We traveled a long way to see them, and we have one more shot at it. We flew for nearly 11 hours from San Francisco to Copenhagen, and then another two hours to Helsinki. After a couple of days exploring Finland’s capital, we boarded a train (the super-fast, super-clean Lapland Express) for an eight-hour ride up Finland’s west coast to the Lapland city of Rovaniemi. We are staying in a comfortable small hotel and hoping for the best. Last night was too cloudy and tomorrow we will head back to Helsinki, so this is it … our last opportunity on this trip to see the Northern Lights.
It’s on our bucket list, for sure. We have heard about the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis, as we knew them in school) our whole lives. As children we studied what caused them, but we didn’t really understand it. Our science books said they are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. Collisions? Cool. From the pictures in our science books we knew they could be different colors, and we were told that was caused by different molecules striking the sun’s particles. Green, for example, is from oxygen; blue is from nitrogen.
Our temporary base, Rovaniemi, is a beautiful and clean city filled with friendly people, good food, and lots to see and do. We are staying in a new and delightful small hotel (The Arctic Light Hotel) that has friendly staff, spacious rooms, and fantastic breakfasts.
Our train trip from Helsinki to Rovaniemi was fun – cruising up the west coast of Finland in a modern, clean train, and taking in the sights. There were views of farms, villages, and forests along the way – all very rural and beautiful. Farmers were cutting and baling hay to lay aside for cattle feed during the long, cold winter. It was warm (in the 60's) and tree leaves were starting to turn; soon this part of the world will be covered with snow.
Rovaniemi is the capital of the province of Lapland and it has numerous government buildings, two universities, and three excellent museums. Unfortunately, it also has a sad history, because the retreating German army during World War II burned nearly every building in the city. But it has recovered, and today it is a testament to the strength and resolve of the Finnish people.
There are several excellent restaurants in town, and we had dinner at a small establishment called Roka, which is billed as a bistro serving Lapland street food. The owner waited on us and encouraged us to order fried local cheese; risotto with fresh salmon, lemon, and ginger; Brussel sprouts; and a blueberry panna cotta. Everything was wonderful, and we called her over to tell her. She was pleased and told us a little about herself. She was raised in Rovaniemi (she’s a Laplander) and is married to the chef, who is away for two months fishing for salmon. So she takes care of their five children, runs the restaurant, and waits tables. Her husband is due home tomorrow, and she seemed pleased about that. When we told her we were from the U.S., she reported that she and her chef/fisherman husband spent a week in New York City last year. We asked what they thought of New York. They loved eating in all the fabulous restaurants, she said, and she got lots of ideas for their bistro. It’s not like here, she added, in New York there are so many people on the streets and so much noise. So as we walked back to our hotel we compared. Yup, there are a lot more people on the streets of New York.
The Northern Lights are only visible at night, and it doesn’t get dark here in September until nearly 10:00 PM, so we spent the next day walking around Rovaniemi, enjoying the fall weather and exploring the city’s museums. We learned a lot about Finland’s history, its culture, and its environment. This is a country of tough, independent people, with a long history of progressive, democratic government. It is also the home of Santa Claus, and there are opportunities to experience the whole Santa thing (including rides in a reindeer-pulled sleigh), which we avoided. Instead, we went for a walk along the river, encountered a rain storm, and were treated to a rainbow that stretched over a bridge and into the woods north of town. That was an encouraging sign!