They inform me that the larger saunas are “cooler” (a chilly 65° celsius). I hang my towel on the hook outside and step in. It is quite silent but obviously, everyone can hear my cackling voice within seconds because I don’t shut up. My nostrils burned and every breath felt like fire, what a time! I bought this 5% alcohol called Googaly, Gluggi, Glogi (it does exist, maybe the guy at the Christmas market laughed because it was 10:40am) to share but since it was in a glass bottle I couldn’t bring it into the sauna (another rule).

Then I saw a hole in the 15cm thick ice and thought it was a fab idea to go in 3 times.

In my delirious dehydrated state (for real, I was there for 4 hours and didn’t drink any water), I managed to remember my expiration and security code on my credit and by some Christmas miracle, I was able to call an Uber back to my accommodation.

Hunting for the northern lights

I booked a train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi- about the only thing that was cheap in Finland. Tickets were €34.80 each way for 8.5 hours on the train (normal seat). What a time.

Also before I got to Finland I booked a Northern Lights Wilderness Tour with a Professional Camera for €115 with Wild About Lapland. It was good that I booked it in advance because everyone goes to Rovaniemi for Christmas because of Santa Claus Village (a carnival on crack) and because I was only 1 person I found it difficult to book a lot of tours because they required 2 people minimum.

My tour was scheduled to depart at 19:00 and it said it was 4 hours. I arrive 30 minutes early, which was good since you need to change into boots and warm gear- if you want. I ended up with their boots but kept my own stuff. We get into the car, and there are 8 of us- and Gabor (the northern light slayer) asks if we want to see lights or cook a hot dog. Not even remotely the weirdest question I’ve been asked. Normally food always wins but since I spent €115 to see some lights I chose the lights. As did everyone else. We were heading to Sweden. 2.5 hours away LOL

We stopped shortly after leaving Rovaniemi at around 19:15 because the charged particles were strong that day my friend but due to the light pollution etc, we couldn’t really see them.

What you have to know about the lights is that they are quite faint and cameras can see better than our human eyes. So when we pulled over the first time I didn’t know what we were looking at, since all I could see was cloud cover. On the professional camera, however, it was slightly green. If you have your heart set on seeing the lights, don’t book a combined tour i.e. sauna and lights, arctic bathing and lights, husky ride and lights etc. The chances of seeing the lights when staying in one area are slim at best. Book solely a northern lights tour and try to get a good guide- like Gabor. If you are staying in Rovaniemi and didn’t pay for a tour, it is possible to see the lights. While I was there, you could see them from Santa Village (complete waste of time: think a carnival on crack but with kids high on Christmas) but the best spots by foot from the centre are found in this blog.

We drive, drive, drive. Gabor knows the northern light situation like nobody’s business; he navigated, checked the night sky for the lights and checked weather conditions to know where to go- occasionally he would turn off the van lights completely while driving on snow-covered roads going 100km/h. Loosened by bowels good and proper.

We stopped by a picturesque lake that would make for stunning pictures but again that pesky cloud coverage. After driving for hours we call it and turn back towards Finland. An hour in Gabor yells HOLY FUCKING HELL and Mad Max pulls over to the side of the road. It was 130am on Christmas Day and there was no one on the road. This magic happened.

Again, on camera, it is much more vibrant but this time I could actually see the difference between the night sky, clouds and the aurora borealis. We arrived back in Rovaniemi at 03:15am- epic Christmas Day if I do say so myself. We were the only ones who saw the lights that night and we weren’t even supposed to have Gabor as a guide. Considering the entire time leading up to the tour I told everyone I met knowing my luck I won’t see the lights. Colour me impressed.

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