My Rough Guide: A night with Greta Garbo... and a sauna with Santa

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The Independent Travel
Best discovery

As a city boy, several months trekking through Finnish forests researching for Rough Guides had me yearning for just a bit of litter - some comforting graffiti perhaps or a smashed-in bus shelter to bring on thoughts of home.

One stretch of pure, natural wonderment, however, is the Punkaharju Ridge in Eastern Karelia close to the Russian border. This 7km thread of land has been a causeway for over 1,000 years and cuts through a vast lake studded with grapefruit-yellow water-lilies. The ridge passes the incredible Retretti Arts Centre, a concert hall of man-made caves gouged into 3 billion- year-old rock.

Bizarre Meeting

I took a bus ride 8km inside the Arctic Circle to the log cabin where Santa Claus spends his annual 364 days of unemployment. That day's Santa invited me to share food and a sauna with him when he finished ho ho hoing to a group of Japanese businessmen and a contingent of under- privileged Canadian adolescents. In the sauna, his beard and festive red carefully folded away, Father Christmas told me how the Germans systematically burnt down every house they came to in Lapland when they withdrew at the close of the Second World War. His whole family lost their homes. "It's good to retreat into magic sometimes," he mused.

Biggest Mistake

The shard-shaped Baltic island of Oland is the sort of place a Scandinavian Famous Five would choose for a holiday. Mysterious forests of gnarled oaks, flowery meadows, creaking windmills and golden braids of beach without a used condom in sight!

Karina, a jolly faced woman selling ice-cream from a van near Trollskogen (Trolls Forest) in the far north assured me it was seven miles to Eketorp in the south. She said it was too far to cycle. I smiled Britishly. Five hours later, when the thrill of 13th-century church spires had truly worn off, I came across Karina again. "Hello!" she offered. "You did understand? One Swedish mile is 10 British miles, yes."

Best Meal

Escaping westwards from the pretentious complacency of Bastad, Sweden's elite tennis centre, the idyllic Bjare peninsula boasts ravines of rhododendrons in nail varnish pinks and cliffs of vivid crimson rock sinking into crashing waves. Richard Gere had a summer romance at the hamlet of Kattvik here, but never found the fish smokery where a seasoned fisherman called Kal smokes the finest sea life in furnaces fuelled and perfumed by sawdust from a nearby clog-maker. I bought horngadda, a scaly fish with emerald green bones, and sjurygg, an extraordinarily ugly - but delicious - fish, and savoured them with dense black bread and strawberries on the cliff tops, surrounded by jealous gulls.

Biggest Let Down

It must have been an omen. Dashing naked to the loo during my 10-hour night-time journey to Lapland's Rovaniemi, my cabin door locked itself with a sickening click. I found a guard three carriages on, but not before meeting every Arctic-bound insomniac aboard. Rovaniemi looks as Lappish as Lancashire hot pot. Alvar Aalto's buildings are all uniform grey-white blocks like trays of ice cubes dipped in ash. Don't despair, the lappish landscape beyond is exquisite.

Favourite Souvenir

Behind the statue of Marshal Mannerheim in Helsinki is a flea market where I found a battered book of Finnish art from the late 19th century. The Finns have a characteristic known as "Sisu" - a sort of soulful, poetic resilience which does not exactly make for a party atmosphere but amid the city's glorious National Romantic architecture and the paintings of such artists as Pekka Halonen and Hugo Simberg does evoke the moody, melancholic and musical qualities of the life of this complex nation. I took the book down to the windy harbour, bought a Karelian pastry full of warm chopped eggs and felt blissfully transported.

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Getting there

Flights are expensive, although charter flights can be picked up occasionally. The major airlines, BA, SAS (The airline of Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and Finnair all charge pretty much the same.

What to do

The Punkaharju Ridge and the Retretti Arts Centre are reached by train, running east from Savonlinna on the Parikkala line (a spur of the Helsinki to Savoninna line). The Retretti Arts Centre opens May-Aug 10am-8pm, rest of year 10am-7pm, and costs 65 mks.

The Santa Clause village is 8km north of Rovanlemi on Route 4. Take Bus 4 or 8, direction Arctic Circle. Four trains run daily from Helsinki to Roaniemi, and take around 10 hours.

Oland is connected by bridge to Kalmar, south-eastern Sweden. Hourly buses are free if you're taking a bike or hitching, as the bridge has no footpath.

Grand Hotel Ribbagarden is off Brahegatan in Granna (tel/fax 0390 108 21). Granna is 40km north of Jonkoping.

Neil Roland co-wrote 'The Rough Guide to Scandinavia'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.