Arktikum: Finland’s extraordinary Arctic museum

Rovaniemi is one of the world’s most northerly cities. Located just a few kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, it is the biggest city in Finland at its latitude, with a population of 60,000. There are bigger cities at more northerly latitudes in Norway and Russia, to be sure, but Rovaniemi is indisputably pretty far north, all things considered.

Rovaniemi lures visitors in with the promise of proximity to Santa Claus. In fact, the city bills itself as Santa’s hometown. A big draw is the Santa Claus Village shopping center, built around an Arctic Circle marking, which boasts a Santa Claus in residence 365 days of the year. During the run-up to Christmas, charter flights from around Europe ferry in tourists interested in seeing Santa in his natural geographical habitat. Under feet of snow, Santa Claus Village is now doubt charming. In the off-season, however, before snow has fallen, the shopping center seems misplaced.

Rovaniemi is also home to the Arktikum, an excellent museum that surveys Arctic life. The two permanent exhibits, one titled The Arctic in Change and the other called Northern Ways, are both very good. All sorts of subjects are covered within these two exhibits: climate change, cooperation between the Arctic nations, the evolution of cultural life in Finnish Lapland and the material culture of the Sami people.The museum is notable for its depth and its scope. Itls exciting to gain a deeper impression of this remote and inhospitable region from the toasty confines of this museum. Its architecture, which include a 172-meter long glass-ceilinged atrium that affords views of the sky and the surrounding area, is also extraordinary.

Admission to the Arktikum is €12 for adults. A combination ticket that also allows access to the Korundi House of Culture is €15. Additionally on offer is a combination ticket (also €15) that offers access to Arktikum plus the Pilke Science Centre, which focuses on northern forests. Kids 7-15 pay €5 for a single ticket and €6 for a combination ticket.

Flags without countries

Do you recognize this flag? Neither did I. It’s the flag of Lapland. Lapland isn’t a country, but a region in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia where the Sámi (Lapps) live. Only Norway recognizes this flag, and it’s flown throughout the country on February 6 to celebrate Sámi National Day.

I discovered this flag in Aberystwyth, Wales, of all places, while walking along the seaside promenade. It was flying proudly in the stiff breeze and caught my attention because I’d never seen it before. Then I noticed a whole line of flags I’d never seen before. A sign explained that because the Welsh so rarely see their flag flying in foreign countries, they decided to fly the flags of various European regions that are seeking autonomy or independence. The display of flags without countries was an interesting lesson in European politics and history. Several are shown in the gallery.

%Gallery-129478%Europe is a patchwork of different languages and cultural groups. Many are subsumed into greater national entities and this causes friction. One of the deepest divides in Europe is between is in Belgium, where Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south may very well become two different countries. Luckily this debate has been nonviolent, although not always civil.

Many regions are looking for greater linguistic recognition. France’s strict one-language policy has raised the ire of groups that speak other languages, such as the people of Britanny and Alsace. Some linguistic regions, like Occitania, run across more than one country, further complicating any attempt at greater recognition.

Some independence movements are small, like that in Sardinia, while other are marred by a radical extreme that has undermined the legitimacy of the general movement, like in Corsica and the Basque region.

While none of the flags shown here represent actual nations, they do reflect the feelings of vibrant cultures that enrich Europe. Many of the people who fly these flags probably realize they won’t ever see true independence, and some may not even want it. They fly these flags to show the world who they are. And you never know, when the monument was set up in Aberystwyth, it included the flags of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and they’re real nations now!

If you’re interested in flags, check out the amazing Flags of the World website for lots more.

Ten Finnish festivals to finish the year

We’re into the home stretch on 2009, with only three months left to enjoy. Then, the calendar page flips over, and we take on 2010. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways left to make the rest of this year memorable. In Finland, home to some of the strangest celebrations on the planet, you can find a few interesting distractions – and they’ll make for great stories when you get home. Of course, there are a few mixed in that aren’t so strange but could still be pretty interesting.

1. Rovaniemi Design Week
Head up to the capital of Lapland to enjoy its first ever design week. On its own, this seems pretty mundane … until you get a sense of what’s scheduled to happen. The event will host the 24th Design Challenge, which involves competing to develop the Arctic Circle: Santa’s home base.
September 28-October 4, 2009

2. Baltic Herring Fair
This festival dates back to 1743 in Helsinki and is the oldest event dedicated to Finland’s most important marine product fish. Look for it in the Old Market Square.
October 4-10, 2009

3. Carnival of Light at Linnamäki Amusement Park
The Carnival of Light involves fire acrobats and the Pumpkin Fest parade, not to mention an array of ghosts and witches. A laser show and Harry Potter-themed skating rink tie it all together.
October 8-19, 2009

4. Skiexpo
This is the largest winter sports fair in the Nordic corner of the world and includes downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and other bone-chilling experiences.
October 30- November 1, 2009

5. Etnosoi! Festival
Listen to Hungarian Gypsy music groups Romengo, Nadara (from Transylvania) and Dobet Gnahoré from Ivory Coast thanks to the Global Music Centre and Centre for Romany Art.
November 4-8, 2009

6. Moving in November
Like to dance? Or, just watch? The Moving in November festival brings contemporary dance acts from across Europe. This year, enjoy two Finnish premieres: riffy by Tommi Kitti (love the name) and Moe by Heli Meklin and Michael Laub.
November 3-8, 2009

7. Helsinki Motor Show
This is the only annual auto exhibition in Scandinavia! Go to the Helsinki Fair Center where you’ll see the work of Finnish importers and manufacturers from around the world. Look for a few concept cars while you’re there.
November 26-29, 2009

8. Ladies’ Christmas Market
Load up on locally made products from the women of Finland at The Christmas Market at Wanha Satama. On the shelves, you’ll find plenty of jewelry, ceramics, leather, woodwork, clothing, baked goods and Christmas goodies.
December 2-6, 2009

9. The Declaration of Christmas Peace
Spend Christmas Eve participating in a tradition seven centuries old: the declaring Christmas peace in the Turku Cathedral.
December 24, 2009

10. New Year at the Senate Square
Ring in the new year at Senate Square, where you’ll be treated to professional firework displays and all the liquor you can store in your pockets.
December 31, 2009

The most amazing bed-time view in Finland

The Hotel Kakslauttanen is in Saariselka, Finland, a small town in the far north of this already northern country. From your guestroom, you can turn off the lights and take in the aurora borealis from your bed. This, quite simply, is an experience you won’t find anything else.

Glass igloos take the place of traditional guestrooms at the Hotel Katslauttanen. A small room, encased in transparency, comes with a small bedroom, and the main attraction is above. There are 20 of these spaces in the hotel built by Jussi Eiramo, designed specifically to take in the Northern Lights.

If you plan to soak in the arctic sky up in Saariselka, remember that there isn’t a lot of sunlight every year. In fact, January brings four hours of dusk, and that’s about it. Some guests have trouble finding their igloos, which would be comical if not for the cold. The management is ready for this challenge, offering flashlights to guests that overshoot their rooms.

A night will set you back $370, but you need to plan for some time in a traditional space, as well. The igloos have great views, but lack showers.

[Via NY Times]

Straight-up Scandinavia: Reindeer and a national holiday up north

In the far north of Sweden lies Lapland, a place known for snow, the summer midnight sun, and lots reindeer. This is the land of the Sami people and today, February 6th, marks the yearly, festive celebration of their national holiday.

An indigenous group of northern Europe, the Sami inhabit large parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They are known for their reindeer herding, a traditional occupation that has been handed down over generations. Unfortunately this year’s big holiday celebration is marked by a reindeer crisis; almost all of the grazing grounds having been declared disaster zones. Excess snow has led to much of the winter pasture land being inaccessible to the reindeer, and all but two Sami villages have had to apply for catastrophe aid.

The Sami are a strong people however — how else could you cope with almost all day winter darkness? — and despite the dreary reindeer situation, festivities are not being put on hold. Jokkmokk’s yearly market is a center of activity as people from around the region, both young and old, gather to sell traditional crafts to the hordes of tourists that flock in for the occasion. For this northern part of Europe that is stereotypically known for its calm and reserved personalities, the national holiday is an energized event. Elin-Anna Laber was quoted in The Local as saying, “Jokkmokk’s market is sort of a Sami equivalent to Milan fashion week.” Who knew the far north could be so crazy?