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Calling in on Santa

The temperature was dipping and it was already a chilly -2°C in the Arctic Circle. But who worries about the cold when you are about to meet Santa Claus?

Here I was in Rovaniemi, northern Finland, the home of that merry old man in red and white coat and flowing beard. To combat the cold I was wearing overalls, thick-soled shoes, gloves and a cap and it all felt like it weighed about 10kg.

I entered a large log cabin and made my way down a smoke-filled dark passage and climbed a flight of winding wooden steps. On the first floor I joined the queue to wait my turn to meet Santa.

OK, so you can meet men dressed up as Santa in any department store in Europe or the US. But it’s a bit different when you meet him ‘at home’ in the Arctic Circle. Santa did his number impeccably. He was dressed in the regulation red and white overcoat and his silvery beard came down to his large potbelly. “Merry Christmas. God bless you,” he said in his deep throaty voice — and he threw in a namaste for good measure.

Rovaniemi is the official home of Santa and it has turned, over the years, into a giant tourist attraction. The Santa Claus Village located 2km from Rovaniemi Airport is a huge complex with restaurants, café, souvenir shops and Santa Claus’ post office.

Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland has many things to offer apart from the Santa Claus Village. And even the village is huge. You can spend one full day exploring the complex as I did. I spent lots of time in the jewellery shop and the souvenir stores laden with Christmas goodies and traditional Finnish knives with reindeer horn handles. Knives, apparently, are a big thing with the Finnish.

One tourist hotspot is the Santa Claus Main Post Office where Santa’s letters arrive from around the world. Last year, Santa received about 800,000 letters. The letters are separated according to country and displayed on glass shelves. In another part of the post office, tourists were queuing up to send postcards home.

However, a trip to the village is incomplete unless you stop at Matti Korva’s restaurant. The logwood restaurant with private dining rooms has a sauna just in case you want to rejuvenate yourself before you feast. Saunas, by the way, are a way of life for the Finnish and almost every home has one.

At the restaurant we feasted on mushroom soup and sautéed reindeer meat served on a bed of mashed potatoes and rounded it up with fresh blackberry pie. All through the meal Christmas songs played in the background. Now and then, Matti, a talented musician himself, played along.

But there’s more to Rovaneimi than just the Santa Claus Village. I booked in for the Santa Safari which included activities like reindeer and husky sleigh rides. First we stopped at a reindeer farm and then took a ride on a reindeer sleigh.

Most reindeer farms are owned and looked after by people from the Sami tribe. I was given instructions on how to keep control of the sleigh and then handed the controlling rope. Luckily, the reindeer knew the way so I didn’t have to do much navigating. The ride through the snow lasted for 90 minutes.

But that was nothing compared to riding in the 400cc snowmobile. I replaced my warm hat with a helmet and jumped into the gearless machine which is easier than it looks to operate. Once the engine is on, you accelerate and race through the snow-clad forest.

Two hours away from Rovaniemi in the north is the tiny Luosto Village. We drove through the snow-covered road and we were almost the only vehicle in sight. Here we went on a sleigh ride drawn by huskies and, for good measure, visited an elf workshop.

The first stop was the husky farm. About five to six of the strongest were chosen and tied to the sleigh. Once you are seated on the reindeer fur spread on the sleigh, the animals run as fast as their feet can take them.

This was a bit unnerving as we sped through the snow-covered uneven valley — they were much faster than the reindeer. To my relief after about 30 minutes, the animals returned to base.

At the elves workshop, Tricky Dicky was playing pranks on visitors. Snowby Bowy and absentminded Sweeta were busy teaching guests how to pack gifts.

Our jolly time with the elves was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was a group carol singers carrying candles in their hands as they sang the evergreen carol, Silent Night, Holy Night. We joined them in the chorus and followed it all with steaming hot tea and ginger biscuits. Truly, Finland is the best place in the world to celebrate Christmas.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: Finnair, Finland’s largest airline, operates flights from New Delhi to Helsinki six times a week and from Mumbai to Helsinki four times a week. There are three to four flights to Rovaniemi daily from Helsinki.

Exchange rate: Finland is one of the 15 Euro states. 1 EUR = 64.73 INR

Web watch: www.visitfinland.com

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